Car Trouble: An interview with
From 1978 to 1988, Ric Ocasek was the driving force behind the Cars, one of the most important American bands to emerge in the avant garde of the new wave movement. The Cars’ unique mix of quirkiness and clever pop sensibilities brought them mainstream success with a string of hits like “Just What I Needed,” Candy O,” “Magic,” “You Might Think,” and “Drive.” When they disbanded, Ocasek dove into production, working with bands as diverse as Suicide, Bad Brains, Weezer, Nada Surf, and D Generation. Every couple of years, he makes a record of his own. On a day in late October, I met Ocasek at a small restaurant in New York’s Gramercy Park neighborhood, close to where he lives with his wife, Paulina, and their young son. Ocasek speaks candidly about his memories of the Cars and his new record, Troublizing — his fifth solo effort and the first for the Columbia label. “This one,” Ocasek is happy to admit, “is probably my favorite one since the first [solo record].”
Troublizing, which was produced by Smashing Pumpkins’ frontman, Billy Corgan, has a warmer feeling to it than his work with the Cars. Still, whether it’s owing to the unique “sung/spoken” quality of Ocasek’s voice or the presence of Cars’ keyboardist Greg Hawkes, many of the songs sound like they would have been at home on Cars albums; just listen to “The Next Right Moment” and “Hang on Tight.” Not surprisingly, he doesn’t think his songwriting style has changed much over the span of 20 years. “I think that songs get better lyrically and sometimes you can pull off a song that’s different than what you’d normally write, but I think [that’s] rare. The Rolling Stones always sound like The Rolling Stones. Once you develop a style, that’s your style, unless you’re robbing other people and just trying to become a chameleon to a particular genre of music. Retrospectively,” he surmises of his body of work, “it all feels like one big ’70s song.”
The band that Ocasek chose to record Troublizing is made up of members of bands whose records he’s produced. “I actually had those specific people in mind. Just from working with them, personally, I felt they would all get along great [and] would all play quite good with each other. They were the only people in those particular bands I would have picked, not because all the people weren’t talented, it’s just that I like Melissa’s (Auf der Mauer of Hole) bass style, I like Ira’s (Elliot of Nada Surf) drumming, I like Brian Baker’s (of Bad Religion) guitar playing. I asked them, they did it and we had fun.
There’s a quote on the press release that came with Troublizing, that said “The Cars helped save the world from disco,” but I remember you more as being wedged between progressive rock and punk rock.
What I remember is that we thought all music was disco, so we certainly didn’t want to be anything like that. There was the Bee Gees and everything was dance music. Radio was getting stale. They were playing… kind of what they play now: a lot of dance music and not [many] songs.
I think one of the reasons I first got into the Cars was because of Roy Thomas Baker, who produced Queen. How much of the Cars’ sound was in the production?
We were always co-producing whatever we did; we were always in control of our stuff. We had a couple different kinds of producers. Roy (Thomas Baker) was one kind, he was more or less an engineer type. He was good at sound and he was eccentric and let the ideas flow. He was a fun producer. And then I had Mutt Lang do one, which was tedious and drawn out, but still a great record. But we always kind of knew what we wanted. We never had a producer who told us what to do or fixed things. It was more like a person who was overseeing things.
Was there ever a sort of Pop Star rivalry between you and Ben Orr?
Not as far as I was concerned, but as far as he was concerned, yes. Basically, Ben used to sing at least half of the songs and he also stood in the middle, which was fine with me, because I wanted to be more in the background, though I always wrote the songs. Maybe he was jealous of that fact, that I wrote everything.
It did seem like there was some sort of tension there.
Um hmm. Well, there shouldn’t have been [any tension] ’cause we were together for a long time. Even before the Cars, we had another band together.
Do you remember where you were the first time you heard a Muzak version of a Cars song?
It was “Drive” and I was in an elevator [laughs]. I heard the London symphony do “Drive” [also], and that was weird.
Can you tell me a story about a time when you met one of your rock heros?
Well, first, I can tell you that I never had an idol nor a hero. I just never felt that way. But I can tell you about the time I met Dylan. That was five years ago. I was supposed to write songs with him, so I went up to his house [in L.A.] and we sat in the kitchen. First, I got his studio going ’cause he didn’t know quite how to do it. Somebody had built a studio when he was away and when he came back he didn’t know how to turn it on. So I crawled under the board and I think I just plugged it in, and he thought I was amazing. We were trying to write one song and he was saying, “Come on man, give me some lyrics to go with this,” and I was like “Bob, you do the lyrics.” [Laughs]. So, ultimately he was adding some of his catch phrases to a particular song, like “By which you would” — all those kind of funny things. So we sat around for a day and did that. It was fun meeting Bob.
I know that you and Billy Corgan were friends before you asked him to produce and sing on some of the songs on Troublizing. Do you and he share a similar artistic perspective?
As far as songwriting is concerned, definitely. I respect his songwriting a lot, his arrangement. I respect his control over people, being adamant about what [he] wants. I think I’m kind of like that as well. I wanted him to be in control and I wanted to not work too much. I also wanted to see what he would do, [treating the songs] as if they were his. And that’s what he did, it was great.
It all seems to work.
Yeah, it does. When he covered “You’re All I’ve Got Tonight” that’s what gave me the idea.
My favorite song on the record is “Not Shocked,” and I wondered what that song is about?
It’s about not getting shocked over anything — Not Shocked. [Laughs] Not shocked about anything.
Is that how you feel about living in New York?
No, things can shock me. But not much shocks too many people these days. I think shock value is pretty limited, considering that 12-year-olds kill other 12-year-olds, people eat people, and princesses die in car crashes. People are immune to the next tragedy.
Do you tend to not watch the news?
I tend to avoid it when I want to stay in a better mood. It’s not so much the news that bothers me as the presentation of it; the entertainment value of it disturbs me more than the news. It’s like, one person who commits a horrendous crime gets so much attention. That person shouldn’t warrant it. It just becomes overwhelming to where [criminals] become celebrities — loved as celebrities- even if they’ve murdered. Whatever they’ve done, they become a celebrity and then people tend to forgive them.
I always wonder what people are thinking when they write something that intrigues me.
Um hmm. Yeah, that’s interesting. Sometimes you can’t remember what you were thinking of when you wrote it, unless you’re pretty determined about message making. I’m never determined about that. I think that interpretation is important. People who are hearing it should think it’s about what they think, unless you’re preaching. To me, it’s like [lyrics] writing can be as free as it needs to be. It doesn’t have to adhere to any specific form or type, you know what I mean.?
Yeah, there are no rules.
There shouldn’t be any, ever. To me it was always so cut and dry that I was going to write songs, no matter about other things. I never wanted to go to school for anything just like I never wanted to learn to play the guitar by taking lessons. I never wanted to really be a musician and I don’t care about musicianship that much. I care about style and content. I don’t think anybody really has to know why you should play a major seven. I think if you stumble on it and it sounds good, you should use it.
The other song I was curious about is “Asia Minor.”
Yeah, Billy wrote that song and he asked me to cover it for him. I don’t have any idea what it’s about. He came in one day and said ‘I wrote this for you, do you want to put it on the record?’ and I said ‘OK.’ Some of the little metaphoric things were fun to sing but I kind of just wanted to sing it for him because it was his song. I told him I wasn’t crazy about singing the line “You know my body really hates me,” because my body doesn’t hate me and I thought that was something I wouldn’t say. And he was like ‘Just pretend.’ So I figured ‘Ok, it’s your body I’m singing about.’ Which is fine, because I wouldn’t change lyrics for anybody either.