"You know, we take long breaks between albums," Ric Ocasek, singer-songwriter-guitarist of the Cars, remarks with a chuckle, trying to explain away the extreme gap —more than two decades — between his New Wave band's hit streak in the late Seventies and Eighties and the impending release of Move Like This, a set of ten new songs, through Hear Music on May 10th. "It was something I never contemplated until I finished the songs," Ocasek goes on. "I didn't even give it a thought. I just didn't have any interest in it."
But as Ocasek reveals in Rolling Stone's exclusive report about the record in the current issue, the songs — which he had accumulated by this time last year — told him what to do: reconvene the surviving members of the band. Produced by the Cars with Gareth "Jacknife" Lee (U2, R.E.M.), Move Like This was recorded in Los Angeles and upstate New York by Ocasek with drummer David Robinson, guitarist Elliot Easton and keyboard player Greg Hawkes. Bassist-singer Benjamin Orr died in 2000 of cancer, and his absence was keenly felt, Ocasek admits.
"It seemed strange when Ben wasn't there for rehearsals," Ocasek says. "I'm kind of used to the fact that he passed away awhile ago. But when we first got together, it was like, "Oh yeah, it's just the four of us here. Whoever wants to play bass, just play." That turned out to be Hawkes, who ultimately shared the bass work with Lee on the album.
Ocasek also knew he could no longer fall back on Orr's rich supple tenor, a pivotal attraction in the Cars' astute blend of pop wiles and sleek art-rock. "But now it's different," Ocasek claims. "I can hear the Cars' hamonies in Greg and Elliot's voices. But it is missing that Ben thing — I can easily hear the three voices that should be there."
Here are further excepts from that interview, as Ocasek takes his old band for a new ride.
Did it occur to you, as you gathered the other members together, that you had waited too long to start the Cars again?
I thought that could be the case. I knew we still got Eighties recognition — and that's a double-edged sword. But I didn't know, of the new breed of people, as far as new bands go, who knew us and who didn't. But I did find out — most of them knew.
Like Gareth. I thought it would be interesting to to use a producer, not to do it all ourselves. I sent him an email and found out he was a huge fan. He said, "Oh, I drive around in the car and listen to the Cars with my daughter all the time. I can't believe you're asking me to do this."
Were Greg and Elliot surprised to hear from you, given that they had toured as that weird half-reunion, the New Cars, in 2005? You tried to get them not to do it, then gave them your reluctant blessing.
I said, "You can't be the Cars. It's two guys — it's not even close. But if you want to try it, go ahead."
But for me, it was like, fuck the past. Life's too short. This might be fun. I was really curious about how it would be. And when we got together, it was like we had just finished a couple of months ago. There was no figuring out what to do. It was a natural thing.
The Cars' most distinctive quality, in that first lifetime, was the way you combined avant-rock aspiration and machine-like momentum with hit-record class. The phrase I wrote down, while listening to new songs like "Blue Tip" and "Hits Me," was "fortified minimalism."
That sounds about right. One of the things we talked about, when we started [in 1976], was we weren't going to be a jamming band. We were there for the songs. It wasn't going to be, "Oh, you get your solo, and you take those eight bars." We never wanted to do that. [Pauses, then laughs.] At least I didn't.
The Cars had a non-stop run of hits for nearly a decade, then broke up after the 1987 album, Door to Door. What happened?
Life changes, the band attitude and not having a break for all those years — that was all part of it. It became a big dark thing. I noticed it on the Door to Door tour. It was the first tour we did that wasn't fun. Some people took buses, some people took planes. Nobody talked. I was like, "This has to stop. We'll stop in this spot. And I'm not going to back to this again." I held out for 23 years.
You have no firm touring or performance plans yet. How far would you like this reunion to go?
I looked at it like, "We'll make this record. And that's it. Maybe we'll make another one sometime." It wasn't anything like, "We're going to smash this thing through." I definitely had to explain this to Greg and Elliot. I can understand their position. They wouldn't mind being on the road for six months. I could never do that. It might be fun to do a couple of shows or something.
If we do something live, it would just be us four. I'm not going to get another vocalist or an extra guy to play parts. It's not that kind of thing to me. The remainder of the thing is the real thing now.
I hate to use the analogy, but is it really like taking a car out of the garage again?
Yeah, it felt like that. This record was a great experience. I certainly wouldn't mind doing more records. I think a couple of the guys feel that way too. I know David, when the record was done, almost felt sad. He said, "Can't we just do some more? Can't we start on another one now?"