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Rick Nielsen - guitarist / songwriter, Cheap Trick
July 2000 - On the phone with Philip Anderson

Could a band go throughout the years being both so revered and yet so badly misrepresented at the same time? You bet! As in the case of Cheap Trick, a truly American band with some of the most covered and most loved songs ever, and yet they never seem to get the break they deserve to be what is usually considered "the big time". This is unfortunate because Cheap Trick's music, having been tempered by some of the best influences from music history, really does pen some timeless classics. We all know them, we've all heard them, so what does it take to get the rest of the public onto the cool secret. No one seems to know, most apparently the record companies who have always (mis)handled the band.

Cheap Trick's notoriety will be approaching the 30 year mark before too long and yet, the most respect that they have ever seemingly gotten is the abundance of love from the fans who "get it", the nods of appreciation from the bands who forever cover their songs and the radio stations who still push the hits. Somehow though, this never translates into bigger record sales. Who is to say why this is. Just know that Cheap Trick is still out there plugging away and writing songs that are better than ever.

Also recently released is the "Live At Budokan" album featuring two CDs which cover all of what they original release was meant to be. This could be considered one of the definitive Cheap Trick albums and is a sure necessity in anyone's collection.

Recently, we had the opportunity to see a rare acoustic show with the band at the Mountain Winery in Saratoga, CA. After the show, we were able to speak with guitarist Rick Nielsen on the phone to get some insight on the band's past and current goings on.

K2K: To get a little bit of history about the band, for those who don't know, how did the current line-up first get together and solidify as what is Cheap Trick?
RN: That was 25 years ago. The cream of the crop of the cream of the crab. We'd all been playing different places and we finally picked the best from each band and here we are.

K2K: How did you come across the name Cheap Trick?
RN: We used a bunch of different names and it was the name that worked that week. It was a time when everyone was "Led Zeppelin" and "Iron Butterfly". I guess those actually weren't the names of bands at that time but, if you have to tell people [that] you're big and cool and tough, then you probably aren't. We'd rather let our music and our playing show off rather than the "cool guys", then you find out "geez, these guys aren't that cool". But Cheap Trick, you know, we still aren't cheap and it's not a trick. We actually knew how to play. And it's kind of a household word, not like you use it everday or anything.
 
K2K: What year did this version of the band happen?
RN: '73 or '74.
 
K2K: When you first started, did you set out to be punkers or popsters? What direction were you trying for?
RN: Well, we were trying to be musicians like we are today.
 
K2K: So you were open to anything and didn't really set a direction?
RN: Yeah.
 
K2K: Do you think that most people "got" what you were about or do you think that it's still vague, regarding the band name and music direction and all?
RN: I don't know that anybody's ever gotten it. I mean, some people, yeah, I guess. I guess a lot of people have gotten it since we're still playing. I don't know. I guess you were at the show the other night...
 
K2K: Yeah. I've been seeing you play since 1978.
RN: So, we must be doing something right. We're still playing and people still like us I guess.
 
K2K: Now, I don't know if this is the media's fault or not but, I had gotten the impression that the band had always been vague on giving a description about your backgrounds, who you were, or what you were trying to do. The songs were great and I think that's what kept it going through the years.
RN: I hope you're right.
 
K2K: How much of what you've done over the years was meant to be tongue-in-cheek and how much was serious?
RN: I don't know. I mean, nothing that the band did was supposed to be tongue-in-cheek. We were what we were and we are what we are.
 
K2K: What about the image of the band?
RN: I don't know. I was never a front man but I wasn't a dull guitarist side-man either. Bun E. was never a pretty boy rock 'n' roll Tommy Lee kind of drummer. He was and is what he is. If you have to make up something... if you have to tell people you're cool, you're probably not.
 
K2K: How about the image of the band? How did you come up with the image of two studs and two nerds? Did someone decide that or did that just come to you?
RN: I liked being a stud. I didn't try anything on purpose.
 
K2K: I had read that in the early days they were trying to make you look like a Jimi Hendrix...
RN: Yeah, yeah, and obviously we didn't do it.
 
K2K: I know you get this all the time, but I never bought into it, but with the baseball caps and all, were you consciously doing the Huntz Hall [from the Bowery Boys] look?
RN: That didn't really influence me at all. That was 30 years ago.
 
K2K: Was it just something that you came up with?
RN: It looked good on me.
 
K2K: Well you're certainly a stand-out performer thought, that's for sure.
RN: Yeah, well. If I would have tried to dress up like everybody else did I would've falled flat on my face. By dressing more of how I did when I was home I got to have fun with it and people could tell us apart from the rest of the crowd.
 
K2K: What I thought was cool was that you were a great guitarist but by looking at your pictures one wouldn't know what to expect until they hear you. It's an inspiration for anyone, no matter what you look like, to be a performing musician.
RN: I know. Stereotyping can be... If you're worried about getting stereotyped and then you try to be a stereotype, it's like "wait a minute". I didn't want to be stereotyped and I didn't try to be the stereotype. I think it was kind of on my own.
 
K2K: I read also that you used to like to wear suits to look good. Was that influenced by the early R&B artists who would play all dressed up nice or in tuxedos?
RN: No, not really. I never thought just looking like crap, walking on in street clothes, was always a wonderful thing. We were there to perform and people were there to see us, you shouldn't look like you got out of your bed and onto the stage.
 
K2K: That's what that whole grunge thing was.
RN: Yeah, well that's all right for them.
 
K2K: When you were doing Sick Man Of Europe, were you already of notoriety or still playing clubs back then?
RN: We were doing clubs. We played maybe a dozen shows in a year, so it wasn't very big.
 
K2K: When Cheap Trick started playing the club circuits, did you ever do any shows with bands like Styx?
RN: With Styx? We've done some shows with them but they were quite arrogant so we never even spoke with them.
 
K2K: In regards to something that I had read - Was it really that frustrating to have your biggest success come from "Live At Budokan" as opposed to your earlier studio recordings?
RN: No, it was fine being successful no matter where it came from, I guess.
 
K2K: What made "Budokan" so special?
RN: I think it was, by 1978 or 1979, a lot of people had seen us play, who went to rock shows, and that was the record that sounded most like what we were like live. Because of that, it was like, "Hey. This is like the show I heard. Man, I heard those guys in concert..." and now they heard us on the radio sounding exactly like what they heard whereas before, we could never get airplay - or we didn't get much airplay?
 
K2K: "Heaven Tonight" seemed to do pretty well though.
RN: Yeah. I don't remember.
 
K2K: How big did "Budokan" finally get? How many did it sell?
RN: It sold a lot. Millions and millions and still selling.
 
K2K: You now have a new CD with both albums on it, right? Is that picking up good?
RN: It's doing alright.
 
K2K: I think it could have used more press and push.
RN: (laughs) More press? And more activity from the record company.
 
K2K: As far as the first three albums that Cheap Trick released, would you say that they reflected a "darker" side of life as opposed to just singing regular "rock love songs"?
RN: I think that every album we have has pop stuff and also has whatever. The world is not just a pop song nor... the world is not gloom and doom and it's not happy. It's a lot of in-between stuff.
 
K2K: What inspires you to write?
RN: That I'm not sure. Certain days you feel in a good mood... You know, it's like the old Almond Joy saying, "Sometimes you feel like a nut, sometimes you don't".
 
K2K: The song "Flame", did that really hurt your credibility?
RN: It was good and bad at the same time. You can say that about any number of our records. We have nothing to say. We did it well. We hardly ever play it.
 
K2K: Was the band always meant to be a one-vocalist band or did you ever want to split?
RN: No, it was always meant to be basically Robin. As far as us singing background, we always wanted to do that.
 
K2K: You do some parts as well though...
RN: Yeah, but not much. When you have a singer as good as Robin...
 
K2K: What's the story of Tom leaving for seven years?
RN: You'll have to ask him.
 
K2K: How was it working with Pete Comita and Jon Brandt?
RN: They were fine. They're still good friends of ours.
 
K2K: How did you feel about Tom touring as Sick Man Of Europe on the side?
RN: Good for him.
 
K2K: I mean in reference to his using that name?
RN: He was part of Sick Man Of Europe so he can do whatever he wants.
 
K2K: What is your personal favorite Cheap Trick album?
RN: The next one.
 
K2K: Is it always that way?
RN: See how it goes.
 
K2K: What do you think is the most important or viable Cheap Trick song?
RN: Oh, I don't know. I'd have to leave that to somebody else. Somebody says, "Oh, I like 'Surrender'" or "I like 'Dream Police'". Everybody's got a different opinion.
 
K2K: You yourself don't have a personal definitive?
RN: No. If I tell somebody what my opinion is... what if they don't like my opinion?
 
K2K: Yeah, but it's still your opinion.
RN: There you go. They're all my kids, so I like them all. But, like kids, they run off and do bad things, so...
 
K2K: I personally thought that "Heaven Tonight" was...
RN: (interjects) Well there you go...
 
K2K: I thought it was a haunting and moody album. I was wondering what your thoughts are on it.
RN: I thought it was haunting and moody.
 
K2K: What was the story about the title supposed to be "American Standard"?
RN: Someone at the record company wanted to call it that and we knew it was a bad idea so we didn't do it.
 
K2K: Why keep the same cover then?
RN: The cover was us.
 
K2K: What about the lavatory?
RN: Unless you knew it... You wouldn't have known that until a year later when we started telling people what the record company wanted to call it.
 
K2K: Do you remember playing Day On The Green [in Oakland, CA] in 1978?
RN: Yup.
 
K2K: Was that your first major tour?
RN: No, we had played Europe before. That was a pretty big show for us though. Kirk Hammett [Metallica guitarist] was there.
 
K2K: Yeah, they had the "unknown" band, AC/DC, opening up the day.
RN: They were known to us because we had toured with them quite a bit.
 
K2K: Any favorite memories about the first time when you toured Japan?
RN: Good stuff. They liked us a lot. "Budokan" was our first tour.
 
K2K: Is it really as different as everybody says?
RN: Oh, you gotta go there on your own. I won't give it away.
 
K2K: Do you remember a band called British Lions from around the same time?
RN: Yup. (makes an accent) We're so British, we're the British Li-ons. We worked a couple of shows with them. Not many.
 
K2K: It was surprising that they never broke as big since you both had the same type of hard-edged punky pop sound.
RN: Oh goody.
 
K2K: Have you considered playing on any of the current punk rock tours to rekindle that side of the fan base?
RN: If we'd get asked. Why not? We're not afraid to play on anything.
 
K2K: "Woke Up With A Monster" was such a great album. What happened to it?
RN: Yeah, there was some fun stuff on there. The president and Mo Ostin got fired right when the record came out. That didn't help.
 
K2K: Who are your guitar influences?
RN: Jeff Beck, Jeff Beck, Jeff Beck and Jeff Beck.
 
K2K: First albums owned?
RN: Sandy Nelson. The Ventures.
 
K2K: Did you ever set out to be a guitar hero or more of a songwriter?
RN: I never set out to be either one. I think I'm more of a songwriter than a guitar hero.
 
K2K: How do you like the comparisons of being one of the most respected guitarists?
RN: I don't know. I don't read my own press.
 
K2K: How many guitars do you own?
RN: How many do you want? I've owned about 2,000. I own a couple hundred right now.
 
K2K: Are they all custom made?
RN: No, not all of them. Of course not.
 
K2K: Is there any favorite custom shop that you would reccomend?
RN: Yeah, two. The Hamer custom shop and another one called Girl Brand.
 
K2K: Do you ever build any guitars yourself by hand?
RN: No. I have no talent that way. None at all.
 
K2K: Favorite guitar to play?
RN: I have one Les Paul that I think is my overall favorite, but otherwise I like them all.
 
K2K: Do you prefer to play Les Pauls in the studio?
RN: Well, no. On certain songs. They're good for certain things.
 
K2K: Is it hard to get used to the different feels when switching guitars onstage?
RN: Nah. Not for me.
 
K2K: Give me a quick comment on how your gear is set up onstage.
RN: Come and take a look. A lot of Paul Rivera tweaked stuff, from Fenders to Marshalls. Otherwise it's all stuff that I do myself because I don't really use any effects.
 
K2K: Do you think that "speed freak" guitar heroes killed off guitar rock at the end of the 1980s?
RN: I don't know. I never worried about them. I didn't play that fast that I didn't even think about it.
 
K2K: Are any of your kids currently in bands?
RN: Yup. Harmony Riley. (www.harmonyriley.com). Two of them are in there. Go to the site and you'll see them.
 
K2K: Did you send them in that direction?
RN: Nope. It was all up to them.
 
K2K: I hear that you're an avid golfer. What's your handicap?
RN: I'm not an avid golfer. I like to play, but I play with one of my sons.
 
K2K: So you don't actually go out on the circuits or anything?
RN: Nope.
 
K2K: Any views on the current musical trends?
RN: I don't comment on the Fourth Of July weekend. I'm too patriotic.
 
K2K: As a last question, what is Robin Zander's nationality?
RN: Singer.
 
And with that, Rick had to get going to prepare for that evening's show. In the meantime, until Cheap Trick comes through your town, be sure to check out the complete "Live At Budokan" 2-CD set as well as their latest releases. Don't forget, too, "Woke Up With A Monster", which is perhaps the greatest album to date, at least during the 1990s.
For more information about Cheap Trick, visit: http://www.cheaptrick.com/
 
Written by Philip Anderson / Photo by Donrad

Philip Anderson is a musician, in addition to being a writer/photographer. He has performed as a guitarist/vocalist, as well as songwriter, in several bands over the past 20 years. As a writer and photographer, he has been published by several magazines and in several books, and had his works appear on television.

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