“What do you think about doing a Cars album?”
With that simple question, one of the most iconic bands of the New Wave era was back in business. After writing his first batch of new songs in several years and not being sure whom to record them with, Ric Ocasek decided to phone up his old bandmates and invite them to work on what would become “Move Like This,” the first album of new Cars material in 24 years.
Keyboardist Greg Hawkes discusses the reunion in matter-of-fact terms: “I was like, ‘Sure, why not?’” But he clearly couldn’t be happier with the results, especially the sessions the band had in Los Angeles with producer Jacknife Lee (Weezer, R.E.M.).
“He was somehow able to make it sound fresh and contemporary, yet sound like the Cars,” Hawkes says admiringly. And it’s true—Lee-produced tracks like “Blue Tip” and “Sad Song” are so vibrant they almost seem like the work of a much younger band, albeit one heavily indebted to “Candy-O.”
Shortly before the release of “Move Like This,” Hawkes spoke with Metromix about the reunion, the Cars’ history of working with great (and occasionally painstaking) producers, and the challenges of moving forward minus the group’s late bassist Ben Orr, who sang lead vocals on some of their best-known hits (including “Drive” and “Just What I Needed”) and who passed away from pancreatic cancer in 2000.
I am of the age where “Heartbeat City” was one of the first records I ever owned on vinyl. So it’s really an honor to get to talk to you.
You know, we’re putting out a vinyl version of the new one. I just saw it yesterday…it looks so big! After being used to CDs, now seeing a full-size album again, it’s like, “Woah.”
When you initially got back together to work on the album, was there also talk of doing a tour? Or did that come later?
That came later. We sort of did it in small batches. We started out by first getting together and working on three or four songs, just to make sure it would be a smooth process. And that was great—we just sort of fell back into place, working with each other. We did half the album in L.A., working with Garrett Lee—or Jacknife Lee, as he’s nicknamed. And then we did the other half in New York.
And you played most of the bass parts on the new album, correct?
Yes, this is true.
Was that a difficult assignment, filling Ben’s shoes?
I do like to dabble in other instruments. I’ve had a bass and I’ve been playing off and on since—I don’t know, since the beginning of the Cars, really, or even a little before. But anyway, yeah, I guess we kind of made a conscious decision to keep the music from within the band, and not get anybody to replace Ben. Although Garrett did some of the bass tracks on the tunes he worked on.
Are your bass parts played on keyboards or bass guitar or a little of both?
Mainly on bass guitar. I think there’s a couple on there that have keyboard bass, but the majority of them are all done with bass guitar. In fact, on a couple of the tracks, I even used one of Ben’s old basses.
Oh, cool. Do you remember which tracks?
I think “Drag on Forever” and I think—[sings a bass line to himself]—I think “Take Another Look.” And there might be a couple others. It was a white Precision Bass that strangely enough, David owned.
I would imagine that for Ric, too, it must have been a bit of a challenge having to do all the lead vocals himself.
Yeah, Ben was definitely missed. I’m sure he would have been here, if circumstances were different.
On your early records, you worked with two of the most legendary producers in the business: Roy Thomas Baker and Mutt Lange. How does Jacknife Lee compare to those guys?
Well, Roy produced the first four Cars albums. And Roy’s great—he’s just got that big sound. When we did the first Cars album, he had just done the one with “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen. The thing about Roy was that he came from an engineering background rather than being a musician. And Mutt was definitely a musician. With Mutt, there was no detail too small that Mutt wouldn’t happily spend a day or two on it. He would spend a long time in the studio, just making sure all the details were perfect.
I’ve heard that Mutt actually edited out all of David Robinson’s drum parts on “Heartbeat City” and replaced them with drum machines, because he was so obsessed with getting the drum parts to sound perfect. Is that true?
Well, it’s not so much that it was edited out—but a lot of the drums are programmed on that record. But David really did all the programming—or else he might have played things where some of the sounds got replaced with other sounds. Part of that was Mutt’s approach, which Mutt actually had been doing on the Def Leppard albums before getting to the Cars.
David’s drumming style is so precise anyway, I guess that makes sense he would get into approaching it in that way.
Yes, he has a very tight and simple style. Now working with Jacknife, he’s also coming from a musical background, so he had ideas as far as musical arrangements. And I think just coming from him being a younger guy—I think he probably, like yourself, kind of grew up with the Cars. So it just seemed like working with him, he was somehow able to make it sound fresh and contemporary, yet sound like the Cars.
What do the other guys think of your ukulele versions of some of the Cars hits?
[Laughs] I think they’re fairly amused by them. I’m not sure Ric’s mentioned anything, but yeah—I don’t know.
How did you get interested in the ukulele?
It was like 10 years ago now. I got one for a Valentine’s present from my wife. So I had to learn it. But I really was charmed by instrument. It happened at a point when I wasn’t really that musically active, and it really sort of rekindled my musical interests.
As the guy who came up with some of those really distinctive Cars synth sounds, do you ever hear new artists and think, “Hey, that totally sounds like ‘Hello Again’!”?
Not too much. Although I have had a lot of younger musicians say, “I love the Cars and the keyboards.” So it’s always nice to hear.
Q&A: The Cars
Keyboardist Greg Hawkes talks about the New Wave legends' reunion tour and first album in 24 years
By Andy HermannMetromix
May 10, 2011
“What do you think about doing a Cars album?”
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