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Cheap Trick

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The Onion talks to legendary guitarist Rick Nielsen about his band's forthcoming album, his aborted tours with Boston and Lollapalooza, and the worst song he's ever written.

There's no denying the colossal impact Cheap Trick has had on numerous rock bands, and on music in general, for the last 20 or so years. With this in mind, The Onion recently spoke to enigmatic guitarist and songwriter Rick Nielsen about what it's like to have been there through it all, as well as what it's like to play Lollapalooza one day and The Casino Bar two weeks later.


The Onion: Ready?

Rick Nielsen: Yeah, I was born ready! Maybe not for this, but I was born ready.

O: Well, I wasn't born ready for this, either. Dad wanted me to be a pilot.

RN: Really? Well, gee, I've got a few hours logged in myself.

O: Really? You fly?

RN: I used to. I flew Cessna 172s and Tri-Pacers and the Beechcraft Bonanzas… There's all kindsa stuff that I used to do, years ago.


O: Why'd you give it all up? Parenthood?

RN: That added to it… I was just always gone, and it was too hard to get in for lessons, and I couldn't afford a plane.

O: I hear they're expensive.

RN: You don't need to hear they're expensive—they are expensive! That's not just hearsay, it's true.


O: So how's it going?

RN: Well… Fine! I guess…

O: Excited about the new album?

RN: I think it's a good record, so it's like… Sure, I guess. I'm not quite sure I'm excited, exactly. It's a good record; I just hope a lot of people agree.


O: Was it fun making it?

RN: It's always good… It's what I like to do, but it's always a lot of work.

O: You just got done recording a seven-inch single with [big-time indie-rock producer] Steve Albini. How was that?


RN: It was, well, interesting… He's a real gentleman, technically quite brilliant. A very smart cookie. I'm glad he asked to work with us. It was interesting, because he uses miking techniques with some of the mikes, which he's designed himself. He did it in a way that… Well, it was unique, let's put it that way. Different. Listen to it yourself! It's out on Sub Pop right now. We covered "The Brontosaurus"; the original by The Move is real cool. I mean, it's like, we didn't outdo it; usually when we do cover songs, we try to do it a bit different, and this one, although it's not the same as the original, it's the cover that's closest to the original that we've ever done. On the original, there's overdub after overdub on it, and slide guitars, and all kinds of things. But not with us! It was just two guitars, bass, drums, a couple vocalists… It was just really fun stuff.

O: Do you guys always record live to tape like that? Not much studio wizardry?

RN: We try to. We like the old analog thing; it's very important in our recording. Everybody goes digital, and, y'know, we mix it down to digital to press it and stuff. But analog just has a better sound. If you've heard our record, I think that sonically, it's one of our better records. If you haven't heard it, it's still sonically one of our better records.


O: Actually, for the new record, they gave me a tape. The quality's not exactly…

RN: Tape stinks! The quality stinks! Bitch at those folks who gave it to you. Call 'em up courtesy of me, bitch at 'em, and just say, "Hey!" 'Cause you gotta hear it correctly. I had a tape, and it was like… I'd heard it before, and then I heard it on tape, and, oh my god, it's not even the same thing—it sounds like crap! I thought, "Oh, man, here I got my hopes up for a good album, and it sounds terrible." When I got the CD, of course, it sounded terrific. Sonically it does. And that affects the way you relate to the songs, too.


O: I'm sure they'll send us the CD when it's ready.

RN: Well, it's been out in Japan three weeks now. It's doing real good over there.


O: Still huge in Japan?

RN: We're the same size there as we are here. But our popularity is just fine, thanks. Thanks for asking.


O: Well, you were a guitar hero there. There as well as here.

RN: I never thought of it that way, actually. I'm a guitar player. Actually, I think of myself as a songwriter/rhythm-guitar player. But I have to take on the high-note stuff, too, although some of my solos are low notes. I prefer to be an equal-opportunity offender of the guitar.


O: You have a detail-oriented reputation, as far as your music goes. Have you ever produced anything besides Cheap Trick's records?

RN: I've been asked to do quite a few things, but when business was good I was always too busy. When business was lousy, I was still too busy. I'm going to start taking more projects, because I enjoy it. I produced and engineered stuff for Stars On Ice with Scott Hamilton, and I just did something for some modern-dance people who are with Baryshnikov and the Joffrey Ballet in New York. It played for three days three weeks ago. Reviews were such that it warranted more play, as they say.


O: Stars On Ice to the Joffrey Ballet to Cheap Trick is quite a range.

RN: Yeah, well, you know. I did an interview last week for TV Guide Online—I was like, what in the world?—and I was telling them basically the same story. Anything on ice to the Joffrey is not a direct line in most people's minds. And the editor says, "I'd love to have you for my other magazine." I say, "Oh yeah? What's that?" And he says, "Interview." "Oh!" I say. "Oh, that one!" He says, "Yeah!" [Laughs.] Y'know, I met Andy Warhol years ago. I thought, "Man, this is cool!" Telling people something they don't know rather than the normal ordinary boring bio baloney that's usually wrong anyhow. When I do interviews, I always go in with the attitude that something good can happen from it. You try to get something positive out of the whole situation. Otherwise, why do these dumb things?


O: Well, don't think I don't appreciate that.

RN: Yeah. You make a difference, I can make a difference. That's the idea. Otherwise, you're "jerking off," as they say. It's a disservice to yourself and your audience.


O: Do all the Cheap Trick guys still live in Rockford?

RN: I do. Bun E. [Carlos, drums] lives in the area. Tom [Petersson, bass] is in Nashville and Robin [Zander, vocals] is down in Florida… Y'know, we'll be shooting a video around there, sort of a live thing. Not a real show; we're just going to invite people and have them act like they like us. Call our office! Talk to them! Be in the video! It'll be cool.


O: Uh… really?

RN: Sure! But as long as you're calling our office, have them send you the CD. Before you pan our album, you should hear what it really sounds like, so have 'em send you a CD. And a CD player with big speakers.


O: I'll have 'em send me a CD player with big speakers. So, you've been enjoying renewed popularity lately.

RN: We have?

O: Apparently. I read so. You played at Lollapalooza, didn't you?

RN: Oh, yeah, we did! The bands asked us, and we didn't say no.

O: Who in particular asked you?

RN: Soundgarden and Metallica, The Ramones, Everclear… I think they all wanted to see if we still knew how to play. And we got up there and just kicked their ass. We did. We just played and played well. It was fun!


O: Do you see a lot of Cheap Trick's influence in other bands?

RN: I never really do. But with the ones I do see it in, we've never been bright enough to sue 'em. Besides, we stole it from somebody else! We were influenced by so many other people that it's a compliment when someone's not ashamed to admit they like us. Plus, the cool thing is that I don't like everything we do. At the time you mean it to be the best, but I'm still critical of every record Cheap Trick has made, and I hope I continue that way. It's healthy. When someone says, "Hey, man, you're great!" you can say, "Oh, yeah? Wait 'til you hear this!"


O: What would you take back?

RN: Oooh… Well, sonically and mix-wise, stuff on almost every album.

O: There's nothing in particular you're going to mention?

RN: Nah. By me saying it, it influences somebody else.

O: Do people always say "The Flame"?

RN: No. The time that sticks out is when a guy who liked us and our music picked out a song that I think is one of the best songs I've ever written, and one no one really knew about. He picks that one as his least favorite! Which is cool. I'm shocked, but I remember it to this day. Music is supposed to do that, in a way. He wasn't being a smartass, trying to get me going. It was legit. It wasn't the song I would have picked.


O: What about "Up The Creek"?

RN: Now that was a bad song! I co-wrote that… No, wait, let's see… I can't remember. Maybe I actually wrote that whole thing. Man! I must've been high. That was one of the worst songs—put it this way, it was one of the worst movies that's ever been out. Song-wise, it fit right in with the movie. Our video was the worst video we've ever done. We've done some bad, bad ones, but that took the cake. The worst… [Background talking, laughter.] Hey, my wife, who wasn't even listening, heard me say "worst" and said, "Up The Creek"? and started laughing. Hey, at least we weren't standing there looking at each other trying to fake some ballad. And… [Addresses wife.] What? I just gave you money yesterday. [Returns to subject.] Anyway… "Don't Be Cruel" was kind of a fun video. It was real pop, kinda dopey.


O: Bun E. looked great.

RN: Didn't he? He looked great dressed as Elvis. It was tough to get him into that Elvis outfit, but, man, it was tougher to get him out! He loved it! And, let's see… I'm trying to think. I guess they're all kinda crummy. We're not actors. I'm a reactor. I can react to crowds, performing situations. Say "Action!" and I'm, "Uhhh, what?"


O: What was the crowd like at Lollapalooza? Were they good to you?

RN: Well, at first, they were like, "My older brother knows those guys, my sister used to like them, my mother once, well, who knows?" It was 105 degrees in the sun, and here goes! Cheap Trick! Oh, boy. At first it was like, "I don't know why they got you moes on stage here," but after a while the guys in Metallica, the guys in Soundgarden—Chris Cornell helped write the song list for us, although we were going to use the songs he suggested anyway, and I just gave a false sense of security to that guy… They were all real nice. And then Joey Ramone came up and sang "Surrender" with us, and the guys in Everclear came, and it was cool. And these bands are all on stage watching us. If they didn't want to be there, the stairs went the other way, too, but they stayed for the whole set, and by halfway through, people started to get it. Sure, we've been around, but we still know how to play. We still got some cool songs.


O: And two weeks after that, you played The Casino Bar in Waupaca, Wisconsin.

RN: Now that was good! The reason some of that stuff happened—and every job is important—is we got asked… The only act that asked us to play with them last year was Boston. And we thought, well, we don't want to go out with them, but it was the only offer, and our box set was coming out. We didn't feel too bad about going out with them. And then they canceled right before Lollapalooza, and Lollapalooza had asked us to play more shows, too. And we couldn't do it 'cause we were gonna play this Boston deal. So, now we can't do Lollapalooza stuff and we're not doing the Boston thing, and we need to work! So we scrambled, and for two weeks we had some places that we normally wouldn't play, but so what? If we hold a grudge, the audience will know it for sure. I'm sure the Casino is acoustically not the finest pace, but what is? After all, Madison Square Garden sounds like crap. Uh, hey, I gotta get the other line. [Pauses, returns.] Sorry.


O: Hey, you're at home.

RN: Yeah, and my kids don't give me messages too well. I'd rather be a better example to them than, well, the normal example. Although I'm quite an example. I have four kids, all from the same wife, all from the same husband, I think… Yeah, that's me. I've been home four times in my career, and my wife was high or something each time.


O: So you're a good solid family man.

RN: Yeah, I'm a good solid family man. I don't say I'm a good solid man, but, y'know. They always love me. They don't always like me, and I deserve that.


O: Do you ever get crap from your kids for being a rock-and-roller?

RN: They don't give me crap about that. My daughter, who's only eight, is always, "When's Daddy coming back from vacation?" Vacation? Out on the road for months and months? It's not the hardest job in the world, but it ain't vacation. She's my only girl kid. I took her to Japan in December when we played there, and I'd taken her the year before. She loves it. I'm looking into doing some production work over there, maybe three months out of the year. I like it a lot there. The technology, everything, it just intrigues me.


O: Are the other guys all family men, too? Or is Robin Zander still just a pretty-boy?

RN: Robin has a family—he's still a playboy, but he has a wife and young son, plus a boy and a girl from his first marriage.


O: Did you ever think about forming a Sons and Daughters of Cheap Trick band?

RN: Hey, yeah!

O: They could open for you. It'd be cheap.

RN: Yeah! Plus we could screw 'em just like our manager screwed us!

O: And you could tell 'em it was for their own good.

RN: Just like he did. It was done for our own good. Actually, this video that we're all doing next week—my son, who's 16, and Robin's son, who's 14 or 15, are gonna play a small part in it. We do stuff together when we can. I did take one son to the Bulls game last night. It was fun… We left after three quarters. Coulda left after the first quarter. They won by, like, 43 points.


O: How old is your son?

RN: That one's 23.

O: Wow. I thought you were 23.

RN: Well, I… was.