Far More Than Just That 70’s Band: An Interview with Bun E. Carlos of
It’s both easy and hard to believe that Cheap Trick have been around for over 25 years. Easy, because in some ways, it feels like the combo of singer Robin Zander, guitarist Rick Nielsen, bassist Tom Petersson, and drummer Bun E. Carlos has been around forever. Their timeless power pop hooks have become firmly entrenched in the pop culture consciousness, and tunes like “I Want You to Want Me,” “Surrender,” and “Dream Police” are as comfortable and familiar as old friends. But it’s also hard to believe, because they still sound so fresh, vibrant, and alive, even after a quarter-century together.
Cheap Trick’s newest album, Silver, reflects these qualities perfectly. Silver captures the band’s special 25th Anniversary show, which took place in their old stomping grounds of Rockford, IL, and covers material from throughout their storied career, from early hits to their recently recorded theme song for TV’s That 70’s Show. It’s truly a timeless effort, with the old stuff still sounding newly minted, and the newer material sounding instantly classic.
I recently got to spend a few minutes on the phone with Cheap Trick’s drummer and official “archivist,” Bun E. Carlos, who gave me some insight into the band’s longevity, and the secret of what keeps them so eternally vibrant and exciting.
Cheap Trick’s career was made by a live album, Live At Budokan. Is there anything calculated about releasing another live album for your 25th Anniversary?
No, not really. Actually, we had the show planned, the anniversary show, and after we had it all planned, that’s when we decided, “hey, we should document it.” So we really planned the show first, and the actual recording and video afterward. It’s just something we put out so that fans of ours would have the chance to get the stuff. You know, there’s a bunch of songs on there we never play live, and the special guests and stuff. As opposed to someone buying a crappy-sounding bootleg of it, some audience tape, we thought, “we’ll issue it.”
Aside from what you mentioned, what do you think is special about Silver that sets it apart from some of the live albums you’ve done in the past?
There’s songs from every album, [some of] the stuff we did at that show we’ll probably never do again — some of it we never did before that, except in rehearsals. It’s a pretty good overview, for a double CD, of the band’s career.
How did the idea of bringing the band members’ various family members in come about, and how do you feel about the results?
It turned out fine. We’ve had family members sit in occasionally, in the past, in the shows, so it was suggested, and we took a vote, and there they are! [laughs] If I had kids, I’d have wanted them up there too. [laughs]
You have a lot of guest stars on the record, as you mentioned. Who haven’t you worked with that you would like to, and why?
Oh• well, I always wanted to do something with Roger Chapman from Family, but that just never really happened. You know, some of these guys that were big in England that nobody ever heard of over here. Me and Rick, we always wanted to do something with Alex Harvey, then he sat in with the band once, and he was completely out to lunch, so that kinda nixed that [laughs]. It was still fun, I mean, but•
There’s a few, like it would be fun to do a track with Bob Dylan, or stuff like that, but that’s dreaming, that kinda stuff. You really don’t plan on any of that happening. Most of the people I’d probably like to have sit in with the band probably have. You know, Dave Edmunds, and Roy Wood, the Aerosmith guys, stuff like that, I mean, musicians we admire and stuff. A lot of these people already have.
On the flip side, we recently ran an interview with Robert Pollard of Guided By Voices, and he said he’d like to have you in his band•
Oh, that’d be a gas! He actually played cowbell, when they were doing the co-bill with us. Yeah, they’re a fun band. I mean, I’ve got a bunch of their stuff, and I really enjoy those guys. I don’t know if I could keep up the pace with those guys, though [laughs]. My skills aren’t up to some of those guys’ drinking skills. His [Pollard’s], mainly [laughs].
Yeah, when Gail Worley interviewed him, she showed up at the interview with a six-pack to get him going•
Hey, he likes to drink beer, and he seems to function pretty good on a little. He got up and sang with us a couple of times when we were touring together, and the last night, he was gonna get up and we didn’t see him up there. A couple of the other guys in the band came up, and afterward, we were like, “what happened?” And one of the guys backstage said, “You guys went into ‘Surrender,’ and he came running out the door and he tripped and went right down. Boom! Hit the floor.” And I was like, “Well, guess he ain’t gonna make it up there.” But he’s ran up a couple times and sat in with us and stuff, and that’s been a lot of fun. That guy writes a billion songs, and they’re all really darn good, and they’re always a pleasure to listen to. I really like that guy.
The stories say that Cheap Trick was originally up for the role that The Ramones got in Rock N’ Roll High School. What can you tell me about that?
I think it was in 1977, and I think it was in the fall, I don’t remember exactly when, but basically, we got offered the movie, and it was like, “Oh, that’d be kind of neat.” But we were a bit apprehensive about it, and we were trying to get our career going, and we were on the road non-stop, and it meant you’d have to take six weeks off the road, [so] we were like, “Well, what do we get paid for it?” [Laughs] And it was like, “You get like five thousand dollars for six weeks work,” I was like, “We’d go out of business.” Financially, we couldn’t do it. It didn’t matter how much we wanted to do it or didn’t want to do it, it was out of the question. So it was like, “Well, forget it, can’t do it,” and it was like, “OK, well, they’ll offer it to someone else. OK, is that your final answer?” “Yeah, that’s our final answer, we can’t do it.” So The Ramones got it, and they did a fine job in it.
We got offered movies like in ’79, when we were selling a billion records. This guy that scripted Superman or some of that stuff came out on the road with us to write a screenplay, and he was like, “What do you think of doing a movie?” And we were like, “Well, it’s about the same as Jack Nicholson doing a rock record.” And he was like, “Yeah, you’re probably right.” So that’s basically all we ever did, except maybe Rick did a cameo in a bad movie once, or something. But otherwise, yeah, I don’t want to be in a movie. Never really did, either.
Have you ever thought about covering the song “Rock N’ Roll High School,” just to see how it would turn out?
I’m not even familiar with the song, to tell you the truth. I really don’t know the song.
Speaking of covers, you guys covered Big Star’s “In The Street” for the theme for That 70’s Show. How did that come about?
Good question. The Fox people called, I don’t know how they got ahold of us. We heard from Julian Raymond, who produced it — he’s a producer we know from out West, he does Fastball and stuff like that. I got a phone call, because I’m like the archivist guy, and he was like, “You know this song?” “Yeah, I know that show.” “You guys want to do it?” “Sure.” So we went out and net with Julian. The version that was on the show [for the first season] was kind of like a live version from ’92 that the two Big Star guys did with The Posies’ guys, and they wanted to update the version. So Rick and Robin and Julian kind of sat down and rewrote the verses, and put in some Cheap Trick parts, kind of, and we took out the parts that we didn’t like, or jazzed ’em up or whatever you want to call it — we rearranged the song. We tracked the song and all these suits were coming in from Fox and stroking their chins, going, “Hmmm• yeah, OK, uh huh, uh huh.” It was really kinda funny, it was probably the equivalent of recording a commercial or something, which I really have never done either, but you got all these guys in suits walking in and out going, “OK, this will work, I can see this happening.” It’s kind of like that. It was actually kind of ridiculous, but doing the actual thing was fun, and doing the video — we got to do it on the set of the TV show, and we did an in-store [appearance] with the cast, and stuff, so that was a lot of fun. It turned out to be a good version.
Were you guys fans of Big Star before you did the song?
We were aware of them, but we never really heard them in the ’70s. We all knew who Alex Chilton was, of course, from The Box Tops, and stuff, but nobody in the band really had any of their records or really heard much about them until probably the ’80s, ’til after they were broke up.
You mentioned commercials, which brings to mind that there’s a commercial on the air right now [for Diet Coke] with “I Want You to Want Me” in it. What was your involvement in that, and what do you think about it?
Not a thing to do with it. The publishing company did that. I haven’t seen it yet, but everybody tells me it’s real good.
Yeah, it’s actually pretty cool — I mean, they go so far as to say in the commercial that it’s one of the greatest songs ever recorded•
I agree with that! [Laughs] It is a real good song. Rick wrote that song in early 1976, before we cut our first album. A couple of record companies heard it, and people were like, “This is gonna be a hit.” You know, everybody always thought it was gonna be a hit, and then four years later, it was a hit. So yeah, it’s a great song, and I just had a Coke — not a Diet Coke, but [laughs] — I got it sitting here next to me, and I like the product, but the publishing company did that. All my friends are coming up to me going, “Hey, man, come on, you must be rich!” For the record, I’d just like to say, I cannot even get a decent used car with the money I may make on this thing, that may trickle down to me. I want people to know that I’m not getting rich on it [laughs], so there ya go. Don’t hit me up for anything.
Another thing I always think about when I think about Cheap Trick, specifically about the song “Dream Police,” is the scene in Fast Times at Ridgemont High where the guy is trying to scalp Cheap Trick tickets•
Oh, yeah, Yeah.
Things like that have really ingrained Cheap Trick in the pop culture consciousness, and I was wondering how that feels.
Oh, it feels great! You know, we’re big fans of rock music and stuff, and like Fast Times, that started out, the guy [Cameron Crowe] wrote an article for Playboy• you know in the movie, it’s like, “All the girls look like Pat Benatar this year.” Well, in the magazine article, it was, “All the boys look like Robin Zander this year.” They updated it for the movie, they made it three years later. So it was kind of neat that when it went from the article to actually being a movie that the guy kept the band in the thing, even though he kind of made us doing something different, you know, scalping our tickets instead of all the kids in the playground looking like our singer.
But, yeah, that’s real cool. When we started out back in the mid-’70s, we never dreamt that this kind of stuff would be going on, or anything like that. If you’d asked us then what would be going on in the ’90s, we’d all probably have been like, “Oh, we’ll probably be dead.” [Laughs] That kind of stuff. You know, we never planned on staying together for all this time, because nobody had ever done that, and that wasn’t the reason we got in the band.
How do you keep it fresh after all this time?
Well, you just get up there and try to have a good time, you know? Enjoy yourself. If we didn’t like doing this stuff, we’d stop doing it, I think. You have to enjoy it — you’ve really got to love it. There’s little musical things, like, you start playing, and you’ve got to listen to what you’re doing, and stuff, and make sure you don’t start getting too far away from what made that song good in the first place. You know, if we do “I Want You to Want Me” at soundcheck or something, we’re all messing around, and playing goofy licks and doing this and that, but you get in front of the people, and you’ve gotta kinda serve the song, and play it like it should be played. I mean, there’s a way to play a song, and there’s about a million ways not to play it. So, you’ve gotta deal with that kind of stuff, too.
Along the same line, we get the question, “Gee, don’t you get tired of doing ‘Surrender’?,” or something, and it’s like, well, you know, we start the song and everybody goes nuts, and they all start cheering and stuff, so• no [laughs]! Never get tired of that!
Do you foresee that there will ever be a time that you’ll get bored with it, or bored with each other?
I think there will come a time when we’re physically unable to do it. I mean, we’re not getting any younger, and playing rock music is physically taxing. I find it more difficult to actually just play the stuff than it used to be. It used to be, “Yeah, let’s party, let’s get up and do a show;” now, it’s kind of like, “OK, get up and do my exercises, and go walking, and practice the drums, and eat the right food,” and it’s become a lot more precious, being able to do this, than it used to be.
Well, don’t count yourself out. I mean, look at Keith Richards: he looks like he’s been dead for ten years, and he’s still going at it!
No kidding! Inspiration to us all, except in the looks department.
Anything else you’d like to tell people about?
Yeah, Silver, we’re going to try to get a DVD out. We just signed a distribution deal, and I think the DVD’s coming out in August. It’s good, and there’s extra stuff on the DVD, and I hope everybody enjoys it.