A CALL FROM MR. BUN E: Chatting with Cheap Trick's Drummer

Music Features
A CALL FROM MR. BUN E: Chatting with Cheap Trick's Drummer
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Feb 20, 2008, 20:58

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For twenty-five years they've worked an indelibly melodic statement at the nexus of no-frills rock and roll and stadium savvy. Cheap Trick has remained your band: the Midwestern rock-steady dream. Rick Nielsen's chords, livin' large, windmill the tiny toons that only Robin Zander's throat can command. The groove is awash in Tom Peterson's one-man twelve-string section, snapping with grabs from the big swing beat of Mr. Bun E. Carlos. The wit is snide, the tongue firmly in cheek; these are songs that have always sung themselves.

In 1997, the Legacy company reissued the Sino-teen sliding off the restricted seat excitement that is At Budokan. Reborn a double CD, the gig is delivered true to life and true to rock. In 1998, the eponymous debut, In Color and Heaven Tonight were also properly re-mastered for CD with revelatory extra tracks not available on the Sex, America, Cheap Trick box set. To celebrate and promote, the band commenced a tour of major cities. Each whistle stop encompassed three nights, one show for each classic record. Last November, I was sitting in my office, still recuperating a month after witnessing a blistering In Color set performed at New York's Irving Plaza. The phone rang. On the line was a certain Brad Carlson...

Your Flesh: Is it a drag playing something like “Surrender” every night?

Bun E. Carlos: Believe it or not, the stuff like “Surrender” and “I Want You to Want Me” you do every night almost—but you know they're your big hit songs and they're the ones that for the past twenty years people applaud as soon as the song starts…and you don't mind playin' those so much. It's the obscure ones or the ones you didn't like in the first place like “On the Radio” you get up there and play that, and it's kinda like, well, there you go. It's nice to go back and visit the stuff, but yeah, I don't wanna live there. None of us wanna live there. We wanna do new music, we're working on new material, but we didn't have enough material ready last year for a record. Sony was reissuing the stuff and the fans wanna hear the stuff so it's like killing two birds with one stone; help promote the reissues and go out and play “On the Radio.” I was starting it the other night in Detroit, about the eighth time we played it this year outside of rehearsal and I'm thinking, “This song's a dog,” no offense to Rick, but...

Some people make fun of it, but I dig it. There are some fans who think it sucks, but there's one guy I know whose only reason to see the Heaven Tonight show was to see that song played live.

So he got his wish and we got an excuse to sit in New York for a week and there's no other way we'd get to do that; it worked for both of us for different reasons.

YF: The reissues sound great.

BEC: The old CDs were taken off of vinyl production masters, so the fifth song on each side—there's no low-end. Some old guy at the factory would re-master four albums in a day, so they got wrong mixes, left stuff off and dick things up. Finally ten or twelve years after, there's a chance to do it right.

YF: And there are the cool extra tracks.

BEC: We were actually gonna put more on each album but the company wouldn't allow it. “You're not budgeted for it, blah blah blah.” Like three cents a record's gonna break Sony or something. You know, that kind of bullshit.

YF: You're playing smaller venues and there's no keyboard player. Is the band returning to a more basic sound?

BEC: We used keyboard players from about '82 to about '95. I came up with this theory, I'd call it the Beach Boy effect. You got four guys in the band and a keyboard player, only 80 percent is Cheap Trick. So you're missing some of what you had before and it starts to effect the sound and the feel. At the same time the keyboard player we had was getting more and more obnoxious. So, when we split with management we said, “Let's get rid of this keyboard player, too.” Management and record company people were saying, “You gotta have a keyboard player, man. You have to have that riff on ‘The Flame',” and all this stupid stuff so eventually it was like screw it, this guy's a goof ball. Once and a while things get so goofy that you say, “Hey,” and do something about it. It took us twenty years to figure that out about management, ten years to figure that out about the keyboard player. Just shows we're better musicians than businessmen, we're still not too fast on that kind of stuff.

YF: What about all the whining you all do about producers and song doctors?

BEC: The first three albums weren't hits. After the first we had the record company killing us. “You know guys, this is wrong, this is screwed up.” And of course management agrees with them. They don't want musicians thinking too much, you hear that all the time but it's true. So, we'd pick the producers and half the time they'd go, “You're fuckin' nuts,” and that kinda stuff. And whether we were right or wrong we felt we were right and they'd never let us forget it. They never forgave us for hiring George Martin instead of using Tom Werman for another album, even though Tom refused to do the Budokan album and told us it sucked and would never do any good and we should just re-record it in a theater like Kiss did for their Alive 2. We got so much shit shoved down our throat that when we'd have a chance to air it in the press we weren't shy about it. The bottom line is our picture goes on the record and if it's no good it's our fault and we know that. Part of it may be the producer and we're not afraid to give our opinion on that. But we've got no one to blame but ourselves if it didn't do good. If we got bamboozled by, or got the wool pulled over our eyes, well, you learn something for next time. But, of course, you never learn everything. The last album we did we were gonna do our own way. We we're gonna hire our own producer, pay for it and then find a label. That all went fine and hunky dory, it's a great record and it sounds good. Then we made one little mistake. We called it Cheap Trick like the first album, and of course our good friends at Sony went and reissued the first and gave it a new number. So it cut sales of the new one in half. At the end of the year we saw the sales figures and went, what the fuck happened? Those weasels! There's always a way they'll get you in the end anyway.

YF: And then Red Aunt [the label] went in the shitter.

BEC: That was just more icing on the cake. Someone's always gonna fuck around with you, someone's always gonna pick your pocket. But that's the life of a musician, there you go. Look at Billy Joel, the guy consistently gets screwed. His wife ripped him off. His manager ripped him off, who was his wife's brother. He got new management, they ripped him off. You see him and he sounds kind of bitter, well, he should be. Look at Aerosmith, they got this manager who comes out three years ago and says, “So and so's still doin' drugs.” What the fuck is his problem? This shit happens all the time. Look at George Harrison. His accountant ripped him off. The court awarded him ten or twenty million dollars in England a couple of years ago, and his accountant says, “Sure. Fine. But I don't have any of it. I spent it all.” The life of a musician. Whatever you do someone nails you for it, but you just go ahead and do what you're gonna do anyway. That sounds mighty bitter of me, but that's show biz.

YF: No, it's real. And it does makes for a good story.

BEC: Luckily, we don't deal with the people who used to be at Epic. I know some of 'em think we did a number on them, I've heard that...“Well, so and so says you guys were dicks in 1981,” and all this shit, “He never forgave you for it.” Well, good 'cause we never forgave him either. But, we still work with people at Legacy. Once in a while they'll pull some corporate junk on us, but we deal with it and move on.

YF: The nine-to-fivers have a lot of influence on your career. If someone doesn't wanna make a phone call to a radio station, then that's it.

BEC: Anywhere down the line, from the guy you deal with to the next twenty guys. They can all screw you up. We had some lawsuits in '81 with Sony when they were still CBS and after a year it didn't get us anywhere, either side, and we all went back to work. The next four years, our records didn't get promoted well. They told us what to do and what to put on the records, all we could do was put our heads down and keep workin'. Most of the time we survived by touring in those days. There is a bad taste associated with some of those albums of the eighties, I'm sure it's the same on their end.

YF: At this point can you put out a record of the music you wanna make and even if it doesn't sell a quarter of a million, just continue on?

BEC: Heck, no. I figure we're basically out of the loop. Radio will have nothing to do with us. MTV turned us and the Beatles down on the same day in 1995. We're in the game as much as we can be in the game. We wanna do an album of new material but we know it's not gonna go gold. It might sell enough to pay for itself, if we don't spend six months makin' it. That and the reissues keep our name out there. We have a live album in the can we'd like to put out. Mostly stuff from the first five or six records. That'll help us get an album of new material out. We're doing what we can and every day that I wake up in a motel I go, “Thank God that we're doing well enough on the road that I can make a livin' doin' this.” That's the good side about it.

YF: You're not selling any drum sets yet.

BEC: I was thinking of selling a couple but not 'cause I needed the money. I ran out of room to keep 'em all.

YF: How many you got?

BEC: I got at least a couple hundred drums. I have a house full of drums next to the house that I live in. I'm wallowing in the shit.

YF: You did a clinic in Seattle?

BEC: Yeah, I got up and just said, “I learned this lick from that guy, and this lick from these guys,” and showed 'em great licks from the sixties that I stole. I played behind Bo Diddley one night, Chuck Berry, Del Shannon. That kind of stuff, you learn more in one night than the previous couple of years. Playin' with Chuck Berry especially, “Play this like this. You don't play like this, I'm gonna kick your ass off the stage. Don't play no drum licks.” Most drummers should find a guy, when they're startin' in their early twenties, who tells 'em, “Don't play no drum licks.” And suddenly it dawns on you, “Hey, I don't have to play all these stupid licks.” It still sounds good, they just get in the way of everything else.

YF: Your beats are some of the most identifiable I've ever heard.

BEC: I didn't make 'em up. I stole 'em from someone else or I thought I was stealin' from someone else and they came out my own way. The other night was a Heaven Tonight night and the first couple songs I was playin' surf licks and it was like, “This sounds cool.” And I did it the whole night. Tom was enjoyin' it. Rick wasn't enjoyin' it, I could see that on stage.

YF: What about the talk of re-recording In Color? It is considered by some to be the quintessential power pop record.

BEC: There was a little power pop window there. The record company couldn't figure out whether we were a rock band or a power pop band. When we were doing club dates we were the loudest, heaviest band in the neighborhood. After the first album they did their best to whip that right out of us. They succeeded until Budokan came out. Then they didn't know what to do with us. Heaven Tonight's a great power pop album, too. I think that puts In Color to shame, myself.

YF: I don't know why they called it power pop, it wasn't really popular. Basing a career on Badfinger or Big Star wasn't gonna make anybody a million bucks. But, In Color sure has that flat L.A. sound.

BEC: It is pure L.A.

YF: Same as Cat Scratch Fever.

BEC: Same producer. We knew what we were gonna be gettin' from Werman. The first one sounded like the band. But the company was like, “That didn't work, now we gotta sell some records. Get rid of this heavy shit, don't get too weird.” After the second record they asked us what we wanted to do. We told 'em we wanted to get some cellos and stuff, some guy from the record company's standing there and he says, “Don't even think about it. You guys think you're gonna get an orchestra on there? You're fucking crazy. We want guitars and drums and vocals.” He just 'bout bit our fuckin' heads off. So, on Heaven Tonight we made sure we had strings on like four or five songs.

YF: What about the re-recording rumors?

BEC: While remastering the records, Rick was saying we should re-mix In Color. But we don't have the budget and re-mixing's not the point of remastering. The whole idea of that record of course, was to get us on the radio, because radio did not like the first record. There was a reason it sounded so mute and flat: to make it safe for the world, or make us safe for the world. So, we never liked the sound and we weren't crazy about some of those arrangements. So, last summer we had a week off and went in with Albini and put a bunch of the tracks down to see. Maybe put out our own version or something. We did nine tracks in about four days. Steve sent us rough mixes to see what we needed to add. But then it's like what are we tryin' to do? Are we trying to beat ourselves? Are we trying to show we can do this better now? What are we gonna do with this stuff even if we finish it? Still trying to figure that out. Big bands and jazz groups re-cut stuff all the time, the Who did Tommy about three different times. Maybe we'll finish some of the tracks and throw an EP out or use 'em for some b-sides.

YF: Better figure it out soon before it gets bootlegged.

BEC: If it gets bootlegged, it gets bootlegged. After the box set all sorts of stuff got floated out. I got a million bootlegs by other bands and a few by us too. Of course you like to control what people are supposed to hear but not everybody agrees with that.

YF: Jimmy Page said he didn't mind the live stuff being out, but felt proprietary about rehearsal and working tapes.

BEC: You do feel a little violated, but then I'm sure the people who own those have every legitimate record that's in the catalogue. We're not losin' a dime but we're not makin' a dime on it either. I find it a quandary myself. I trade Hendrix tapes with people, and they're like, “Free the music, man.” But you know, the Hendrix family—that's how they make their money. So, who's right and who's wrong? It's not counterfeiting, that's a direct rip-off. Bootlegging isn't such a big problem. I don't agree with the way the NRRA is dealing with it, busting stores and all.

YF: I would love to give Don Van Vliet the money I spent on my Beefheart bootlegs, but I'm not gonna give 'em up.

BEC: Hell, I've only found about three of 'em ever. I didn't know there was that many around. I've got some good audience tapes, there's a nice English show, I don't know if it's an import or bootleg. I know what you mean, I'd like to give people money for bootlegs but most of 'em don't need the money. Don's getting forty grand a painting, probably, so I have a hard time worrying about it, when I buy a bootleg, if I owe him 60 cents or not.

YF: You guys are seen as an extant of Midwest rock, taking your cues from England and the earlier heavy U.S. bands.

BEC: Oh yeah, the Yardbirds, MC5. All the good rock bands that were around at the time. The Stooges, Nuge, the Five—we used to bump into these guys in previous bands to Cheap Trick and in Cheap Trick. We'd go into clubs and Nugent was in there the previous week so we had to kick Ted's ass or he'd have kicked our ass. There was a great work ethic in the Midwest.

YF: Who else were you seeing then?

BEC: The Blackstones were great. The rhythm guitar player, Jerry McGeorge, ended up in the Shadows of Knight. They were some guys from Hammond, Indiana. They had a couple of singles in the Midwest and they were the first heavy pop band I ever saw. The Shadows were more like a Stones type of thing. When I was fifteen I was seein' them, Baby Huey and the Baby-sitters, the Flock before they got the violin player. They were like a surf rock band in the Midwest. You'd go see the Kingsmen, the Cryin Shames, they were a Chicago band. I was in a band that opened for the Association. Rick's band opened for Hendrix. They were gonna open for Otis but that was the night he crashed his plane. We grew up on top 40 radio from '63 on.

YF: What about that band, Patto?

BEC: They were an English prog-rock band around '70, '71. Kinda like Zeppelin meets Monty Python meets Yes. Prog-rock with a sense of humor. The singer wrote lyrics that were just a fuckin' stitch and they liked to jazz, also. They were really fuckin' goofy. They didn't sell any records or do any good. They had three records that are worth investigating. We were big fans of the Move and Family, too. We played songs by 'em. We also did Badfinger, Beatles, and Stones songs.

YF: What did you think of the Cream box set?

BEC: Pretty good. I taped their Glen Campbell show appearance myself off the TV in '68. I had that thing memorized, could probably sing you the guitar solo. I remember when they showed Ginger Baker's feet at the end when he does the double bass drum roll. And Clapton on one was really cool to listen to in those days, when he had his amp turned way down, like that Delaney and Bonney stuff on Dick Cavett. I got stuff like that. I used to tape all the shows, like Cream when they played Chicago in '68. I got their autographs earlier in the year, snuck in and talked to the drum roadie, [I'd] do stuff like that as a kid. See what kind of drums Keith Moon was using, help set up his gear. I always took a pen and paper with me and wrote down the set lists, get an autograph. But mostly I took notes.

YF: You got set lists under glass?

BEC: I got some Dylan ones. I got a Stones one from '75.

YF: Do you have a huge tape archive?

BEC: Oh yeah, I got tons of junk. In the new Univibe they review some Chicago Hendrix tapes of mine that I sent to the guy. I just got the Milwaukee shows from some guy that taped him at the Factory up there. I'm still a big fan of old music. I've got every Clapton and Hendrix and Stones and Who bootleg if it's any good at all. And I still like new music. I'm at the record store all the time. My music budget's way up there. These days I've gotten into No Depression and country stuff just because they've got guitars on it. It's hard to find rock stuff anymore.

YF: You're shopping!

BEC: Somebody's got to.

YF: What did you think about your contemporaries in the seventies, like Styx and Kansas?

BEC: Well, Styx we hated. We kinda liked the sound of the Kansas records, but they were way too pompous. We were a reaction to those guys. We were like the anti-Starcastle. And Styx, we would never hesitate to put those guys down.

YF: They were kinda from Chicago.

BEC: Yeah, and REO. Those were the bands we were a reaction to. That's how we got our name, Cheap Trick. And we're not gonna get dressed up in these stupid fuckin uniforms and capes like these guys wear and do these stupid fuckin songs about stars and spaceships and shit. That stuff really disgusted us. We used to love Yes but about their third album it was like, “What the fuck did these guys do?” We couldn't take that stuff seriously.

YF: A song like “Downed” has four or five parts. If it was a Yes song you'd be hit in the face by parts, parts, parts. But you guys write songs.

BEC: Yeah, it was a rock song about Rick wantin' to move to Australia. Him and his old lady, you know, and they wouldn't let him bring his dog in. It wasn't about starships in the sky.

YF: Cheap Trick has always had a distinct musical and lyrical wit.

BEC: All of us in the band love ripping people to shreds, put-down jokes, and shit like that. Rick sits down and writes those fuckin' words and that music. I don't know where that stuff comes from.

YF: Robin still has the voice.

BEC: I was in a band with him when he was in High School. He used to miss a gig every once in a while 'cause he had choir.

YF: Never had to have anybody backstage helping out?

BEC: We used to have that keyboard player help sing on a part because in the studio Robin would fill all the empty tracks with cool vocals. After awhile we even got tired of that.

YF: Nobody too wrecked to handle their own parts?

BEC: We got enough grief in the seventies having Dave our roadie playing the two finger synthesizer part in “Surrender.” Tom had a twelve-string bass, people never heard that before and were sure we were hidin' another guitar player. We used to get a big laugh out of that stuff.

YF: Like it matters?

BEC: Well, it did in those days. ELO got into all sorts of trouble. It almost wrecked their career because they used a tape on their show in 1979. It hit the press and people sued 'em, it was a big deal.

YF: Covering a couple of string parts?

BEC: Yeah, an orchestra or somethin'. Probably had some harmony parts on it, too. Jeff Lynne and the bass player were the only guys that sang live. So they went with that spaceship tour and did some show in Michigan and the promoter's like, “They're usin' tapes.” And the people are like, “We're gettin' ripped off.” Lookin' back it's really ridiculous, but at the time they were gonna have to cancel half their tour. Weird days. Nowadays who cares? You don't even know if Janet Jackson's singin' on stage. It's a non-event. Basically, you're goin' to look at a video.

YF: Your look wasn't exactly sexy.

BEC: People told us we looked terrible and the name was the worst thing they ever heard. Kim Fowley said, “Grow your hair out and get a gold lamé suit. You guys look too weird.”

YF: I thought the gooney guys next to the suave pinup guys was the coolest thing in the world.

BEC: As it turned out it was, but in 1976 record companies weren't crazy about givin' you a bunch of money if you didn't look like a real rock band. There was a lot of pressure to do this and change that.

YF: But, you were always working, right?

BEC: We were always out on the road, but we were losin' our ass. By the time Budokan came out we owed about a million bucks. We were broke. Fortunately, that thing did some business or we would've had to disband that year. We were tapped out, borrowing money from people's parents and stuff. In 1979 we almost couldn't go to Europe because we didn't have the five grand to ship the freight. We borrowed from a relative of one of our employees and while we were there Budokan took off. Look at the Who, they toured for two years and owed about a million bucks before Tommy started selling.

YF: You gettin' ready to sell bonds?

BEC: They are, we aren't. Bowie did bonds, Michael Jackson's getting ready. The Stones don't have a lot of their publishing from the sixties so I don't know what their bonds would do.

YF: I guess [manager] Alan Klein still owns a lot of their stuff.

BEC: Oh yeah, he's got that stuff.

YF: Can you put out music you like and not worry about radio?

BEC: We'd like to have a hit of course. There's usually a song on the record they say is the one. We're like great, okay, fine. Promote that one, make a video, you guys do your job. We'll go shake hands, sign autographs, get on the phone and say hello. We're still doin' that, but pretty much radio's not gonna hop on it. We're those old guys now. When we started out we were gonna kick their ass and put 'em where they belong and now that we're there, everyone else kicks our ass.

YF: But that's not necessarily true. Anything vaguely analogous to Cheap Trick is not gonna get the same shake that you guys got. It's one album and that's it, one radio song, goodbye. Everyone's tanking.

BEC: A lot of these bands that open for us, their record's out for six weeks and they're already dropped. But when we grew up if you were third on the bill the idea was to kill the two bands after you. You try to be so good that the guy after you would hurt. That's how you got ahead.

YF: Are you feeling some revitalization?

BEC: The last year we've kinda come back into favor. But you can't bank on that 'cause as quick as it comes, it goes.

YF: The show I saw was great. You all seemed inspired. It might've been a two thousand capacity but you sold out three nights. And for my taste that's how I'd like to see you. It wasn't a stadium or an amusement park next to a roller coaster.

BEC: I'd be perfectly happy to play those kinda places every time.

YF: Can you do that and make a living?

BEC: That's the question. Right now we are. The road money alone is probably not enough to keep us going. But with the new stuff, reissues, and the touring we can keep going for five or ten more years, or however long we want to.

YF: Are you still having fun?

BEC: Oh yeah. It's a lot more work than it used to be because I'm not a kid anymore. If I don't get my sleep every night it REALLY hurts the next day. I can't go out and get hammered the night before and come back as quick as I used to. I got a pinched nerve in my back and it kills my leg. That's my own story of woe, yahoo.

YF: That's gonna ruin your rock 'n' roll image.

BEC: If I told you everything was fine I'd be full of shit, bullshittin' you. After twenty years I also can't tell too many lies or make up any great stories like I used to. And I'm trying not to nail a bunch of people. I hope I didn't.

YF: On me you hold back?

BEC: I don't want to sound like a bitter guy. I'm a happy camper. I hardly know anyone my age lucky enough to be doin' what I'm doin'. I can't complain.

YF: You haven't said anything about your ex-manager.

BEC: What's to say? Get a good lawyer. Don't get me goin' about managers. We had to learn the hard way, like everybody else.

YF: That's part of your appeal. Cheap Trick is real people.

BEC: Yeah, we're real approachable. Anybody should feel they can come bend our ear for five minutes. We were backstage when we were kids, too, “Can I get your autograph?” Last week I was sittin' in a Sushi bar in Chicago and Steven Tyler and his old lady walk in and sit down next to us and I was like, “[Porky Pig stammering].” Didn't know what to say. Two weeks earlier he was on stage jamming with us!

•••

The article you've just read originally appeared in Your Flesh #41.

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