Bernie Dresel: Brian Setzer’s Backbeat

By Jared Cobb, Photography By Eric Kretz
Published In DRUM! Magazine's September/October 2001 Issue


When Bernie Dresel got the phone call in 1992 to join ex-Stray Cat Brian Setzer as the drummer in a 16-piece rock and roll big band swingabilly outfit, it was just to perform for a few experimental gigs. Dresel – an established and fully booked gigging L.A. skinsman – regrettably declined due to schedule conflicts. It wasn’t until the second call with news of more touring that Dresel cleared the calendar and dove into the jump jive and wail of The Brian Setzer Orchestra.

Says Dresel in his distinctly retro rockabilly tongue, “I had to make a decision then. He had never heard me play. So, how should I play the drums in this situation? It’s a big band but I knew he was coming from a rockabilly trio with Stray Cats. So I listened to what Slim Jim [Phantom did with Stray Cats] and to some old rockabilly records to get ready. I didn’t play traditional big band. I played more backbeat and rocked it out a little more. And Brian seemed to like that and we went from there.”

They went far from there. Dresel smacked that hybrid backbeat for four BSO albums including the triple-platinum The Dirty Boogie. What? Big band swing selling triple platinum at the height of the ’90s grunge movement? Believe it. And it’s far from over. A perpetual innovator and restorer of style, Setzer’s latest lottery ticket says bye-bye to the big band and returns to trio rockabilly with slap-bassist Mark W. Winchester and Bernie Dresel himself keeping it real from the riser. They call themselves Brian Setzer ’68 Comeback Special and their first release, Ignition!, should come with an oily shop rag to wipe up the abounding hot rod chops.

“It’s not a huge stretch to go to the trio,” for a crafted cat like Dresel. “You don’t have to think about catching or not catching kicks with horns now. With the big band, our upright bass player was not a slap bass player, so he was basically just playing the downbeats. I needed to push that shuffle pattern more since it wasn’t there in the bass. So I played more in-between shuffle notes on the snare drum – pulsating that along with Brian and the guitar. With the slap bass, I don’t need to play all those subdivisions.

“In this band the guitar really dictates what kind of groove we’re playing. Then it’s just drummer’s choice to try some things to see if it works. This trio is doing more rockabilly where the big band did more swing. They both have a swung eighth-note feel but maybe with the big band there are more times when I play the traditional open-close hi-hat rhythm. Where in the rockabilly I do more shuffles on the cymbal or the snare drum, more of a train beat. This stuff doesn’t take much work at all. Brian might suggest things, but a lot of times he doesn’t have to say anything and I kind of sense from our history together what to do.”

If Dresel sounds like an educated and industry-wise musician, it’s because he is exactly that. He’s been playing drums basically all of his 39 years, since he started banging out beats to the radio on the seat of his dad’s ’59 Cadillac. Dresel started lessons when he was four and continued up through Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York where he double majored in music education and performance. It took tremendous dedication and countless hours of practice to learn every instrument required for an education degree, not to mention the constant fine-tuning of his drumming skills. “I haven’t practiced much since then,” Dresel laughs.

But if you’re still in the young ambition stage of your eventual professional drumming career, Dresel advises, “This is the time to be practicing. When you get out of college things like earning money and starting a family get in the way of practicing.” And when you do practice, “Try to work on something that you can actually use in gigs, rather than practicing amazing stuff that won’t fit in a lot of situations.”

Practice paid off for Dresel. With a resume boasting names like Maynard Ferguson, Ringo Star, Brian Wilson, Keiko Matsui, and countless L.A. jingles, movie scores, and television performances, his phone rarely rests. “I get called on a lot because of the many different styles that I can play. And how quickly I can adapt.

“It’s the pyramid theory,” explains Dresel of his self-marketing, or lack thereof. “When I first moved here I knew one bass player. He gave me a bunch of names to call. I came up empty except for one gig. From that gig I met five new rhythm section guys and, because they liked what I had done, they recommended me to ten other people. And it just goes from there.”

So all it takes is meeting people? Not necessarily. “If you’re the drummer trying to impress people rather than make good music, it can work against you. So it is about building relationships and playing well while you’re doing it.”

And the question we all really want to know: How is Setzer able to achieve the impossible by reviving these lost genres, and why is this band the only successful modern swing rockabilly band? “It helped that we weren’t alone. There were other bands involved and it was something the press could talk about as a ’movement.’ Brian’s just very talented and I think that always comes through whether there’s a hit or not. It’s hard for some of the other bands to compete with him in that sense.

“This style does require a high level of musicianship, while other styles of music can rely on a high level of creativity that doesn’t always mean a high level of musicianship. Where they really are contributing something but they didn’t have to become masters of their instrument as much as Brian has, for instance.”I