Those who have followed LRI for any length of time know of our love and appreciation for our hometown boys and power pop legends, Cheap Trick. We’ve interviewed Rick Nielsen’s daughter as well as featured his son Miles multiple times but have never actually nailed down an interview with one of the band members. Until now. Bun E Carlos is not only a musician’s musician but a treasure trove of pop culture and rock and roll information. It’s a touchy subject as to why he no longer tours with Cheap Trick but he remains on board as an official member regardless and is absolutely an essential part of the band’s dynamic and history. Bun E. is a great drummer, a great guy and we thank him for giving us a crash course on one of our favorite bands’ history. Read on……
Legendary Rock Interviews: How did you first become interested in music?
Bun E: I grew up in a musical family and I had an older brother and sister that would play music all the time. I would hear Elvis and stuff like that but it wasn’t until 1963-64 that I actually remember noticing the songs being played (“Return to sender”, “The Twist”, Sugar Shack, etc.) I plunked around and taught myself how to play the piano but when the Beatles came out it was time for drums.
LRI: Were your parents supportive of your decision to be a skin basher?
Bun E: Yeah, in 1964 I was going to buy my Cousins snare drum but he jacked the price up on my Mom so she went to Nielsen’s to get me one for my birthday. Mark Hood the salesman there ended up selling her a whole set of Sonor drums so….that was good for me (laughs). So yes, my Mom was supportive for sure.
LRI: Do you still have that drum kit?
Bun E: Yep! They have a bunch of holes in em’ now from my brother and I trying different hardware, mounts and stuff. I almost lost them a couple times throughout the years. My little brother had them for a while and then my sister had them for her boys to learn on etc, etc.. I actually saved them once from disappearing for good! I was sitting there at my sister’s house and her 5 and 6 year old boys came by us on the way downstairs with an ax! (laughs) I asked them what they were doing and they said they wanted to see what would happen if they chopped the drums up! I told them that that probably wasn’t a good idea! I just had a dealer out east rehab them for me and fix them up. I’ll be posting photos on my website someday.
LRI: So the obvious next step was to start a band right?
Bun E: Well, in 1964 when the Beatles came out everybody you knew wanted to get a band together. So you would get together with some friends or guys your own age, get some gear and then take a year or so and learn how to play. After about 2 or 3 years of that some of them would quit or bands would break up and suddenly you end up with a bunch of different new guys playing together (laughs). So in 1966-1968 it was The Pagans. In 1969 it was Probe and the Lost Souls. The Lost Souls eventually ended up being called Albatross. Then it was Sick Man of Europe with Rick and Tom after we relocated to Philly. In the spring of 1973 we ended up back in Rockford enlisting Stu Erickson on bass and Randy “Xeno” Hogan on vox… although his name wasn’t Xeno yet. (smiles)
LRI: Don’t leave us hanging! Tell us how the nick name Xeno come about!
Bun E: We knew this band in Philly called “GOOD GOD” that had an album on Atlantic records and their guitar player’s stage name was Zeno Sparkles! True story, you can look this band up! (laughs) So we just kind of stole that name and made it Xeno.
So anyway Cheap Trick starts in June of 1973 but we didn’t have the name yet. Club owners weren’t fond of Sick Man of Europe, they just didn’t get it so we called ourselves the Reapers for a bit. Rick Szeluga joined on bass and we started playing the clubs again. About a month later we came up with the name Cheap Trick in the garage where we rehearsed.
LRI: Wait, you mean it didn’t come from the oft-repeated story of Rick seeing a SLADE concert and saying “they used every “cheap trick” in the book”?
Bun E: Here’s how it happened, we were sitting around in the garage where we rehearsed at one day and we agreed that we needed a name… well, what should we call ourselves? We didn’t want to be like YES and all the bands with big capes and lasers and all that crap so we came up with the word “Cheap”…cheap this, cheap that…. and I think Rick said Cheap Trick and everyone said yeah that sounds good so we just went with it. Of course the next 2-3 years all we heard from record companies was “you guys gotta change your name, that’s the worst name in the world! We even heard stuff like “you guys look like a comedy act, you got two guys with long hair and two with short hair, etc”.
So meanwhile were playing all over for like 100.00 a night and doing the “if you don’t like us you don’t have to pay us” thing and getting some repeat bookings and stuff but by the fall of 73 Szeluga started to get a little goofy and I really don’t want to get into that, (it was nothing illegal or anything.. laughs) but he was just getting a little goofy. One day he and Rick weren’t getting along so he just basically left. So Szeluga ends up leaving and we get Tom Petersson in the band by the end of 73. It’s funny because I also wanted Robin in the band early on but he told us that he was signed to a contract at some bar in the Wisconsin Dells for 5 summers! The lieutenant Governor of the state of Wisconsin owns it so he can’t get out of the contract! (laughs)
So here we are in the summer of 74 and the band is Rick, Tom, myself and Xeno. Well it turns out Tom can’t stand Xeno! Just didn’t like him at all! So we decided well, I guess we have to get another singer. Okay, so here we are plugging alone getting booked for week long gigs in Minnesota which was cool because we didn’t have to move our gear etc. One night in Minneapolis the drummer for this band called “The Litter” shows up and starts saying “Hey it looks like you really don’t get along with your singer up there on stage” and then he walks away! Rick and I look at each other and go grab the guy and ask him if he’s looking for a singer! He says yeah were looking for a singer for our group, we play all the ball rooms up here and can give him 150.00 a week etc. So we said yeah, we’ll talk with him tonight. So Xeno ends up joining that band which was a good deal at the time for him! We got back home and called Robin again and it was a good thing because he was just on his way to Colorado to join a country band.
By the spring of 1975 it sort of all came together, as we started writing tunes and it just kind of turned into the Cheap Trick you know now. About a year later we went out to L.A. to look for a deal, went out and played the Starwood for no money and some people from record companies came out to see us. By the summer of 76 we signed some papers and got a deal. That’s the short version of the band story (laughs).
LRI: You must have gone to a HUGE high school here in Rockford IL. Because it seems like every time the name Cheap Trick is brought up in conversation around here (Rockford) someone chimes in “I went to school with those guys”!
Bun E: I guess when you’re playing music in high school you meet a lot of people not only from school but other places as well. I was in the Pagans then and knew just about everyone because I really wasn’t just hanging out with this clique or that clique, you know? I was even on the football team my sophomore year at Guilford High School in 1966! That was pure hell! I told my Dad that I had to quit the team because I didn’t want to go sit on the bench.. I wanted to go play music and get paid. A lot of people don’t know this but In 1967 The Pagans had a single out in Rockford and we were no.1 on the radio here for a couple weeks. We would have boxes of records made up and take them down to COMAY’S Record store or Union Hall. They would buy them for .60 or whatever and sell them for .97… We sold about 1500 singles and would get played on WCFL and WROK. When I was in high school I was living music! When I got up every day I wasn’t worried about school, it was like “is there a new album out”? Am I going to see a band tonight”?
LRI: Speaking of seeing bands, we just found some cool photos of The Yardbirds playing a gig here in the Rockford area! Rumor has it there was a 15 year old Bun E. Carlos in attendance.
Bun E: Yeah, it was the Rock River Roller Palace just south of Byron, Il in December of 65. That afternoon they had played a gig in Chicago with the Lovin’ Spoonful and then they got in their station wagon or whatever and drove out into the middle of nowhere to Byron and did that gig! “Mickey They and the Them” from Madison opened up, they all had wigs and looked real goofy but they played and then the Yardbirds came up. Back in those days the headliners would use the opening acts gear! That’s how they were doing their tour using “pick-up” gear. I actually snuck into the dressing room and told them I was a student correspondent from Hit Parader! I got to talk to them and got their autographs and stuff. It was the coolest thing in the world seeing Jeff Beck and having him explain “feedback” to me! Jeff was playing his Fender “Esquire” guitar and for the last song they played “I’m a man”. He took his guitar and got a note going and then set it on top of his amp and rocked it back and forth until the feedback was just humming! Then he stood back and lit a cigarette! (Laughs)
LRI: I understand you have a pretty impressive vintage drum collection.
Bun E: Yeah I collect Ludwig drums, I used to collect all sorts but that’s too many so I honed it down to just Ludwig. I figured that I would just get one of each finish but as it turns out there’s a lot of finishes from 1930 on I found out (laughs) So that kind of got out of hand… But yeah, I have a big collection of Ludwig drums. I started with my first kit and then I started playing Ludwig and got a few more kits… One day a guy went to sell me some cymbals and I said okay, I’ll take them if you throw in that old beat up drum set that they came with. I had a couple dealers educate me and tell me “this is rare”, “this is a piece of junk”, etc. So that’s basically how it started.
LRI: What are you listening to these days??
Bun E: Ah, let’s see….The new Chris Robinson band’s stuff is really good. I just saw them in Madison and they did a 3 hour show and were excellent! I also just got the Dr. Feelgood box set that is full of good stuff… Umm, The Beatles 9 CD bootleg from the BBC that has 250 songs or something like that,….The new Neil Young “Americana” is cool.
LRI: Americana? Isn’t Neil from Canada?
Bun E: Yeah, well he preaches to us….. I’ve also been listening to Wilco, The Gourds from Texas…… Soundgarden are all great! I saw Fountains of Wayne when they came through Madison which was excellent.
LRI: Which leads me to my next question. What’s the story with the band Tinted Windows? Is that project still active?
Bun E: Yeah, Adam from of Fountains of Wayne, Taylor Hanson of Hanson, umm… James Iha of The Pumpkins. Yeah that’s still together actually and we got offered some dates for this Fall but they conflicted with Fountains of Wayne dates. That band is still a functioning business; we still have an accountant and a bank account. I just saw a James Iha interview in the Illinois Entertainer where he was saying that (we) Tinted Windows were thinking about doing a second album and I’m thinking to myself, “Oh, that’s news to me” (laughs)!
I also have a more recent project going on with John Stirratt of Wilco and Rick Rizzo from Eleventh Dream Day that’s called Candy Golde. We did an EP about a year and a half ago and one of the songs was the Little Steven song of the week on Underground Garage. I like the little side projects because their kind of like hit and run things. You get a taste of it and before you want to kill each other you get to go away… that kind of stuff. (laughs)
LRI: What were you thinking around the time the Budokan album came out?
Bun E: Well…. Budokan came out in Japan the summer of 1978 when Heaven Tonight was our current album in America. We went into the studio and recorded Dream Police and after Christmas break we were going over to Europe and then Japan for a second tour. So, the first 50,000 records of Budokan that were made for Japan were EQ-ed wrong so we said we will not allow you to sell them in Japan. So they ended up shipping them all to America! (laughs) Then the record company told us that the live album has become a record breaking Japanese import! It was $28.00 to buy it in a store in America when albums at the time were selling for $6.00. We were also only getting half of the foreign royalty rates, so we were getting burned there financially.
We take off for the tour and the record company contacts us and says “we are going to put out this album sampler with 7 songs and send it to radio etc. People are buying the import all over the place! So you guys go to Europe and Japan and this thing will sell a couple hundred thousand and then when you get back Dream Police will come out and you guys are going to be famous! Get ready for this one!” We were like “yeah whatever” because we were about a million bucks in the hole and we almost didn’t even get to Europe, we didn’t have enough money to send our gear over so we were borrowing money from people and stuff.
So we came back from the tour and played a couple shows and Rolling Stone called and said “we want you on the cover”! So the record company delays Dream Police for about a year while the Budokan craze is going on so suddenly we find ourselves a year ahead musically! We ended up going out on the road for two years doing anything and everything and it ended up burning Tom out. Everything sort of got all weird and goofy by the end of 1980.
LRI: So Tom takes off?
Bun E: Well, he got taken off. He dropped out of a tour the week before we were due to go on a coast to coast Canadian run and two days off then to Japan to do two shows at a baseball stadium and one at a ski slope… he says “I can’t make the gig, my doctor say’s I have to go home and rest”. We wanted to kill him! (laughs) So we got a sub and went and did the tour. Right in the middle Rick and I did the John Lennon thing and all that stuff. We came back and did some more dates and had some meetings where we all screamed at each other and that’s when we found ourselves down to a 3 piece and a hired gun for the next 7 years.
LRI: Let’s talk about when you Rick went over and worked with John Lennon on the Double Fantasy sessions.
Bun E: Yep, it was August of 1980. I got a call from management telling me to contact Jack Douglas. So I call Jack and he says don’t tell anybody but John Lennon is working on an album and they have a song that they want you to drum on! He said got this drummer (Andy Newmark Pink Floyd, etc.) right now that just isn’t getting the feel for it. So again Jack says just don’t tell anybody and I’ll talk to you soon. So of course the first thing I do is hang up the phone and say “GUESS WHAT”! (Laughs) About 3-4 weeks later I get a call telling me to bring the guitar player too. We go in and (bass player) Tony Levin introduces us to John and he says “You’re the guys from Cheap Trick, they told me your names but didn’t tell me what band you were in”. So that was kind of neat that he actually knew of Cheap Trick. We ended up going in there and banging out some stuff. I had John sign the sheet music for the session which was probably a good Idea because a few months later he was shot down in New York.
LRI: You have worked with a lot of celebrated producers, Jack Douglas, George Martin and Ted Templeton just to name a few.
Bun E: That was one of the neat things about being in Cheap Trick and having a couple successful records because you got to pick your producer.
LRI: What was Todd Rudgren like to work with on the Next position please album?
Bun E: Well, Rick had met Todd in 1969 at the Marque Club at a Yes concert and ran into Todd. So we knew him from before…. We recorded “Next Position Please” at his house in Woodstock. He had a little A-frame studio down the hill from his house right next to Crippled Creek. Todd was great to work with and really stood up for us especially when the record company came over and said that they didn’t hear a single… He told them to piss off. I’d work with him again in a skinny minute!
LRI: What was up with that giant Eye Ball stage prop from “High Priest of Rhythmic Noise” that was used on the “All Shook Up” tour? Apparently, it’s for sale on Ebay?
Bun E: It was in our storage place for years and when we moved someone set it out by the dumpster. I guess someone picked it up and is selling it on Ebay. It was a piece of plywood and a light.. it didn’t even have a laser in it! Lasers were being banned at the time and people were being sued so… Yeah, we used it on the All shook up tour. There’s a song on the second side of the album where George Martin does a speech and for the live gigs I was nominated to stand up in the middle of “Love comes tumbling down” and read this thing that George put together and the eye would open up and go eeeeeeeeeeh! Lights and Spinal Tap crap! It was the early 80’s where you had to have a show.
LRI: Cheap Trick shared a bill with some notorious party bands throughout the years, UFO being one of them. Neil Carter (UFO keyboards/Guitar) told me that he had a blast with you guys!
Bun E: We did a coast to coast tour with UFO in 1981. It was the party dog tour where everyone was getting way too wasted. Cheap Trick always had a good tour rule where it was party after the gig… don’t party before the gig, don’t get high before the gig, etc. Do your job. With UFO, those guys could party anyone under the table and we probably gave them a good run for their money every night after the show but those were some long bus rides…. (pauses) Too many sunrises were seen but UFO was fun.
LRI: You also did a tour with RUSH early on, what was that like?
Bun E: You know, we didn’t actually do a tour with RUSH, we did a half dozen dates with them in about a period of a year. The first one was in Rockford down at the Armory at the end of 1976 and they gave us about 5 feet of stage (laughs) and uhh… no sound check and they wouldn’t speak to us of course. Back then they were just a guitar, bass and a double kick set of drums. They didn’t have a lot of gear to start but it seemed like each date we played they added stuff! One day Alex would add an acoustic guitar.. the next date they would have 2 acoustic guitars on stands… the next they would have some synth stuff and Neil would add bells or chimes and extra stands! So we didn’t have much room! (Laughs) So after about the fourth show they had begun to warm up to us a bit I suppose. One day before a show one of their roadies came down to our dressing room with a hand full of joints and said Geddy sent these and wants you guys to come up and say hello! They ended up being the nicest guys in the world after they realized that we weren’t competing with them or anything.
LRI: The million dollar question….. You’re not touring with Cheap Trick anymore. Are you just taking a well-deserved break after selling 25 million albums or is this a permanent thing?
Bun E: Yeah, I don’t tour with Cheap Trick anymore…. At this time I’m still a member of the band and I have a say in how the business is run. Let’s just say that Todd… There you go.
LRI: Fair enough. Let’s talk about our hometown a second. What’s your favorite place to sit back, relax and have a beer here in Rockford?
Bun E: Finnegan’s Cottage for a brewsky or twosky…. North Main Tap for bumper pool. Umm… as far as restaurants, The Grove in Popular Grove for a burger. Maria’s, Singapore Grill. Beef-a-Roo… I get my pizza at Capri.
LRI: Everyone has theories of what can be done to revitalize the area….What does Rockford need more of?
Bun E: People to stick around and fix up the place… A downtown that’s amped up a bit. (thinking)… Colonial Village Mall kind of put the knife into the downtown area in the late 60’s. Little stores and businesses fell by the wayside as a result. All the old Swede’s that ran Rockford said “Let’s put the highway 10 miles away, we don’t need a state College, we don’t need an interstate going near our downtown area.” I suppose it’s not just Rockford because allot of other cities downtown areas look like ghost towns as well.
LRI: I’m gonna throw a few old names and places at you…..Waverly Beach in Beloit Wis. (night club 1970′s)
Bun E: REO, Joe Walsh and Ted Nugent…… Fun times.
LRI: Great Illinois Purchase (night club 1970′s):
Bun E: Saw the Ramones there when I was home from a tour break. It changed hands a bunch of times from The Stardust, to the Purchase to The Place, etc.. We also played there.
LRI: The legendary Bon Scott:
Bun E: In 1977-78 we did a bunch of co-headlining dates with AC/DC all over the place. A great singer but a total alcoholic…. By 1979 he was walking around with a bottle in each hand, before that he was just a guy that drank too much… Very sad but that’s just the way he did it.
LRI: Jon Brant (former Cheap Trick bass player):
Bun E: Jon’s still here in Rockford….. He actually lives about two miles from me. Jon has a company that does bedding for horses! He sat in with my Monday night band about two months ago and doesn’t play a lot of bass anymore because he’s too busy with the business.
LRI: Rick has a museum exhibit here in town comprised of many of his guitars and all kinds of old Cheap Trick memorabilia called “Rick’s Picks”. Have you been there?
Bun E: I went down there…… $18.00! My name wasn’t on the guest list.
Thanks to Bun E for talking to us and Todd, Doug and Phil at the Rockford Rocked page for many of these images….check them out here at their official Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/rockfordrocked
check out Bun E. Carlos’ official website http://www.bunecarlos.com
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