By Jeb Wright
Bun E. Carlos (née Brad Carlson) is best known as the drummer for the rock band Cheap Trick. Larger than life, both on stage and off, he was one of the uncool members of Cheap Trick, going for attitude over rock star swagger in his persona. There was never any spandex, tight leather pants, long hair or sexy stage moves from this guy. Nope, it was all about Salvation Army suits, cigarettes, mopeds and the drums with Bun E.
After spending most of his life as the drummer of Cheap Trick, Bun E. Carlos is now a man without a national band. The change came suddenly. One day he was in the band, and the next he was told his services were no longer needed—they even asked if they could borrow his drums for the new guy, who happened to be the son of Cheap Trick guitarist Rick Neilsen. Maybe Mr. Carlos should talk to former Van Halen bassist Michael Anthony and start a band with musicians replaced by sons of former band members!
What followed his ousting was predictable… lawsuits. The end has come to the legal battles between former lifelong friends. The results are not what the Cheap Trick faithful, or perhaps even Carlos hoped for, but they are palatable. Bun E. Carlos remains a part of the organization of Cheap Trick but not a performing member of the band.
In the interview that follows, Bun E. shows he is handling the situation with class. He’s not going to air his dirty laundry in public, but one can’t help feel there is a lot of emotion underneath his cool exterior. Life, however, goes on and Bun, for one, seems to be in a good place to enjoy it. He is still playing music, just not with Cheap Trick.
Bun speaks about his side of the issues yet, when push comes to shove, he would rather discuss the music, which is what he is most proud of. Read on to learn more about the man who bashed out that cool-ass opening to the classic song “Ain’t That a Shame” helping Cheap Trick conquer the world with their iconic live album Live at Budakan.
He may not be behind the kit with CT anymore, but the band, their music and his part in their success is something he still cherishes.
Jeb: Tell me what you’ve been up to… of course, I am talking about the lawsuit.
Bun: As far as the last few years have gone, I have dismissed my lawsuit against the band. I remain a twenty-five percent owner and a member of Cheap Trick. The decisions Cheap Trick makes I am a part of. That’s basically how that kind of ended up.
Jeb: How did all of this even happen?
Bun: It is kind of a musical uncoupling type of thing. It’s something like that, you know. In 2010, I got notified and was told, basically, to not show up for the next gig. One guy doesn’t want me there and the other guys were fine with that. They asked if they could use my drums. I said, “Yeah, go ahead and then send them back to me, please.” That is basically what happened. The lawsuits were about business, you know. There are ways to run a business and they weren’t being run correctly in my opinion. I had to go to court to enforce my rights. There you go…
Jeb: Did you do something to piss them off?
Bun: I must have pissed somebody off [laughter]. After forty years everybody is not always on the same page and stuff like that. So there you go.
Jeb: It is just the rock and roll story that has happened before, but this time it happened to you.
Bun: Looking back on it… people ask me what happened, you know what happens with bands. Usually it is a woman or something. It is usually sex, drugs or money. When the lawsuits got filed it ended up to be money.
Jeb: At least you’re still a part of Cheap Trick, at least in the business sense.
Bun: I maintain my shares and stuff.
Jeb: Maybe time will heal things, but if I were in your shoes I could see where you don’t want it healed… At least it can be peaceful.
Bun: It is settled.
Jeb: Now the question is,”what do you do now?” You’ve had the same job for a few years!
Bun: These days I mess around locally with a couple of bands. We play around town and that is something to do. I practice every day and that kind of stuff to maintain my musicianship. I’m still involved in the business of Cheap Trick, so I keep my eye on that kind of stuff.
Jeb: Do you enjoy the business aspects?
Bun: All four of us in the band are artists, so someone had to keep an eye on the business end and a lot of that fell into my lap over the years. When the manager calls and says, “One of the other guys in the band called and wants to get this $40,000 laser light and this $19,000 backdrop. This is going to come out of your pocket.” I would go, “Are you guys all ready to drop that money to buy these toys?” It was that kind of shit. There are about three albums in a row where I kind of picked producers and studios because the other guys were busy doing what they do.
Jeb: That’s important. You’ve worked with some famous producers.
Bun: It was a division of labor, but everyone had approval of everything. The good thing about a band is that four guys have to agree about everything. One guy can scope something out and then come to the other guys and tell us they want to try this and we would discuss it and decide. That is how a band is supposed to work.
Jeb: It worked for forty years.
Bun: I am sure it still works that way with those guys, but I don’t know because I am not out there with them. I get calls from their accountant and stuff like that… I guess it is our accountant. “We need your approval on this.” That still continues.
Jeb: I appreciated Cheap Trick musically because you have been proficient from the start to now. Some albums were better than others, but the last couple of albums that came out a few years ago remain high quality.
Bun: The good thing about being together that many years is that the guys in Cheap Trick can sit down with a song and give it an identity. The guys in Cheap Trick are all great musicians and we make great music together. I’ve never been in a band that is as good as Cheap Trick. It is pleasure to get on stage with those guys and make music. It is really good music.
Jeb: Has this whole thing soured the legacy of Cheap Trick in your mind?
Bun: Looking back on it, the way I was treated by their people was really an insult. The music speaks for itself. You either like it or you don’t, or you’re somewhere in-between. That doesn’t change whether I’m in the band or not. The legacy doesn’t change because of that. I get asked around town if I still talk to these guys and if I am still good friends with them. I just go, “Well, you know, good friends don’t have to sue their friends in Federal Court.” As far as being good friends, well… there you go.
Jeb: It is kind of like a divorce.
Bun: There are certain aspects that are like that.
Jeb: Let’s move into the stuff that matters…. the music. One underrated album in my opinion was All Shook Up, which was produced by Sir George Martin.
Bun: That’s a great record. I wish Tom [Petersson] would have stuck around for the whole record. He left at the end of the record and he had other things going on in his life at the time. Rick [Nielsen] ended up playing bass on a few songs. We had to juggle a couple of songs around, as there were one or two that Tom was going to sing that, all of the sudden, he wanted to put them on his solo album and crap like that.
When I hear that one, the only regret I have is that I think side two could be even better than it is. Boy, it is so good to have worked with George and Geoff [Emerick]. That album sounds great… it is a fabulous sounding record. Rick wrote a great batch of tunes.
Jeb: Don’t forget your signature track “Just Got Back.” That one is all about Bun.
Bun: [laughter] We did that song and the first track was me and a snare drum and a bass drum. We then got some stuff out and played on it. It was a gas doing that kind of stuff with George. I was in the studio doing that and I was thinking “This is what Ringo was doing at the end of ‘Strawberry Fields’” and that was really neat.
Jeb: You worked with Tom Werman and Jack Douglas… but this was George Martin.
Bun: It was a gas. The funniest thing about it was that CBS was like, “Are you crazy? Why would you want to work with that guy?” We thought CBS was crazy. That was a tumultuous time with our record company because we used George and Geoff. Our record companies never made a lot of sense to us. We would go and tell them what we wanted to do and they would go, “Are you guys fucking nuts?” That is the story of us and CBS.
Jeb: How did the record company treat you? It took a long time for CT to get big.
Bun: The record company was behind us from the get go. We signed this massive deal with Epic. They didn’t offer bands what they offered us in those days. We had like a ten or twelve album deal. They saw us as being a big part of their company for the next decade. It was a great deal. They were behind us and the first album we picked Jack Douglas to be the producer.
We flew him out to see us play and we paid for his plane ticket and we had him picked up in a Limo and the record company thought that was a great idea, but the album didn’t get on the radio. They thought it was too hard rock for radio and they thought the vocals were down too far in the mix. They told us they had a great producer that got Ted Nugent on the radio and they thought he would do great with us. The record company suggested Tom Werman and we did In Color and we got the lead review in Rolling Stone.
Gene Simmons called up and said we could come on out with Kiss. He said, “We can help you out as you’re booking agent sucks. We can get you with our booking agent.” Gene really chipped in on that and Rolling Stone gave us that review.
Jeb: I think the record company thought the studio version of “I Want You to Want Me” was going to be a hit. But then Tom Werman put that honky tonk piano on it…
Bun: Tom Werman’s version of “I Want You to Want Me” was what he wanted to do and we went down kicking and screaming and the song didn’t happen. Then came Heaven Tonight and the song “Surrender.” The record company said, “This is going to be number one.” Then it wasn’t number one and they were like freaking out. All of this time they were still with us and they were behind us.
Jeb: Then came Budokan….
Bun: We had Dream Police in the can and they were like, “When this thing comes out stand back!” We put out Budokan because the Japanese supported us. The album started getting popular here and it was an import. We were getting only a half of a royalty rate because it was a foreign release. We were gone out of the country for a couple of months, so we wanted to put out Budokan to get a full royalty rate, plus we could put it out and sell a couple hundred thousand copies. We figured it would be a buffer between Heaven Tonight and Dream Police. We could then put out Dream Police and get back to America.
We went out of the country for a couple of months and Sony sent a Jet out and they told us the ‘live album’ had taken off and was going all the way. That is kind of how that happened. They were behind us the entire time. It wasn’t like we said, “We will show these guys and put out a live album.” There was none of that. Budokan was supposed to just be a Japanese album.
Jeb: Did you know that you were that big in Japan?
Bun: The record In Color had a couple of hit singles on it. We were kind of told about that, but we were out on the road third bill to Blue Oyster Cult, or somebody… we were in the trenches. We didn’t really know what was going on until the plane landed in Tokyo. We were rushed around through back doors through the airport and doing like a Hard Day’s Night train station scene and jumping into cars. Cars are pulling up next to you and girls and screaming and crying. It was hilarious.
We were kind of like, “No one is going to believe this when we get back home.” No one did either. We came home and I went to my folk’s house and I said, “We’re like the Beatles over there” and they were like “Yeah right.” I was making line tapes from the shows and I had another cassette machine that I set out by the boards to see what the sound was like in the room. I took one of those tapes and I played it for some friends of mine and I said, “Check this out.” They were like, “What is that?” I said, “That is what it sounds like in the audience at one of our shows. Do you hear that little noise in the background? That is us playing.” People didn’t believe it and we didn’t believe it either when it first happened.
Jeb: You mentioned the image. On In Color you had the cool guys on motorcycles on the front and you and Rick on mopeds on the back. Was the image a marketing idea or did it just happen?
Bun: Benno Friedman was the photographer. We started gigging in 1973 and about six months later Tom joined and a year later Robin joined and things kind of began ascending and going better and better and better. We started adding original material. Rick and Tom and Robin were writing together and coming up with more stuff than Rick could write on his own. We bought a PA and we got a milk truck to put the gear in and we got a couple of roadies. We started dressing better and started looking better.
Before Robin joined the band I had really long hair and Rick had long scraggly hair. The singer we had and I went to Milwaukee and he knew a couple of hairdressers there and he wanted to date one. So we went up there and she cut and dyed his hair blonde and I got a haircut. I got a shave and a haircut.
I needed some stage clothes, so I went to the Salvation Army and I found some suits and I found some one hundred percent cotton white shirts that were like a quarter each. I bought like twenty shirts and I thought they would look good onstage and I could just drop them off at the laundry once a week. I bought suits for like three bucks and they were really comfortable to drum in. That is how I got my stuff.
Rick got a haircut and he started wearing baseball caps. Rick always dressed a little different. Tom and Robin they just got nicer clothes, I guess [laughter]. We wanted to look better than our audience back in 1974. We would go to see bands like David Bowie and Roxy Music and ELO and we would be like, “Look at those guys. They look fucking great up there.” We started dressing better. We didn’t sit in a circle and discuss things. We didn’t say, “You be a nerd and you be something else and you be a comic book character.” We didn’t do that. It just kind of like happened. I was just like, “I am buying this stuff as I am comfortable in this stuff” and “This long hair isn’t working for me. I am getting a haircut.”
Now you have to have ‘image consultants’ and you have to jump through all of these hoops. Back then, we just took our own personalities and we expanded on it. You have to remember that these were Prog Rock days with Yes and ELP and all these bands where guys were wearing capes. There were lasers and there were bands like Starcastle and we were cringing seeing these guys. Our reaction to that was us going, “We are not all going to get matching capes. We are going to look like ourselves and look good doing so.”
We changed our name to Cheap Trick in 1973. Everyone in the world, people in the business, told us that name wasn’t any good. They said both words ‘Cheap’ and ‘Trick’ were bad. They would lecture us. We went out to LA in 1975 and tried to get a record deal. We played the Starwood opening for some nameless band. There were like ten people out there. Kim Fowley was there and he sat there and told us war stories for a couple of days. He was telling Rick he should do this or that. He told us we needed a better name. These people would all be sitting there telling us how to make ourselves famous and we would just be sitting there going, “Uh huh.” We were laughing our asses off at the same time. We kind of knew the music had to do the talking.
Jeb: Before you were Cheap Trick what was the band’s name?
Bun: Rick, Tom and I were in a band with Stewkey, [Robert Antoni] from the Nazz and we were called Sick Man of Europe. We moved back to Rockford and the day after we moved back, Rick, Tom and our manager Ken, decided Stewkey wasn’t the guy who should be singing. They fired him right when we got to Rockford.
We had just moved back to Rockford from Philadelphia. The next day Rick tells me “We got together last night and fired Stewkey.” I was like “Oh good. You know we have gigs in three weeks.” A couple of days later Tom goes, “I don’t like it around here. I am moving back to Philly with Stewkey.” Rick knew some bass players and I knew some singers and we got a singer and bass player. Things were not easy as there was always something going on. The bass player’s wife would not let him play or something like that. We had Sick Man of Europe gigs booked, but then we didn’t have a name, so for the next month we were called The Reapers. Rick’s band in high school was called The Grim Reapers. We decided on The Reapers until we could think of something else to call it. One day, at band practice, we started talking about it and it ended up being Cheap Trick.
Jeb: Tom Werman told me he brought Steve Lukather to play on “I Want You to Want Me.”
Bun: That’s the wrong guy. You made a mistake. When we were cutting “I Want You to Want Me” Werman told us he had a great idea for the front of the song and on the tail end of the song. Instead of teaching it to us he had Jay Graydon come in. He did his part in about ten minutes. He played the two-guitar thing at the start.
Steve Lukather was during Dream Police. We finished the record and I flew home. I was home a couple of weeks and Werman called and said, “You need to come back out here as we need to finish ‘Voices.’” Tom was singing “Voices” and he just wasn’t cutting the mustard. He said, “We want to re-cut the vocals and have Robin sing it.”
We did it live in the studio and Luke came in and played the acoustic guitar in the studio, as did Rick. Rick also played the electric on the song. Jai Winding played piano and Tom played bass and I played drums and Robin sat in the booth and sang as we cut the track live. We did three takes and they all sounded pretty good and then we picked one. Lukather goes, “I’ve got a great idea for a solo. Let me run in there and play it.” We were like, “That sounds great. Let’s keep it.” We kept it. We literally did the whole track in about one afternoon. That’s how Lukather ended up on that track.
Jeb: Cheap Trick had some great album covers. Why are you in a bathroom on Heaven Tonight?
Bun: The record company had the idea that we should be in a dressing room. Their big idea was to call the album American Standard. We got to the photo shoot and the guy from the record company says, “We’re going to call this album American Standard.” We were like, “No way. That sounds like a toilet.” We wouldn’t let him name it that. We went to the default and said, “Name it after a song that won’t be a single, so we named it Heaven Tonight. That song had a lot of meaningful lyrics, as it was about people we knew who were overdosing and dying and stuff.
Jeb: I think that is Cheap Trick’s best album.
Bun: That is just a killer album. The thing with the cover… it was your typical corporate thing. The album before had this great front and back kind of contrasting cover, so the next album they just took the same idea and found a cheesier way to do it.
When we shot In Color we got to the photo shoot and the guy was taking all of the shots in black and white. I said, “When are we going to do the color shots?” The guy says, “What do you mean?” I go, “We named the album In Color and in Black and White so you’re going to take some color shots aren’t you?” He turns to his assistant and says, “Run out and get some color film.” He was going to do the entire thing in black and white. I was like, “Look at the name of the record.” It was always that sort of thing dealing with corporations.
Jeb: Dream Police may just be one of the best album covers of all time.
Bun: That was Reid Miles, the guy who did the Virginia Slims ads. He had some meetings with us and he said, “I’ve got this idea….” It was like symmetry, everyone was onboard with that. The record company and the band all came together. Reid took that stuff and he ran with it. He just did great with it.
Jeb: What was it like watching the band grow in popularity?
Bun: It was getting kind of crazy by the time we were doing Dream Police. We were starting to headline theaters but we were not famous yet. We were up and coming and at the same time we were in danger of being an opening act for the rest of our lives. On the road things were going great but we were not selling a lot of records. It was strange times in 1978.
Jeb: You have a great drum part in “Dream Police.”
Bun: The little middle eight part… That is from a Sick Man of Europe song. Rick had written an instrumental that we called “Ultramental” because it was the ultimate instrumental ever written. When we would go into that middle part we would clear the dance floor… this is back when we did it back then, it was in the middle of another song.
Rick wrote “Dream Police” back in 1976 and we played it in the bars a few times with a different arrangement. We finally dialed it in…. we wanted to do that song on the first album. The song had many different arrangements. We let it sit for a couple of albums and one day Rick said, “I rewrote this song.” We went in and practiced it and we knew it was going to be cool. We were wondering what we could put in the song, in the middle, and we remembered this cool part he had written. That’s the neat thing about being together for a few years… you have all of these parts you’ve been working on for years. We couldn’t have come up with that part in five minutes.
Jeb: When you compare songs like “Lookout,” “Big Eyes” and “Come On, Come On” on their studio versions to the live version on Live at Budokan they really are different.
Bun: We wanted to do the studio version of “Come On, Come On” the way we did it live. Werman was like, “No, I want to do the intro with this fade in and have a fade out at the end. I want to make it more power pop and less Slade.” He may not have said ‘Slade’ but it was something like that. He wanted less chanting and more melody. Werman wanted to bring out the more power pop side of us than the hard rock side of us.
Jeb: Did you fight him?
Bun: Werman on something like “Come On, Come On” would be like, “Trust me on this guys.” We would find some middle ground with him and go with it. The idea would come up with Werman and he would filter it through us. We would argue a little bit. The only one where we really didn’t agree with him at all was his version of “I Want You to Want Me.” “Come On, Come On” is a great song with both our arrangement and his arrangement.
Tom is actually a great arranger. He is excellent. He would give us advice on rudimental stuff to technical stuff. He would give us his opinion and he would enlighten on stuff. He would say things like, “Get that chorus in after the first verse. You’re waiting too long to get to the chorus.” Things like that we didn’t always necessarily think of.
Jeb: Last one: I have heard the legend that Cheap Trick was discovered at a bowling alley.
Bun: We had Jack Douglas come see us when we flew him out to Waukesha, Wisconsin in May of 1976 or maybe it was April. Whenever it was… it could have been late 75 but I am not sure. Anyway, we were playing The Sunset Bowl in Waukesha. It was a big room with a tall stage and we sounded great in there and we could turn up. It was not a noise box as it had carpeted floors. It was a good place to showcase us. Jack had a sister that lived in Waukesha, so he was like, “I would love to come there to see you.” That is where he ‘discovered’ us.
Jeb: The legend makes it sound less planned.
Bun: To hear Jack tell it he just kind of walked into this bowling alley and there we were. What Jack forgets to mention is that we contacted him, sent him a plane ticket and picked him up at the airport. He makes it sound like he walked in with a pen, a pad of paper and a stopwatch.
He stayed for all three shows and I gave him the show tapes afterwards so he could take them back with him and listen to them and digest what he heard. A day or two later he called back and said, “I’m onboard. I will produce you.” That is how we got our record deal. We signed Jack Douglas up to produce us and we called a booking agency in New York and we said, “We’ve got record labels rooting around and we are going to sign a deal and Jack Douglas is going to produce us. We have a touring band and we know how to play and we’ve been on the road a couple of years and we’re ready to go.” We took all of that to the record company and we said, “Here is our material. Here is what we are going to do and here is our producer.” They just loved it and we were just what they were looking for.
Jeb: You were savvy enough to get a big name producer before you got a record deal.
Jeb: That is pretty amazing. Be honest, were you sending this same invitation to all famous producers of the day?
Bun: Naw, just Jack. Jack was the only guy. We wanted John Lennon, but we had already been told that he had retired. That was the first name we went after. We loved John Lennon. We thought the Rock ‘n’ Roll album was the best thing since baked bread. When we heard that we thought it was the greatest thing ever.
Jeb: In “Gonna Raise Hell” you pay homage to John with the ‘mother’ part.
Bun: You can find John Lennon and the Beatles in every record, but that part for sure.
Jeb: Okay, really, this is the last one. Tell me about this coffee that has your name on it.
Bun: A buddy of mine in Minnesota has a couple of coffee shops and I would hang out with him and he said I should have my own coffee. I told him to make me some blends and to send them to me and let’s find one that I like. John Birrenbach is his name. We agreed on a blend and he sells Bun E. Blend coffee. Just Google Bun E. Blend and it will come up.
Google Bun E. Blend and you will see this video that this company in Vancouver did of Bun E. Blend. It is like a Miami Vice episode. It is hilarious. You’ve got to check this video out. It is on YouTube.
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