RETRO COOLBrian Setzer does not come off as your typical pop star. He’s not obsessed with inane posturing or with glamorizing his life; he just genuinely digs what he does. Then again, if the talented Setzer wanted to be a rock idol, he could have picked easier musical formats to market than big band and rockabilly. Indeed, it seems that, given his tastes, the animated guitarist and bandleader is a musician out-of-time. But he offers a good observation about this: “I’d probably have a lot more competition if I lived back in the ’50s.”
The Long Island native and current Southern California resident may have retro tastes, but his fluid way of combining big band, rockabilly, blues and doo-wop is very modern. Just listen to the Brian Setzer Orchestra’s latest album, Vavoom! (Interscope), the follow-up to the 1998 Grammy-winning, double-Platinum The Dirty Boogie. “It’s all the blues to me,” observes Setzer. “I don’t understand why people don’t mix ’em up more often. That’s my stuff. Rock ‘n’ roll, rockabilly, bebop, jazz, swing, country – it all comes from the blues.”
Over the course of 14 diverse cuts on Vavoom! (six covers and eight originals), the BSO ranges from rockabilly (“’49 Mercury Blues”) to jump blues (“Jukebox”) to a faithful rendition of the Bobby Darin (actually Brecht/Weill) standard “Mack the Knife.” Meanwhile, “Drive Like Lightning (Crash Like Thunder)” puts Setzer in James Dean mode with a gritty, surf guitar track. On the version of the ’50s-sounding “greaser” tune “Gloria,” Setzer has his sax players imitate a five-part doo-wop section, while on “That’s the Kind of Sugar Papa Likes,” he says his vocalists “sing the saxophone section, and the saxophones either doubled it, laid out or played a different part.” Then there’s the lead single, “Gettin’ in the Mood,” a reinvention of the Glenn Miller big band classic, featuring new lyrics, hip hop beats and even a rap during the break! In creating the new BSO album, the guitarist wanted to push the envelope and show even swing purists that their music could be vital today. All of the album’s tracks were initially produced by Peter Collins (Rush, Jewel, Indigo Girls) and engineered by John Holbrook (Natalie Merchant, Dan Hicks & His Hot Licks, and Setzer) at The Village Recorder in Los Angeles.
Setzer acknowledges that his taste in recording gear and methods runs to the retro over the modern. “Let’s put it this way, I live in a world of vacuum tubes, flashing red lights and tape,” he quips. “I’m not hip to new technology at all. As far as recording this band, it’s got to be all about the old Neumann and AKG tube mics. That’s just the best sound. I don’t care if you’re a techno group, a modern band – you use those old mics; there’s something to be said for those. I also use tape delay. My [guitar] amp is an old Fender, my guitar is an old ’59 Gretsch. I use an old chorus echo for that; it’s gotta be tape, slapback echo. John Holbrook has an old Echoplex, and after the band is recorded, we take the Echoplex and sometimes just slap it over the whole track.”
Minor tweaks aside, recording the music of BSO does not involve studio trickery – it’s flat-out organic. On his two most recent albums, which Holbrook has engineered, the core three-piece – Setzer, upright acoustic bass slapper Mark Winchester and drummer Bernie Dresel – first laid down the basic tracks. To avoid bleed-through, Winchester was placed in an isolation booth, which still allowed him eye contact with Setzer, who faced Dresel in the main room.
“It’s the way Brian likes to do it, because he likes to be in fairly close physical contact with the drummer,” notes Holbrook. “When we first set it up, I was a bit nervous about leakage, but it actually worked out. We had minimal screening around the drums, but we tried to keep it as open as possible.”
“We just get a kickin’ performance,” says Setzer. “There are no overdubs, just because I can never beat my original track. It has some kind of energy when I’m there in the room with Bernie and can see Mark.”
After those trio tracks were recorded, the 13-piece horn section – five saxes, four trombones, four trumpets – came in on a separate day to lay down their parts. “They [were all] in the same room,” says Holbrook. “We put the brass on one side of the studio and the saxes on the other. I’d have one mic per horn. We’d submix them down to a few tracks so we’d have some measure of control. We used a lot of the old ribbon mics on the brass. We also rented some of these AEA [mics] – they’re a reproduction of an old RCA 44, which this guy Wes Dooley makes that are really good. So we used those on the trombones and RCA 77s on the trumpets. For some reason, I just think brass generally seems to sound better with ribbon mics. We used Neumanns [U47s, U67s and U87s] on the saxophones.”
Holbrook’s approach in the studio was to make it sound like the band was onstage. “When you see Brian live, across the stage you see the saxophones on the left; and then the bass, drums and Brian in the middle; and the trumpets and trombones on the right,” says the engineer. “It’s funny because – I have to make a confession – I had never seen them live when we did the previous album. I actually had the stereo reversed on a lot of the tracks on that record, just because of the way we had them set up in the studio. For a lot of [The Dirty Boogie], I mixed the saxophones on the right and the brass on the left. Subsequent to having seen some gigs, I said, `Oh, they go the other way!’ So, on this album, it’s mostly the other way, where the saxes are on the left and the brass is on the right. I just try to make it fairly natural stereo, but it is somewhat artificially created, because, obviously, they’re not all playing in the room at the same time.”
Following the recording of the horns, Setzer generally cut his vocals with a U47, and his tracks were processed with the Echoplex. Holbrook notes that, occasionally, the vocals were done before the horns; the situation varied from song to song. And although the making of the album took place over a few months, the engineer estimates that the actual recording took two to three weeks. Mixing took an additional week or so and was also done at The Village. Recorded and mixed in analog, Vavoom! was mastered digitally.
“It was fairly traditional as far as regular analog recording would go,” remarks Holbrook of the experience. “It’s trying to get a blend of the old and new really. I would use the old ribbon mics on the horn section, and pretty much we used fairly conventional mics for the rhythm tracks. On Brian’s amps, I liked to use a combination of microphones, like a Shure SM57 and a good old Neumann 67 tube. On the drums, it was a mixture of modern dynamics and old Neumanns.”
On Winchester’s upright bass, Holbrook placed a Neumann U47 FET and a Neumann KM84, direct-injected a MusicValve tube mic and used an AKG D-112 on the amp. For Dresel’s kit, the engineer used two mics on the kick – a Beyer M88 for the pedal side and an E-V RE20 for the front head – a Beta 56 on the snare, Sennheiser 421s on the toms, an AKG C-24 stereo mic as an overhead, KM84s for the ride cymbal and hi-hat, and U87s as room mics.
Holbrook recorded the BSO on two 24-track Studer analog recorders. The room at The Village where they worked is equipped with a V Series Neve console with Flying Faders. Holbrook recorded the rhythm tracks on one 24-track, made a slave, then did the horns and overdubs on the other 24-track, later locking them up for the mix. Holbrook felt that getting a first generation right off the analog tape was the way to go, and he got no argument from Setzer.
One aspect of working with the guitarist that impressed Holbrook was how efficient his recording process was. Setzer and his bandmates used charts created by the guitarist and trombonist/arranger Mark Jones; the duo have been doing this for the past eight years. The horn parts were all worked out going into the studio to record.
“When we’re cutting rhythm tracks, the guys are reading music,” says Holbrook. “Not every single note, but they have a chart. Bernie has a chart, and he usually has a music stand right there when he’s cutting the track so that he can make sure he hits all the spots. The same with the bass.” It’s an unusual situation these days in rock ‘n’ roll, but then what the BSO is doing is far more complicated than crafting three-chord anthems. “It’s a big band; it’s based in jazz,” remarks Setzer. “There’s complex chord changes going by me at 100 miles an hour. I have to be able to play over that. You can’t jump from a rock band into a big band situation; it doesn’t work that way.”
Following the initial recording of all the tracks, Setzer’s label felt that the first single, “In the Mood,” should be turned into a vocal number, so the guitarist went to work with Grammy- and TEC Award-winning producer Glen Ballard. “He impressed the shit out of me because the guy can read and write music,” marvels Setzer. “He writes charts. I don’t think I’ve ever dealt with a producer who could even read music. It just made things go so much easier. So that was a nice, nice experience, just to talk the language of music with a producer.” The track, now titled “Gettin’ in the Mood,” was mixed by Chris Lord-Alge.
Two other tracks also received additional tweaking by a young producer named David Darling, whom Setzer thinks will become a big name soon. Through him, both the big band standard “Pennsylvania 6-5000” and the traditional Italian number “Americano” were turned into more modern tunes. “We just tripped them out,” says Setzer. “We went into that Pro Tools land, which is like, `Danger, Will Robinson!’ I’ve never gone there! He said, `Trust me. We’re going to scuff this up, and it’s going to sound unique.’ So we took Bernie’s drum part and threaded tape loops with it – I don’t know if they’re hip hop, they sound cha-cha to me – and we put that rhythm with Bernie’s playing. And then we did stuff like putting megaphone effects and put the big band in and made it go backwards, put the telephone in there. We have a girl imitating an operator – `Pennsylvania 6-5000′ – and we made it sound like it was all scratchy and scuffed it. All of that just added to taking it away from the 1940s sound and making it seem somehow year 2000. And I think it worked.”
Encouraged by the diverse audience he is capturing, and undaunted by purists’ criticisms of his blending styles, Setzer is bringing classic American music to new generations of listeners who did not grow up on swing or rockabilly. And he does it with style and pizzazz, whether on album or in concert, although the latter forum is where the band really gets to shine.
“In my audience, I’ve got 14-year-old kids there, as well as 60-year-old couples,” observes Setzer, “so that tells me a lot. Old people could be pissed off that it’s not the swing they’re accustomed to, but they’re not; they’re in the front row. And I’ve got 14-year-old girls screaming for it. It obviously strikes a nerve; it’s obviously good music that has a root in American tradition. To get that kind of a wide audience is a pretty amazing thing.”