Q&A; WITH CHEAP TRICK'S RICK NIELSEN : 'We're Just One of Those Bands That Likes to Play'

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

C heap Trick has sold about a zillion albums since 1977 when it blasted out of Chicago like the Cubs in the World Series of Ernie Banks' dreams. The band also has been on the road a lot, making new fans as it cranks out that melodic arena rock.

Songs like "Surrender," "I Want You to Want Me" and "Ain't That a Shame" continue to prosper on the radio. And you can bet your baseball cap that the band will play those biggies and more when it headlines the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano tonight and Tuesday.

Rick Nielsen is the guy in the baseball cap with the upturned bill, looking like he just won a Huntz Hall look-alike contest, flailing away on an endless supply of customized guitars. Robin Zander is the rock god front man who makes the hearts of girls who have them beat faster. Jon Brant is the bassist, and Bun E. Carlos sits in the back and hits the drums.

Nielsen talked about things recently from his Chicago home:

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Question: How many baseball caps do you have?

Answer: I've got a lot. People still send a lot of hats to me.

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Q: How many guitars do you have?

A: I've had about 2,000 over the years. I still have a hundred or two. I have one of Jimi Hendrix's guitars, a Dave Edmunds guitar. I have a John Lennon guitar that he played on "Imagine." I also have a 25th-anniversary Fender Stratocaster numbered 000007. The ones that came before were for Jimi Hendrix, Buddy Holly, Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, Richie Blackmore and like that.

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Q: Let me ask a dumb question. Why do guitarists always change guitars on stage? Is it like a hitter changing bats or what?

A: I don't know. I've always done it. There was never any big plan or anything. I just hit my guitars so hard, I knock them out of tune. The most a guitar lasts for me is two songs. I usually take 17 to 20 guitars to a gig. I've got a guitar guy who takes care of them for me. He's been with me since the '70s.

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Q: How many Cheap Trick albums are there?

A: I think there's about 14 or 16, if you count the greatest-hits albums. We just released two albums in Japan. One of them is "Budokan II."

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Q: You guys were on Epic forever. It's unusual for a band to stay anywhere for so long.

A: Yeah, we were at Epic longer than any of their presidents. We were hoping they'd put our names on a bathroom door, a mop closet door, something. We sold a few records for them, but now we're with Warner Bros., and our new album is due in February.

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Q: How often do you guys tour?

A: We tour pretty much all the time. We play a lot of colleges. We're just one of those American bands that likes to play. If we waited until we had a radio hit to play, we probably wouldn't play as much. We've been everywhere--Japan, Australia, South America, Europe.

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Q: Why has Cheap Trick lasted so long?

A: Like I said before, we like to play and we like to think we do a good job. A lot of musicians, our peers, like us. You can go down the list . . . a lot of the new bands say we've influenced them. Also, we're too dumb to quit.

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Q: What's the secret to survival on the road?

A: You have to deal with everything with humor, because the day-to-day drudgery can be intense. So we pick on each other and laugh at each other.

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Q: What advice would you give an aspiring rock star still trapped at Burger King in a funny hat?

A: The main thing is practice, practice, practice. If you have a chance to play, even for little money, take it. Take any job you can get. We've played at bar mitzvahs, weddings, funerals. A long time ago, we had gigs in places like Minot or Fargo, N.D., and there'd be seven people in the bar and four of them would be us, and the other three would be fighting on the pool table.

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Q: What's the Chicago scene like these days?

A: There's always a lot of good music and places to hear it. There's always a lot of good new bands and good old bands, too.

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Q: How 'bout those Bears?

A: The Bears are always good on defense and bad on offense. They always have half a team.

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Q: Anything you haven't done?

A: I just did some work with Michael Kamen and the Rockford Symphony Orchestra on an electric concerto. I'd like to see more of our stuff get orchestrated.

* Cheap Trick plays tonight and Tuesday at 8 p.m. at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano. $27.50. (714) 496-8930.

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