A tried and true rock-n-roll icon, as the drummer for the Stray Cats, Slim Jim Phantom, alongside bandmates Brian Setzer and Lee Rocker spearheaded the neo-rockabilly movement of the early 80s. With a lifelong love for ‘50s Rock and Roll, he also co-founded The Head Cat with Motörhead legend Lemmy Kilmister. When he’s not out with the Stray Cats, the New Yorker can be found fronting his own solo project. We caught up with Slim Jim at Rewind South in Henley for a chat about all things rockabilly. Bringing it back again; Eamon O’Neill.
Hi Slim Jim, how are you today, and how did your enjoy your set at Rewind?
I’m doing great. It was great. It was perfect because there was a little bit of breeze out there. It was nice cloud cover, and no one’s tired yet, so they were up for it. So I think we sufficiently got everybody going today.
The crowds can’t be anything but up for it with the type of high energy, good time rock and roll music you play.
Well, I think rockabilly is the one kind of constant, cool thing. You can’t argue about Eddie Cochran; everybody moves to Eddie Cochran, that’s my saying. I think it’s the original cool, and the Stray Cats were doing rockabilly in the eighties, right? In the eighties we kind of brought it back to another generation. I think there’s a timeless cool, but the Stray Cats put a little slant on it, a modern slant at the time, and I think the Stray Cats records really hold up and I think the songs hold up. They were not exactly of any time period.
That was quite unique for that era in the eighties.
Sure, and with that modern twist. That’s why when we made those first few records, we kind of knew, organically that you can’t make dusty old record; you use all the elements of the stuff that you love but it has to be able to be really, in tech terms to be played loud enough to come across on car radio or a Walkman or the devices of the day, and it stood up to vinyl, CD; it’s held up to all those format changes.
You’re a New Yorker, but what drew you to that decidedly Southern sound?
Positively, I’d never been to Memphis, and really, it was I remember seeing an Elvis movie, but we were turned on to those original Sun recordings, and that’s always fascinating. Holy cow! I saw the picture, that famous hillbilly cat photograph, and those two things; the music and the image of it, fell really into place for us. I was 18 years old and a musician looking for a particular thing, and we found that and just went in, both feet first. I never saw anything like that before, that mutual thing. Of course in the seventies we knew about Buddy Holly and Chuck Berry, and very quickly took to Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran, and I thought it was immaculate, just the look and the sound; we were overcome by it, and I still am.
I wanted to touch on The Head Cat, the project you worked on with Lemmy Kilmister from Motörhead; how did that come about?
Lemmy, I met in 1980. He was one of the original scenesters that came to see the Stray Cats play. We had an audience of twenty, and Lemmy was one of them, Joe Strummer was one, Chrissie Hynde was another one, Glen Matlock. It was a bit of a scene, and these people heard about these three homeless guys from New York who knocked on the doors and got a gig, and; “we see them at some parties and they’re always talking loudly about how great they are; let’s come and see!” And we were able to deliver. We’d been doing it for quite a while already, and Lemmy was one of my original friends, and he loved rockabilly. He was a rockabilly at heart, he loved it.
What do you remember about meeting Lemmy?
The first night I met him, he asked about a particular Gene Vincent song, and I didn’t know it, and he was mortified! So, after a night at the clubs we had to go back to his house and have him find a reel-to-reel tape, that he had, on the microphone in front of the radio in the ‘50s when he was a kid, taped the Gene Vincent radio BBC concert. And he found it, played it for me. We were friends, really since 1980. I would see him every time I was in England, and I lived in London for a few years and then moved to L.A., and Lem, a few years after that, he moved to L.A., so we were neighbours for the longest time.
So how did the band get together?
Someone asked me to do a track for an Elvis Presley tribute record in the early ‘90s, I think, and who better than Lemmy? So Lemmy and I did that with Danny B. Harvey, and we finished the song in like ten minutes, and we had another four hours of studio time, so; “let’s do this one!”, and “let’s do this one!”, “Okay, let’s come back tomorrow and do a few more!” So that was the birth of The Head Cat, and that track led to the birth of a long kind of, side project for Lem and me.
As a heavy metal icon, it must have been nice for you to help him realise that inner rock and roller that he always was?
Exactly right. He always wanted to play Carl Perkins right? I got to play Carl Perkins for my job, and he wanted to have a hobby, like outside of your regular job, and he wanted to play rockabilly music, and he loved it, man. So we used to work a lot when he had the time off. They had a schedule, Motörhead, so we always used to find holes in it, and that’s what he wanted to do. He didn’t want to have time off; “fill that two weeks off!” “Alright”, so we made two albums, and there’s going to be a bunch of stuff coming out, because we recorded a lot of stuff properly, live shows, and a film that we did, a DVD concert video, so it's all going to come out very soon.
So there’s Head Cat reissues on the way?
They came out when they came out, but now BMG’s acquiring it, and they’re going to do a proper thing. They’re all next year going to be releasing, so it’s really cool.
Lemmy’s passing in 2015 must have hit you hard.
Yeah, we were very close with Lem, and like I said, we were neighbours and friends, so I spent a lot if time with him. I like to remember him as a rockabilly gentleman. I never saw him being rude with anyone, I never saw him impatient, I never saw him wasted, I never saw him out of control. He was a polite, English gentleman, ultimately.
What’s happening for you going forward?
I have a new song out, it’s called ‘Speed of Sound’, and it’s available on all the platforms. It came out on Wicked Cool Records, which is run by Stevie Van Zandt of the E Street Band. We also do a radio programme. I’m a DJ – I’ve been a professional DJ for five years - and I’m on the Underground Garage, Little Steven’s Underground Garage, Sirius XM Channel 21, but we did a record for Stevie’s label, and my beautiful wife Jennie Vee, she plays for Eagles of Death Metal, but we play a lot together, and we have another song that’s going to be out soon. And we’ll do the Stray Cats next year, hopefully. That feels like it’s going to happen again; we did 2019, and we’ll do next year after that. It’s nice to be busy!
Like this interview? Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter for regular updates & more of the same.