Brian Setzer can’t keep his fingers still. When he talks about his new CD “Songs From Lonely Avenue,” he has to grab his bright orange Gretsch guitar and start firing off the edgy riffs that make up his film noir tribute.
“It always starts with the guitar riff,” Setzer said, pausing after playing the slinky intro to “King of the Whole Damn World,” which veers from rockabilly to jazz, and singing in a soft, high voice.
The three-time Grammy winner recalls first coming up with one of the riffs and thinking, “That’s really cool, that’s kind of dark.” It sounded like a soundtrack, Setzer said.
“So I got that idea — what if I wrote a soundtrack but songs, you know, like old soundtracks from the ’40s and ’50s. They’re dramatic, they have just the pieces, like that, but they’re not entire songs,” Setzer said. “‘Wow. It’d be cool if I wrote that kind of dark swing and made them into songs.”’
So he did.
A big fan of Robert Mitchum, James Cagney and Alfred Hitchcock, Setzer gave his new CD a story line, just like those downbeat, black-and-white movies from the 1940s and ’50s where the antihero is double-crossed by a femme fatale. The result is the Brian Setzer Orchestra’s “Songs From Lonely Avenue,” which Surfdog Records releases Tuesday in formats that include vinyl and digital download.
“I love all those movies. And the soundtracks are just so great from those movies,” Setzer said during a recent interview in his Minneapolis loft. “They’ve got a lot of drama to them. It’s real cinema. It’s just hip and cool.”
Sitting on his dark-brown couch, Setzer was natty in a black suit and purple polka-dot tie and had coifed his signature blond pompadour.
He casually strummed minor chords on his gleaming guitar as he explained another song, “Trouble Train,” which opens “Songs From Lonely Avenue” on a foreboding note with a frenzied roar of drums, guitar and horns.
“His friends are warning him, ‘Don’t get on that Trouble Train.’ But he’s on it, he’s going down all the wrong roads,” said Setzer, who celebrated his 50th birthday in April with a nightclub performance by his retro-rockabilly band the Stray Cats in Minneapolis.
With some help from a veteran composerFor his new album’s horn charts, Setzer turned again to veteran Hollywood composer and arranger Frank Comstock. The previously retired Comstock worked with bandleader Les Brown and singers Doris Day and Rosemary Clooney, and his TV credits include “Adam-12,” “Dragnet” and the Rocky and Bullwinkle show.
Comstock scored Setzer’s 2007 jazzed-up-classical-music disc “Wolfgang’s Big Night Out” and the 87-year-old was up for another spin with Setzer.
Comstock said Setzer had just one instruction when he lured Comstock out of semiretirement: “I just want you to write that way you did in 1950.”
“He said, ‘I just want all these fans of mine to know, around the world, that there’s more than two chords in any song,”’ Comstock recalled Setzer telling him.
Setzer said he “just let Frank go.”
“For instance, I would say, ‘Why don’t we put some flutes and clarinets in here?’ And he would say, ‘Yeah, that’s a good idea. We haven’t used flutes yet.’ Things like that,” Setzer said. Comstock eventually arranged horn charts for nine tracks on “Songs From Lonely Avenue,” helping give the CD its swinging old-school vibe.
Setzer, who grew up on New York’s Long Island, moved to Minneapolis about five years ago after marrying Twin Cities native Julie Reiten, one of his backup singers (she trades vocals with Setzer on “Gimme Some Rhythm Daddy.”) Setzer recorded his new CD at a friend’s Minneapolis studio, using local musicians.
“It’s a music town without the attitude,” Setzer said of Minneapolis, whose downtown skyline is featured behind Setzer on the CD’s cover.
Setzer said he’s up for playing again with his fellow Stray Cats, drummer Slim Jim Phantom and standup bassist Lee Rocker. But for now, he is gearing up for his seventh annual Christmas Rocks! Extravaganza tour, which starts Nov. 20 in Detroit.
Since the Stray Cats’ 1980s heyday with hits like “Stray Cat Strut,” Setzer has made a second career of big-band swing and rocking Christmas songs. He says he might try to sneak in some “Songs From Lonely Avenue” on his latest holiday tour but doesn’t know which ones yet.
“You know I can’t go from ‘Jingle Bell Rock’ to ‘Trouble Train,”’ Setzer said with a laugh.