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Producer Ric Ocasek looks for ''unexpected'' music

His diverse projects include Cars, Iggy Pop, and Hole

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”I hear all these producers’ names,” says Ric Ocasek, ”and I don’t know who the hot guys are.” Uh, try looking under your own nose. After manning the boards for Weezer’s 1994 double-platinum debut, the former leader of the Cars has unexpectedly become the alternative-rock producer du jour — this at a time when Cars mate Elliot Easton is canvassing America in a Creedence cover band. Though Ocasek claims that ”nobody would choose most of the groups I work with,” a host of upcoming high-profile projects suggest otherwise.

Lounging between sessions at Greenwich Village’s legendary Electric Lady Studios, Ocasek, 47, looks every inch the gangly new-wave darling he was when the Cars burst onto the charts in 1978 with the icy synth-pop hit ”Just What I Needed.” His knob twiddling may seem like a new venture, but in fact, Ocasek has been producing other artists since the late ’70s. Only an iconoclastic diversity unites his many production credits — from Romeo Void’s ’80s anthem ”Never Say Never” to albums for punkers Iggy Pop, Suicide, Bad Brains, and Bad Religion. Still, Ocasek says that since the success of the kitsch single ”Buddy Holly,” labels have offered him a steady stream of ”Weezer wannabe” acts. He doesn’t see his taste for mavericks changing, however. ”I choose [bands] when I think something’s gonna happen that I’m not expecting,” he says.

Sure to enhance Ocasek’s profile is his work on the forthcoming D Generation album, and the debut effort by noise-pop trio Nada Surf, whose first single, ”Popular,” a hilarious paean to high school angst, has already infiltrated alternative radio and has MTV clamoring for the video. Nada Surf vocalist-guitarist Matthew Caws credits Ocasek’s sure hand. ”It was infuriating — and I mean that in the best way — that he was right all the time,” Caws says. ”We’d do two takes of a song, totally disagreeing over which was best. Then we’d take cassettes home and come back the next day all humbled.” Ocasek honed his studio skills under the tutelage of such top producers as Roy Thomas Baker, Mutt Lange, and Nile Rodgers. ”I learned to leave people alone,” he says. ”I’m on the band’s side: I know what it’s like to do the vocals.”

Speaking of which: Nostalgia for the Cars, like all things ’70s, continues to grow. Ocasek, however, sees no point in reunions. Instead, this fall he plans to produce tracks for Hole’s long-anticipated follow-up to Live Through This and record his fifth solo album — sans producer. ”It’s kind of hard for me to work with one now,” he says, grinning.