The Brian Setzer Orchestra Gets Into the Holiday Spirit With 'Rockabilly Rudolph': Exclusive Song Premiere

Russ Harrington
Brian Setzer

Playing Christmas songs is as natural to Brian Setzer as rockabilly -- and his pompadour. But he wasn't sure the repertoire would sustain another studio album of the material until he decided to take his Brian Setzer Orchestra in to make the new Rockin' Rudolph.

"It just felt right," Setzer tells Billboard. "It's been about 10 years since I've done one (Dig That Crazy Christmas in 2005), and I'd just made Rockabilly Riot! and I thought, 'Well, it's time to do another record,' and I looked around and said, 'I wonder how many songs are left?' There's a gazillion! There's a lot of songs. 'Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree,' I said, 'Oh, I haven't done that.' Then there's 'Here Comes Santa Claus.' So I sat down and deconstructed 'em and set 'em up for the (Orchestra)."

Rockin' Rudolph, which comes out Oct. 16, features a dozen tracks, including staples such as "Most Wonderful Time of the Year," "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," "Carol of the Bells" and "O Little Town of Bethlehem" as well as two versions of the Setzer original "Yabba-Dabba Yuletide," with new lyrics set to the theme from The Flintstones that came to him during a jet-lagged night in Paris. "Rockabilly Rudolph," meanwhile, is a hybrid of old and new, setting "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" to a dramatic, brassy big band arrangement.

"I was just kinda playing it in sound check one day, rockabilly style, and I turned the key to a minor key and I played a rockabilly riff," Setzer recalls. "I just wrote a different song within the song, in a minor key in a rockabilly beat, and I said, 'Wow, this is catchy as hell.' It's almost like a new song but everybody knows it 'cause it's 'Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.' Now it's a new song. It's hip."

Listen to "Rockabilly Rudolph," which Billboard is exclusively premiering below.

 

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The Rockin' Rudolph album -- recorded in Nashville amidst lights and other Yuletide trimmings that decorated the studio -- features plenty of tweaks, but Setzer's inherent approach never obscures what listeners know and love about the holiday staples. "Y'know, these songs exist for a reason," he explains. "They've been around for a long time because they're great songs. The trick is to make them sound like the Brian Setzer Orchestra. Basically you have to take 'em apart. You have to scuff 'em up. I have to make them a little more modern and mean-sounding, and that's a musical process. It's attitude, definitely, putting them into a rock 'n' roll mentality. It's adding arrangements to songs where they didn't exist previously, kind of in a big band, almost jazz fashion. I just kind of do what I do; I just take classic songs and deconstruct 'em."

Setzer and his Orchestra will be showing off those treatments starting Nov. 14, when the troupe begins its 12th Annual Christmas Rocks! Tour in Setzer's current residence of Minneapolis. The 30-date tour will be merry all the way until Dec. 29 in Calgary and feature plenty of Rockin' Rudolph material in addition to songs from Setzer's other two holiday albums.

"I mean, how can I not play 'Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree?'" Setzer says. "A lot of the (songs) will be in there, and I'll have to drop some out -- that's the hard part. I have to do 'Jingle Bells.' I have to do 'Rock this Town.' So what do you lose? That's a really important part of the show is the set list, the hills and valleys and what you lose and what you add."

And though Setzer doesn't have illusions of topping the charts, he's okay with it. "Musically (the Orchestra) is so satisfying for me. I love doing it. I'm not expecting to shatter any records with it or play any huge arenas with this, but musically it's so satisfying," the singer explains. "It's like bringing out this beautiful old car you own; You're not expecting to drive it around the world, but you're getting off on being able to show your friends and putt around in it. It's awesome."