Cheap Trick's late-1970s heyday seems ancient history now, but the band never went away. Although nothing has come close to the success of Live at Budokan -- which inspired the term "big in Japan" -- the band's largely ignored output from the '80s and especially the '90s remained consistently strong. Radio stopped caring a long time ago, but a glut of reissues and hardcore touring still satisfy Cheap Trick's loyal fan base. Despite weathering bankrupt record companies, a dearth of press, and enough bad luck to kill lesser (or greater) groups, guitarist Rick Nielsen, bassist Tom Petersson, singer Robin Zander, and drummer Bun E. Carlos celebrated the band's 25th anniversary in 1999. Last week, just a few days before his 54th birthday, Nielsen spoke to New Times from his home outside of the band's birthplace in Rockford, Illinois.
Q:Complaints have circulated recently that the band is playing the same set night after night.
A:Well, if you write some scathing stuff, we'll change it. We've played basically every tune we've ever done. The three we've done practically every show are "I Want You to Want Me," "Dream Police," and "Surrender." We do those every show no matter what. The other stuff we don't do every show.
Q:And the shows are short -- sometimes just over an hour. Is that because of Bun E.'s back problems?
A:That added to it, but we're hoping that his back is strong now and we'll play longer.
Q: Every five years or so, people say power pop is making a comeback...
A:Well, we never went away. We play with so many different people, and all these bands tell me, "Oh, we listen to you, blah blah blah blah blah." If all these bands really listen to us, I wish they'd cover our songs!
Q: A few people have.
A: Marilyn Manson did "Surrender," a one-time thing last New Year's Eve. Dwight Yoakam did "I Want You to Want Me." Bryan Ferry did some stuff, but it didn't come out. It was a song called "Take Me I'm Yours."
Q: Bryan Ferry? Really?
A: Yeah, we had a drinking contest with Roxy Music in Copenhagen. And they lost.
Q:Some have even noted that Nirvana and the Pixies borrowed heavily from Cheap Trick.
A: Yeah, Kurt Cobain mentioned us a couple of times and said, "We sound like Cheap Trick, except the guitars are louder."
Q:Does the success they enjoyed ever make you feel cheated?
A:Cheated? No. It's usually cool bands and people who actually know music. If they said, "We learned how to dance to Cheap Trick," I'd be like, "What?" I think bands still look up to us for our longevity and because we're too dumb to quit, we're kind of still irreverent, and the fact that we still play but still enjoy it. We're like the world's greatest garage band, I think. That's why I think other groups should cover us. I heard Smash Mouth doing "I'm a Believer" by the Monkees -- a happy-go-lucky, funny pop song. But we have some of those too.
Q:Do you enjoy spending time rehashing the past? You went back and remixed the In Color album, and you toured back in 1999, playing shows devoted to the first four albums.
A:I don't know if it's rehash. It's not like we're a band who tried to cover the hairstyle or clothing or instrumentation de jour. We stuck to what we were doing. We didn't go to radio; we hoped radio would go to us. People talk about power pop coming back every few years, but we didn't change every five years. We did what we do, and we think we do it pretty well. We don't try to do anything different. Well, once we did a song for a dance club, and we had the record company take it in and play it, and the dance floor cleared.
Q:How did the reissued, expanded version of Live at Budokan sell?
A: It did all right. It was bad management and bad record-company planning. Of course, the band too -- I gotta give us some credit for not doing it right. Let's see: When we had that huge hit, why didn't we put it out, like, then? Instead of waiting 20 years?
Q: Timing is the key to life.
A: Yeah, we must have lost the lock and the key! [laughs]
Q: The last show you played down here was at a racetrack [Gulfstream Park] in the middle of the afternoon. Do you ever stand on a stage like that, or at a casino somewhere, and ask, "What the hell am I doing here?"
A: If that's all we did, yeah. But that's not all we do. Right after that show, we went on to Europe. In 2003, we're playing [London's] Royal Albert Hall. It's already half sold out, and we haven't even advertised. We just played a corporate party for Oracle. And we opened for Aerosmith. If we only did one thing, yeah, but the fact we did so many different things -- I mean, we've played at baseball games, we've played hockey games, we did the national anthem at the Kansas City/Miami Dolphins game. We do all kinds of stuff.
Q:You've read that the guitar picks you throw into the audience every show are going for $5 on eBay?
A:[laughs] I tell ya, I should quit playing and just get on eBay!
Q:Sell 'em at the merch table!
A: Who needs to tour? I'll just bring a bag of picks and a chair!
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