Take a ride with The Cars’ Elliot Easton

By  Joe Matera

The Cars, from left: Ric Ocasek, Elliot Easton, David Robinson, Greg Hawkes and Benjamin Orr. After The Cars' breakup in 1988, Easton spent a brief persion ind a group called Band of Angels. Photo: Elektra/Jeff Albertson.

The Cars, from left: Ric Ocasek, Elliot Easton, David Robinson, Greg Hawkes and Benjamin Orr. After The Cars’ breakup in 1988, Easton spent a brief persion ind a group called Band of Angels. Photo: Elektra/Jeff Albertson.
Elliot Easton first found fame as lead guitarist for new wave pop-rock outfit The Cars. His distinct sound and style drove many of the Boston, Mass., band’s hits such as “Just What I Needed” to “Shake It Up” to “You Might Think.”

After the band split in 1988, Easton moved through various projects, including the aborted Band of Angels, before going on to spend 11 years playing guitar with Creedence Clearwater Revisited. Then came a new version of The Cars, under the moniker of The New Cars, in 2005. Recently, Easton looked back over his illustrious career.

The Cars were better known for being a studio band rather than a live act. Was that something that happened by default?

Elliot Easton: I guess it was by default, and by the fact that some members of the band didn’t really enjoy touring that much. And so, because of that, we never really toured extensively. And also, we had a reputation of being not terribly exciting as a live act, which also had a lot to do with certain members not really being that comfortable onstage. It wasn’t anything that we rejected doing, in being a good live act.  Personally, I like playing live and always try to engage the audience, but we really did have a rep like that.

Ric Ocasek has mentioned in past interviews how he was never happy performing live, having that kind of withdrawn and static persona.

EE: I really think he thrived more being in the studio and writing and recording and creating. So, maybe traveling from city to city wasn’t the big love that it was for some of us.

The band’s last studio album, Door To Door (1987), was critically panned. Was that why the band split soon after?

EE: The album itself wasn’t necessarily the reason why the band broke up. I think it was just symptomatic of everything that was going on at the time.

For example, most of those songs on that album were old songs that had already been passed on earlier albums. I didn’t feel like there was any fresh material around.

Also, we were just coming off having made Heartbreak City with Mutt Lange. And that had been a long arduous task. So, because making that record took a long time and took a lot out of everybody, some of the members wanted to do a faster, cheaper record. And, in this case, with Door To Door, we got what we paid for.

Working with Mutt Lange, was it really as laborious as Def Leppard have stated, particularly in his approach to layering multiple guitar tracks?

EE: He really was like that, but it was different with us. In many ways he was like a member of the band with Def Leppard. He would work with them and really develop the material with them. For us though, we didn’t necessarily need that kind of input from him, but he made tremendous contributions to the arrangement of our songs.

For example, with “Drive,” the demo was just a keyboard and one of those old fashioned rhythm, strum boxes that had buttons on it for like rock, Latin and stuff like that. It was just like a cha-cha beat with a keyboard that Ric had played. It was very, very basic but once Mutt got it, he had a big hand in developing the arrangement. Mutt was a fabulous producer and I think he really took us up a notch in terms of production techniques and making great records. I know that speaking for myself, the experience of making that record with Mutt really tightened up my studio chops. He got me to listen to the drums differently, really lock in on my rhythm playing.

Sometimes, working on a rhythm part with an eighth-note feel [a Cars trademark], I’d feel like I was inside that hi-hat! I’ll tell you, I probably tuned more than I played — it seemed like he had me check my tuning after every take, but I understood why. You see, Mutt goes for something that is very elusive and difficult to achieve. The qualities he goes for in guitar parts almost seem contradictory until you really start to understand his methodology. He wanted a take to not only be played perfectly, a flawless performance on every level, but he also wants it to sound like you just grabbed the guitar and peeled the part off, just winging it. In other words, technical perfection with a feeling of spontaneity!

These are two very different qualities, and at first, I may have felt that they were at odds with each other, but as I said, once you get into his way of doing things it makes perfect sense. It’s the same with guitar sounds — he would describe his ideal to me as having clarity, but with balls! Seeming contradictions, you see?  But when you heard it and he had finally achieved it, it was amazing. We would record power chords with a Telecaster and a Les Paul paired on each side of the stereo spectrum. The Tele provided the clarity and the Les Paul provided the balls. But of course, that’s an oversimplification — it took weeks and weeks! He had so many mics jammed against a Marshall cabinet that you could barely see the grille cloth-seriously! The experimentation with sound took so long, months, really.

On the original version of Door To Door, production is credited to Ric Ocasek, but on the CD reissue, production credited to both Ric Ocasek and Greg Hawkes. Why is that?

EE: It was supposed to originally have been produced by Ric and Greg, but for reasons that I prefer not to get into, Greg didn’t get his credit on the album like he should have. But it was something that was redressed later on for the CD reissue.

Were solo albums a way for the other members to get their own creative juices expressed since they weren’t getting it within the framework of The Cars?

EE: I think that is a fair statement to make. In the case of my record — Change No Change — I wasn’t really trying to write a solo record. I had met a very great songwriter named Jules Shear and had become friends, so we were writing songs just for the sheer joy of writing songs and having fun together with music.

And after a few months, we had a pile of songs that we were trying to figure out what to do with. Jules didn’t want to use them for his solo records because as he had already made solo records. So he turned to me and said “why don’t you use them?” And that grew into me making my own record. It wasn’t like, “OK I’m frustrated with what’s going on in the band.” It was just something that happened. And I was enjoying it and maybe that was because I didn’t have an outlet with The Cars.

What are you currently up to?
EE:
I’m currently going through a divorce, and so my life is a bit turbulent right now, and so I just don’t feel all that inspired. And though sometimes I do feel like writing and sometimes I don’t feel like it, I’m always working on music in one way of another.

Also I will be going out on tour this year with the Rock and Roll Fantasy Camp tour, so that will keep me busy this year.  

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