Growing up in a very musical household, I was fortunate enough to have been exposed to artists of all eras, genres, and calibers. Although, there was one band that truly never wavered when it came to the amount of times they were talked about, or the amount of times they got played on loop. That band, you ask, was—and still is—Cheap Trick. The Illinois-based rock band struck a chord, both figuratively and literally, in many people; one of them being my mom, of whom imparted her adoration for the band on me from a young age.
From “I Want You to Want Me” to “Dream Police,” and every single song in between, this band has made their mark on the rock music world in so many ways, beginning with their formation in 1973. With numerous accolades (their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2016 being just one of them), countless recordings, and millions of devoted fans, I’d say the Cheap Trick legacy is still going strong. Further proving that, they’re extensively touring again this year for those fans (like my family and I). Therefore, getting to talk to the passionate and kind bassist of the group, Tom Petersson, about all of that and more, was an absolute dream come true.
Tom, you invented the 12 string bass back in 1973, and it was instrumental—pun intended—in the music scene at that time and still remains relevant today. How have you, as a bassist predominantly, implemented this creation of yours into the music that you have made over the years?
Well, I came up with the idea in about 1973, but I didn’t really get the first one made until ‘77. Some friends of ours had a guitar shop outside of Chicago—Northern Prairie Music, it was called—and it was them who were opening this boutique guitar company, so I told them my idea, and they made me my first one when we were on tour with KISS in ‘77. I never stopped using it. They showed up at the show, I started playing it during the show, and it really became a part of our signature sound, but definitely—especially—our signature live sound.
In speaking about creating different music over time, and really making it your own as a musician and as a part of a band, how have your guys maintained such a good repore with each other, and within the music industry, after all this time?
Well, we think we really make music and make records for, I think, the right reasons. We really make music that we like and music that we would really like to hear ourselves. We’re always trying to make it better and we’re always searching for the allusive “perfect record,” of course. That can’t happen, but we are always just going for it and it’s really satisfying, because you’re really creating something out of nothing, and you get to hear it back and go “Wow!” A lot of the things that you maybe thought were strong sonically turn out great and vice versa. Like “Oh, this is going to be fantastic!” Or, “Oh, this isn’t going to work that well.” Yet, when you’re sitting in there recording and you hear it back at the end of night and you’re like “Wow!” It’s really the most satisfying thing about being in music, I think – for myself, anyway.
Absolutely! And I think you guys do it quite well, if I do say so myself.
You’re welcome! You’ve worked a lot in your career with many other accomplished artists of all genres and calibers. Do you approach the music you make with Cheap Trick with new perspectives and new concepts, having touched upon and worked with these other musicians?
A little bit, but it’s hard to say, because you listen to music all the time, we grew up listening to music, and when we were young there were all sorts of groups coming out constantly. Everybody used to do two albums a year—every artist—and it just seemed normal to us…. We’ve had so many different influences and I can’t really pick them out. It’s a combination of all sorts of different artists. You know, working with a variety of them, too, is interesting, but it’s not necessarily that influential.
Really? That’s interesting.
You kind of learn about what not to do than what to do.
Right, I get that.
Exactly. Or… well, or you learn, “I don’t want to have to work with this guy all the time,” and that sort of thing [laughs]. Or maybe you find out that someone isn’t that bad to work with after all! Us, in Cheap Trick, we’re used to working with each other. We kind of know where each other are going and we kind of pick up the slack for each other. So, say that somebody is not really coming up with an idea, like “Ugh, I can’t think of something,” or “Ugh, this isn’t working,” one of the other guys will come in and be like “Well, how about this?” We kind of just bounce things off one another all the time.
You guys really do seem to balance each other out, which I think can be attributed to knowing each other so well.
I think so, yes. I mean, working with other people is interesting and we do bring different things back from it as an experience, but I don’t know how much technically… probably not a lot.
I can understand that…. Not only has this band changed the instrumental factors of the music scene over the last four decades, but you guys have had a major influence on many other rock bands, and bands of the like, over the last few decades—like Guns N’ Roses and Green Day, just to name a few. Did you ever think growing up that music would play such a monumental aspect in your life, but also that your music, the music you make, would play such a monumental aspect in so many other people’s lives?
No, not at all! When we grew up, everybody was in a different world. From the Beatles on down, I should say. The British Invasion happened when we were teenagers; young, 13 to 14 years old, and it went from there. The Beatles, the Stones, the Kinks, the Who, the Yardbirds. You know, it just went on and on and it went into Jimi Hendrix and Cream and it just kept going, so really, there were so many influences, so many great acts. It kept kind of changing over the years, the stuff happened and then it was old news in a way. It was the British Invasion and then it became a lot of—because of Jimi Hendrix—three piece groups. Guitar soloing also became a big thing. Prog rock like Yes and these kind of groups began to come in, too, and then glam rock and whatever. It just kept going. We were influenced by all of it and more, truly all of sorts of things when it came to music, so it’s hard to say. You kind of get your own style by the weird combinations of different artists that you like. You like Jimi Hendrix and Johnny Cash, or Jerry Lee Lewis and T. Rex [laughs], there is all sorts of combinations that kind of don’t make sense on paper, but you just take different elements from different artists and it kind of becomes your own.
Of course! And especially in such a time like the late ‘60s and early ‘70s when there was such a boom with all of these different bands up and coming ,and really making a name for themselves.
Yes, exactly! It was unbelievable. It is not like that, in a way, anymore. At the time it was all new… the culture and everything else. The adults were all shocked at the music that we liked and it really is so strange, because it’s still going. That’s never happened before. Not very many people are sitting around and listening to Benny Goodman…. Kids today are listening to the bands that we listened to, like Hendrix and Zeppelin and the Who and the Beatles… all of that stuff. It’s interesting because that was our music—and it still is!
Same here! Those are all some of my all time favorite bands, as well, even though I didn’t get to truly grow up with them. Although, I wish I did.
That’s fantastic. It was an exciting time in music, I have to say.
Oh, I bet. Speaking of music and young people, your daughter is a bright young musician herself.
Lilah! Yes, she’s a great singer-songwriter, and she plays piano, guitar…. She’s really fantastic. She just finished an LP and we are going to go forward with it. We’re in the middle of finishing that now.
I can’t imagine something more fun than getting to do that with your daughter and her with her rock star of a father. But since you are a stellar bassist and musician, what advice have you given her about the business and life of being in a band that maybe other young musicians can also take to heart?
I think it’s really to do art for art’s sake. It’s an old cliché, but it’s true. You want to do it because you really enjoy it. The wrong reason to get into music is to do it to make money or any money at all—you probably won’t be a big enough success to support yourself, so you better do it for the right reasons, which is to make music because you love it. You can always make music, even now. These days you can record music and make a record at home and it doesn’t have to be anything more. I think you’re looking at it for the wrong reasons if you go into it just to make money, because that probably won’t happen. Most people do not find success, because with timing and the luck involved, it’s so big. It’s not like going to medical school and getting a doctorate, because most of those people probably do fine. If they study and they get great grades and become a doctor, or a lawyer, or whatever their occupation may be, they’ll become it. With music, it’s so much luck. You kind of just have to figure that you’re not going to make it, so what are you going to do exactly? Why are you doing this?
You want to be able to, and have the motivation to, put 110 percent into what you are doing.
Yes! It’s really just doing it for your own enjoyment…. Success can come from a place that is totally unexpected and totally out of left field: somebody picks up a song and it goes into a commercial, or somebody comes and sees you at a bowling alley somewhere and says “Wow, I love those guys!” It’s always something you really can’t plan. The only thing you can plan is to be ready for something. You never really know what that might be, though.
For sure, and being that music is such a creative art form, you want to do it completely in your own way, not being a copycat or unoriginal. You want to spend time making your sound and loving it, and I think Cheap Trick did that really well when you were emerging in a time where so many different artists were trying to find their own.
Yeah, thanks! And most artists—you can think of anybody—when nobody had heard of them, they were usually looked at as a bit of a joke, or just…. “Ugh, this will never get anywhere. What the heck is this?” Everybody. Every artist. Anybody. The Beatles? “Ugh, I don’t know about them. The guitar groups are on their way out.” The Stones? “Ugh, too grubby. Too weird.” Whatever it might be [laughs]. The blues? “Nobody’s going to get into that!” It’s kind of funny, actually. You just have to be prepared to be rejected, but if you’re doing something you like, it doesn’t matter! Somebody is probably going to like it! It doesn’t matter who does, it just matters the amount of people who do or where it can get heard or what the timing is to make a successful group. None of which you really can predict. You just want to be true to yourself. People often make the mistake of trying to be successful in something that they don’t really like or just because it sounds like something people really want to hear. Then, once they become successful doing that, they’ll switch gears and do the stuff that they really want to do. That really never works out, though. I mean, it rarely works out. If so and so was a really big, pop teen star and they really want to be like a Radiohead or a David Bowie… well, too bad! How you are perceived right at first usually sticks with you and you’re stuck with that.
It’s like being typecast as an actor. You’ve already found your niche and you’re kind of stuck with it.
That’s correct. You’re right. If you’re typecast, you better be doing something you like! Things may even take longer than you expect or never catch on at all, and people look back at things like unsuccessful albums by people and groups, like the Byrds, for example. Sweetheart of the Rodeo came out and they kind of switched gears and went into the country lane, and people hated it! People would just rake over the coals, but people look back on it saying that “This was so groundbreaking! This started the California-country rock scene!” Well, at the time, it was a huge disaster, so who knows?
Things really can change over time.
Getting back onto that topic of change over time, as we know, Cheap Trick has been together for over 40 years. But you guys really do continue to put a stellar live show for some of the most dedicated fans. I mean, constantly touring is a great way to keep that fandom—and, of course, your sound—alive and well. How do you continue to make the show lively and engaging with the audience even years later?
Well, we switch up the songs and set lists. We just do different stuff, but I don’t really know what it is. We are just doing what we do and the people that like that sort of thing come out and see us. We are predictable in that way, but we also really have quite a big catalog after all of these years. We’ve done a lot of records, so we’ve got a big catalog to choose from. We never really quite know what we’re going to do… actually, we definitely don’t always.
On this tour specifically, are there any of your personal favorites on this setlist? Or are there any that you, personally, would love to bring back to the live shows?
Not really, but it’s hard to say. We’re truly so close to the material and things that we like are usually the things that we haven’t ever played or rarely have or never hear that often. That doesn’t necessarily mean that that’s the best thing to choose, but you’re the least tired of it, or not tired of it at all. You’ll hear something and be like “Wow! That was cool! I heard that on the radio or somewhere on a playlist the other day!” That’s more like it. Out of context, like “That song was great! We should do that!” definitely brings it back to us and can have influence. I don’t know if any of us really sit around listening to our albums over and over again just to figure out what to play. We’ll just hear something out of the blue and try it. You know, we don’t always remember those songs off the top of our heads, so we do have to go back and learn it and reverse it and even remember that a song was more complicated than we thought, although it’s always fun to get back into it. [Laughs]
Music is fun, but it’s also such a powerful force. On that note,I know that you and your wife started “Rock Your Speech” to help your son, and to raise awareness about music therapy when it comes to autism and different disabilities. It must be quite rewarding to start this with, and for, your family. But, why is it important overall and not just in your immediate life? What can people learn and take away from this?
We started this for our son, Liam. He’s autistic and he didn’t speak at all, really, until he was five or six years old. We just started writing songs and putting music that he could understand the lyric content to. It was simple enough, but it was rock music. It wasn’t “Jimmy Crack Corn” or “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” or those things that people listen to that are classified as little kid music. We didn’t want that. We wanted it simple so that he would understand it, but we wanted to make it rock. Instead of “Row, Row, Row Your Boat,” it was “I Am the Walrus,” with very simple lyrical content, and content that anybody of any age can get and relate to. I think because of that, we got involved with the music therapy scene with music therapists—and they are in that for all sorts of reasons! They’re certainly not just in it for autism, it’s for traumatic brain injuries, or to learn whatever it might be. People in nursing homes, and with Alzheimer’s, and all sorts of stuff. The power of music is so strong and the music therapists community are really in it for the right reasons. They’re not involved with it to make big money or anything like that. They really are serious about it and want to help people. They know that it is such a strong, powerful force that it does help. It’s really a matter of making people realize it.
That’s so lovely and so true. Like you said, music is so powerful, so for people to get involved is just another way for them to do something with the outlet that music really can be.
That’s correct. People can get involved within the music therapy world. It’s really fantastic. They don’t really have all that much decent music to work with, either. Trying to get a teenager to walk again after a car accident or whatever it might be… again, how many times can you use “Row, Row, Row Your Boat”? Ugh, jeez…. Give us a break here with this, you know? Honestly, it’s really quite a great community. The power of music—you can’t beat it.