Guitarist Rick Nielsen of the legendary rock band Cheap Trick would probably be the first to tell you he’s not accustomed to being away from the road for an extended period of time, especially due to the coronavirus pandemic. For decades, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame band from Rockford, Illinois, could always be counted on touring every year. Asked recently how he’s been coping in the last year after being sidelined like every musician, Nielsen jokingly says he’s having a million laughs.
“I’ve been on the road for so long, I’ve found out that I’m still married and I got 12 grandkids,” he says. “I don’t know where they came from. A few times we’ve been together, but not that much because I didn’t know who they’ve been hanging out with…I’m not used to it, but then again I don’t think the world is used to that.”
This year, Cheap Trick—featuring Nielsen, singer Robin Zander, bassist Tom Petersson, and drummer Daxx Nielsen—are looking to resume what they do best: hit the stage and play such classic hits as “I Want You to Want Me,” “Surrender,” “Dream Police,” “Voices” and “The Flame.” Coinciding with their scheduled tour plans for 2021, Cheap Trick are releasing their 20th studio, In Another World, due out this Friday. Having been in the works since 2018, In Another World has all the familiar ingredients of the band’s classic power pop sound: from the rowdy-sounding “Boys & Girls & Rock ‘n Roll,” through the ’60s throwback “Quit Waking Me Up,” to the dreamy “I’ll See You Again.”
One of the album’s songs, the aggressively pleasing rocker “The Summer Looks Good on You,” was unveiled in 2018. “We actually played it quite a bit live,” Nielsen says of that track. “Then we just kind of made an album. We recorded whenever we had some time off. We finished about a year ago. It’s still fresh, we didn’t play it for anybody. I didn’t even play it for me, so I’m learning all my parts for it.”
The first recent single released ahead of the album was the hard-rocking anthem “Light Up the Fire.” According to Nielsen, the intro of the song began with Petersson in Nashville and progressed from there. “We had the basic structure for it and it’s just kind of evolved. When I got to the first solo, it was like, ‘Oh, this reminds me of “Happenings Ten Years Ago” by the Yardbirds. That was the first single that Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck were on. If you listen, it’s my band’s interpretation of Jeff Beck’s solo in “Happenings Ten Years Ago.” It wasn’t written like that, but it reminded me of that.”
The gorgeous power ballad “Another World” shows the band’s reflective side amid the predominantly energetic rockers. Its lyrics fittingly speak of what the world has gone through in the last year—“Been so hard, just so hard of late/So tired that I can’t keep straight”— but it also offers a hopeful message. “It spoke to us. It was written pre-COVID,” says Nielsen, “but it kind of lends itself to in the past four or five years of all the nonsense going on in this country.”
Also on In Another World is Cheap Trick’s cover of John Lennon’s empowering political anthem “Gimme Some Truth,” which also features former Sex Pistols guitarist Steve Jones. “The truth could haunt and hurt you,” says Nielsen. “We’re not a protest band or a political band, although we care about all that stuff and we talk among ourselves. We don’t want to tell people what to do, so we try to tell the truth. We try to be honest in our music.”
Not only is 2021 ushering in Cheap Trick’s new album and resumption of touring, but it also marks a milestone: it was 45 years ago that the band signed with Epic Records, which was their longtime home for a good portion of their career. The group’s 1977 self titled debut LP is generally regarded as one of their best, kicking off a string of classic band albums including In Color, Heaven Tonight and Dream Police.
“We recorded in ’76, with [producer] Jack Douglas at the Record Plant in New York,” Nielsen recalls. “We did like 26 songs in eight days or something like that. We’ve been playing six or seven nights a week, three or four sets a night, so we were pretty rehearsed. It was kind of natural the way we did it. We didn’t think about it, we went out and played. That was a cool record, it’s really raw. When we recorded the Budokan record in Japan and brought it back to the States, Jack helped mix that.”
After diligent touring and three albums, Cheap Trick broke through in 1979 with their hit live album Cheap Trick at Budokan, which yielded the iconic single “I Want You to Want Me.” Last year, the LP was included in the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry. That distinction was made possible through the intervention of a librarian who was an acquaintance of Nielsen’s parents. “She petitioned and went to Washington—we didn’t solicit it at all—and she just put in two cents for us. I looked at the [registry] list: ‘Holy cow, there’s some important people in there, the World Series, “I Have a Dream.”’ I’m kind of a history nut. Sometimes I’m shocked I’m still doing this. I do [music] because I like it. It’s not because of fame and fortune.”
Later this month, Cheap Trick are scheduled to perform in Australia as part of the Under the Southern Stars festival with Stone Temple Pilots and Bush, followed by summer dates with Rod Stewart. In about three more years, Cheap Trick will officially turn 50 years old, something that Nielsen had never fathomed when he formed the band with Petersson, Zander and original drummer Bun E. Carlos.
“I don’t know that I thought anybody would be in a rock band after 50 years,” says Nielsen. “All the bands that we grew up with it, the Rolling Stones were in their 20s. When I saw them, I was like ‘Holy shot.’ So I never thought about it. We had an album called Silver, which it was our 25th anniversary. Then it’s our 30th year [in 2008] that we go to Budokan again. I look forward—I don’t look backwards. I don’t look in the mirror anymore. ‘I’m 30, but I feel like 16’—that was a lyric from a song [“Daddy Should Have Stayed in High School”] on the first album. I’m 130 but I feel like 16.”