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Greetings from Bunezuela: A Chat with Longtime Cheap Trick Drummer Bun E. Carlos

Written by: Ken Sharp

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In today’s fast-paced culture addicted to instant gratification, some things take time — months, years and sometimes decades.

Case in point: Greetings from Bunezuela!, the debut solo album by legendary Cheap Trick drummer Bun E. Carlos. But before you think it’s a drummer’s fantasy come alive, learn this: the record is rather a snapshot of Bun E.’s musical collection.

Coming along for the ride are a surfeit of musical chums numbering Soul Asylum’s Dave Pirner, Robert Pollard of Guided By Voices, acclaimed singer/songwriter Alejandro Escovedo, Hanson and Xeno, Cheap Trick’s original vocalist before the Robin Zander era.

Tackling songs by the likes of The Who (“Armenia City In The Sky”), The Rolling Stones (“Tell Me”), Bee Gees (“Idea”), Paul Revere & The Raiders (“Him Or Me”), Bob Dylan (“It Takes A Lot Laugh, It Takes A Lot To Cry”), Them  (“I Can Only Give You Everything,”), Iris Dement (“Let The Mystery Be”) and more, Greetings From Bunezuela! is a captivating musical journey hitting on key musical watermarks in Bun E’s memory banks.

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Rock Cellar Magazine: 2016 marks the release of your first solo album. What kicked this into gear?

Bun E. Carlos: We used to talk about it back in the late ‘70s; me and Rick (Nielsen) used to talk about doing a solo album. We said we should get some people like Roger Chapman and Bon Scott, those kind of guys, and make a record.

Never did. But about a year a half ago one of our old sound men called me and said, “hey, are you ever gonna make your covers record?”

I cut a couple of drum tracks but then said, “Nah, it’s too much work.” But then when the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame made their announcement last December, I heard Cheap Trick was gonna put out a record to coincide with that so I said, “Well, I should do that too.”  That’s how it came together.

Did it ever cross your mind about doing a drum-based album like Sandy Nelson?

Bun E. Carlos: No, that didn’t light my fire. I remember drummers like Nigel Olsson had a great solo record. He made a record where he didn’t need to showcase the drums; it was all about having good songs.

There are some very interesting song choices on the record, what went into the final selection?

Bun E. Carlos: I had a list in my drawer that I would add to and take away from for about 30 years. (laughs) So I probably had a hundred titles written down on paper.

What were the songs you always had on your list?

Bun E. Carlos: There was always gonna be a Who song and there was always gonna be a Stones song. It was all hinging on who was gonna sing it and who was gonna play on it. That led to the titles of the songs I chose.

The Who’s “Armenia City In The Sky” and Bee Gees “Idea” are two particularly inspired choices.

Bun E. Carlos: I saw the Who back in July of ’68 when The Who Sell Out album was out, which had “Armenia In the Sky” on it.  I actually interviewed Pete Townshend that afternoon when he was fixing a speaker in his amp. I asked him some questions and his answers all turned out to be wrong. (laughs)

I asked, “Are you ever gonna do a rock opera like the mini-opera?” And he said, “No, we don’t have time.” Then I said, “Are you ever gonna do a live album because I heard you recorded some stuff at the Fillmore?” And he said, “Nah, the tapes don’t sound very good.” (laughs)

He was a nice guy; I was just some kid bugging him while he was putting in a speaker. “Armenia City In the Sky” caught my era; it was one of the last cover tunes The Who did. I liked the song and about five years ago when Candy Golde was getting together, a band I play in, Nick Tremulis goes, ‘We should have John (Stirrat) sing a song.” I said, “He’s got a real nice high voice so we should do ‘Armenia.’” So I knew I had a band that knew the track already and I could get in with those guys and wouldn’t have to spend days in the studio trying to figure out what to do on it.

And the thinking behind covering “Idea” by the Bee Gees?

Bun E. Carlos: Well, that had always been on the short list. Back in Fuse, when Rick (Nielsen) played bass and I was drumming and Stewkey was singing and Craig Myers was playing guitar, Rick brought that song to practice and we learned it one day. It was a different arrangement but it was always kind of in the back of my mind. So I called Robert Pollard and said “Can you do this? Maybe we can do a cover tune too” and he picked “Idea” off the tape I sent him.  That’s a fun song.

Are there any songs you have in mind for a Part Two?

Bun E. Carlos: Yeah, there’s a Dave Clark 5 song and there’s a Move song; I’ve got more stuff on the list. There are a couple more Who songs I really want to do. It depends on who would be singing and who would be playing.

You reunite with Cheap Trick’s original vocalist, Xeno, on two songs that appear on Greetings From Bunezuela!

Bun E. Carlos: Yeah, that’s right. I’m on a couple of Xeno’s records over the years and we hang occasionally. I used to do a Christmas benefit of his in Milwaukee every December until five or six years ago when my band started playing on the same night before Christmas. We’ve always kept in touch and Xeno’s dad still lives in town so he comes down to Rockford regularly and we hang out. I called him up and said, “Can you do this one and do you also want to sing on this track?” so he was returning the favor probably. He sounds great.

He still works five, six nights a week with different bands in Milwaukee so he’s still a working musician.

In the CD liner notes you cite your approach was based simply on being able to “serve the song.” Looking at your work with Cheap Trick, you’ve always done that. When did that kind of thinking first percolate in your mind?

Bun E. Carlos: All drummers like to have something to say and play some licks. My first lesson in that was drumming for Chuck Berry one night. This was in November of 1973. He said, “Don’t play no licks” and I knew how good that could work. Then, the next year—I heard some tapes—and I’m kind of playing like Keith Moon (laughs).

Once I got that out of my system, probably around 1975, is when I started to let go of that and thought, “less can be more” with a lot of this stuff.

Looking back on your work with Cheap Trick, as a drummer what are the performances for which you’re most proud?

Bun E. Carlos: “Tonight It’s You” is a good one. It’s got that kind of Small Faces feel to it. That “we’re glad to be here and we’re gonna rock it out,” kind of thing. Rick wrote a song that lent itself to that kind of drumming and it turned out real good. One of those comes up every so often.

“Had To Make You Mine” from Busted has a neat drum part because it kind of called for it. Believe it or not, something that’s poppy like “Don’t Be Cruel”; there’s one drum lick in the song that’s repeated two or three times but that’s’ what worked. That has the same drum lick that “Bits & Pieces” by the Dave Clark 5 has but guess what? That’s what works.

You were fortunate to have grown up during the golden age of rock and roll and witnessed many historic shows, what were the pivotal gigs that stand out for you?

Bun E. Carlos: You know, the first seeing my favorite drummers Charlie Watts with the Stones — that was in the fall of 1965 in Chicago. In the summer of ’65 I saw the Dave Clark 5 in Chicago and the Beatles, two separate shows. I saw the Beatles at Comiskey Park.

I had a front row seat right by the dugout so they were only a couple of hundred feet from me. You could hear them playing most of the time but not all of the time. Someone waved in the middle of “Ticket to Ride,” it might have been (John) Lennon, and I remember all I could hear was the hi-hat on the bridge. (laughs)

They were fun. A couple years later I went to see the Who and Jimi Hendrix and Cream. I went to see those guys all in one year. I saw Cream in Beloit, Wisconsin and then I saw them in Chicago a couple of times. I saw the Who at The Kinetic Playground in Chicago and they did two sets. I saw Hendrix four times in ’68. I saw him at Civic Opera House and went to the early and the late show. Then later he came back to the auditorium theater and I went to the early and the late show — so I saw most of these guys in pretty good venues.

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You also taped many key shows too, right?

Bun E. Carlos: I started taping shows in about ’68 when I got a little open reel machine. I taped Cream on their last tour; I taped the Stones in ‘69 and I taped some of the Hendrix stuff that I saw that summer. I could come home and reinforce what I saw by sitting there and listening with this little open reel machine.

Okay a hypothetical question: you can jam with any rock band, current or defunct, and play one song, what band do you pick and what song do you play?

Bun E. Carlos: Oh, it would be someone I haven’t sat in with like Bob Dylan or the Stones. If it was Bob Dylan I’d want to play something like “Like A Rolling Stone” or whatever he wanted to do because he’d be the boss. With the Stones, I’d want to do something like “Midnight Rambler.” That sure would be fun but it’s hard to match the guy who already plays it. (laughs) So there you go. I’d love to do that but it wouldn’t make it any better than it already is, that’s for sure. (laughs).

Do you have any albums in your collection that people would be surprised that you’re into?

Bun E. Carlos: Oh boy… (laughs) There’s probably a few. There’s some James Taylor albums; there’s some singer/songwriter things. A band that nobody knows about it seems is a group like Patto. We were really into those guys.

I like The Move and Family; there were all these goofball English bands from 1968-1972 that we all dug that nobody ever heard over here. In England it wouldn’t surprise anybody but over here it would.

When we moved to Rockford in 1973, we started playing David Bowie tunes and no one had ever heard of him. People would come up to us and request that songs of us, Play that ‘Wham Bam Thank You Ma’am’ song. (laughs)

People told us it was the greatest song we ever wrote. (laughs)

Besides the obvious must-have Cheap Trick albums, what lesser-known but equally worthy albums would you direct fans to check out?

Bun E. Carlos: I’d send them to check out the Todd (Rundgren) record, Next Position Please and also One On One, which has some good songs on it. I’m not too crazy about some of the performances on there but that was a strange time ‘cause we didn’t have a bass player when we were doing it. I like the outer portions of the Warners Brothers record (Woke Up With A Monster). Not the inner grove but the outer grooves on both sides I really like.

The Red Ant album (Cheap Trick) had its share of goodies. That one gave Robin more of a chance to show what he could bring to the table.

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