From DRUM! Magazine’s September 2017 Issue | By Bob Doerschuk | Photography By Ted Rosenthal/Izmaddy Studios
Anywhere on Earth except for Rockford, Illinois, rock and rollers envy the life of Daxx Nielsen. After all, he plays arena shows all over the world with one of the greatest bands ever. His dad is Rick Nielsen of Cheap Trick — how cool is that?
But back home in Rockford? “People here don’t care about any of that,” Nielsen says. “Just last night, I hung out with some of the guys I went to high school with. Yeah, I’ve followed my passion and been successful with it. But I don’t look at it like I’ve done anything special. I mean, if walked around town thinking I was better than anyone else because I’m in a rock band, they’d probably punch me in the stomach.”
Maybe every celebrity needs a Rockford, a place where they can go to shake off the gold dust of superstardom and remember who they really are. Sadly, most aren’t so lucky. “When I come home I’m changing diapers on my son Iver, who’s one year old, and hanging around the house in my pajamas,” Nielsen explains. “Then on Friday I put on my rock star clothes and go back to that world.”
In a way it was kind of inevitable. Self-taught on drums, though with valuable guidance from his father, he put a band together with his brother Miles called Harmony Riley. They played mainly local gigs, plus occasional opening spots in arenas for Cheap Trick. In 2001, when founding drummer Bun E. Carlos began developing back pain before a show in Phoenix, he persuaded Nielsen to sub for him on the encore five or six nights in a row. When his discomfort worsened, Carlos asked Nielsen to sub for him throughout the rest of the summer tour. Each night, then, Nielsen would play 45 minutes with Harmony Riley, take a half-hour break, and then charge into a 90-minute set with Cheap Trick.
“If it was up to Rick [Nielsen], there’d be a drum fill every two bars,” Daxx Nielsen says. “He wants bombast. He wants Keith Moon meets Charlie Watts.”
In 2010, when Carlos stopped performing, Nielsen got the call to take over the drum chair full-time. He’d strengthened his chops backing surf guitar icon Dick Dale and expanded his range in working with Brandi Carlisle and in A Fine Frenzy, a group he formed with singer/songwriter Alison Sudol. Still, he knew that this opportunity required some tact. Carlos’s style was intrinsic to Cheap Trick’s success, which meant that Nielsen had to ease into his role, delivering what fans wanted while allowing time for his own approach to evolve.
“Bun E. had a signature feel and sound,” he says. “So I didn’t completely change any of his parts. But it’s been seven years now and I’ve gotten so comfortable with it that maybe it feels like I’m not trying as much to be him.”
He points to his fondness for ghost notes as one difference in his and Carlos’ approaches. “That comes from playing with Alison,” he notes. “For me, it’s about the feel. Instead of going 1-2-3-4, I’m going 1-e-&-ah-2-e-&-ah. That helps when I’m playing a slow blues. Those ghost notes are how I keep in the pocket, even if you can’t hear them.”
So in concerts and on the new Cheap Trick album, We’re All Alright!, what you get is 100 percent Daxx Nielsen. Most of the time, that means no nonsense, no frills, just a mean and monstrous groove stripped down to its high-impact essentials. That’s fine with Nielsen, although he also finds it kind of amusing that his dad is more open to stretching out beyond the backbeat now and then. “If it was up to Rick, there’d be a drum fill every two bars,” he says. “He wants bombast. He wants Keith Moon meets Charlie Watts.”
The opening track, “You’ve Got It Going On,” offers the clearest example of Nielsen taking a few liberties as he backs Robin Zander’s vocals by himself. “We recorded this one with the singing, so it was like, ‘Every time there’s a vocal break, go nuts!’ Hopefully I didn’t overstep the lyrics, but that was definitely one spot where the band felt it needed drums all over the place rather than just keeping time.”
The fact is, Nielsen insists, “it’s harder not to do a drum fill. To just sit there and play a straight beat, it’s like, ‘I gotta do a fill! I gotta do it.’ It made me realize that it’s at least as difficult as playing as fast as possible and doing as many fills as you can. It took years of doing studio work to get that I don’t need that extra kick pattern. I don’t need to go the ride — just stay on the hi-hat during that guitar solo. That actually makes it more powerful.”
The simpler the part, the more important the sound when cutting drum tracks. This cued Nielsen to put a lot of work into preproduction before tracking at Nashville’s Blackbird Studio. He asked the instrument rental company Drum Paradise to deliver a selection of kits, snares, and cymbals, from which he, the band, and their coproducer Julian Raymond chose what to use on each cut. He’d play, they’d listen from the booth, and together they’d make their decision.
For example, on the album’s one ballad “Floating Down,” Nielsen reports how “we chose a deeper, less taut snare. We tuned the head down so it was like a tom feel with snares on it. It was like that old-school Jim Keltner feel, so it wasn’t cracky or slappy, but it bounced and swung.”
As they’ve been doing for more than 40 years, Cheap Trick is supporting their new release with dates booked throughout the US, Canada, Mexico, and Europe into November. Somewhere beyond that, the road leads back to Rockford, where Nielsen‘s life will settle back into a more restorative routine. Maybe he’ll check in on Shear Renewal, a salon where his wife Heather oversees day-to-day business. There’ll be more diapers to change, more beers to sip with high school friends who’ve stayed behind.
“I really am living a dual life,” he admits. He thinks about that for a second before adding, “And actually? It’s really great!”
Band: Cheap Trick
Current Album: We’re All Alright!
Birthplace: Rockford, Illinois
Influences: Ringo Starr, John Bonham, Phil Rudd, Bun E. Carlos, Matt Abts, Joe Morello
Transcription by Andy Ziker
“You Got It Going On”
Daxx Nielsen has been a member of Cheap Trick for more than seven years now, so his inspiring performance on their new record, We’re All Alright!, may not come as much of a surprise. Growing up with the band as guitarist Rick Nielsen’s son has allowed him to soak up Bun E. Carlos’ style, but Nielson puts his own stamp on the 13-song effort, which is strong from start to finish. This excerpt from “You Got It Going On” features call and response in two-bar phrases and an adventurous fill in the last two measures.