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“You can really hear the sound of the room on this record," says guitar star Brian Setzer of Rockabilly Riot: All Original, his forthcoming album that features, as the title suggests, 12 all-new tracks of straight-up rockabilly goodness. "We recorded it in Studio A in Nashville, a great-sounding room. Chet Atkins built it in the early ‘60s. Ben Folds bought it and he’s really keeping it the way it was – the microphones, everything. That’s a an expensive deal to do something like that, so hats off to him."
On his annual Christmas-themed tours, Setzer travels with an orchestra of up to 18 musicians; however, when it came time to record Rockabilly Riot, he pared things down considerably, choosing only a trio of players (bassist Mark Winchester, pianist Kevin McKendree and drummer Noah Levy) to back him up.
“I didn't need any more than that tight little group," Setzer explains. "But I did something interesting with them: I arranged the songs, made demos, and then I gave a CD to the guys and said, ‘Learn these songs.’ I wanted them to live with the material for a month, month and a half. I never did that before. A lot of times, you go in and figure things out as you're recording."
Rockabilly Riot: All Original marks Setzer's third time in the studio with producer Peter Collins, who also helmed the guitarist's The Dirty Boogie (1998) and Vavoom! (2000). Although primarily known for his work with progressive rock bands such as Rush and Queensryche, the British-born Collins, says Setzer, has rockabilly in his blood. "He's lived in Nashville for 20 years, so that, of course, helps. Peter's kind of like Dave Edmunds, who's also English – he gets rockabilly. The British guys seem to know how to capture the rockabilly spirit in a way that a lot of Americans don’t. It’s like how the Stones and those bands caught on to the blues. American music jumped ship and went over there.”
Coming off his latest Christmas tour, Setzer had a guitar-and-gear setup that was "just hummin'," and he wasn't about to mess with it when he hit the studio: "I had my '59 Gretsch , a ’63 Fender Bassman and the Roland Space Echo, and everything sounded great," he enthuses. "I said, ‘Let’s get this stuff to Nashville and plug it all in – it’s working.’ Because that always happens: I’ll try out some crazy little tape echo, some weird little pedal or whatever, and then I’ll always go back to the same gear. You stick with what works."
Only on one track, What's Her Name, did Setzer veer from his tried-and-true combination: “On that song, I used an old Maganatone amp, like the kind Buddy Holly used to use. I wanted a certain kind of vibrato for that song, and those old Magnatones have just the right sound.”
Come November, Setzer and his full orchestra will embark on another Christmas Rocks Extravaganza, but the guitarist is hot on the idea of playing the new record live. "That's the next step, playing this album on stage," he says. "Even if it's just a club tour, I've gotta get out there with the band and play the record. I'm thinking next spring, after the Christmas tour."
Brian Setzer's Rockabilly Riot: All Original will be released on August 12 through Surfdog Records.You can pre-order the CD here and the vinyl edition here. On the following pages, Setzer walks us through the album track-by-track.