Interview by Mick Burgess
Having been delayed by Covid, Cheap Trick’s 20th studio album, ‘In Another World’, is finally getting released. Fireworks called up lead singer Robin Zander to talk about the new record as well as looking back on Cheap Trick’s legendary show at the Cavern Club in Liverpool and their love of The Beatles.
The last twelve months or so have been something of a strange time for us all. How has Covid 19 impacted on you?
I think it’s basically been the same as it has been for everyone else. I’m stuck at home but it gives me time to finally meet my wife after twenty-seven years of marriage. It’s like a double-edged sword. I really do miss being on the road. We haven’t played for a whole year and I miss getting out and playing but it’s good to be home too and stay in the same bed. I never liked the travel part of touring so much though, it’s the part of being on stage and playing for people that I love.
The good news is that there’s a new album from Cheap Trick called ‘In Another World’ out on the 9th of April. Are you excited about that ahead of its release?
Oh, yeah. It’s like a new born baby that hasn’t seen the light of day for a whole year. The album has been finished for a while and we’ve just been waiting for the right time to release it so I’m really excited that it’s finally coming out.
You’ve had a couple of singles out including ‘The Summer Looks Good On You’ and ‘Light Up The Fire’. Who decides which songs to put out as singles?
The record company decide what they’re going to do as a single. I think that’s different nowadays than it used to be, as some people just release singles and don’t even have an album. It’s kind of odd that they’ve released that many singles. I think they’ve released three of them before the album has even come out. ‘Give Me Some Truth’, the John Lennon song, was one and ‘Light Up The Fire ‘and ‘Boys & Girls & Rock ‘n’Roll and we also did ‘Rebel Rebel by David Bowie because we were anxious and bored so we recorded that just for the heck of it. That one isn’t on the album.
It’s been four years since your last album of new material, ‘We’re All Alright’. When did you actually start working on the new record?
We’ve worked on it in bits and pieces over the years on demos which we did sporadically. Whenever a good idea came up, we’d pass it around and cook it and it eventually became a song in the studio. Also, some stuff that we did were bits and pieces that we just glued together in the studio. That gives it an energy that normally it might not have. We used different studios for this record. I think it’s a diverse sounding album.
So you had a lot of the album written before the COVID situation kicked in?
Yes, it was all done, the whole thing was recorded before COVID. It was just like normal when we made the record and it wasn’t until we were ready to release the record that COVID hit and I was like, ‘oh, boy’. We decided that title ‘In Another World’ fit with what’s been going on over the last year.
How do you usually write together then? Did you jam together or do you all bring in individual ideas or complete songs? How do you tend to do it?
It’s all of those, it’s all of the above. Sometimes there’s a complete song there and sometimes there’s some little bits and pieces that the band doesn’t like, or one guy has a better idea for a hook in the chorus or whatever and that changes it a little bit and that then becomes something we all like. Then other times, there’s no song it’s just a bass line that has a cool groove to it and it builds up from there. We all just put our inputs in and hope for the best. Then when there’s about twenty of them done, the good ones poke their heads up.
Did you have any ideas lying around from your last album that you were able to polish up and use bits of or did you just start with a blank slate?
There was one song that I had written a long time ago. In fact, it was a song that I wrote in Edinburgh when I was there in the early seventies, before Cheap Trick was even a band. It was just an instrumental guitar piece that I wrote. I was going through my tapes and stuff just to see if there’s anything laying around and that poked its head out so I finished it. I wrote a lyric and melody to it and it made the record. That was the song called ‘So It Goes’.
Do you have a good idea when you working on the songs of which ones are rising to the top and which ones you might sort of discard?
You always do. As you’re working on them you always feel the ones that are going to make the album but there occasionally are surprises. As there’s four of us in the band, sometimes something you don’t think is worthy suddenly changes into the best song with the input of the other guys. ‘Boys & Girls & Rock N Roll’ is one of those that just came out like that. That was one of the later songs we recorded too.
Who makes the final decision on what goes on the record and the running order? Is it a democratic process or do you leave it to the producer?
Well, that’s why you hire the producer, to be the referee so you can blame him if you make the wrong choice further down the line. Do you want to be responsible for the failure of your own record? Ha!
You’ve covered John Lennon’s ‘Give Me Some Truth’ on the album. What was it about the song that made you want to cover it?
I’m sure you know that in the US, the last four years have been really tough. The vision in our country is at a point that reminds me of the sixties with racism and politics being what they were. We just thought that covering this song, it means more now than it did then. I just listened to it one time through and thought I’m going to do it; I’m going to demo this. I downloaded it and sent it to the producer and he said that we should do it. I wasn’t sure it was going be on the record at all but we tried it. At first, it wasn’t going to make the record but then we decided that it might be a good sales release so we came up with this weird cover. We just want some truth from our politicians so the lyrics just made sense. We really liked how it came out and later on we decided to put it on the album.
Whose idea was it to get Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols in to play guitar on the song?
We’d done Steve Jones’s blog radio station that he does. We were scheduled to go in and do it again. We’ve kept in touch with him. He is a very underrated guitar player and we thought, when we were there doing the interview with him, we were working on that song in particular, so we asked him if he’d like to come and play on this record and he said yes, it was that simple. So, he came in and played on it and did a fantastic job. Thank you, Steve.
How would you describe ‘In Another World’ to someone that might not be familiar with your music, to entice them in to find out more about your back catalogue?
I would say it’s a Rock record. A lot of people think Rock is dead but it’s not, you can go out and listen to good Rock bands still and we’re just raising the flag up as much as we can. This is our twentieth album. We try to keep it fresh as much as we can. We’re a Rock band and we want Rock music to survive and I think it’s one of our best records.
Julian Raymond has produced the last few albums and he seems to have really got you fired up. What has his impact been on the band since he’s come in?
We’ve known Julian since the mid eighties and we’ve written songs with him before. Tom Petersson, our bass player, was in a band with him called Another Language that came out in the eighties. We’ve known Julian a long time. He’s a musician, he’s a songwriter, he’s a producer. He’s well-seasoned for Hollywood Records and then Capitol Records. When we signed with Big Machine, we decided to bring him along and introduce him to the company and they liked him and he’s still there. We’re not but he is. He produced this record anyway, because he’s like a fifth member of the band, as a musician and a songwriter he just fits right in with us. We work together pretty well.
Many bands, such as the likes of KISS have come out and said that it’s unlikely that they’ll make another album due to streaming and downloading. Is staying creative and moving forward as a band important to you?
Yes, that’s what we do and I think if we stopped making music, stop writing songs and stop making records, I don’t think there’ll be any point. I don’t want to go out there and do ‘I Want You To Want Me’ forever. That’s it, nothing else? I don’t think there’s any satisfaction in that.
Despite what other bands have said, fans do like to hear new material.
Yes, I think so and they like to hear the old stuff too. We’re accommodating and we’ll play that stuff and we’ll play deep cuts from different albums and we’ll also play those hits, as well as promoting the new record with a couple of songs from that record. We only get a limited amount of time so you do have be careful when choosing the setlist as we’ve got a lot to choose from.
You’re over in the UK next February. You must be looking forward to coming back over here?
Oh, you bet. It’s always fun in the UK. Over the years we’ve made so many good friends. In the beginning we really were big fans of Skip Records, all of the artists on that label. We made a lot of friends there so when we come back, we always call them all up and go have a pint or something.
You open your tour at the Boiler Shop in Newcastle. Although you’ve played here in 2018 with Def Leppard and at the City Hall in 1986 with Motley Crue, it’s been forty-two years since you headlined a show here. What are you going to do to mark your return to Newcastle and what surprises do you have for your Geordie fans?
Surprises? I don’t know but I think that just us showing up will be a surprise! It’s a terrible thing to say but we’re not the biggest band in the world. If you’re paying for your own trip to go or if you’ve got an agency that’s not willing to send you there because they’re not going to make any money, or there’s all kinds of weird things that go on, it makes it difficult to come over but we do try to get there as much as we can, we really do.
What are your memories of your visits to Newcastle?
We have some of our fondest memories from being in Newcastle forty-two years ago. I can tell you that I remember the soundcheck we did because we did an Alice Cooper song, ‘I’m Eighteen’, and one of our roadies was acting up so we put him in a trap box and locked it and let him sit there for an hour. It’s little things like that that I remember about Newcastle. One of my fondest memories was before Cheap Trick, when I went to Newcastle to see Neil Young at the City Hall. I think that was ‘72 or something like that. I remember driving all the way there from Edinburgh and we got there and the billboard says ‘Neil Young’ and featuring a then unknown band called The Eagles. Not a bad show to get to.
When you go out on tour your setlist changes from night to night so no two shows are the same. How many songs do you tend to rehearse prior to a tour?
Well, we don’t do that. We rehearse during soundcheck and we try to decide at each show what songs we’re going to add and then it may change from soundcheck to showtime a little bit. But we try to rehearse the songs that we aren’t familiar with or need to brush up and that’s how we do it. We don’t rehearse before a tour. The songs are like riding a bike, you don’t completely forget them and just a little refresher at soundcheck brings it back to life.
Have you had a thought about what songs off the new album you’ll be playing or is it a bit too early to tell?
It’s too early to tell but I would imagine it’ll be one of those singles, ‘Light Up The Fire’ or ‘Boys & Girls & Rock N Roll’. We might do the title song, ‘In Another World’. You know, we do two versions of that song so we have plenty to choose from.
While you were last over here in 2018 with Def Leppard you stopped off at the Cavern Club in Liverpool to play a special headlining show. As a big fan of The Beatles, that must have been a massive highlight of your career?
Oh, it certainly was but I was so sick that night. I had the flu and felt terrible but I made it through, but it’s still amazing to say that we have played there and we have our name on the wall outside.
Did you record the show for a possible future release?
No, I don’t think so. Having said that it could have been recorded but I’m not too sure about it. I know that our sound-man usually records every show. So that show in particular, he probably did record it but I don’t know anything about releasing it as a live album or anything. Maybe we will release it one day.
The Beatles have been a big influence on Cheap Trick. Were they the reason that you got into music?
They were really the reason I got into music. I remember driving home from camping and my father turned on the radio. Beaker Street in Little Rock Arkansas had a huge radio station that covered a lot of ground. ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’ came on the radio and I was stunned by it. It was like the sun shined; it was something special. So, from that, I really started listening to Beaker Street because they played a lot of British Invasion music. I really got into The Animals who were a Newcastle band. I also loved The Kinks and the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, of course, as well as The Yardbirds and Fleetwood Mac. All these bands from the UK became my favourite bands and I formed a band because of it. So yeah, I would have to say, the spark that really ignited all that was the Beatles.
You got to work with Sir George Martin as well on your ‘All Shook Up’ album in 1980. How did you end up working with George on that album?
I think that it was through producer Jack Douglas that George heard about us. We just got a phone call from George’s staff and they said that he had free time and that he would like to do some work with us. We thought it would be fantastic and he took us down to the West Indies to Air Studios 2. We spent about two or three weeks recording the basic tracks and then went to London and finished the record. It was just like a dream.
You also worked with Geoff Emerick who worked as engineer on many of The Beatles recordings as well.
Yeah, he became friendly with Cheap Trick. We did a lot of stuff together including the Sgt. Pepper shows, they were sort of Geoff’s idea. He actually engineered a whole bunch of those shows that we did. He came to Vegas and engineered the first stint there.
Were you hoping to work with George again on the follow up ‘Next Position Please’?
It was just a one-shot deal. I think he was thinking about retiring fairly soon after that. He actually stayed friends with us until he died.
Working with Todd Rundgren afterwards was a pretty decent alternative.
Oh yeah, Todd is wonderful, he’s just fantastic. Rick Nielsen and Tom worked with Todd before so he was an obvious choice for us to work with and the record turned out really well.
Rick worked on John Lennon’s ‘Double Fantasy’ album sessions as well. Did you feel a little envious when he was doing that?
I was jealous as hell, are you kidding me? They had a singer so I couldn’t do it.
He could have sneaked you in to do some backing vocals though couldn’t he?
Oh, I’d have loved that. I don’t ever let him forget that he did that.
Rick’s son Daxx is now your drummer and your son Robin tours with you as guitarist and backing vocalist. It must make you both feel very proud Dads to see your kids up on stage with you.
Oh, it’s fantastic. The plan is that when Rick and I kick back, Cheap Trick can continue on.
So, you’re training them up?
Yes, they’re good now, they are good to go.
Having them on tour with you means that you can keep an eye on them, or is it the other way around?
Yeah, that’s more like it.
Over the years there’s been the Epic Archives release, a three CD release of stuff from your archives, all those bonus tracks on the reissues and also the unreleased tracks on the ‘Sex America…’ box set. Do you have any plans on releasing outtakes that you’ve done since ‘Woke Up With A Monster’?
I believe so. We always keep our archives in check. We call it the woodpile. That’s probably going to be the title of the next archives release. It’s not in the works yet, but we’ve thought of it. It’s a good idea as it gives you some insight on other things that Cheap Trick have done.
You’ve had number one singles, you’ve been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and you’ve been handed the keys to your hometown of Rockford. What, for you, is the personal highlight of your career looking back?
That’s such a hard question to answer. This might seem silly, but one of the highlights of touring was playing Zeppelinfield in Nuremberg, Germany with The Who in 1979, I think there were like 100,000 people there. The Who still had their laser show and Kenny Jones was on the drums for them and AC/DC were on the bill too. It was a fun party afterwards. The singer from Family showed up at the bar and we were talking to Roger Daltrey and playing pool with Bon Scott. It was just a blast. That’s one of the fun times.
You’ve got a new album out soon and a UK tour booked. Do you have anything else lined up over the coming months, a solo album or a guest appearance on someone else’s record perhaps?
Not really. I’m still in a mental fog from this last year. I can’t get the ambition until Cheap Trick gets up and running. It’s hard for me to fall back into anything else. I have to be inspired to do anything solo wise and I’m just not at the moment. There’s lots of material that I have but it’s so bizarre and so far away from Cheap Trick, I don’t know how to describe it. I like to do something different with my solo records that’s why I did the ‘Countryside Boulevard’ record. That record was out fifteen minutes and then it got pulled. You can still find it but it’s hard to get.
Would you consider re-releasing it to make it more widely available?
I’d love to if I had the money. I’d buy it back from the record company as they own the recording because they’re the ones that paid for making the record. In order to get it, I’d have to buy it back from them.
Cheap Trick’s new album, ‘In Another World’ is out now.