Online since August 2002

Still strutting
Lee Rocker has never strayed from his signature style

Published April 2006

Lee RockerWhile most of us spend the 17th summer of our lives flipping burgers or washing cars to make gas money, Lee Rocker had a slightly different experience. That was the year his first band, the Stray Cats, signed their initial record deal.

That summer, Rocker, singer/guitarist Brian Setzer and drummer Slim Jim Phantom were on the brink of taking the rock world by storm with their rockabilly revival meets punk-attitude sound – a sound underpinned in large part by Rocker's swinging, slapping bass lines on that big old upright.

Looking back a quarter-century later, Rocker allows that it was not the normal experience for most 17-year-olds.

"Things hit fast and furious with the Stray Cats," Rocker said by phone of finding himself onstage with his two best high school buddies in front of thousands of screaming fans. "It was surreal, but we had no frame of reference."

It's interesting to note that the Stray Cats split up in 1984, and except for a few periodic reunions since, Rocker has spent most of his professional life playing bass and singing in his own projects.

The one constant of the last 20 years has been that stand-up acoustic bass – the key to Rocker's signature sound, as well as a unique visual cue.

"I always kind of look at that thing and say that bass has taken me around the world a hell of a lot of times," Rocker said.

"Musically, it's just so different from an electric bass. Tone and percussion are part of it. It's just so much of a physical instrument.

"And it suits this music. It's how rock 'n' roll is meant to be."

Rocker has rarely strayed far from the roots of rock 'n' roll. Touring in support of his latest CD, "Racin' the Devil" (Alligator), Rocker's sound remains stripped to basics. Ask Rocker about the lingering popularity of the roots music revival he helped launch in the late 1970s, and you get a sense of the fire that still drives his music: "I'm not surprised at all" that roots music is still popular, he said. "The reason for it is it's real music. It's about sweat and passion and real instruments. Not about machines and synthesizers and computers. It's really what it's about. I definitely understand why the appeal is there."

Rocker said he is also heartened by the number of younger fans he sees at his shows.

"It's really been pretty fantastic. A whole new young school of kids are coming out to the show – and knowing about this music. It reminds me of when I started and was really feeling like I was discovering something everybody else didn't know about. Like a cult."

In addition to slapping that big upright bass and singing, Rocker also writes most of his own songs.

"I'm best under a deadline, to tell you the truth – where I know I need to write," he said of his song-writing process. "I usually have one or two things I'm messing with at any given time. Sometimes I'm coming up with lyrics first, sometimes music – usually the music – and I'm pretty good at self-editing."

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