Lee Rocker Says You Don't Have to Cuff Your Jeans to Be Rockabilly

Lee Rocker rocks with the Stray Cats in 2008 at the OC Fair.
Lee Rocker rocks with the Stray Cats in 2008 at the OC Fair.
Andrew Youssef / OC Weekly

Last Friday, we posted a Burger Records interview that didn't make it into this week's feature about Orange County's music scenes. Today, we've got a Q&A that we did while trying to figure out what was up with the local "Hootenannamericanabilly" scene. Laguna Beach resident Lee Rocker, legendary bassist for the Stray Cats, was kind enough to let us pick his brain over the phone. Rocker played last night at Taste of Newport and continues to tour, busting out old Straycats tunes like "Rock This Town." Our edited conversation:

OC Weekly (Spencer Kornhaber):Why do you think the rockabilly-roots scene it so vibrant in Orange County?

Orange County is the kind of place that just fits rockabilly and vice versa. When you talk about cars, custom paint, it's suburban in a way where people can start a band in their garage because they've got garages. Back when the Stray Cats were going, we went gold in California on record without the rest of the country. It just suits it. It seems to be the mother load of rockabilly music in the last 20 years.

Did Hootenanny just come out of the movement, or did it push it along?

Hootenanny has definitely helped. There was really an awesome rock-and-roll rockabilly scene before Hootenanny came about, but it's definitely solidified it. It's made it more of a destination for a lot of people from around the country to come out to Orange County each year and kind of make a pilgrimage.

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But "rockabilly" isn't just rockabilly, right?

I think calling it just rockabilly definitely doesn't do it justice. There are more country tinged things, like the Knitters, which is a spin-off of X. And there things that are more on the punk edge, like Nekromantix. There's a lot of music that's Orange County-based that sort of has taken elements of the look and the style, but not the music so much. So I think it's cut a broad path of influence in a way. I mean, shit, Gwen Stefani was rockabilly once in a while. Not that it has to do with the music.

Yeah, psychobilly seems huge in clubs around here. How's it viewed in the rockabilly-roots-Hootenanny world?

I like it all, I'm not a purist. There's this small element out there of rockabilly folks that are very concerned that their jeans are cuffed 3.3 inches property and their hair is the exact length and all that. For me, playing this music for 35 years or something, it was never about trying to recreate something from the past or treat the music like its a museum piece and you've got to dust it off and play it exactly like it was played. It was just a starting point, an inspiration, and then you put your own stamp on it. When I moved to New York and London, Stray Cats were part of a whole scene there along with the Clash, and the Oretenders, and Motörhead--those were all bands that we were doing gigs with and hanging out with. It was pretty diverse. You do get a certain element that wants it to be exactly like it was, but that's never been my take on it.

So what's the unifying element? Bill Hardie from Hootennany said that no matter what, these bands worship Elvis.

Yeah, I agree with Bill on that one for sure. They worship Elvis and understand where all of rock and roll comes from. Rockabilly, whatever you want to call it, it's the original punk rock. It shook things up and offended a lot of people. Like punk did in the '70s. Records were being burned, it was just an outrage. That spark really started everything afterwards. And that's Elvis for sure, and some studios in Memphis, and Jerry Lee Lewis and John Cash and Carl Perkins. It's a group of people who know where rock and roll began and how.

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