I firmly believe that if Ric Ocasek had not met Greg Hawkes, Ric's songs would not have reached the heights that they do.
Without Hawkes musical contributions to Ocasek penned tunes the final product ultimately would have suffered.
Hawkes as stated by Ric on many occasions gives an emotion or musical intangibility to an Ocasek written tune that even Ric couldn't muster himself. Hawkes is always a phone call a way (or used to be ) when Ric needed him and Hawkes always obliged. He has co-written with Ocasek on Cars material as well as Ric's individual efforts.
The following article is from Musician magazine that talks about their relationship as collaboraters as well as the recording sessions of Heartbeat City.
Written By J. D Considine "The Cars Take Another Hairpin Curve" 1984
"When you get tired of fitting in, then you'll be what you are."
Ric Ocasek, Greg Hawkes and I are sitting in a small lounge downstairs at the Cars' Syncro Sound Studios in Boston. At one end of the room a television glows soundlessly as a house fire wreaks havoc on one of the soaps; upstairs, an unnamed band hammers stoically through its second hour of drum check. Just another day in the music business.
The topic at the moment is Songs We Like, with Van Halen's "Jump" the current focus of discussion. Perhaps surprisingly, perhaps not, both Hawkes and Ocasek like it. "A good song is a good song," Ocasek shrugs by way of explanation. I agree, but add that not everybody hears things so fairly. To some people, "Jump" isn't a good song, it's a Van Halen song, and Van Halen shouldn't be too lavishly praised because, well....
"Because it's not cool?" Ocasek asks, with a tinge of sarcasm. "Who cares! I like anybody who does something good.
"There are a lot of elitists who feel that if you like what the masses like, it's uncool," he continues from behind his dark glasses. 'I think the best thing you could possibly be is uncool. When you get tired of fitting in, then you'll be what you are.
"Be what you are" is something of a Cars by-law. In the roughly six years since the band first burst forth from the Boston club scene with an eponymous debut album and two top-forty hits, "Just What I Needed" and "My Best Friend's Girl," the Cars have been a band in a category by itself. On the one hand, the Cars' songwriter, Rio Ocasek, wrote songs that were as self-conscious, alienated and emotionally distanced as anything washed ashore by rock's new wave. These were dressed up by his band mates- keyboardist Greg Hawkes, bassist Ben Orr, guitarist Elliot Easton and drummer David Robinson-in an array of blank rhythms, quirky textures and angular hooks. Yet on the other hand, this pointedly avant-pop approach was quickly embraced by fans and radio alike, and sold like hotcakes while other new wavers remained buried underground.
As a result, the band has been seen as the product of extremes. we've been written up a lot for having a duality," says Hawkes, the pop band on one side and the arty band' on the other.' Though it's true that the cars' singular sound can easily be broken into two separate parts, it would be a mistake to claim that the band's sound and success is simply a matter of formula. After all, there have been plenty of other bands that have exhibited similar characteristics with far less success, from the early days of Roxy Music to the current struggle of XTC.
You might even go so far as to wonder if the cars' avoidance of formula is part of the reason they've done so well. Ocasek does. During the Songs We Like symposium, I asked him what songs by other people he liked to play when he was starting out, and he answered, "I never did that. I've played maybe two covers in my life. Three. which I think is an advantage. I never really learned other people's songs, and never really learned those forms. I sometimes wonder if that's not the reason the stuff I do is not reminiscent of those things...
Still, there is a cars sound, and even if you can't categorize t or pinpoint its lineage, it's easy enough to identify. Hawkes: There are little specific things that are cars trademarks, like the clicky guitar eighths with a few quirky synthesizer lines around them and a fairly straight rock beat To me, that is the cars sound. Some of the vocal mannerisms seem like trace-mark touches, too. Even the way the background vocals are recorded, with a kind of multi-tracked sound so they're not way up front, but are still kind of thick."
A good description, and one which is instantly shattered upon hearing Heartbeat City, the latest Cars album. From me flanged smear given the opening vocals in 'Hello Again" to the warm blanket of synths wrapped around Ben Orr's croon in Drive ,"it's clear that this is not the strangeness with which we have become so familiar. Some, like 'Drive" and 'Why Can't I Have You," seem to have been softened for the mainstream market of housewives and Hot Hits; others, like "Magic" or It's Not The Night," sound like they've been beefed up to make the qualifying weight for AOR muscle-band fans. By the third or fourth listening, you can pick out many of the familiar devices, but only after you've realized where to look for them, because for the most part, Heartbeat City downplays individual quirks to go for a more unified, wholly integrated sound.
"It seems like a natural progression," says Hawkes of the difference between the stereotypical Cars sound and that of the new album. "Yeah, I think it was just the next logical step," agrees Ocasek. 'Those songs were the ones we did, and the way it worked out was the way it came out. There was definitely no attempt to do it in a different style."
But what's so natural and logical about an album that sounds so different? Why, the fact that it sounds different, of course. Consider the confusion over exactly where the band sits in the rock world. If the Cars were totally predictable, it would be much easier to slide them into a convenient pigeonhole. Therefore, once the band has established the basics of a sound-the clicking guitar and quirky synthesizer Hawkes describe-the next step would be to walk away from it, so that the audience is thrown off balance. Just as they were when they heard the first album.
You go through and you make all kinds of records," Ocasek says. This is the fifth Cars album; it should have a different sound than the fourth record. That's really the crux of the thing. It's not like any prior Cars album. It doesn't sound like one. With time, it's going to sound like a Cars record, because the vocals are the same. But in a sense, it's a change. And change is always good."The way you change is also a consideration, of course, and the fact that the Cars hired a very mainstream producer, John "Mutt" Lange of AC/DC fame, is in its own way more surprising than if the band had turned in a hair-raisingly avant-garde effort. "It would be easy to make a record that nobody would like," Ocasek muses That's not very difficult. I could make a record for the critics, or I could make a record for 10,000 people The point is whether that's the real reason you're doing it.
Besides, argues Hawkes, the seeming conservatism of Heartbreak City is just another swing of the band's internal pendulum. He explains. Up until this particular album, I've always felt proudest of Panorama. I think that was our most adventurous, as far as doing whatever we wanted. Not that we don't do what we want on the other records, but Panorama seemed to be the one that swung to the left the most. I guess this recoin is really just a swing in the other direction."
"We were using Mutt for pretty much the same reason, adds Ocasek We wanted a change. We could have produced it ourselves if we wanted to. But as a sound person, I really like Mutts sound. I thought that the combination of the sound he gets and what we do would mingle pretty nicely. Mutt's never done a Band like us; he's done a lot of heavy metal But I thought the two could mix.
Indeed they did, out not in the way one might have expected. Certainly there's a lot of Mutt Lange in the beefy crunch of Magic" and the crisp shifts in dynamics that spur It's Not The Night. Out that's largely a function of his way with guitar sounds, and there really isn't much guitar on the album, Strangely enough.' says Hawkes, 'part of that was working with Mutt i say strangely because you would expect that for a producer with his background there would be more guitar and less synthesizer But I think Mutt was really intrigued with working with Keyboards a lot. I think it was a way for him to do something different."
In making Heartbeat City, the operative phrase was "working with keyboards a lot." Among the many gadgets on hand at Battery Studios n London, where the album was recorded, was a Fairlight Computer Musical Instrument, which the band decided to use on the new album. Why? "To learn about it," shrugs Ocasek. Because your parameters are widened by what you can do with it, soundwise and on almost any level of playing. Because it's here today and is there to be used if you want to use it. It's just another instrument. We just chose on this record to get very involved with it."
'Very involved" is an understatement. It took Greg Hawkes, Andy Topeka and David Robinson a month just to learn how to use the thing. And use it they did-" maybe between seventy and eighty percent of the keyboard parts are programmed on the computer" says Hawkes. "But you've got to realize that it might take eight hours of preparation on one part, programming it a certain way. Then maybe it sounds stiff, so you have to try programming it in a different way. You really do have to work with the typewriter as far as entering the various functions and parameters goes. It's not easy to change a sound, as with the twist of a knob-and I'm used to twisting knobs."
But once it's all in there, playing it back is just a matter of pushing a button, right? Nope. "It's kind of misleading to say that once you have it in the computer you can get it with one take," replies Hawkes. "Because you might spend literally hours playing around with the sound and all the other parameters before you actually turn on the tape."
Aside from making more work for Hawkes, the use of computers didn't really change the songs on Heartbreak City, lust the way they sounded. "The only thing I'm concerned about is the feel of everything," says Ocasek. "The sound is important as well, but you can try sounds and more sounds until you find exactly what you want. The real momentum is in your feel, as opposed to the technology part of it. Technology is just a byproduct, something that, if you want to use it, you can use it."
The process begins with Ocasek's writing. "The songs are written first, written for the most part on a cassette recorder or on an B-track. I put everything down live, and it usually takes me about a night to do one. But it obviously depends on the song.
'Then, to reproduce the song in a studio situation, it's just a matter of finding the basic elements of a song, and using that as a guideline. The arrangements are basically on the demo, and between Greg and myself and the band-whoever is in the rehearsal situation before recording-we work it out. We might move things around a little bit, embellish things more, because those are rough tapes. But the song is already there, so that one could refer to it all the time, as to what it will ultimately sort of sound like."
"Ric writes the songs, which generally consist of the basic structure, all lyrics and sometimes that's all it consists of," elaborates Hawkes Sometimes it consists of a complete arrangement, with all the keyboard melodies and background parts. On this particular record, most of the songs went through at least one or two complete changes.
"This is how it would happen: Mutt would suggest something, and I'll come up with my own little variation, and maybe Rip will be out in the other room hearing all this, and will come into the control room with another suggestion. There was a lot of playing around with arrangements on this one.
All that effort wasn't simply a matter of getting the right gloss finish on the album, however. It was to get the right sense o~ guts. "Mutt's a definite stickler for feel," says Ocasek. "He'd sit there with somebody for hours working on a part, and only looking for the feel. If he didn't hear the feel, it wasn't down on tape.
'Writing's different than recording. When I'd write it, the feel was all there Mutt would always refer to the demos and say, 'You've got to have the feel of this,' or, 'This doesn't have the feel of the demo-do it again.' That's the point of creativity, it's always trying to get that feel. Because the demos, when they've got it, just naturally work, whether they're out of time or not, no matter where they sit. They just work, because they're done quickly and at the point of inspiration, You have to marry the feel to the technology to get it right."
Unfortunately, that's much easier said than done, particularly when dealing with the level of automation the Fairlight CMI entails. People are fallible, and unlike computers, don't always land each note smack in the middle of the beat, That's what makes so much music feel human. That's also what makes programming for feel hell on the programmer,
"We spent quite a bit of time moving some of these parts around in literally milliseconds-a little ahead, a little behind the beat-until it felt right," reports Hawkes with what sounds like a mixture of weariness and pride. "That was really how small the units we were working in were. Sometimes, when we put down a part, if it read out mathematically correct, it did feel wrong. It would feel slow, or maybe there was a characteristic of the sound that would make the part feel late. So we would spend quite a lot of time advancing things in very small steps, or delaying them in very small steps, until the flow was right."
By now, perhaps you've noticed that, as with the way their music is perceived, there's something of a duality between the way Ocasek and Hawkes work, Ocasek with his quickly conceived demos and Hawkes with his patient piecework. One lauds his demos because "they just naturally work, whether they're out of time or not," the other argues that "I like working with drum machines better than working without 'em." Even their appearances seem poles apart, with Ocasek's lanky height forever draped in black to artistic effect while Hawkes remains an average-looking fellow dressed in neutral colors and possessed of the sort of demeanor generally reserved for math whizzes.
On the other hand, all that may be smoke, for Ocasek and Hawkes seem at times little more than the opposite sides of the same coin. Towards the end of the interview, Hawkes is summing up his sense of the band, following my suggestion that the secret of the Cars is that they are five musicians with an avant-garde sensibility but pop tastes.
"Yeah," he says, "we really, as a band, try not to take things too seriously. I think if you actually meet the people in the band, you get the sense of playfulness that certain writers don't seem to have found yet. Because they haven't seen that, they see the Cars as a very serious, very calculated, very thought-out enterprise. Which is really not the case. We're spontaneous, but structured at the same time."
Sort of humor with discipline?
Ocasek answers by tossing a paper airplane from across the room.
"That shows you what I mean," says Hawkes. "I'm sure he was planning that all day...."
Ric Ocasek is a Gibson guitar man, playing mostly a '55 Les Paul Jr or an SG. Occasionally, he'll switch to a Fender guitar, usually his pink Jazzmaster. All are sent through Marshall amps with a minimum of treatment.
At home, he uses a LinnDrum supplemented by 'a lot of cheap drum machines, which I love. I even have an old Hammond organ that has the 'Mersey Beat' on it." His keyboards are Prophet synthesizers, the Roland Jupiter B and the Memorymoog. He tapes. onto an 80M TEAC, through a Sound Workshops board with outboard processing gear that includes Roland Space Echoes, Even tide harmonizers, Marshall time modulators and the Lexicon 224 delay.
Elliot Easton own Scholz Rockmans.
Greg Hawkes Both Greg and Ric used the Fairlight CMI extensively on Heartbeat City, but also used the Roland Jupiter B and Vocoder, the Memorymoog, the Yamaha DX7 and DX9, the Mini-Korg, a Prophet 5 and a PPG 3.2 Wave synthesizer.