Interview with Cheap Trick (Rick Nielsen & Tom Petersson)

It’s a hot summer day in Sheffield, home of Def Leppard who are playing one of two shows in support of their new album. As Cheap Trick prepare for their special guest slot on the bill, madcap guitarist Rick Nielsen and 12-string bassman Tom Petersson talk with Metal Express Radio about the latest goings on in the Cheap Trick camp, as well as a look back over their illustrious past.

You are over in England for a couple of dates with Def Leppard and The Sensational Alex Harvey band. How did this come about?

Last year we did a whole half a tour, that’s not a whole tour or a half tour but a whole half a tour, and I think Joe and the boys liked us and they said they’d love to play with us as they’d been fans of Cheap Trick for years. We’d never worked together before, which is surprising as we’ve worked with everybody! So they asked us if we’d like to play, so we said “Sure!”

It’s a long way to come for just 2 dates. Are you playing any other shows in Europe?

Well Def Leppard asked us to play on their European tour, but what we didn’t know was the tour was only two shows … but it’s better than getting no shows at all! We’re happy to do the two shows. We’ve got stuff booked around it, and we played in Chicago and Florida last week and we return to the States after these shows.

Did you consider playing any of the European Festivals … Monsters of Rock or Download in the UK or Sweden Rock Festival for instance?

We weren’t asked that I know of. I think we last played a festival in Reading in 1979 and we got great reviews. After that we had a manager that didn’t want us to come to Europe, but we showed up here a couple of times over the years. We thought we’d wait until we were really old so we can get our Old Person’s Discounts and get to queue for our dinner early!

You played in Manchester a few years ago and the place was packed. You obviously have an audience over in Europe …

The audience is there but we’re not. It’s still not our own tour, but this is good and it’s good to be here.

These are your first shows in a few years in the UK. Are you looking forward to them?

Of course! This is a great line-up with us and the Alex Harvey Band playing with Def Leppard. I know the guys in the Alex Harvey Band and they didn’t have enough passes for tomorrow nights show so they had to ask us!

How different are the UK crowds to those in America?

How do I know, I’ve just got here. We haven’t played for them yet! Ha! No really, I think they tolerate us! We have a lot of fans in Europe ‘cos we’re fans of Europe, but you’ll see after the show, either they’ll love us or hate us or couldn’t care less about us.

What sort of setlist are you planning?

Well we’ll be playing for an hour, that’s an hour by the way … not “about an hour.” After an hour, that’s it, we’re off ‘cos there’s a very tight schedule to keep to. After 60 minutes, the power will go off! I’m sure we’ll play “Surrender,” “I Want You To Want Me,” and “Dream Police,” and we’ll play some other stuff too and some songs off our new album Rockford, which is due out in June (2006). That’s good planning isn’t it, go out on tour BEFORE the album comes out!!

Can you tell me about the new album?

It’s round and it has a hole in the middle and it looks like a CD!

“Welcome To the World” was written for your first grandchild. How does it feel to be a granddad?

I was inspired by that moment. Many people would write a lullaby, but not me. I was inspired to write by a certain thing and my grandaughter was born and I wrote. I’ve had three more since then, but it didn’t inspire me to write anything else so I’ll dedicate it to all of them.

“Perfect Stranger” was co-written with Linda Perry from 4 Non Blondes, how did she get involved?

Somebody asked if we would like to work with her as she was a fan and we thought “OK.” We’ve worked with a lot of people over the years but we hit it off right away with Linda and wrote two songs together and we ended up using “Perfect Stranger.” She’s a very talented lady, she can write, sing, play, produce, engineer and mix. Who needs us??!!

She has a great voice too. Does she sing on the album?

No she didn’t, unless that’ll help her record sales … so, yes she did!

Over the years, you have produced some very varied albums, whilst retaining the Cheap Trick identity. What sort of style are you going for this time?

Stale or style? I think it’s a very diverse album. We always try to make good albums, we’ve never concentrated on making singles when maybe we should have. We hope to give people more value for money.

The reviews starting to come through already have been very positive. What do you think of that?

That’s kind of scary! Actually, through the years our reviews have tended to be pretty good. Pretty good, not great! We’re Cheap Trick and we make really good albums, I don’t think we make great ones, just good ones!

At this stage in your career, what are you hopes for the album?

We make records ‘cos we want to make records, we don’t do it because we’re a certain age or what we want to get out of it. We have songs and the ability to go and record. If it does great, terrific. If it doesn’t then that’s alright too so long as we make good records. We try to keep current, we don’t want to be like some bands who all they have is a past, they have no future. Our future is we’re getting interviewed now and talking about the new record. Not that I mind talking about the older stuff, but it’s the new music that’s kind of intriguing. I think it keeps things fresh.

The cover is great. Who came up with the idea for the cartoon characters?

That’s what we really look like. The real Rick will walk in, in a minute. We’re a bit like the Gorillaz you know!

For a band whose name seems to be checked as a major influence by so many bands and whose credibility remains intact, unlike so many of your peers, does it frustrate you that this has not really transferred into bigger record sales?

Luckily we have credibility and have never lost it. I don’t think anyone would get mad if we had more success, but we do alright.

Looking back, are there any albums you regret making or are they all part of the development of the band?

That’s part of the whole career resume. It is what it is.

You have a timeless image which has not dated. Was this a deliberate step or were you simply being yourselves?

Really?? Look at us!

Dream Police and All Shook Up have recently been re-released in remastered form. Why the big gap between the first round of rereleases (Cheap Trick, In Colour, Heaven Tonight) a couple of years back ?

Epic Records were responsible for that … we have no control whatsoever, but we would like to have them all re-issued eventually, however long that takes. It seems like they’re re-mastered the re-re-mastered and digitally re-mastered in surround sound after that. It’s never-ending.

Budokan was in many ways a career defining moment for you. Do you ever think it’s become a millstone around your neck or are you still proud of it?

No not really. It’s a milestone for us, a point in time. There’s a few words that’s synonymous with Cheap Trick and Budokan is one of them. At least we’re famous for something. We made the Budokan famous! It’s better than not being noticed.

The 1970s was the heyday of double live albums. Why was Budokan originally released as a single album?

I think we would’ve been viewed as a “heavier” group if they’d put the second part out at the same time. Budokan 2 came out 20 years later, that was good timing, huh?!

At Budokan: The Complete Concert was a particularly impressive re-issue befitting of such a classic album. Were you happy that the full concert was now available?

Yes, it’s good that it was finally released in it’s full form.

All of the reissues have come with a plethora of bonus tracks and great sleeve notes. Were you heavily involved these?

Yes, just a little bit! There’s a few lies in there!

Talking of bonus tracks and outtakes … a while back you were selling Bun E. Bootlegs from your website, featuring loads of unreleased material. What has happened to these?

Bun E. saw to all of that, I’m not really too sure about that. You’d better ask him!

Rick, you have reputedly a collection of over 300 guitars. Which is you favorite?

300? Is that not enough?? Which is your favorite? Uncle Dick, the ’83 Hamer?? Well that’s my favourite too!

Tell me about your DVD, From Tokyo To You.

Well, that won Metal Edge’s documentary of the year last year. It only sold about 4 copies in Europe though. It’s better than the Live in Australia DVD … Robin was sick on the night that was recorded. Hey, I’ve run out of time. I’ll go and get Tom and he can finish the interview!

At this point Rick disappears off in search of Tom Petersson, bass player extraordinaire, and a couple of minutes later Tom settles down into the hot seat to conclude the interview.

Do you think you’ll open up your archives and do a box-set of unreleased material?

I don’t think so, I think we’ll leave it well alone.

You were at the forefront of digital music revolution when you teamed up with for the release of Live at the Metro a few years back. Would you consider selling your material from your own store?

We should do that I think, but I don’t think there’s really a market for it.

It’s now been almost 30 years since you released your first album. How do you keep coming up with fresh material?

I don’t really know, but we just like the music. A lot of people do, of course, but we just keep on working. We don’t take a lot of time off and come back and hope for the best. We’ve done just well enough so that we can keep working. I mean, we have to keep working, we don’t have the luxury of taking a lot of time off, but I think that kind of helps us as we are always around and thinking of another record. Even now, we’re just about to release a new record and we’re already thinking of the next one.

Do you write while you’re on the road?

We write everywhere. We take little cassette machines around with us and when you’re sitting in your room noodling around and you think “Hey, that’s a good idea,” or if someone else has a good idea you can get it down.

That’s the beauty of technology?

Well yes, but it’s scary as well. It’s all right there for you when you’re recording but it’s also all right there for any other person too. You can wander around bootleg stores and there’s bootlegs of your demos and there’s demos of me singing into my cassette recorder at home and you think “Where the f**k did that come from?” The minute you send something to someone it’s like out there so it’s pretty scary really. People can take something you’ve done and take it apart track by track and re-mix it and we’ve got no control over it.

You don’t get paid for it either …

Well that matters ultimately, but it’s kind of just getting visibility and you can’t go and charge people for all sorts of things. I’m not too worried about that, but maybe I should be!

You are still the original members who released that album, and barring the odd bass player here and there, you have stayed intact ever since. How have you managed this when so many others have fallen by the wayside?

Well, there’s only four of us for a start, so I suppose that helps. I think if there’d been 6 of us, then a couple of us would’ve died by now. We’re mates really, so we’re used to it.

There was that short period in the 80s when Jon Brandt came into the band. What did you do at that time?

I really didn’t do much at that time. I did an E.P., but not much else. I moved to New York City and started a group and played a lot in Manhattan as Sick Man of Europe, which was a band I was in before Cheap Trick, and we were playing a lot of shows.

Now that’s a great name for a band!

Yeah, I saw it in a newspaper headline, referring to Italy as the new sick man of Europe, and I thought it was a great name for a band, but as it turned out it wasn’t such a great name after all!

So how did you get the call back into the band?

Well the guys were in New York for some reason, playing a show I’d guess, and I just hooked up with them and said “Hello,” and one thing lead to another and they said maybe we should get together and do something, and it just kind of fell into place and the record label at the time was right behind it too.

Looking back over the last 30 years or so, has there been any point in your career when you thought that it was over or that you’ve had enough?

I don’t really think that we are going to have success, so if it happens for some reason then it’s really a big surprise. We’re not really disappointed ‘cos we’re don’t expect anything to happen. All we want to do is make good records that we like, and when you play them to your friends, people whose opinions you trust, that they’ll like it too. We’ve never had run away success over the years, just enough to keep us going.

When you released Cheap Trick in 1997, it must have been demoralising when the record label, Red Ant, went bust a couple of weeks after its release …

That was not our fault, so I don’t really look at it that way, it was totally beyond our control. It was just one of those things!

How are you going to mark the 30th anniversary?

We celebrated our 25th with the Silver CD and DVD but nobody really celebrates their 30th do they? But I suppose the next milestone is our 50th and we’ll probably be dead by then, so who knows!!

Do you ever feel that Rick’s guitars get more of a cheer than you do?

Rush and latter day Yes were one of the inspirations behind Rick’s guitars, you know they had these double necked guitars and guitars on stands and stuff like that and we just took the piss out of that. It was like, “you got a double necked guitar? well, we’ve got 5 necks so f*** off!!” Ha !! It was really meant as a joke, but if you don’t turn up with that monstrosity then people get a bit pissed.

There must be many high points in your career. Would you say that receiving the keys to your home town in Rockford is one of them?

Is that for the jail? I think Rick’s got those. It’s probably ‘cos we named our album after Rockford that’s done it.

This honor was not solely for your music, but for your involvement in the community? What have you been doing?

That’s community service … it’s in lieu of spending time in jail … ha! I actually don’t live there, it’s just Rick that lives there, but I think we are closely associated with the place though.

Another high point must be working on John Lennon’s Double Fantasy album. Did you actually work with him?

Rick and Bun E. did, I didn’t. I was listed as playing on the track sheet and I still got paid, but I didn’t actually play on it! Rick and Bun E. did get to play with him so that was pretty good.

Over the years you’ve worked with an impressive array of producers such as Tom Werman, Ted Templeman, George Martin, and Roy Thomas Baker. Would you like to work with any of them again, or is a case of moving on and doing something new?

Yeah, there’s also Jack Douglas, Steve Albini, and Todd Rungren. The guy I’d really like to work with again is Geoff Emerick, he was Georges’ engineer. He was just the greatest. He’d be fantastic to work with again. He’s about the best there is.

It’s often said that it’s the engineer rather than the producer that makes the album.

Oh, definitely the engineer can make or break an album. I’ve worked with some terrible engineers too. Jack Douglas was a great producer but then he was an engineer first himself. Getting good sounds is impossible without a good engineer. There’s not enough good that can be said about getting a great engineer, it’s unbelievable. You might have your own sound, but getting it recorded well is down to the engineer. Jack actually started off at the bottom at the Record Plant cleaning toilets and making tea and stuff. I think someone like Alice Cooper was doing his second album and no one wanted to work with him, and somehow Jack managed to land the job and that’s how he got his lucky break.

With your new album just about to hit the street, what are the plans for the band over the next 12 months or so?

We don’t really have any plans as such we ‘re just going to leave it open and see what comes. If the album does well somewhere, then we’ll go there … if it doesn’t, we won’t. We’ll just see what happens. We can’t really just turn up somewhere and play just for the hell of it ‘cos it’s so expensive to do, it has to be worth our while. When it gets to the point of losing money, it gets kind of hard to explain to the family. It’s hard enough being away from home and to lose money is not a big incentive to play somewhere where we won’t do reasonably well. It’s not like we’re suddenly going to break over here or over there ‘cos I think we might have just done it by now! Maybe we’ll get a Crazy Frog hit single or something, ‘cos usually something you’re successful with is something that is so goofy or off the wall or comes from some unexpected place or some TV show. Even “I Want You To Want Me” was our biggest hit and it was just meant as a joke, a send up of Pop songs, of an Abba song. We thought we’d just do a send up of a Pop song for a joke and it’s like the joke’s on us! We’ll just see what happens and take things as they come.


  • Mick Burgess

    Mick is a reviewer and photographer here at Metal Express Radio, based in the North-East of England. He first fell in love with music after hearing Jeff Wayne's spectacular The War of the Worlds in the cold winter of 1978. Then in the summer of '79 he discovered a copy of Kiss Alive II amongst his sister’s record collection, which literally blew him away! He then quickly found Van Halen I and Rainbow's Down To Earth, and he was well on the way to being rescued from Top 40 radio hell!   Over the ensuing years, he's enjoyed the Classic Rock music of Rush, Blue Oyster Cult, and Deep Purple; the AOR of Journey and Foreigner; the Pomp of Styx and Kansas; the Progressive Metal of Dream Theater, Queensrÿche, and Symphony X; the Goth Metal of Nightwish, Within Temptation, and Epica, and a whole host of other great bands that are too numerous to mention. When he's not listening to music, he watches Sunderland lose more football (soccer) matches than they win, and occasionally, if he has to, he goes to work as a property lawyer.

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