Cheap Trick: ... But Don’t Give Yourself Away
Rick Nielsen, Tom Petersson, and Robin Zander on the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Bang, Zoom, Crazy… Hello, and … time travel?
It’s only three weeks until both the release of Cheap Trick’s 17th LP, Bang, Zoom, Crazy… Hello, and their April 8th induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. And yet when PG talks to the band’s guitarists—Rick Nielsen, bassist Tom Petersson, and singer Robin Zander—their most candid and intriguing thoughts come not in response to inquiries about the prestigious gala, nor to those about their first studio album in seven years. What really gets them going is our silly time-travel question.
It’s not so much that they don’t care about the Hall of Fame honors—how could they not? It’s just that Nielsen, Zander, and Petersson seem to view it all with a mixture of vicarious gratitude and bemusement: The ceremony is mere days away, and yet the Hall still hasn’t relayed any particulars—including which songs they will play—and for their part, the band seems mostly stoked about the fact that the honor acknowledges legions of stalwart fans who vied for their induction over the last 14 years.
The fact that one of the interview’s most revealing exchanges came after a quantum-physics hypothetical—of late, the most aggravating method of imbuing sci-fi movies with some sort of “twist”—has nothing to do with Nielsen and company being Star Trek dweebs and everything to do with what the melodic geniuses behind “Surrender,” “I Want You to Want Me,” and “Dream Police”(incidentally, the tracks they ended up playing in Brooklyn) have been going through behind the scenes.
For starters, although Nielsen’s son Daxx has been handling drum duties on the quartet’s relentless tours since 2010, Zander, Petersson, and the elder Nielsen have been embroiled in lawsuits with original drummer Bun E. Carlos for years. In early 2015 the case was finally settled on unusual terms that designate Carlos an official member of the band, though apart from the recent HoF performance, his actual musical involvement ended with 2009’s The Latest.
As with everything, the band’s wacky wit played into the revealing exchange, too. Say what you will, but as catchy as their tunes are, and as electrifying as their live shows continue to be, Cheap Trick would be nowhere without its glib, offbeat humor—the lion’s share of which is doled out in (checkerboard-patterned) spades by Rick Nielsen. From his logo-inscribed bowties and cardigans to his signature flipped-bill ball caps, goofy onstage persona, and head-turning collection of guitars—including 5-necked monstrosities and double-necked caricatures of himself in his trademark thumbs-up pose—Nielsen’s quirkiness has always been key to making the Midwest legends infinitely more than an energetic rock outfit that can pull off ballads.
Of course, the shtick would be tiresome and empty if Nielsen’s raw and melodic but not quite straightforward style didn’t combine with Zander’s instantly identifiable voice and the bristling thunder of Petersson’s 12-string basses to form a singular sound. Informed by early American rock ’n’ roll, British Invasion bands, glam, and even prog-rock outfits like Electric Light Orchestra, Cheap Trick has always been one of the few bands that can effortlessly traipse across the tightrope between sensitive fare that gets the girls swooning and blistering numbers that rage as hard as anything this side of metal.
And the same holds true for Bang, Zoom, Crazy… Hello. Comprising 11 tunes born from bits of band members’ riff repositories and Zander’s writing sessions with producer and “fifth band member” Julian Raymond, it is classic Cheap Trick in several senses. Album opener “Do You Believe Me?”—an old live-show favorite—begins with a swaggering octave motif, Zander’s impeccable howls, what may well be Petersson’s most rambunctious bass work ever, and a slippery, unhinged solo that consumes a third of the song’s total play time. Next up, “No Direction” features Beatles-inspired jangle and anthemic vocals of the sort that put the band on the map, and by track three, “When I Wake up Tomorrow”—which somehow manages to be melancholy, hopeful, and rocking—the quartet has laid to rest any question of whether they’ve still got it. An obvious act of catharsis, Bang pulses with energy and enthusiasm reminiscent of the band’s breakthrough album, 1978’s Live at Budokan.
First off, huge congratulations on the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction.
Rick Nielsen: Oh well, thank you! I would have voted for us earlier, but y’know.
Robin Zander: I appreciate that, and our fans probably appreciate it more than I do. They deserve it, sticking up for Cheap Trick all these years—standing by us through our ups and downs. Something like this really solidifies why they stuck around.
Tom Petersson: They sort of hounded us with, “We’ve got to get you in the Hall of Fame!” They were voting and writing, and it really was nice.
Do you know which songs you’ll be playing at the ceremony?
Zander: No, that’s the weirdest thing. We can’t get a straight answer out of anybody over there—they dictate what songs they want you to play. It’s kinda weird, but there you go.
Nielsen: We’re just lucky our fans kept us relevant, and we’re lucky that we like what we do. The fact that we can record, the fact that we are still going—it’s all good news.
That’s as good a segue as any, so let’s jump into talking about the genesis of Bang, Zoom, Crazy… Hello.
Zander: About a year ago, we signed with Big Machine and had a meeting about how we should do it. Then we went home and started collecting our thoughts individually. I decided to go out and write with Julian Raymond, who I’ve been writing with since the ’80s. He’s not only like family, but he sort of became a fifth member of our group. I wrote the first seven songs with him, then we came back to Nashville and sat around the studio and wrote about seven more with Rick and Tom, bringing some old ideas and fresh ideas to the table. Then we thought maybe we’d do a cover tune and reach back in history and pick one we played in the ’70s before we made records, which was “The In Crowd.” Before you knew it, we had about 25 songs.
Nielsen: We have another album basically kind of ready. Well, not ready—because there’s no order and we haven’t made any final choices—but we have enough good songs that next time we go to put out a record, we’re not starting from scratch.
Got anything to add about the writing process this time around, Rick?
Nielsen: Some of the songs started out as just a guitar riff, some started out as complete songs. Some started out as an old idea that just needed to get fleshed out. It’s basically the way we’ve always done it. We don’t sit in a room and write together—we never did that. Sometimes we sit together and Robin will say, “Hey Rick, what do you think about a lyric for this?” I’ll say, “Well, I’d change this to this.” Some of the songs might not be my favorite ideas, but I’ll work hard on them to make them good.
Robin Zander, Rick Nielsen, Tom Petersson, and Bun E. Carlos perform “Surrender” at their 2016 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction. YouTube search term: 2016 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Cheap Trick After Speech Part 3
Cheap Trick live in 2012 (left to right): Rick Nielsen with a Hamer Standard and Fuchs Train-45 heads driving checkerboard-patterned Gibson cabs, Robin Zander with his signature Schecter 12-string driving Vox AC30s (at right), Daxx Nielsen, and Tom Petersson with a Waterstone 12-string bass driving a Hiwatt and a mountain of Oranges. Photo by Joe Russo
Sounds like pretty democratic clockwork.
Petersson: Oh yeah, it’s always been like that. We always travel with instruments and are thinking of stuff all the time, and then we get together and say, “What do you got? Okay, I’ve got this idea.” “Oh, that’s great—wait a minute, I love that bridge. That’ll fit in with something that I’ve got an idea for….” Now it’s nice with cell phones—you don’t have to have a cassette player with you all the time.
Nielsen: I’ve got a jillion of those [collected song ideas]—I’m a real hoarder. I’ve still got scraps of paper that I wrote on in junior high school. And I don’t say this as a joke—I go back and look at some of the stuff I have and think, “I should pursue that!” But I always have new ideas, so it’s really hard to get back to the old ones, even though they’re just as valid as anything.
Rick, how did you write out your ideas as a kid, and is it different from now?
Nielsen: I could write without an instrument. I know the twelve notes, so I could write a song—maybe not knowing the exact key, but I knew where the chords went. I started out as a drummer, so I used to know that instead of [counts] “one, two, three, four,” it’s “one-e-and-a, two-e-and-a…” so I could do the flow or rhythm of a lyric and know where to put stuff. That’s the way I’ve always written—probably something I wrote a month ago was the same way I wrote in high school.
Let’s talk about some specific tracks. “Heart on the Line” just rages with this palpable energy that rivals Live at Budokan.
Petersson: Yeah, we put that song together a long time ago, about ’87. It just never made it on a record. We were finally, like, “Screw this, let’s do it—that thing sounds great.”
Zander: The demo was recorded in Rockford [Illinois], and when Rick and I put it together it was Tom’s bass line that drove the song. The sound he got on that thing was unbelievable! We must have spent a whole day trying to reproduce that sound when we did the actual recording.
Nielsen: I just liked that it was simple rock, straight-ahead stuff. It’s got, like, three chords to it, but it was put together the right way.
“When I Wake up Tomorrow” manages to do what few ballads today do: It’s simple and catchy, but it feels authentically emotional—even forlorn—without being rendered overwrought by slick production.
Nielsen: Yeah, I think it’s a legit emotional kind of piece. The lyric to it is, like, “Will you be here when I wake up tomorrow?” Most songs the guy’s trying to get laid or whatever, but I think it’s a bit more cerebral—it sounds like [it could go in] a good episode of Ray Donovan. It’s like something you could base a TV show or movie on.
Zander: That was the first song Julian and I put together. Julian brought it in, and I took the chorus and turned it around—added a few of my nonsense lyrics. I was sort of trying to channel the Ziggy Stardust album, because it reminded me of that. It started out with this tension on the acoustic, which I played, but then when we brought it to the band it became this cool, dark, kind of “Cheap Trick does Ziggy Stardust” thing.
Which acoustic did you use for that, Robin?
Zander: It was a Gibson [Roy] Smeck. I’ve had it for a long time, years and years.It sounds fantastic. I used it during all of our shows when we did the Sgt. Pepper shows in Las Vegas [in 2007].
This sounds like a good time to talk about the rest of the gear for the album. Rick, you’re famous for your extensive collection of vintage guitars. Which ones did you use this time around?
Nielsen: A handful of stuff. I actually brought some of my old Hamers in—they made some great guitars for me. The checkerboard Hamer Standard is great. I’ve had that one since 1979, I think.
The same one that’s on the gatefold of Dream Police?
Nielsen: Yeah, that’s the same one. It’s kind of beat up, and instead of black and white it’s yellow and white. I have a great maple-necked Esquire that I used quite a bit, too.
The one you got from Jeff Beck?
Nielsen: No, that one sounds great and I have that in the studio too, but I also have a black one. They’re both good. Of course, I still use all my old Les Pauls. I think I used an SG or two. I use some Gretsch stuff for rhythm, a Gretsch Billy-Bo [Jupiter Thunderbird], and on some of the demos I probably used my Guild Merle Travis. Oh, I forgot one: Paul Hamer started making guitars again [under the H Guitars brand], and I had the original—I think it’s the prototype. He used, like, 400-year-old wood, and the headstock is tilted backwards—it almost looks like a lute. He’s making another one for me right now.
What about you, Tom?
Petersson: I mainly used my ’64 Thunderbird, Precision basses, and Hofners—because nothing sounds like a Hofner. It’s got that thick sound and that punchy, early-Beatles sound. And boy, if you need to get an upright sound and don’t want to have to play an upright, get a Hofner and you’re home free.
Is the Thunderbird pretty much stock?
Petersson: Yeah, it’s a ’64 reverse Thunderbird II, with just a single pickup. I only use the one pickup anyway—I never use the bridge pickup on those things.
The official music video for Bang, Zoom, Crazy… Hello’s new single “When I Wake up Tomorrow.”
What about the Precisions?
Petersson: I always recommend if anybody only had to have one bass, get a Precision. They are just fantastic. Simple. There’s no beating them. They’ve got low end and high end. They can sound nasty and they can sound soft, and they’re the most durable. In the early ’60s I got a ’56, which has the single-coil—I don’t bring that around too much because they’re kind of noisy and asking for trouble. The split pickup is the way to go. I’ve got a ’58 that I use a lot, and I’ve got a great ’65 with a flat, wide neck.
I also recently got my own Gretsch White Falcon signature 12-string bass.It’s mint green like the Double Anniversary, with darker green sides and back, and gold binding and hardware. It’s killer sharp.I’ve got three of them right now—two are prototypes, but they’re out of the Custom Shop.
The 12-string bass has been a big part of your sound for decades, but do you mind quickly relating how it came about?
Petersson: It started out when Rick and I were living in Philadelphia [during their time with Bun E. Carlos in the band Fuse] and I had the idea. We wanted to have a big sound with a small group. I had a Fender Electric XII and I found an octave box. My idea was to have the low end following what I played on the 12-string to create bass parts, but it didn’t follow at all—you’d have to play really slow, and if you did two notes at the same time the thing freaked out. I thought, “What if you had an instrument that was like a 12-string guitar with bass [octave] strings?” Paul Hamer was starting a guitar company, and I told him my idea. A couple of years later they ended up building me one, only they made me a 10-string instead because they didn’t think the 12-string would work. It had three Gs, three Ds, two As, and two Es. They figured I’d eventually decide I didn’t like it and take two strings off to have an 8-string, but I got my first one in 1977, when we were on tour with Kiss, and started playing it that night. I never looked back. They were, like, “Wow, you’re right—that sounds fantastic.” They finally got me a 12-string right after that when we did our third album, Heaven Tonight. It’s pictured on the inside sleeve.
Robin, you’ve primarily been a Tele, Rickenbacker, and 12-string guy over the years, right?
Zander: Right. Rick had a white Tele, and back in 1977 I traded him this weird-looking guitar, I think it was made by Olympic—we called it the Iranian banjo. I traded him for that white Tele, I think it was a ’53. The guitar at that time was worth about $1,000. About 30 years later he wanted the guitar back, so I gave it back to him for $1,000—albeit it was probably worth about 25 grand at that time. I’ve also still got my original Rickenbacker 450 6-string that I’ve played since 1978. I’ve got two of them actually—one is a single pickup [a 420], and the other is a double pickup . One I believe is a ’59, and the other is a ’61. Right around 1992 or ’93, Tom sent me a picture of Johnny Ramone playing the same [double-pickup 450] guitar. I bought it for $350 at a pawnshop in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1978. That’s the guitar I used for the first solo in “Do You Believe Me?”
Rick Nielsen in 2006 with one of his 5-necked Hamers. This one includes a fretless neck (bottom), one with T-style pickups, one with a Kahler vibrato, one with humbuckers and a hardtail bridge, and one that’s a 12-string (top).
Photo by Neil Zlozower
Which amps did you all lean on for the new album?
Zander: I used a fairly new Vox AC30 and a Budda Superdrive 30.
Nielsen: I used the Fender Deluxe Reverbs that Paul Rivera made me in 1977, butI also used Marshall heads, some Hiwatt stuff, and some old Fenders. Sometimes something that sounds awful on its own or sounds great on its own doesn’t always sound awful or great in the studio. Sometimes the awful one sounds great and the great one doesn’t sound so hot. We experiment—every song is different.
Petersson: I use a lot of Orange gear—live, I typically use an AD50, a Rockerverb 50 MkII, and an AD200B Mk3. I also love Hiwatt. I travel with a Hiwatt 100 Lead head and one of those new Fender Bassman heads, the 300-watt ones.
Given the ups and downs Robin mentioned earlier, the new album is cause both to celebrate great new music and to reflect on what got you where you are today. Arguably it’s because, from the very beginning, the band had this uncanny ability to craft a singular style based largely on basic chords—kind of like AC/DC—but also paired with impeccable melodies and indomitable energy.
Nielsen: Being compared with AC/DC, the way you said it—can you write that down so I can use it?
Petersson: AC/DC is a good example. When they started out we heard “It’s a Long Way to the Top” and thought, “Wow, these guys have something about them.” They had that humor value, and Bon had that cool voice. He was a screamer, but it wasn’t an aggravating sound. We loved it. We probably did 100 shows with those guys. We flip-flopped—they’d headline one night and we’d headline the next. We were as heavy as AC/DC—I’ll argue that all day long. But on the other hand, we do ballads and other things, too.
Countless bands attempt that same simple-is-best approach but can’t generate similar magic. Why do you think it’s so elusive?
Zander: I think a lot of it is pure luck. You come into a situation where you go to your first rehearsal with a band. With me it was like, I knew these guys because we were from a small town and each guy had his own band. Tom played guitar in a band called the Bo Weevils. Rick played keyboards in a band called the Grim Reapers. Bun E. was in a band called the Pagans that had a Top 20 single with WLS radio in Chicago with a Beatles cover tune. But at that first rehearsal we did together, I knew that night that this was going to be something special—because we all sort of gelled immediately. You could tell by the looks on everybody’s faces. You can’t really design something like that. It’s very rare that you design it and it turns out to be magical. I think a lot of it has to do with the luck of the draw.
Petersson: Luck is such a big part of having success in the music business, no matter how good or bad you might be. If you placed money on whether any group or artist out there is going to make it or not, you’d make a fortune just betting that everyone wouldn’t.
But you’re being humble—because obviously there’s uniqueness, perseverance....
Petersson: Yes, we kept at it, but even that doesn’t ensure any kind of success. So many people are so good that it’s shocking—they just never got anywhere. Why? Luck and timing. The personalities have to be right, too—you have to get along at least somewhat musically and personally.
Okay, last question. If you could go back in time to the Live at Budokan era and give yourselves one piece of advice, what would it be?
Zander: Retain a music lawyer—someone who understands the business. Right off the bat, before you sign a management contract, a record deal, or even a demo deal. I always relied on management—I trusted everyone within and outside the band. I figured what’s good for everyone would be good for me, but that’s not true. Everyone around you has a different perspective. They want to protect themselves.You really need to have your own attorney, each member. It’s not that difficult—you don’t have to pay them until they actually do some work for you.
Petersson: My advice would be, “Don’t drink!” That’s the biggest one. If you can’t moderate, you’ve got a problem. People usually make their worst decisions under the influence of something like that.
Nielsen: My advice would be to buy more used guitars … and Apple stock at $8 [per share] … and, y’know, “practice!” My wife talks about the f-word—not your f-word, but “finish.” I have trouble finishing stuff, because I’m always jumping to the next thing. I wish I would work harder, even though I think I work pretty hard anyhow. When I’m home, I’m like anybody else: I’ve got to do all the dumb stuff—from changing light bulbs to getting gas for the lawnmower. That takes as much time as it does to sit down and work on a song. I should work on songs and figure out a way to not have garbage. And never get on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram to tell people what I had for breakfast.
Iconic footage of the blazing Live at Budokan concerts that launched Cheap Trick’s career in 1978.