It’s been four long years since Brian Setzer last performed in front of a live audience.
Back in 2019, he was strutting his stuff out on the road and feeling pretty good with his rockabilly band Stray Cats, after reuniting with his longtime friends drummer “Slim Jim” Phantom and bassist Lee Rocker for the first time in a decade the year prior. Then he was diagnosed with tinnitus, ringing in the ears, shortly before the pandemic and was forced to take a break (along with the rest of the world).
“COVID really coincided with my ears crapping out on me,” Setzer said during a recent phone interview from his home in Minneapolis. “The doctors, they told me, ‘You can’t stand in front of an amp, you need to give these things time to heal.’ That break almost killed me. I’ve never not worked in my life, so instead I dove head first into writing.”
The result of those at-home sessions and endless guitar noodling was his 2021 solo album, “Gotta Have the Rumble,” which he was unable to support live on the road. With a fire still burning in him, he cranked out another album, “The Devil Always Collects,” which is out on Friday, Sept. 15 on Surfdog Records.
With two albums worth of new material to play and his ears healing, Setzer is hitting the road later this month for a limited run of shows. Though Stray Cats originally formed in New York in 1979 and relocated to the UK in the early ’80s, Setzer’s numerous solo tours and Stray Cats appearances have long enjoyed success in Southern California as the trio’s fanbase in the area remains strong.
But this time out, Setzer isn’t making it all the way to the West Coast.
“It took quite a while for the ears to recover,” he said of why he’s limiting the tour. “I’m never going to ‘beat it,’ but I’m well enough that I can play again.”
However, he did share that he will eventually make it out to Southern California.
“I’m going to give you the scoop since we’re having such a good time here, but Stray Cats are going to play next summer in California,” he said. “Nothing is booked yet, but that’s the plan we have.”
Until then, fans have these two solo albums to devour, on which Setzer said he felt he may have broken some new ground in the rockabilly vein on his guitar.
“I want to show these off,” Setzer said of the songs. He said he couldn’t wait to play tracks like “The Cat with 9 Wives” (off “Gotta Have the Rumble”), “Rock Boys Rock” and “What’ll It Be, Baby Doll?” (off “The Devil Always Collects”) in front of live audiences.
“‘What’ll It Be, Baby Doll?’ is an example of a song that came out great in the studio, but when I play it live, it comes to life,” he said. “It’s just one of those songs that’s so good live and it’s unique what I did there on guitar. I kind of get off when I’m playing some crazy guitar work that I think people may flip out over.”
Setzer says the song “She’s Got a Lotta…Soul!,” is a nod to James Brown and Little Richard. “Black Leather Jacket,” is an ode to the past and one of his oldest friends, the black leather jacket with painted flames he famously wore and was rarely photographed without as Stray Cats became popular in England.
“I have that original jacket,” he said. “Don’t ask me how I managed to hold on to that one. It’s gotten a bit tight. I think it may have shrunk. You get sentimental about something like a black leather jacket; it has a lot of memories.”
For the cover of “The Devil Always Collects” album, Setzer said at the age of 64, he wasn’t keen on taking his shirt off to be photographed for it, but he thought the massive tattoo on his back, which was done by the late Eric Maaske at Classic Tattoo in downtown Fullerton in the early ’00s, fit the title of the record too perfectly.
“Oh, I haven’t shown anyone my back and I was a bit hesitant because I’m not 25 years old anymore,” he said with a laugh. “But I wanted to show off my back tattoo because it has kind of this Coop-style devil in the middle of it and the devil always collects and he’s on my back, so I did it.”
Though it’s been a long time since he’s stepped on a stage, Setzer said his nerves and concerns about returning to a live setting have faded amid the excitement of being able to get back to some form of normalcy.
“I was really nervous because of the ears and I think I’ve finally gotten over that because this is what I do,” he said. “This is what I was put here to do. If there’s another reason, I can’t think of it. So I am very excited to get out and play again, and I had done some traveling recently and even in little towns, people would say ‘Brian, please, we want to see you play,’ and I know they meant that. That really got me going again as well.”