Interview with Rick Nielsen of Cheap Trick: Of Every Era

For Cheap Trick, marking their 35th anniversary with their most recent album—aptly and simply titled The Latest—and embarking on a tireless supporting tour is all in a day’s work. An accomplished finished product from the band’s own label, Cheap Trick Unlimited (RED Distribution), The Latest is a treat for veteran fans and new listeners. Vocally and musically, original members Robin Zander, Rick Nielsen, Tom Petersson, and Bun E. Carlos, deliver expertly. In the throes of a maddening Christmas season I spoke with Nielsen from his home studio about the album’s composition, statistics, Cheap Trick Day, and all the latest in-between.

I saw that tomorrow is your birthday.

Yes, it is.

Happy birthday!

Well, thank you. It’s actually my wedding anniversary too. And it was my wife’s birthday.

December’s an eventful month for you!

Yeah, and they have this other thing coming up called Christmas.

I’ve heard of it. Stressful for some, not for others.

Well this is always chaos. My life has a lot of chaos, but this is extra chaotic.

Well, you’re also in one of the most successful bands of all time so that might contribute a little, too.

Oh yeah, right. (Laughs) ‘One of the most successful bands of all time’…this is Rick Nielsen from Cheap Trick. (Laughs)

Yes, I know. Since we’re on the subject, I read somewhere that you insist Cheap Trick is the fifth most influential band…

No, no. Just a lot of people’s fifth favorite band.

Who are the other four?

Oh, I don’t know. That’s your decision, not mine. Like, ‘Oh, I like this band and this band…’ We’re in the top five. I don’t expect to be your number one favorite band.

So you didn’t poll the masses or anything?

No, no. It’s just my quote. Probably wrong. They do these polls like, ‘47 percent of the people…,’ I’ve never been polled by anybody on any of these things about any of this information. It depends on what date, what was the exact question, what mood were they in? Did you sneak up on them? There are so many different variables. You can probably make the chart exactly how your want it. (Laughs)

Oh, sure, I think you can always skew the data in your favor. Unless it’s on Family Feud then it’s irrefutable.

Yeah, then you have the whole family there and it’s like a bad intervention.

To the new album, The Latest. Was developing this latest album any different from previous efforts, composition-wise?

Well, we’re credited with all of the writing, but usually the guy whose name is first in the credits came up with the original idea or the majority of it. Everything’s like a band effort these days. If we’re doing a Cheap Trick record, then Cheap Trick guys are in on it. If we have a cover song or somebody else has something that we like, we’ll do it. The fact that we make up our own parts and this and that—we really never used or relied heavily on outside writers. Like with this record, I wrote the intro thing (‘Sleep Forever’), after a funeral for a guy that worked for us because, you go to those things and—I also wrote the song called ‘Words’—and words can never say what you’re feeling so that’s kind of like the theme.

So you go to these things and people say, ‘Oh, doesn’t he look great?’ No he doesn’t! He looks terrible! And words can’t say it so I wrote the first song which is sort of singing to a dead person, which is kind of a goofy thing, but it’s not like a (sings) ‘Rock of ages…’. There’s really no great thing that gets played and I didn’t think there was really anything out there that related to how I felt, so I wrote the intro song, and that’s a minute-and-a-half or something, I think. Then it goes straight into a rock song. It’s like, ‘Huh?’ But where else could you put that? If you put it at the end, nobody would probably listen to it. This way, it just helps to show the diversity we have. And we try to do, in a way, a sort of trilogy. Three, three, three, three. And then we, well, we added another song so it’s three, three, three, three, and one. But some of the songs are regular length and some are just about what they were supposed to be, a minute or a minute-and-a-half or two minutes. Because why add more? Or this one fit with this, or this one didn’t, but it butts up neat to it so we segued. It wasn’t one overall theme, just themes within a theme.

I came up with the title of the album, The Latest. We’ve all heard that so many times, ‘Here’s the latest from…’ so I thought we’d just call it The Latest. It’s like, if it’s some significant date that nobody remembers or some name—I always remember that Sting album, The Black Turtles From Zanzibar, or whatever it is; I don’t know, to this day, what it is. Confusing. Do you expect people to know all about Cheap Trick or all about Metallica, or whoever. Now we say, ‘Oh, did you hear our latest album? It’s The Latest.’ I really wanted to call it Dicks In The Dirt. No, Dicks In The Sand.

Well, I have to ask now that you’ve brought it up, is that how the cover photo came about?

No, that was a John Varvatos clothing shot we did at Santa Monica Beach and Pier. He rented it out and that was one of the scenes we were going to do for one of his ads. We didn’t use it but I’m glad we had it because it’s cool. That was me actually buried in the sand. Looks like the other three are getting ready to tee up on me.

A couple songs on the album are shorter than the others, but even so, that’s how those songs are meant to be.

Yeah. Okay, so let’s do more choruses and more guitar solos. If it needs it, great, if it doesn’t, why bother? It’s like, ‘Well, the perfect song is…’ I don’t know. This isn’t the way stuff used to be, on radio and everything. If you don’t like the first chorus, you’re not going to listen to the seventh one.

I definitely wanted to ask about more songs on the album; particularly Robin’s voice on this album is…

It’s tremendous. I don’t know if trained is the right word, but he was in choirs when he was in high school and he actually took a couple lessons from my father who was an opera singer. So he took breathing lessons and stuff from him so he’s not just some guy—but he didn’t do too much opera (laughs). He actually knows how to breathe and has an amazing voice. I’m very lucky that I’ve been able to work with him. I know how to write songs but I was never a lead vocalist. Having somebody who can sing the screaming stuff but can also sing the very melodic stuff, is a rare bird.

Before I sat down for your call it became obvious, pretty quickly, that talking with you about Cheap Trick’s history was impossible. Did I read correctly that there’s even a day recognized as Illinois’ ‘Cheap Trick Day’?

Sure, April 1. Went through state Senate, even Obama signed it before he even left. I don’t even think he knew what it was, though. ‘Here, sign this.’ But it was brought up by a Senator, Dave Syverson—and he’s not in prison, from Illinois, but not in prison. That’s rare—I went down to the capitol two years ago and was in the House. It was bipartisan, 100 percent, and I was asked what day we wanted to have as Cheap Trick Day. I thought, well, trick or treat, my birthday. No, trick or treat is too busy and my birthday, nobody would care. How about April Fool’s? (Laughs) The people who believe it would say, ‘Cool, what a perfect day.’ The people that don’t would think it’s a joke, but it’s not. I went down to Springfield again, this past year, and it’s amazing. We didn’t pardon any criminals or anything. I tell people they can have the day off if they want, but I guess it doesn’t work. Actually, the newest governor wanted to see me, Governor Quinn, on April 1 of this year when I was down there. It was amazing because I’m walking around the capitol doing this and that, and I didn’t have time to see him. Uh-huh.

So is there a plan to take this nationwide?

I mean, we’re from Illinois and, if you think about it, 30-something years ago and to this day, we’re one of the few companies in the United States that actually brings money to our country from Japan. You know, it used to be everything was made in Japan, now it’s made in China or wherever, and our trade agreements are so horrible, but we were one entity trying to balance or put a thumb down on the scale in our favor. And I think that was one of the reasons why the state of Illinois people said, ‘Well, they live here and worked here and…’ People I know tell me that other people will ask where they’re from and they’ll say Rockford and the person will say, ‘Oh, I’m a Cheap Trick fan!’ It’s like, whether or not that’s good or bad, people have heard of the town for that reason. Luckily, we weren’t Twisted Sister or something like that.

You’re not an industry that’s up and left the area.

Yeah, there you go. That’s correct. I mean, we had the Wall Street Journal come out here and do an exposé on the city and the troubles it has and the good things that it has and interviewed me, too. But I don’t even think of it as a business because it’s something that I like to do, like a hobby, and we continue to man the store. You know, content is king and we have lots of content because we’ve been around so long. And all our band notes are available, too.

I saw that there was a September performance of the entire Sgt. Pepper album. Was it a note-for-note performance or a Cheap Trick interpretation?

It was our interpretation, but some of the stuff was note-for-note. Bun E. and Tom can play the whole album without anybody else playing, so the key was really the same. I tried to replicate, but at the same time make it our own, which I think we did. Geoff Emerick had a great quote which was something like, when The Beatles were doing Sgt. Pepper, it was like a demo compared to the versions we’ve done. Wow! That’s pretty high praise from someone who was there and actually knows.

I wanted to end by asking about the release of The Latest on eight-track.

(Laughs) Best selling eight-track in the world! We don’t have very much competition.

There are audiophiles out there who prefer that medium.

Oh yeah, that’s true! And we put the breaks all in the right spot, right where it’s getting good, we’ll make you switch tracks and goof up the guitar solo on purpose. Seems like that’s what people used to do anyhow. I was trying to get an eight-track player made in a nice checkerboard pattern with power in, run by USB, but we couldn’t. It’s hard to find anybody who knows how to make anything that has a moving part in it anymore because everything is this, that and the other. We’re a band of every era, of every genre in a way, so it’s just kind of fun. We all have the same 12 notes to play with. What order you choose and how you place them and what you throw at it, lyrically, if you’re good at it—which I think we are—we can do this with 11 notes and one arm behind our backs.

Catch Cheap Trick on Jan. 25 at the Fillmore @ Irving Plaza in NYC and on Jan. 29 at Harrah’s Casino in Atlantic City, NJ. For more,