The Cars' Ric Ocasek on reuniting after two decades apart

Elliot Easton, Ric Ocasek, Greg Hawkes, and David Robinson of the Cars, together again
Mark Seliger

The year is 1979. The Bee Gees and Donna Summer are topping the pop charts, much to the dismay of rock fans everywhere, while bands like Blondie are staging a New Wave revolution. Leading the cavalry for the new generation of cutting-edge musicheads is a young band called the Cars, whose debut album, The Cars, had just gone platinum at the end of 1978. They're getting ready to unleash a little record called Candy-O into the world, and they're making their way to the Twin Cities to play Midway Stadium, where they've scored a gig opening for the Doobie Brothers.

"The Doobie Brothers?" scoffs lead singer and songwriter Ric Ocasek. "I know we wouldn't have chosen that band, that's for sure. We probably even talked about it back then. We probably said, 'Why are we opening for the Doobie Brothers? Why aren't we opening for somebody cool?'"

On August 1, 1979, two weeks before the band comes to town, the inaugural issue of the music publication Sweet Potato launches with the Cars on the cover. And now, over three decades later, the band and the paper are celebrating an occasion that neither could have anticipated all those years ago: Sweet Potato, now known as the news and entertainment alt-weekly City Pages, is still going strong, and the Cars, now revered as one of the most influential New Wave rock bands of the '80s, have regrouped to tour behind their first album in 24 years and return to Minneapolis to play First Avenue.

Ocasek recalls their early days as a band with a sense of wonderment. "The whole climb, the whole shock—that's pretty relevant in one's life. It's pretty life-changing," he says. "I always knew I'd stay in music, but I didn't know if I'd be delegated to playing in bars and have a part-time job and play music. When it started to go, it was quite a shock. It's a funny thing to go through."

A lot has changed in the 32 years since the Cars' initial ascendance to fame. After the success of Candy-O, the Cars released four more studio albums before parting ways in 1988, with Ocasek remaining adamant over the years that there was no chance of the band reuniting. Bassist and vocalist Benjamin Orr, who sang lead on some of the band's biggest hits including "Just What I Needed" and "Drive," passed away from pancreatic cancer in 2000. And when keyboardist Greg Hawkes and guitarist Elliot Easton joined forces with Todd Rundgren to form the New Cars in 2005, it only seemed to further drive a wedge between the band's remaining members and jeopardize their chances for a reunion.

But then, for reasons not even he can explain, Ocasek changed his mind.

"He called me up in December 2009 and said nonchalantly, 'I got some songs ready, and I thought we would do a Cars album,'" says drummer David Robinson. "I thought I heard him wrong. I know I didn't hear him just say 'Cars album.' I said, 'You mean the four of us make a Cars album?' He said, 'You got a good idea there...let's do that.'"

Ocasek doesn't see what the big deal is. "It was a spontaneous thought. I probably wouldn't have done that again," he deadpans. "I just got in one of those frames of mind that I just thought, 'I'm not gonna give a hell about the past, and I know that if I get these guys together, it's gonna be easier.' Because they already know the whole procedure, and I respect them as musicians more than almost anyone."

Ocasek called up Hawkes and Easton and popped the question, and just like that, the band was back together. With the songs already written, it didn't take long for them to rehearse and move into the studio, and by February 2010 they were laying down the tracks that make up their new record, Move Like This. Out this week on Concord, Move Like This finds the band employing the familiar elements that defined the Cars' classic sound while simultaneously managing to avoid sounding dated or stuck in the '80s.

"I wanted it to be as modern as it could be. And I think we got it to sound like the Cars and modern at the same time," says Ocasek.

"When this particular group of musicians get together, you sound like the Cars," agrees Hawkes. "It's kind of hard not to."

Move Like This is packed with could-be hits that hearken back to their days of dominating the radio airwaves. "Blue Tip," "Sad Song," and "Free" rely on the uplifting synth parts, buoyant beats, and wry lyrical passages that defined much of their early career, with Ocasek capably handling the vocal duties. "Too Late" recalls the laid-back, irreverent delivery of one of the band's earliest songs, "Let the Good Times Roll," while Ocasek almost sounds as if he's channeling former bandmate Orr on ballads like "Take Another Look."

Speaking in shifts over the phone from New York, where they were rehearsing for the 10-date "don't call it a reunion" tour that will bring them through Minneapolis on Tuesday, the four surviving members of the Cars agree that they're not too concerned with dwelling on the past or overanalyzing the reasons why they are playing together again.

"That word 'reunion' is a dirty word around us," explains Easton. "It's not about a reunion. It's just about getting back together and being the Cars in 2011."

The four musicians say their interactions with one another are friendly and that they've fallen back into old familiar roles. "Once we started working on stuff, the relationship with the guys in the band was just sort of picked up from years ago, really," says Hawkes. "It was very easy working with everybody."

"I don't think anyone would have given it a thought to bring up anything," laughs Ocasek. "It was like we were coming in for something new, and no one was about to bring up anything. I don't think anybody mentioned a word about anything. We just kind of went forward."

Easton has a more romantic understanding of the band's newfound synergy. "People don't always understand what makes bands tick, or what makes them untick," he says. "My take on that is that bands are a very fragile, very ethereal thing. Almost like if you look at them too hard, they disappear. And why the band broke up is like asking why a couple got divorced. One day you're in love, then you're not in love. And it's the same kind of thing with a band: For 10 years it was possible for us to make music together, and one day it felt like we had nothing to say to one another anymore.

"It's impossible to explain," Easton says. "That's part of the magic of it. All of a sudden it seemed possible that we could do it. Maybe there was enough water under the bridge. We were able to move on. For whatever reason, it seemed like this is the time."

THE CARS play on TUESDAY, MAY 17, at FIRST AVENUE; 612.332.1775

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