Legendary Rock Interviews: Q & A with Miles Nielsen — part two

Editor’s note: Local musician Miles Nielsen released his new album, Miles Nielsen Presents the Rusted Hearts, Feb. 14. Nielsen is the son of Cheap Trick guitarist Rick Nielsen. The following is the second part of an interview with Nielsen. Part one appeared in the Feb. 15-21, 2012, issue.

By M.J. Parks

Legendary Rock Interviews (LRI): We talked to Tod Howarth, who played keyboards for a lot of years for Cheap Trick, and he indicated he really enjoyed getting to know you when you were younger and out on the road with them. There’s a book that came out recently called How’s Your Dad, which chronicles the lives of a lot of the rock star kids who grow up on the road and have to adjust to that lifestyle and the pressure involved with being Jack Bruce’s kid or Alice Cooper’s kid. A lot of the stories are funny, but some are just messed up. Do you think your parents tried to keep things as normal as possible for you growing up?

Miles Nielsen (MN): Not really. I think people will say things like, “I can’t believe your parents did this or that,” and I think they all forget that at the end of the day, my parents were just people. My dad was a normal guy from Rockford, Ill., who played music ever since he could remember, and all of a sudden was becoming famous and making money and selling records. And I think in many respects he was just trying to hold on for the ride at some points.

I think, thankfully, we not only had some good folks, but we also had some good folks around us, you know? Some of the friends we had and some of the people in our lives really were there for us also.

It’s Rockford, man, and you know how that is — people are just down to earth, and there are plenty of good people no matter what. To say that they had the premeditated thought to say, “Oh, yeah, we’re going to keep our children away from that” or whatever was probably not the case. I think they just tried to do the best they could and react the best they could to whatever situation would come at them. I don’t think they really had any real drawn-out plan or conscious effort, and if there was, then … wow (laughs).

LRI: Rockford is so much a part of the identity of your dad, but also you and your career. I always have to explain to people just how anonymous and working class the area is or that Cheap Trick is so much bigger in California or Chicago than in town here. I don’t think ANYONE is a big deal in Rockford, including Cheap Trick … (laughs).

MN: No, they’re not. I also think that’s great. People that come into Rockford and try to act like a big deal are the ones who ended up getting thrown out of the bar on their ass. They just don’t put up with it, and it’s because of the fact that most everyone you meet expects you to treat them like real people, and most of them are real good people.

I know that was my experience growing up and being a kid in town, sneaking onto Sinnissippi Golf Course and playing a few holes before being caught by a forest ranger who was like, “Oh, I know where you live, just don’t tear up the ground and go home after a few, the course’s closed.” Or, riding up to Highcrest Lanes and being a dollar short on your cheeseburger, and Tyler just lets you eat it and pay him the next time you’re in. Things like that are just indicative of how Rockford treats people as long as you don’t act like a big deal.

On the rare occasion that someone tries to act like, “Oh, you’re Miles and you’re royalty or whatever,” it’s just like, “Really, I thought I was Miles who just got yelled at by the people at the YMCA for messing around on their basketball court.” (laughs) It is the definition of a “humbling” place by nature.

LRI: The gigs you have been involved with recently for the Dream Police shows are obviously not the first time you’ve worked with Cheap Trick onstage. You and your brother, Daxx, have also worked with your dad in the studio on demos and things over the years. But still, did these symphony shows feel different?

MN: Yeah, definitely, as far as I’m aware, and thinking of how I’m very much a part of the show and the sound of the Dream Police stuff. To tell you the truth, it was work, you know? It was one of those things where Robin [Zander, Cheap Trick’s lead singer] wasn’t expected to sing for the whole soundcheck, so he would leave and the orchestra still had to be rehearsed. And a lot of those rehearsals would fall on me. I would basically fill in for my dad and Robin in those rehearsals and sing lead and play lead guitar, so it was WORK, which made it feel great to get paid (laughs).

For instance, I think I played guitar for about six-and-a-half hours this past New Year’s Eve at the show in Florida. We did something like a four-and-a-half-hour soundcheck and rehearsal, and then a two-hour-plus show. Daxx and I, and actually Tom [Petersson, Cheap Trick bass guitarist], stayed for the entire duration of that day, and it really is a lot of work. But you can’t expect Robin to sing that much in a day because he’d have no voice by show time.

LRI: Is it fair to say your dad’s work ethic and those sessions in the studio working on sounds and setting up sound environments were as influential or more influential to you or Daxx than any individual songs in the catalog?

MN: Probably, yeah. I think the songwriting thing is something you just have to find on your own or develop on your own. Sometimes people will say things like “Oh, you write like your dad” or whatever, and it’s funny because I don’t write anything like my dad. He’s got much more of a mad scientist approach than I do.

I think that those studio elements that you mentioned, or even just talking to him as a member of the band and asking, “Well, why did you write ‘Hello There’?” And he goes, “Well, we needed an opening song.” Or, “Why did you write ‘Auf Weidersehen’?” And he’s like, “Well, we needed a NEW good night song.” Or, “Why did you write ‘Just Got Back’?” “Well, of course, we needed a new opening song.” (laughs) I was just like: “Wow, what a cool idea and way of looking at things. you base your songwriting on your needs for the live show. How cool is that?”

Those are things that I try to take from him, and that’s sort of where we’re at now because we’re going to be doing a TON of shows this year, and I’ve noticed that there’s a couple tunes where it’s like I find myself thinking, “People love that tune, we need a couple more tunes like that to open the show,” or “We need something to really tie a bow on the ending or put a stamp on the end of the show.”

LRI: That’s just another aspect of taking the performance and the overall career to a major league level, don’t you think?

MN: Absolutely. I think I’ve been guilty of it in the past, and many have been guilty of just simply going up there and without a proper game plan or show presentation. You can’t honestly expect people in a paying audience to really take that seriously.

LRI: Just kind of going through the motions and playing your songs to pay your bar tab?

MN: Or, just simply playing to drink (laughs). People will be like, “Hey, let’s do a shot,” and I’m thinking, “During the show or after the show?” because after the show would be a much better idea. I’ve also heard people say things like, “Well, I play much better when I drink”and it’s like, “No, you don’t actually, you just THINK you do.”

LRI: I hear that the Nielsen family entertainment legacy is truly secure because your daughter is already breathing down your neck and writing songs before making the leap out of elementary school. Does that blow your mind?

MN: It does. She’s pretty amazing. That actually blows my mind much more than anything I’ve ever written. I think the fact that I found I could procreate and that stuff actually works is also pretty amazing, too, but that girl is something else. It’s pretty wild that she wrote a song and that it just came out of the blue. I was like, “Oh, you wrote a song, OK.” And of course, I listened to it and was like, “And you wrote a GOOD song, OK.”

Now, of course, her whole thing is that there was a guy in Milwaukee who books shows for me and heard me on a radio station up there when I played her song on the air during an interview and jokingly said, “Hey, Miles, I’d like to book your daughter as well.” So I told her that, and she was like, “Oh, great … well, I’ve gotta write more songs because I can’t just get up there and play one song.” So now, she’s really adamant about writing more tunes. She said she’s just having trouble with the words, so …

LRI: What’s going on with your soundtrack and film work? I heard the film score you were involved with for the movie Undefeated was nominated for an Oscar.

MN: Yeah, that actually happened (laughs). Myself and Daniel James McMahon, the Rusted Hearts’ guitar player and producer in my band, did it together, and my brother Daxx played drums on it, and some of the other guys who appear on my record performed on that score as well. I had to cancel a show in Rockford actually so that we could make the trip out for the Oscars, which is wild, but I kind of downplay how much we have to do with all of it other than creating the music. It’s like a pretty cool opportunity to get out and also play some shows in L.A., so I figure, what the heck, go with it and see what happens. I’m from Rockford, which means you have to tend towards being pragmatic and opportunistic, and this is definitely an opportunity for us.

LRI: You guys and your van have definitely racked up some numbers on the odometer. You play pretty much whenever you can, whether it’s a large festival or a small club. The environments can range from audiences that are really familiar with your stuff to places that are really quiet and unfamiliar. Is that a challenge?

MN: It is, but that’s kind of what’s fun. The quiet gigs are really challenging to a band.

LRI: I know you posted a clip on Facebook of people being the total opposite way and talking really loud over whoever’s in the room playing, which is super annoying.

MN: It is. Yeah, that’s pretty much one of my biggest pet peeves when I go see someone live — having to struggle to hear over the top of everyone’s conversations. It’s really annoying, and I just really don’t get it. Like, why would you pay to go out and engage in seeing someone play music live and totally just be oblivious to the performance? I know I’m not the only one who just finds that amazing, and I can really say no more other than, “Why are you DOING that???” (laughs)

LRI: Some would try and compensate by playing louder than the idiotic conversations and mingling.

MN: Not, me. I tend to do the exact opposite and make them struggle to listen by getting quieter and quieter so everyone in the room can hear them. “If you wanna talk rather than listen, then I’m gonna make sure everyone can hear your story.”

LRI: Maybe you could mic them?

MN: (laughs) Perhaps.

LRI: The new material is pretty involved and has a lot going on with different instrumentation that lends kind of an almost ELO or Sgt. Pepper feel to it. I know you’re the principal songwriter, but how important were the guys in the band in terms of what I’m hearing boom through the headphones?

MN: Oh, very important. On a scale of one to 10, I’d say a solid nine with the 10th extra point going to our production and mastering team, who did a fantastic job on their end.

LRI: It really lends itself to repeated listens because of the fact that there are not only good songs, but good production. I know some artists are concerned about doing too much, that it could be an issue as far as pulling it off live. Are you guys worried that you’re going to have to invest in a bigger vehicle just to lug around all the tympani and xylophones and instruments? Is this something you can translate live?

MN: Definitely, and I’m not worried about it because I think that’s what’s so cool about working in the studio. You can make records solely to make records and play live solely to play live, and those two entities can be different and cool in their own way. That’s what the recording studio and records are for. You can explore different things and, at the same time, there’s material on the new album which is much more sparse, and there’s not nearly as much going on. You can have that freedom, which is what’s so amazing. For the record, though, we are always interested in upgrading from our van, “Blue,” but don’t tell him that.

LRI: There is a lyric on the new album that laments women holding doors for you. Does that really happen?

MN: Some have. Some have. I think that’s usually just when they’ve been out on the town and drinking in clubs and looking for someone to go home with, but I’m not that guy (laughs).

LRI: I’d like to finish by playing a game of “OR,” if we have time. Axl or Slash?

MN: Oh, Slash.

LRI: Analog or digital?

MN: That’s a trick question because the answer is analog if I could afford it, but my studio has digital, so what can I say?

LRI: Ukelele or xylophone?

MN: Oh, jeez. I’m gonna lean towards xylophone.

LRI: Megadeth or Metallica?

MN: Early Metallica, hands down.

LRI: Leaf lettuce or shred lettuce?

MN: Leaf lettuce, for sure.

LRI: Loves Park or Central Park?

MN: I’m actually gonna go Loves Park on this one.

LRI: Conversion van or minivan? (Keeping in mind there’s a lot of hot moms driving minivans.)

MN: Definitely conversion van.

LRI: SpongeBob or Squidward?

MN: SpongeBob is my choice.

LRI: Taco Bell or Taco John’s?

MN: Oh, that’s a tough one there. If I could go with just one for the rest of my life, I guess it would be Taco John’s, just because of that apple bel grande thing.

LRI: Bed, Bath or Beyond?

MN: (long pause). Ahhhh … oh, man … I’m a fan of the bath.

LRI: Facebook or Twitter?

MN: Twitter.

LRI: Triumph or Rush?

MN: (laughs) RUSH!

From the Feb. 22-28, 2012, issue

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