By Ken Sharp
For years, Cheap Trick was the worst kept secret in rock ‘n’ roll; a hugely talented band that defines the ethos of hard work, boundless creativity and consummate musicianship but were frankly never given their due by critics and the public at large as one of America’s finest rock outfits. Now with their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Cheap Trick are finally reaping the rewards of 40-plus years tearin’ it up on the rock ‘n’ roll battlefield. Back with their first album since 2009’s “The Latest,” “Bang Zoom Crazy… Hello” shows that the power pop masters haven’t missed a “trick.” Songs like “No Direction Home,” “Sing My Blues Away,” “When I Wake Up Tomorrow” and “All Strung Out” display the group’s ever-present, cunning pop smarts, elastic versatility and incandescent power. We sat down with founding member, Robin Zander, the band’s lead vocalist/rhythm guitarist, for a look back and into the future with Cheap Trick.
GOLDMINE: Like your bandmates who spent countless hours with garage bands of limited local success, once you joined Cheap Trick, when did you realize this was different from other bands you’d played with and Cheap Trick could really have a future?
ROBIN ZANDER: Well, here’s what I thought … being in various bands including bands with Bun E. before Cheap Trick and being around this small town of Rockford, Ill., I had already witnessed the various bands that Tom, and Rick had been in. So I already knew that these guys were at the top of their game in what they were doing in their various bands. So I knew going in for our first rehearsal that this was gonna be something special because I thought of myself as something special (laughs), even though nobody else really did. (laughs) Nobody did but me. But I already knew it was gonna be something and I knew what I could bring to the band to make them a better band. After the third rehearsal I think all of us felt the same way, that this was gonna be something special, but that being said, none of us thought that it was gonna last forever. In fact, speaking for the other guys, we probably thought, this is gonna be cool. You know, this is the best band we’ve all had so far and I think we’re gonna be contenders to go into Chicago and make some money. Looking back on it, it’s easy to say, oh yeah, we knew from the start, that this band was gonna be big but that’s just not the case.
GM: Cheap Trick were the opposite of an overnight sensation, spending years in clubs honing your wares before landing that elusive record deal. What kept you going during the tough times? Did you ever doubt you’d make it?
RZ: No. No, I don’t think so at all. Every time we played the same place there were 20 more people, (then) 100 more people there to see us. It seemed like it was slowly growing and so was the band. Before we even made our first record, we had a following that had grown from three people standing on their heads to 1,500, 2,000 people in a nightclub. I mean, that’s saying something!
GM: Did the band get close to landing a deal before you signed with Epic?
RZ: No, but there were a couple phone calls. There were a couple of guys from record companies that showed up to see us play that liked us. Capitol Records had come out to see us, I believe, and Columbia Records came out to see us, which is an affiliate of Epic. So yeah, we had a couple of people come see us from different companies, plus more localized Chicago smaller record companies, but nothing really substantial came out of it where someone said, “OK, sign here” until Columbia Records came out to see us and they wanted us but then we ran into some trouble. Bun E. broke his arm and we had to scramble a little bit and then came the (producer) Jack Douglas thing. Jack saw us play at the bowling alley and called up his buddies at Epic and then Epic came out to see us and we got signed.
GM: The band released three incredible albums out of the gate that met with minor sales in the U.S. Did you worry that you’d ever breakthrough in the States?
RZ: We didn’t really think about it that much; I didn’t anyway because we had a lot of critical acclaim, not just here in the States but overseas as well with our first, second and third albums. But it gradually grew sales-wise also. But we were comfortable with being a sort of cult band and that didn’t bother us that much. The only thing that bothered us is that we were broke. (laughs) We really need to make some money to pay back the record company for the money that they spent taking a chance on us and recording those first three albums.
GM: What’s the first Rick Nielsen song that really impressed you and made you go, “that’s a great song!”
RZ: Well, let’s see … We did a lot of cover tunes in the beginning. One of the first tunes I heard that Rick had written was “So Good To See You.” He had done that in the band Sick Man of Europe, so that was one of the first songs that I heard of Rick’s that he had written. I really liked that one and it was a little bit different the way they did it but the structure of the song was pretty similar. So that was one of them and another was called “Ain’t Got You,” which had some clever riffs in it and it sounded kind of like The Move. So those are two right off the bat that were among the first original songs written by Rick that I’d heard. And I thought those were pretty clever. At that time I thought of myself as a songwriter, too, so I immediately brought in a song or two just to see how they would fare with the rest of the band. I sort of got that look … well, keep working on your songs. (laughs)
GM: What was the first song you brought to the group that the rest of your bandmates really liked?
RZ: It was “High Roller” but that still didn’t make the first record. I had a couple of other ones but it wasn’t until “Cry, Cry” and they thought that was a good song that was good enough to be on the record. That was something that came just before we got signed and just before we went in to record.
GM: With songs like “High Roller” and later “I Can’t Take It,” you incorporated diminished chords to great effect, something that perhaps many other rock bands were not sophisticated enough to explore.
RZ: Yeah, I did. A lot of that comes from that Mersey Beat sound ‘cause those bands from the early ‘60s used a lot of diminished chords. So that’s where it came from. But I didn’t consciously think about that; it just seemed to fit for the songs.
GM: “The Sun Never Sets” from the new CD serves as the perfect snapshot of Cheap Trick as a band — amazing power, killer middle eight, affixed with a sublime Beatlesque melody. Who were the bands that mined those roads before Cheap Trick that impacted on that melding of styles?
RZ: I think we’re a really diverse group and we all have different musical tastes. That middle section idea in “The Sun Never Sets” came from an older song of mine that I had written. So when something like that fits another entity, another song, which was new — “The Sun Never Sets” is a new song — well, that part fit perfectly and it was a sort of transcending middle eight that turned into a middle 16 or middle 24 or whatever. (laughs)
GM: The band has worked with producer Julian Raymond now on several consecutive albums. Beyond producing, he also takes on a creative role as a co-collaborator on some songs as well. How does Julian help make Cheap Trick the best they can be?
RZ: Well, Julian Raymond has been a friend of ours since the early ‘80s. We’ve known him and seen him grow with Tom (Petersson’s) band Another Language, when Tom was not with Cheap Trick. We’ve kept in touch with Julian and I’ve written songs with Julian over the years, just him and I. Eventually, we got him in to help produce records for us. He started with us on “Rockford” (2006). So I’ve always written songs with him. On this record, it just happened and he and I wrote most of the newer tunes together, which is really cool and a lot of fun. I went out to L.A. on my own dime (laughs) and sat out there for a week or so and we worked on songs and came back with seven brand new songs. It was like, wow, this is pretty cool. That was our first stint. Then when we got to Nashville, we went there to write some more, and it was at that time that we had Rick Nielsen songs come into play and Tom Petersson songs came into play. So by the time we were finished we had like 25 or 30 songs. It worked out really good. It was a smooth operation.
GM: Julian seems to understand what makes the band great.
RZ: I agree. I feel that way. He’s sort of like the fifth member of the band. There’s Bun E. and then there’s Tom, there’s me and there’s Rick and there’s Julian. And then there’s Daxx (Nielsen) live. That’s sort of the way it’s set up.
GM: As a singer, you’ve been described by Rick Nielsen as “the man of 1,000 voices.” Taking away the obvious influences like John Lennon and Paul McCartney, who were the singers that most profoundly impacted the way you approach singing and phrasing?
RZ: Well, that’s easy for me to say. The first single I bought was a Sam Cooke single and I also used to steal my older sister’s Elvis Presley singles that she had bought. So those are two really important singers to me because I was very young, I was 7, 8 years old and this was going on. It wasn’t until I was 12 years old that the British Invasion had come. So during those years it was a lot of Motown-ish stuff. Pop music, yes, but more stuff that my sister was listening to and my older brother. My dad was a jazz guy, so I listened to a lot of instrumental music. I’d get up in the morning and my mom would be playing country music on the radio. So I got all of this from all sides. But singers in general. I guess people might not realize that I was really influenced a lot by the time I was 13 or 14 by bands like Rod Stewart and the Faces and Steve Marriott. Those two singers definitely influenced me. Robert Plant from Led Zeppelin is one and David Bowie is another one and, of course, Harry Nilsson. I loved him in a big way and had an affection for his voice. For some reason his voice just always struck me.
GM: It’s interesting you mention Bowie, thinking about it I can hear that influence on songs like “Take Me I’m Yours” and “I Want Be Man.”
RZ: Well, this new album has a song on it that is influenced by Bowie and this was done, of course, before Bowie died. I sort of conjured his style up in mind on the song, “When I Wake Up Tomorrow.” Even though I don’t sound exactly like Bowie, it was in my mind while I was doing the song, which creates a fresh kind of new thing. The combination of the sound of my voice with a different idea makes a whole different thing.
GM: And unlike many other rock singers, you’re extremely versatile, throat shredding on “He’s A Whore” or “‘Stiff Competition” to more delicate, intimate singing with songs like “Mandocello,” “Y.O.Y.O.Y” and “Voices.” Discuss how you use your voice to inhabit the songs and take on a character.
RZ: I always thought of singing as sort of what an actor would do in a movie. From movie to movie, the great actors aren’t pigeonholed into one type of character and I always felt that way about songs. You know who did it the best were The Beatles. They not only had three different singers but three different songwriters and in that way Cheap Trick is very similar. It brings out the diversity in the band. There’s so much going on in some of these songs. I take pride in our diversity but it certainly didn’t help us out in the early days. They couldn’t really pigeonhole us into one sort of category. One minute we were a punk band and the next minute we’re a rock band and the next minute we’re a pop band. It’s like, what are we? (laughs) Well, I don’t know what we are except we’re just Cheap Trick. We’re just that.
GM: What did you learn from Rick as a writer that you applied to the songs you’d submit or co-write with the band in later years?
RZ: I think a really important part of it to me was to add a musicality and melody in a complementary way. In other words, to put guitar riffs into songs, to use unusual chords, to do arrangements that are unusual yet palatable that don’t put the listener off but create an interest that will draw them in and Rick is great at that. He’s doesn’t have to think about it; it’s just natural to him. What I bring is a lot of melody. I remember when I first joined the band Rick was a Yardbirds fan, those three great guitar players, (Eric) Clapton, (Jeff) Beck and (Jimmy) Page. Jeff Beck was his favorite guitar player. That was all fine and cool, but I brought more of a Beatles-meet-Roger Daltrey thing into the scheme.
GM: The Cheap Trick song “Stop This Game” marries those two influences well.
RZ: Yeah, exactly. So it was a good combination of what we had and, of course, Tom had that wall of sound with the way he played the bass. He plays the bass like a rhythm guitar, even if it wasn’t a 12-string bass, the way that he plays his instrument really filled in and allowed Rick to do his thing. We really had a good combination going on and I think we still do. (laughs) In my mind, in the early days of the band especially, it really didn’t matter what anybody else thought about us because I knew in my heart and in my mind that we were great. It didn’t matter who we played with or who we played for. We barely were known by anybody and were opening up for Queen in front of tens of thousands of people and holding our own. We toured with KISS all the way through Canada with nobody knowing who the hell we were and we held our own. We not only held our own but sometimes got better reviews than the headline act.
GM: Rick and Bun E. worked with John Lennon on the “Double Fantasy” sessions. There was talk you were slated to contribute background vocals. Any truth to that?
RZ: Well, this is what I heard from Rick, but I don’t know if it was true or not. Maybe it was Rick trying to make me feel good because he knew what a big Lennon fan I was. Of course, John sings his own songs so why would they even need a singer? Bun E. and Rick played brilliantly on those tracks; they’re better than the record in my opinion but they never made the album anyway. And to be honest, I think Yoko had a lot to do with the reason that Rick and Bun were taken off the record. Maybe she was right in the fact that you couldn’t put two rough-edged, rocking-sounding tracks against these other tracks that sounded a lot different. Maybe in her mind she thought it should all be sort of a package that sounded similar in its entirety rather than two tracks that stick out either negatively or positively. But to have been able to sing with Lennon … are you kidding me? I would have loved that.
GM: The work ethic is Cheap Trick is impressive. You’ve been called the hardest working band in the business and that’s not hyperbole. Where does that ethic/ethos come from?
RZ: It’s a combination of things, like a perfect storm I guess. It’s our Midwest work ethic, and musically there was a connection between all of us. We all respected each other musically for the longest time. I think it’s a musical superglue that kept us together for 35 years. The bottom line is the music. If the music that you make together is right and you all agree and you’re all excited about it and you love it, that’s really where everything else stems from.
GM: It’s often conveyed by many that the only benefit of fame is getting a good table at a restaurant. The band has always kept your feet on the ground; none of the band members have gone Hollywood and lots of bands have.
RZ: Yeah, I agree with that. It’s hard for me to explain but I think it just goes back to where we all grew up. Maybe it is that Midwest kind of thing; none of us wanted to move anywhere like New York or L.A. We wanted to stay where we were at for all that time. We’re from Rockford, Ill., and it’s unusual for a group to come from that same little area and goes out and becomes a mega-band. As far as fame is concerned, I don’t really have to worry about it much because I usually go incognito wherever I go. It’s going out to dinner with Rick that’s the problem (laughs) because he looks so animated and everybody recognizes him.
GM: Next year is the 40th anniversary of the band’s debut album. Thinking back to those sessions, what are your most indelible memories?
RZ: That album was the introduction of Cheap Trick to the world, so when people nowadays talk to other people who don’t know who Cheap Trick is they go, “Well, just go online and look under Cheap Trick” and the first record that will pop up is our first album which is called “Cheap Trick” and people will listen to that first record because that’s what they see. But it is definitive in that it was our first record. You’ve got to remember that “I Want You To Want Me,” “Dream Police” and “Surrender” were written already for that record and didn’t make that first album. But looking back, I think it’s one of our definitive records. But I like all of our records for one reason or another. I mean, not everything on them is great and not everything is terrible either, but you’re always going to find something good in our records. Everybody from our era and even nowadays usually has a Cheap Trick recording in their house someplace and that’s a pretty cool thing. GM