A day that many of us thought would never come is almost here: a new Cars album. On May 10th, their first record in 24 years revs its engines and peels onto the speedway. Synth-rock lovers rejoice. Move Like This is not just the return of the band, but the return of drummer, David Robinson, to the music scene altogether. After all this time, the band’s surprise reunion has pulled Robinson out of blissful retirement and once again into the madcap world of rock ‘n’ roll – a world that’s undergone a series of changes.
In the weeks before the album’s release, Consequence of Sound‘s Cap Blackard had a chance to speak with Robinson about his return to the sticks, continuing on without bassist and vocalist Benjamin Orr, what brought the band together after all these years, and the alien world of the modern recording studio.
In the weeks leading up to the album’s release, what’s life been like?
We’re getting ready to tour and I haven’t played drums since 1987. So what we’re doing is relearning everything and I’m practicing to relearn how to play, basically. Also, we are doing a lot of stuff electronically; we aren’t going to use a bass player, so we have to program either bass parts or keyboard parts to play on stage and that requires click tracks that I play along with and percussion tracks and stuff like that. So, it’s a lot of work.
Wow, not being off the drums for that long. This will be a huge return for you. Everyone else has been playing at least somewhat.
Yeah they have and I’ve only played a little bit and that was mostly on conga drums. Sometimes I have sit in with the jazz band and I play with a guy here named Willie Alexander, but I really haven’t played.
I read on the internet that you actually own and operate a restaurant?
I had a restaurant a few years ago, I have an art gallery now and I sell art and jewelry and I make the jewelry that I sell there myself.
The biggest question in everyone’s mind is after all this time, what got the band back together?
Basically Rick’s decision to not make another solo record and have us all play on it. He had actually invited me to play on whatever his next project was gonna be a couple of years ago and I didn’t really hear much about it. I think December 2009, he called and said he had some songs and I thought the next thing he was going to say that I might play on one of them or something on his new record, but he just started the conversation by saying “I was thinking; we should make a Cars record.” So, those were words I was pretty sure I would never hear and that’s all it took, really.
Yeah, that feeling of “pretty sure you’re never going to hear it” was kinda mutual the world over. What do you think pushed him over the edge on that decision?
I don’t know. You know, when you’re working solo, I think you’re thinking of a backup band, I don’t know. I never really asked him specifically why he couldn’t have done this years ago, but he probably heard the songs in his head and thought, “well the best guys to convey these songs are the, you know, the original guys.”
There’s been a significant resurgence in synth-based rock and a lot of modern bands owe credit to The Cars as their influences. Do you feel like this was a motivating factor in the band’s reformation?
No, not really. You know, I noticed a few years ago when the New Cars thing was put together you could clearly see that there was interest in 80’s bands. Which was kind of why we thought it might have been valid to get back together then. But no, I don’t even know the bands that are influenced by us. Every once in a while somebody will mention a band and I think there are few bands that sound a little bit like us, but I don’t think anybody has really stepped into our shoes since we broke up.
I think everybody would be kind of nervous to step in your shoes. I’ve never heard anyone come into the scene saying, “I want to be The Cars.” Who can touch that?
Well, it kind of surprises me that no one really thought that way. You know, usually when a group is successful there is somebody that is touted as the new so-and-so. There hasn’t seemed to be somebody that people specifically identified as like these guys are the new Cars. But I think I can hear a little bit of Cars stuff in other bands from time to time. I also think that maybe fans that were younger are in bands that are now making records. So, it takes a while. I think too also in music, things sort of take 20 years to, you know, come back.
There have been some quotes from you guys in recent press releases talking about how easy it was get back to working together and the chemistry that you have. What do you feel kept the band more or less apart for 20-plus years if the chemistry is so alive?
We’ve all played in loads of bands, you know. Bands that people thought were good and maybe nothing ever happened to them. But when you’re a musician, usually when they say things click they really click and it’s not just for the day when you’re working together. It’s just the way the people play and the kind of personalities that their music has, it’s together. So that’s why I think we could have done it anytime; we could do it anytime in the future.
Was it difficult to get together without Benjamin Orr?
Well not hard to do, but over the years we’ve missed him and in a way we reflect on how good he was now more than ever. If he was here to contribute something now, it would be fantastic. Yeah, even every few years, I have to sort of look at videos of what he’s doing and how good he is, listen to the old songs. But for me, listening to the old songs that we are thinking about doing on stage makes me appreciate his voice.
What do you feel is the biggest difference between recording Move Like This and your previous records?
Oh it’s like day and night. It’s like I took off a 100 years, not you know, 20-something years ’cause everything’s digital and we used tape recorders last time we worked. People are on laptops. All of it is good. All of the technology is great, it’s better, it’s faster, you have way more freedom to do things, quickly and try things. Also, I found it’s the same with working with the artwork for the album covers and other stuff I designed- t-shirts and things. Everything is just faster and better.
How did the band decide which tracks would be produced by Jacknife Lee and which would be self-produced?
We didn’t really separate them. We went out to L.A. to work with him on two different trips. And I think we just sort of offered him whatever songs he wanted to work on. As a matter of fact, one maybe two songs, we had almost completed and then he wanted to do them so we revamped them and we did them slightly differently with him.
Which tracks were those?
“Blue Tip” was one of them and “Free” was definitely one of them.
Was there any pressure to create songs that consciously were in your mind a “Cars song”? Or did it come naturally?
We don’t think about that ever. We never thought of it that way. These could have all been folk songs. It just would have been whatever Rick brought to us and how we interpreted when we play it.
I had a chance to listen to the album and I am really thrilled with it. It’s exciting to see how every conceivable way you guys haven’t missed a beat and carried on like there was like just a couple of years time between the last two albums. I did come into it with a certain amount of skepticism, but I was really excited with the result.
Well, thanks. You know, I think it would have been stupid if we just did a record that sounded like our older stuff. I think I was listening to the radio when I heard The Killers, I forget what song it was, and then they played our song, “Sad Song” and it was basically the same. Sonically, they were the same. The sounds of the instruments were pretty similar. I think if you didn’t know who The Cars were, you never would have known that they weren’t a new group that just came out.
I agree. It’s a fresh album; it has a timeless feel. Are there any experiences in the studio during this album’s recording that stand out in your mind?
We did it really quickly. Even though we spread it out over a year, I think if you combine all the time, we went out to L.A. for two trips. All combined it might have been five or six weeks. Then we worked in upstate New York, maybe like six times together, a few days each time. I’m just surprised how easy it was and how smoothly it went. But the technology stuff was also an eye-opener for me cause, you know, I have just been completely out of it. The first time we worked in L.A., I walked into the studio and the control room looked the same like a usual room but there were three guys with laptops on tray tables, poised to make the record. It was almost funny. New alien, technology.
You guys are doing a 10-day North American tour starting at the album’s release. Is there any chance that there will be more dates in the future?
I don’t really know. I think we are sort of trying to get it done in the early part of the summer. Right now, we don’t have any more plans.
Rick’s known for not being much of a fan of touring. What about yourself?
I used to like it, you know in the 80’s. Now, not so much. I guess that’s the best way to put it. I have other stuff to do. I run my art gallery. It’s a lot of work. Thirty years later, I look at it differently. It’s still fun, but the work part and traveling part is a lot different.
Which of the new tracks speaks to you the most personally?
None in particular. You know, I sort of like the stuff with the pounding quarter notes, like the dance stuff. I like all of it.
Are those the ones that are the most fun to play?
Yeah, we got a track that’s all electronic. One of the ballads is all electronic. I always like doing stuff that way too.
So you were using electronic drums then?
Yeah, but more electronic sounds. I’m also taking on the tour an all electronic drum set, which I have never done. I have taken acoustic drum sets with triggers and pads and things and samples, but never up to the level of all electronic drums.
Are you taking both regular drums and electronic drums on the tour or is it all electronic drums?
Oh wow… I have one final question. I guess you sort of hinted to it earlier, but do you feel that The Cars are like back as a presence and that maybe there will be more new music in the future?
I think sort of the atmosphere of what’s going on now would lead to doing more stuff. I mean, we’ve even talked about it. It was such a pleasant experience that I think if we get a chance to we will definitely do some more work.