When Four Strings Aren’t Enough

Cheap Trick’s Tom Petersson

By Thomas Wictor

Reprinted from the July 1997 issue of Bass Player - Reprinted with permission of Bass Player. For subscription information please call (850) 682-7644. Copyright 1997 Miller Freeman, Inc.

To find out just how influential Cheap Trick has been, turn on an alternative radio station. Every third song or so, you’ll hear the sounds of “power pop,” a genre that combines British Invasion melodicism with crunching guitars and a spare, driving rhythm section. Cheap Trick pioneered the style 20 years ago, charting the course for future rockers as diverse as Smashing Pumpkins, Nirvana, and even Metallica. This Midwestern foursome, consisting of bassist Tom Petersson, drummer Bun E. Carlos, guitarist Rick Nielsen, and vocalist Robin Zander, has a gift for catchy tunes presented with quirkiness, poignancy, and unsettling flashes of dark intensity. Their endless touring (some years playing as many as 200 shows) has also helped keep them in the public eye – although recently more often at smaller clubs than Budokan-size arenas.

This year, however, may well turn out to be a very good one for Cheap Trick. Following a well-received appearance at Lollapalooza ’96, the band released a self-titled record on the Red Ant label in March and scheduled an American tour for the spring. In January, Red Ant also released Cheap Shots, a tribute album of Trick covers by devotees including Everclear, the Nixons, Joey Ramone, and others. When we contacted Petersson for an interview, Cheap Trick was in the process of filming a video for “Say Goodbye,” the new album’s first single. On the set (a North Hollywood fire station), the godfather of the 12-string bass took some time out to discuss his career and approach to music. Eating a salad next to a silver-mylar-draped drill tower, he appeared unruffled by the chaos of bright klieg lights, leering boom-mounted cameras, a blaring PA system, whooping police sirens, and commercial airplanes thundering a few hundred feet overhead.

A native of Rockford, Illinois, Petersson went to high school with Rick Nielsen and first worked with him in a short-lived hard-rock band called Fuse, which released one record with Epic in 1969. With the exception of a 1981-’88 hiatus (which he really doesn’t care to discuss in detail), Tom has been with Cheap Trick since their early-70’s beginnings. His sardonic, humorously exasperated manner is at odds with the shaggy-haired, soulful photos that adorn the band’s first few albums, when he bore a striking resemblance to actor Leif Garrett. The most unexpected quality he imparts is a tough pragmatism that has probably contributed much to his band’s longevity. Petersson’s flat refusal to be swayed by the ever-increasing virtuosity of so many contemporary bassists may seem idiosyncratic – but then again, orthodoxy was never Cheap Trick’s strong suit anyway.

What’s it like to hear so many bands copying your sound?

It’s good. When we first came out in ’76, disco and the Sex Pistols were huge, so I had no idea where we fit in. We weren’t like anything else; people said, “These guys suck. They’re not disco, they’re not punk, and they look too goofy.” So at the time we didn’t do too well. It’s only looking back that we say, [Dramatically] “God, we were brilliant!”

Do you think you popularized a whole new genre?

It seems to me it was always popular – at least when I was growing up. I don’t see any difference between what we’re doing and what The Who or The Kinks did. And I don’t mean we’re as good as them or better; it’s just the same type of music – like the Move or the Rolling Stones. Also, we have a great lead singer who has a distinctive voice. Plus, there’s the songwriting. Of course, you have to have that.

There was a period when you brought in outside writers.

It wasn’t our idea – in fact, we thought it was a terrible one. Our new record label thought so, too, so when they signed us they told us to just do what we do best. Our manager agreed, and it sounds fine to us now. Everybody gives you a completely different idea about your music; some people say, “This is really good, but you shouldn’t do ballads.” What the hell is that? I think we do ballads great. Some people don’t like slow songs, and some don’t like fast ones. We have no idea what anybody’s going to like. It can make you crazy.

So we thought we’d start fresh and get a new label. The people who had signed us at Warner Brothers had all left. We looked for an independent-type thing, and Red Ant signed us for the right reasons: because of who we are. That was the way to do it – not, “Oh, we can turn you into Pearl Jam.”

Is there a particular approach to songwriting in Cheap Trick?

No. Sometimes it’s just a riff. I write mainly on guitar, like everyone else in the band. I taught myself the guitar when I was a kid and went from there. But even if you write on piano, if you don’t play it very well, you can come up with non-standard things. People who are formally trained might say, “I can’t put this in A-Flat against that A; it’s not right.” But you might say, “It sounds good.” It gets so screwy that it actually sounds really nice. If you don’t know what you’re doing, you can do anything.

Can’t a lack of training be limiting?

No. If you need to know something specific, just ask somebody who knows; call him up and ask, “So what’s this chord?” I don’t write out music, so for me there’s no need to learn how to read it, either. I’m not doing sessions – what do I care? I’ve never been in a cover band, because I’m terrible at learning other people’s songs. I hate it! People say, “Come jam with us. What tunes do you know?” Well… nothing [laughs]. What am I supposed to do, sit around at home practicing “Bohemian Rhapsody” in case someone calls? Do I know “Dear Prudence”? Sure, it’s one of my favorite songs. Can I play it? No. Do I feel like learning it? No.

But if Cheap Trick fell apart, you’d be in a better position to find work as a musician if you were trained.

Yeah. That’s how people become jingle writers. That’s like hedging your bets. I might as well have studied dentistry on the side in case everything fell through. People have different reasons for doing things; I wish I could play the harp, and I wish I could speak French. I don’t want to sit around and learn the language, but I wish I could speak it – sure. And anyway, I’ve been doing this for so long people look to me for a certain style. If people wanted to hire me, they would want that particular style; they wouldn’t say, “Can you play like Bootsy Collins?” Why not get Bootsy then?

The main thing for me is to come up with ideas for songs; being able to play is secondary. How good was John Lennon on guitar? Who cares?

Does songwriting come easily for you?

No, but the result – when something finally comes through – is great. It’s something I force myself to do. It’s hard, because it’s creating something from nothing; I always think, My God, I don’t have any ideas! A lot of the time I don’t even realize what I’ve done, and I have to ask somebody like Rick, “Can you figure out these chords?” That happens all the time.

Some musicians would say if you had the training, you wouldn’t have to ask anyone else. You’d be a more efficient songwriter.

That’s true. But to get there, I’d have to sit around practicing technical parts as opposed to thinking up good ideas. I’d rather enjoy myself than go through the drudgery of thinking, Christ, I’ve got to go practice my clarinet for 11 hours. Forget it – that would be enough to depress me for the rest of my life! Anyway, I’m not on television when I’m writing songs, and if people say, “This guy really stinks at writing,” what do I care?

You mentioned you like to play ballads.

I like heavier, slower tunes, yeah.

So you don’t believe that the more notes you play, the more impressive a player you are?

Maybe you get more equipment endorsements, but that’s boring to me. Learning how to type quickly doesn’t make you a good writer. I’ve never been interested in playing just for the sake of speed. Who’s better – George Harrison or Yngwie Malmsteen? Well, who plays faster? Not the guy I like. It all depends on the type of music it is. But playing fast, especially on bass? I don’t know where that came from. It’s useless, unless you’re in Weather Report or something. I mean, I love that kind of stuff – but it’s good more for humor value than anything else. So you get more votes in a bass poll somewhere – big deal! You don’t hear any non-musicians – people who buy music because they like it – saying, “Oh, man, listen to those chord changes.”

You also don’t hear people saying, “I love to have sex listening to speed metal.” Usually a song is sexier if it’s slower. It’s more meaningful. People would rather hear cool bass lines like the one on “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.” How great is the riff from “Satisfaction”? John McLaughlin could play it in his sleep, but so what? I play orchestrated lines; I don’t want to play speed parts, which are ridiculous – and if I could play slap bass, it wouldn’t work on my 12-string. Why should I learn how to do something I would never use? I’d rather learn how to play the saxophone. Or the harp. [Laughs]

Musicianship doesn’t matter to you?

Not at all. If it sounds good, that’s all that matters. Take “You Really Got Me”: Is that hard to play? No. That stupid riff is probably the first thing any kid learns to play. It’s great! Is it musicianship? I don’t even know. It’s creativity, as opposed to technical proficiency. Some people are very technical but have no creativity, and they’re just big bores. There are some people, though, who seem to have it all, but not many; usually it’s one or the other.

How do you keep the sound of your 12-string from overwhelming the other instruments?

I don’t – it’s supposed to sound really big. Half the time, people think it’s the guitar; it’s like three different instruments playing at the same time. We used to be accused of playing to tapes, because when Rick would stop playing for a second, people couldn’t figure out where the sound was coming from.

Do you have to use a pick because the strings are so close together?

Yeah – but that’s fine with me, because I always played with a pick anyway. It fits my style in the first place. Any bassist can play the 12-string bass; it’s not like playing the xylophone or something. It’s still a bass.

What would you say to bassists who think it’s just a gimmick for showing off?

Well, that’s not the reason I play it. I can’t help what people think.

It’s just that so few bassists use it. There’s Doug Pinnick of King’s X….

Is he a show-off, too? Actually, it’s a hell of a lot harder to “show off” on a 12-string than on some goofy little 4-string. If you’re a real man, have at least 12 strings! [Laughs] You just can’t play very fast on a 12-string. You do develop a little more strength from playing it, so when I pick up a 4-string now, it’s easy. It’s just a matter of style, really; it’s just to get a different sound. I think people get a kick out of it because it sounds a lot bigger. Now, if I had a bass with ten necks, that would be showing off!

What have been some of Cheap Trick’s ups and downs?

You never know what’s going on at the time you’re doing it. People today say, “You were huge in Japan! You had this groundbreaking record – it must have been great!” Well, it wasn’t like that. We weren’t selling records at all; we were totally broke, and we were big only in Japan. And at that time, being big in Japan was an insult. If someone said, “Oh, those guys are certainly going to be big in Japan,” that insinuated anyone could make it there, because the Japanese supposedly had no taste. It turns out that’s not the case, but people would use it against you. Still, looking back all these years, it’s been pretty cool.

Everything is so dependent on luck and timing. Who can judge Nirvana or Hootie? Who can tell why anybody hits at certain times? We have this band where we write and play our own songs, go out, and do reasonably well. People we respect like us, so what else could we ask for? If we do a great record, that’s all that matters. If we didn’t like a record we made but it sold well, eeeew! There’s no upside to that; if it sold five million copies, that would be horrible, because it would mean more people heard our crappy work than our good work. None of us ever thinks, God, this will really make a killing. We’re always wrong, anyway! [Laughs]

Success and failure always seem to come from unexpected directions – so you’d better hope you’re doing as well as you can at all times.