Ric Ocasek on Tracking Nexterday

The Cars sold gazillions of records in their ’80s heyday, and it shouldn’t have happened. The band was quirky, anti-charismatic (before it was fashionable), distant, and influenced by a commercially deadly mixture of punk, garage rock, and bubblegum. But none of these apparent disadvantages trumped the genius of frontman Ric Ocasek, who forged uniquely brilliant radio hits until the band broke up in 1987.

Today, Ocasek remains a crafty and in-demand producer (Weezer, Guided By Voices, Hole), and he’s a label owner to boot. His new solo album, Nexterday [Inverse/Sanctuary], recalls his garage-rock roots (it was actually recorded in his basement), but retains the sparkle and punch of a chart-topping smash. Far from a spoiled ex-superstar, Ocasek took a Calvinistic approach to producing Nexterday, dedicating himself to playing parts until they were right and tight, rather than embracing the editing magic offered by digital workstations.

“I guess analog-recording habits die hard,” says Ocasek. “I record with Tascam DA-88s because I don’t have to touch a mouse. I don’t mind recording with Pro Tools if I have an operator, but I don’t use it myself, because it takes away from what I’m thinking about as I’m playing. I don’t want to watch the computer screen—that doesn’t feel musical to me. It’s to the point where I don’t even set up the automatic punch-in feature on the DA-88s—I just punch myself in on the fly. I make some funny mistakes that way, which means I have to start all over again because I can’t play and punch in simultaneously. By the time I’ve done a part ten times, I’ve got it pretty good [laughs].”

When crafting guitar tones and parts, Ocasek adopts a similar work ethic. “I’m pretty meticulous about guitar sounds, but I conceive them as I go,” he explains. “I play along with the track to audition sounds, and I make sure the tones are different for each part I play. I never use compression, because I don’t like how it mushes up the sound and diminishes the attack. If I need to hold the guitar back a little bit, I just play it that way. And I always double parts without hearing the other track, because I like my full attention on the part I’m doing. It’s distracting to hear both parts, and, anyway, I don’t mind a little bit of drift between parts, because if the performances are too precise, the song can sound stiff.”

Although he can obviously afford fabulous technology, Ocasek holds that experience, vision, and ambience are more important to the process of making great-sounding records than obsessing over gear.

“I record in the same home-studio environment that a lot of your readers do,” he says. “It’s not like I have a glorious facility down in the basement. But I think that if you have a limited amount of stuff to play with, it forces you to find a way to make interesting sounds. You can make anything sound cool if you play around with it long enough. You just have to be adventurous and willing to make a lot of mistakes until you know what you’re doing.”