Cheap Trick, a band with more than 30 years of history, that has already released fifteen studio albums, and managed to influence loads of other bands and artists, either obviously or in a more subtle way, always emphasising in pop melody and naivite. Rick Nielsen is on the other side of the wire, talking about the band's career from 1977 to this day, all the mistakes, the hits and misses, in a great conversation. Interview by Yiannis Dolas
Rockpages.gr: How do you feel and what’s on your mind when you are ready to write and record album no.16?
Rick Nielsen: We love to record, and we love to write, so it is so much fun after all these years!
Rockpages.gr: Do you have in mind the fans’ expectations?
Rick: We recorded every song in different times. When we finished, we discovered that we made it into a trilogy. Three songs, three songs, three songs, three songs and then one song! If that makes any sense…
Rockpages.gr: You have also included a version of Slade’s “When The Lights Are Out”, in a new mix.
Rick: Yeah, that is correct. We did cover songs through our whole career. We did another Slade song years ago called “Cuz I Luv U” (Ed: Tom Petersson of Cheap Trick once said that his band went to see Slade perform and that they used "every cheap trick in the book", and that’s how the group got its name.), and I guess they have good songs to do! That was one we remembered from thirty years ago!
Rockpages.gr: Would you say this cover in particular “When The Lights Are Out”” is the expression of the band’s influences, coming from Britain?
Rick: Well, critics have always called us a power pop band, and I think that is a good description of what we do, and I think Slade were a terrific power pop band, that never had any success in the United States, but they were a good fun band to watch live… I think it’s good when we show good songs and an influence from our past. It’s a good fun pop song, and the album needed some of that. I am glad that we’ve recorded lots of things in the past that we can still think they are terrific today.
Rockpages.gr: “The Latest” sounds different than “Rockford”. I’d say that “Rockford” sounds more modern, while “The Latest” sounds more retro, but both of them sound like Cheap Trick. What do you say about that?
Rick: I agree in a way. I think that “The Latest” is more geared towards Robin Zander. He originally came up with the main idea for a lot of these songs and they were based more around the song, the strings and keyboards, not just guitars. That’s why it’s good that we had “When The Lights Are Out” and “Sick Man Of Europe” where there’s some guitars in there. I think you are correct, the album is fairly retro. It reminds me of Procol Harum.
Rockpages.gr: Do you think that bands like yourself, who have more than 35 years of history, have to sound like they did in the old days or is it just a natural thing?
Rick: Well, the way I think the song is the most important thing. The songs dictated us what we did, not how much years we’ve been together. Because, if you listen to the whole album it sounds like Cheap Trick grew up, but then you go back to some other songs, and they sound like we are 15 years old! Like we didn’t grow up!
Rockpages.gr: You released the album yourselves, which I think is a statement.
Rick: Yeah, we’ve been around longer than any of the record companies we’ve ever been with. We’ve been told through the years, “you should do this”, and “you should do that”, but we are Cheap Trick! We make our own mistakes!
Rockpages.gr: Do you think that this is the way for the future for every band? Since, piracy is up, and record sales are down?
Rick: I think for such a band like us, the record sales are down overall, but at the same time we are involved in more things than we ever were. We are involved in TV shows, movies, ring tones, video games…things that weren’t around when we started. And the fact that we are still playing a lot and we are putting out records with the original guys, this is a thing that nobody can buy, or put together. For example, nobody ever bought an Epic record or a “Michael Jackson” label; they bought their artist, they don’t care about the label. I think that something that the artists have found out is that the labels really have not been there for them. People come to see Cheap Trick, they don’t come to see the record company. It’s nice to have someone to help you promote, but then you have to pay that money back anyhow. They are doing a little favor, but not much!
Rockpages.gr: You mentioned mistakes. Recently I read an interview you gave, I think it was for Classic Rock, where you said that you made every mistake there is. Which one do you regret the most?
Rick: Well, the ones that we regret the most are probably on a few records we made, listening to the producer and manager about songs we didn’t believe in. We got rid of our manager, and we don’t use the producer anymore. They were wrong, but we were wrong for agreeing. On some of the records we did in the ‘80s they put too many keyboards! They didn’t ask for that, they would usually do that after we would leave the room…
Rockpages.gr: And, which mistake would you do again?
Rick: Hmm…which mistake would I do again…it’s a tough question! I would do every mistake again, but actually one thing I would do, would be to read the contract!
Rockpages.gr: You’ve recently re-released “Live At Budokan”, and you played in Japan again, how do you feel about that?
Rick: I think it was wonderful! Budokan was a big part in our career. One thing that was funny, was that I did a press tour, and they told me “Rick, everybody in Japan now says “Bu-dokan”, instead of “Budo-kan”, but I kept saying “Bu-dokan”, like “Live at the Bu-dokan”, and by me saying it wrong, everybody in the country pronounce it different. My line is that the Budokan made us famous, but we made Budokan famous.
Rockpages.gr: What do you think of the Japanese adopting the American culture so much?
Rick: Well, it was one of the reasons why we became so popular over there. In 1977, before our first record came on, the guys in Queen had heard it, and they really liked us. For the first two dates of that show, Thin Lizzy couldn’t make it to the States in time, so they’d ask us to play two shows, and we played in Milwaukee, and Madison Square Garden opening for Queen. And the Japanese press, because they like Queen so much, were at the show and they liked us a lot, and they asked if I would write an article. So, I wrote an article “On Tour With Queen”, talking about our group, and within a month or so, we begun getting fan mail from Japan, and they drew cartoon characters of the guys in Cheap Trick in those magazines and that really started our fan base from Japan. Later that year we did three months with KISS, and once again the Japanese press was there to see KISS, and they liked us and they gave us articles in their magazines. So, by the time we got in Japan, in 1978, we’d already had three No.1 singles, and we were well known to the fans there, ‘cause they’d really studied American rock’n’roll, and they liked us a lot, which was great!
Rockpages.gr: This year you also released “Sgt.Peppers”, which you recorded a couple of years earlier, both on CD and DVD. How did you feel playing one of the best albums in rock history?
Rick: It was very daunting, as they say! I actually had to practice, and learn the music. I knew the music in my head, but I have never played it! One of the reasons the Beatles broke up was that they didn’t think they could perform this stuff! It was an honor we were asked to do this. But, after that it was like “oho..i have to learn this”. Because, the first two shows that we did were at the Hollywood Bowl. We had 38,000 people there! And you can’t just walk and jam, or improvise on a Beatle song, because everybody in the audience knows how it’s supposed to be! So, we didn’t try to do it as a cover band, we tried to do it in their own way. Actually, we hired Geoff Emerick, the Beatles engineer, who we’d have worked before, to do the show. After a couple of shows Geoff said, “Rick, working with the Beatles on “Sgt.Peppers” was like doing a demo, compared to you”. Because, the Beatles at the time were breaking up, and they didn’t think too much about it. “You guys have still the excitement, and the energy behind it, and as far as I know you are not breaking up…”
Rockpages.gr: What a great compliment!
Rick: Yeah! And it comes from Geoff Emerick, he doesn’t get to many compliments, and it was a great honor!
Rockpages.gr: Plus, you’ve also inspired and been indicated as an influence for lots and lots of other bands and artists, that they don’t necessarily sound like Cheap Trick. What do you think about that?
Rick: Well, I think it’s great, because I think musicians are not known for saying nice things about other musicians! That’s the one thing of us, you know that quote that I said about “we made every mistake there was to make”, I think a lot of bands understand that, because we made every mistake, but at the same time we stayed together, we kept making records, we didn’t give up, we’ve hit every eye, and we’ve hit lots of lows. We’ve had great success, and great failures. The fact that we still keep going at it without a manager, without a record label or changing managers and record labels, we are the four guys, we are like a musician’s musician band. Musicians like us for that reason, I think.
Rockpages.gr: On that same interview you also said, that you know that Cheap Trick are not the top band for someone’s preference, but maybe the third, fourth, or whatever, which is something I’ve never read before some other musician saying.
Rick: Every place is good; I don’t care if we are fourth on that list. I am more a fan of songs myself! It’s like “I really like this band, but I didn’t like everything they did”! The same goes for the Beatles. I wasn’t a fan of “Lady Madonna”, but overall they are so great. Or, I love the Rolling Stones, but I don’t like every song they did, or I don’t like every solo album Mick Jagger did. But, you can be a fan. “Ohh Cheap Trick, well I don’t like everything they did, but they have some cool stuff”.
Rockpages.gr: Which album would you say is Cheap Trick’s more characteristic?
Rick: I’d say our first one, and “Live At Budokan” the complete album. Because, when we put out the original “…Budokan” it was only half of what they did, and it was more of the pop side. It didn’t have any of the heavier stuff we did. I think the fans would have thought a lot of different things about us, if the whole album had come out at once. Talking about idiots in record companies, and management, we made an album that was so hot and was selling great all around the world, and they waited for ten years to put out the second one, how stupid is that? (Ed: “Live At Budokan was released in 1979, and went triple-platinum, having sold more than three million copies. “Live At Budokan – The Complete Concert” was released in 1988)
Rockpages.gr: After all those years, all those successes, and misses, what is your ambition? What is there you wanna do now?
Rick: For me success is that we are still working, and the ringtones, the video games and that we are playing live shows, and we are playing “Sgt. Peppers”, and we are playing Cheap Trick… there is so many opportunities that are open for us, it’s amazing! Who wants to see an old fart like me on stage? I don’t care! The fact that they do is wonderful! I really hope we can get back in Greece! (Ed: Rick told us that they have shot three promotional videos in Greece, that he still haven’t managed to add in his collection of Cheap Trick material. If you know anything, please drop us a line!)