“The Japanese liked our music and they understood us. We’re still around, so maybe they were on to something,” says Rick Nielsen when asked about the upcoming 40th Anniversary of Cheap Trick’s 1978 breakthrough album, Cheap Trick at Budokan. It’s been so long since that record blew up in America via the Top 10 single, “I Want You to Want Me,” that it’s hard to believe there was a time when the band actually had difficulty connecting with audiences on the other side of the Pacific. Following that seminal album wasn’t easy, and it would be 1988 before Cheap Trick’s fortunes would soar again with Lap of Luxury. But in the meantime, the band proved itself to be a force to be reckoned with, especially in concert, as the gonzo enthusiastic audiences in Japan so thoroughly demonstrated a decade earlier.
Like the Rolling Stones and ZZ Top, Cheap Trick still has its original members, albeit Nielsen’s son Daxx now has the drum chair, replacing Bun E. Carlos, whose rift with lead singer Robin Zander ended his touring with the band (although Carlos reportedly retains a 25 percent ownership in Cheap Trick). On the plus side, the band continues to make new music and they certainly maintain an active tour schedule.
The latest release is We’re All Alright, a hard driving rock-pop album chock full of cleverly crafted songs that give Rick Nielsen all the platform he needs for his powerhouse rhythm grooves and scorching solos. He fires them off so effortlessly you have to marvel at his ability to play exactly what the song needs, and still throw in a little tongue-in-cheek humor, as if to underscore that he doesn’t take himself too seriously. A die-hard fan of vintage guitars and tube amps, Nielsen always manages to sound like he’s just discovered the coolness of classic rock tone and can’t wait to revel in it onstage. Man, what a way to age gracefully in this business!
Back in the day you were using Marshall, Orange, and Fender amps, as well as Sound City amplifiers and cabinets, which are the rarest of the rock stacks. What did you originally like about Sound City, and where did you get them?
I went to England in 1968, and, probably like everybody, I wanted Marshalls because the Who had them and all that. But I had limited funds and Marshalls were a bit out of reach. Then I saw the band Love Sculpture, which featured Dave Edmunds, and I saw Jethro Tull when they were still a blues band, and I saw Gunn and some other bands, and they all had Sound City gear. So I checked into it and found that I could get twice as many Sound City amps as I could Marshalls for the same amount of money. I could get four stacks for the price of two, and they were the same size and the whole thing, so I said, “Heck, I’ll get these.” So I had them shipped over to the U.S., and the rest is history. We had the band Fuse or the Grim Reapers or whatever it was, and the guitar player could have a stack, I could have a stack, and Tom [Petersson, bassist] could use two stacks, so we were all set. Four Sound City stacks onstage—it looked cool and it was cool. I still have all those Sound City cabinets too.
Did you know that Sound City is back with a new line of amps that are built in California?
No, but tell them to call me.
What did you play through in the studio for this record?
Basically the same stuff that I use live. I may add an amp or two so that I have more sounds to choose from. I use my Fender Deluxes that Paul Rivera hopped-up for me in 1977, and then I have an Orange 2x12 combo, the first one they ever made. I found another one just like it when I went guitar shopping with Mike McCready in Seattle, so I bought that, and in the meantime, Orange made me a new one with orange and black checkerboard covering. Onstage I also have a couple of old Selmers, a Vox, and a Marshall 4x10. In the studio, we mostly do everything live to get the basic tracks and then I’ll do guitar overdubs. I always do a guitar rhythm or rhythm/lead track, because I get the feel that way.
Do you switch between amps live?
No. I switch guitars, but I don’t switch amps. My sound is really a combination of different amps. I also have an iso-cabinet with a Fender Deluxe inside that’s behind the stacks. It has a microphone inside, so it’s always a consistent sound. I’ve used that for more than 30 years.
What’s your opinion of digital modeling amps?
I’ve never tried one. Should I?
Were you using more effects in the early 70s?
Nope, just the same one I use today— a wah-wah pedal—and I only use it for one song. I’ve never really been into pedals. I’ve got a Fuzz Face, a Tone Bender, a Rangemaster, and a bunch of other things, but I rarely use them.
Are you still taking as many vintage guitars on the road as you used to?
Oh yeah. I have about 25 guitars on stage right now that are ready to go. But now we’re doing an hour per show, so I have time for maybe 12 guitars. I’ve always got Fenders, Hamers, Gibsons, Gretsches, Epiphones, James Trussart, and, well, a lot of stuff.
You seem like a consummate songwriter. Is that right?
I write things down all the time, but I write more stuff than I ever finish. Even after I record a song I’m always thinking, “Gee, I wish I would have done this instead.” That’s a constant thing, though. So I don’t think I’ve ever really finished a song, even after recording it and re-recording it, and then playing it for ten years. I’m always thinking, “I should have done this part differently.”
So are your songs more like semi-finished when you show them to the band?
Well, yeah, but you can’t just show up and expect everyone else to do everything for you. If you look at our first bunch of albums, I used to write everything. But now there’s more material to choose from.
Your arrangement of “Blackberry Way” is pretty impressive. Why did you choose something like that from the psychedelic era for the one cover tune on this record?
That’s a Roy Wood song, and it’s such a neat tune. It’s fun to play because the chord progression is something I’d never use. Especially that part goes B minor, Bb minor, Ab minor, C and on … The original version by the Move is even more orchestrated, especially in the middle part [sings the line]—there’s all kind of crazy stuff, so we simplified it a bit.
Your solo reminds me of something George Harrison would play.
I hadn’t thought of that … I just played what I could play.
I like how you work some Hendrix-y octaves into your first solo on “Brand New Name on an Old Tattoo.” Was that spontaneous?
Yeah, pretty much off the cuff. I tend to go by what the song seems to be looking for—sometimes I nail it, sometimes I don’t. The emotion of the song dictates what I start playing, and whether it’s the octaves or this or that. I try to do stuff that makes sense melodically as opposed to just throwing in stuff for the hell of it. I wrote that song a long time ago with Todd Cerney, and then we updated it, of course.
Do you keep a stash of songs that you’ve previously demoed?
Yes. With certain tunes, just because they weren’t used when you first did them, it doesn’t mean they’re something you want to get rid of. Sometimes a song needs time for everything to catch up with it, or regress down to it. We’ve always been pretty diverse in what we do, and we’ve always had trouble with that. It’s like, “What song do you want to play here? Slow, fast, with or without lyrics, heavy, not so heavy?” So you can’t just pigeonhole us by listening to one song and know what we’re up to. On this tour we change our set every single night. Some work better than others, but fans that are coming to see us think it’s cool that we play a song they haven’t heard in years.
Are you playing an acoustic on those high-strung parts “Floating Down”?
Yes, sometimes I’ll use a Nashville tuning on a 6-string, and I’ll double the part in standard tuning. It winds up sounding like a 12-string, but without the hassles of playing a 12-string and trying to get all the string to ring true. I have Gibsons, Martins, Taylors, and once in a while I’ll use my Guild Merle Travis. When we go in the studio I have a ton of guitars, Tom has a ton of guitars, and the producer we work with, Julian Raymond, has trunks loaded with guitars.
Are you also using a rotary speaker or a flanger for some of the parts on that tune?
I think that was a Leslie speaker. I’ll remember once I listen to it, but the second it’s done, it’s not something that’s in my face anymore.
Is that you doing the super clean picking on “She’s Alright?” It sounds like you’re playing over a loop.
Robin was doing that, and so I think it was a loop. Sometimes he’ll do parts that I can’t even play. It could take me forever to get something that comes so naturally to Robin or Tom.
Your solo on “Listen To Me” sounds like you were channeling some of Jimmy Page’s frenzied solo break in “Whole Lotta Love,” and that section of triplets the band locks into right before it is just plain crazy. Is this Rick Nielsen humor in full display?
I wrote that one a couple of albums ago and it just didn’t immediately hit anybody over the head. But yeah, I was trying to do something cool and funny—although it’s going by so fast most people probably won’t even notice it. Those triplets in the chord changes during that one section weren’t so spontaneous when we tried to play it in unison, but I think we nailed it.
“The Rest of My Life” has a gorgeous intro and your solo is crazy with whammy bar. Do you remember what guitar you used?
No. Probably about one out of every five guitars of mine has a whammy bar, and a couple of them have Floyd Rose locking whammys. I met Floyd at the NAMM show last year—I never knew it was actually a guy’s name—and he was funny too, and I liked that. Those locking whammys always seemed like a nightmare to me, because I tend to hit the guitar pretty hard, so I’d be breaking strings all the time. Then I’m screwed. But I have the luxury of having a guitar tech to take care of that stuff. I haven’t tuned a guitar in 40 years.