Cheap Trick Frontman Opens Up About His Current Club Tour, Family & The Future
So you know how sometimes you don't realize how much a cultural phenomenon that's kind of been on your radar forever means to you until it's staring you in the face? That totally happened to me this weekend when I figured out that Cheap Trick frontman Robin Zander was scheduled to play at a small but brilliant club called The Birchmere less than one mile away from my home just outside of Washington, DC.
Of course I bought tickets immediately. For instinctively, I have been in varying degrees of awe of the guy since I was a teen. That's like 30-plus years. But it's not something I spend a lot of time thinking about because I don't hear about him much.
It is strangely easy to forget how awesome -- and important -- Robin Zander and Cheap Trick are when you're talking rock 'n' roll -- or just Things That Are Cool. And it's similarly easy to forget that Robin himself is arguably the greatest, most perfect rock star ever. EVER, people.
Just try to find a photo of him online where he doesn't look absolutely fucking 100 percent cool in the (ahem) FORTY YEARS of photos that exist of him on the Internet. Try to find a homemade bootleg from a show where he sounds or looks not amazing. You can't. Because he rules. And for that very reason, I went to see him last night. Not in an arena, but in a small club. Not backed by his fellow legendary Trick-sters who could fill clubs in their own right, but by... well... his children.
And today, thanks to a fortuitous exchange with his ridiculously accommodating representatives that I almost didn't bother to initiate, we spoke about it all.
CJ: Hello Robin Zander! Where are you, and what are you doing?
RZ: I'm having lunch at the Brio right now looking out at the USS Constellation in Baltimore Harbor.
CJ: I love Baltimore. Tell me about this solo tour you're doing. Why now? You're not promoting anything, right?
RZ: No, I'm not promoting anything. This is just some down time from my day job with Cheap Trick. It's the first time in 40 years that I've done anything like this. I wanted to go out and play songs that I've never played before from some of my solo efforts. It's also kind of a coming out party for my son, Robin, who is a budding artist and has recorded some tracks of his own. Plus there's the fact that, you know, I'm not getting any younger and it takes a little bit for me to get it up (laughs) when it comes to touring so this really helps in that I'm sort of exercising my vocal chords to stay ready for Cheap Trick.
CJ: As you know, I saw the show last night in DC and I was going to say -- you brought along some very pleasant surprises in the form of your two youngest children. Is this your first time bringing them into your live shows or am I late to this?
RZ: I've done it before just occasionally around where we live in Florida. There are lots of friends of mine and great musicians who live near us like Steve Luongo from the Entwistle band, Brian Johnson from AC/DC and their Bass player Cliff (Williams), and other guys. We'll get together and do charity work quite a bit down there and sometimes on those occasions I'll bring the kids up and have them do a number or two with me.
CJ: Oh, cool. Doesn't Nicko live down there also? Iron Maiden's drummer?
RZ: Oh yeah! And Joe Perry has a place 40 minutes from my house. You'd be surprised at the number of people who actually either live down there or have a house nearby. It's so easy to call upon musician friends down there because they're all neighbors!
CJ: Sounds like there are good times to be had down in greater Tampa! So getting back to last night, I think on paper the whole "An acoustic evening with your favorite rockstar... annnd his kids" is kind of like... wut?... but you guys really make it work. It was not a good evening--it was a great evening--and the sheer talent in those kids is really something.
RZ: Yeah, they sure are talented -- much more so than I was at their age.
CJ: I went online this morning and saw some YouTube clips of Robin performing. That boy is going to do great things musically. I talked with him a bit after the show and what a pleasant guy he is as well...
RZ: I am very proud of him. He had a single out the Christmas before last called A Merry Christmas Everyone that got great reviews which you should check out. It was popular again this last Christmas. It's so refreshing and great to hear a Christmas song that is brand new and is so interesting that it fits right in, you know? He goes by "Robin Taylor" if you want to look him up...
Father & Son. Christian Josi
CJ: Absolutely will. Did you and your wife encourage the kids to pursue music or did they kind of just ease into it because it was the family business? That's how you got hooked, right?
RZ: Well it wasn't the family business for me really. My father was indeed a musician but he was a weekend warrior. He was a welder, actually, and worked all his life at the Ironworks in Beloit Wisconsin and he played in a swing band on weekends. That was a lot of fun for him, but it was kind of a pain in the butt for us with all the rehearsals and that kind of stuff going on when we were trying to sleep (laughs). But it was around the house and that is kind of how I picked it up...by just being there and having musical instruments around. And I think that's about the same for my kids -- it was around, that's what Dad does, and they just grew up that way and picked it up. But I gotta tell ya, I never pushed them to do any of it. They just picked it up and they are wonderful.
CJ: That is so cool. There were an awful lot of VERY long-time Cheap Trick / Zander fans in the house last night. I spoke to some of them and aside from being utterly enchanted by your kids, they really didn't mind the fact that there wasn't much Cheap Trick on the set list. That's got to be kind of rewarding for you, no? I mean that people will come out and see this other side of you and love it just as they do the Cheap Trick side?
RZ: Well that is indeed a wonderful thing. To me, it's like, what's good for me is good for Cheap Trick... and what's good for Rick is good for Cheap Trick and so on... and that's the thing. You know when we first started out, we knew right away after three rehearsals that we had something really special going on. We'd all been in rock bands before, and we'd all worked together at one time or another. Rick was in the Grim Reapers and Fuse. Bun E. was in The Pagans. Tom was in the Bo Weevils...and so forth. Eventually, we put the 'best of' in one band, which became Cheap Trick.
CJ: What's it like for you to go from an arena tour which you were on with Aerosmith last year, I believe, to small venues like you're doing now? Is it an adjustment for you?
RZ: A little bit, yeah, because I don't have a big, full band behind me... it's like you're up there with your clothes off... (laughs)
CJ: Is it difficult being so accessible, so up close in these environments? You have some awfully enthusiastic fans, right? I mean, I walked right up to you last night and was all 'whatup!'...
RZ: It's a little nerve-racking in general. You know, I'd say it's harder to play with an acoustic guitar strapped over your shoulder for a few hundred people than it is to play in front of thousands with an entire bombastic band behind you. After all these years, I still get nervous in front of people. I can't help it. I just, you know, I want it to be a good show and I want people to get their money's worth. At the same time, I do it to get my ya-ya's out too because these songs that I would never have a chance to play anywhere else unless I did something like this...
CJ: Yeah. And that really matters to you, right?
RZ: It does! It makes me feel like I'm worthy -- like I'm still -- like I can go out as I did in the very beginning and entertain audiences without them necessarily knowing the song, you know? To win them over at the moment is important.
CJ: Sure it is. I started this piece off by noting that I have been following you since I was a teenager and that in that 30 some years, I have never EVER seen a photo of you where you dont look absolutely fucking 100 percent rockstar cool. You just turned 61 what, last week? You looked more like your kid's brother last night than his Dad. How do you do it and can you share whatever your secret is with David Lee Roth, please?
RZ: (laughs) That's evil! (laughs) I don't know what to say about that. I'm part American Indian you know... that probably has a lot to do with it.
CJ: Oh wow! Didn't know that. Are you an exercise guy... diet guy... anything like that?
RZ: I'm not at all, no. I should be... but I get a lot of exercise just doing what I do, being a singer and all...
CJ: I know you've got to go so I'm going to wrap this up with just a few random, rapid-fire Q's if thats OK.
CJ: Does it irritate you that people who publicly declare that they literally got into music because of you and your band are in the Rock N Roll Hall of Fame and Cheap Trick isn't yet? Also do you hate this question?
RZ: Um, I don't hate the question, It's a question everybody asks, especially in the last ten years. But I can tell you that it doesn't bother me. I feel like I'm already, in our fans' eyes, we're already in their Hall of Fame so... you know... that's what matters to me. It doesn't bother me one bit.
CJ: You guys recently celebrated the 35th anniversary of the greatest live album in the history of live albums--
CJ: You know the name...What are your thoughts on that? The Japanese are completely mental for you guys still, right?
RZ: Oh, I'm just so proud just to be part of this whole thing. I love music and I'm so blessed that we have the fans that we do. Not just in Japan but all over the world. That particular album, Budokan, was never meant for the world -- it was meant for Japan. It was to be our gift to Japan because we were so popular there first. In 1978 we decided to record an album there. I think we only spent a few thousand dollars recording it live -- and it sort of shows (laughs). I didn't really like the cover, I didn't really like anything about it all that much, but we were so broke, we couldn't really spend any more money on it, so we just packaged it and released it there. Then, before we knew it, it was platinum in Canada, it had been released in the UK and had been forcibly released in the States and it just went multi-platinum. You know, I can't explain it, but I'm happy it happened. It changed everything. Suddenly, there I was on the cover of teen magazines wondering who I am!
CJ: On that note, how are things in Cheap Trick land? Any recording or touring on the horizon?
RZ: Yeah, we've been recording some songs and getting together with various producers. We've got a feeling that this next record needs to be really special in order for anyone to pay attention to it, so we're going to do some really extra-special things. And I'm not going to tell you any more here because then they wouldn't be that special!
CJ: Fair enough!
RZ: Seriously, I'm looking forward to it and we've started the process. It's going to be very interesting.
CJ: Awesome. OK. Cacey, a big fan asked me on Twitter to ask if you have any plans for a third solo album. What would you tell Cacey about that?
RZ: Of course I do! I'd love to do another one soon but right now I'm focused on this Cheap Trick project. But yes, I hope to continue to record those for...as long as I breathe!
CJ: Dan from Twitter wants to know what your favorite Cheap Trick song is...
RZ: Oh, gosh, I have a lot of 'em. Really. I'll say my favorite song from Cheap Trick is on the next album that we're about to do!
CJ: Gotta ask: did you ever meet the guy who played Damone the Cheap Trick obsessed ticket scalper kid in Fast Times at Ridgemont High who went on and on about 'The magnetism of Robin Zander...?'
RZ: I never got a chance to meet him (laughs). But if I did, I would have bought a ticket!
CJ: Any young artists, Robin Taylor aside, that you find interesting?
RZ: Oh, God yes... just having my kids around I get to hear a lot of new music...but the problem is I'm so busy that I don't get to pay close enough attention to get to know the artists that well. But I really do enjoy a lot of the newer stuff I hear.
CJ: OK, last question -- tell me one thing about you that your fans would be suprised to know (for example, when I asked that about Paul McCartney, his drummer told me he was obsessed with Margaritas)
RZ: I've always been a comic book fanatic. I used to have a huge collection and I just started writing my own comic books in the last ten years or so. So be looking out for that later on in my career!
And that's that. All in all a truly great night, and a truly great dude. If the Zanders are coming to a club near you, DO NOT miss them. Really, truly memorable stuff that you just don't get every day.
But don't just take my word for it.
"The evening was such a pleasant surprise! He has a very talented family", said Kat, who attended the show along with her friend Debbie -- both fans since their early teens. When asked if they were at all disappointed in the lack of Cheap Trick material, Debbie responded "He played a few, and that was fine. We see Cheap Trick a few times a year, we love them, but what a special deal to be able to see him do his solo stuff, especially with his family."
And Lisa, a 30 year veteran of the Cheap Trick Fan Club was also pleasantly surprised by the evening, particularly the special guests "They were great. They're obviously very talented -- great voices, charisma. I think young Robin is absolutely going to follow in his Dad's footsteps."
Follow Christian Josi on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ChristianJosi