INTERVIEW: Cheap Trick
After More Than A Quarter Century, Cheap Trick is Still Raising Hell
By: Randy Harward
(Previously published in the Salt Lake City Weekly)
The best bands, the ones that endure and leave an indelible mark, are like superheroes. The Beatles, Queen and KISS are no different than the Fantastic Four, the X-Men and the Avengers in that they're composites of distinct, singular personalities that exude mystique and induce fantasy. Over the past 27 years, by virtue of their songs, synergy, work ethic and individuality, golden-throated vocalist Robin Zander, goofball guitarist and main songwriter Rick Nielsen, 12-string bassist Tom Petersson and anti-rocker/drummer Bun E. Carlos with his ubiquitous dangling cigarette...until he quit a few years ago...have established Cheap Trick as such a band.
"It was four individuals," says Nielsen, "but as a band, we were always better. And yeah, like KISS or like Queen or like the Beatles, you kinda knew everybody's name. We had character and we still do. It wasn't four guys who tried to look alike and wanted the same girlfriend, you know?"
Their legacy and continued influence remains constant and evident as the band continues to sell out clubs and theaters...including a series of three-night stands across the country...and notable artists such as Slash, Billy Corgan, Everclear's Art Alexakis, KISS and Aerosmith testify in live guest appearances (see Silver, the recently released double CD and DVD documenting Cheap Trick's 25th anniversary performance in 1999) and by offering opening slots on tours. It's something Nielsen, who recently paused to chat with City Weekly, views with a mixture of humility and hubris.
City Weekly: After 27 years, Cheap Trick has still got game. Did you ever think, back in 1974, you'd end up influencing a whole generation of musicians?
RN: You know--the last thing we were thinking about was who was going to copy us, or who was going to be influenced by us, because we were influenced by so many other people. One of the things I always come up with is maybe our work ethic. And we're still playin', so we didn't do it for the money. We've had great times, we've had crummy times--it's a real thing. We've done it all--we've played big places we've played small places and we keep on makin' records. Record companies have folded right before us, and it's not enough to kill us.
CW: Speaking of record companies, Cheap Trick now functions as their own label. What made you decide to go the DIY route?
RN: When we did Woke Up With A Monster on Warner Bros., we were signed by Lenny Waronker and Mo Ostin, two of the biggest guys in the business. They got fired right as our record came out, so that was the kiss of death for us. Then our next record [a second self-titled release in 1997] came out on Red Ant Records and they went bankrupt as soon as it came out. So, we had two records with virtually no one hearing about it, unless you were a real die-hard Cheap Trick fan. There was no push behind either one of them, so people were thinking we didn't put out records. So, we got a bit gun-shy; if we put out new stuff, nobody listened. We stood back and looked at the history we've had and [decided to emphasize it]. In the meantime, we've been writing songs...we've always written songs...and we should have a new studio record out this coming year.
CW: It's been said that Cheap Trick is milking the back catalog, but the fans don't seem to mind.
RN: You can't ignore the past and I think we helped re-establish ourselves by playing those three-night stands around the country and still being out there touring. We never gave up, [whether] record companies died or gave up on us. Screw that. We're a good band. I think that's one of the reasons Aerosmith is having us do these shows. They just called us last night again and asked us to do two more.
CW: How long are they going to let you play?
RN: I have no idea. We've not played with them. At Joe's [Aerosmith guitarist Perry] birthday party, we could have played all night! [laughs] Maybe I'll ask them before the show. I think what we'll do is have them write our set list. If you like it? Thank you, guys. If you don't like it, it's their fault. We want to watch Aerosmith, too. Plus, we wanna go out and hang out with people in the audience.
CW: How did Cheap Trick come to perform the theme song to That 70's Show?
RN: Originally, the song they wanted to use was [Cheap Trick's] "Surrender," or, [Big Star's] "In the Street," and they just decided to use "In the Street." They said, 'Well, we still wish we would have had "Surrender," but since everybody knows the theme song now, the coolest thing would be to have Cheap Trick do it.
CW: You kind of made it your own--
RN: We had to use their tempo, but we added "We're all alright!" and "Alright, Wisconsin!," kinda like "Alright, Tokyo!"
CW: I read [Big Star guitarist/vocalist] Alex Chilton was upset he wasn't getting royalties from the song.
RN: Well, I can't help that. I don't know anything about that. Alex Chilton is kinda miffed at a lot of stuff, from what I've heard. That's what I've heard. I don't know him [but] I saw him play at my high school when he was in the Box Tops--
CW: Have you heard any feedback on your version of the song?
RN: From him? No. Not at all. Hey, better we do it than somebody else butchering it. If he wanted to do it--well, I don't know why they didn't ask him. I bet George Harrison and Paul McCartney liked it when Frank Sinatra did their songs [chuckles].
CW: You're a notorious guitar horse. How many of your guitars do you take on the road?
RN: I take about twenty-five. That's a lot of guitars to bring around, but I've always done it because I hit the guitar so hard. I sorta was knocking them out of tune. That was before the self-tuning guitars and all sorts of whammy bars and all that kind of junk. Plus, I always loved guitars.
CW: Given the resurgence in patriotism, have you pulled out the continental U.S. guitar much since 9/11?
RN: Um--no. Nope. I'm patriotic as anyone and I believe in our country, but I got enough fun guitars. Protest songs and stuff like that--I leave that to Bruce Springsteen.
CW: What keeps it fresh for you?
RN: Well, the fact that we keep doing new music. It makes it so it's tolerable to play the older things. I mean, we're musicians...we can handle it...but playing new stuff kinda keeps you fresh. Music is bigger than all of us. It's bigger than Aerosmith, it's bigger than Led Zeppelin, it's bigger than the Beatles, it's bigger than Cheap Trick. And so, especially if you're on the creative and performing side of it, trying new things is always something pretty darn cool.