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For the past several years, The Cars' frontman Ric Ocasek has been digging through his video archives to assemble The Cars Unlocked, a DVD that's part concert film and part kaleidoscopic look at what it was like to live and tour with one of the most distinctive power-pop bands of the '70s and '80s. Drawing on performances from multiple eras and some charmingly amateurish backstage footage, Ocasek has fleshed out the personality of a band best known for affectlessness. Ocasek recently spoke with The A.V. Club about the process of preparing the DVD, The Cars' philosophy, his second career as an in-demand producer, and his reaction to his bandmates' recent decision to record an album with Todd Rundgren under the Cars name.
The A.V. Club: Did you enjoy going back through all this archival material, seeing it again?
Ric Ocasek: Enjoy? [Laughs.] It was kind of interesting, because I hardly remembered what I had. Certainly some of the home movies, I hadn't seen for so long. The footage was taken from VHS and Betamax. I remember buying our first camera on the road, when they first came out.
AVC: There's actually one scene on the DVD where you show somebody reading the manual to learn how to operate the camera.
RO: Yeah, like, "White balance? What's that?" [Laughs.] It's funny how bad the quality is. You see all the light trails and things they don't even have anymore. You couldn't get a light trail on a new camera if you tried. But our lighting designer, he'd follow us around, and he really didn't know what he was shooting, and we didn't know what he was shooting. So I didn't know what I was going to find. It took me quite a long time, on and off for a few years between producing other people, just to log everything. So it was kind of fun for me, and also enlightening to go back and look at all that stuff.
AVC: How so?
RO: The performances, I thought, stood up pretty well. There were a lot of performances to pick from, like 10 or 12 takes of the same song, but on some, the quality of the video was really terrible, or the quality of the sound not so good. A lot of them were just tapes for us to look at after a show. And considering it was all from two-track, I didn't really have anything to mix from. But I kind of didn't want it to be too slick anyway.
AVC: That's sort of the aesthetic of your videos from back then, too.
RO: It dates everything in kind of a cool way. That's the way things looked, and that's the way things looked when you videotaped them. I kind of like that aspect of it.
AVC: Did you find, looking at the backstage bits especially, that you remembered much?
RO: It was kind of a big haze. But I thought that people should see what we did to keep from getting bored on the road, and I also tried to edit it in a way that wasn't too serious. I think bands, when they're on the road, they keep their sanity by developing an internal sense of humor. I don't know if this comes across on the DVD, but I do think this footage comes from a time when The Cars were having some fun. As time went on, I could see the whole band changing in a way.
Also, I felt this flowed in a way that was slightly chronological, but not too much biography. I didn't want it to be too biographical. I thought this was a little more artful.
AVC: Did the other members of The Cars help you with the DVD at all?
RO: No, I have to say they didn't, really. It was pretty much all my thing. Although David Robinson, the drummer, designed the package. And I'd send him rough tapes of things, and he'd make comments. I didn't really want to make it a democratic type of thing. It's my vision of what we did that I wanted to portray.
AVC: As far as you know, they're not opposed to it, though?
RO: No, no. Everybody's seen it. Everybody likes it, as far as I know.
AVC: Any lingering hard feelings over the Rundgren affair?
RO: I don't know, you know? Why make trouble? That will stand or fall on its own. People can decide for themselves.
AVC: Was there anything in your old performances that you look at now and wish you'd done differently, like the stage design, or your costumes, or your hairstyles?
RO: No, there's really nothing I regret. Because the performances were usually consistently, as far as we were concerned, pretty good. The band was actually pretty competent. We were a band that kind of did just stand there, and that's the way we wanted it to be. I didn't feel like gymnastics were part of The Cars. I certainly philosophically didn't want to prod the audience to react to anything. To me, it was more like negative theater. We didn't really talk to the audience. I didn't see that being a part of this band. And some people liked that. Bands do it now and don't get criticized for it. The Killers don't move much. Different kinds of bands do different things. Some people dance and run around and yell and try to get audience reactions, and some bands kind of play their music.
I thought the set designs were cool. The same person did all of our set designs. He was a performance artist from San Francisco who was the type of guy who would wear trash bags to the concert, and staple pieces of steak to them. So no, I didn't really care what people liked. It was kind of a funny thing, I guess, the way we looked. I guess it was new wave. [Laughs.] First we were punk, you know? That's what they said. Then we were new wave. I think we were too soft to be punk. Plus, we weren't too punky. It's funny how you get that label. We used to joke about that a lot.
AVC: Those early Cars albums don't really sound like anything that was on pop radio at the time. What was it like dealing with the label when you had a sound that wasn't necessarily familiar?
RO: Things were more open then. We were lucky enough to get radio play with our demos, before the band even broke. So that was kind of a nice coup for us. I think we really wanted to be different. It wasn't something we could have contrived. The songs and the arrangements came out the way they did because of the people in the band. And after the first album, the label didn't complain too much. [Laughs.] They really, totally left us alone. I never saw an A&R person coming in and checking to see if everything was going all right. We just did what we felt like in the studio.
Now, producing a lot of new bands like I do, there's so much pressure from labels. I have to lock them out of the room. It's not as free an experience, unless you're making indie records. In those days, they really left us alone. I think Elektra was probably just happy that they had a hit. They didn't want to destroy what it was. And I don't know that we would've listened to anybody anyway. There was really nothing for anyone to say.
AVC: It's hard to pinpoint any hard influences on The Cars besides old-time rock and maybe krautrock. What were you listening to then?
RO: As a songwriter, oddly enough, my influences were people like Bob Dylan, The Velvet Underground, and Buddy Holly. Some psychedelic stuff, too. Back then, there wasn't a lot of press on bands. There was Creem and Rolling Stone, and that was about it. There certainly wasn't the Internet. You would stay in your basement and create something and then come out. You didn't have anything to rub off on. You didn't know what the band down the street was doing, because you couldn't look it up, and you couldn't see it on TV. I think people tended to come out with things that were different because they weren't influenced by their environments as much. I find these days, you almost have to force yourself to stay in a vacuum to become different—if you really want to be different. Maybe you have to have something different inside of you as well.
The Cars—we all liked different things. Greg [Hawkes] and Elliot [Easton] liked The Beach Boys and The Beatles, and certainly I did as well. Other people in the band liked other music. We didn't usually cross-collaborate. We never said, "Oh, this should sound like this," or whatever. We were in sort of a hole, and we tried not to pay too much attention to what was going on outside.
AVC: Were you collegial with the other bands of your era?
RO: Since the beginning of our career was in Boston, there were a lot of Boston bands we knew, of course. But we didn't really hang out with other bands much. We were in that little Boston scene, but the names of those bands escape my mind, except for Aimee Mann's band, The Young Snakes. I was kind of looking for something new, but there wasn't a lot. But it was a fun scene in Boston then. Radio was real supportive of local bands. I don't know if Boston's ever been as influential as it probably was in those times.
AVC: Until recently, it seemed that The Cars were one of the few great bands that hadn't had a lot of influence on modern rock, but now a lot of bands sound at least a little like The Cars.
RO: I see that written a lot. I suppose it's true. There's more keyboards in bands now. I would certainly never take credit for it. It's funny, sometimes I read about a band that people say sounds like The Cars, and I think, "Oh, it doesn't really." Maybe little twinges here and there vocally. But it's flattering if it's true.
AVC: How have your experiences as a recording artist affected the way you work as a producer?
RO: It's a big advantage, because I think I understand what bands want, just from having made records myself. I understand what it takes to get a good vocal sound, or to make people comfortable in the studio. From minor things like their headphone mix—and if a singer's singing, how they should hear themselves—to how to make people feel that they're getting exactly what they want. All those things, I think, are an advantage, especially the part about having done it myself. I'm not just an engineer who records the sounds well. I'm not afraid to take chances.
And some of it's just band politics. I've been in a band, so I understand the politics. Sometimes the bass player doesn't like what the guitar player is doing, and you have to sort of even that out. But I've also always loved the technology part of it. I've always loved the studio part. Making albums. Besides writing songs, which has been my primary thing, making records would be second. Obviously, touring would be third. Touring wasn't my favorite thing to do, but the first few tours were pretty fun. Seeing the world and everything.
AVC: Were there places you looked forward to visiting? Like, "Oh boy, San Francisco!" vs. "Oh crap, Houston."
RO: Certainly. [Laughs.] Houston was pretty good, actually. There were about eight cities in America that I would be excited to play. And of course it was always fun to play in Europe. We only did that a couple times. There were some places that were always very fun, and then there were some places that you kind of dreaded. It didn't matter what year we went to San Jose, they just spit on us. [Laughs.] Even when we sold out there! It was funny. I think we sold out so that people could spit on us. It was always fun to go to Los Angeles and San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle, Chicago. Mostly the big cities. But I guess once you've seen the world, you don't really need to revisit it.