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Meet Cheap Trick’s Secret Weapon

When Robin Taylor Zander was a little kid, he loved spending his summers on the road with his father’s band, Cheap Trick. At night, he’d snuggle up next to his dad, lead singer Robin Wayne Zander, on the tour bus, and when they performed he’d watch every show from the side of the stage. “All I wanted to do was go up there,” he says. “I wanted to be Bun E. Carlos.”

He got the chance in 2016 when Daxx Nielsen, who replaced Carlos as the band’s drummer in 2010, had to take time off for the birth of his child. Cheap Trick flew the younger Zander in as a last-minute sub despite his relative inexperience. “I was very, very nervous,” he says. “It’s one thing to play with your friends on the weekend when you’re in high school. It’s another thing to play for thousands of people and hold down the beat.”

Those handful of shows led to a full-time position in the band as a rhythm guitarist and background singer, and it placed him in position to sub in for bassist Tom Petersson in 2021 when Petersson was sidelined by heart surgery. He’s also filled in for lead guitarist Rick Nielsen a handful of times when health issues forced him off the road, meaning he has now played every single role in Cheap Trick besides his dad’s lead singer gig.

“If you asked me five years ago if all this stuff would happen, I would have said you were crazy,” says Zander, 28. “It’s all just been mind-blowing to me, and it’s shown me what I can do under pressure. It’s opened my eyes to so many things.”

It’s inevitable that some fans will resent seeing the frontman’s kid join the band — a knock that’s familiar to second-generation performers from Nic Collins to Wolfgang Van Halen, fairly or not — but Zander has come to terms with that. “I can’t control if if someone says, ‘He’s just someone’s son,’” he says. “That said, I definitely have something to prove. But it’s more to myself. And I know I can play these parts.”

Growing up in Safety Harbor, Florida, Zander initially didn’t understand that his dad was different than the other parents around him. “He used to come into school to play guitar and talk to the kids about touring,” he says. “When I was about six I realized, ‘Oh, this isn’t normal. People pay to come and see my dad, as opposed to him merely just liking to sing around the house.’”

He grew up in a house packed with instruments, and was initially drawn to the bass since he found it easy to pick out a single note and play, rather than learning chords. That quickly led to guitar, drums, piano, and even ukulele. “I was an introverted music nerd at a pretty early age,” he says. “I enjoyed sports, but I was usually in my room playing along to CDs and records that my dad had in his collection.”

After high school, he took classes at Florida State, the Berklee College of Music, and Full Sail University. In 2015, once he felt he had gained enough knowledge to write and record music on his own, he moved to Nashville to find work as a songwriter and performer. He only knew two people in the entire city.

“There’s a lot of healthy competition in Nashville for live music,” he says. “If you want to go play the bars off Broadway, it’s like, ‘Get in line’ — because there’s thousands of other musicians that want to do the same thing you’re doing. In that sense, it hardened me as a musician, but I also learned a lot. It’s such an inspiring city for songwriters.”

About a year into his Nashville journey, Cheap Trick asked him to play piano at a semi-acoustic charity gig, after he’d watched countless shows over the years from the wings. The night is a bit of a blur in his head, but he thinks it took place in Idaho. “I remember we were in a tent,” he says. “I was nervous, but excited. I know the material like the back of my hand. I just had to make sure it sounded good with the band.”

The following year, the group suddenly found themselves without a drummer when Daxx Nielsen (son of Cheap Trick guitarist Rick Nielsen) took a week off to be with his wife and newborn baby. “I remember hearing they were going to ask one of the guys that plays drums in one of the late-night bands,” Zander says. “They couldn’t get him because of scheduling. For a minute, they thought they were going to have to drop the shows.”

The elder Robin Zander suggested they let his son try out, even though this was a much bigger task than playing piano at an off-the-radar charity gig. “I don’t think of myself as a drummer,” the younger Zander says. “And Cheap Trick has a really devout audience that follows them around. I recognize faces in the front at every show. I know them. That’s why I was so nervous. I didn’t want to let the die-hards down. But once I got through the first night, I felt fine.”

Daxx was back behind the kit when the tour resumed in 2018, but then Rick Nielsen needed a couple of weeks at home to recover from pneumonia. Cheap Trick had never once played a gig without him in their nearly five-decade history, and everyone would have understood if they had simply cancelled, but they decided to plow ahead with Robin Taylor Zander playing lead guitar.

“That was a whole other animal,” he says. “If anyone knows about this band, they know that a lot of the personality is through Rick. He’s the main entertainer. He’s the guy who runs across one side of the stage to the other. I’m never going to be that, because I’m standing. I have to sing most of the night. I’m not going to run around and throw guitar picks into the audience like Rick. I just had to focus on getting the guitar parts right. All I could do was my best.”

Part of his best involved helping his father vocally throughout the night, especially on the high notes. And when Rick was able to return, the band asked Zander to remain in the touring lineup as the full-time rhythm guitarist and background vocalist. Many songs in their repertoire required Robin Wayne Zander to play rhythm guitar, but arthritis was making this difficult for him. And his son quickly found ways to contribute on songs that Rick used to play on his own.

“I help to fill out the sound,” he says. “I never do any of the solos. Rick does all the solos. But I free Rick up so he doesn’t have to play rhythm and lead. He can just be himself and play lead when he wants, and I can hold down the fort with rhythm. That’s the advantage of having me there. It frees everyone up.”

In 2021, when the group returned to the road after a pandemic pause, Robin Taylor Zander put down the guitar and picked up the bass while Petersson recovered from surgery. It meant that he would complete the Cheap Trick trifecta of playing every instrument in the band. “He plays a 12-string bass, and that was a whole other animal for me to learn,” says Zander. “It takes a while to kind of gear yourself up to play a 90-minute gig on that thing. In the end, I found it not as daunting as filling in for Rick — but it’s harder to sing and play bass than to sing and play guitar, at least for me.”

When Cheap Trick went back on the road in 2022, Petersson was back in the fold and Robin Taylor Zander was once again on rhythm guitar and background vocals. But during a gig at the Montana State Fair on Aug. 3, Rick Nielsen lost his balance and fell on the drum riser, badly hurting his ankle. He was taken offstage to receive medical attention, and Zander finished the gig on lead. He stayed in that role over the next couple of weeks while the group opened up for Rod Stewart at North American amphitheaters.

A tour like that might conjure up images of private planes, five-star hotels, and lavish backstage parties, but the truth of the matter is way less glamorous: The five members of Cheap Trick and their road manager cram onto a single bus after every show and head to the next town. “It’s cheaper than flying in airplanes and staying in hotels,” says Zander. “We are cramped, with the six people on the one bus. It sounds crazy, but it works. And I get better sleep on a bus than my own bed at home.”

He doesn’t get to that bed very much, since Cheap Trick have a relentless tour schedule, but he’s still carved out time to record a bunch of demos that he hopes to release next year with help from producer Jack Douglas. He plays every single instrument, and he’s already thinking about putting a band together to play them on the road next year between Cheap Trick gigs.

“The music is similar to Cheap Trick, but my influences go all over the place,” he says. “I love Sixties British Invasion music. I love Seventies punk. I love New Wave from the early Eighties. I’m all over the place when it comes to my influences, and you’ll hear that.”

He’s also going to write with Cheap Trick for their upcoming record, the first time he’s taken on such a role as the newest member of the band. But for now, the focus remains on touring. They have gigs booked deep into next year, including another summer tour with Rod Stewart. And if anyone in the band goes down at any point, Zander is ready to take their spot at a moment’s notice.

Well, almost anyone. He’s never had to actually take the place of his father and front the band. “I could do that, but I don’t want to,” he says. “My dad has got a different kind of gear that he can hit when he sings. He’s a freak of nature. I can’t do what he does, and he’s also a really healthy guy that’s literally never missed a gig. But if anyone had to do it at some point, if only just for one night, it would be me.”

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