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| 20 April 2021 | Reply

By Shane Pinnegar


Photograph by Todd Jolicoeur

Almost fifty years into their stellar career, Cheap Trick have released the long-awaited In Another World, their twentieth studio album.

It’s another near-perfect slice of Cheap Trick awesomeness – like all their records. Effortlessly combining Beatles and Beach Boys harmonies and melodies with power pop and hard rock riffs, the band core of guitarist Rick Nielsen, singer-guitarist Robin Zander and bassist Tom Petersson are in exemplary form, with Rick’s son Daxx now occupying the drum stool no slouch either.

I’ve been asked not to discuss the falling out the band had with founding drummer Bun E Carlos, but apart from that our conversation is open season for all things Cheap Trick starting with a self-indulgent fanboy moment after being a fan of this band for some forty-four years.

“Thanks for your time today, Rick. Like any fan of decent music, I’m a huge fan, so it’s a real buzz to talk to you.”

Nielsen lives up to his reputation as a wisecrackin’ jester immediately.

“Well, that’s better than the last [interviews] that Chris got for me. They all hated me!”

Moving directly onto business, I want to know how the band retains such vibrancy and creativity after almost fifty years.

“Well, I think we like what we do and we don’t try to have expectations that we can’t keep up with,” Nielsen replies thoughtfully. “And we try to make… every song is like a new thing for us. It’s like, we don’t try to remake this thing just like that thing. We go in and we look at it in a positive light and try to take one riff and turn it into a whole song or whatever. It’s a lot of fun working like that, you know?

“Nothing [is] preconceived and the fact that we all work together well means that we’re not afraid to say, ‘well, that sucks.’ Well, sort of not like that – but we say, ‘why don’t we work a little harder on that middle part there.’”

In Another World may be Cheap Trick’s twentieth studio record, but they didn’t approach it thinking it would be a milestone album.

“I don’t think any of us knew that it was the 20th, I’ve never thought about it,” chuckles the guitarist. “You know, with all the compilations and best of, and that stuff that’s on different albums, I don’t have half the stuff that we’ve done! I go online and I[‘m] like, ‘oh, really? I never… oh, that’s cool.’ Here’s a band doing our songs, ‘oh, that’s cool.’ It’s just, it’s kind of strange. We’re on TV – I get people text me, ‘hey, do you know you’re on?’ ‘No!’

“But no, we didn’t know it was the 20th. At least I didn’t. I never thought about it or counted it. Maybe it is. I better go back and check it!”

Nielsen refers above to complications, and the gestation for In Another World was long at the very least. The first single came out in 2018, their extremely topical cover of John Lennon’s Gimme Some Truth (featuring, incidentally, ex-Sex Pistol Steve Jones on guitar) was released as another single in 2019. There was talk as far back as 2018 that the album was going to be out that year.

“Well, no, it wasn’t,” Nielsen sets the record straight. “It wasn’t like what we have on there now. We just always kept working. It’s like never knowing what was coming out and we were working with Julian [Raymond – producer] and we’re in the studio. It was like, ‘we can’t finish this [track] right now so we’ll have a day off, we’ll come back in, and work on that.’ In the meantime we write something else, and so the [first one] gets pushed aside. And then Julian, a month later was like, ‘hey, you want to finish this one?’ I was like, ‘what is it?’ ‘I can’t remember either.’

“So we just always kept working and there was no release date that we had. The Summer Looks Good On You, that came out. That was a single, but it was never going to be just an album. So in the meantime we did the David Bowie track [a cover of Rebel Rebel released as a non-album single in 2020], we did She Said She Said for Jack Douglas [for Howard Stern’s 2016 Beatles Revolver tribute album], we did some Harry Nilsson tribute stuff [the song Ambush, covered for the Nilsson tribute This Is The Town: A Tribute To Nilsson Volume 2, in 2019], and we worked on other things too.

“Then we did the Gimme Some Truth, that was done way later. And the artwork – I think it was done yesterday,” he jokes. “So it’s been a long time coming. It went from being on Big Machine, and now we’re on BMG… so now we have more interviews than I’ve ever done in my life! I’ve lost my voice, which is kind of a good thing.”

Another spanner in the works that delayed In Another World further was the COVID-19 pandemic, which hit when they were still finishing recording.

“We just stopped right there for a month off,” Nielsen explains. “Robin was going to Germany with Alice Cooper and an orchestra, he’d do a couple of numbers with strings and stuff. They did two shows and then that was it. They almost didn’t get out of Germany!

“And at the same time I’m working with two of my kids. I always work with Daxx, but my son Miles, who has his own band, is a really great guitar player and singer, and his wife is a Ford model and really hot singer, and I’ve never played with them. You know, I’ve gone and played a song with them here and there.

Photograph by Todd Jolicoeur

“When he was a kid growing up he went on tour with me and loved it so much. He was on the bus with me – for years he was usually on the bus with the crew guys from the OTHER band. [laughs] He really loves it. He’s got it in his blood and he’s been a musician for as long as I’ve known him. And with his own band, not riding onto me or whatever, which I think is great.

“I always tell people, they say, ‘well, you must have told your kids this and that.’ I say I would help them if they tried everything and couldn’t figure something out. But otherwise, it doesn’t help to just blanket them – ‘here you go, here’s the keys to the car.’ You haven’t earned it. So yeah, he’s on his own and it’s amazing. We just did a stream yesterday and his voice is so great. I mean, it was always good – he actually was in a choir, the real stuff like Robin, he’s a real singer. He was in choir in school and all that stuff. It really makes a difference.”

We digressed a little bit there, but Rick quickly returns to the point at hand: the pandemic interrupting recording the album.

“So the pandemic happened, then nobody did anything, I don’t think. It was uninspiring. People say, ‘hey, I bet you’re going to have a whole bunch of new great songs.’ But it was uninspiring to me and I was like, ‘yeah, I don’t know, maybe when it’s all over.’

“And so in the meantime, we also had a live double album from 1979 at The Whiskey Au Gogo come out in the last year. So, you know, all this stuff, it seems kind of trivial in a way, but the fact that we tour all the time, we never [normally] have enough time to do anything [like this] really.”

No 2021 interview would be complete without asking if the hiatus from touring caused by the pandemic has been frustrating.

“Ahhhhhhhhh…yes and no. I got to know my family a bit better. But I feel worse for the crew and the club owners and the people that work at these places, because it’s way tougher for them. It’s tough for us all, but I feel bad for these guys [because] their lives depend on us – their livelihood. To me, we lost our drum tech, he finally had to quit. He and his wife, they didn’t have insurance… but everybody else [in our organization] has remained the same. But at the same time it’s tough, very tough.”

With people unable to spend their money on concert tickets and whatnot, are you finding that they’re funneling some of that money more into records, merch, and so forth?

“That, I don’t know. I don’t know really about it. Hopefully they saved up enough so they can come see us again [when touring is back]. At the same time, I have a business in Chicago and we’re donating money towards the clubs, but we had to get another company to handle it, just because there’s so many places that I don’t know about. They’re ALL hurting.

“So it’s like: who do you help first? [It’s] just kind of a blanket thing. And I tell people, of course, I don’t know all the stuff that’s going on. But do you ask a 72-year-old man for fashion tips? I don’t think so!”

In Another World ends with the double punch of the simply beautiful ballad I’ll See You Again, and the aforementioned slab of vitriol and anger that is Gimme Some Truth. I ask Rick if they were deliberately put at the end to surprise listeners after the bouncy, happy, riffy power pop that went before.

“Well, I didn’t know that I’ll See You Again was even going to be on there! Because it was written for Julian Raymond’s brother-in-law who died. And so we were writing something for him because he was a Cheap Trick man, too. And Julian said, ‘can we do this?’ [We say] ‘yeah okay,’ not thinking… We just tried to do a good job, so we didn’t know how it was going to be. Plus after the mixing and stuff, I didn’t hear it with all the finery and all that stuff. But then he says he wanted to have it on [the record]. Great.

“And then we did Gimme Some Truth, and this was so spot on to what was going on for the last four years [under Trump] and without saying what you’re really thinking, it was apropos to what was going on. We were at Jonesy’s Jukebox [Steve Jones’ radio show in L.A.] and I brought this guitar,” Nielsen picks up a guitar that was sitting just off screen, and starts to strum it, “a ’62 Dwight Coronet. And we knew we were going to play something on his show. And I think, maybe, that we did that. And he’s such a good chop rhythm kind of guy. I’m kind of more of a rhythm guy myself. And I was like, ‘hey, do you want to play that on record?’ ‘Yeah!’ He jumped at it.

“I think he wanted the guitar too, but I wasn’t going to give him that! Well, there you go. So we flew his parts in. We actually worked with him before on his show, we did a Sex Pistols song.”

Photograph by Todd Jolicoeur

Cheap Trick, Suzi Quatro, Alice Cooper – you’ve all released fantastic albums in the last couple of months. Why do you keep doing it when some of your peers – and I’m thinking Gene Simmons amongst them – keep saying there’s no financial point to releasing new music?

“You put that key word in there: ‘financial.’,” he laughs, still strumming his guitar. “We make records that we figure probably won’t sell, and we do it because it’s cool. How do you stay relevant? It doesn’t mean if you sell a record – one, two or none. The fact that people listen to them is cool, and of course they’re going to listen to your old stuff, that’s not a given, but it’s pretty cool. Anyhow, why make new music? Well, I’m doing an interview with you! There’s the reason!

“Could you repeat that – the ‘no financial what’ part?” he laughs, extracting his mobile phone and pretending to dial the band. “I’m just going to take a second here. [To me, before pretending to talk down his phone] ‘there’s no financial point to doing another record – okay? I got it!’

“I like Gene,” he says, still chuckling at his joke. “But that’s why ‘KISS’ has the two S’s – dollar signs.”

After their 2016 induction in the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, after more than twenty million record sales, and now after twenty studio albums and a myriad of compilations, live releases, soundtrack appearances, non-album singles, hits, misses and literally thousands of live shows to legions of fans… does Nielsen consider what Cheap Trick do and your musical contributions to be that word ‘legendary’?

“I don’t know about ‘legendary,’ but we had a lot of influences growing up or whatever, and they’re still good. And a lot of the bands that have done way better than us cite us as having influenced them. Like Nirvana. What? Kurt Cobain said something about us. Foo Fighters. What? They’d done way, way more [sales] than us. And I’ve played on Motley Crue’s record and played on Aerosmith records, played with John Lennon, played with Hall & Oats…

“You mentioned KISS… Joe Perry and myself were the only two guys that got on the stage with KISS. It was a year and a half ago in Rockford. They asked me up because I knew the guys from years ago. I mean, Gene and Paul came to see us at Max’s Kansas City on a Tuesday night… there was nobody there, but they knew who we were before we made the first record.

“So… he’s had some bad ideas too, but he’s liked us the whole time. And we treated him like… we didn’t kiss his ass, we just did what we do. And so… what was the question?” he jokes again, before launching back into his answer, “so, [we’ve had] influence on people, [but] I think with Cheap Trick, we’ve made every mistake possible. We’ve been sued, lost lawsuits, had records that came out that didn’t do anything, made some bad decisions here and there – but we kept going. Nothing could stop us. And that’s the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame – all the shows we played when nobody was there, where we got our chops.”

I mention a quote I read attributed to Nielsen, that he thinks Cheap Trick are “everybody’s fifth favourite band,” which I think is very funny.

“Well, I kind of think it’s true. It’s like… I don’t mind being behind Led Zeppelin. If we were your number one, then you haven’t heard enough stuff, you know! But at the same time, if you’re in the top five, that ain’t bad. I mean, I like people to like us.”

Since Mötley Crüe was mentioned a minute ago, I can’t help but ask about the incident written about in their The Dirt autobiography – after all, everybody loves a good rock n’ roll debauchery story. Is it true, that at one point in Japan, Nikki Sixx –

“No, that was in Europe – it was urine,” says Nielsen, expertly anticipating my question with a laugh and another strum on his guitar. “It was Euro-pee-in’. Yeah, it was true. I had this jacket or a coat and it was rubberized. It was around the time when all the punks were doing it. It was from… what was the place? There’s a market… Kensington market?

“They had all the weird stuff. Well, I liked this thing because it was a rubber coat and it looked like a Gestapo coat and I got a Norton rubber belt with a Norton motorcycle insignia on it. It was just, it was awful. It was not me, but it was so disgusting and I had it. And so I was standing there at the bar and he was peeing. Luckily it was a rubber coat because you’re peeing on the back of my coat… yeah.

“And also I helped him when he was home with his dad a couple of times. I gave him advice. You know, I’ve given advice to other guys in bands as well. Their manager will call me, ‘Rick, could you go talk to him?’ I said, ‘okay, I’ll talk to this guy for you.’ ‘hey – do heroin every OTHER day, don’t do it every day!’ ‘Get clean – do that!’”

You’re holding and strumming a guitar right now as we speak. Do you play every day?

“I do now because I get too nervous just talking to you,” he says, which is inconceivable to this interviewer. “I do. I never used to [play every day], but now I do because I’m writing songs in my head, riffs, coming out with new chord stuff that… there’s only 12 notes that everybody gets and I’m finding some good ones.”

As for thinking up new tricks to use in his material…

“I’d better, or they’ll find a new guitar player! Well, if you know the album, let’s see what’s in it… Light Up The Fire.” He strums the riff. “If you listen to it, the solo when it comes up, I took the idea from the first song that Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck were together on a release. It was Happening 10 Years Time Ago, and Jeff plays the solo but the rhythm part is… you get to the solo it goes…” strum strum strum, “so that’s the first part of the solo that Jeff Beck plays on this. It was apropos to me when we did Light Up The Fire, that’s the first part of the solo that I do.

“I don’t play it as good. But the song lends itself to that. You mentioned about some people that I liked. I also liked… I’m not crazy about it, but Neil Young plays sometimes,” strum strum, “one-note solo. I like that. You know, rather than trying to play something that he’d be awkward on or I’d be like…” strum, “I like it when they play that rhythm chunky stuff. To me, it lends as much stuff to the song as having some virtuoso on there.”

Photograph by Todd Jolicoeur

Wikipedia suggests Nielsen has owned over 2000 guitars over the years – it’s a collection which has been talked about in hushed voices for many, many years. How many, I wonder, does he have at the moment?

“How many do you want?” he quips.

“I have about 500 right now. I just like it. I like the old [ones]… there’s a ’62 here. You know, I always like new stuff that has the mojo of whatever. And they’re always cheaper and they’re… Everyone to me is like kind of a work of art. It’s like some are bad art. Some are overpriced and some are underpriced. I find it’s better to buy low and sell high.

“Like these,” he references the guitar he is still strumming away on, “were 147 bucks each. And they only made 47 of them, something like that. So I’ve done some research on this stuff. And the reason that this is called a Dwight Coronet, because it’s really an Epiphone Coronet, but they got the name ‘Dwight’ for the salesman that sold the most Flying V’s in 1958.

“So they gave him his own [model guitar]. He taught, he had a big guitar school. Actually he rented most of those things out. And there’s one for sale right now on Reverb for $12,000!

“But I don’t do it as an investment – and I’m not buying [that one for sale] either, but it’s like as an investment, I never really thought too much about that. I got stuff because I liked it. These are very hard to find and they’re cool. They’re like Juniors, like Les Paul Juniors of that era, single pickup, and it sounds cool. And that was what Steve Marriott used when he was doing Live At The Fillmore and I Don’t Need No Doctor. He was playing a Dwight Coronet! So it was rare.”

And does each of those 500 – or even 2000 – guitars have its own character and sound?

“Probably… but some of them I paid too much, and some are kind of why-do-I-have-this-it’s-kind-of-worthless. What is the artistry of it? I can’t make anything, but I can design – I’m good at seeing design and seeing how things work, but the artistry and the craftsmanship of somebody is amazing. And there’s also stuff that’s overrated too. I just like [guitars].

“If I had 500 cars it would be ridiculous. I went and took one of my guitars and saw John Mayer because I thought he was collecting guitars. I brought him this real rare guitar that I have, a 1963 Guild Merle Travis – they only made three, and I have the second one. I brought it to him to show it to him. He says, ‘I collect watches.’ No. No. So I walked out and was just like forget it.
That wasn’t one-upping me – it was like, I didn’t care!”

How could anyone forget that Rick Nielsen was the man who designed double-necked guitars in his own image, as well as multi-necked beasts which defied gravity and reason.

“Yeah. That’s stupid,” he laughs. “They had to make it so it all played, because I didn’t want to stand up there and it’s not even plugged in – it’s too ridiculous, that’s why I wanted it! And originally I wanted it to have six necks and spin like a roulette wheel, but then Billy Gibbons… [created a plush guitar which spun around on demand] and they thought I would be copying him.

Photograph by Todd Jolicoeur

“So we had a five-neck and nobody was copying me, or I wasn’t copying anybody. That’s the truth. I have three of them now.

“And graphics, too. The graphics like on my first checkerboard, that was little squares of Monsanto tape. I’m glad they made it, but I didn’t have the patience, or I couldn’t do it. You need somebody who’s skilled to do this. But you know, I knew what I wanted. The Explorer shape was what I needed. Everybody had Les Pauls. Well – I have those too, but the Explorer, it says something to me. It was like, it was a bit not right. And in ’58, they only made 19 of those, so it was so rare to find.

“So when I had Hamer build stuff for me, it’s like, that’s my shape. So that’s why we ended up doing all that, and then they actually brought back the Explorer, then everybody else started making stuff like that too.”

It’s selfish, I know, but I chose to end the interview on another fanboy moment, simply because it really was a thrill to interview this guy whose songs have been a part of my life since I was a pre-teen.

“Thankyou Rick, it’s been a thrill. It’s a great album, just wonderful. I don’t understand why Cheap Trick aren’t the biggest band in the world. But to me you’re right up there.”

“Well, you’re the smartest guy in the world,” he grins. “We’re in your top five. There you go.”

In Another World is out now.


Category: Interviews

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