Rick Nielsen of Cheap Trick :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview


Cheap Trick needs precious little in the way of an introduction. Roaring out of Rockford in the early ’70s, the band’s stayed on a remarkably consistent career path for decades, hewing close to a muscular framework of guitar-driven  glam riffs and sturdy, pop-based song craft. Anthems like “I Want You To Want Me” and “Surrender” bridged arena rock bombast with power-pop melodicism, hard rock heft with a nearly punk intensity. The band’s latest, Bang Zoom Crazy…Hello, is its first in seven years, but the 11 songs featured show little wear on the band’s singular style. Even if drummer Ben E. Carlos is missed — Daxx Nielsen mans the drums for the quartet these days — songs like the over-the-top “Long Time No See Ya” and “Heart on the Line” are meaty and exuberant.

Chatty and quick with a Midwestern self-deprecating dig, Rick Nielsen spent some time with AD on the phone to discuss the new record, playing with John Lennon, and recording with the late George Martin. Below, edited excerpts from our conversation.

Aquarium Drunkard:  Congrats on the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction. Have you guys been working on something cool for the ceremonies?

Rick Nielsen: Uh, no. [Laughs] I don’t think so. We’re a little new to it, so…

AD: Well, everyone’s new to it. You only get inducted the once.

Rick Nielsen: Well yeah. If we screw it up, it was the best we could do, and if we do good, it’s a fluke.

AD: Let’s talk about something you might have some more thoughts about, your new record, Bang Zoom Crazy…Hello.

Rick Nielsen: It was a lot of fun to make. We made it over a year and a half. [We did] about seven songs in L.A., and we went back and did eight more, and then we did eight songs in Nashville, and did seven more [in L.A.] It was kind of fun. Not everything sounds the same. Sometimes in the studio you get tunnel vision, but [this one felt] a bit fresher.

AD:  Cheap Trick spends a lot of time on the road. Compared to a lot of other bands who’ve been around as long as you, you tour an awful lot.

Rick Nielsen: I tell people if we waited around for a hit to go on tour, we’d never tour. I see other groups saying, “We’ve got this big tour lined up, we’re doing 60 shows.” I say, “60 shows? [Laughs] That’s just getting warmed up.”

AD: What’s your current assessment of guitar-based rock? Do younger bands inspire you?

Rick Nielsen: We don’t see many of them. Unless we’re on tour with somebody we don’t usually see other people. But there are so many good players out there. You go to Nashville and go out any night to any place and every guy is better than the next guy. I stay against the wall. I’m more of a songwriter than some guitar kinda guy. I’ve never done scales and all that, the theory of this and that. I just play by feel. If they wanted a great solo, they’d hire somebody else, I guess.

AD:  But you’ve played with everyone from  Mî¶tley Crüe  to John Lennon to Screaming Lord Sutch. When you are asked to play on somebody’s record, what do you bring to the table?

Rick Nielsen: I play by feel. When I worked with Lennon, he said in the booth while I was recording, “Oh man, I wish I woulda had him on ‘Cold Turkey.’ Clapton choked up.” [But] I can’t play the same thing twice, even if it’s good or bad. I’m a terrible legitimate session guy, but if somebody wants me in, they want me in because of what they think I’m gonna do. I’ve been pretty lucky playing with a lot of good people. I’ve made it to the tapes. [Laughs]

AD:  Cheap Trick’s best known record is live. It seems like this new one aims to capture some of that intensity. Was that a goal?

Rick Nielsen: When we’re in the studio we go in and play live. We overdub and fix this or that but I don’t mess around when we do basic tracks. It’s hard to do and maybe sometimes I don’t get the intensity that I do live, because I always find myself thinking [when] we play, “I wish I had done that when I recorded it!” But yeah, we want to play live, we don’t want it to sound like we’re phoning it in. On slow stuff, on fast stuff, on rock stuff. If it needs a loud guitar, great. If it doesn’t, I’ll put a loud guitar on it anyhow. The song is king.

AD: It seems like that’s always been the guiding principle with Cheap Trick.

Rick Nielsen: We’re not the “we’ll fix it in the mix” kind of band. The only thing that happens in the mix is someone screws it up. We’ve been using Chris Lord-Alge on the last couple records. We think we’re doing good but…he makes it even better. When I mix, I try to make everything louder than the next.

AD: You wind up with an in-the-red, Raw Power kind of mix.

Rick Nielsen: No, I wind up with an in-the-red and it sounds like crap mix.

AD: You’ve worked with a lot of producers with Cheap Trick, people like Steve Albini and the late George Martin. Who produced this new one?

Rick Nielsen: For the last 20 years or so, or maybe our whole career, [the records were] produced by us and the producer. We never worked with someone who hated us before we met them. They might have hated us after we worked with them, but…can you imagine that George Martin wanted to work with us? [Laughs] You gotta be joking. But he saw something in us that was worth his time to do. One of the strangest things from working with him was when we did pre-production he and Geoff Emerick came to Madison, Wisconsin, in the wintertime. There was snow on the ground and I wouldn’t have gone! But they made the trip and were dedicated to doing it. To get George Martin and Geoff Emerick to come to town when there’s four feet of snow on the ground? Give me a break.

The new one is us and a guy named Julian Raymond, who we’ve worked with for a number of years now. The first thing we did together was a track for a John Lennon collection for the ASPCA. We did “Cold Turkey” with him. We didn’t do it like it’d been recorded, we did a new version. We made it our own and then after that we did [“In the Street,” a Big Star cover] as the That ’70s Show theme and made it heavier. Then, we started doing whole albums with him. He’s a Cheap Trick fan. He gets us to do things that we forgot we knew how to do.

AD: In the early days of the band, what were some of your shared inspirations, aside from the Beatles?

Rick Nielsen:  We liked the band the Move. I liked the early Yardbirds, the Who, the Kinks. Some of the Pretty Things stuff. You always like hearing the Stones when it’s good. I liked Jeff Lynne’s first band, the Idle Race. I like Patto,  Elmer Gantry’s Velvet Opera.  Most of the stuff was English that I liked. Plastic Penny, they were really cool. The Small Faces. Their first album was one of my favorites, still is. It sounds like a party going on.

AD: You were into a lot of English bands, but sort of married that Midwest sensibility to it.

Rick Nielsen: When I was in high school, I actually went to England…When I was growing up, I think I was the only person in the United States that got [influencial British rock magazine] Melody Maker air-mailed. It used to come over on a boat, so it would be six weeks late. But I started getting Melody Maker air mailed and I think it cost $100 back in ’66. That was a lot of money. But I wanted to know what we going on and I wanted to know it now, for whatever reason. I got it and I loved it. The writers back then were more inspirational than a lot of them since then. I got to visualize a lot of what was going on just by reading. It wasn’t so sarcastic and slamming things – “they guys suck because they suck and their girlfriends suck.” They talked about the music. It inspired me. words / j woodbury

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