The New Cars
Let The Good Times Roll
By Mitch Lafon
It's been nearly two decades since The Cars cruised the music scene, but the band is back albeit with a few notable changes. Lead singer, Ric Ocasek has decided to remain in park and his shoes are filled by famed producer/ musician, Todd Rundgren. The same can be said for original drummer, David Robinson with his seat being filled by The Tubes skinman, Prairie Prince. In the intervening years bassist Benjamin Orr passed away and his duties are being filled by Utopia bassist, Kasim Sulton. Fear not though, The New Cars (as they are now known) are a pleasant surprise combining both the drive of the original with the power of the new members. To prove the doubters wrong, The New Cars will release It's Alive in the US on May 9th (UK release is May 8th). This new live album features a mix of The Cars classics with a few new songs. The band will also embark on its first proper tour in 17 years with Blondie opening up. To make sense of it all, I sat down with both original members, Elliott Easton (guitar) and Greg Hawkes (keyboards).
Mitch Lafon: How did you get Todd Rundgren to join The New Cars? He's had a very successful career as a solo artist and producer.
Greg Hawkes: Well, Elliot and Todd have worked together in the past. Elliott had played on a record that Todd had produced. So, when his name came up Elliot got in touch with Todd.
Elliot Easton: The way Todd was invited to be in the band was that we were trying to get this together with Ric and David and when it became apparent that they didn't wish to tour and didn't want to be involved in the plans we were making... it became obvious to Greg and I that we would have to find a new frontman. We could have found a sound alike and made it sound like the old Cars and just played the hits and made a quick buck, but what we really wanted to do was have a band with a person in it who's creative, who could write songs, sing and we could record new albums with and go from strength to strength. I was thinking about it and who would be a great person for that and Todd's name came up and if you think about it he's the perfect guy. He's a great singer songwriter. He's a frontman, a producer, engineer... just a really talented guy. We used to play a lot of shows with Utopia and I could see similarities in the two bands. There were touchstones stylistically that both bands shared. So, I felt he'd be a good fit and I just called Todd. I proposed it and he said he was very interested.
ML: How do you think his voice fits The Cars sound?
GH: It's perfect! I was a Todd fan before I ever was in The Cars. He's got this quality that's in between Ric & Ben, but he has his own personality.
EE: When we got together in the rehearsal room in LA, we played a few Cars songs and it just sounded great. It sounded like The Cars, but it also sounded like Todd. He's not impersonating anybody. It's a great combination and a great fit. We'll do some Cars live as well as Todd stuff, but what I'm most excited about is the new stuff we've recorded and that we have the ability to move forward as a new band and do new studio albums of new material.
ML: Are you disappointed that Ric didn't want to do this tour?
GH: Yeah, for awhile. Had Ric come back it would be a whole other story.
ML: Do you know why he chose not to participate?
GH: I can't say. He's happy producing.
EE: Ric is very happy producing other bands and making solo albums. One time, he said to me he really loves not being so famous anymore. I don't think he liked being besieged by people and being so recognizable that he couldn't have a normal day out. I think he's enjoying his life now and to my recollection he never really enjoyed touring. He didn't like it and The Cars didn't really tour all that much and we didn't have a reputation for being a great live band and a lot of that had to do with our frontman. There wasn't any communication with the audience... that partnership that's so necessary between the performer and audience to light that spark. We were aloof onstage and barely said 'thank you'. Anyway, he just didn't have that great of a time on tour, so he chooses not to.
ML: Why didn't David want to get onboard?
EE: David isn't in the music business anymore. He owns a restaurant and is happy doing what he's doing and chose not to be involved. It's about comfort level people have to do what they're comfortable doing and if they are not comfortable being in a band and touring and performing then they shouldn't do it. It's as simple as that, but at the same time it would be unfair to expect Greg and I to fold up and not do it.
ML: The Cars have been parked for 17 years. Why do a tour and album now (in 2006)?
GH: I don't know. It's just all timing. Five years ago the subject just didn't come up.
EE: Well, we tried various times throughout the years and we just couldn't get it together. It just seems like it's a good time to do it. I read a lot of the music publications and I see how many of the young bands name check us or cite us as an influence. Bands like The Strokes, or Jet, or The Vines or Fountains Of Wayne are so clearly influenced by The Cars and I think their fans might be interested to hear where some of this stuff comes from. It's just an evolutionary chain and every generation adds a little bit to what came before.
ML: Are you surprised at the reaction you're getting? You're playing arenas this summer and not clubs. Are you surprised The Cars made such an impact?
EE: I'm really happy about that and it's the difference between if we had called it something else... On some level, it just seems to me that with all we've given to this music and as much of our lives that we've dedicated to it... it just seems fair and correct that we should be able to use a form of the name to let people know who we are. Are we really going to start all over playing bars in our fifties? It's not realistic.
ML: When The Cars first came out disco was ending and you had the shock rock of Kiss and Alice Cooper, but you guys did something different. Did you think people would love your music 30 years later?
GH: Probably not. With the first record, we'd always say 'hopefully, we'll be in the position to do a second record.' That's how I feel about the new line-up.
EE: It all comes down to songs honestly. It always has been about songs and in Ric we had a truly gifted songwriter and the rest of it was magic. None of it is calculated or formulated and it's just what the five of us sounded like playing together and the way we interpreted Ric's songs. I'm not surprised that people still want to hear these songs. I could be cynical and say that nostalgia just cycles itself, but more than that I just think the music stands up and has dated a lot better than most of the music of our contemporaries. People still listen to The Beatles and that was forty years ago so if it's good, it's good.
ML: Speaking of the new band is this a one time deal or are you looking to make this last?
GH: It sure feels like a band and that's the thing that's got me excited. Playing with 'the band' is great.
EE: This is my career. This is what I do. If it was just a one tour cash in thing, I don't think I'd be interested. I'd like to be doing this for a long long time and the band we have is a band of great players. Kasim is a wonderful bass player and great singer in fact he sings 'Drive' in the show. He has that sweet voice that Benjamin could do. Prairie Prince from The Tubes is just a powerhouse drummer. It just feels great with a really rocking rhythm section. We've got deeper grooves than we could achieve before. I love the old band and I'm proud of the work we did and I'm not trying to compare or say this is a better band, but this is a really great band that's fun to play with. If you're going to come back after so long like The Cars are you have to start somewhere and the obvious place to start... this tour is our chance to review what we've accomplished as a band thus far and remind people who we are and what we've done and use it as a stepping off point to move forward.
ML: After the tour, will you be making an all new record?
EE: The plan is to do this tour and the hope is that we will be received well enough to warrant a world tour through 2006 and after that the plan would be to do a studio album of new material.
ML: Would you try to do the nostalgia thing or conquer new ground?
GH: So far, we've done three new studio tracks and to me it's like three different visions of the band. I think there's a lot of potential to explore.
ML: If I may, what has Greg Hawkes been doing for the last 17 years?
GH: I was coasting for awhile. I did some recording stuff from time to time. I did video game music. I recorded with Paul McCartney.
ML: Can you share a story about Paul?
GH: My dad took me to see The Beatles in 1964. That was my first concert. So, it was a thrill for me to record at his studio over in England and to see all the old stuff The Beatles bass which still had the set list from Tokyo taped to the side of it... that was pretty cool.
ML: Let's talk about your keyboard sound. It distinguished The Cars from everybody else back then.
GH: It's just the way I played. I was influenced a lot by the way The Beatles used keyboards on their records. I loved the way they would throw in a piano for the bridges then it would be gone for the rest of the song. I had also just gotten into DEVO right before recording the first Cars album.
ML: Let's talk about the MTV era videos. The band was practically known more as being a video band rather than a live band.
GH: It was back when MTV was still a novelty. My favorite, of course, is the 'You Might Think' video which was done on the video paint box. It was done in front of the blue screen and they fill in the background. It was really the first video that had that kind of video/cartoon-y look to it. I still love the look of it!
EE: After a while I guess, but our first big success was with Candy-O way before the MTV era. Our videos were cutting edge as we were with our music or technology. The 'You Might Think' video, in fact, won for Best Video at the first MTV annual video awards, but I never thought about it as 'oh, we're a video band.' But to us, we were just a band doing what comes next and once the world moved into that visual image video era it was quite important. It was something you did with your new single and as long as we had to do it we felt we might as well have fun doing it and make it great.
ML: You're using a live album (It's Alive) to present The New Cars...
GH: Yeah, it's kind of funny. One of the challenges of presenting the new band is 'how well do they play The Cars songs'. So, this will be the answer to that question... I guess (laughs). Use this as a starting point and hopefully move on from there.
EE: One of the things we wanted to accomplish by doing this live album was... people are going to be wondering about this band, so they can buy this record and hear that it's us and the new song 'Not Tonight' sounds like a classic Cars single.
ML: The New Cars live set has included songs by The Nazz and Todd's solo stuff...
GH: I'm hoping we'll include more. We just haven't gotten around to learning them yet. It's perfectly natural that Todd brings in his whole... he's got a legion of fans who'll come to see him and wonder 'what's he doing with these guys?' It's a perfectly natural acknowledgment of not just Elliott and I's history, but his and Kasim's as well.
ML: A lot of fans or should I say people on the internet have been complaining that this is NOT The Cars. Ric's not there. David's NOT there. Ben has passed away...
GH: I guess the 'New' part of it is to distinguish it from when David & Ric were there. You can argue that it should be a completely separate name that had nothing to do with The Cars and I wrestled with that internally myself for awhile...
EE: We're careful to call it The New Cars because we don't want to mislead anybody to think that it's the old band and that they should be expecting to see Ric and David when they come to the shows. It's a new band, but the hope and wish is to use our past legacy to build upon.
ML: Any words about Benjamin Orr?
GH: One thing I'll say this whole project and everybody involved has nothing but the utmost respect for Ben.
EE: Benjamin meant so much to the original Cars and I miss him terribly. Besides being a member of the band he was my friend. He was my brother and I loved him. I miss the guy... quite apart from what he brought to the band and what he brought to the band was considerable. Not least was his incredible singing. When you change any member of a band it becomes a different band. So changing three members, it really is a different band. The chemistry is completely different and I think perhaps if Benjamin was still with us, he'd be involved in what we're doing.
ML: Is it hard to hear someone else sing 'Drive'?
GH: In a sense. In the last couple of years, I've taken to performing that song on ukulele.
EE: We love the song... and we think about how to present it and how to interpret it. I think we found a way to play the song that we're comfortable with. That's all I can say really.
ML: Are you happy playing The Cars music again? Did you miss playing The Cars songs?
EE: Oh, yes. It was. It really was. Greg and I and the others spent our youths making those songs popular and establishing that band and I'm very proud of the work we did with that band. I've always felt like we stopped before we really had to. We made the Door To Door record and it didn't do that well and we should have said 'ok, we didn't knock it out of the ball park this time, so let's just take some time off and we'll get it right.' But instead, the first record we put out that wasn't a huge success (because all the others had gone platinum) we just folded and said 'that's it.' The way the band split wasn't an argument... Ric decided to leave. It was Christmas of '87 and we had just come off tour, he and I were mixing a live radio broadcast at Electric Lady studios and he just said to me 'I'm leaving the band.' It wasn't like the band is over. It was just 'I'm leaving the band.' After that we just didn't feel like continuing. It was a difficult moment and I went through a mourning period because it had been my life for so long.
ML: Your tour brings you to Montreal on June 23rd at The Bell Center...
EE: I always loved playing Montreal. I love that town and Toronto as well. I love Canada and I know we had a lot of fans there.
ML: Any last words?
GH: We come with respect for The Cars legacy. We're not trying to mess it up.
EE: I hope people greet and welcome us with an open mind. I think if you come to see the show, you won't be disappointed and it's such a blessing to have been in a band that mattered at all. That was all I ever wanted from the first time I saw The Beatles on Ed Sullivan was to be in a band that mattered and that people would recognize on the radio. I'm just so happy that people are still interested in seeing us and speaking for Greg and I we're just so excited about bringing this music to life onstage and picking up where we left off.
For further info about their North American tour dates (the band will be touring the UK and Europe in September 2006.) or the new live album visit: www.thenewcars.com