Hey Rick! It’s great to be speaking with you! “Well, yeah it is!”
I’ve been listening to (new Cheap Trick album) In Another World – congratulations, it kicks! “Yeah! Well…it’s another album! Our twentieth. The fact is that we do ‘em and the fact that we like to record, and that we like to play live. This is what we do. We haven’t gotten tired of it. The only thing we get tired of is not doing it.”
(Rick looks over my shoulder at my room) “You’ve got a bunch of basses over there!” Yeah, this is my music room: some old Rics and Fenders… “Cool!”
Nowhere near what you’ve got! “Well, yeah, but you have more basses than I do!” (laughter)
About your guitars: are you the guy that hangs on to everything he owns? “Well yeah. I have a list of the ones I got rid of and it’s ‘oh…why…oh…why…’ The first Les Paul I bought was a ‘55 that I bought in ’65 – and I paid $65 for it – I still have it. You always miss something about the one you got rid of… I see guitars as artwork and besides just being the tool that I work with.”
I believe one of the guitars you sold was to Paul McCartney? “Yep. A left-handed Les Paul -that was mine. Was a great Les Paul, but unlike Jimi Hendrix I can’t play it left-handed. I got it because it was cool and after a while, I’m like ‘I’m never gonna learn how to play this.’ I can barely learn how to play the right-handed ones! (I thought) he should have it and I shouldn’t hang on to it for no reason. The stuff I have I actually use – not often enough – I have too many to use often enough…”
Speaking of ‘not often enough’… Cheap Trick have been famous for never being off the road. This past year must’ve been hell for you guys… “Growing up, my dad was an opera singer, amongst other things, I used to travel with him, there were two tenors, a bass and a baritone, and a piano… I hate to say it, can’t say it right “pe-nis-t-…” Pianist? “OH YEAH! Oh, that’s what it was! When I was off, I used to travel with them: forty eight states, Mexico and Canada, from up to the time I was about twelve years old. And the thrill of going! Wasn’t my kind of music, but my ear knows about music and orchestration, and I knew bad notes from good notes, so I’d hear them do some of the same things and I used to drive the pian-ist crazy by saying- ‘in the third one you played the wrong note and then…’ And he was one of these fuddy-duddy kind of guys and it would just fluster him so bad he’d get all pink…”
How old were you? “I was probably between eight and twelve…”
Oh, he would have loved that… “Oh yeah, He hated that. (Laughter) But I was right. I wasn’t saying ‘you played the whole thing like crap; you were no good.’ I wanted him to know I could pick up the stuff. That’s how I learned to play guitar, because I started out as a drummer, and the guitar players I worked with played the wrong notes on a simple song like, say, a Rolling Stones song – and I’d say ‘that’s not it’ and I’d have to get off the drums. And I didn’t know the chords, but I could figure it out. So, after enough of those, I got off the drums and said: ‘we can find another guy that can count to four’.”
Did you start working on In Another World before all the crap happened or was it a product of being locked down and off the road? “Every record we do is before the crap happens! (laughter) – This one we started doing about three years ago starting with The Summer Looks Good on You. And from then we just started doing tracks. We probably started with twenty songs, whittled it down to thirteen. We also did some other things, besides touring. We did (David Bowie cover) Rebel Rebel. And we all did some other stuff. And Robin (Zander, vocals) went to Germany with Alice Cooper, but that got cancelled after two shows (due to COVID-19). Not an inspiring time, but it’s been interesting. Uninteresting too…”
I wanted to ask you about producer Julian Raymond, who you’ve worked with for a few albums now. You seem to have found a sweet spot with him; he seems to really have a feel for what you guys do. “He sure does. He’s a really talented guy. He can sing, write songs, play instruments. He likes what we do. And he’s a real normal guy. It’s nice to have someone with a calming effect.”
This album has distilled the Cheap Trick sound from over the years. I still hear the old Cheap Trick from around the first album in what you’re doing now. “Yeah! We’re still sloppy, where it needs to be sloppy, but we’ve always been melodic and we work on our arrangements, and we care about what we do. When we get to the solo spot, I’m a songwriter more than a guitar guy, so I play what I feel and if what I feel is that this thing doesn’t need to have the normal junk in it, it needs Wayne Kramer (MC5) on acid or Chuck Berry or my interpretation of a bad Jeff Beck, that’s it!
Cheap Trick were kind of bundled in with that ‘new wave’ ‘punk’ thing in the press back in the beginning with the debut album, whereas I always thought you were more like the Beatles with Marshalls… with some Who thrown in. A pop band with a heavy edge and creepy lyrics hiding under sweet melodies… (Shouts) “You were the smartest guy on earth!” (laughter) I know! “And we loved the Sex Pistols!”
Me too. “I thought they were cool! Our producers didn’t! They were like, ‘I don’t like that stuff’. I was like ‘what don’t you like about it?’ It was so cool. I didn’t like all the punk bands, most of ‘em were pretentious. But those guys (Pistols) were all the way. We’ve always been diverse. We thought we’d done something good! We went into the studio with like, twenty seven songs. Did them in about seven or eight days! Because we’d been playing the clubs so long, we really knew those songs. Even to this day the most we ever do is maybe three takes on any song because we kinda know what we’re doing. We play live and we don’t try to be something we’re not. And Robin goes in there and he sings his ass off… he doesn’t monkey around; he goes in there and just belts it.”
Robin hasn’t changed-he still sounds like the Robin from day one! “Yeah. He was the one singer I always wanted. I could write songs; I have perfect pitch and great ideas for melody but my voice is shit! I sound like Billy Corgan with a Bob Dylan effect on it. (Pauses)… Maybe I’m better than that!” (laughter). (Rick picks up a guitar and starts strumming) “Even if we all sounded as good as Robin we’d still sound not as good. Because we do have that creepy thing…”
Your song writing has always been pretty diverse. “Around the first album I used to say to Tom Petersson (Cheap Trick bassist), maybe I should have a different writing name because I’m doing Mandocello, Ballad of TV Violence, He’s a Whore – all Rick Nielsen’s – and I’m all over the place. I don’t write one thing. And I’m still waiting to write my best song. I can’t wait too long!”
There’s always something to work towards, right? “Yeah! I make mistakes all the time. Some of them work out. Like I say, I’m not a virtuoso, I hardly ever practise, I work crafting a song, but John Lennon thought I was good enough to work with! And I’ve worked with Hall & Oates, I was the guitar player for Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Del Shannon… The Shirelles! I wasn’t great at what I was doing, but I could fit in with them. It’s like, make them feel good about what they were doing. If you want a session guy, I’m not your guy, I can’t play anything two times in a row.”
I’ve seen you play several times. I went to your first Sydney show ever, I was a school kid. I remember a friend and I blew off school at lunchtime and came down to the Capitol Theatre where you were appearing. I actually snuck in during your sound-check. (Excitedly) “OH! I remember you!”
Yeah! You threw me out! (Laughter) “Get that guy outta here!” Right! And this big dude in a Cheap Trick tee comes over: ‘You’re gonna have to leave!’ I came back like four hours later and the show was great. And every time I’ve seen you guys, the band and your playing has never been short of awesome. And it was always hard dividing my attention between Tom on bass and- look at Rick! He’s playing three guitars at once! “Well, our band was… we weren’t a cookie cutter band! Tom to this day strives to get that sound. He started off with an eight-string bass, then he had Hamer make him a ten-string bass… now it’s these fancy Gretsch twelve strings. And he always dressed better than I ever dressed. See, he cares about that stuff too… I’m me so… I put clothes on, they wrinkle immediately and I look dishevelled. ‘Coz I am kinda dishevelled!”
When I read that Bun. E (Bun E. Carlos, original Cheap Trick drummer) wasn’t in the band anymore at first I was ‘Oh No! The Cheap Trick chemistry!’ Then I heard some live stuff with Daxx (Daxx Nielsen, Cheap Trick drummer since 2010 and also Rick’s son) and realised Bun E. didn’t take the chemistry with him. It’s still there. “Yeah. And he plays at the right tempos too.” (Laughter) “When we knew Bun E. was leaving, we had Dave Grohl, Tommy Lee and Chad Smith waiting in the wings to fill in. But they all had their own bands. They were all willing to do it for a week or so but we needed someone to be there full time.”
We talked earlier about Julian Raymond. I wanted to talk to you about three iconic producers you’ve worked with and ask your thoughts on each of them. The first being Jack Douglas, who did your debut album. “I think he’s great. He’s in his own world too. He’s a true rock guy. He always comes through, cares about the arrangements and stuff. We battle with him sometimes but not too bad. I think he likes our work ethic too. Another thing, he was the one that got me working with John Lennon. He wanted to fatten the sound up. It was me and Bun E. Bun E. called him ‘Mr. Lennon’. I called him ‘John’.”
Which he would have liked. “Yeah. Because it was musician to musician. And that was the day Daxx was born. August 12, 1980.”
Tom Werman? (Producer of In Color, Heaven Tonight and Dream Police). “I like Tom a lot. But he was the guy who, when I said we loved the Sex Pistols he went: ‘aaarrgh, no! They’re awful!’ He didn’t get that. At the end of the day though, those albums did turn out pretty great, the songs. The songs were good. The old thing of ‘we’ll fix it when we mix it’. We made records and had to get out on tour, so we had to leave before they were finished. Like I Want You to Want Me. We played it live, all of a sudden (on the record) there’s this honky tonk piano too loud and too wimpy. If you listen to our first record and then that, it’s like woah! That’s why the Live at Budokan record did so well, because it sounded like the band that you saw opening for Kiss or whoever.
But I still like those albums a lot.”
I’ve gotta ask you about George Martin. “To me, the fact that he wanted to work with us, the fact that he and Geoff Emerick (Beatles engineer) came to Madison, Wisconsin, in the middle of winter to do pre-production with us is amazing in the first place. He was a musician’s musician. He showed me techniques… we became friends. He invited my wife and I to his place in the country and he cooked for us. We had his blessing to do our version of Sgt. Pepper, and he gave me the orchestral charts. Like my father, he was a musical genius. I showed up at his memorial service and was shown to the fourth row. And all these guys are behind me: Pink Floyd, Genesis etc. They’re all behind me and I’m the guy from Rockford, Illinois! He was an amazing guy. And he thought I was OK!”
So, you’re on your way to Australia again. You know, right? “Oh yeah I know. There’s all this stuff with the quarantine and we had to do a Zoom with a doctor.” Sounds fun! “Oh yeah-all kinds of stuff!”
You must have a hell of a time putting together a setlist, yes? “Write one for us! And we’ll let you in this time! And give you a Cheap Trick t-shirt!” (Laughter).
Cheap Trick’s new album, In Another World, releases on April 9th.
Australian fans can see the band live on the Under The Southern Stars tour – all dates can be found HERE