For nearly 25 years, Ric Ocasek has been asked some variation of the same question by countless journalists and fans: When are you going to get The Cars back together? For most of that time, Ocasek’s answer has been simple and unequivocal: never. Ocasek’s resolve to not return to one of the most popular rock bands of the New Wave era seemed to only strengthen when co-lead singer and bassist Benjamin Orr died of pancreatic cancer in 2000. When bandmates Greg Hawkes and Elliot Easton opted to tour and record as The New Cars in 2005, with Todd Rundgren standing in for Ocasek, the likelihood of an actual reunion of the surviving Cars seemed even more remote. (Drummer David Robinson also opted not to participate in The New Cars.)
So it was a major surprise in 2010 when word surfaced online that Ocasek had changed his mind. With a batch of newly written songs in tow that he liked, Ocasek decided the time was right to make Move Like This, the first proper Cars record since 1987’s Door To Door. Perhaps even more surprising is that Move Like This is a worthy addition to the band’s canon, displaying Ocasek’s mastery of the synth-spiked power-pop sound that’s been imitated by numerous contemporary bands. The A.V. Club spoke with Ocasek about his decision to re-form The Cars, the baggage that prevented a reunion in the past (including The New Cars), and whether he’s looking forward to touring again.
The A.V. Club: Let’s start with the obvious question: Why did you finally decide to make another Cars record?
AVC: For many years you were adamant about not reforming The Cars. Why were you so against the idea?
RO: I guess I just thought we left on a good note, a high note, and I never wanted to return to that again. I didn’t want to return to the whole game of it: the touring, the albums, the record deals, the whole bit, you know? Over all of the years if anybody would ask I never even thought about it. Then I wrote all of these songs. I was thinking, “Okay, so how do I want to do this record? Do I want to do it myself or do I want to get other people?” And I thought, “Why don’t I call the guys and see if they want to do it because they’re going to save me a lot of hassle.” Because they already know the whole thing. They know how to play songs that I write. They always contribute the right stuff. I am going to let the past go by. I am going to let The New Cars go by. I’m going to let all of the sadness of Ben’s death go by. And I’m just going to see if they want to do another record. It seems like a cool time. There is enough crap going on in the world. There is enough angst in the world. Maybe if I just circumvent all that stuff, we can make another record. And everybody jumped at the chance, and as soon as we met up it was just like we had done it last week.
AVC: Did these songs sound like The Cars in your head when you wrote them, as opposed to material for a solo record?
RO: No, but I knew if The Cars played on them they would. When I write songs I don’t think, “This would be good for The Cars” or “this would be good for me”—it’s really just writing songs and then picking the ones you like and then playing them with someone. But if you play them with The Cars then you’re going to get The Cars thing. Which was a sound that was magic, you know? You’ll get that every time you put those people together. It’s the magic of having a band. When it’s the right combination of people and they have a sound, that’s exciting. When I produced records I would always look for a band that had their own sound already. It was easy to produce bands like that because they already had it. There’s no mystery. You didn’t have to recreate the band or recreate the songs or try to get anything else out of it. It was usually already there.
AVC: Because Move Like This has that classic Cars sound, it actually sounds weirdly contemporary, given how many bands are now combining New Wave-sounding keyboards with guitars. Did that make you feel better about doing another Cars record at this point?
RO: It didn’t dawn on me. People sometimes say that bands sound like The Cars, but when I hear it I don’t know if they do or not. I think, “Really? Do they?” I think it’s like if you use certain elements—keyboards for one, if you’re using them. And if you’re using certain approaches to songwriting or something, it may sound similar. I’ve never really dwelled on it much.
AVC: This is your first album since your 2005 solo effort Nexterday. Was this the first batch of songs you’ve written in a while?
RO: I often write songs and when I do I usually write quite a few of them. I really have to be in the mood. This was one of those times where I felt compelled to write a lot of songs. It just comes when I feel like it, you know? When I was with The Cars it was almost every year, because you always had to do an album and then a tour and then an album and a tour. But now it’s more casual.
AVC: Sonically, Move Like This is archetypical Cars—it has the same guitar and drum sounds, as well as the big harmonies and handclaps. How conscious were you of making a “classic” sounding Cars record?
RO: It was easier than that. When those guys got together, I knew it would sound like that. You didn’t have to go, “Oh, let’s try to sound like this or let’s try to sound like that.” It just does sound like that. And I think, “This just goes to show that it’s all coming from the heart.” It’s the way it is. People certainly grew over the 20 years, but still the basic talent that everyone has, and their individual talents, make the whole. If I played it with other people it wouldn’t have sounded like that, even if I tried to get it to be that way. Even if I played the instruments myself in the same format, it’s still not going to sound like that.
AVC: Was it strange to suddenly be in the studio again with The Cars after nearly 25 years? Was there a feeling-out process?
RO: No, absolutely not, no feeling out whatsoever. It could have been like we just walked off the stage in ‘87 and started to do a new record. You know, the jokes started to flow. The sarcasm started to billow and it all just came together.
AVC: But band members have fights and tensions that can stick around for years. There was no baggage you had to get rid of before you could settle down and make music?
RO: Well, you know, there is baggage. There were all kinds of things. Just the whole reason we broke up the first time and, you know, The New Cars, and that kind of stuff. But on this particular project, that baggage got lost. That baggage got lost at the airport. I think everybody came to this with a positive attitude and no talk at all about the past because, when you really come down to it, it was the past, you know? And if it happened three days ago or yesterday or 20 years ago, you could dwell on it for your whole life. But I think we all decided just not to dwell on any of it. And fuck it, we’re just going to move forward. I think sometimes you just really have to do that, because that’s a lot to carry around for a long time. And you can choose to carry it, or you could choose to let it go. When I made the call I chose to let it go. And, you know, nobody lit the flame to get it going again. I don’t think anybody would.
AVC: This is the first Cars record you’ve made without Benjamin Orr. Was that strange?
RO: For sure. It was noticed immediately. You notice it when you’re walking around in the studio the first day and you’re turning around, looking for the other guy. Or you’re sitting down to start rehearsing and you think, “Oh yeah, there’s no bass.” Or another singer. I guess I’m going to have to sing them all. Who’s going to play bass? We certainly didn’t want to get anybody else. It would have been an insult, and we just thought, there’s good musicians in the band— either Greg or Elliot could play bass. But we did miss him and sometimes we would talk about it a bit, but we didn’t really—all we knew was that we weren’t going to get somebody else. That was for sure. To find somebody as unique as each person in the band would have been impossible.
AVC: The Cars have worked with big-name producers over the years—Roy Thomas Baker, Robert John “Mutt” Lange, and now Jacknife Lee for Move Like This. You’re also a big-name producer. Why don’t you just produce The Cars?
RO: It probably wouldn’t have been good politically. First of all it’s a lot of work—twice as much work. Because you not only have to be overseeing everything and checking everybody’s performances, but you have to get the sound and do all that stuff and then on top of that you have to perform the record. When I produce other people, that’s the thing I can do well because I’ve been in a band and I can play the political game and make everybody feel happy and I can check their performances and I can work on the sound while they’re being a band. But when you’re doing it for yourself, it can get almost overly meticulous and plus, you know, if I didn’t like a performance somebody was doing, I guess it’s best to hash that out in rehearsal than to be in the studio and say, “Well, maybe you should do that vocal again,” or, “Maybe you should come up with a different part for that.”
AVC: You’ll be touring behind Move Like This. Are you looking forward to it?
RO: I’m looking forward to doing the shows because it’s limited and because it’s in smaller venues. I think it will be fun. I think that’s my limit as an entertainer.
AVC: You’ve been outspoken about not liking touring. What don’t you like about it?
RO: When I was touring a lot, it was overwhelming. It was like, make a record, then tour for six or eight months. And then, you know, forget your kids’ names, and be stuck in some room somewhere at 10 o’clock and the only thing open is Denny’s. You need to write songs, but you can’t write them because you’re on the road, you’re in a plane. So, after about 10 years of that, I was like, “I don’t think so. I’ll just get off the road for a while, for a good while.” I’m sure some of the guys in the band wouldn’t have minded it if we toured 20 years in a row, but personally, I was more into writing and making records. Making albums and producing, I like all that stuff better. The creative part for me is making songs, and that’s what I really love the most and that’s what I’ve always done for every band I’ve ever had. So, that was just a distraction. I’ve done it so long it’s almost automatic, but I don’t think I’m a great performer at all. I’ve certainly done it a lot, but I don’t know if I’m on that level.
It’s kind of exciting to do this tour because I haven’t done it for a pretty good time, and it’ll be neat to play some of the old songs and the new songs, because we’re having fun as a band. I think it’ll be cool. I think it’ll be surprisingly pretty good because the people are pretty good. The band’s pretty good. I mean, it’s funny to say that, but I work with so many bands—so I know they’re pretty good.