I’m sitting with Robin Zander, vocalist extraordinaire and co-writer of so many hits with American rock institution Cheap Trick. He’s wearing a flat cap, tinted glasses and a suit jacket over a turtleneck. Still dapper as ever.
And I go blank.
He’s warm and welcoming, with a smile and a firm handshake, one of the precious few of the day – fist bumps being the norm in this C19 fearing age.
Err, I had a bunch of questions… I trail off… “The same old questions?” He laughs in response. Yes, I laugh, how do you like Australia? Are you enjoying the weather? What’s your favourite colour? Now we’re both laughing. Thankfully, Robin makes me feel at ease and we soon settle into a friendly chat. No need for mental notes.
The first thing that comes to mind are the recent books that have surfaced regarding Cheap Trick. From a couple of years ago, Still Competition, the more recent They Just Seem a Little Weird and an upcoming title, This Band Has No Past, and I wonder why we still haven’t seen an official book from the band. Surely, it’s time after such a long and event filled career that an official Cheap Trick Biography should be due about now? “The problem with these books is they either just interview Bun E. Carlos (former long-time Cheap Trick drummer) or Ken Adamany (former Cheap Trick manager) or occasionally they might speak with Rick (Nielsen, legendary CT guitarist). They never talk to me! And I know all the secrets! (Laughter) I don’t know why”…
Where the bodies are buried! “Right!” (Laughter) I don’t know, these books, they’re OK, they’re interesting to read – some of it is right, it’s not all fake but, you know, a lot of it is just conjecture.”
Yeah, all interviews with someone who knew someone who once carried a guitar for you… “Exactly. And actually, that may be reason enough for us to do a book.”
Agreed – good time for it – even though there’s no apparent sense of Cheap Trick stopping at any time soon. I expect you’ll go on for quite some time yet. “We’re not gonna stop-we’re gonna make another record, and then maybe one more after that. I think when we stop is when we’ve run dry of songs. When we stop writing songs. There are three writers in the band now and we’re still writing good songs. So, I think until that stops we’ll probably continue…either that or when somebody dies.” Then we stop. (Laughter)
“I’m sixty-nine years old but I’m still the youngest guy in the band” (laughs)
And Cheap Trick still hasn’t lost its identity! You still have the drive and sound you had when you started all those years ago. “We haven’t changed much. The thing about it is that when we started it was sort of a magical kind of thing. When we started, we rehearsed three days in Rick’s father’s garage and after that third day we started playing music elsewhere. In bowling alleys, backyards, bars and things like that. People’s garages even. And we knew right away after that third rehearsal that we had… there was that something that was different about all four of us put together. Because we had been in opposing bands before that. And we’d go and do the Battle of The Bands contests and all the kids would vote on the best band and all that stuff would happen and finally we got ourselves together…sort of like putting the best of all those bands in one band, in a little town called Rockford in Illinois. And you know, everything seems like it was pre-destined to me. Being born in Rock County, growing up in Rockford Illinois, and being in a Rock band, yakow, it just seemed like, oh boy! (Laughs)”
The sound of the band on that first album (Cheap Trick, 1977) is so raw and almost punky in its energy and attitude, it’s still my favourite sounding record of yours. “Well, that’s (producer) Jack Douglas, and one thing about Jack is that he doesn’t really plan things out in advance much. He goes where his, sort of, intellect and heart lead him. Just as an example, we were at a studio in New York, The Record Plant, and we couldn’t get a bass sound for Tom just with an amplifier and a mic in front of it and Jack decided to take the entire bass rig and put it in the hallway, facing the doors, and so when he did that, he got the ambience of that room that he’d never used before and suddenly we had a bass sound that was proper for the record. And stuff like that he’d do all the time to get what was needed.”
Tom (Petersson)’s bass sound on that album is just awesome. “Yeah, yeah it is. You met Tom?”
Yeah, I did. That was great. “Yay Tom!”
You seem to have had a great run with your recent concert interpretation of The Beatles‘ Sergeant Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band shows, and from what I’ve seen on YouTube that looked like a blast. Great performances, production and reception. “That was a lot of fun to do. And we toured it too. Our first shows were in Hollywood at the big coliseum-and we did three shows there and then we took it to Vegas at the Hilton and did some shows there. And then we took it on the road a little bit, played it across the country. Then we came back to Vegas and did a run again at the Paris Casino -and it was all done by popular demand you know? It was a lot of fun. But it got to the point after doing it so long where I thought to myself, I don’t want to end my career as a Beatles cover band. For god’s sake I love the Beatles don’t get me wrong but I just thought as fun as it is it’s kinda useless to keep doing this!
You’ve had Jack Douglas (producer of Aerosmith, John Lennon and Cheap Trick’s 1977 debut, among others) do some mixes for you in recent times and even more recently recorded a track (a cover of David Bowie’s seventies classic) Rebel Rebel with him as well – there seems to be a chemistry with Jack dating back to that debut album from 1977. Is there a chance of the band perhaps doing another entire album with him? “Maybe. It’s a possibility (smiling). Actually, my son Robin (Robin Taylor Zander) who’s in Australia with us – he’s just finished a record with Jack that’s coming out in the fall on Jack’s new label. So yes, possibly”
I’ve heard a lot about the band’s dissatisfaction with your second album, In Color, is that largely a sonic thing? ‘Coz the songs are great.
“Yeah, it was particularly that album, In Color, that Rick and Tom were not Colour happy with the sounds on, and I think a lot of that was just because we’d worked with Jack, before that, on the first record. And Werman (Tom Werman, producer, Mötley Crüe, Ted Nugent) wasn’t really that type of producer, he was more of an arrangement guy and he wasn’t an engineer or anything like that, whereas Jack was hands on with everything. So, Jack was just the opposite, he would let us be ourselves and write songs and he would just record them and not play with the arrangements of the songs or try to please the record company whereas Werman was a record company guy, A&R, so he had to answer to all these people that were around him at the label and he tried to push that on us. And one perfect example of that is the song I Want You to Want Me. That song was even refused for our first record by Jack – he saw a different side of us to that song. And then came In Color and the first song that the record company jumped on – and they didn’t even like the rock version of it we’d demoed – we used to do it in this Yardbirds-ish way- and they wanted it more in an… ELO (Electric Light Orchestra -seventies symphonic/pop band) style- was I Want You to Want Me’ It ended up real boppy, a dance hall kinda style. Which we didn’t like, but… I didn’t hate it, it just wasn’t us, kinda thing.”
I remember thinking I liked it, but it kinda didn’t fit amongst stuff like Southern Girls, Downed and Big Eyes… “Well yeah, that’s what we felt like too…but you know, at the same time we’re a pretty diverse band, so they figured that we could get away with doing it.”
So then eventually you did a record with George Martin and Geoff Emerick (Beatles producer and engineer respectively). That must have been an interesting experience. I mean, I know you guys are all Beatles fans… “The Beatles. Well, they were… (we’re both nodding-no words needed) …back in those days my influences came basically from Australia, Britain and not so much from the United States. It was The Beatles, The Stones, The Kinks, The Easybeats. It related to me. I brought those influences to this band. And the other guys had their influences as well. And all of that mashed together pretty well. And we wear it all on our sleeves!”
And why not! In the end you’ve made it your own thing. You have the Cheap Trick sound from all that. “Exactly!” We are Cheap Trick and we sound like Cheap Trick. No matter what we do it’s gonna sound like us”.
Good or bad! “Well, there’s a lotta bad in there too” … (both laughing)
The Flame was a really big hit here in the late Eighties and you toured behind it with the Lap of Luxury album. About a three-week tour if I recall. “That’s right. And The Flame... Yep, it was at number one here (Australia) when we toured. And there’s a whole story behind that.”
Tell me because I like that record, but I remember thinking it didn’t sound like the songs, good as they were, were really Cheap Trick songs.
“That was a very similar situation to what happened to us with In Color. We worked with a producer named Ritchie Zito. And he had just had a big hit record with Heart. We had turned in a new record to the record company that we thought was worthy, but that they didn’t like. They didn’t think there was a single on it. Even though we were never a purely a singles minded band. They just didn’t want the album released that way so they kept sending us songs to record. Ritchie Zito picked a few he thought we should do, and we did ‘em. And The Flame was probably the fifteenth or twentieth song that they sent us. Of which, we just didn’t like any of it. But I remember the demo of The Flame itself, after we had finished listening to it, being taken out of the cassette player and thrown on the floor and smashed. Seriously. But then Bun E. and I said, ‘we’re tired of fooling around with this-the other two guys didn’t really wanna record it-so me and Bun E. went in with Zito and we recorded that basic track and sort of made it sound as much as we could like Cheap Trick. Then that convinced the other guys that it was alright to do it. And… who knew? Really.”
Well, for sure when that song came out, I didn’t know it wasn’t a Cheap Trick original so you pulled it off! “Yeah! The Flame was just a unique thing that happened to us and became a number one song. It’s even hard to complain about it! You know what I’m saying? Because it did kind of save our lives at a time when we were broke again and didn’t have much happening in the Eighties to speak of financially.
And you know what? It served a purpose-filled a space we never had before which is funerals, weddings, breakups, you know” (laughter)…
Cheap Trick: Weddings, parties, funerals… “Yes!”
Leeno Dee was chatting to Robin Zander ahead of Cheap Trick’s performances in Australia as part of the Under The Southern Stars Festival Tour which is currently traversing the nation! For all the remaining dates GO HERE!