BY PHIL HOOD
Daxx Nielsen says he sometimes thinks about what he’ll do when Cheap Trick is over. It’s worth considering since he’s about half the age of the rest of the band and they can’t go on forever. The group comprised of ageless lead singer Robin Zander, guitarist Rick Nielsen (Daxx’s dad), and bassist Tom Petersson formed 42 years ago.
But, despite the age difference between Daxx and the band, the drummer–who occasionally filled in for the band’s legendary original drummer Bun E. Carlos before occupying the drum throne full time in 2010–should not worry. Known for hits such as “Surrender,” and “I Want You To Want Me” Cheap Trick remains a fan favorite all over the world. In Japan, they have traditionally been called “The American Beatles.” They tour constantly, hitting large clubs and larger auditoriums, and have a new record coming next April. And, they may record more, since they’ve just been signed to Big Machine Records, the label run by Scott Borchetta (and if you don’t know who Scott Borchetta is, he happens to be the guy who signed a 14-year old singer named Taylor Swift a few years back. Big Machine is a big deal.) Rather than being ready to hang it up, these classic rockers still have a lot of mileage in the tank.
We talked to Daxx just a few days before he is to play a show in San Jose, a scant two blocks from the DRUM! office. It’s the last show of a busy year and the drummer is looking forward to two months off before the band does it all again in 2016.
DRUM!: When you’re on the road I notice you take organic juice and carrots backstage? How do the other guys in the band take care of themselves?
Daxx Nielsen: It’s insane how they do it. Everyone tries to relax and save their energy for the stage. I’m half their age and I’m exhausted after a show. We’re on the road close to 200 days a year. It’s exhausting but its so rewarding. And, as of midnight last night they are officially going into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
That’s a great thing. Are you playing at the induction ceremony? [Daxx will not be inducted. Bun E. Carlos will become a Rock Hall member as the original drummer in the band.]
I don’t know if it’s the hall who decides who plays or if it’s up to the band. Next month will be my six-year anniversary. We’ve been touring for six years and made a record this year. So I think they’d like me in there, too. I’ve been doing it off and on since 2001.
You guys are known for some covers as well as all the hits and originals in the set. Like your great cover of “California Man.” [Ed. Note: A tune originally recorded by the mostly forgotten band Wizard, featuring Jeff Lynne of ELO and Roy Wood. Here’s a version.]
Yeah, a lot of people always tell me that it’s their favorite Cheap Trick song my dad ever wrote. I’m like “Oh yeah, me, too.” [laughs]. Nobody has ever heard of The Move or Roy Wood.
They were a little obscure in the U.S. in the Sixties.
Yeah, for sure! We played that song last night and the night before when we were in California. People go nuts!
How frequently does that set list change?
Every single night. For a long time the band was not able to play more than 75 minutes. Then I came along and was playing almost two hours a night, changing it up every single night. There are the core songs that you have to play. You have to play “Surrender” and “Dream Police” Even “The Flame” gets in there about 75 percent of the time because that’s what people know. Its familiar. Then you can play three or four b-sides or obscure tracks in between those. People will stick around because they want to hear the hits, or the superfans want to hear a song from 1985 that the band never really played until I came along. The band is totally into learning the old songs! There’s 24 hours in a day and you’re on stage for an hour and 15 minutes, that’s not fair. You travel eight hours to go play for two hours; that makes more sense than one hour. The rest of the time you’re trying to fill a void of what you do on the road between shows.
You posted a video of you playing an event recently with Eddie Vedder, performing “The Kids Are Alright.” And I know you’ve had a lot of posts of people who have been on stage with you. How frequently is that happening with Cheap Trick, where guests join the band?
I was Eddie’s drummer for two nights in Chicago for a fund raiser that we put a band together for and was lucky enough to do it. That was a dream come true! I grew up in that era. Late ’80s to mid-’90s music was a huge influence on me… Cheap Trick loves to have people come up onstage. It bridges the gap between us and the fans of other bands. Maybe fans of Pearl Jam will check us out because they saw Eddie Vedder play with this drummer guy from some band called Cheap Trick.
When you say the set list changes every night, do the covers change too?
Yeah, definitely. We did nine weeks in Vegas at The Paris doing all of [Beatles album] Sgt. Pepper front to back with a full orchestra with Geoff Emerick doing our sound. He was the engineer on all The Beatles records. That was pretty amazing, hearing his stories about how they got those sounds.
How would you approach the parts for that?
I was definitely doing my best Ringo. Growing up watching Bun E. playing with Cheap Trick, the swing thing definitely is there. It’s mandatory with the Cheap Trick sound. I grew up playing The Beatles stuff and Bun E. would give me tapes and we would hang out and listen to music. I would try to learn all that. As well as listening to my Metallica albums and Pearl Jam and all that crap. So when it came down to do the Beatles thing I was definitely trying to do Ringo but at the same time Rick would always say “Cheap Trick is not a cover band.” We play other people’s music but in our own style. [For the Sgt. Pepper show] We were a rock band with an orchestra behind us. The first two days we told the orchestra, “We’re the band; you guys are playing with us.” My approach was to play like the drummer from Cheap Trick doing his best Ringo impression. I think I did pretty good! I saw some videos and it wasn’t cringeworthy.
When you started playing did you find yourself locking in with [bassist] Tom Petersson, or the guitar or singer?
Tom and I are the definition of the rhythm section. He and I are locking in. He’s following me, I’m driving it. But he is right there with me. He was actually a guitar player growing up, then switched over to bass. I definitely feel locked in but at first it was Robin’s vocals and bass that I focused on. Another thing is I try to play at album speedrather than live speed. I felt when I started that the shows had gotten to a point where it was almost like a Ramones concert.
One of the first things I did when I joined was say “Guys we have to slow everything down. The train is running off the track.” My main goal was make it feel like Cheap Trick [recordings] and to bring the tempos back.
It lets the listener get inside the music.
For Robin he can actually breathe between lines. It gives everyone a chance to spread out a bit. There’s a reason why you record a song at a certain tempo. It’s because that’s how it sounds the best. That’s how it’s supposed to sound. You go back and watch it on YouTube and sometimes I’m like “whoa!” it’s already speeding up. I need to bring that song back to where it needs to be. There’s a pocket and there’s a groove. It needs to be musical.
Which hits get the biggest crowd response?
I’ve been doing this for six years and they have been doing it for more than 30 years. People always ask “Do you get sick of playing ‘I Want You To Want Me?'” That’s the one time a night where when people maybe have sat down or gone to get a drink, and they run back and go “Oh my god!” “Dream Police” is the rock tune people go nuts for. “Surrender” is the sing-along and “I Want You To Want Me,” they relate to it the most. They say, “This is the one they got me into Cheap Trick.”
What’s your setup on this tour?
I endorse Ludwig drums. I’ve always played them. Growing up with Bun E. and Ringo and John Bonham, all my favorites played them so for me it was never a question of what am I going to play. Bun E. would let me play on a couple of kits over the years. He introduced me to [super roadie and former Ludwig artist relations ace] Todd Trent and I’ve known Todd since I was seven years old. I’ve been with Ludwig now for about 16 years. I’m playing the [three-ply] Legacy Classics. They just sound so damn good! The kit is 14″ x 24″, 10″ x 14″, and 16″ x 16″ with a Black Beauty snare. Just a four-piece. I think about going to a five-piece now and again but you don’t really need to in most situations. [Ed Note: Daxx also plays Zildjian cymbals and Evans heads.]
As for sticks I’ve been with Promark since 1998. I wrote them a letter when I was in high school. It was hand-written and I said, this is my name, this is what I’m doing and here’s my projected goals for my career. I told them I was going to eventually make records and go on tour with big bands. They said “Hey, you’ve got some balls, kid!” And they gave me an endorsement.
What about the new record? When did you record it?
We recorded an album [Bang, Zoom, Crazy…Hello] that will be out April 1, which is “Cheap Trick Day” in Illinois. We recorded it on days off over the last year and a half. It was one of those things like “Hey we’ve got five days off. Do you want to go home or go to Nashville or LA and work on music? What’s the point of going home?” [laughs]. Cheap Trick works so much. We just do it when we can. We recorded about 25 tracks and signed with Scott Borchetta (Big Machine Records). He’s the man in the industry. We have enough for almost three albums. He plans on releasing an album a year for three years.
If he signed you guys there is a lot of life left in Cheap Trick.
There really is. I’ve seen what they wanted to be and what they can be with the right attitude and openness and willingness to work. They have always wanted to work and record and play long shows and mix it up. I think they’re going to play until they can’t play anymore. Picking a day to retire is when they physically can’t do it anymore.