“Thank you so much for this interview because normally, I get pushed out of the way for interviews,” Cheap Trick singer Robin Zander says. “It’s usually that freaky white motherfucker with a baseball cap,” he says, referring to guitarist Rick Neilsen. Sean Yseult—formerly of White Zombie, now working on a new project, Star and Dagger—has been friends with Zander for years. Among other bonds the two share, Schecter Guitars makes instruments for both of them.
Yseult will be out of town when Cheap Trick plays the Voodoo Experience on Sunday, October 30 at 6:15 p.m. in the Bingo! Parlor, so she caught up with Zander and let OffBeat listen in.
Last time I saw you we were in Vegas doing the Sgt. Pepper show [Cheap Trick performed the entire Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album in Las Vegas in 2010, complete with a 32-piece orchestra.].
That was so much fun to be able to do a big show in Vegas and not pull down your underwear as Cheap Trick but you know, do Cheap Trick as Sgt. Pepper.
It was brilliant; are you going to take that on the road?
If the money was right. There’s not much money in that.
Really? Because in Vegas it was beautiful.
Way too expensive. You’ve got to pay all the cello players and the singers. We don’t get paid enough as it is. We are doing something similar with Dream Police, though.
Are you going to take that on the road?
That we can take on the road because it’s not quite as involved. We have some dates in Wisconsin. You can go to our website to find out more about that.
Wow, I’m definitely going to buy a plane ticket to see that.
Yeah, you’ve got to come up, if not just to hang out.
Are you in New Orleans right now?
Yeah, I am; where are you?
I’m at home. I’m in Florida.
Florida. I knew you were on East Coast time, but I thought you were in New York for some reason.
The band’s in New York but I’m down here.
I wanted to talk to you a little bit about the early days of Cheap Trick. I was wondering if you guys had a time where, when you were getting large, you were getting these large audiences but were still financially playing catch-up? I know with White Zombie, we were starting to play these big places but were still really poor because labels don’t really account for you.
We accumulated a lot of debt. Even after [At] Budokan was successful, we didn’t see the money for a couple years. On top of that, we sued our record company.
I didn’t know that.
And we lost the lawsuit because of the laws back then. We were suing over royalties, and spent another million fighting that. I remember sitting in the lawyer’s office during a deposition with my Chicago lawyer with a stogie in his mouth, and they have seven lawyers! One of them just won the Von Bulow case! I was thinking, “Oohhh, great.”
It took us a while to get on our feet, but eventually we did, and you’re right. It’s sort of a strange feeling looking out into an audience of 50,000 people thinking, “Why am I broke?”
So was Budokan the turning point for you?
I think it was pre-Budokan or leading up to Budokan that really did it for us. It was probably during the Heaven Tonight album. We went on a world tour that lasted two years, and in those days you made two records a year.
Oh my god.
January ‘77 our first record came out and in the fall of ‘77 our second record came out.
I didn’t realize they were that close together.
And in ’78, Heaven Tonight came out, and we were recording Dream Police.
Wow, you guys were on a roll, cranking out all that amazing material.
What happened was, during that period we toured with AC/DC and at that point both bands were fairly unknown. They knew who we were in the Midwest, and they knew who AC/DC was in Australia, but the rest of the world didn’t know about either band yet, so we toured for about a year and a half.
I knew that you toured with AC/DC, but I didn’t know you toured with them for a year and a half together.
One of my favorite shows that we did was in ’78 at Zeppelinfeld, in Nuremberg, Germany and the Who were headlining. It was the Who, Cheap Trick, the Scorpions, AC/DC and about three or four other metal bands. It was for over 120,000 people where Hitler did his rallies! The party afterwards was unbelievable.
Getting back to what happened to us, Budokan had happened right before Dream Police, and by the time we got to play Budokan, we had a following and anticipation. They were expecting Dream Police to come out, and they had heard the review of the tour with AC/DC. When we got to the airport, I looked out the window and saw a thousand people out there.
Oh my god, you must’ve felt like the Beatles, huh?
I thought the president was there or something. It wasn’t until we got off the plane that we realized it was for us.
What’re you doing? You’re touring now because you got the book? [Last year, Yseult wrote I’m in the Band: Backstage Notes from the Chick in White Zombie.]
I got you a copy of that, right? When I saw you in L.A. for the NAAM show?
I’m so proud to be in the book!
Oh god, are you kidding? One of the main things I tell people in this book is that not only was I in a band and a musician, but I was such a fan of the bands we got to tour with and see. Running into you guys in Tokyo and getting to be friends and hanging out was so exciting. Remember that night you and I closed down the bar with Phil Anselmo?
When you’re on that different time zone, you aren’t tired.
They were so polite. They weren’t going to shut down the bar when there were musicians hanging out. I think Phil was surprised that both of us could keep up with him.
You know, I just saw him. We did a fest in England and he was there, and we grabbed him by the neck and threw him in our van and drove him around. He still lives in New Orleans, doesn’t he?
He does. I just saw him about a month ago for his birthday. He lives across the lake and, as you can imagine, every square inch is covered in horror movies and posters and old, old VHS tapes and things. He’s doing really great. I really love the Down stuff.
I also heard a rumor about a comic book?
Oh yeah, that’s almost out.
That’s not secret?
It’s called The High Priest of Rhythmic Noise, and it’s actually a hard copy comic book, which will be in stores, but there’s also an Internet version of it. Each episode will be about 3-5 minutes long, and you can download it off of iTunes. The core of it is not the comic book itself; the core of it is that it has a soundtrack. The soundtrack has dialogue and, you know, the things that movies do to enhance their product. What we’re trying to do is keep the integrity of the comic book by not having motion, but to enhance the comic book by zooming in and out as if you actually had the hard copy in front of you
I used to bring my comic books to school. On the way there, I would read a comic book, and nobody does that anymore. I figured this was a way to do two things, and that’s to bring back comic books to where they should be—in the hands of 18-year-olds, and to let them enjoy them on their way to school, on the way home.
Sounds very cool. Are you the star of the comic book or did you help create it?
I wrote the story and I wrote the music. But it’s not just my music. The segues and some of the songs are from other artists that cared to contribute. I wanted the material to be mostly new so that it’s exposing bands that normally wouldn’t have a chance to be exposed. It’s just another avenue, you know?
That’s great when you get opportunities like that. I’ve been offered to do a soundtrack for this iPhone app, which is cool. It’s something about going on a date with a vampire, so they need all this creepy music for the background and wanted to film in my house!
I’m looking forward to that. By the way, as long as we’re talking about this, if you’ve got anything laying around—it doesn’t have to be a song, it can just be a piece of music—I’ll find a spot for it and we’ll put it in there.
Awesome! I compose on piano quite a bit, so that might be fun.
Yeah, it was. I’m not sure why it changed, and it’s a shame, really, because it was written with us in mind.
It’s so obvious.
I don’t really care because the Ramones are a good band too.
Last time I saw you guys play in L.A. a few months back, you guys did an amazing set, and I know with White Zombie, we would have this very locked-down set we would play every night and it got a little tiresome—“How many times can I play these songs over and over again?”
We do the same thing. The locked down set is there and we change one or two songs once in a great while. It was difficult for the four of us to come to any consensus on how we might change it so we could lighten it up a little bit, but it never seemed to happen. Then one day we all looked at each other and said, “Why not at our soundchecks go over some of this older material so we can add it in?” That kept going for a couple of years until every night we ended up doing a different set with the exception of a few core songs. “I Want You to Want Me,” “Dream Police” and stuff like that.
Your catalogue is so vast at this point. I don’t know if a lot of people who aren’t musicians know this, but a lot of what you do is—
A lot of them don’t because they don’t think we still made records after the ’80s, but we continue to make records. In fact, we just had one out that we did recently called The Latest, which is think is one of our greatest, but because of our age—I mean, I consider us to be one of the most famous cult bands in the whole world.
Another thing that I’m just always blown away by is your voice. You’ve been singing for—
37 years! And your voice sounds great.
Well, thank you. I don’t know what that is. I’ve never considered myself necessarily as the singer of Cheap Trick. It was the first band I was in where I was the singer, really.
What did you do before?
I owned the PA system.
(laughter) Isn’t that always the way.
And I had a van before anybody else did. I was in a lot of bands before Cheap Trick. I played the guitar and I sang back-up. I just got a funny email from some friends of mine in Chicago. I was in his band for a couple of weeks and I auditioned for the lead singer part, and was fired after about three days.
Oh my god! For what reason?
They found somebody they thought was better, but I just got an email from the drummer from that band and he said, “Goddamn it, how many times am I going to kick myself in the ass for firing you?”
Do you remember the name of the first band you played with?
The first band I was in was the Destinations and I was 14 years old. Then I was in a band after that called Butterscotch Sundays.
Were you guys kind of psychedelic?
Of course “Sunday” was spelled S-u-n-d-a-y. I thought Strawberry Alarm Clock was cool. Then just before Cheap Trick, I was in a duo for a while with another fella, and we played a lot of coffee shops and we got into an acoustic mode. For about four years I just traveled around with my guitar—over to Colorado and back, over to Scotland. Went there and lived there for about a year and a half. I tried to “find myself.” I came back and realized I wasn’t really lost in the first place!
What was it like being in Scotland at that time?
At every show I met a lot of people. I met this great band called Lindesfarne—they lived in England—and I wanted to go see Neil Young at City Hall because this new band called the Eagles were playing there and I had read a lot about them. The guy in Lindesfarne who played the mandolin was the guy who played on “Maggie Mae” with Rod Stewart, and he gave me a ride. Stuff like that would happen all the time. I almost got mugged going to see Slade one night.
Oh my god!
With Ten Years After at this bingo parlor. I probably blew my ears out because I saw the two loudest bands I’d ever heard in my life.
I love Slade. You didn’t happen to catch the Sweet around that time, did you?
Which one was more impressive, the Sweet or Slade?
Slade was definitely more impressive. They were so cool live, I don’t even know how to explain it. They were a pop band, but they sounded so heavy to me.
One of the reasons we’re called Cheap Trick is because there was a performance of Slade, and Tom [Petersson] looked at Rick [Nielsen] or Rick looked at Tom and said something like, “These guys use every cheap trick in the book.”
Really? (laughter) That was about Slade? So those guys influenced you when you started?
I think so. It was more attitude than anything else; they had a lot of attitude and real positive songs.
Yeah, you guys always had that sensibility, super pop but heavy rock at the same time.
We just took it to a different level. Our songs are different so that sets us apart, but we did a tribute, a song on The Latest, by Slade.
“When the Lights Are Out.” (begins to sing) “When the lights out, we’ll be sitting pretty.”
Awesome. I’ve got to check it out. I have to ask you if you had any inside stories or funny memories of hanging out with the AC/DC guys while you were on tour with them.
Bon Scott was really a great guy. He was a perfect gentlemen, but everyone thought he was this creepy, dirty old man. And he was older than us, so the shoe kind of fit. He’d get up in the morning and have a donut and a shot of whiskey. He would be able to drink that pretty much all day long, but he was never out of it or drunk.
That’s so European! When they maintain a certain level of drunkenness but never appear too drunk. That’s an amazing talent.
He rarely drank wine or beer with a meal; with a meal he always had a shot of whiskey. He wouldn’t do a shot to get drunk; he would just sip on it and eat a little doughnut, have another little sip.
He was a great guy. That band was my favorite rock band and still is to this day. They do one thing, but they do it better than anyone else on the planet. I’ve got a lot of respect for all those guys, their music, their longevity. What they’ve done is great.
You did the major label thing for so many years and now you’re independent. Which one do you prefer?
When you’re young and you don’t know any better, getting signed to a major label is what you’re after. But you’re not really prepared for the business aspect of getting ripped off, because that’s what’s going to happen. You get into this situation where the label says, “We’re going to take everything from you because we know how much you love what you do, and you’re not going to pay attention to what we do.”
That’s so horrible that you guys went though that, I’m really sorry to hear that. I didn’t know you guys had to go through lawsuits and stuff like that.
It’s alright. I’m not starving. I’m far from well off, but I have a house that I love, and I have a family and I’m happy.
They’re right on that account—we love what we do; it’s horrible that they take advantage of it.
They needed the money a lot more than I did, so it doesn’t bother me. Looking back on all that stuff, it’s just a shame and you know, I think that other acts coming up, it’s different because they’re aware of it and the state of record companies now. The world is changing and they have to change with it and the companies are all shrunk.
Definitely, and there are so many people doing it over the Internet for themselves now.
And these people can make a humble living. They may not be getting rich for it, but they survive and they continue to make records that people enjoy, even if it’s locally. However you can scrape by—making a living by making music—is wonderful because music is more than all that other stuff. Music is a part of life, whether you’re a professional musician or not. Music is religion; it’s a spiritual thing that transcends everything.
This isn’t a question, but I’m just going to say it: You’re one of my favorite singers, and your voice seems to have built-in sound effects. It sounds like there are sound effects in your voice, you know what I mean? But it comes right out of you.
Rick’s father said a similar thing to me. He was an opera singer. Rick’s mother and father were actually both opera singers. He said it to me one time because I’d done shows with Rick’s dad.
Really? Meaning what? You got up on stage with the opera?
One show was an operetta that I did called The Mikado. Then we did “An Evening with Robin Zander,” which was me singing, along with Rick’s dad—various songs that he chose for me that he thought I would be able to do with his orchestra, the Mendelssohn Orchestra, out of Rockford, Illinois. I did that, and he said to me that when I sing, it sounded like I had two voices.
Cheap Trick plays Sunday, October 30 at 6:15 p.m. on the Bingo! Parlor Stage.