Headed to town for a pair of shows this weekend at the Arcada Theatre in St. Charles, I spoke with Cheap Trick vocalist/rhythm guitarist Robin Zander and drummer Steve Luongo about their partnership in the Robin Zander Band, covering The Who, an affinity for Christmas tunes and how passion for the music and having fun playing it define the Robin Zander Band…
Moonlighting from his day job as Cheap Trick frontman, Robin Zander still clearly enjoys the art of live performance. Turning what has been a long mutual relationship/admiration between himself and several others (bassist Larry Hobbs, guitarist Mark Hitt and, particularly, drummer Steve Luongo) into the Robin Zander Band has given him not just another avenue to continue honing his craft, but also a way to have a bit more fun in the process.
Hitting on carefully chosen tracks from the Cheap Trick canon gives longtime fans the opportunity to experience deep cuts in the live setting that Cheap Trick rarely gets a chance to perform. But the band also covers material from a variety of artists that have influenced them along the way.
Drummer Steve Luongo goes back decades performing with guitarist Mark Hitt and, in particular, both have worked closely with former Who bassist John Entwistle. For his part, Luongo has also worked with artists like Todd Rundgren and Joe Walsh while Hitt spent time with the likes of John Bonham and Robert Plant.
With a focus on fun and passionate live performances, the Robin Zander Band arrives in St. Charles ready to record both of this weekend’s performances at the Arcada Theatre. And in keeping with the Christmas spirit, a small gift is in store for fans who attend.
Earlier this week, I spoke with both Robin Zander and Steve Luongo about the art of live performance and the creative freedom that comes with an act like the Robin Zander Band which grows from roots grounded squarely in enjoying what they do…
Q. You guys formed this band, what, about a year ago? How did everything come about?
Robin Zander: Well, it started a lot longer ago than that. Steve and I have known each other for a good, I guess, what, Steve, ten years? And we have a lot of mutual friends. The rock and roll business is a small place really. It’s a small world we live in. And we’ve known about each other and eventually we’d run into each other, Steve and I have, through doing benefits and stuff like that – golf tournaments and what not. And we’d perform and raise money for these benefits and eventually these other guys that Steve knows became part of it and we just sort of formed a band around it.
And that’s kind of how it started. We liked it enough that we thought we’d just take it on the road in our spare time and have some fun. And that’s what we’ve been doing ever since.
Q. Robin, obviously you don’t have to be out performing and touring at this point in your career so I get the feeling that these Robin Zander Band shows are important to you. What is it that makes getting away from Cheap Trick a bit with this lineup so special for you?
Robin Zander: It’s just the fun of it. We do a lot of the songs that we grew up with in the sixties and seventies. It’s a bit of nostalgia coupled with the flavor of a great live band – all these guys are seasoned veterans. As Steve can tell you, he’s been around the world a few times. And Mark Hitt, the guitar player, was a god on the east coast for many, many years. So we are a strong live act. We do cover tunes and bring back memories… maybe not so fond memories for everybody…
Steve Luongo: The other thing that we do is, I think, it’s not just guys going out playing covers: I like to think we put a signature on everything that we do. It has a sound. There are times when we’re asked to do a Cheap Trick track or a deep cut and we put our sort of stamp on everything that we do. So we are very comfortable anywhere and it feels good.
And I think the thing that keeps it together is the fact that it still is fun – the way it was when we all started doing this. We got to play what we wanted when we wanted and loud.
Q. Speaking of covers, Steve, there’s one band in particular that I’m particularly intrigued by that you guys hit upon from time to time and that’s The Who. Obviously, you were very close to and worked extensively with John Entwistle. What’s it like performing some of those Who songs these days with this band?
Steve: Performing them in general when John was first… was impossible. It was impossible. And I think the thing that makes it feel natural and comfortable and right is the fact that I’m playing in a band that, again, stamps it with a signature. We’re not trying to sound like the John Entwistle Band or The Who. We are the Robin Zander Band and this is how we play this.
So it feels very natural. After… My God, it’s been more than a dozen years – and it was a big loss – I’m happy to say that I love doing it again. I thought I’d never be able to play that stuff again without getting…
Robin: I will say one thing that makes it easy… To do covers of The Who, it didn’t take that much rehearsal. We all love The Who. We all grew up with The Who. And it’s a great thing to have Steve who, of course, has already performed all of those songs. So it just makes it easier for the rest of us to just fill those slots.
Steve: And Mark Hitt toured and did some gigs with Entwistle as well. And Mark and I have been playing in bands together from Rat Race Choir [on]. We actually did a stint together with Leslie West [of rock group Mountain]. We’ve played a bunch for over forty years. So there’s some good, old school chemistry there. Because we were there when we first heard those songs so we remember. It’s in our DNA.
Q. I would imagine that as great as it is to tour as a headlining act playing large venues with Cheap Trick, that at some point that also becomes a bit predictable too – in that it’s harder to shake up the setlist from night to night because casual fans have certain expectations when they go to see a band like that. So, Robin, I would imagine a touring environment like this with the Robin Zander Band gives you a bit more creative freedom and the ability to dig a bit deeper into the Cheap Trick catalog. What’s it like performing some of these Cheap Trick songs that I’m assuming you otherwise don’t really get too much of an opportunity to perform?
Robin: Of course. Well, you just said it all right there. The songs we usually add are songs that Cheap Trick doesn’t do and hasn’t. The one song in particular I think that you’re talking about is early on in the set… That one, I don’t think Cheap Trick has ever played live. So I thought it would give me an opportunity to get my ya ya’s out and do a song that Cheap Trick doesn’t do. And who better to do that with than the Robin Zander Band?
Steve: And for us, it’s all very fresh. It’s not like we’ve been doing these songs for [a long time]. It’s all very new and fresh to play. It’s a lot of fun for us. I speak for everybody – [guitarist] Mark [Hitt] and [bassist] Larry [Hobbs]. It’s a musical journey that’s never the same twice.
Robin: And it’s fresh for the audience too. Especially the Cheap Trick fans that would come out to see the Robin Zander Band. They love to hear that stuff that they don’t get to hear it from Cheap Trick.
Q. Do the Robin Zander Band shows kind of take you out of your comfort zone and challenge you a bit as artists? And is that important?
Robin: I don’t know, I find the comfort level in this band, the Robin Zander Band, to be very high.
But we really have a good time. There’s no pressure. I believe that if you love doing something – which I do. I love to play and I love to write songs and I love to sing – So if you love doing something, it all becomes easy. If you don’t love it, you might as well sit at home and watch TV.
Steve: And to qualify the sound of the band or anything, because everything is natural – because it used to happen to Entwistle as well with the John Entwistle Band – He used to get asked, “What’s it like to do this, that or the other thing?” And what I personally gathered from all of those interviews – and the ones that I’ve done with Robin – is you’re getting to see The Who, in the John Entwistle Band, the way that it would’ve been if John ran the band. You know what I mean? If it was just him. In a band like Cheap Trick, The Who or anybody, it’s chemistry. It’s everybody’s input that defines where it goes. If it just went the way one guy wanted it to go, then it would be, really, a solo project.
So this is more about personality I think. It’s about a side of Robin that he just, not neglecting anything else, but wanted to do this too.
Q. For bands that get lumped in under the “classic rock” stereotypes, there can obviously be certain expectations amongst fans, which we just kind of talked about. But, Robin, with Cheap Trick you’ve had the luxury of remaining relevant after all these years. You’re still writing and recording great new music. And I would imagine that reputation carries over to these Robin Zander Band shows. Unlike a lot of your peers, you’ve had pretty major endorsements over the years from contemporary artists like Billy Corgan in the nineties and Dave Grohl now. Is it important to you to continue to expose your music to a new audience even after more than forty years?
Robin: Yeah, I think so… But that’s not really the point of it. The audience will come to us, you know? To me, it’s always been to do it for the pleasure of it. And the audience seems to be a secondary thought in that respect. It was sort of like: If you like what you’re doing, then maybe they’ll like it too. And if they don’t, well, you can’t force it on somebody. You can’t really do it that way. I think you have to do your best and write the best songs you can and try to keep yourself healthy. Clean living and perseverance, there’s nothing wrong with that. You just hope for the best. And fortunately, it’s worked out for Cheap Trick. And I think that transcends, in my case, with this band.
Steve: And in mine too. You have to realize that when we all started, there was no agenda. We just wanted to be in a band and play rock and roll. It’s like the guys who were playing baseball in the sandlot and then wound up being on the Yankees. It’s the same game and we’re doing it for the same reason, there’s just a couple of bucks involved now. But it’s the same game. I’m as angry when I strike out on the lot as I am in Yankee Stadium. So it’s really about passion. And I think that’s really what defines this band is its passion for what it does.
Q. Seeing as how these shows at the Arcada are taking place only a few days before Christmas, I have to ask: are you guys fans of Christmas music?
Robin: I am a fan of Christmas music. But I gotta tell you – as long as you brought it up – I wrote a song for my son [Robin Taylor]. And it’s a Christmas song. And he went in and recorded it and did all the tracks himself – he sang on it, did the drums, bass and guitars and produced it himself.
Steve: This track that he’s talking about is on iTunes. It’s something that they developed and it’s really, really cool. Do you think we can get him to perform it with us [at the Arcada]?
Robin: I’ll tell ya what… I’ll ask Robin if he’ll do it.
Q. What else can fans expect this weekend in St. Charles?
Steve: We are doing a full production to record and archive these two performances. So we hope everybody will come and generate some energy for way too many video cameras and multi-track recordings. It’s a whole big thing. If you miss it, you’re going to wish you didn’t.
Robin: There will be some special guests there.
Steve: Surprises, all kinds of stuff. It’s gonna be cool.
Q. Are there any plans to take the Robin Zander Band into the studio and record some original material?
Robin: Well, that’s a good question… because we’ve been offered some things down the line. We’re just waiting. We’re waiting for the right moment and the right time. It’ll come. And when it does, I’ll give you a phone call. Quick.
Steve: And the truth of the matter is, the beauty of this band is that it evolved naturally, it progresses naturally and whatever it does that is maybe different or bigger than it was yesterday will be because it was the natural thing to do. So if our journey leads us into the studio, we have one of those.
And we have recorded several things live. In fact, one of the things we did for these two shows, is we’re giving away one of our live tracks. I don’t mean to turn this into a promo but we’re giving away a live track, a live recording of us playing one of the songs that we love to play. It’s a song Robin wrote. And anybody that comes to the show is gonna get the download. And eventually – of course once person gets it it goes everywhere – but we’re trying to maintain some exclusivity with it for our people.
Robin: It’s Christmas time, you know? We gotta give a present away! Otherwise, you look like a fool up there.
Steve: And there’s no better gift than the gift of music, right?
– Jim Ryan (@RadioJimRyan)
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(Details on this weekend’s pair of Robin Zander Band shows below)
Robin Zander Band
Arcada Theatre (St. Charles, IL)
8PM Saturday, December 20, 2014
7PM Sunday, December 21, 2014
8-Track opens on Saturday
28 North opens on Sunday
Click HERE to purchase tickets