Recently I had the distinct pleasure of conversing with Lee Rocker, the long-time upright bass player for the legendary rockabilly and rock and roll band The Stray Cats. We spoke about his exceptional new solo album Gather Round, his favorite Elvis song, the power of music, and his future plans. Our resultant conversation, edited for length and clarity is below.
Americana Highways: The majority of the songs on your new solo album Gather Round were written on a road trip that you took with your wife in 2020 during the quarantine. It encompassed you two traveling 6,000 miles from LA to New York and back again and had you pass through 20 different states. Where did the idea for the road trip come from?
Lee Rocker: I think the origins of it have a lot to do with the fact I’ve spent a lifetime traveling on the road. I had just spent four years on tour with The Stray Cats and when 2020 hit with the quarantine and pandemic and all of that, it affected everyone, myself included. Honestly, I think I felt trapped. I’m just so used to traveling and after a couple of months of quarantining, jumping into the car with our Airstream and hitting the open road felt really quite natural to me. It basically turned into my own personal 2020 tour. So in one sense, the road trip was an effort to normalize my life a little bit.
AH: I am curious about your interactions with people along the road. I am thinking that you guys just basically kept to yourselves?
LR: Yes, we really tried to keep ourselves isolated mainly because of what was going on all around the country. Between the pandemic and the election, it was a crazy time to be on the road. It was pretty eye-opening for me to be driving across the country at this point in time and see and hear all the anger and division out there. It was pretty startling. Along with seeing miles of Confederate flags in some places, it was really quite shocking as well.
AH: It had to be rather fascinating to be able to see all that stuff, but also being able to insulate and to protect yourself from it because you were traveling with your Airstream.
LR: Yes, it was kind of like traveling in a bubble. It was both a weird and cool experience, I’ve got to say. It really did kind of set the tone for this record as well. Looking back, the album is really kind of a chronicle of my past year. I have been making and recording music for the past forty years and this is probably the most personal record I have ever done. It was the most honest in terms of the writing as well because a lot of the stuff that I was writing about was directly around me.
Because of how I recorded it, it was a solo record in lots of ways. There are really two ways to record music in my mind and I’ve done them both many times. One way is to get a band in a room and let it rip and see what you get and you can get magic that way, of course, or you can do it the way I did it this time, which is solitary in a studio. This one was really solitary in that sense because there were many, many hours alone in the studio because of the pandemic.
AH: One of my favorite songs on the new album is “Graceland Auction”, a song about collecting Elvis memorabilia. You are a known Elvisphile and I am curious – do you have a favorite Elvis song?
LR: I’d have to say state the obvious here and say “That’s All Right, Mama”. That song just sums up rockabilly for me. One of the things that I love about it is that that’s a track doesn’t have drums on it, like a lot of songs on his first record. The song is driven by Elvis’ voice, of course, but digging into it, it’s also driven by the upright bass, and the motor that moves early rock and roll and rockabilly is that slap bass. It takes out the need for drums and that’s just right there in your face on that track. So I love that about it.
AH: What advice would you give to any aspiring musician nowadays?
LR: Follow your own thoughts, and don’t try to follow a trend. You’ve got to really find your own voice and go with that and learn to not worry about what anyone else is doing.
AH: You grew up in a musical family with both your father and mother being clarinetists. Given that, what does music mean to you and what has it always meant to you?
LR: That’s a tough question to answer. It’s a real force and it’s a real kind of soulful connection. I mean, every day I sit down and listen to music, and for me at this point, it’s the turntable and vinyl because I’m just old school like that. It just does something to me. It transports me and makes me think and move. And it’s just everything. I don’t know what life would be like without it because it’s like air or food. I mean, it’s what sustains you, you know?
AH: What does 2021 hold for Lee Rocker?
LR: I’m really just waiting for the curtain to rise and to just getting back out there. I am planning for the live shows to start back up again at the end of August and them running all the way through to New Year’s. My fingers are crossed and I’m optimistic. I think they’re going to happen. I think we’re all getting out of this thing this year. So I think it’s going to be a great year.
Gather Round, the new solo album from Lee Rocker is available on his website .