Happy birthday to Cheap Trick frontman Robin Zander, who turns 66 years old today. A few years ago, I interviewed him just before he and his bandmates were inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame. It was a swell interview — he was in a good mood and happy to discuss anything and everything, including the departure of drummer Bun E. Carlos, which was still sorta fresh at the time. But due to the usual constraints of print media, about half of our chat wasn’t used. Until now. Here’s the full, unedited version of our conversion (with a few minor changes for clarity):
Cheap Trick are having the last laugh.
“We sure are,” agreed frontman Robin Zander with a chuckle. “Actually, I’m still laughing. I can’t believe it. The stars have finally aligned in the Cheap Trick universe.”
About time. After four decades together, the Chicago power-popsters had two long-overdue triumphs to celebrate in 2016. The biggest thrill, of course, was their long-overdue induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. But the icing on the cake for Zander was the nearly simultaneous release of their hard-driving 17th album Bang, Zoom, Crazy… Hello. It was their first in seven years — and their first without drummer Bun E. Carlos, who acrimoniously split with Zander, guitarist Rick Nielsen and drummer Tom Petersson a few years back (and was replaced by Nielsen’s son Daxx).
From his home outside Tampa, the chatty and personable Zander weighed in on retaliation sticks, underthinking it, Picasso’s acid period and plenty more.
Was the Hall of Fame something you had given up on?
I never expected it to happen. You know, we’ve been eligible since 2002, I think. The first few years you think, ‘We could get in! That would be cool!’ Then 10 years go by and you think, ‘Well, we’re not going to get in.’ Then 15 years go by and you think, ‘Well, what do they know anyway?’ But then it happens and all is forgiven and it’s exciting and we’re so proud of ourselves.
You aren’t the sort of band that tends to win awards. You don’t have a Grammy.
Exactly. The only things we’ve received are our gold and platinum records. Everybody knows who we are and we had huge success for a couple of years. But we’ve always been sort of a cult band. Maybe we’ve got one record in everybody’s stack. But that’s been good enough for us.
But now you’re getting respect. Does it feel like the world has finally caught up with you?
The thing I’ve noticed is the change in people where I live. I live in a very small town where I know everybody. And now when I walk around, people I’ve known for 23 years are coming up to me and going, ‘Oh man, congratulations! Can I get your autograph for my kids?’ That’s how I see the difference.
Have you sorted out things with Bun E. regarding the ceremony? He’s said the two of you don’t get along.
There wasn’t much to sort out, really. Bun E.’s gonna play with us — he’s still a member of Cheap Trick, he’s just not touring anymore. But we’re gonna do three songs together. It’s going to be a party and we’re going to have fun and it’s going to be fairly light because we never take ourselves seriously anyway. And I’ve got no bones with Bun E. If there are hard feelings, we’ll just deal with it like adults. Hopefully he won’t be throwing drumsticks at me or anything.
Well, you’ve got a guitar. That’s a bigger weapon.
Yeah. I’ve got a retaliation stick (laughs).
Is the album release a nice coincidence or a plan?
Oh no, we already had the album booked for April Fool’s Day, because in Illinois, that’s Cheap Trick Day. Officially. So that was together long before we knew we were going to be inducted into the Hall of Fame.
The album certainly rocks. Was that deliberate or just the way it happened?
It was very conscious on my part. I really thought we needed to do something special for Cheap Trick fans, and the only way to do that would be to recapture that ’70s rock sound and get that classic feel — but still remain fresh and new and vital. That’s very hard to do, and if you think too much about it, you’ve got a problem.
After making 17 albums, you’d think you would have it down to a system.
Oh yeah, we’ve got it down to a fine art. We’re like the Picasso of rock.
The period when he did lots of acid (laughs).
This is your first album without Bun E. How did you feel about working without him?
Well, Bun E. hated the last one that he made with us. He didn’t think it was worthy of Cheap Trick. You know, sometimes when bands break up, they use the excuse of musical differences. So I guess i finally figured out what that really means.
I find it interesting that you still sound like a garage band after all these years.
Well, I honestly appreciate that. Because that’s not a conscious effort. It’s just the way we are. And I think if you listen to all of our records through all these years, you can see that’s true. We’ve derailed on a few occasions, but that’s true with every band. when you’re always searching yourself for inspiration and new avenues to keep yourself fresh, sometimes you lose sight of who you really are and you have to get back to it, you know.
Would you like to go back to some of those times you derailed and do things differently?
Not really. I think everything we did, the good and the bad, was a place and time. And we make records for ourselves, so we’re always going to be our worst critics too. Some people’s favourite Cheap Trick song is the ballad The Flame, and that wasn’t even written by us. And some people’s favourite song is Dream Police. Some people that don’t like The Flame will like Dream Police. And people that don’t like Dream Police will like The Flame. We’re a pretty diverse band, you know. I don’t know of any other band that’s as diverse as us, that can do something like Auf Wiedersehen or The Ballad of TV Violence next to Mandocello on the same record. I think The Beatles were probably the only ones who were that way. And we have a lot of similarities there with three songwriters in the band, and three guys who can sing and play.
You still seem to tour fairly relentlessly. Do you see a day when you’ll slow down?
I think we’ve slowed it down a bit in the last 10 years. But our set now contains more songs; we do about an hour and a half or two hours. A lot of that is because we’ve got some youth on the drums that can last that long. I’m not trying to take anything away from Bun. But it is nice to be able to stretch out a little bit, and as far as writing and songs are concerned, we came into this album with about 25 songs. So we’ve got enough for another album right away. But that’s kind of the way we’ve always been. Back in the ’70s we made two albums in a year. It would be nice at the end of our careers to go back to that, to make another three, four or five records before we’re done.
So we won’t have to wait another seven years for an album?
Exactly. But you have to remember we’ve been through a lot recently. We sorta cleaned house with lawsuits and changing our management, our record company, our agent. It’s been an experience. If i had one piece of advice to offer young musicians, it’s to hire your own entertainment lawyer before you do anything else. Not for the band, but for the individuals. We’re free and clear now, but we also have more restrictions now because of contract that were signed years ago. We’re dealing with it. What can I say? That’s life. And it’s not going to keep us from making records.
Unlike a lot of your peers, your voice has held up over the decades. Is it just from constant use — it never gets a chance to get rusty?
I believe so. Brian Johnson lives close to me and I’ve talked to him about this over the years and we’re in total agreement about this. If you take three or four months off the road as a singer and you jump back into it for a tour, it’s really difficult for the first three or four weeks with that downtime behind you. Because it is a muscle and it’s something unique. You can practise every day but it’s not the same adrenaline-wise as getting in front of an audience and performing. So yeah, I attribute it to the fact that we play so much and I don’t take that time off like that. I’m always sort of semi-prepared or prepared enough to withstand the onslaught of performance. Because people pay a lot of money for tickets and I’m not going to get out there half-assed and make a fool of myself and make a fool out of the band that I’m in.
Aside from Cheap Trick, do you have any other projects on the go?
I’ve always got something else going on. I’m a writer; I like to write short stories. I’ve been working on a special comic book that will hopefully come out soon called The High Priest of Rhythmic Noise. And I’ve been working on a short story that would be he perfect Disney film. It’s called Sandcastles. Hopefully that will come to light in some form or another. I also did a record that never came out and I’m trying to get the rights back to that. I used to live on this street called Countryside Boulevard, and my kids were born there, so I decided to do a record called Countryside Boulevard. But believe me, there’s no country accent anywhere on the record. But it’s kind of a different thing that I recorded about four or five years ago that’s never come out.