It would be easy to hang the term revivalist on the Stray Cats. When the trio broke on the music scene in 1979, the combination of their ’50s-inspired garb, hairstyles and affinity for ’50s-style rock and roll would lead the casual music fan to assume they were some kind of tribute band. But for stand-up bass player Lee Rocker, his trio’s ability to straddle the past and present is not only what gave the Stray Cats a unique edge back then, but continues to pump life blood into the group as they gear up to tour behind 40, the band’s first studio album since 1992’s Choo Choo Hot Fish. Rocker feels that this new collection of songs, recorded in Nashville at Blackbird Studios, captures that vibe perfectly.
“The whole thing that we’ve always done is combine the old and the new in a lot of different ways. Blackbird is a great studio and it had a lot of the stuff that we need as the Stray Cats, which is tube equipment, ribbon microphones and vintage gear. But also, Pro Tools, even though we run tape,” he said. “So we knocked  out in about two weeks and that’s also how we normally do things. How we record is very live, so we set up shoulder to shoulder in one room and not in an isolation room. We turned the amps up to concert volume and for the most part, didn’t even use headphones. So it’s basically like a concert. One of the unique things about the Stray Cats is that we’re a rock band, but we almost operate like it’s more of a jazz band. The songs aren’t written in stone—‘This is how it goes in this part. Play it like this or that.’ It’s really a musical conversation, so it’s very reactive.”
Rocker promises that this discussion is something fans can expect to see more of on the road.
“We will wind up rolling around the world at least once with this tour. One of the really fun things is sitting down and trying to decide what to play. We’re of course going to be doing the hits—‘Rock This Town,’ ‘Stray Cat Strut’ and ‘Sexy & 17.’ But we’re definitely going to be doing a nice amount of songs off of 40 and really talking through the show,” Rocker said. “I’m excited because this is the first studio record in 26 years, so we definitely want to play some of this. For us, this is fantastic because we’ve got quite a catalog we can add to. We’re going out and we’re going to have a blast. The band sounds great, looks great and the three of us are totally excited for this.”
Rocker credits all this synergy to the fact that the Stray Cats have known each other since they were between the ages of 10 and 12, when they grew up within three blocks of each other in Massapequa.
While he and Slim Jim Phantom attended Fairfield Elementary School, the duo met up with the slightly older Brian Setzer, who was then at Ames Junior High School. With all three sharing an affinity for early rock and roll and less than enthused with late ’70s popular music, the threesome were bouncing between playing New York City venues like Max’s Kansas City and CBGB’s as well as local gigs at places like McKay’s in Amityville and Arthur’s in Massapequa. And while their appearance initially perplexed people coming to see them play, fans starved for authenticity started packing clubs that the Stray Cats were repeatedly playing over a span of weeks. It’s a trend that continued when they went to England on a whim, not knowing anyone while couch surfing and sleeping outdoors in Hyde Park and on the tube.
“London was basically Ground Zero in 1980 for music. So we bought a ticket for each of us and the bass, went over there and knocked on doors. And the same thing replicated itself like when we were playing before drunk crowds on Long Island, but on a much bigger scale,” Rocker recalled. “We played places like the Hope & Anchor, the Marquee Club and Dingwalls. Things took off really quickly there as well and the record companies started hanging around. We probably lived off the streets for a couple of months. It’s a good thing it was summer.”
Members of the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and The Who started coming out to see the young American upstarts, but it was Welsh guitarist Dave Edmunds who cornered them and pleaded to let him produce them before, “some record company assigned someone out there to [screw] it up.”
With Edmunds at the helm for the group’s self-titled UK debut, the splash the Stray Cats made was enough to land them a contract in their home country and return as conquering heroes with 1982’s Built For Speed, which yielded the top 10 hits “Stray Cat Strut” and “Rock This Town.” While the grind of touring and recording from 1980 to 1984 led to the group’s first break-up, the threesome have continued to find their way back to each other.
“Forming the band was just so fundamental to me and I’m sure Brian and Jim. Not to be morbid, but all three of us in the band…somewhere in that first sentence of the obit it’s going to say Stray Cats—no matter what,” he said. “That’s part of what binds us together. That’s where we started from. It’s kind of great to go full circle and get a chance to do this and have it be the real band. It’s the real deal.”
The Stray Cats will be appearing on Aug. 6 at Pier 17, 89 South St., NYC. For more information, visit www.pier17ny.com or call 212-732-8257.