Lee Rocker: “Elvis was like Batman or Superman when I was little – before I even knew his music. It’s so raw “
Rockabilly bass is alive and well and thriving in the hands of Lee Rocker, bassist and solo artist of the Stray Cats for four decades and more.
After 11 studio albums with the veteran trio and even more his own, he’s the most successful 50s indebted rock bass player today, but that doesn’t mean he’s taking anything for granted: his new album, Gather around, was recorded under unprecedented circumstances, he tells us.
How did the pandemic go for you, Lee?
“It’s been a crazy year, but I think you’ll be fine in the end. I am optimistic, so I look forward to the future. I hadn’t made an album of original songs for a few years, so for Gather around, my wife and I got out on the road in one of those Airstream vehicles. We traveled 6,000 miles in 20 states because it was an escape – a way to stay together. ”
Do you like to be on tour without the concerts?
“Exactly. I’m so used to going from place to place and mapping it out and having that kind of touring mentality, that it took a little more normal than it would have been otherwise. J “wrote a bunch of songs doing it. A few songs were written before our release, but the vast majority of this album was written on that road.”
What was your background?
“We went from Southern California, all the way south to Route 66 – mostly LA to Virginia – then we took a left to New York, where we spent two or three weeks, then we went back to a road further north. We didn’t block it all the time, but I think it took about 11 or 12 days to get there, and a bit longer to get back.
So a double bass fits in an Airstream?
“No, I took an acoustic guitar with me on the road, but I have bass and amps in New York, in my apartment there. When I got back to California, I booked the studio and did the recording. I did a lot of it myself, with my musicians sending their tracks from their own studios.
“This record was a meticulous process in this way. 90% of the time in the studio, it was me in the playroom and my engineer behind the glass in the control room, where I never went. It was like being on the moon or something, because it was so isolating. “
It obviously worked well that way, because the album sounds great.
“There are two ways to make records, you know, and it’s not even due to the damn pandemic. You can hook up with a band and let it rip, then spend some time going back and seeing what you got – or you can do it that way, where every note and every drum beat is there for a right. These are two paths to the same end of the game. One does not mean that you are overflowing with energy and power. The other does not mean that it is sterile.
Tell us about the other musicians on Gather around.
“Buzz Campbell is an incredibly talented guitarist. I produced one of his records about 30 years ago, and we’ve worked together on and off since. Larry Mitchell is an amazing drummer, and I have a young West Virginia pianist and keyboardist, Matt Jordan. These guys are great. We’ve worked a lot together and they know what they’re doing because they know what I’m looking for.
Do you write songs on bass?
“I usually write on guitar and piano, but I’m always aware, even if I don’t write with bass, of what she would do. The way I do it is decide on a tempo, set a click track, strum the song, and run a vocal guide on it. Then I play bass and my drummer gives me two, three, or four different patterns – you know, maybe sticks, maybe brushes, maybe half time, maybe twice. Then I move things around until they feel right.
The song Graceland auction refers to the legacy of Elvis Presley.
“I love Elvis music. You know Elvis was like Batman or Superman when I was little – like a superhero – even before I was really aware of his music. It’s so raw. There was no filter between the audience and the music, especially when it was just Elvis, Scotty Moore, Bill Black and DJ Fontana. You’re in the room with them, it was so real.
What are the bass of the new album?
“This album was a little different in that sense, partly because I didn’t have access to all of my instruments in storage, so it was kind of a DIY situation. I did a lot of it on one of my Kolstein basses with gut strings and a piezo pickup. I went very organic with everything on this record. It was literally a microphone in front of the bass.
“I played the mic in the studio and sometimes we re-amped it up to get a little more warmth or presence. I also play Blast Cult basses in London – Jason Burns is a hell of a luthier and bass player. They are works of art. Jason has been a dear friend and collaborator with me for a long, long time. He was on the road with me, looking after the instruments and maintaining them. It’s one of the things I can’t do. I mean, I can change the strings and put a pickup in there, but beyond that I need help.
How do you improve as a bass player over time?
“I think that forced break, in life and in music, and going into the studio that way, made me see things a little differently. What is the expression with a computer – defragmentation? It was an opportunity to go back to basics and see things a little differently. It’s not the same old thing, like ‘We’re going from five to four chords here.’ I have different ideas – I can do this, or I can do that, or I can do something else.
Are your grade choices different from the ones you picked 20 years ago?
“Absolutely. I think my vocabulary as a musician has improved. I think the goal should always be that way, for all musicians. There is nothing more exciting than discovering something and being say, “Why didn’t I think of that 15 years ago?” It’s amazing. I mean, you have four strings and 12 notes, and it’s still an endless number of choices.
When you listen to your very first recordings again, what do they sound like?
“Overall, I love these recordings. They are a snapshot. On the first Stray Cats album, I was 17 or 18. It was the summer of 1980 and we had just moved to London. I didn’t know much, but there is this spirit, this energy. It’s great to play everywhere, and I think the records stand the test of time.
What kind of kid were you at the time?
“Very young. Rock and roll was young then too, at least for us. We didn’t know anything. I remember going to the studio with producer Dave Edmunds at the start, and someone brought a set of strings for the bass I had my bass from New York and it had an electric bass pickup, basically nailed into the fingerboard.
“So we were like, ‘Let’s try these strings’ and spent hours unrolling them and putting them on the bass. They were gut ropes, not steel, and it took us an hour to figure out why we weren’t getting any signals. We had to put the old ones back, of course. There was a lot we didn’t know.
There has been a whole wave of psychobilly groups following in your footsteps. Did you pay a lot of attention to them?
“I knew them. Some of them have opened shows for us over the years. In some ways we started out as a psychobilly band and evolved from there. I hear our first live recordings every now and then, and I say “Shit”. I mean, the tempo is just frantic. The songs were about a minute and 45 seconds long.
Do you play bass guitar a lot?
“A little. I have a few, and I’ll sit down and play them every once in a while. I started small on cello, then moved on to electric bass and double bass. 80s, I played electric with the Stray Cats on some songs. I also did two albums with Phantom, Rocker & Slick, which was [Stray Cats drummer] Slim Jim, myself and Earl Slick, David Bowie’s guitarist. There’s a lot of electric bass on it. A bass guitar is always in the room with me. If it’s the right tool for the job, I’ll use it.
So what’s the next step?
“Well, I’m really happy with this record, and it’s my job to get it out, because I really care about it. I think it’s the most personal record I’ve done in some ways. I’m not sure exactly why, but for me it’s really like that. I feel very close to this album, so we do a lot of videos and a lot of social media, and we have gigs booked for the last semester. I’m outside talking to people. I can’t wait for better times to arrive, and I think they will be here soon.
- Gather around is out now on Straight discs