Bun E. Carlos - What?! Procol Harum?!

Words by Martin Popoff

It’s still a shock that Bun E. and his puffy an’ smoke-puffing accountant persona aren’t back there pounding the kit for Cheap Trick. The lawsuit between the boys was a further downer, but all of that is settled now, with Bun E. celebrating that and the band’s recent Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction with a new solo album, on which he drums up a pile of covers from his youth along with a few recent compositions, in what he calls “kind of like the Bun E. Carlos mix tape that I made for all my friends and fans.” The top-down, fun in the sun Greetings from Bunezuela!—that exclamation point isn’t just any explanation point: it was borrowed from Kiss Alive!—is out this summer, with lead single “Do Something Real,” written and sung by Robert Pollard of Guided by Voices, making the rounds now.

Martin: Very cool getting to chat with you. Thanks for doing this. So yeah, to get started, pretty obvious question: why a record like this? Obviously, these are some of your early influences.

Bun E.: Yeah, well, ever since the late 1970s, people kept asking, got anything planned? Yeah, I wanna do a covers record sometime. So I thought once the Hall of Fame got announced, it seemed like a good time.

Martin: How did that go down? Obviously, there’s been the breakup, but did this help patch things up a little bit?

Bun E.: The Hall of Fame? Well, for a day it did, yeah. You know, the one day we got together, everything was pretty cordial when we were face-to-face. When we weren’t, it wasn’t as cordial, I read and heard later (laughs).

Martin: Did you hang out with the Deep Purple guys at all?

Bun E.: I talked to Roger Glover a bit and a couple of the crew guys. We toured together about 12, 13 years ago, so I had a couple friends on the crew there, so it was nice to see some familiar faces.

Martin: So what are a couple of your favourite tracks on this release and why… things you definitely wanted to knock down?

Bun E.: Well, I always wanted to do a couple Who songs, and I got a chance to do one of them on the record. It was a gas to do “Armenia.” There are a couple real old ones on there that I did back in the ‘60s with my high school band. A Blackstones tune called “I Love You No More” and a Them song called “I Can Only Give You Everything.” They were a lot of fun to do again. Looking at the record, I like them all because they’re like my children, kind of.

Martin: What did you pick up from Keith Moon? Was he an inspiration?

Bun E.: Just his whole style of drumming was an eye-opener, you know, for those of us who grew up with the Beatles starting in 1964. When Moon came along, two, three, four years later, whenever you got into them, it was something completely different, just a whole new way of drumming. And a whole new attitude towards drums in the song itself. He was a drum hero to a lot of my contemporary drummers.

Martin: Now, you doing a record like this, is it in the spirit of your personality, like were you a big record collector guy, and are you still like that now?

Bun E.: Yeah, I’m a big music fan. I buy stuff all the time. I’ve just always had to get the latest by my favorite bands and the latest new stuff. You know, if there was a song I liked, I would go out and buy it, and then if someone did a better version of it, I’d be getting the better version. Things like that. So this was something I always wanted to do for about 40 years.

Martin: Where would we hear Keith Moon and The Who influences within Cheap Trick? I mean it does seem to be part of your style.

Bun E.: Well, you hear him in songs like “Dream Police,” probably, or “Surrender” or something, where when it comes to the guitar solo, the drummer kind of takes the solo and takes the lead part. And Tom Werman was a big Who fan, who did the second, third and fourth albums by Cheap Trick. You can hear that stuff come up on something like “Dream Police” or the Heaven Tonight album, where it’s basically Tom Werman trying to do an American version of Who’s Next. He was always, ‘Do it like The Who, do more drums, do more drums like Keith Moon.’ And I would get in arguments with him about the role of the drums in the song, because a lot of times I’d like less drums than perhaps maybe Keith Moon did. But, you know, so big influence there, and a big influence on Rick’s guitar, of course—and Tom’s bass. Ever since the get-go, even before Cheap Trick, Tom was always trying to get that Entwistle sound. He was trying to get the Roto sound, and the 12-string bass was trying to match that Entwistle sound. So The Who... there would be no Cheap Trick without The Who being there first.

Martin: And who else in the ‘60s taught you that drums could be more important than just a timekeeping tool?

Bun E.: I mean, Ringo. Mitch Mitchell had some of the coolest licks, of course, and so did Ginger Baker. Ginger Baker licks show up all over Cheap Trick records. You know, Charlie Watts, Dave Clark. I mean, I like those guys because they had prominent drum parts and they played cool licks.

Martin: So Tom Werman would’ve been a fan of you starting the roll early sort of thing, or big snare drum rolls and stuff.

Bun E.: Yeah, Tom Werman always wanted more rolls, faster rolls, louder rolls, and we would sit there and argue about it. I remember on Dream Police, he wanted me to use the Syndrum in the middle, those things that go ‘beuw, buew,’ the first electronic drums. And we stood there and shouted at each other. And I was like, ‘No, no, I’m not gonna use ‘em, they’re on the The Gong Show, and it would date this record to 1978 every time I hear it for the rest of my life.’ And so I wouldn’t use the effect, and I think that was probably a good move. It would’ve dated the album a lot more than anything else would.

Martin: That’s very true.

Bun E.: But you know, that’s part of making a record, is, if you like something enough, you fight over it.

Martin: Speaking of dating the records, I mean, how do you feel about those big power ballad years, and that whole thing with Cheap Trick? There must be some good, some bad, because obviously you sold a lot of records again, right?

Bun E.: Power ballads, like “The Flame.” That was brought to us by Don Grierson at Epic Records. He was the power ballad guy. He was the guy that found that song “What About Love” for Heart. And a year or two later, he came to us, he was running Epic in America. He had been in Australia before, and he says, look at, let’s— because we were kind of feuding with each other—and he goes, ‘Let’s put this behind us and let’s make a good record.’ And the guy, he goes, ‘I’ve got a couple power ballads you might wanna try.’ He says, ‘Both of these are going to be #1.’ And he played us “The Flame” and then he played us a song called “Look Away.” And he goes, ‘I’m going to give one to Chicago and I’m going to give one to you guys. I’ll give you first pick. Which one do you want?’ And we were like, well, we like that song “The Flame” better than we like that song “Look Away,” if we had to choose. And he says, ‘Yeah, it’s not what you guys are known for, but it’s gonna get you guys on the radio, it’s going to bring you back, and open the door for you, stuff like that. And the idea about let’s work with the record company instead of like the fighting with each other, like we had the previous couple of records. I think everybody was ready at that point to do that. And it turned out well for everybody. But it kind of branded us with that power ballad, and when we were tracking it, we did a take or two and Rick and Tom were like, I can’t handle this. And they got up and stomped out of the room. And me and Robin cut the track. And then Rick and Tom came in and added their parts the next day or a couple days later or whatever. But yeah, they really didn’t like it a lot.

Martin: Yeah, you seem to be a band that would pride yourselves on songwriting, given how amazing you were at it, right?

Bun E.: Yeah, and the label, for the previous three, four records had been coming back to our management and going, ‘We don’t think Rick’s got what it takes. We think Rick’s written his best songs.’ And that didn’t help things a whole lot. With the record label not behind you, you know? So yeah, for that record, they were like, ‘We want to get you guys on the radio, we’re gonna bring you some songs. We’ll do some of your songs.’ And we noticed as the album went on, our songs were getting pitched and thrown out (laughs), and only the cover tunes were getting added to the record. And, you know, we kind of stuck with the plan, even though about half that stuff on Lap of Luxury, today I listen to it and I kind of cringe. But at the time, it didn’t seem that bad. But there you go.

Martin: Okay, so, you get to do what you want on this record. What is the Bun E. Carlos style when it comes to drumming? What do you do way more of and what do you do way less of than other drummers?

Bun E.: First of all, I try to pick the best song. And then I try to play it with... you know, get a good guy to sing it, and then stay out of his way, basically. And just try and make drums that I would enjoy hearing, if it was me listening to this thing on the radio. That’s kind of what I want to hear. And the way I did it, I tried to just do a couple songs at a time. So I’d go in the studio and cut drums and bass, put the guitars on, slap some keyboards on if needed, have the singer start singing. And finish the song, finish a couple tunes, and then a week or two later, pick it up again, like it used to be back before albums or back when we were kids, and you’d go to record a single. You’d pick your two best songs and do ‘em. And so I did it that way. So when it came time to... we didn’t have tracks sitting around and some guy had to do six guitar tracks in the next day or something. None of that was going on. So we let each song kind of stand on its own.

Martin: And you obviously like cymbals. Where is the spirit of playing cymbals, riding on cymbals a lot, come from for you?

Bun E.: Well, some of it comes from watching Keith Moon just beat the tar out of them, just kind of provide... fill in all the holes for the stuff that ain’t there, like the rhythm guitar player or this other guy, you know, when you’re in a three-piece. You kind of learn how to fill in all the holes. So there was a bit of that going on, and then the other part is just trying to... when I did the Tinted Windows album about seven or eight years ago with Adam Schlesinger, he’d sent me some demos he’d done and there were crash cymbals about every ten seconds. Someone was always hitting a crash cymbal. It was Adam; he’d do it on a drum machine. But he liked crash cymbals, like, every verse, between every line, before every chorus—that’s not me so much. When I was doing this record, it was kinda like, hey, I’m just going to do what needs to be done here and keep out of the singer’s way. And that’s what I did, and since I was the producer, there was no guy sitting there going, ‘Make more noise’ or ‘Play another drum lick.’

Martin: And another thing that seems to be at the heart of what you do... Lee Kerslake is always known for a shuffle, and even, in a way, so is Roger Earl, but you have a soft swing to you, right?

Bun E.: Yeah, that’s just kind of the way I grew up playing. And the guys I stole my drum licks from just kind of played like that in the ‘50s and ‘60s. So I kind of turned out that way. The one song I really noticed it on the most is the Paul Revere and the Raiders tune. We’d cut a track for that in Rockford here, and I listened to it a couple days later, and it was like, well, it’s a little too shuffle-y, a little too swing-y. Not quite like the L.A. guys that cut it with Paul Revere and the Raiders. So a couple days later, I went in to Chicago with a different bunch of musicians. I said look, let’s do this thing again, and I just tried to play it a little straighter, a little less back... little more front of the pocket, I guess you would say. And that’s the main difference on that, was my style fit most of the songs, but there were a couple that they kind of didn’t. So I had to do a little adjusting in the studio.

Martin: What are some of your proudest moments in terms of writing with Cheap Trick, through the whole career?

Bun E.: Most of the time if my name was on a song with Cheap Trick—and it’s on maybe ten or 12—it would be me contributing a line or a part or a riff or something, just out of the blue, like, this would probably sound good right here. But usually it was, if I contributed to the arrangement, or the drum beat, or the style of the song, like we should stop this, slow it down, do it like this. Then, if I say some song is not going to make the record, then suddenly my name would appear on it. So it’s more for like what I brought to the mix than what I actually wrote down for any particular song.

Martin: What are your favourite touring memories of all time?

Bun E.: The most fun touring was, of course, the biggest gigs. If we were playing for 80,000 people or 100,000 people, just walking out there is like holy moly. Whoever thought this was gonna happen? Probably a couple of the neatest ones, when we got to the Cow Palace in San Francisco and we were opening for Kiss. The sound check, we were on stage and I went to the other guys and said, ‘Hey, the Beatles played here. They might’ve played on this very stage.’ And earlier that year we played the Auditorium Theatre, opening up for Rush. And I remember that I saw Hendrix there, and that was really cool to be on the same stage Hendrix had been on. That kind of stuff was just like, yeah, never thought I’d be sitting here, you know, 15 years ago when I paid five bucks to see some band in here.

Martin: Was Kiss really supportive of you guys? Nice guys, sociable?

Bun E.: Oh yeah, Gene, they saw us when we were cutting our first record. Gene and Paul came and saw us when we were playing a New York show, and they thought we were the bee’s knees or whatever. And about, geez, eight or nine months later, our first record had come out and we really didn’t get any airplay, and we went out and did a run with The Kinks, and they threw us off the tour because we wouldn’t give Ray any kickbacks. He wanted like 500 bucks a night to be on the tour. And we’re like, yeah, we’ll pay you in Chicago, at the halfway point. When we got to Chicago, we didn’t pay ‘em and suddenly we were off the tour. So the booking agency we were using, they were like, ‘Yeah, we’ve got three dates booked with Procol Harum.’ And we’re like ‘What?! Procol Harum?!’ It was like, we’re selling more records than they are, and we’re hardly selling any records. And Gene just happened to call up and say, look it, he goes, ‘You guys oughta go out with Kiss. Get out of your booking agency and sign with the agency that we use and get your next record done, and we’ll take you across America and Canada this summer.’ And we said, yeah, that’s great, let’s do that. So we did. We fired our agency and signed up with the people they were using, and got into the studio with Tom Werman, and got In Color done as fast as we could and went out with Kiss. And they kind of introduced us to Canada and the western half of America.

Martin: Yeah, I remember hearing that album and being a little disappointed. It wasn’t so heavy. We were just young, you know, angry metalhead kind of guys, and the first album seemed heavier than In Color.

Bun E.: Well, it was, and we kind of agreed with you on that, muffling the snare drum and muting the guitar down a little, cranking up the vocals a little, and the version of “I Want You to Want Me” that Tom Werman had us record, we didn’t like that stuff too much. And the basic blowback from the label we got was, look it, the first record didn’t get on the radio. This guy’s gonna get you on the radio. And that’s why we’re gonna tame ya down a little bit. And at the same time in England, they wouldn’t put out the first record; they said it was too heavy. So Stiff Records called and said, ‘We’ll put the thing out.’ We said nah, we’re on Epic, we can’t do that. And the second record, In Color got ready, and we sent it to CBS England, and they come back to us and they go, ‘This record is too poppy. We don’t want to put this out over here.’ We’re like goddammit. The first one’s too heavy, and now this one’s not heavy enough. What do we gotta do to get a record out in England here? They finally put it out anyway, but it was frustrating to us too at the time. We wanted to be heavier and rock harder and the label wanted to get us on the radio.

Martin: It’s funny, by Dream Police, I mean, that’s an odd year. I was talking to Rick and Robin about this when they came through Toronto on a press trip last month. You guys do great in ‘79, but it seems all our hard rock heroes were making lighter records or breaking up; Ted Nugent, Starz, Kiss, Aerosmith, Rick Derringer goes pop, and here you guys are having a massive year. Do you remember 1979 as being a strange year when hard rock fell out of favour?

Bun E.: Yeah, the disco thing was still like hovering over, and the label, they weren’t sure if power pop was coming or going. And, you know, punk was breathing down everybody’s neck, but it wasn’t selling anything, so nobody really wanted to deal with that stuff. And the label, you know, they put out Heaven Tonight in ‘78, and it didn’t do a lot of business, and then Budokan took off. And so suddenly we were okay. But yeah, the label, they didn’t know where things were going. And these were older guys; they didn’t know what the kids were doing these days.

Martin: Yeah, it’s funny, I remember, Eagles’ The Long Run and In Through the Out Door and The Wall were going to save the record industry.

Bun E.: Yeah, I remember all three of those records; it was like, boy, what happened here?

Martin: Okay, well listen, our time’s probably up, I guess. What are the plans with this? I don’t imagine this is something you’re touring.

Bun E.: No, I’ve got one show booked in Chicago right now, but it was just kind of, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was beckoning, and I thought if I’m ever gonna do a record, I should get my butt in gear and get this thing ready, and this would be good time to do it. So it’s kind of like the Bun E Carlos mix tape that I made for all my friends and fans.

Martin: Are you, are you retired? What do you do with your time?

Bun E.: I work in about three different bands around here; I’m kind of local. And I do stuff for Ludwig and Zildjian of course. I collect drums, so I buy and sell drums. Otherwise, yeah, I’m semi-retired in a way that I’m not in a full-time touring band right now. But once in a while, like Fountains of Wayne called a couple summers ago and they needed a drummer for one night. Stuff like that happens. So I’m out there occasionally doing this or that. And this was kind of... this record was me getting my toes back in the water again.

Martin: Are you still quite a rock memorabilia guy, and do you buy and sell?

Bun E.: I’m buying music all the time and listening to stuff all the time and getting into bands I never thought I’d get into before, but I’ve got more time on my hands now.

Martin: Is there a band you collect?

Bun E.: Well, most of all I like listening to music, but then all the bands I liked as a child and even the bands I’ve liked since. When something comes out, I’m on Amazon throwing it on the order, that kind of stuff, or buying bootlegs. You know, I’m still buying Stones, things like the Rolling Stones tour sets, 18 gigs from 1995 for 200 bucks, stuff like that, that some bootleggers got or something. And in the last year, I’m driving around the Midwest and I started listening to the Grateful Dead channel, Sirius XM, and lo and behold, I’ve been listening to those guys lately. They had good drummers. And so I never thought I’d be listening to Grateful Dead music, but now I’ve heard quite a lot of it (laughs).

Visit Bun E. on Facebook here: https://www.facebook.com/Bun-E-Carlos-158423844200933/

**CRR Copy Editor Brad Neville note:  Although CRR is based in the Midwest, some of the editing and fact checking is done right here in sunny California… OK, drought-ridden CA… anyway… I just have to add that I personally was THERE for the show in 1977 that my man Bun E. was talking about…

I have always enjoyed a chat with Bun E. We first met at a NAMM show in Anaheim years ago (he autographed a nice Ludwig poster for me…) and then later when he and the boys tore up a Moondance Jam in 2007… plus, he and I have the same birthday, so… there’s that.

I believe I was just 13 when I saw Boston and Star Castle in 1976 at the Cow Palace, and then on August 16, 1977 I went to see KISS at the Cow Palace in SF with Cheap Trick opening. It was just two months after the release of “Love Gun,” 10 days before the band recorded the bulk of “Alive II” in Los Angeles and one of the last tours with all of the founding members (before the original KISS reunited as a nostalgia in 1996)… and as a side note, it was also the day that Elvis Presley died.

I had no idea who Cheap Trick was, but I was blown away. They were a serious rock band, not a pop band... although Rick was wearing a silly outfit. “Hot Love” and “He’s a Whore” were smokin’ tunes. As a young aspiring guitar player myself, I think I was most impressed with how far Rick Nielsen could fling a guitar pick into the crowd… not even a red-neck with a bottle cap could match for distance. I was also impressed with how MANY picks were tossed out as souvenirs… there are only 144 picks to a gross, and the quantity was more than gross; it was obscene.

Kiss came on, and all I remember from that night about them was that my face was really hot from all the huge flames that were shooting up on stage… and I was way in the back of the auditorium… I can’t imagine how hot it would have been up there in flame retardant spandex.

Sometimes I wish Cheap Trick would perform those tracks again, leaving out that ‘I want you to want me’ stuff….