His real name is Brad. Brad Carlson. His father owned a roofing business in Rockford, Illinois and by all accounts, he probably should have ended up working in the family business. Back in 1927, his grandfather had helped put the roof on the building where Brad would eventually attend Junior High so it was certainly in his blood. In Junior High, Brad played the French Horn and discovered that he liked playing music. When he saw the Beatles on TV, he suddenly became obsessed with playing the drums.
“My mother went to the music store to buy me a snare drum,” Brad said. “God bless that salesman because he talked her into buying me a whole kit. It was cheap and the cymbals sounded like trash can lids when you hit them, but it was a whole set. We had a old jukebox in the basement so my brother and I turned the volume screw in the back all the way up and I am sure drove the rest of the family nuts learning to play the drums by playing along with records. I can read music for the French Horn, but I never got around to learning how to read drum music.”
Like many aspiring rock drummers in the mid-1960s, Brad played in a fair number of bands. Eventually, the swapping musicians process landed Carlson, Rick Nielsen, Tom Petersson, and Robin Zander in a band called Cheap Trick. Petersson inadvertently provided the band’s name when he and Nielsen attended a Slade concert and he commented that, “they used every cheap trick in the book” in their live show. Nielsen dreamed up their iconic logo playing around with an old manual typewriter. The band set a modest goal of writing enough songs to record an album. Their star continued to rise in Japan and Europe but they were largely ignored by the American record buyers until their third LP was released (Heaven Tonight 1978). Although Live at Budokan (1979) was intended as a ‘Japan only’ release, demand for it in the states lead to Epic Records releasing it stateside spurring gold record sales of the first three albums. A modest beginning which has stretched into a forty year career of constant touring and recording. Carlson doesn’t tour with the band anymore, but he is still involved with what he calls “the corporation” . Cheap Trick’s latest album Bang, Zoom, Crazy …Hello was released April 1 of 2016 and the band will be inducted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on April 16, 2016.
How did Brad Carlson end up Bun E. Carlos? “Well, we had three ‘sons’ in the band so we didn’t want to sound like a bunch of Swedes, so I changed my name to Carlos. I was always called ‘Bun’ so I added the ‘E’ and became ‘Bun E. Carlos’.” This has worked for Carlos everywhere except in Japan. Carlos went on to explain, “They don’t have any middle names or initials in Japan, so when we landed there, they kept calling me ‘BEW-knee’.”
There are a couple of versions to the story of why Nielsen’s son Daxx is now occupying the drum throne in Cheap Trick. The part everyone agrees on is Carlos’ back problems forced him to miss the 2010 tour and Daxx stepped in. When Carlos had healed sufficiently to resume his duties, the band stiff armed him. It had been rumored that lead singer Robin Zander did not get along with Carlos and had given the band a ‘him or me’ ultimatum. After some legal wrangling, the band announced that Carlos retired from the road and recording, yet retained his lucrative percentage of the Cheap Trick franchise. It only seems right owing to his history as a founding member of the band and I, for one, am glad to see that they have settled their differences.
Carlson has made peace with the break. In a presentation to band students at his old Junior High school, Carlos told the students that , ”after 36 years of touring, it gets old. Don’t get me wrong, being a ‘rock star’ is great, but the constant travel and living in hotel rooms gets old.” He has retired from touring with Cheap Trick, but he has recorded some special projects with them. As the long time band archivist, he is in the process of sorting through thousands of hours of concerts for future releases from the band’s back catalog of work.
In another interview, Carlos mentioned his other musical projects: “I have done some shows with Fountains of Wayne as a fill in drummer. That has been pretty cool. I also play with a Monday band. There is a group of us that get together and play at a club every Monday. Most musicians play the rest of the week so that is the only day everyone is open. We kind of have the Monday gig market cornered.”
When Cheap Trick first ventured to Los Angeles to record, they were pitched various concepts to consider to market the band. “Gold lame suits, costumes, stuff like that didn’t make sense to us. When we started, we all had long hair. Rick eventually cut his hair and started wearing the Huntz Hall – Bowery Boys cap. I cut my hair and my look was straight from the Goodwill store because the white shirts were twenty five cents each and comfortable to wear when playing. Robin and Tom were always the good looking, long haired rock and rollers, so it made more sense for us to stick with being us. I don’t think we would have lasted long trying to be like KISS.”
Growing up in Rockford, Carlos was a train ride away from seeing a lot of his musical idols perform in Chicago. “When I started seeing shows in Chicago at sixteen, I started getting a lot of my drummer questions answered. I could not figure out how drummers got that ‘swishy’ cymbal sound that I heard on records. Seeing Ringo play his hi-hat, it finally clicked: So THAT is how they get that sound.” As he often says at drum workshops, “Hey, I didn’t invent any of these licks. I heard someone else use them and I nicked them, or appropriated them, or however you want to say it. The opening drum line to I Want You to Want Me is just a slightly different take on something I heard from The Ventures.”
The presentation Carlos did for the school kids in Rockford was fascinating for a couple of reasons. First of all, Carlos is decked out in baggy jeans and his ever present baseball cap. He runs down a long list of his career highlights (and he is not bragging here, he is just stating the facts) and he certainly does not remind one of a ‘rock star’. He even describes the rabid greeting they were given by 4,000 screaming girls at the airport in Japan on their first tour as a, “Whoa, what is this?” moment. When their Live at Budokan album flew up the charts, they were in Europe. They had no idea that when they left the states to open for another band in Europe that they would came home to find out they were suddenly ‘rock stars’. His message was also one of encouragement. Carlos told the kids that starting to play music at their level is hard work, but if they find they love music, they can make a living at it. “Even if you are not the greatest musician, there are a lot of ways to make a living in music,” he told them. He ran down a long list of people who work in the music business and are vital to a touring band like Cheap Trick. Managers, roadies, truck drivers, and right on down to the venue ushers and light riggers were listed as people who “work in the music business”. When asked, “What would you be doing if you weren’t a musician?”, Carlos replied, “I would probably be working for the family roofing business, but I would still have found a way to do something with music.”
The other Rockford-Chicago connection evident in the Bun E. Carlos story is Ludwig Drums. Based in Chicago, the Wm. F. Ludwig Company was practically in his neighborhood. Having Ringo play Ludwig drums (rather than the Premier brand prefered by most English drummers) sold a lot of drums for Ludwig. Ringo was the first drummer to put a LUDWIG logo on his bass drum because he wanted everyone to see he could afford ‘American’ drums. In the spring of 1966, I didn’t make the connection that the shiny new drum set sitting in my living room was the same as Ringo’s kit (but with a silver sparkle finish and not oyster shell). Fifty years later, I am still in awe of what a fine line of drums Ludwig has manufactured all these years. Carlos takes this a bit farther in that he is an avid collector of all things Ludwig and has amassed a large collection that he stores in what he calls “Bun E.’s Bunker”.
The Bunker has shelves of drums of just about every model and finish that Ludwig has produced back to the early days of the 1900s. Single snares, full sets, and even clusters of cowbells and bass drum muffle pads are arranged in neat rows on custom made shelves. Many are ‘one off’ models that were produced as demonstrators. The drums that were never put into mass production are rarities that collectors covet. My favorite set is the ‘salesman kit’ – so called because Ludwig made a complete drum set that has strips of every sparkle finish they sold banded about every drum. If you can picture a rainbow covered drum set only in sparkle colors, then you get the idea.
I had always wondered why the video of Cheap Trick’s version of Don’t Be Cruel (from Lap of Luxury 1988) had Carlos playing left handed on a gold sparkle kit set up for lefties. It turns out that like one of his idols, Ringo Starr, Carlos is a born lefty who learned to play drums right handed. No doubt this little homage to his natural left handedness was also a way to take some of the drudge out of making yet another video for yet another chart topping single. One will also note that Carlos was still chain smoking behind the kit, a habit he eventually dropped for health reasons.
The most remarkable thing that I have found out of meeting professional musicians is that the vast majority of them are down-to-earth people. By the nature of the business they are in, they get boxed into a certain image or label, but for the most part, they enjoy their job and the perks that come from wide spread acceptance of what they do. They also have cringe-worthy moments that they can look back at and laugh about; “What were we thinking?” All things considered, Bun E. Carlos is still Brad Carlson. Carlson is two years older than I am so our early drum influences (right down to the Ludwig drums and tolerant family parts) are very similar. Watching the grey bearded, older him talking to Junior High students about life and music makes a good matching bookend to what I do for a living. The forty year career arc we each experienced in between the bookends are not comparable in any way, shape or form, but there is a common thread: like Brad Carlson, I have spent forty years doing what I enjoy and being involved in music. Who could ask for more than that?