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With the birth of MTV and the music video, the new wave movement took the ’80s by storm. One of the genre’s biggest acts was the Cars. Comprised of singer-songwriter and rhythm guitarist Ric Ocasek, bassist Benjamin Orr, keyboardist Greg Hawkes, drummer David Robinson, and lead guitarist Elliot Easton, the Cars dominated the charts throughout the decade with hits like “Just What I Needed,” “Shake It Up,” “You Might Think,” “Drive,” and many, many more.
Much of the Cars’ success can be attributed to its hook-laden hits, many of which were crafted by Easton. Easton, a southpaw guitarist, is one of the best at successfully integrating the guitar into a pop-rock context. He is known for tasty and reserved playing—adding parts that serve the song rather than an ego. Easton was trained at the Berklee College of Music and certainly has chops to spare, but his playing style shows off his taste and discretion more than his ability. “There was this punk ethic that if you had too much technique, you didn’t have any street cred. It was hipper and somehow cooler to thumb three chords out of tune. While I don’t necessarily share that view—though I do love simplicity and I love a primitive kind of playing—it’s about what’s behind it,” says Easton.
The Cars disbanded in February 1988. But in 2005, Easton and original keyboardist Greg Hawkes formed The New Cars, featuring Todd Rundgren as lead vocalist. This version of the Cars achieved modest success, but had to cancel their 2006 spring tour after Easton broke his collarbone. By 2007, the band broke up. In 2011, after a 23-year hiatus, the original members of the Cars (minus Benjamin Orr, who died of pancreatic cancer in 2000) reunited. The band’s latest album, Move Like This, was released by Hear Music/Concord Music Group this spring, and provides that unmistakable Cars sound again. We checked in with the affable Easton to get inside information on the reunion and the gear he used on the recording sessions.
Tell us how the reunion came about.
Well, close to two years ago I called Ric up. I hadn’t spoken to him in a while, but he’s an old friend and we just had a nice chat. I asked him what he’d been doing and he said he’d been writing songs. Ric was real happy with them and said they were different than some of his past ones. I said, "That sounds great—what are you gonna do with them?" He told me he figured he’d just make another solo record, and that’s when I asked him about making a new Cars record. Ric liked the idea, and after a few weeks he'd made some calls to Greg and David, who also thought it would be fun and agreed to give it a try.
What was the impetus for calling Ric that day?
You know, when it’s ready, it’s ready. When you can do it, you can do it. You don’t even know why you couldn’t do it before that. It’s also not like I’ve been out of touch with these guys—we talk and have business together.
What was that first session like, getting back together?
It was great and felt good from the get-go. Even before we started playing together again, we got together up at Ric’s house, and it just felt like the Cars. There was clearly a gap since Benjamin was missing, but it was still the old jokes and humor. It’s like getting together with old family members—within minutes you’re back to where you were. It had a feeling of an event about it, with the anticipation that we were gonna play again, and that we were coming together for this reason.
Did Ric send you the music ahead of time?
He did. Ric sent us some demos so we had ideas about some of the songs. We were familiar enough to at least start trying to play something.
Were the guitar parts already written or did you take the tracks and work with them before the first session?
A band is like a cooperative—you just kick ideas around until you think you’ve got the best arrangement. It works in many different ways. I might come up with a part, or there might be something suggested by the demo I pick up on. There might be a part on the demo that is clearly part of the song, and too important not to play. We also make suggestions to each other like, "What do you think of this? Can you change that?" We just kind of hammer it out.