ST. PETERSBURG — No offense to his Chicago roots, but Robin Zander is our rock star now, the dynamic Cheap Trick frontman with the killer 'do raising his family in Safety Harbor. He's perfect for Tampa Bay, too: blond, tan, pretty. And a couple times a year, he'll good-neighborly satisfy our rock jones with a local gig, howling out an I Want You to Want Me you can hear from Pass-a-Grille to Lutz.
"It took me a little to acclimate after living in Chicago all my life," he says during a recent visit to the St. Petersburg Times. "But hey, every day I wake up and the sun is shining. I wouldn't move or live anywhere else."
Over the years, Zander has played the Forum and the Tampa amp, and his band famously re-created Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band at a sold-out Ruth Eckerd Hall. On Saturday, the 58-year-old and his Tricksters (sans drummer Bun E. Carlos) will uncork their biggest show on these shores: a full re-creation of 1979's Dream Police LP with an orchestra and a choir, all in the intimate setting of Jannus Live.
"We're down here and we're going to have a big party on New Year's Eve," says Zander, who chatted with Sean Daly and Steve Spears in the posh Stuck in the '80s recording studios. Here's an excerpt from the interview:
Does all this New Year's Eve hullabaloo mean you consider Dream Police to be the ultimate Cheap Trick album?
No, not necessarily, but it was a turning-point album, a door-opening album for us. It was diverse, with a song like Voices (which has grown new life thanks to its usage on TV sitcom How I Met Your Mother) and a song like Gonna Raise Hell back-to-back. We started stretching out a lot, and it opened up new horizons for our music.
A la your Beatles experiment with Sgt. Pepper's, Dream Police lends itself to an over-the-top spectacle.
Yeah, it was an album that utilized other instruments: cello, violins, orchestrated instruments. So we decided maybe we should re-create that album live, like we did with Sgt. Pepper's the last couple years. It seemed like a logical thing for us to do with our own music. So it's Cheap Trick doing Dream Police top to bottom, and then the second half is a greatest-hits package. About two hours. We've brought in an orchestra, which sits above us. We have a choir called the Mind Choir. Rick's kids (guitarist Rick Nielsen) are playing in the band. Ian, one of my sons, is in the choir. We had to reconfigure the stage because we've brought in so much stuff. There'll be a lot of video and crowd interaction.
1979 wasn't just a turning point for Cheap Trick but for pop music in general, slick genres giving way to rawer sounds.
It was a struggle during the '70s. That's one of the reasons we put our band together, just so we could make fun of everyone else around us. We'd do a parody of Queen — not that we didn't like the band Queen. We were just tired of the same stuff happening. The other big thing was disco. When the Ramones and the Sex Pistols and Cheap Trick came out, it was a backlash against dance music, because no one was listening to rock music anymore, and if they were, it was classical style, big huge things. And we were just a rock band. It was a struggle to get anyone to buy our first record in '77. But by the time our third record came out, we had won some fans. We'd done well in Europe. In Japan, we had a couple hits.
Yes. Here we go. Take us to Japan in the late '70s. You guys were golden gods there.
We had a few hits here and there, but not in the United States. We had one song, Surrender, which was doing okay on the radio charts here. So we went to Japan. We figured, Hey, we're popular over there! But we didn't realize how popular we were. I remember sitting on the airplane, and wondering who all those people out there were. It must be the president's here or something. And it was for us! I couldn't believe it! We had Dream Police in the can, but we had recorded a live album in Japan (At Budokan) that had taken over the world! We had to delay Dream Police for over a year. By then it was 1979, and rock was coming back. We were getting back to real rock music.
What have you learned about Dream Police since you've jumped back into it?
I learned how hard it was to do! Those songs on that album are pretty difficult songs to sing. I don't know if anybody realizes that or not. Of all the records we've done, that's one of the toughest for me. You know, when we did the record, I wasn't pleased with the way the producer (Tom Werman) was doing it. He was rarely there. He wasn't pleased with the fact that we wanted to use orchestration on the record. He didn't like some of the performances by us. I mean, we are the band, not him! So when we weren't there, he'd bring in extra players. So we'd have to go back and erase stuff. It got to be a pain in the you-know-what. No offense, Tom.
You and guitarist Rick Nielsen, he of the multinecked guitars and manic stage act, lead the band like a two-headed monster. What's your relationship like?
We always got along pretty well. We weren't brothers. We didn't live in the same house. We didn't have a history of telling secrets on each other. We stayed out of each other's hair; that's true with all the guys in the band. We didn't c--- in each other's back yards, so we never had a chance to step in it.
Once again, the Rock Hall of Fame has inducted another class, and once again Cheap Trick is on the outside looking in. Does that tick you off?
I don't even know if I would go if we were nominated, to be honest. To me, I was disappointed in them a long, long time ago. Look at a band like Kiss (who isn't in the hall, either). Come on! There's a number of things they look at, but who the hell cares? I don't need someone like them to tell me how great I am.
You need us!
Yes! Hey, I think our band is pretty d--- good. We wouldn't be around for 36, 37 years now if we weren't pretty decent.
To hear the full interview, go to tampabay.com/blogs/80s.