with the Stray Cats

Rockabilly’s most passionate purveyors hit the road in celebration of their fortieth anniversary.

As late teenagers in 1979 on Long Island, New York, guitarist Brian Setzer, bassist Lee Rocker, and drummer Slim Jim Phantom formed the Stray Cats while discovering a mutual affinity for early rock ’n’ roll. Now, forty years later, after previously establishing success with globally recognizable hits such as “Rock This Town” and “Stray Cat Strut,” the band has released 40, their eleventh full-length album and first in twenty-six years. To celebrate their four-decade–long career, the band hit the road on June 21 for an international trek that lasts through late August.

The band’s incredible onstage energy is infectious, undeniably spurred in part by Phantom. The drummer’s unique and minimal kit setup—which he plays standing up at the front of the stage with Setzer and Rocker—provides a literal trampoline for Phantom and Setzer. Live the two can regularly be seen performing acrobatics off of Phantom’s bass drum. But don’t let the drummer’s theatrics distract from his real-deal, well-researched shuffling swing that provides the foundation for the Stray Cats’ signature rockabilly feel.

MD recently checked in with Phantom from his L.A.–based home.

MD: What spurred the new record and tour?

Jim: About a year ago we had a show in Las Vegas that was kind of like a celebration of all things rockabilly. There were 20,000 kids there, and every one of them was rockabilly. We thought of this band forty years ago. All these years later, to see this celebration of the whole culture and original American rock ’n’ rollers had so much of an impact on us, and it was certainly something to be celebrated.

We had a beautiful gig. After that, Brian got in touch with demos. We all were totally up for the idea and quickly came up with parts. Everybody was very prepared, and we were so pleased with how it came out that we just wanted to do more.

MD: What type of input does the band have on your parts?

Jim: I don’t think anyone ever really told anyone else what to play. Part of it is a certain trust. Someone might have a little suggestion, but I can’t remember the Stray Cats ever really having someone tell anyone what to play. I don’t think any of us have that kind of nerve. [laughs]

MD: What drew you to rockabilly?

Jim: I was drawn to it through what I’d guess you’d now call classic rock. The Beatles, the Stones, Clapton, Jeff Beck, Aerosmith…. This would’ve been in the ’70s, when I was borrowing records from my older cousins. I was a drum student, and I just kept researching music. The Allman Brothers were big and had a bluesy influence. I’d read their liner notes, and it’d say, “Written by W. Dixon.” I’d ask, “Who’s that?” So I’d find out who Willie Dixon was. That was my process.

And if you go back far enough, when I got to the original Elvis Presley recordings and their earliest pictures of Elvis, for me it was game over—this is what I’m doing for the rest of my life.

Photo by Suzie Kaplan

MD: How did you get the idea to play standing up?

Jim: Early with the Stray Cats, the band was kind of an opportunity to try new things. We were into these old records and trying to find anything we could about Gene Vincent, Eddie Cochran, or Buddy Holly. And there were a few blurry photos of Gene Vincent where his drummer looked like he might’ve been standing up. And that drummer became my friend—Dickie Harrell is his name. He’s on “Be-Bop-A-Lula.” So we said, wouldn’t it be cool to have a drummer standing up? We tried to emulate these original rock ’n’ rollers as much as we could. We also wanted to take it one step further. No one ever really pushed the drums to front, which is something I think we really did first.

MD: Live you have an incredible energy.

Jim: Well, at this point, I maintain that by trying to stay fit. I think when you get a little bit older, it’s kind of important to do what you do without killing yourself to maintain a certain level of fitness. And I don’t practice standing up. You can’t really jump off your drums in your house. [laughs] You have to save that for the gig.

Onstage, I’m just trying to keep up with the other two. They’re my oldest friends, and everyone’s got this kind of competition, where we think, “I’m not the one that’s going to get old first.” [laughs] And I just want to be as good as the others at all times. That’s my inspiration and makes me stay sharp.

MD: Do you warm up?

Jim: Normally I have a practice pad and metal sticks. I play that for maybe half an hour. What’s important to me is also just walking around with a pair of sticks for another half hour, so it feels like they’re attached to you for a little bit before the show.

MD: Do you think there’s one quality that you three share that’s kept you together for this amount of time?

Jim: I think the main thing for any of these groups is there has to ultimately be some of what we used to call “AM hits” or songs that everybody knows, even if you’re not into that specific band or that genre. Everybody knows “Rock This Town,” even if they don’t know who we are. The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Aerosmith, U2, Duran Duran, they have tons of those. And you could be a wicked shredder on the drums or have a certain look and style, but it kind of boils down to the tunes. We’ve had a few of those songs, and they’ve become very precious for us. So I think that’s something we’ve united in. These are our songs. It’s part of our fabric.

Slim Jim Phantom plays Gretsch drums, Zildjian cymbals, and Vic Firth sticks.


Also on the Road

Bob D’Amico with Sebadoh /// Brad Hargreaves with Third Eye Blind /// Zach Lind with Jimmy Eat World /// Jason McGerr with Death Cab for Cutie /// Cindy Blackman Santana with Santana