The Cars: Take Another Look

By: Dennis Cook

The Cars - 2011
From the first notes of their 1978 self-titled debut it was clear The Cars were a true original. A muddle of pop savvy, proto-new wave inquisitiveness and good ol’ fashioned rock instincts, The Cars created a blueprint that countless groups have followed in the intervening 33 years. It’s hard to argue with the mixture of fundamentals (quality songwriting, fat free musicianship) and modern itch, a forward moving sound that progresses in sturdy shoes.

Earlier this year, after a 24 year hiatus, The Cars returned with an album that sits up handily next to their best work, Move Like This (released May 10 on Hear Music), and a series of concerts that delighted fans who’d hungrily wanted to see the original members together for decades. The quartet – bandleader/guitarist/singer Rick Ocasek, keyboardist Greg Hawkes, guitarist Elliot Easton and drummer David Robinson - has the same spark as in days of old, and while the absence of bassist-singer Benjamin Orr, who passed away from cancer in 2000, is felt, The Cars have finally gotten around to continuing a story that seemed unfinished when they disbanded in the late 80s.

We talked with Greg Hawkes about the reunion and the band’s place in rock history.

Greg Hawkes
JamBase: The new record has the qualities of a classic Cars album but it also sounds like you guys have been paying attention to music in the years since Door To Door (1987).

Hawkes: That’s sort of the balancing act for us, to make it sound like The Cars but not too retro; to keep it sounding like it was made these days.

JamBase: The Cars have been such a copied band, especially by a lot of current buzz bands that have basically swiped your band’s moves wholesale. Do you have a sense of The Cars being an influential act?

Hawkes: Yeah, I kinda do. I’ve had a number of musicians tell me that The Cars are a big influence, and it’s really gratifying actually.

Your playing is a big part of that. You’re an unabashed synthesizer player. You’ve never been shy about using synths as a real instrument and not just a spice. I think it’s what gave The Cars their quasi-futuristic feel from the start.

The Cars – Back In The Day
I always thought of myself as a synthesizer player rather than a piano player because synths were always my main focus. When you think of it, when we started synths were still pretty new. I like the phrase “quasi-futuristic”. It reminds me of Tomorrowland.

There are worst things in life than being an E-ticket ride. Was it exciting to pioneer these sounds? There’s a greater emphasis on texture and atmosphere than traditional solos in your playing.

Yeah, yeah, yeah. I’m not really that great a piano player when you get down to it [laughs]. I guess it was pretty exciting. One of my influences was Kraftwerk, and I loved Devo, though they were more contemporaries than an influence, but I always loved the way they used synthesizers. Roger Powell (Utopia) was an influence. It probably started with the way The Beatles used keyboards like Mellotrons. Abbey Road has a bunch of cool little synthesizer parts that are a Switched On Mood kind of thing. “Here Comes The Sun” has some cool synthy parts, and even “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” has that wah-wah-wah to it.

You have the added challenge of covering bass in the band now, too.

new album
At least with the live show, I’ve had a couple different approaches, like playing left-handed bass while still playing keyboards like Ray Manzarek of The Doors. Also, I programmed some of the bass parts in advance, and on a couple of songs I played an actual bass, which is sort of the high point of the night because it was unique for me to play bass on stage. For the new album, I played bass on some tracks, a couple have synth bass, and [producer] Jackknife Lee played bass on some tracks he produced. And I’ll credit him with helping us sound more contemporary. I really enjoyed working with him, and he brought a more contemporary viewpoint about some of the arrangements.

I don’t think it hurts that he’s worked with a number of bands that have been directly influenced by The Cars. A band like Weezer wouldn’t exist without The Cars; their sound draws very heavily on the first few Cars albums.

I agree with you, and I’m a Weezer fan, too.

As you’re touring the new album, it seems like the band is digging fairly deeply into the catalogue. I’ve always been a champion for Panorama (1980), which I think a lot of people have overlooked.

That was my favorite Cars album for a long time. Now, in retrospect, I lean towards the first album…like about everybody else! It’s a lot of fun to revisit all these songs.

Greg Hawkes – Back In The Day
For those of us who’ve been fans of the band since the beginning, it is a loss to not have Ben Orr still with us for this reunion. I’m sure it’s even more acute for you guys. There’s a few ballads on Move Like This where Ben would have really shined.

Oh yeah, it’s like, “This would have been a Ben song.” I know what you mean, but what can I say? We miss him. Part of the reason we decided to go out as a four-piece - which made my life a little harder – was we felt we couldn’t really replace him, so why try?

Now that you’ve gotten things rolling with this record, do you feel there’s momentum for another record and more touring?

I’m hoping so. I think everybody enjoyed the shows that we did, but we’ll have to see. We got along so well that I’d be surprised if we didn’t make another record or something.

Did you find the old chemistry was still there right away when you came back together?

Yes it was, pretty much as soon as we started rehearsing. It was like old times. It was immediate and very comfortable and very natural.

The Cars Tour Dates :: The Cars News

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[Published on: 9/12/11]

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