Even before interviewers open their mouths, Ric Ocasek knows what they are going to ask.
It won't be a question about his third solo album, "Fireball Zone," or whether he's planning a tour behind it. Nor will it have anything to do with his new wife, model Paulina Porizkova.
No, the question Ocasek knows is coming has to do with the Cars, the multi-platinum new wave band he once fronted. And almost everyone asks it: "Are the Cars ever going to get back together again?"
His answer? "I always say, 'You can't unscramble the egg.'
"Nobody will let me detach myself," laughs the Baltimore native. "I'm always, like, ignored, you know? But I had a 12-year tenure with the band, which I enjoyed and thought was great, and at the end I started to think it was becoming sort of redundant. I liked the people, but after all those tours -- and especially during the last tour -- it became a little shaky."
Which is why Ocasek doubts that the Cars will be heading down Reunion Street any time soon. Although he hesitates to rule it out completely -- "I'm a firm believer in 'One never knows,' " he says -- he has little interest in reliving his musical past. "That era's gone," he says over the phone from his home in Manhattan. "It's no use beating it into the ground."
Besides, he has always preferred to go his own way, in life as well as in the music business. Born Richard Otcasek -- he won't say how many years ago -- Ocasek started his musical career in Cleveland, but spent his youth in Baltimore.
"I lived there until I was about 16," he says. "I remember that year moving, because that was the first year I could drive." Ocasek's father was in the Air Force at the time, and his family lived just north of the city in Hillendale.
A non-conformist even then, Ocasek managed to get himself expelled from Immaculate Heart of Mary School. "I basically gave the nuns a hard time verbally," he laughs. "But it worked out well because I skipped a grade when I got expelled. I was expelled in seventh grade and went right to the ninth, or something like that."
Still, he adds, "I was a total Baltimore kid. I dyed my hair blond in the front, went to Ocean City, and lived that whole thing. I have extremely fond memories of it. Baltimore has always had a unique ambience about it, of all the places in this country. I can see why John Waters remains there.
"I had an opportunity to come back when my wife was doing a movie there with Tom Selleck ["Her Alibi" in 1988], and I spent three months there -- which is the longest period of time since I moved. I did go look up the old neighborhood to see what's changed."
K? Probably not as much as has changed with Ocasek. Cue up any
song on "Fireball Zone," and though his voice may sound as tartly ironic as it did singing "You Might Think" or "Shake It Up," any similarity to the Cars ends there.
For one thing, there's little evidence of the blank, mannered rhythms that made the Cars' music seem so stiff and mechanical. Instead, from the wry melodicism of "Rockaway" to the moody balladry of "The Way You Look Tonight," the songs on "Fireball Zone" are surprisingly warm and human. One tune, "Keep That Dream," even manages to get funky.
"That's pretty much a Nile influence there," Ocasek says, referring to producer (and former Chic guitarist) Nile Rodgers. But it wasn't just Rodgers' way with a rhythm section that made the difference, he adds. Part of the reason those Cars albums had such a clockwork feel to them was that the songs were recorded piece by piece, with each Cars member adding his part individually.
"It was the Cars, so machine music was OK. Which I think was fine for the times," he says. "But this one was approached pretty live. I sat down with the band, we did rehearsal and we basically went in and banged it out that way."
Ironically, recording "live" is easier to manage than playing live these days. As Ocasek puts it, "Radio's tighter, formatting's tighter, MTV's tighter and touring is -- I mean, when people can see it on television, why go see it live?" Even so, he is hoping to assemble a tour of sorts for the fall -- "but not on the scale that I would have done the Cars," he says. "I think just on a scale of a performance-art piece. It would probably play colleges and small theaters."
If the phrase "performance-art piece" suggests something a mite more arty than the flashing lights and blaring amps found at most rock shows, it's hardly out of character for Ocasek. Even when the Cars were at the peak of their popularity, Ocasek preferred to flirt with the fringes of rock and roll, producing albums for underground acts like Suicide, the Bad Brains, Romeo Void and Iggy Pop. "I also did the Fast from New York and Peter Dayton and a lot of Boston bands around that time. But no big hits," he laughs. "I never picked a band that I thought had a big hit."
In fact, Ocasek says his own pop success has been more a matter of instinct than calculation. "I write pop songs, and I'm not embarrassed by it," he says. "That's what I learned to do. But I don't consider myself a craftsman. I'd like to feel that I stumble on pop songs, rather than contrive them."
Which, he adds, is something almost all underground rock acts end up doing eventually. "They all gravitate to that," he says. "Even R.E.M., when you thought maybe they'd never have a single -- now it surfaces. Now Jane's Addiction has big videos, and they're doing well. The underground always surfaces to the overground and becomes the pop mainstream."