Come 2018, we may finally see The Cars justly inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The three-time nominees are up for the Class of 2018, a slot they’ve more than earned as one of the most enduring, appealing and substantial bands of the New Wave era. While many of their contemporaries can lay claim to (at best) one solid album, The Cars’ power pop-fueled self-titled debut and 1984’s synth-heavy Heartbeat City are stone-cold classics – and everything that came in between is pretty damn solid, too.
But Cars leader Ric Ocasek isn’t idling in neutral, waiting for the Rock Hall’s decision. The long-running musician is also an avid drawer, occasionally turning his pen-and-paper compositions into larger painted works. Those sizable pieces are the subject of Ric Ocasek: Color the Lines, an exhibit running Oct. 21-Nov. 30 at Wentworth Galleries in Short Hills, NJ, with Ocasek making an in-person appearance at the gallery from 5-8 p.m. this Saturday, Oct. 21.
Ahead of the gallery’s opening and following the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s announcement that The Cars were nominated, Billboard chatted with Ocasek about everything from his upcoming compilation featuring unreleased music to the differences between making music and drawing – and we even got him to promise to use his art for an album cover, just for us.
So The Cars are up for the Rock Hall. That’s your third nomination – what’s your reaction at this point?
[Laughs] “Oh, here’s another one I’m definitely not going to spend a lot of time waiting for.” When it was the first time I thought, “oh, that’s exciting!” Everyone was like, “you guys are in, no problem, you’re there,” so then we weren’t. So then I thought, I guess I don’t need to listen to that. So next time around I didn’t pay much attention to it, and when people said “you’re there,” when it went by I thought, “ah, that’s cool.” So this is the third, and we’ll see what happens. It would be nice, but I’m ready for it to be either way.
If you do get in, will that attitude change? Will you be ecstatic?
More like… it’s hard to tell, I remember the first one around, I thought, “what would I say up there?” So I wrote a few things down, and this one, I’m not writing anything — I’m going to just wait and see. I think I would be very pleased with it. I don’t know if it’s my life dream, but it would be a huge compliment.
I’d love to see The Cars get in, I’m a big fan of your catalog and that last album was really fantastic, too. Are you working on anything more?
Yeah, I am going to be doing more. I always say that, but I am. I’m always working on something. Lately we’ve been doing all those reissue things and remastering things, and at first I was like, “why do we do this?” but when I heard the remastering, it was like bringing an album to life. Sound quality has changed so much over the years, bass to bass response, all this different stuff, so I was quite surprised how much punchier everything could sound. I’m glad that’s gotten done. And then I have another thing coming out, it’s all the best picks of the solo albums, that should be out soon, and that’s got another 10 or 15 songs that nobody’s ever heard.
Demos, or finished studio tracks?
Some are finished, some are demos. It’s stuff I’ve always liked but never put it on things. If you like something for a long time, there’s something to it. It probably wouldn’t be until the spring.
You have an art exhibit coming up – you’re been drawing for a long time, but what made you think, “I want to put it all together and share this with people”?
I had a lot [of art], first of all. I’ve always had this thing about, it’s almost like writing songs for me, drawing. You write the song, record the song, master the song, you get it all nice, and drawing for me is like that too. I do a lot of drawings, more on the abstract side, more like the Kandinsky side. I’ve been doing that since ’60s, but I think I’ve gotten better at it now — a fool becomes wise in his own folly over time. I’ve gotten more concise. My past art experience, I was a draftsman for a year once, and an assistant wallpaper art director guy for a year, this was like 18-19. I always drew, it was always meditative. But what I want to do with these drawings is blow ’em up on canvases and paint them. I’ve done shows, but those were the actual drawings, 17 or 24 inches high. These canvases are more like 4 feet. I’ve done some acrylics on canvas, maybe 10, whereas I’ve done 800 more drawings.
That’s quite a lot.
Well, it’s a lot of years. It’s neat I get to blow them up, I think everything should be big. You go into a museum and see something you like and it’s the size of a playing card, and it’s hard. And I prefer to show them that way.
And you used a type of color markers for some of these?
There’s a couple of companies that put out these pens, they’re almost like brushes and pens at the same time, they’re not hard-tipped, but they’re not like markers. These are more like brushes. I use those because the colors are so phenomenal. But I do use mostly pen and ink, acrylics, I used to do collages, so a lot of decoupage, and painting within the collage. A lot of the big pieces have collage work.
Would you ever use one of your paintings for an album cover, maybe that solo compilation you were talking about?
Oh for sure, that would be nice, I would like to do that. That’s what I will do, just for you Joe. That’s a good idea. [laughs]
What are some of the artists you’re inspired by?
Well, I always love Andy Warhol. He was a good friend, and I always loved him and his stuff. His stuff I loved not only because it looks amazing, but it was different than everyone else’s and had an idea behind it. To this day I love Warhol, I loved Pop Art more than classic. I like the Whitney [Museum in New York City]. I can be sporadic with who I like, obviously I like Picasso. I just saw some of his stuff in Germany, and it was really some of the more abstract Picasso I’ve seen, it was very detailed. I like Alan Vega’s crosses. It depends. Like most people, I’m reactionary to whatever I see. If you give anything a double take, it interests you, but if you stand there for a minute, you really like it.
How does doing painting compare to doing music for you? Is it more relaxing?
I think it’s much more relaxing. It’s not that I’m not relaxed when I’m write. Well, I’m probably not relaxed, I’m probably just stoned when I write songs. But it’s more physical. You’re playing an instrument and singing and thinking of prose, and putting together a bunch of ideas into something. With drawing, it’s all in one spot and one area, and it’s really just the hand and the mind; you start with something and it grows. The creative process is the same, but to draw, it’s a lot less, well, you can take your time. With writing songs, personally, I have to be in a songwriting mood, and that lasts a specific amount of time. It’s not like I can wake up tomorrow at 9 and go, okay, I’m going to write today. I really need to write songs now, and I’m probably going to be doing it the next month or two, all day, and then I’m going to run out of ideas. But with art, I can just put the pad down, walk away, go back the next day and do it; I’m not going to lose the idea. Whereas with a song, I might lose the idea if I don’t capture it right away. So it’s slightly different. I would say it’s much more meditative than writing songs.
And you can paint for yourself – you don’t have to worry about a band, touring, labels.
Totally. That’s totally true. With the art, I’m not thinking it’s going to go out anyway. Maybe someday it’ll be found, but I’m not pushing it on anybody. I never felt pressure to finish it except finishing because I wanted to see what it looked like.
So you live in New York City now, but you’re from Baltimore.
I lived in Baltimore ’til I was about 16. I remember when I was about 15, taking a trip to New York by myself, because I was so enamored with the idea of New York City. Then I ran around, lived in the Midwest quite a while, Cleveland, Ann Arbor, Michigan, then I moved to Boston. But in the back of my mind, I said, “You know, New York is the place, really, I’m gonna get there.” Finally, around 1984, that’s where I ended up, and that’s where I’ve been ever since.
It’s the best.
There’s no other place. Sure, Paris is beautiful and London is great, but New York is New York, and there’s no place like it. Even though I’ve been a lot of places, every time I come back in the city I get excited about it. As soon as we start driving in, I’m like, “there it is.”
Anything else on your mind these days?
Yeah. I won’t get into our world today though. We’ll be here all night.