By Hans Morgenstern
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Three men, dressed mostly in black, sit in a sixth-floor suite at the Four Seasons in downtown Austin, Texas. It's the first full day of the South By Southwest 2010 conference and festival. A video camera is rolling and an Austin journalist is trying to keep the men on track.
Cheap Trick seems to be enjoying the banter, though singer Robin Zander fiddles with the band's latest CD in his lap. A photographer walks in; noticing her earring, guitarist and songwriter Rick Nielsen gives her the thumbs up and flicks a few guitar picks her way. Bassist Tom Petersson sits stoically, maybe thinking about lunch.
"Have you heard the new album?" Zander asks of the journalist, who may have dwelled too long on the past. "What do you think?" Writers hate when the tables are turned, but this one fares well enough, almost getting the name of one new song correct.
Celebrating their 36th full year together, Cheap Trick has no intention of retiring, no plan but to continue to make rock music for people who love what rock music does: Soar, thrill, tease, mess with your head, but mostly just make you feel really good. You can no more take Cheap Trick out of the DNA of rock & roll than you can Chuck Berry, the Beatles or the Rolling Stones. It's not about power-pop, it's not about innovation, and it's not about the 20 million-plus records sold (though there is all of that).
It's about the soundtrack of the lives of anyone who grew up with rock & roll, anyone who is still growing up, and anyone who, like Cheap Trick itself, refuses to grow up or forget about the rock & roll feeling.
The question, then, is simple: Why did it take so long for the legendary band to get its due at the music industry's most important event and to get a shot at taping for the industry's flagship TV program, Austin City Limits? The band has no sure answer. Maybe we just take Cheap Trick for granted. We shouldn't. They're still making strong records, still putting on shows that are as exhilarating as any show by any rock band in the world.
B-Sides had a blast with the band in Austin. Read on.
B-Sides: Who came up with the concept of Cheap Trick, the four guys with distinct personalities, but split between the cool rockers and the geeky rockers? The Cheap Trick brand, if you will?
Rick Nielsen: I think that's just who we were, but the record company picked up on it. Plus if you have all four guys on the cover, you have little heads, but if you split it...
Robin Zander: It wasn't until the cover came out, and then the next cover came out that we thought it was a good idea.
Tom Petersson: The first album had all four of us on the cover and it didn't sell well. The label said, "You guys just look too dang weird."
RN: People think you're Sparks or something!
TP: They wanted to dress Rick up like Hendrix and our drummer like David Bowie.
RZ: True story.
RN: That was one of the good suggestions!
Do you remember when someone told you that you were bigger than Jesus in Japan?
TP: Aren't they Buddhists?
OK, bad metaphor.
RZ: It kinda freaked us out. We knew we were selling records there, but then we got to the airport, and there were 5,000 people there with flowers and chasing us in the cabs, trying to climb banisters to get to us. It was a little scary.
RN: We never stopped to smell the roses. Our records would do well in one place and zero in another place.
RZ: I remember pulling up on the tarmac, seeing all the people. Wow, somebody important must be here. And it was us!
TP: It depends on how you look at it. At the time, I was voted the second best bass player in Japan for the year. People said, "You must be so proud." But the first was the guy from the Bay City Rollers.
RN: That's how we feel here, almost. It's like we've finally arrived. We're on the headline stage, getting interviewed by this person and this person. I figured we'd be sitting in a room watching MSNBC. Now people give a crap about what we think.
Your songs are pure and catchy, but there are narratives, too, especially in a song like "Surrender."
RN: Well, who wants to hear nah, nah, nah? [Adopts goofy radio voice] "Hi, I'm Rick Nielsen, I wrote 'Surrender.' My mother told me/yes she told me/I'd meet girls like you." And "some Indonesian junk" — what do you mean by that? A boat or junk in your arm?
RZ: "Surrender" is probably the most beloved song Rick has ever written. It doesn't have a lot of double and triple entendre, except for the chorus, which could mean many different things.
RN: Every kid I've met thinks their parents are weird.
On The Latest [released in 2009], I really like the strings. Correct me if I'm wrong, but it had been a while since you'd used strings.
RZ: No, the record before that. But on this one we made an effort to make it earthy, real strings, not emulators.
TP: That was partly Julian [Raymond].
RN: I think it was the songs that dictated it.
RZ: I was excited about that, and we filmed it. That footage will see the light of day sometime.
Was there a moment when you said, This is too hard, I've had enough of the business?
RZ: Every day. Just yesterday.
RN: We did an interview three or so before you and the writer asked if I had a magic snail.... [Sighs] I'd heard it all.... You know, when the Red Ant album came out [in 1997]. We work hard on these records. And then the record company just...
RZ: Two weeks after the record came out, the company folded. No distribution, nothing. There was a mistake with the bar code. The album was called Cheap Trick, so even if it was in the store, if people would order it, they would get the first record which was also called Cheap Trick.
RN: It was discouraging, but we've never let success or the lack of it stop of us.
RZ: But here we are in Austin. We're always going to be around even when we're not around.