Robin Zander of Cheap Trick – The Interview

Robin Zander of Cheap Trick – The Interview

Photo: David McClister
Photo: David McClister

For years, Cheap Trick was the worst kept secret in rock and roll, a hugely talented band that defines the ethos of hard work, boundless creativity and consummate musicianship but were frankly never given their due by critics and the public at large as one of America’s finest rock and roll outfits.

Now with their imminent induction in to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Cheap Trick are finally reaping the rewards of 40+ years tearin’ it up on the rock and roll battlefield. Back with their first album since 2009’s The Latest, Bang…Zoom…Crazy…Hello shows that the power pop masters haven’t missed a “trick”.

Songs like No Direction Home, Sing My Blues Away, When I Wake Up Tomorrow and All Strung Out display the group’s ever present cunning pop smarts, elastic versatility, and incandescent power. We sat down with Robin Zander, the band’s lead vocalist/rhythm guitarist, for a look back and into the future with Cheap Trick.

Like your band mates, you spent countless hours in the early days with garage bands of limited local success. Once you joined Cheap Trick, when did you realize this was different from other bands you’d played with? How did you realize Cheap Trick could really have a future?

Robin Zander: Well, here’s what I thought…being in various bands including bands with Bun E. (Carlos) before Cheap Trick and being around this small town of Rockford, Illinois, I had already witnessed the various bands that Tom, and Rick had been in.

The new record
The new record

So I already knew that these guys were at the top of their game in what they were doing in their various bands.

So I knew going in for our first rehearsal that this was gonna be something special because I thought of myself as something special (laughs), even though nobody else really did, (laughs) nobody did but me.

But I already knew it was gonna be something and I knew what I could bring to the band to make them a better band. After the third rehearsal I think all of us felt the same way that this was gonna be something special but, that being said, none of us thought that it was gonna last forever.

In fact, speaking for the other guys, we probably thought, “This is gonna be cool. You know, this is the best band we’ve all had so far and I think we’re gonna be contenders to go into Chicago and make some money.”

Looking back on it, it’s easy to say, “Oh yeah, we knew from the start, that this band was gonna be big” but that’s just not the case.

Cheap Trick were the opposite of an overnight sensation, spending years in clubs honing your wares before landing that elusive record deal. What kept you going during the tough times? Did you ever doubt you’d make it?

Robin Zander: No. No, I don’t think so at all. Every time we played the same place there were 20 more people, a hundred more people there to see us. It seemed like it was slowly growing and so was the band. Before we even made out first record, we had a following that had grown from three people standing on their heads to 1500, 2000 people in a nightclub. I mean, that’s saying something!

Did the band get close to landing a deal before you signed with Epic?

Robin Zander: No, but there were a couple phone calls. There were a couple of guys from record companies that showed up to see us play that liked us. Capitol Records had come out to see us I believe and Columbia Records came out to see us, which is an affiliate of Epic. So yeah, we had a couple of people come see us from different companies plus more localized Chicago smaller record companies but nothing really substantial came out of it where someone said, “‘Okay, sign here” until Columbia Records came out to see us and they wanted us – but then we ran into some trouble.

Bun E. broke his arm and we had to scramble a little bit and then came the Jack Douglas thing. Jack saw us play at the bowling alley and called up his buddies at Epic and then Epic came out to see us and we got signed.

The band released three incredible albums out of the gate that met with minor sales in the U.S. Did you worry that you’d ever breakthrough in the States?

Robin Zander: We didn’t really think about it that much; I didn’t anyway because we had a lot of critical acclaim, not just here in the States but overseas as well with our first, second and third albums. But it gradually grew sales wise also. But we were comfortable with being a sort of cult band and that didn’t bother us that much.

The only thing that bothered us is that we were broke. (laughs) We really need to make some money to pay back the record company for the money that they spent taking a chance on us and recording those first three albums.

What’s the first Rick Nielsen song that really impressed you and made you go, “that’s a great song!”

Robin Zander: Well, let’s see… We did a lot of cover tunes in the beginning. One of the first tunes I heard that Rick had written was So Good To See You. He had done that in the band Sick Man of Europe so that was one of the first songs that I heard of Rick’s that he had written.

I really liked that one and it was a little bit different the way they did it but the structure of the song was pretty similar. So that was one of them and another was called Ain’t Got You, which had some clever riffs in it and it sounded kind of like The Move.

So those are twos right off the bat that were among the first original songs written by Rick that I’d heard. And I thought those were pretty clever. At that time I thought of myself as a songwriter too so I immediately brought in a song or two just to see how they would fare with the rest of the band. I sort of got that look, well, keep working on your songs. (laughs)

What was the first song you brought to the group that the rest of your band mates really liked?

Robin Zander: It was High Roller but that still didn’t make the first record. I had a couple of other ones but it wasn’t until Cry, Cry and they thought that was a good song that was good enough to be on the record. That was something that came just before we got signed and just before we went in to record.

With songs like High Roller and later I Can’t Take It, you incorporated diminished chords to great effect, something that perhaps many other rock bands were not sophisticated enough to explore.

Robin Zander: Yeah, I did. A lot of that comes from That Merseybeat sound ‘cause those bands from the early ‘60s used a lot of diminished chords.  So that’s’ where it came from but I didn’t consciously think about that; it just seemed to fit for the songs.

The Sun Never Sets from the new CD serves as the perfect snapshot of Cheap Trick as a band, amazing power, killer middle eight, affixed with a sublime Beatlesque melody. Who were the bands that mined those roads before Cheap Trick that impacted on that melding of styles?

cheap trick promo 2016

Robin Zander: I think we’re a really diverse group and we all have different musical tastes. That middle section idea in The Sun Never Sets came from an older song of mine that I had written. So when something like that fits another entity, another song, which was new—The Sun Never Sets is a new song—well, that part fit perfectly and it was a sort of transcending middle eight that turned into a middle 16 or middle 24 or whatever. (laughs)

The band has worked with producer Julian Raymond now on several consecutive albums. Beyond producing, he also takes on a creative role as a co-collaborator on some songs as well. How does Julian help make Cheap Trick the best and they can be?

Robin Zander: Well, Julian Raymond has been a friend of ours since the early ‘80s.  We’ve known him and seen him grow with Tom (Petersson’s) band Another Language, when Tom was not with Cheap Trick. We’ve kept in touch with Julian and I’ve written songs with Julian over the years, just him and I. Eventually, we got him in to help produce records for us.

He started with us on Rockford. So I’ve always written songs with him so on this record, it just so happened and he and I wrote most of the newer tunes together, which is really cool and a lot of fun. I went out to L.A. on my own dime (laughs) and sat out there for a week or so and we worked on songs and came back with seven brand new songs.

It was like, wow, “this is pretty cool.” That was out our first stint. Then when we got to Nashville, we went there to write some more, and it was at that time that we had Rick Nielsen songs come into play and Tom Petersson songs came into play. So by the time we were finished we had like 25 or 30 songs.  It worked out really good. It was a smooth operation.

Julian seems to understand what makes the band great.

Robin Zander: I agree. I feel that way. He’s sort of like the 5th member of the band. There’s Bun E. and then there’s Tom, there’s me and there’s Rick and there’s Julian. And then there’s Daxx (Nielsen) live. That’s sort of the way it’s set up.

As a singer, you’ve been described by Rick Nielsen as “the man of 1000 voices.” Taking away the obvious influences like John Lennon and Paul McCartney, who were the singers that most profoundly impacted the way you approach singing and phrasing?

Robin Zander: Well, that’s easy for me to say. The first single I bought was a Sam Cooke single and I also used to steal my older sister’s Elvis Presley singles that she had bought. So those are two really important singers to me because I was very young, I was seven, eight years old and this was going on.

It wasn’t until I was 12 years old that the British Invasion had come. So during those years it was a lot of Motown-ish stuff. Pop music, yes, but more stuff that my sister was listening to and my older brother. I would get up in the morning sometimes and my Dad was a jazz guy so I listened to a lot of instrumental music.

I’d get up in the morning and my Mom would be playing country music on the radio so I got all of this from all sides. But singers in general, I guess people might not realize that I was really influenced a lot by the time I was 13 or 14 by bands like Rod Stewart and the Faces and Steve Marriott. Those two singers definitely influenced me. Robert Plant from Led Zeppelin is one and David Bowie is another one and of course, Harry Nilsson.

I loved him in a big way and had an affection for his voice. For some reason his voice just always struck me.

It’s interesting you mention Bowie, thinking about it I can hear that influence on songs like Take Me I’m Yours and I Want Be Man.

Robin Zander: Well, this new album has a song on it that is influence by Bowie and this was done of course before Bowie died. I sort of conjured his style up in mind on the song, When I Wake Up Tomorrow. Even though I don’t sound exactly like Bowie, it was in my mind while I was doing the song, which creates a fresh kind of new thing. The combination of the sound of my voice with a different idea makes a whole different thing.

And unlike many other rock singers, you’re extremely versatile, throat shredding on He’s A Whore or Stiff Competition to more delicate, intimate singing with songs like Mandocello, Y.O.Y.O.Y and Voices. Discuss how you use your voice to inhabit the songs and take on a character.

Robin Zander: I always thought of singing as sort of what an actor would do in a movie. From movie to movie, the great actors aren’t pigeonholed into one type of character and I always felt that way about songs. You know who did it the best were the Beatles. They not only had three different singers, but three different songwriters – and in that way Cheap Trick is very similar. It brings out the diversity in the band.

There’s so much going on in some of these songs…I take pride in our diversity but it certainly didn’t help us out in the early days.

They couldn’t really pigeonhole us into one sort of category. One minute we were a punk band and the next minute we’re a rock band and the next minute we’re a pop band. It’s like, “what are we?” (laughs) Well, I don’t know what we are except we’re just Cheap Trick. We’re just that.

What did you learn from Rick as a writer that you applied to the songs you’d submit or co-write with the band in later years?

Robin Zander: I think a really important part of it to me was to add a musicality and melody in a complementary way. In other words, to put guitar riffs into songs, to use unusual chords, to do arrangements that are unusual yet palatable that don’t put the listener off but create an interest that will draw them in and Rick is great at that.

He’s doesn’t have to think about it; it’s just natural to him. What I bring is a lot of melody. I remember when I first joined the band Rick was a Yardbirds fan, those three great guitar players, (Eric) Clapton, (Jeff) Beck and (Jimmy) Page. Jeff Beck was his favorite guitar player. That was all fine and cool but I brought more of a Beatles-meet-Roger Daltrey thing into the scheme.

The Cheap Trick song Stop This Game marries those two influences well.

Robin Zander: Yeah, exactly. So it was a good combination of what we had and of course Tom had that wall of sound with the way he played the bass. He plays the bass like a rhythm guitar, even if it wasn’t a 12-string bass, the way that he plays his instrument really filled in and allowed Rick to do his thing. We really had a good combination going on and I think we still do. (laughs)

In my mind, in the early days of the band especially it really didn’t matter what anybody else thought about us because I knew in my heart and in my mind that we were great.

It didn’t matter who we played with or who we played for, we barely were known by anybody and were opening up for Queen in front of tens of thousands of people and holding our own. We toured with KISS all the way through Canada with nobody knowing who the hell we were and we held our own. We not only held our own but sometimes got better reviews than the headline act.

Rick and Bun E. worked with John Lennon on the Double Fantasy sessions. There was talk you were slated to contribute background vocals, any truth to that?

Robin Zander: Well, this is what I heard from Rick but I don’t know if it was true or not; maybe it was Rick trying to make me feel good because he knew what a big Lennon fan I was. Of course, John sings his own songs so why would they even need a singer?

Bun E. and Rick played brilliantly on those tracks; they’re better than the record in my opinion but they never made the album anyway. And to be honest, I think Yoko had a lot to do with the reason that Rick and Bun were taken off the record. Maybe she was right in the fact that you couldn’t put two rough-edged rocking sounding tracks against these other tracks that sounded a lot different.

Maybe in her mind she thought it should all be sort of a package that sounded similar in its entirety rather than two tracks that stick out either negatively or positively. But to have been able to sing with Lennon…Are you kidding me? I would have loved that.

The work ethic is Cheap Trick is impressive. You’ve been called the hardest working band in the business and that’s not hyperbole. Where does that ethic/ethos come from?

Robin Zander: It’s a combination of things, like a perfect storm I guess. It’s our Midwest work ethic and musically there was a connection between all of us. We all respected each other musically for the longest time.

I think it’s a musical superglue that kept us together for 35 years.

The bottom line is the music. If the music that you make together is right and you all agree and you’re all excited about it and you love it, that’s really where everything else stems from.

It’s often conveyed by many that the only benefit of fame is getting a good table at a restaurant. The band has always kept its feet on the ground; none of the band members have gone Hollywood and lots of bands have gone that route.

Robin Zander: Yeah, I agree with that. It’s hard for me to explain but I think it just goes back to where we all grew up. Maybe it is that Midwest kind of thing; none of us wanted to move anywhere like New York or L.A. We wanted to stay where we were at for all that time. We’re from Rockford, Illinois and it’s unusual for a group to come from that same little area and goes out and becomes a mega band.

As far as fame is concerned, I don’t really have to worry about it much because I usually go incognito wherever I go. It’s going out to dinner with Rick that’s the problem (laughs) because he looks so animated and everybody recognizes him.

cheap trick self titled album art

Next year is the 40th anniversary of the band’s debut album. Thinking back to those sessions, what are your most indelible memories?

Robin Zander: That album was the introduction of Cheap Trick to the world so when people nowadays talk to other people who don’t know who Cheap Trick is they go, “Well, just go online and look under Cheap Trick” and the first record that will pop up is our first album which is called Cheap Trick and people will listen to that first record because that’s what they see.

But it is definitive in that it was our first record. You’ve got to remember that I Want You To Want Me, Dream Police and Surrender were written already for that record and didn’t make that first album.

But looking back, I think it’s one of our definitive records. But I like all of our records for one reason or another; I mean, not everything on them is great and not everything is terrible either but you’re always going to find something good in our records.

Everybody from our era and even nowadays usually has a Cheap Trick recording in their house someplace and that’s a pretty cool thing.

21 Responses to "Robin Zander of Cheap Trick – The Interview"

  1. Kim Lamb   April 4, 2016 at 6:19 pm

    Nice interview. I’m so glad you brought attention to the versatility of Robin Zander’s voice. It is the very reason why I have been a fan for so long. Thank you.

    Reply
  2. Vickie Manthei   April 4, 2016 at 6:29 pm

    I am soooo proud of Cheap Trick my hometown band. They have worked there ass of to get where they are today. I am happy to see Robin sit down and talk about the things they have encountered. I can’t say enough about what they mean to me they have played a big role in my life and the times I grew up in. Thank you for your time and effort.

    Reply
  3. Lisa Mclendon   April 4, 2016 at 8:51 pm

    This new Album is amazing. I have loved something on every album but this one is going to be a favorite for sure! Well deserved honor for the Best band ever. The Most talented and nicest guys ever!

    Reply
  4. Niall Mc bride   April 4, 2016 at 9:40 pm

    They are a great band especially live.

    Reply
  5. Dan Nash   April 4, 2016 at 11:00 pm

    Incredible music, band, video, history, new stuff/album and effort to give us more fun. Thanks again, continued success you know we are looking to rock, to rock some more, and keep rocking for a long time. Why not? Had a grand day today hope you did too. Dan

    Reply
  6. Diana   April 5, 2016 at 3:48 am

    Great interview, thanks. Really enjoyed hearing from Robin.

    Reply
  7. Steve   April 5, 2016 at 4:28 am

    Great interview! Very in-depth!

    Reply
  8. Bill Tolles   April 5, 2016 at 8:48 am

    #CheapTrick

    Reply
  9. Dom Mirra   April 5, 2016 at 9:03 am

    I first saw cheap trick when I was 16 years old & still following them! Probably one of the most underrated bands of all time that will blow most bands right off the stage! These guys are rock n’ roll!! So happy they are getting inducted in the rock hall of fame! No band deserves it more!! I’ve meet all the members several times & are the nicest guys in the world! Congratulations to a group who deserves it & worked very hard for this to happen! I love you guys always! Cheap Trick. One of the greatest rock bands of ALL time!!!! Peace & love DOM Mirra-

    Reply
  10. Mark McBride   April 5, 2016 at 4:58 pm

    Being a long time CT fan, it is refreshing to hear their new stuff, which I truly believe, rivals a lot of the older stuff. The Ballad of Bert & Linda is now a favorite for me, off of “The Latest” album. How about another live album…”Gold” seems appropriate! Keep it up boys!

    Reply
  11. Joe May   April 5, 2016 at 11:44 pm

    Bang Zoom Crazy… Hello. Reminds me of why I got it to this band in the beginning. Hard rockin’GREAT songs,that you want to play over & over. Ther BEST one yet.

    Reply
  12. Linda   April 6, 2016 at 7:30 am

    I was a big music fan at a very young age. Around 8 or 9, I’d go watch Robin practice at home. He was probably 12 or 13. The song Wild Thing pops into mind as a favorite at the time. He was always a rock star in my mind. Such a nice guy. So happy that his dreams continue to be realized.

    Reply
  13. Jeff Williams   April 6, 2016 at 11:14 am

    Great interview and amazing new album! Thanks for another masterpiece Cheap Trick!

    Reply
  14. Jeff Williams   April 6, 2016 at 11:16 am

    Stellar new album. Robin Zander is the greatest singer of all time!

    Reply
  15. Kathy Zemplinski   July 15, 2016 at 9:53 am

    Myself and 2 girlfriends from West Allis, WI met the Rockford boys (Dan, Tim, Mike, Randy, Ta, Paul, Robin and a few others at a campground called Rubidell in about 1969-70. We got together around the campfire at night with Dan, Paul, and Robin playing guitars and all of us singing along. After one of the songs, Robin said, “Someday I’m going to make it big.” We all knew his voice would take him far. We all followed him to Wisconsin Dells in the early years, and the rest is history. Hope to see you in the Dells this coming winter. How great it would be to sit around that campfire just one more time. From Kathy, Pat, and Tove – congrats Cheap Trick!

    Reply
  16. Bon A Gilber   September 11, 2016 at 1:45 am

    When CT released LOL in 88 I was only 13! I bought it & soon realized their amazing back catalogue & undeniable Musical Genius. Each member I thought (& still do) was so talented in their respective field. So unique & original. I learnt drums to ‘ at Budokan’ & all their other albums too! When I got their earlier albums I was like ‘ I didn’t realize this was CT. I loved that song! Bear in mind I started pre-school when Dream Police was released! Many peers here in Australia gave me a hard time because of my devotion & love of the band, but I now excuse their ignorance:) They Trick have PROVEN themselves as what I consider them: THE GREATEST MUSICAL FORCE IN EXISTENCE. PERIOD! They’re my greatest inspiration other than God. Seriously! Rick, Robin Tom Bun E & now Daxx. Thanks. Words can’t express how happy I am that you finally made it into the R&R HOF CONGRATULATIONS & keep on rocking for at least half a century. So much more to say but I’ll just buy the new album & get even more inspired!

    Reply
  17. Mark O. Avery   November 11, 2016 at 2:39 pm

    I’m 62 now and will never forget the effect (visual and aural) “In Color” gave had on me as a part-time announcer on a very progressive commercial station (WHFS 102.3 FM Bethesda, Md.)back in the late 70’s. I alone might very well have carried the Cheap Trick flag as I thought them to be radio friendly pop music compatible with our rock audience. Forget “underground” they were compatible with a wide range of musical tastes(?)to my mind(that’s my antiquated, liberal “We Are the World” musings spewing forth). I always thought they were “for real”. I’ve gotta check my collection to review the last Cheap Trick effort I inhaled ’cause it’s been a long while.

    Reply
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  20. Donna Fowler (Bridges)   November 13, 2017 at 9:59 am

    Grew up with this guys sister and lived a few houses away. He let us go back stage with him when they opened for Rush at the Rockford Armory. We had a blast. My best memories are how humble and dedicated he was to his music. A real deal kind of guy. Still is.

    Reply
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