If there is one thing for certain, time and reward have done nothing to dull Rick Nielsen’s edge. The legendary Cheap Trick guitarist is still a firebrand for rock ‘n’ roll. Nielsen — who will be celebrating his 70th birthday this year — is a charismatic entertainer. He’s someone who knows what’s on the up-and-up within his musical orbit, and pulls no punches when it comes to how he feels. As we chat one morning via phone, I learn very quickly that Rick is a treasure trove of insights, exuding just enough splendid charm to compliment his occasional bravado, which is both wry and hilarious.
It’s 11 a.m. when I receive a call from Nielsen. He phones me from the road, where he and Cheap Trick are out on tour this summer with Poison.
Hey, Rick. How’s it going?
Good! It’s good to hear from you.
It’s good to be heard.
First, I just want to say thanks for taking the time to do this interview. It’s an absolute honor for me. Thanks, man.
Ah, well…you’ll change your mind by the time we’re done.
(Laughs) Where are you right now?
Uh…I don’t know…Where am I? (Pauses) Indianapolis.
Cool. How’s the tour been so far?
It’s good…good, good, good! Every night has been great.
Excellent! Cheap Trick, I think, is such a special band because on one hand, your albums are legendary, but on the other hand, you’re the quintessential live act. So, let me just throw a stat at you — are you familiar with the website, Setlist.fm?
Well, in their archive, there are dates and setlists for Cheap Trick shows for every year dating back to 1973. Is that correct? Is it safe to assume that Cheap Trick has toured, in some capacity or another, every year for the last 45 years?
Oh, yeah. For sure.
Wow, that is just impressive, man.
I don’t know that all the setlists are right, and I’m sure they’ve missed some.
True, but I just find that to be so amazing. And what else I find amazing is that Cheap Trick always seems to find cool people to link up and play with. I know a lot of that stuff gets taken care of behind the scenes — but just this summer alone — you’ll play shows with not only Poison, but Lynyrd Skynyrd, as well, some dates with Def Leppard & Journey — which is another big tour happening this summer — and a handful of dates with Joan Jett in August, am I right?
Yep. It’s pretty cool.
What is it about touring that is either special or rewarding, that motivates Cheap Trick to play year after year?
Heh, well…If nobody wanted to see us, and nobody liked us, that would be motivation to not do it. The fact that we get asked to work all the time is pretty flattering.
You do about 80 shows a year, right?
Oh, way more!
Yeah? Way more? How many is it, do you figure?
Well, I know we used to do 250 a year, but now we do about 150-175, somewhere around there. It’s still a lot.
Yeah, especially since we’ve just noted how you guys have done it consistently for 45 years. Not every band has done that. I mean, the Stones still tour, but they’ve had some lengthy breaks in between.
Well, they can afford it.
(Laughs) So, how do you guys go about picking your setlist? You have so much material — and so many hits, too — how do you go about building the set?
Well, you know, there’s some obvious ones we play, and then we try to change it every night. Even on these short sets that we play, I think we only have an hour. “Ok, well, there’s certain songs we pretty much should play.” But, there’s a lot of obscure songs that we think are cool that we don’t mind playing, either.
I heard a quote from Glenn Frey of The Eagles once, where he said something along the lines of, he didn’t enjoy playing “Peaceful Easy Feeling” every night, but he knew the fans came to see it, and wanted to hear it, and he felt obligated to do it. You just mentioned having specific songs where you know you really have to play them — after all these years of performing, how do you remain excited, and what is it about your songs themselves that are exciting, enough to want to play them night after night?
Well, it’s a good song and you’re in a different city every night, so it doesn’t matter. It’s not like you’re playing the same junk for the same people every night. So, it’s not that difficult to do. A good song is a good song, no matter what date it is, no matter what city you’re in.
Right on! So, the year Cheap Trick was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Rolling Stone did a feature on the band, and they kind of threw some shade at you guys for playing things like state fairs, or cook-offs throughout the country, but—
Well, wait a second — if they’re complaining about some of the stuff that we would do, why wouldn’t I complain about some of the stuff that they write about?
Well, we could have an endless conversation about that.
I know, we could go back and forth forever.
But the reason I bring this up is because — between ’73 and ’75 — Cheap Trick pretty much toured exclusively in places like Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa, and Michigan. You guys are a Midwest band, and I have to assume your fanbase in these areas are massive. Maybe I’m wrong, but if you guys didn’t play those kinds of shows — like a state fair, for example — some folks would not have the opportunity to see Cheap Trick. Do you agree?
Well, of course. In the early days, all we would play were bars and, you know, young kids couldn’t get into bars. So, we’d play the state fair, or something where more people could see you at. You know, there’s upsides and downsides to everything we do. But, in the old days, we’d play anything.
Well, with that being said, I’m here in Brooklyn right now, and The Aquarian has devoted readership throughout New York and New Jersey. Do you remember the first time Cheap Trick played Max’s Kansas City?
Well, yeah, because it was the only time we played there!
(Laughs) Had you been to New York City before that?
No, I don’t think so. But yeah, we played Max’s, we played The Bottom Line…we played a couple of places in Jersey. We didn’t really play that many places until our first record came out.
Do you have any memories from that time?
Yeah, I remember seeing Television, and the other bands in the clubs. The cool thing about bands from New York, or that played in New York, was they got press. So, I could read about them before actually seeing them. You know — with us — you had to see us before you could read about us!
Because you are on tour so often, and you do a lot of work throughout the summer, what do you think about the really big festivals like Coachella or Governors Ball? To my knowledge, I don’t think Cheap Trick has played either.
No, we never get asked — rarely get asked.
But do you have any thoughts on those kinds of big productions, in particular?
Yeah, we’d love to play them. Because, you know, when we do play that kind of stuff, there’s always the other bands that come to see us. We just played with Halestorm…or whether it’s Chevy Metal or Foo Fighters, or whoever — those other bands we play with are fans of Cheap Trick.
That’s right. In fact, I saw just recently that The Melvins joined the band on stage for a rendition of “Surrender.”
Yeah, and that’s kinda cool. It makes you more relevant, in a way. It lends credibility to what you do, and it also lends to questions as to why you don’t get asked more.
Well, why do you think you don’t get asked?
I don’t know.
It seems like you’d be available (Laughs).
Yeah, well, put in a good word for us.
(Laughs) I’ll do my best.
You know, when we go to those shows, we just try to kick everybody’s ass. We don’t try to do some special show. We just do what we do, and that seems to be enough.
Well, hopefully, you’ll get the call sometime soon. Thanks a lot, Rick. This has been a lot of fun.
Alright, man, I’m taking off.
Have fun out on tour this summer.
Ugh. . .thanks for reminding me.
See Cheap Trick performing live June 21 at Jones Beach Theater in Wantagh, NY, June 22 at Bethel Woods in Bethel, NY, June 23 at PNC Bank Arts Center in Holmdel, NJ, and June 24 at PPL Center in Allentown, Pa.