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| 9 June 2014 | Reply

By Shane Pinnegar

Slim Jim Phantom is in Australia for the first time since he visited as a special guest on Brian Setzer’s 2012 tour, and he’s ready to rock. With our first scheduled call undone by the fickleness of phone technology, second time’s a charm, albeit 15 minutes early – but for good reason.

Slim Jim Phantom 01

“I’m a couple of minutes early which I hope is okay, because I’m actually in New York in the studio with Glen Matlock and Earl Slick, to drop a couple of names,” the former Stray Cat drummer explains casually, as if this were just a normal evening for him. “We’re trying to catch a train back to the city.

“It was just one of those things…” he goes on to explain, “Glen called and he was going to be in New York and he has some songs that he’s written and he’s one of my oldest, dearest pals ever. Slick and those guys know each other and there’s a little residential studio there where Slick lives, a couple of hours outside the city, so yeah it’s one of those things that just works out. We’re up in his house but we’ve got to get a train back to the city tonight by 7:30 and it’s 6:30 now…”

The last thing 100% ROCK MAGAZINE wants to do is make the legendary rockabilly drummer and style icon miss his train. This is the guy who propelled the Stray Cats to international fame alongside guitarist Setzer and bassist Lee Rocker; the guy who married Britt Eckland at the age of 23 (she was 32) and had a son, T.J. with her; the guy who plays drums with The Head Cat, featuring Motorhead’s Lemmy Kilmister singing 50’s rock n’ roll classics. This is SLIM JIM PHANTOM!!!

Phantom, Rocker & Slick

Phantom, Rocker & Slick

In addition to all of that, there’s been albums with Phantom, Rocker & Slick (Men Without Shame was a popular hit from their first album); Dead Men Walking; Swing Cats; 13 Cats; Cole Parker; two with Head Cat; and his current band The Kat Men, alongside Imelda May guitarist Darrel Higham. With so much under his belt, where does he even start thinking of a set list?

“Well on this gig,” he says excitedly, “what I’m going to do is, it’s under my banner so I’m bringing Tim Polecat, from the Polecats, with me. I’m getting Dave Bean who’s an Australian guy who’s in a band called the Casino Rumblers from the scene in Australia and we’re going to do a few Stray Cat songs, a few Polecat songs at the end, some family favorites.

“Tim and I made a record in the 90’s with a band named 13 Cats, so we’re going to do a few of those ones and before you know it an hour and a half has flown by and you’ve had a good night!”

Despite having played some of the Stray Cats tunes for thirty years or so, Slim Jim says he never gets tired of playing them one more time.

“Well the last few years I’ve been singing them,” he explains, “I tried to do it myself and that keeps it very interesting because I’ve got to pay attention. I’m not one of those… you know, luckily, for the world at large, I was the third-best singer in grad school so by the time it gets to me singing them, I’ve got to pay attention. So it keeps it interesting that way.”

The Stray Cats - Rocker, Setzer & Phantom

The Stray Cats – Rocker, Setzer & Phantom

Some people really struggle to make a solitary impression throughout an entire lifetime, yet Slim Jim Phantom has done so much with his time already. Apart from all the music he’s created, he’s also considered a style icon, one of the coolest guys in rock and roll, as well as a pioneer of modern rockabilly and the stand-up drumming style. He says some of it came naturally, but he still had to work for his success.

“Well, it was all kind of hard work,” he chuckles. “Like, a little bit, things came into place out of necessity. We started the Stray Cats without conscious… we knew consciously that we wanted to do something different – we wanted to be unlike every other band. Even if we stripped down a drum kit, the traditional setup was the drums in the back and the other guys in the front and we wanted to even break that mold and go a little bit further. So it was a little bit accidental but when you have that little idea – that opportunity to have an idea – you have to be able to step up and do it.

Stray Cats 02

The Stray Cats – Rocker, Setzer & Phantom

“The thing with the band was that we might have been perceived as being an overnight [success] kind of thing,” he asserts, “but we had done a year and a half, like 5 nights a week in the bars around Long Island and New York City. A lot of it was hard work and the thing with the style, was luckily I was with two guys who we always stuck with; it was equally important you have to play good, you have to look good, you have to have something to say when you speak to anyone. Naturally, we had that but it was very fortunate to be around two other people who had the same vision and the same behaviour and the same quest, kind of. Part of it’s natural but you have to be in the right habitat to develop that, you know.

“I feel like I got lucky. That’s true: [without them] it wouldn’t have happened. I mean, they were in my class so right there was a bit of luck.”

Slim Jim Phantom & son TJ

Slim Jim Phantom & son TJ

Despite the band’s breakup and subsequent reunion tours, Slim Jim remains friends with Setzer and Rocker.

“I’m the drummer – I get along with everybody,” he jokes. “I stay in touch with both of them. Every few years it kind of catches you up to start [playing together again] and it all hooks up and we get together.”

Slim Jim Phantom 04

Slim Jim trained as a jazz drummer in his early days, and brought a lot of that into his rockabilly playing. Nowadays there’s many musicians who only listen to the one style of music, and then regurgitate what they hear. How can you develop an individual style when you only listen to one thing?

“Well I think [the jazz training] was kind of important,” Slim Jim posits, “The jazz guy was a local guy that gave lessons, and he happened to have been in a band and played with Benny Goodman, I think, and that was Mousie Alexander, and he happened to be the drum teacher.

“So I’d be taking lessons at the local record store – the Mom & Pop store – and I think that guy left and I wanted to keep taking lessons, and this guy [Alexander] lived one town over, and by this time I’d got a car – I was late teens, I guess – so it was that guy.

“And that’s what he could teach me. I think I had a bit of natural ability to swing a little bit which works out it really helped when you’re doing The Stray Cats! Rockabilly music, kind of the base rhythm of it is a swing. It’s closer to jazz than it is to rock, but I think even when you are rocking out, anybody who’s got a little bit of a natural bounce to their thing, a little swing, you should certainly develop it.

“Because every other musician kind of notices it, even if they can’t put their finger on it they think, ‘that swings a little bit’ without really being able to put their finger on it anytime. It’s definitely a bonus as a drummer to have that.”

As mentioned, Slim Jim almost single-handedly brought back the stand-up playing style that was more normal back in the 50’s, often stripping his drum kit back to just a bass drum, a snare and a crash cymbal. He says this was more about showmanship than anything else.

“Sometimes, you could use the other pieces [of the drumkit] a little bit, but [stripping it down] makes you use what you have a little bit more,” Phantom explains. “It makes you work a little bit harder, and since I started doing it, it becomes something that you’re expected to do! [laughs] Like, you do something a long, long time ago and make an impression, then everyone wants to see it.

“So, I’ve kind of learned a couple of tricks to develop it: sometimes I bring out an extra tom or an extra cymbal, but it’s definitely at times challenging. Sometimes I wish I was sitting down and had a full drum set, which sometimes in the studio you can.”

Slim Jim Phantom 02

When The Stray Cats broke they may have been playing non-stop for a couple of years, but all of a sudden they collected celebrity fans like The Rolling Stones and Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin, and weren’t shy of the record industry’s famed 80’s excess. Slim Jim agrees that there were some wild scenes and blurred memories through those days.

“Oh yeah, for sure. But when you’re young, I think you bounce back better: it’s less challenging when you’re younger to behave that way,” he laughs. “Now, it’s kind of good to be given a forum to behave that way when you’re young – you could get away with it, and I embraced that. Then you grow up a little bit, and it’s good and you’re able to grow old with it… and certain behaviour that maybe is accepted from a 21 year old with a hit record, you can’t really do it when you’re 51 – and that’s good. I got it out of my system, so now my bad behaviour isn’t really a burden on anyone!

“But when you’re young, it’s good – you could get away with it a little bit more,” he adds, still laughing.

Moving on to another cult favourite of his repertoire, I ask Slim Jim how exactly he hooked up with Lemmy and Danny B to form Head Cat.

The Head Cat - Danny B, Lemmy & Phantom

The Head Cat – Danny B, Lemmy & Phantom

“Well the actual story is, firstly, I’ve known Lemmy since 1980. He was one of the original Stray Cats fans and was there at probably the first two or three shows [we did in England]. We kind of had a hardcore following, fortunately, that we related to, so we had people like The Stones and Robert Plant amongst them, and Lemmy was an original one, so he and I had known each other and became friends then. We stayed in touch throughout the 80’s and the 90’s, and when we moved to L.A. he moved half a block away from me so we always maintained a friendship which is always the most important thing.

“I was asked to do an Elvis song for a tribute and just to go and knock that out, I was trying to find ways to make that interesting, so Lem was my first stop and Johnny Ramone was my other dear pal. He was a huge Elvis fan and he didn’t make a habit of playing outside the Ramones. They had already stopped playing and Johnny was very much into retirement needed help coaxing him to go back. He didn’t have to go and hand out letters to mailboxes anymore, he is retired he didn’t have to do that anymore. He said ball players that are retired don’t go and hit batting practice anymore – alright John, I get it.

“But he admired Lemmy, and Lemmy knew him, and I was able to bring everyone together. I got John to come and play, because he’s a huge Elvis fan, so I got Lemmy to do the job. It was kind of a cool little rock and roll history moment, that maybe is kind of unheralded that I made happen. Johnny Ramone came and Lemmy and we went to the studio and we played this song and we got it right in the first couple of tries and then John tacked off – he was like, ‘see you later.’ ‘Okay John, call me,’ he was like, ‘yes, yes, yes.’ So I had all this time left in the studio and Lemmy was like, ‘let’s try this one, let’s try that one,’ and we just started knocking out songs and we let the tape roll. Then we were like, let’s come back tomorrow and it just led to a record. We went back everyday for a couple of weeks and we ended up with a record.”

The Head Cat 02

The debut Head Cat album was released in 2000 and reissued in 2006, and sees the trio tackling such early rock n’ roll hits as Buddy Holly’s Not Fade Away and Peggy Sue Got Married, Johnny Cash’s Big River, and Matchbox by Carl Perkins. 2011’s belated follow-up, Walk The Walk… Talk The Talk, expanded their remit a bit, not only featuring covers of tunes by The Beatles (You Can’t Do That), Chuck Berry (Let It Rock) and Robert Johnson (Crossroads), but also two original tunes (The Eagle Flies On Friday and the stonking American Beat). Phantom says you have to go back to understand the music at all.

“We’ve already mentioned the Stones and Robert Plant. They understand how really you don’t get here by accident. You have to go through there and that’s like a good rock and roll lesson, is you’ve got to go back and start with that stuff.”

On top of all the rest, Slim Jim makes a live pod-cast called Big Beat in which he plays a lot of early roots-of-rock n’ roll and rockabilly tunes. Is it true to say that rockabilly has been the true love of his life?

“Well, yeah, it’s been a kind of changing thing. I can remember the exact minute that it happened – I was about 17, and I was knocked out, I knew I wanted to play the drums and somehow try to make that my life, and you were searching for the right way to do it.

Slim Jim Phantom 03

“I was always in bands at high school – with Lee Rocker as my bass player. It was awesome, we went to school together, he and his brother… but when I heard rockabilly music, when I heard Elvis Presley do Blue Moon Of Kentucky on a jukebox, the whole world kind of stopped spinning for a split second and I had a clear vision of what to do. This is the way forward.

“I researched it just a little bit the next day and was just immediately smitten by it. It was a music style and it was a fashion style and it was like, we didn’t really care if we were the only guys who ever did it and we played to three people – we just knew this was the way forward. As a musician and as a person, that was like a defining moment in my life: everything was defined by my love of rockabilly music.”

Slim Jim Phantom Australian tour poster 2014
Don’t miss “the coolest drummer in rock” in Australia this month:

Friday 6th June – Ipswich, Racecourse Hotel, QLD
Saturday 7th June – Cooly Rocks On Festival, Gold Coast QLD
Sunday 8th June – Caxton Street Seafood & Wine Festival, Brisbane QLD
Monday 9th June – The Factory Theatre, Sydney NSW w/ special guests Fireballs
Thursday 12th June – Ding Dong Lounge, Melbourne VIC w/ special guests Fireballs
Friday 13th June – Republic Bar, Hobart TAS w/ special guests Fireballs
Saturday 14th June – Fowlers Live, Adelaide SA w/ special guests Fireballs
Sunday 15th June – The Astor Theatre, Perth WA w/ special guests Fireballs


Category: Interviews

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Editor, 100% ROCK MAGAZINE

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