Big anniversaries give occasion to ignore the squabbles, look at the big picture and celebrate the blessings.
For Stray Cats’ 40th anniversary this year, there is a brand-new blessing: their first studio album in 26 years, aptly titled “40.”
“The album is the most important thing to us personally,” said Slim Jim Phantom, drummer for the neo-rockabilly trio whose reunion tour will land Sunday at Treasure Island Casino. “I don’t think this tour would have happened if we didn’t have a new record and had the same old set every night. We really wanted to keep it kind of fresh and be challenged.”
While the trio has performed occasionally over the years — including a 2009 show at the Fine Line in Minneapolis for guitarist/singer Brian Setzer’s 50th birthday — none was quite like last year’s Viva Las Vegas Rockabilly weekend in front of 20,000 fans. Two smaller gigs in Southern California followed and before you could say “rock this town,” Setzer was calling Phantom about ideas for new songs.
“He sent me some rough demos, and he even played some over the phone, and I was coming up with some things over the phone,” Phantom said. “Everyone was very encouraged by those three shows, including him. The floodgates opened, and he wrote quite a few songs.”
Things happened quickly. Recording sessions were booked in Nashville; Setzer flew from Minneapolis, his hometown for the past 15 years; Phantom and bassist Lee Rocker arrived from California.
“I think it’s our best album,” Phantom said. “Everyone was happy to be there. We didn’t owe an album to anyone. We didn’t have a contract obligation. It was something we wanted to do 100 percent.”
The album samples flavors from Stray Cats’ eclectic palette, including rockabilly, of course, plus surf, punk, jazz, garage rock, Beatles-y pop, Spaghetti Western instrumentals and even a darker, almost grungy sound on “I Attract Trouble.”
“Maybe this time it all came out more,” said Phantom. “But we’ve never really been narrow-minded [about] who our influences are. We like everything.”
After “40” was released in May, Stray Cats hit the road this summer for their first extensive tour since a 2007 trek with ZZ Top and the Pretenders. First came Europe, and now they’re in the midst of a U.S. tour.
“Things are going well, and everyone is getting along,” said Phantom, whose 2016 memoir, “A Stray Cat Struts: My Life as a Rockabilly Rebel,” suggested friction between Setzer and Rocker in the past. “No one travels together, and we’re not on top of everyone. I don’t think Aerosmith is in a van anymore going from Providence to Boston to Albany. We’re older, and there’s a little bit less stress. That goes a long way. There’s a bigger picture now: It’s the whole legacy. It makes things easier.”
While Phantom sneaks in an occasional show with his Slim Jim Phantom Trio, Setzer is gigging on off-nights with one of his other groups, Brian Setzer’s Rockabilly Riot, featuring Twin Cities drummer Noah Levy. In fact, they’re booked Saturday at the Big Top Chautauqua in Bayfield, Wis.
Last week, Stray Cats returned to their hometown on New York’s Long Island to play at the Revolution Music Hall, a mainstream rock club that wouldn’t book the trio back when they started in the late 1970s.
“Forty-some years ago, we weren’t quite the right fit for them,” Phantom said. “All these years later we proved we fit anywhere.”
Finding little traction in their native New York, Stray Cats headed to London, where their rockabilly sound was welcomed. They gained a following (including members of the Who and Rolling Stones), a producer (rockabilly revivalist Dave Edmunds) and a record deal. With two hit U.K. albums to their name, Stray Cats returned to the States, where EMI released their U.S. debut in 1982.
“Built for Speed” coincided with the rise of MTV, which made “Stray Cat Strut” and “Rock This Town” staples on the new video channel.
“Radio was reluctant to play anything different,” Phantom said. “Kids were able to ‘see the music,’ like MTV’s catchphrase said. For us, it was natural. We thought you had to look good, and you had to play good. We helped MTV, and they helped us.”
Part of Stray Cats’ vision was to be different in many ways — that’s how Phantom ended up as a stand-up drummer.
“We saw this picture of [rockabilly star] Gene Vincent and the drummer was standing up. Later, I found out it was staged for the photograph,” Phantom recalled. “So we moved the drums in the front, which hadn’t been done before.”
However, what may have been easy as a teenager is tougher at age 58.
“It’s a challenge now,” the drummer admitted. “But it’s a welcome one. You gotta stay a little more fit. It’s a blessing and a curse.”
Befitting their retro-loving sound, Stray Cats have always favored a 1950s look, notably with their pompadours.
“You gotta spend a lot of time at it,” Phantom confided about the hairdos. “We had to figure it out ourselves with pomade. But now with the water-soluble [hair product], you can probably pick it up at your local hairdresser. We were blazing all these trails on our own — and they caught up to us.”
While Setzer is known to drive a few vintage cars in Minnesota, Phantom cruises exclusively in a 1961 Corvette.
Setzer seems pretty anchored in the Twin Cities, where his wife, Julie Reiten, grew up. Could his affinity for the Land of 10,000 Lakes have anything to do with it being the birth state of Rock Hall of Famer Eddie Cochran, a rockabilly pioneer who is celebrated in the Stray Cats song “Gene and Eddie”?
“I’ll go with that,” joked Phantom. “That could be the connection for him.”
‘Everybody loves it again’
While the guitarist spends his holiday season touring with the 19-member Brian Setzer Orchestra featuring Reiten on backup vocals, Phantom’s trio includes his wife, bassist Jennie Vee of the Eagles of Death Metal. They also have a side business making jean jackets covered with vintage patches that he’s collected over the years at thrift shops, garage sales and truck stops.
“I had an old jacket, and then I made one for Jennie,” Phantom said. “Each jacket has 40 patches on it. We’ve made nearly 20 jackets. They’re very individualized.”
While Phantom has played in a series of side projects including Dead Men Walking, Swing Cats and Phantom, Rocker & Slick, he knows it always comes back to Stray Cats.
Should fans think of this as a farewell tour?
“I don’t think so,” he said.
So what’s the future for the band?
“I think everybody loves it again. It’s a pleasant way to spend the summer. I gotta think we’re going to continue.”
“I say ‘Yes.’ I’m the drummer. I get one-third vote.’