The first thing you notice about Slim Jim Phantom of the Stray Cats—aside from the tattoos that seem to crawl up and down both arms—is, well, his slimness. Tall and in credibly lanky, Jim Phantom hardly resembles a drummer as he leans over a desk at the New York office of EMI Records and checks out a batch of photos of himself. Going strictly by looks, it’s much easier to imagine a guitar or microphone in Phantom’s hands than a pair of drumsticks.
But forget about his physical appearance. Jim Phantom is indeed a drummer, and a very good one at that. Phantom’s style is based on precision and simplicity. His snare is big, crisp, sharp, and unabashedly aggressive sounding. Along with Brian Setzer on guitar and vocals, and Lee Rocker on bass, Slim Jim Phantom plays a very important part in the success of the Stray Cats—a band that is one of the most unlikely superstar outfits in the music business today. By delving into the raw and good-time roll of rockabilly, the Stray Cats have, in effect, defiantly thumbed their noses at the sterilized techno-pop sound that’s currently sweeping through mainstream rock, and proved that not all dance music need be electronic.
Rebellious by nature, Slim Jim Phantom refuses to be stereotyped as the typical rock or rockabilly drummer. He plays his exceedingly simple kit standing up, and positions himself right out in front with Setzer and Rocker when the trio performs live. “It’s about time people get to see what a drummer actually looks like on stage, not to mention how hard he works, “jokes Phantom. “I’m in the band too, you know. “
Because he’s so young—just 21 years old—Phantom doesn’t have a wealth of big-time drum experience behind him. The product of numerous bands in and around his hometown of Massapequa, Long Island, Phantom, nevertheless has been playing drums for some ten years. Thus, what he lacks in professional experience, he more than makes up for in enthusiasm. “I’m the type of drummer who likes to totally involve himself in not only his drumming, but everything else that’s happening around him on stage and in the studio. I like to take in as much as I can and then have it show in the way I play my drums. “
Despite the hard-guy image, Phantom is a warm individual and I found him very easy to talk to. We met in Manhattan the day before the Stray Cats were to play Jones Beach out on Long Island, a gig that surely represented a triumphant return of a band that, incredibly enough, had to go to England to score a record deal. Jim spoke about those days in England as well as the Stray Cats’ brand of rockabilly and his rather unique style of playing the drums.
RS: More than one person has referred to the Stray Cats as a rockabilly revivalist band. Do you view yourself and the Cats as revivalists?
SJP: I don’t think we could be a revivalist band because we’re too young. We’re in our early 20’s, and we weren’t around in the 1950s when rockabilly was happening, so for us it’s the first time. I think the only ones who could revive rockabilly are the ones who were there in the first place and are now coming back on the music scene. What the Stray Cats have always tried to do is to take the spirit that was in rockabilly and update it a bit. I think we play it louder and a bit more electric sounding. In the studio, we try to take what was good about ’50s music—the slapping bass sound, the twangy guitar and the big snare sound—and make it modern sounding and much cleaner. The only thing we’re reviving, if people insist on using that term, is the spirit of rockabilly.
RS: It’s no secret that, a couple of years ago, the Stray Cats packed up their gear, went to England, and got a record deal there before anything happened with the band back home in the States. Was there a feeling in the band that you’d have to break in England before you made it in America?
SJP: I don’t know if it was a question of having to go there, but we were here in New York for about a year playing local bars out on Long Island and in Manhattan a couple of times a month, and nothing was happening. We had a decent following too; a couple of hundred kids used to come and hear us all the time. But there just wasn’t any kind of record company interest, and that’s what we wanted to do—make a record.
RS: Did the Stray Cats actively pursue record company interest?
SJP: I guess we just played and kind of expected them to come to us. But as far as our trip to England is concerned, we were there on a whim. It was the summertime and there really wasn’t that much to do. So we sold our cars and stereos, and took off. I sold my drums. We just kind of winged it actually.
RS: Why England and not, say, Los Angeles?
SJP: We heard that rockabilly has never died there, and that there were still kids wearing ’50s hairstyles and clothes and stuff. I think we went out of a sense of adventure. Fortunately for us, things really clicked over there.
RS: Indeed it was adventuresome. None of you knew anyone over there, and nothing was set up for you in terms of gigs or even housing.
SJP: I had never even been out of New York before, let alone the country. It was exciting and a little bit scary at the same time. Like I said, we were very lucky that the move worked for us. But I wouldn’t recommend that young bands just skip out of the States and head on over to England. We did it, but at our stage of the game, we needed some type of stimulant, and England was it.
RS: What did you find when you arrived?
SJP: Well, we got off the plane and said, “Oh wow! Great! Now what do we do?” [laughs] We stayed in cheap hotels and knocked on doors to get a gig here and there. Finally, we hooked up with a person who arranged some support slots for us in a pub. Ever since we played our first show there, which was three years ago, it began to happen for us. They were looking for something over there because there was no trend happening at the moment. So the new trend turned out to be rockabilly and we were the ones who, I guess you could say, lit the fuse.
RS: After having gone unnoticed in the States, your success in England must have made coming back home all that much sweeter for you and the Cats.
SJP: Oh yeah, definitely. It not only feels good to make it in your home country, but financially speaking, America is the only place you can make any money. When we signed a recording contract in England, we signed for the whole world, excluding America. That’s why we’re with EMI in America, and Arista in England and the rest of the world. You see, we knew that one day when the time was right we’d come back home and the record companies were going to want us. We knew they’d be sorry they didn’t sign us when they could have signed us cheap!
RS: It seems as though MTV was extremely important in breaking the Stray Cats here in America because it’s such a visual band.
SJP: That’s really true. I think MTV has been helpful in breaking a lot of bands. It’s helped a lot of bands who just happen to look good but can’t play that well, and it’s also helped bands who are genuinely good. The Stray Cats owe MTV a lot. When we first came back to the States about a year and a half ago, we were getting no radio airplay at all—I mean none. Yet we’d go into a town and sell out a thousand-seat hall, which, since it was our very first time on the road in the States, we were quite pleased with. And all the kids we met would say that they’d seen us on MTV, and that’s why they came to the show.
RS: Speaking of the visual qualities of the Stray Cats, I recall that you once remarked that, “It’s got to be the music and the look.” Do you still believe that?
SJP: Oh yeah, sure. A lot of bands play real well, but they don’t have a look or image to go with the music. What would the Stray Cats be if we wore beards, had fat bellies and just didn’t care how we looked? You need to play good and look good. That’s the key to success in this business. And yet, the funny thing is that even if I wasn’t in a band, I’d still dress the same way I do now. It’s just the way I feel—like a rocker.
RS: How would you define your role as drummer for the Stray Cats?
SJP: I think any drummer in a trio has to play fairly simple. I appreciate Simon Phillips and Billy Cobham; I met them all and they’re great to talk with and everything. But in the Stray Cats, I just can’t play that way. It’s just impossible to play that way if the music is going to work.
RS: Why is that?
SJP: Because I have to allow Brian, our guitarist, as much room and freedom as I can. His instrument is the only one in the band that plays melody. He has to have as wide a range as possible. So me and Lee, our bass player, tend to play on the beat. I’ll play a couple of rolls here and there, but I really tend to play on the “2” and the “4” while he plays on the “1” and the “3.” It’s pretty simple, you know, but that’s what works for us.
RS: What you said about drummers in three-piece bands and how they should play fairly simple is interesting. If you look back to what Ginger Baker did with Cream and Mitch Mitchell did with the Jimi Hendrix Experience, and on occasion, what Stewart Copeland does with the Police, it would seem there’s some room for disagreement. Perhaps what you’re saying is that your trio demands that you play simple, because your band plays rockabilly.
SJP: You’re right. I know that it wouldn’t come into my head to play busy like Baker or Mitchell. I think when Baker and Mitchell played, a lot of drummers in that era were trying to find themselves. The role of the rock drummer hadn’t been fully explained yet. I think a simple rather than a busy style of drumming is the only way it would work for the Cats. Baker needed that busy sound because Cream was a busy group. I just like to play it simple. I mean, I like drummers like Bernard Purdie. Listening to drummers like him taught me to play the way I need to play in the Cats.
RS: What you’re saying then is that your role in the Stray Cats is first and foremost a supportive one.
SJP: Definitely. I believe my role is support. If you have two guitar players, you might have more freedom because you can play against things a little more. You see, rockabilly is dance music and that’s the kind of music the Stray Cats play, although we’re not limited to just that, as you can tell with some of the stuff we do. If it’s dance music—whether it’s rockabilly or whatever—the drummer is always going to play on the “2” and the “4” because that’s what makes you want to dance, or at the very, very least, tap your foot.
RS: Your drumkit matches your drum style perfectly. It too is exceedingly simple.
SJP: Yeah. I got a deal with Gretsch recently which made me very happy because I play Gretsch drums anyway. But I use a 24″ bass drum and a 6″ snare drum. I use Paiste cymbals—an 18″ medium ride which I also use as a crash, so I have to play a little thinner than I would a ride cymbal. I would l i k e to use a heavier ride cymbal, but I guess since I also use it as a crash, I need to have it a bit thinner. That’s all the equipment I really need. When I started playing drums I had a full kit, and I played a full kit for years and years. Actually, I just started to play a full kit again because Gretsch gave me one. So I set it up in my house and have been going crazy with it for the last couple of weeks.
RS: Did you find it absolutely necessary to trim down your kit when you began playing with the Stray Cats?
SJP: Well, I just thought it looked better. At first I didn’t even use a bass drum—all I used was a snare and a cymbal. Also, I just thought to myself, “Why does a drummer have to always be in the back? Is there a rule somewhere that says that it has to be that way? Is it written down somewhere?” I had seen the guy who played with Gene Vincent, Be-Bop Harrell. He used to stand up for photographs. But he was kind of a heavy-set drummer, and I don’t think he moved around much. The idea that I should stand up just came to Brian, Lee, and me at pretty much the same time. It was like, “What would happen if the whole band was at the front of the stage and no one in back? What would that look like?” Well, we tried it and we were so amazed by it that we just kept doing it. As time went on, I got better at being up there and playing the kit the way it should be played. Now I’ve gotten it down to where I can really play some stuff on the bass drum, which is quite interesting.
RS: Standing up and playing a bass drum obviously took some time to master. Do you use any different leg muscles?
SJP: The whole thing is balance, so I really have to put all my weight on my right leg. I’m left-handed, so I use my left leg to hit the bass drum. When I went back to using a full kit, I forgot how to use a hi-hat. I was looking at my foot and saying, “Damn it, do something!” [laughs] It actually took me a couple of days to get my right foot working again.
RS: The idea of a drummer not only standing up when playing, but also being out front with the other musicians in the band goes a long way towards breaking down some of the barriers drummers have had to contend with for years.
SJP: Yeah, I like to view the way I play the drums, standing up, and my place on the stage as kind of a rebellion of sorts. At the time I thought of doing i t , drummers were using four bass drums, gongs and stuff like that. The thing about my situation back then was that I couldn’t afford any of that stuff, even if I wanted it. So I was also saying to myself, “You can be a great drummer like Carl Palmer”—who by the way is a great drummer—”but why not take it the other way?” When I was learning to play the drums in the early ’70s, Palmer was the drummer, but why not take it the other way and use less instead of more?
RS: Can you think of any disadvantages you have encountered standing up and playing?
SJP: I guess if I played with a different type of band there might be some disadvantages. Sure, there are certain limitations, but at the same time, there are none that have really held me back. I would play the same way if I had a full k i t in front of me. I know on the bass drum I really can’t play everything I want to, but that’s about it, you know.
RS: Describe the reaction you got from the crowd the first time they saw you standing up and playing nothing but a snare drum and cymbal.
SJP: It was great, it really was. You see, we had talked about it within the group to get kind of an idea on how we wanted to present this image. The Stray Cats was like a sideline group for us in the beginning. Brian was in a band called the Bloodless Pharoahs, and me and Lee were in a blues band. As it turned out, there were more people coming to hear the Stray Cats than the other bands. So we put more and more energy and time into the Cats until it became a full-time thing. At first we started playing in old man bars where a couple of kids hung out. They’d see us and tell their friends about us. But the first time a lot of people see us, they’re quite taken back. On Long Island, which is where we lived, they didn’t know if we were from Mars or what, with our haircuts and pink suits, and with me standing up, playing the drums and screaming. They didn’t know what we were. But after a while, they found out and it was just great. They found out it was just old-fashioned rock ‘n’ roll, and they liked it. Some of the kids got to the point where they’d do anything for us. They’d unload the equipment, help set things up, and that kind of thing. They were real loyal.
But it was still hard to get gigs on Long Island as the Stray Cats because there were a lot of Led Zeppelin copy bands. To play a bar there you had to have a PA and a lighting system, spandex pants, a voice like Robert Plant and a pair of socks that went with your outfit. No one would hire us—no one. That’s why we played in these little corner bars that had a little stage in the back. It started with Brian playing standards by himself, and Lee and I eventually joining him. We happened to be at a gig once, and I had my drums in the car. Brian said he needed a drummer that night, and I said, “Fine.” The group kind of evolved like that, despite the fact that there were so few places to play original music out on Long Island.
RS: You did get some work in Manhattan, as you mentioned before. What were gigs there like?
SJP: We got work in Manhattan, but the thing was, you could only work once a month. We worked at Max’s and CBGB’s, but club owners won’t hire you this weekend if they know you’re going to play another club in the city next weekend. So what we used to do was call ourselves the Tom Cats, the Bob Cats, and the Wild Cats to get steady work. If you wanted to get record companies to come down and see you, you had to work Manhattan. But in order to make some money, we had to play those Long Island bars.
RS: What are your musical roots? You said you played in a blues band before joining the Stray Cats. When did you discover rockabilly?
SJP: Well, the thing is, like anyone else my age, the first bands I was into we’re the Beatles and the Stones. I’m still a big Beatles fan to this day. I still play Rubber Soul a lot. My mother had a Beatles record and I heard it and wanted to be a pop star ever since. So what happens is that you see that the Beatles do a song called “Honey Don’t” written by C. Perkins. So you say to yourself, “Who’s this guy C. Perkins?” You go down to your record store and ask the guy working there, “You got any records by C. Perkins?” He says, “Carl Perkins. Sure.” And you take it from there, kind of working backwards. I found out about the blues by listening to the Stones. You hear them do “Little Red Rooster” by Willie Dixon, and you find out that he was also the bass player with Chuck Berry. So I just kind of pieced things together until I worked my way back to rockabilly. I was into the Stones an awful long time. Charlie Watts is still my favorite drummer; he has great style. And we’re quite good friends as well.
RS: Didn’t the Stray Cats open for the Stones on some dates during their last tour?
SJP: Yeah, we opened up for them in America at a few concerts. I said to Charlie, “I love your drumming.” He said, “You like me?” And I answered, “Of course!” He was very flattered by the fact that I liked his playing.
RS: You recorded with Bill Wyman of the Rolling Stones. How did that come about and what was it like?
SJP: It was the “B” side of the record that he had a hit with in England, “Rio DeJaneiro.” I was in the studio for about 18 hours and I couldn’t get the little hook to it for the life of me. So we went out to eat, and I came back and fell asleep in the studio. Bill woke me up and said, “Jim, it’s time to go home. We’ll try tomorrow to get it.” I said to him, “No. I’m going to do it now or I’m going to stay here forever.” So I went in and got it the first time after I had slept and eaten something. But Bill was real patient.
RS: Were you awed by the fact that you were cutting a record with a Rolling Stone?
SJP: I guess I would have been awed if I didn’t know him. But we had known each other for quite some time before he asked me to play with him. Besides, he’s so easy to work with. If somebody was playing on my record and he messed it up four hundred times in a row, I wouldn’t have the patience to have him try to get it right. But Bill sat with me and said, “Jim don’t worry about it. Take it again. Relax.” It was weird though; he did everything backwards. He had everything on the track except the drums. And the bass was a little out of time. But it was fun.
RS: You mentioned that your mother had Beatle records around the house. What other artists were you exposed to as a young kid?
SJP: My father had some Hank Williams records and some Elvis records too. I listened to them at the same time I began listening to other, newer groups like Led Zeppelin. John Bonham was a great drummer. And so was D.J. Fontana, Elvis’s drummer. He had a sound that was ten feet wide in a big gymnasium. That’s the kind of sound I’d ultimately want to get out of my drums.
RS: Did you take drum or music lessons when you were young?
SJP: Oh sure. I used to study jazz with Mousey Alexander for quite some time. I did the Jim Chapin book and the Ted Reed Syncopation book 18 ways—backwards, forward, with one hand, double stroking it, single stroking it, the whole bit. And it helped me a lot. When I listen to a lot of people play drums today, I really think they can play only four or five beats.
RS: How long did you take lessons?
SJP: For five years or maybe a little bit more. When I started to play I was ten years old. I went into it head first; I didn’t want to play baseball or any other sports anymore. It was just the drums and music. That’s all I wanted to deal with.
RS: You studied jazz, you played in a blues band and now you’re extremely successful playing rockabilly. Did you ever envision yourself playing a particular kind of music and going all the way to the top with it?
SJP: No, not really. I just wanted to earn my living as a drummer. Hey, I played at weddings too. I didn’t want to work in a grocery store or mow lawns as a kid. I always wanted to be a successful drummer, and somehow I knew that I would accomplish that.
RS: You played a lot with Lee before you two became Stray Cats.
SJP: Yeah, that’s right. As a rhythm section we used to hire ourselves out. Like we’d put an ad in the Village Voice: “Rhythm section available.” I know what Lee is going to play. I could be in California, he could be in New York, and I’d still know what lick he’s going to play. We’ve known each other from our days in grammar school.
RS: So much has been written and said about the relationship between bass players and drummers. What do you think is the perfect relationship the two should have?
SJP: I think the bass player and the drummer have to be almost like the same person. When I see a group play live, it’s either the first thing I’m impressed with, or else it bugs me. If I see a bass player going all over the place and the drummer trying to follow him, I get all uptight. I also get uptight when a drummer is speeding up and slowing down, and the bass player is trying his best to hold the drummer back. I enjoy nothing about the group if I hear that. It just really annoys me.
Take Mick Fleetwood and John McVie from Fleetwood Mac. Now they’ve been together for how many years as a rhythm section and they play very simple. But they’re like a rock. You could put a symphony over them and it would be perfectly in time. Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts are the same way. They might not be great technical players, as technical players go, but they’re incredibly solid and it shows in the Stones’ music. It’s the same with Paul and Ringo. Paul McCartney is probably still the best bass player in rock today as far as I’m concerned. So what I’m trying to say is if the drummer-bass player relationship is like a rock, then a saxophone player or the guitarist won’t have to be concerned with counting. What they’re able to do then is take advantage of the confidence they have in the rhythm section and take off doing their own thing. It makes the band sound that much better.
RS: How do you come up with your snare drum sound?
SJP: Dave Edmunds. He really knows what to do. I think the Stray Cats would be lost without him. He puts all sorts of crazy stuff in our sound. See, we want the sound from the ’50s, but in this day and age you have the technology available to make that sound— once you’ve got it—even better. We use a lot of different things to achieve that. But if I was in the studio and someone asked me to show them how I got my snare drum sound, I don’t honestly know if I actually could. I’d probably shrug my shoulders and say, “See Dave Edmunds.” He’s really into drum sounds, despite being a guitar player.
RS: When working with Edmunds, does he suggest that you play a particular drum part, or does he merely concentrate on sound?
SJP: He suggests things because a lot of times I’ll say, “Dave, what do you think about this?” We all have a good working relationship with him because we’re in on all of the decisions every step of the way. With me and my drums, Dave has gotten to the point where he knows what I want and how to achieve that. Dave Edmunds knows as much about rockabilly and rockabilly sounds as anyone I’ve ever met.
We met Dave a couple of years ago in London after one of our gigs. We walked into our dressing room and there’s this guy drinking all our vodka. So we said, “Who is that guy?” And someone whispered, “Dave Edmunds.” Well, I had known his music, but not his face. He just came up to us and said, “Let me be your producer before someone who knows nothing about your music spoils it for you.” We were in the studio within the week.
RS: It seems as if the Stray Cats are always either on the road or in the studio. How much do you play your drums when you’re not touring and not in the studio?
SJP: Hardly ever. I didn’t have a kit for a long time, and like you said, most of the time we’re on the road anyway. And if we’re not on the road we’re in the studio. But I’ll tell you, ever since I got this kit from Gretsch with two tom-toms and two floor toms—the biggest kit I’ve ever had—I’ve been spending a lot of time playing along with records and things out of books. It’s good fun and good practice.
RS: Do you think you’d ever use that kit or a couple of pieces from it on stage with the Cats?
SJP: If it’s necessary I will. We have a song on the new album called “Rebels Rule,” which is kind of like a “Bo Diddley”/”Not Fade Away” beat. I used timbales on that tune, and it sounded fabulous. So on stage we’ve rigged up a thing so I can play them live.
RS: I noticed the way your kit is set up on stage is quite efficient considering the fact that you’re standing and moving around so much. Can you explain to me exactly how they’re set up?
SJP: My roadie, Oliver, is a genius. He invented the concept I use. We just take out the ride and stick in the timbales. So all he has to do is unscrew one thing, take away the cymbal, put in the timbales and it’s done. I have a platform, and at the bottom of the snare and cymbal stands, he made holes that go into the platform. The stands are attached to the platform by some kind of nylon and lugs. So if you turned the platform upside down the drums wouldn’t fall off.
RS: I guess you never have a problem with your bass drum sliding.
SJP: No way. But before he built the platform, my bass drum always slid around on stage. What we’d really like to do is build a big flight case for the drums and platform, and then we’d never have to take anything apart.
RS: How about when it comes to miking the drums?
SJP: We use real tiny microphones. The mic’ on the bass is inside the drum with a silk-screen front that allows the sound to get out. All the wires, which are very thin, lead to one box, so it looks like there’s nothing up there but the drum and cymbal, which is what we want. If there are all these microphones hanging in front of the drum, they take away from what I’m trying to do in the first place, which is making it look like it’s only me up there.
RS: Is the studio setup any different than the one you use on stage?
SJP: Nope, it’s the same thing. I just use an extra 16″ crash cymbal and maybe a hi-hat which I keep closed. But I still stand up, and just use the snare and bass drum.
RS: What would you say are the two most important elements of your drum style?
SJP: Time is one element. No matter what band you play with—Rush or the Stray Cats—you’ve got to be able to keep good time. The easiest way for a drummer to get sacked out of a group is to speed up and slow down, speed up and slow down. My meter is really my most important thing because that’s what I’m there for. The other thing is chops. We go out on the road for four months at a clip, and I have to be able to play an hour and a half a night, every single night, without being tired or without having my licks affected in any way. You know, you’re on the road for a long time, and the chops just have to be there. I play with metal sticks a lot on my practice pad just playing rudiments so I can keep myself strong. I’m a skinny person, but I have strong wrists. Playing rock ‘n’ roll drums, as any other rock ‘n’ roll drummer knows, is strenuous business.
RS: When you’re on the road and playing every night for an hour and a half, how do you keep yourself from losing your edge or getting bored?
SJP: Well, for us right now, most of the kids who come to see the Stray Cats have never seen the band perform live, so you naturally want to play good for them to make a positive and lasting impression. Just the fact that these kids are getting turned on to us for the very first time is enough to keep me very interested and very concerned with how I play. If I play good that particular night, the next time the band is in town, these same people are going to bring their friends with them to the show.
I also play different licks every night. I try and play a new one—whether it’s incorporating a rudiment into a lick or whatever. What I’ve been doing lately is something I finally found out I can do, and that’s playing between the snare drum and the bass drum more. I can’t get too carried away though. I can’t play things that are going to take away from the tightness that the Cats have. But I never get bored on stage. The road gets boring, but that hour and a half on stage each night is mine. Don’t talk to me about lawsuits, accountants, record charts, or this, that or the other thing. All I want to do is play.
RS: In addition to drumming, you’ve also done some writing. It seems as if more and more drummers are beginning to contribute to songs.
SJP: That’s really true. As for me, I’m a lyricist; I just write words. And I really like doing it too. It gives me a pretty good feeling when I hear them sung on a record.
RS: Do you and Brian Setzer work together on Stray Cats songs?
SJP: Well, when Brian has written a song that he can’t think of any lyrics for, he gives it to me. And every now and again, I’ll come up with a catchy phrase or something and work with that. Me and Lee have always written together; whether we will use what we write with the Cats remains to be seen. With the Cats I guess I’ve written maybe a half dozen songs, a couple of which were hits. “Runaway Boys” is one of them; that was our first hit over in England and Europe. Brian and I wrote it.
RS: Have you ever written any melodies?
SJP: No, I really don’t know that much about that part of song writing. I know chords on the piano and stuff, but that’s about it. Someday I would like to be able to play another instrument well. But right now I’m still trying to improve my drumming.
What you just said about more and more drummers writing is something I’ve been noticing too. Take Phil Collins. He orchestrates things. Don Henley from the Eagles writes. Levon Helm from the Band used to write. This would make a great question in a rock ‘n’ roll quiz book: Name all the drummers who are songwriters too. Writing songs, to me, is a real talent. Listen to Phil Collins. He’s a great songwriter and still one of the best drummers around. He’s left-handed too. He even writes symphonies in his spare time.
RS: Can you describe for me a particularly crazy Stray Cats moment, either on stage or in the studio, that reflects the rapport the three of you have with each other?
SJP: Well, we’re loose with each other. Like one time this crazy thing happened to me. Brian is always hopping on my bass drum. I stand on it and Lee tries to knock me off it. Well, one time he did and I got knocked out.
RS: You were actually unconscious on stage?
SJP: Yeah. He knocked me off the drum and I hit my head on the floor. That was in London a couple of years ago. So like the next day, I was walking down King’s Road where all the punks hang out and a guy comes up to me and says, “That was the best gig you ever done!” I said, “What do you mean? I only did half the gig. I got knocked out!” So he says, “Yeah, yeah I know. That was what made it really great!”
RS: How much rockabilly do you listen to today for say, drum styles and riffs?
SJP: I listen to a lot of rockabilly for that reason and for entertainment too. I still love listening to Gene Vincent, Eddie Cochran and Buddy Holly. Holly had a great drummer playing behind him, Jerry Allison. Out of all the rockabilly drummers, he’s probably the best one I ever heard.
RS: Is Allison one of your bigger influences?
SJP: Yeah, and D.J. Fontana, Dickie Harrell, Charlie Watts and Ringo. Others would be John Bonham and Bernard Purdie. I like Simon Phillips too. He’s a very good friend of mine. When I’m in London, we go drinking together. Simon’s completely ambidextrous; he never has to cross over. On the hi-hat, he just moves his hands over. I think Billy Cobham can do that too.
RS: Do you ever see yourself using a drum machine?
SJP: I don’t think I’d use one on record, but I’d maybe like to fool around with one at home. I don’t know. I think drums should be made out of wood. What drum machines do is take people who really can’t play that well and actually make them sound like good drummers. Drum machines don’t have that human touch, which is very important in music—any kind of music. I must admit, though, that the Linn drum does get some very decent tom-tom sounds.
RS: Well, rockabilly has a very human and emotional quality to it, something that a lot of the techno-rock that’s currently heard on the radio is lacking.
SJP: Drumming itself is very emotional. And you have to feel good about what you play if it’s going to come across with feeling. As long as the song swings or rocks, then I know I’ve done my job. With the Stray Cats, I’m after a simplistic emotional quality. Too much drums would definitely clutter things up. I can play some licks if I want, but I don’t want to turn what I do into a circus.
RS: Since the band is a trio, you and Lee have a pretty big responsibility in terms of filling out the bottom of the Stray Cats songs.
SJP: Lee plays that double bass, so he gets that click. That helps an awful lot to fill out the bottom. If he played an electric bass, things would sound hollow, I think. The fact that Lee is a very good player doesn’t hurt either. Few people can play those stand-up basses. Lucky for the Cats, Lee is one of them.
RS: A lot of people believe rockabilly and the Stray Cats in particular are basically fads. Does that bother you?
SJP: No, because I don’t think rock ‘n’ roll is a fad, whether it be rockabilly or acid rock. I mean the Rolling Stones are still playing “Twenty Flight Rock” in front of a hundred thousand people, and that’s an old Eddie Cochran song.
But it’s weird, you know, because now they’re selling bowling shirts in Macy’s and other big department stores. And we were wearing these things for a long time before they became stylish. But I don’t think what people say about fads and things affects us, because beneath all that stuff, we’re just a good rock ‘n’ roll band. And there’ll always be a place for a band that can really rock.