YOU'D PROBABLY never guess it from the casual, chatty tone of my prose, but I am a monumental fussbudget. Almost every aspect of my existence, from how I make the morning coffee to which pillow goes on what side of the bed at night, is governed by weird little rules. And this stringent regimentation isn't limited solely to my day-to-day routine. The holidays are a time of paramount fussiness for me. For example, despite my well-known passion for Christmas music, the decorations for my tree don't come out of the basement until the Thanksgiving turkey carcass has been picked clean.
But, like Julia Child says, you have to break a few eggs to make a souffl鮠So if Brian Setzer says he just had to haul out the (plastic) mistletoe and holly in the middle of a sweltering Palm Springs summer to set a festive tone in the studio while making Boogie Woogie Christmas, the new seasonal set from the Brian Setzer Orchestra, I'm willing to cut him some slack.
The Stray Cat turned hepcat and his merry men do an admirable job putting a spirited spin on a set of 12 yuletide tunes, including Setzer's new "So They Say It's Christmas." Sex kitten Ann-Margret cozies up with him for a duet of "Baby, It's Cold Outside," and Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite is overhauled as a seven-minute swing suite (say that 10 times fast). Peroxide blond Setzer shows his roots, too—in a good way—with swell renditions of '50s holiday faves like "Boogie Woogie Santa Claus," "Blue Christmas," and the Kay Starr classic "(Everybody's Waitin' for) the Man with the Bag."
Two Ears tracked Setzer down in his California lair to get the lowdown on the making of Boogie Woogie Christmas and holiday traditions chez Setzer. (And please note: Despite warnings that the guitarist-bandleader can be a cantankerous interview, he was funny and forthcoming on the phone. Perhaps my colleagues simply lack the requisite finesse for chatting up tattooed rockabilly types. . . . )
Two Ears: Did you have a fake tree or real ones as a kid?
Brian Setzer: We had a real tree. But my folks always waited until the last minute to get the cheapest one.
So you got the Charlie Brown tree. Did you always find the presents you asked for under it?
Well, we didn't have a lot of money, so we didn't get top-of-the-line stuff—the Schwinn Orange Crate bicycle or anything like that. But my parents did the best they could.
You lived in England for a couple years in the '80s, when Stray Cats were first taking off. How did British Christmas compare with American?
They don't make as big a deal of it as we do. It's not an all-Christmas extravaganza, you don't see holiday decorations everywhere. People just celebrate by going to their family's. It's downplayed a lot more. I do remember turkey is really hard to find there. They're a goose kind of country.
What was it like recording with Ann-Margret? Did you make her do take after take, just so you could be up in her face?
Exactly! She was a doll . . . and very, very shy. I had to keep reassuring her that she was doing a great job. As a matter of fact, we went over [and redid] a lot of takes where there was just a little thing she didn't like, just because I didn't want to upset her. But she's the coolest, and she looks great. I'm going to try and coax her out on stage for one of these shows.
"So They Say It's Christmas" is an original tune. What are the unique challenges of composing a Christ- mas ditty?
Just trying not to write, 'Rock, rock, Santa! Roll, roll, Santa!' [Laughs] Seriously, it's difficult to write a Christmas song, at least for me. That one was pretty heartfelt and personal about a love relationship.
Well, they say, "Write what you know." If having elves running around your toy factory is foreign territory, you were wise to tackle something closer to home.
Yeah, we don't have elves in the desert . . . just old people.
The Brian Setzer Orchestra is part of the tree-lighting ceremony at Rockefeller Center this year. Did you ever go to it when you were a kid growing up on Long Island?
I don't think my Dad ever took us. He was like, 'I don't want to deal with all those crowds.' He worked in the city all day and didn't want to go back after work. So I never saw the actual lighting. I have definitely seen the tree afterwards, and ice-skated on the rink.
You ice-skate? Hmm, I smell a storyboard for your Christmas video.
[Laughter] I'm not sure that would be something you'd want to see: BSO on Ice!
Brian Setzer Orchestra's Boogie Woogie Christmas is out now from Surfdog Records.