Bun E. Carlos Talks New Solo Album, Cheap Trick and More: Exclusive Interview
It was back in the ‘70s when Cheap Trick drummer Bun E. Carlos first had the idea of cutting an album of his favorite songs with the help of his rock 'n' roll pals -- late AC/DC singer Bon Scott is one of the most prominent names he was hoping to work with. It didn’t happen at that time, but decades later, Carlos has marked the idea off his list with the recent release of Welcome to Bunezuela!, his debut solo album.
There’s a story attached to nearly every song that he ended up recording for the album. “Armenia City of the Sky,” which he cut with Wilco’s John Stiratt handling lead vocals, was one of the drummer's favorite Who songs.
“I was always a big Who fan when I was a kid," Carlos recalled during an interview with Ultimate Classic Rock. "And in fact, I helped get Keith Moon’s drums out of the cases in 1968 when they played Chicago when I was in high school. I drove to the gig, snuck in with a roadie and stuff like that. So I’ve always been a rock fan from way back. We were doing the song in [my] band Candy Golde. We were going to play backup on another track and I said, “Hey, do you guys want to do a couple of the cover tunes that we do?” They were game, so we tracked it in the studio. It’s a Speedy Keen song, probably the only Who song that they did for a few albums that they didn’t write, and it’s one that they never played live. I saw them on that tour in 1968 and they didn’t do the song. It was always kind of an oddball Who song, and it’s a cool song, so I suggested back in January, I said, ‘Let’s just track this.’”
Carlos began recording the album at the beginning of the year, and work on the project was completed quickly, just in time for the drummer to take his place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in April for his decades of service with Cheap Trick.
There’s a cool assortment of folks on this record, and it sounds like you had a good chance with some of this stuff to get in the same room with a lot of these guys and knock this stuff out. Is that the way it went for the stuff on this record, or did you have to do some of it virtually?
About eight or nine of the 13 songs, I had the singers in the room and there were about four of them that we sent out where the singers were out of town. The Hanson tune and the two Alex Dezen tunes and Dave Pirner’s song -- Dave came in at the last minute. Every time I’d get a song back and every time we were in the studio and a singer did a track, I’d be sitting there with a big grin on my face. Because the singers were the guys that I really hadn’t worked with a lot. I’d worked with the musicians that are in the two different bands that are on the record, but when the singers turned in their performance or sent a song back, I’d just be sitting there with a big grin on my face, because it was always better than I expected. I’d sit there thinking to myself, “I could have done a whole record with this guy.”
You’re the common thread tying all of this together, playing drums on each track, but I thought it was interesting how there does seem to be kind of a mixtape mentality in play here. No matter who the band is, there’s a cohesiveness to the overall sound. It flows really well. As a guy who’s made a lot of albums over the years, how much did you have to work at that?
When I put it together, I was like, “Yeah, I’ll kind of use the same band.” And then I ended up using two different bands. I used the Chicago guys on about eight tracks and then the Rockford guys on four or five tracks. I figured that they’d all have a certain similarity, because it would be the same drummer. A lot of the songs had the same rhythm section feel, and the coin toss was, What are the lead guys going to bring to it and what are the singers going to bring? It turned out to be a good blend. The stuff does all have a similar feel and it has a bit of the “drummer’s mixtape” thrown into the mix too to keep it interesting. Some songs I did with two guitars, bass and drums and some songs we did the full production line. We served the songs and did what the song called for. I’m glad it all fits together. Midway through the record, I was kind of pondering some producer questions like that, because it was kind of like, “Yeah, I guess I’m the producer here. I hope I’m doing this thing right.”
It’s a really cool listen. I think sometimes records like this can be a mixed bag. But you can tell that this was assembled with a love for the actual music and not because you were picking out certain songs because you needed to have a certain number of hit songs that people will know on the record. It doesn’t feel like that was really in play. It really does feel like something that was done because this is stuff that you love.
I had a list of about 60 songs, and for Robert Pollard, I said, “I want to do ‘Do Something Real.’” It was a song that Guided by Voices did when we toured together in the late ‘90s. I said, “I’ve got a Who song I want you to sing.” I said, “I’ll send you some stuff. I sent him like 15 songs, and he picked the Bee Gees tune off of there. That was fine by me. Whatever made him happy was good by me. It kind of went like that. I gave the singers some choices. The real surprise was, for the ones that I sent off, the one to the Hansons and the one to Dave Pirner, I cut the tracks and I sent them to them, and after I sent them, before I got them back, I was like, “Geez, I never asked these guys what key they wanted this stuff in.” I just did it in the key of the original versions. I was like, “I hope I get this stuff back and I hope it works!” That all came out great. I was probably the luckiest guy in the world that they all came back and the keys were the correct keys. There were producer things like that which I wasn’t thinking of when I was doing it. It was serendipity that it all worked out well.
Listen to Bun E. Carlos' 'Him or Me'
The Hanson guys seem like they could handle anything that you might throw at them. The version of “Him or Me” really comes off well.
They’re brothers, so they’ve been doing this stuff for 25 years or something like that. When I sent it to them, I sent it to Taylor to put a vocal on it, and I didn’t know that the brothers were going to sing on it. When I got it back, it was like, “Wow, this is the gift. This is really great.” They hit a home run on that. I was tickled pink to get it back from them like that. I’ve seen these guys live, and I knew they could handle the song. Working with Taylor in Tinted Windows, that was the coolest.
You’ve mentioned the two bands that are on this record. The Rockford-based guys, the Monday Night Band, they play on a few tracks on this album. Can you talk a bit about that project and how it came together?
When I quit touring with Cheap Trick in 2010, I’d been going to a local bar downtown to shoot bumper pool on Monday nights since the late ‘90s, and it was all musicians. We’d get together on Monday nights, drink beer and shoot stick from 7 until 10. When I quit touring with Cheap Trick, I said, “Look, I’ve got a bunch of gear set up at home. We could go practice and drink beer instead of playing pool.” We put a little band together and we played, like, once a month around town, basically at one little place. We’d pack ‘em in there and play Monday night from 7 until 9, the same hours we used to shoot pool. We’d do blues and country and stuff. I decided that, “Well, if I’ve got something in that vein, I’ll use the local guys. Otherwise, I’m going to take it into Chicago to a nice big studio and then use Nick and Rick and John.” Because these guys, they’re just killer players and I can spring something on them and they jump right in. So it kind of turned out that I had two different bands and two different guys mixing. My manager called me in February and he goes, “Well, who’s going to mix it?” I said, “I’m thinking of a couple of guys.” I said, “There’s no rule -- I don’t have to use one guy, do I?” I said, “If it all kind of works on the same project, you know, I’m using the same snare drum, I’m using the same cymbals.” There’s going to be sonic similarities to all of the tracks, so I really don’t see any problem. And he said, “Yeah, you know, these days, whoever mixes, does the mixing.” Back in the ‘70s when we were doing Cheap Trick records, it was, like, one guy mixes -- you can’t have two guys. We had all of these rules back then that really don’t apply anymore.
Xeno pops up doing vocals on two tracks on this record. Some folks will know that he was the original vocalist for Cheap Trick. Had you guys stayed in contact over the years?
Xeno was in the band for a year and a half. In fact, I was in a band with Xeno and Robin before Cheap Trick. I’m on a few Xeno records over the years, and he was in a band in the ‘80s called Bad Boy and they had some albums out on MCA, and they would open for Cheap Trick and things like that. They opened for Cheap Trick at Summerfest even into the 2000s.
Are there any overall touring plans?
Right now, we’re going to do a Chicago [area] show [July 9 at SPACE] with the Candy Golde guys. Xeno and Alex are coming in, and the budget kind of precludes flying the Hansons in. And Guided by Voices, we asked Robert if he wanted to be involved and he’s working. If the album sells and a track takes off, and then we get requests for gigs, any way that I can get these guys into another town, I’d be glad to do it. Playing these songs for me is just a gas. Gigs would be a lot of fun.
I think one of the things that folks really enjoyed on a national scale about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductions was the chance to get to see you play again. That’s something that a lot of folks haven’t had a chance to see in a long time, so that’s cool to know that there’s going to be at least one gig that’s going to be recorded in relation to this current record and maybe there can be more of that.
That would be swell by me. I’d love to take this out and get it in front of people.
How was the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction experience for you? As fans, we saw something that I don’t know that we thought we were going to see, which was the four members back onstage together, playing together. Standing together at the podium. And so I wondered, behind the scenes, how the experience was for you.
[Laughs] Well, you know, when we’re in the same room together, we all get along pretty good. It’s all pretty cordial. We worked together for 40 years. But with Cheap Trick -- and it was the same when Tom was gone in the ‘80s -- if one guy’s not in the room, he’s the guy that gets nailed. That certainly hasn’t changed. YWe shared a dressing room together -- me and Rick and Tom and all of that, and they were like, “Hey, how are you doing?” and “Check this out.” It was like we hadn’t seen each other in a day or two. And then you know, when they’re on Howard Stern or something like that, people are calling me up, “Did you hear what those guys called you?” [Laughs] I’m like, “Well, you know, that’s kind of how it goes with Cheap Trick.” If you’re the guy not in the room, you’re the guy getting nailed. There’s not a lot I could do about it. I can dish it as good as I get it, but I’d really rather not.
Did you guys rehearse or all or did you just go out and play?
Nah, we just soundchecked. We were soundchecking that afternoon, and before “Surrender,” I said, “Hey Rick, is the ending any different on this thing tonight?” He comes up and in his little schoolteacher voice, he goes, “Well, you know, Bun E., you’ve only been gone six years. Nothing ever changes. We haven’t changed anything.” We did it a couple of times at soundcheck and we did it at the gig that night, and the ending was different every time. I was kind of laughing, I was like, “Yeah, this is just like Cheap Trick. It’s always an adventure.” We get onstage and play together, and I play better in Cheap Trick probably than I do in any band. It’s a joy to play in Cheap Trick. We sound good together and we complement each other. The actual performance part was a lot of fun. That’s always fun, it’s like putting on a favorite pair of shoes or something.
You talked about Hanson and those guys being brothers, and certainly with Cheap Trick for a long time there was a brotherhood there. That was kind of what was interesting to see with the Hall of Fame performance. It’s interesting and cool to see how easily a band like you guys that have so much history together, how quickly you’re able to fall back in and just do what you guys do.
The whole Hall of Fame thing, we got a little acrimonious in the press when it got announced and there was some bickering back and forth. This wasn’t Cheap Trick’s night, it was a night for everybody who has been a fan and a supporter of Cheap Trick for all of these years. We really owe it to our fans to get up there and do a good show and put the stuff aside for at least a day and get on with things. You know, accept the award and thank our fans and supporters for it. All of the fans came up to me in the previous four or five months and they were the happiest people in the world, “You know, you guys got in. Finally!” Sometimes I’d be standing there going, “Is it that big of a deal?” But you know, for them, it really is. When this thing got announced, I was like, “Oh, this will be interesting.” And it really was. My whole life changed. Suddenly, it was the famous Bun E. Carlos again, walking down the street. [People going] “Hey Bun E!” So it was fun to get up onstage and do it one more time and that kind of thing. One last shot, playing a few tunes, that was a gas.
Listen to Cheap Trick and AC/DC Perform 'Johnny B. Goode'
On the first volume of Bun E’s Bootlegs, there’s a version of “Johnny B Goode” featuring you guys, and Bon Scott and Malcolm and Angus Young from AC/DC. What are your memories of jamming with those guys?
That was in like Omaha or Sioux Falls or something. They were doing another gig that night and they showed up at our gig. They got in early on a day off, and the night before at the same venue, Kansas had been playing and me and Rick showed up and hopped up onstage with those guys for the encore. We didn’t even tell them that we were coming. We just walked out and started jamming with them. It was a lot of fun. We toured with AC/DC on and off for a couple of years and we spent time overseas and stuff, so it was like, “AC/DC is here and they want to play on the encore.” They got up and did “Day Tripper” and “Auf Wiedersehen” and a couple of other tunes with us too. It was a lot of fun. Bon, that guy was a ... it was a short-lived life and he was in full party mode. I remember that by the end of that gig, Robin ended up on a tour manager’s shoulders and Bon ended up on someone else’s shoulders and the crowd was just going nuts. It was pretty cool. I wish there was video footage. But it was always fun hanging out with those guys. If we were at an airport together, we’d start flipping coins for money and stuff like that. If it was a day off, we’d end up in the hotel bar shooting the breeze and talking about touring and stuff. Jamming with those guys was just a gas.
That seems like a good candidate for potential favorite touring mates. Can you think of one that tops that?
Well, touring with Kiss was a lot of fun. We were the new guys and they would tell us about the business every night or tell us what they thought we were doing wrong. They were always ready to share a story with us. And there were a lot of bands like that. But the AC/DC guys, there was a common bond. We were coming up in the same group of bands, we both had a band with a wild guitar player and a cool singer and a solid rhythm section, so we did have a lot in common. We both had a few albums out and neither one of us had a massive hit at that time.
One of our writers wondered if your ‘60s band The Pagans ever recorded anything besides the single that was put out.
We did a couple other songs. In 1967, we did a Blues Project song called “Steve’s Song.” That’s laying around somewhere. A couple of years ago, we got together back for our 45th high school reunion and we went in and recut our original single again, although we never finished the vocals on it or anything. It’s just kind of sitting around. We still get together and practice every once in a while. We’re kind of figuring out what we want to do, if we want to practice enough to do some more gigs. There’s a song on [the new album], “I Can Only Give You Everything,” was the Pagans B-Side in 1967. We kind of did a 49-year full circle here.
That’s what must be pretty cool about this record, there’s a lot of chances for you to revisit memories, whether it’s stuff you liked or stuff that you had a personal connection to like that.
Yeah, about half the songs on the album, every time I’d hear them, I’d go, “You know, someday I’ve got to cut a version of this.” The other half of it were the songs that I loved that it turned out the players and the singers were good for the song. It turned out real well for me. It’s like my ultimate mixtape for people.
Rick Nielsen’s guitar collection is legendary. Do you have a similar collection of drums?
Yes, I do. I have about 45 drums sets and 200 snare drums. I started collecting about 30 years ago. Last year, I figured I’ve probably got 10 or 20 good years, if I’m a lucky man, to get rid of all of this stuff. So I’ve actually started selling drum sets this year. I’ve probably sold four kits. But I put together a nice world-class Ludwig drum collection from the 1920s all of the way up to date. It’s like one of everything in every finish, about 70 different colors and all of that. The company comes by and looks at them, other drummers come by, and now I’m preparing myself to divest them. I’m going to only end up with about 10 kits, I’m thinking, if it all goes well. I’m passing these vintage kits and these nice looking old kits onto other collectors that really want them.
We lost George Martin this year. What are your memories of working with George on the All Shook Up record?
George was a true gentleman, so there wasn’t too much rock 'n' roll goofiness going on when we worked with him. He showed up for pre-production and, unlike other producers, he was writing down all of the keys and he wanted to know all of the chords. He wrote some string parts for the record. He was really musically involved. He wasn’t afraid to go, “Well, you know you’ve got this chord here, have you ever thought of … ” He would have suggestions and things like that. His production suggestions were something we hadn’t worked with. We had only worked with American producers, so getting sounds with him was just a trip, with him and Geoff [Emerick]. I’d like my snare drum to sound a little fatter. Geoff would move the mic about two inches and come back in and the thing would sound completely different and we were just like “Oh, boy.” I remember we were doing “Stop This Game” and Tom went, “Well, how did Paul get that bass sound on ‘Rain’? That’s kind of what I am looking for.” Geoff went, “Well, Paul had a Rickenbacker, a 4x12 amp and we used these kinds of mics.” So we got all of our Beatles questions answered and stuff like that. We were just honored to be in the studio with these two guys. It was really a bucket list kind of moment going in the studio with George and Geoff.
I talked to one of the guys from Little River Band who told me that when they were working with him, he was pretty disciplined and when there was the dinner break, that one hour break or whatever, was the zone where you could hit him with the Beatles questions.
[Laughs] We’d ask George the occasional questions, but Geoff was the guy who often had the scoop. The first day we were in Montserrat, I was riding to the studio with Geoff Emerick, and I said, “Geoff, I’ve got some tapes I want to play you.” I played him some of the Decca audition tapes by the Beatles and then I played him some "Hey Jude" rehearsals. He got real wide-eyed and he was like, “This stuff has got to be fake. Where did you get this stuff?” I said, “Geoff, I’ve probably got a hundred albums of this stuff at home. I collect this stuff. They’re called bootleg records and they’re floating around the collector’s market.” He goes, “Really! Can I borrow these?” The next day, he came back and he goes, “Can I make copies of these for me and George? This is really fascinating.” I was like, “Yeah, sure!” He hadn’t heard the stuff since the ‘60s, and he hadn’t heard the Decca audition stuff since like 1962 or 1963 whenever he started working there. So it was kind of a surprise to him that people were really digging deep into the Beatles stuff at that point of time in 1980. We definitely got a good laugh out of that and then he kind of knew after that that he was dealing with some Beatles fans there.
I think you know those guys, when they were in the midst of it, they were probably so busy working that they didn’t necessarily comprehend everything they did. So it was probably pretty astounding for them to hear that stuff and realize how much they had done.
They didn’t realize it and a lot of people probably didn’t bring it up with them. When we were doing Sgt. Pepper with Geoff in 2006, we were doing “Blackbird” as one of the songs in the show, and the guitar player who was doing it said to me, “Can you play a little beat along? I put a towel on your floor tom, kind of thump along with the second half of the song.” I went to Geoff and I said, “Hey Geoff, what is that on the record?” He was like, “Geez, I don’t know.” The next morning, he came back in and he goes, “I remembered. I haven’t thought of this in 40 years. We miked Paul’s foot. He was tapping his foot, so we put a mic on it.” He goes, this is great, you know, that’s something I hadn’t even remembered until you brought that up.” It was kind of cool.
You were always known as the historian in Cheap Trick. Do you have any plans to write a book?
I thought about writing a book. I read all of the rock bios that come out, and people always want the dirt when you write a book. I don’t want to write a book with dirt in it, so there’s probably not going to be a book. I’ve got to live in this town I live in. It’s the same reason we never did Behind the Music with VH-1. It was kind of like, you’ve got to go on there and tell them how stupid you were and then you go home and there’s going to be people walking up to you at the grocery store going, “I saw the MTV, I can’t believe how dumb you guys were.” So I don’t want to write stuff in a book and have to see my relatives and friends and go, “Yeah, well you know, that bonehead thing I did in 1984, now you can read about it forever.” I’m not seeing a tell-all book anytime in the future. Maybe if someone wants to hear all of the happy stuff, yeah, but those don’t make for big selling books.
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