It’s the “New” that really throws you. If you’re absent-mindedly watching The Late Late Show or driving past a billboard for summer rock tours and you see the New Cars being promoted, you do a double take. The Cars are back? Is that Todd Rundgren on vocals? They’ve got a new album? Yes, yes, and yes.
In 2005, The Cars’ original guitarist Elliot Easton and keyboard player Greg Hawkes started laying the ground work for a new tour. It didn’t seem likely. Five years earlier, bassist and singer Benjamin Orr had succumbed to pancreatic cancer. Drummer David Robinson had retired from pop music. Singer/guitarist Ric Ocasek passed on a possible reunion. So Easton reached out to Todd Rundgren, a pop icon whose hooky songwriting and sarcastic tenor singing voice isn’t too far removed from Ocasek’s, to take lead vocals in a new edition of The Cars. Rundgren was up for it.
The band came together quickly, with Rundgren’s former Utopia bassist Kasim Sulton and the Tubes’ drummer Prairie Prince completing the lineup for rehearsals in Los Angeles. This year, the lineup announced a tour with Blondie and a new live/studio record, It’s Alive. They even got Ocasek’s blessing. (On the April 17 episode of The Colbert Report, Ocasek jokingly put Rundgren “on notice” for stealing his band. Again: Jokingly.)
The tour began on May 12, and the single “Not Tonight” - one of three new songs on It’s Alive - is already out, available on iTunes. The album is set for release on June 6th in the US, and six days later in the UK. Elliot Easton and Greg Hawkes took some time away from rehearsals to talk to PopMatters.
So, how did The New Cars come together? How did you hook up with Todd, Kasim, and Prairie?
Eliot Easton: When it became apparent that Ric didn’t want to become part of this project, we cast about for a new frontman. Ric was a talented guy and great songwriter. We wanted someone of that caliber and Todd is a great songwriter and singer. I had worked with him on Jules Shear’s album Watch Dog, so I called him, and he was very receptive.
How long did it take this lineup to gel?
Greg Hawkes: Pretty quick! We got together for the first time in August just to see if we could take the next step. It worked really well and we decided to move ahead.
EE: We got together in LA and played for a day. It felt really good. Actually, it felt pretty great right away.
Todd’s vocals are a pretty natural fit for these songs, aren’t they?
GH: I think it’s a very good fit. Todd’s really a creative guy and he brings a lot to this project. His personality is just one of a kind, and there’s no way of stopping it from coming out. And I’ve always liked his music. I was really inspired by the keyboards on Something/Anything?, actually.
There are three new songs on It’s Alive!, which to me sound a lot like the classic Cars songs.
EE: The three songs were written by Todd, Greg, and myself in different combinations. “Not Tonight” was based on a track I had, and it turned out that Greg had something with a bridge that we could add in.
GH: Elliot had a track he recorded, and I had a demo. We had the music, Todd went off one day, and when he came back he had the lyrics. “Warm” is another song of mine, and “More”—that was one Todd wrote on his own. Some of the classic Cars sounds are definitely there on “Not Tonight”. It’s got that clicky guitar sound, and the background vocals are similar. Not quite the same, of course, just from the fact that we’re different people.
The New Cars - Not Tonight
You stick pretty close to the original arrangements for most of your set, but you’ve really changed around “Drive”. It has an acoustic guitar up front and it’s generally a little quieter. Why’s that?
GH: One of the reasons that the version is a little different is that Kasim is singing. Remember, it was Ben who sang the original version. Elliot came up with the idea of playing acoustic guitar, which is fine with me, because the original version had so many keyboards I was using sequencers to play it live.
A number of groups in the last few years have come out with songs that have some strong Cars influence. Have you noticed this? What do you think about it?
EE: There are some bands like that; they name-check us in interviews. But it isn’t like I hear a song and say “That sounds like the Cars”—I’m so close to it and inside it, I don’t actually hear the influence. Some of these bands might want to do something “Cars”-y, it’s compared to the Cars, and I think it sounds nothing like the Cars. I’ve read interviews with Lennon where he claims he wrote a song inspired by Elvis, and I don’t think it sounds anything like Elvis. Although there is that song by Fountains of Wayne, “Stacy’s Mom”? That sounds like a Cars rip-off. When I heard that, I actually thought my guitar was being sampled. It was ridiculous.
GH: I know some of these bands are more obvious than others if they’re influenced by the Cars. A group like Fountains of Wayne is pretty obvious, for example. But the generation of bands that are somewhat currently popular grew up in the ‘80s, grew up listening to us, so that’s not unusual. There does seem to be an ‘80s influence in a lot of new music.
Well, how would you describe The Cars’ sound?
GH: If I was to describe the classic Cars style I’d say: Clicky guitars, keyboards, and obtuse lyrics.
EE: The way I define the Cars’ sound is just the five of us playing together. It’s not a formula. If some of the stuff we do sounds reminiscent, if it sounds like the old band, that’s because Greg and I are in it. That’s how we play. We’re still us.
Other bands have made comebacks or revamped themselves with new members. Did you look at any these acts when you were putting together this lineup?
EE: I don’t care what other bands do or how they do it. There are no rules in this business. You have Carlos Santana who people figured was pretty much done years ago. And out of nowhere he comes back with “Smooth”, and it’s his biggest hit ever. You just do what you do and this is how we decided to proceed. If all we wanted to do was flog the hits, play the state fairs, we could have gotten a couple of ringers that sounded like Ric and Brian. This is about bringing this music alive and giving a chance for people who never saw the Cars live to see it.
Why should Cars-fans or non-Cars-fans show up to these shows? What can they expect?
GH: Well, I’m excited to be performing again. This is the first time I’ve been on tour in whatever years. In that time I’ve forgotten the bad parts of touring, so I’m just excited. And this is a great group of people and a harder-rocking band, so that’s something right there.
EE: The band rocks a lot harder than the recorded version. Kasim Sulton and Prarie Prince are talented and aggressive players, and it’s an extremely entertaining experience to hear these songs live. Hopefully people will come with an open mind. If they do, I suspect we’ll live up to their expectations and more.
The New Cars on Late Late Night