A Few Minutes With Todd Rundgren

Todd Rundgren talks with Pollstar about his new album, State, his upcoming tour and the process behind his music-making – “I tend to record in a way that a lot of people would consider backwards.”

It would be easy to say Rundgren is a man who needs no introduction.  After all, he’s been a force in music since the late 1960s when he formed Nazz with Carson Van Osten.  Of course, Nazz wasn’t the only band associated with Rundgren, having formed Utopia in 1973.

Even if Rundgren had never recorded a single note himself, he would still be remembered as a top-flight producer. Acts whose albums were helmed by Rundgren include Daryl Hall & John Oates, Grand Funk Railroad, Cheap Trick, Patti Smith, The Tubes, New York Dolls, Badfinger, XTC, Bad Religion, Bourgeois Tagg, The Psychedelic Furs and The Pursuit Of Happiness.

Rundgren was also involved with The New Cars, which saw him, Utopia vet Kasim Sulton and former Tubes drummer Prairie Prince join with original Cars members Greg Hawkes and Elliot Easton for an album and tour.  A veteran of Ringo Starr’s All-Starr Band, Rundgren will reunite with the former Beatle for a tour of South America later this year.

But we’re only brushing the surface of the Todd universe. During a phone call from his Hawaii home, Rundgren also talked about the several eras of his career, producing Meat Loaf’s Bat Out Of Hell album and why making music is not necessarily like riding a bicycle.

Your new album, State – how does this differ from past albums?

They all differ.  I try not to repeat myself so it’s hard to say in what particular way they differ.  The process, pretty much the one that I’ve been using since I moved out here to Hawaii, well, the process I was using before I moved to Hawaii, I would go to Woodstock (N.Y.) to exercise it.  I tend to do a lot of research before I undertake making a record.  Especially nowadays because I’ve made so many records. 

Sometimes I have it in my head to do something specifically disconnected, let’s say, from the current milieu.  An album like Liars, I was trying purposely to capture a lot of retro sounds, even some retro styles, perhaps.

This record, I’m making a concerted attempt to be contemporary in a way, to have the record sound like any other modern record. And the research involved – just a lot of cruising around YouTube – seeing what the kids were listening to and seeing what the kids were making.  That sort of thing.  Eventually, it just goes into a big pot in my head.  Then I get into this process in which I try to regurgitate it in a way that sounds like me.

Regarding technological advances in the studio, is this an album that you could have made 20 years ago?

Musically, yes I could have made it. But, as I say, there’s been some stylistic evolution.  So I wouldn’t necessarily have spontaneously come up with a lot of the approaches myself.  Having said that, it’s not that I slavishly study how other artists are getting their sounds or finding their inspiration.  I find that to be somewhat dangerous in that I have the ability to mimic what other people do, musically.  If I understand too well what they’re doing then that inclination would probably find its way into what I’m trying to create. 

So if I hear something that I feel deserves some consideration in my overall process, I have to immediately stop listening to it and eventually kind of draw on it just from vague memory. And that prevents me from literally aping it in a way.  That’s the essential aspect of the process.  Research in a way anybody else would do.  But unlike typical research where you discover something and then you study it.  As soon as I discover something I have to stop studying it.  I have to move on or I will study it to death and literally copy it.

Photo: Owen Sweeney / OwenSweeneyPhoto.com
American Music Theatre, Lancaster, Pa.

Are there always melodies and riffs populating your mind at any given time?

Sometimes little fragmentary ones, but I’m trying to put all of that off until the very latter parts of the process.  I tend to record in a way that a lot of people would consider backwards.  I create the entire kind of soundtrack to what I’m doing before I ever write the actual song itself.  I may have some idea of what the song may ultimately be about but I write the lyrics right before I sing the song, hoping that I will be making maximum use of my self conscious instead of trying to be clever enough to get the process finished.  It’s certainly easy enough to sit down and pick a subject and then start writing about it.  But, in one sense, I’ve written so many songs about so many things, that I’m trying to grasp at the more diaphanous threads of ideas that are in my head as opposed to the more obvious ones.

Are there occasions where a thought or idea pops up and you think, “No, I did that in 1992” or “I did that in 2001?”

I would certainly like to be able to identify it if it did.  It can be a problem.  At some points I discovered, “Wait a minute.  That melody is very redolent of something else that I’ve done.”  But, usually, I’ve discovered [it] too late to do anything about it [laughs].  So there’s no point in fretting.  To the degree that I’m aware that I’m self-plagiarizing, I almost dread that than accidentally stealing something from somebody else, even though the latter will get you in legal trouble.  From an artistic standpoint, I feel like stealing from yourself is just the cheapest way to go.

But the “Todd” personality – there’s definitely a style, a sound, however you describe it, that fans have heard on all of your albums.  Is there a line you establish that you can only go so far before it becomes self-plagiarizing?

I do hear things a certain way. And I am actually depending on that part of the process to bring some coherence, ultimately, to the final product. In other words, I don’t want people to, every single record I put out, to say, “Who’s that? Who could that possibly be?”  Otherwise, with every single record you’re building your career over again.  I figure that to have some degree of self- similarity in the records is likely a good thing.  I guess there is a line.  I don’t want to be using specific melodies, I don’t want to be over-using specific, sort of chord patterns.  Indeed, I went through an evolution with that way back at Something/Anything? when I realized I was writing the songs kind of … I was writing them self-consciously, but in a good way.  I was simply aping everything I had already heard and writing song forms that everyone was writing.  They were kind of like the standard form: verse-chorus, verse-chorus, bridge, chorus, chorus, chorus.

So I thought maybe that there are other ways to approach this.  Also, tend to the realization that there other sounds in my head aside from those that appeared on the typical pop record. And, over time, I guess that’s come to represent my, whatever elements of style that I have.  Essentially a product of how I hear things, not necessarily a conscious thing that I’m going for.

Photo: Courtesy of Nancy Powel
The Grand Opera House, Wilmington, Del.

What about the tour?  Are you touring with a band, or will it be more along the line of Todd surrounded by electronics?

It’s kind of a bit of both.  I’m going to be surrounded with electronics but I want there to be a little bit more liveness and excitement to it so I’m bringing a drummer and a guitar player along as well.  While there’s a highly improvisational element to the show, there will be not just machinery doing the improvising, there will actually be real players doing much of the improvising.

Are they people you’ve worked with in the past?

Yeah, it will be Prairie (Prince) and Jesse [Gress].

You’ve worked with bassist/vocalist Kasim Sulton for years and years. Has he been performing with you longer than anyone else?

Since Kasim was a member of, not the original Utopia and the not even the second variation of Utopia, at least the final incarnation of Utopia.  I haven’t really worked with anyone else in the band since then except for rare occasions and special events.  Kasim is, naturally, the player I’ve probably worked with the longest.

He also worked with you on The New Cars project as well as the A Wizard, A True Star tour.

Yeah, he’s in there.  We managed to get Roger (Powell) out of mothballs for that (A Wizard, A True Star tour) as well.  It’s one of those things where music is not necessarily like a bicycle.  If you stop doing it for a long time it isn’t that easy to just pick it up again and do it again. It requires a lot of mental and physical stamina.  My advantage is I never stopped doing it.  I never stopped touring, I never stopped trying to meet the challenges of remaining viable as a player.  Roger discovered after so many years off the road, how difficult it is to just recapture all of that.  We might have done more with Roger but he decided it’s just past his time to be in a touring band.

Did Roger enjoy the time he spent on that tour?

Oh, yeah. It was a huge amount of fun and a great opportunity for us to not only do something special for the fans, but … because of the technology involved in making the original record, it was something that was impractical to try to capture live back in the day.  So we had the advantage of the passage of time and the evolution of all the technologies associated with it.  It made it much easier for us to incorporate samples from the original record into the show, and that sort of thing.

The visuals of that show were impressive, especially your costumes that kind of referenced past tours.

There was a wink-and-a-nod to a lot of what happened after A Wizard, A True Star.  [That album] was kind of the beginning of an era for me that involved a lot of costumery and special effects and things like that.  We did get a chance to sort of pay tribute to that. Actually, the show that nobody got to see was what was happening backstage as I was going through the 12 costume changes.  In some cases I would have three costumes on at once.

In the very beginning I’ve got kind of like a green jumpsuit and over that I’ve got a tuxedo, over that an astronaut outfit.  There was a whole other kind of circus backstage and getting in and out of the various costumes would have made a video in its own right.

Is there a warehouse somewhere filled with all the props and costumes you’ve used over the years?

It would be nice if it was all in once place.  Some of it has survived.  A few things wound up in an exhibit in the Rock And Roll Museum in Cleveland and I’m not sure whether they’re still there or not. They [might] still on display for all I know.

We have had over the years, various kinds of auctions and stuff.  When I moved from Woodstock, there was a whole lot of costumery that we had in a closet that was never going to fit me again.  Various fans have pieces of the costumes.

We had, in the mid-Utopia days, a warehouse up in the Woodstock area.  At one point that caught fire and a lot of the stuff we had from the … Oops! Wrong Planet era, the Pyramid era and stuff like that, all got burned up. 

Like the sphinx?

The sphinx actually survived because we had moved that out.  The sphinx itself, I’m not exactly sure where that is.  But the pyramid is set up in a field in Massachusetts, off of Narragansett Bay or something like that.  A fan/friend (Dan Harple) bought it and actually set it up and maintains it. I’ve been on that pyramid, recently.  It was still traversable.  Some people walked up to the top.  I figured I can’t afford to hurt myself like that. In those days I didn’t have children yet, so I could afford to do foolish things like climb up the pyramid with no net.

Photo: Dan Harple
“The sphinx itself, I’m not exactly sure where that is.  But the pyramid is set up in a field in Massachusetts.”

You mentioned “eras” in your career. From your point of view, how many eras have you had?

If you want to count the Nazz, there was the Nazz era but that was a very brief period, overall.  That was like 18 months from beginning to end of the band.

Then the era that I became known mostly as a producer.  Then there was the era where I became a solo artist.  Then there was the Utopia era.  Then … [laughs] Then you would have to say the Utopia era finally wound up and I went back to being pretty much a solo artist.  Still doing some production, but as time has gone on the production has somewhat phased out because of changes in the industry and changes in the tools.  I don’t do as much production now as I did in the old days.  I don’t really think of myself that much as a producer.

Of the albums you’ve produced for others – are there any you’re particularly proud of?

The reasons for pride, I guess, in a record might be different depending on the nature of the production.  For instance, any pride that I feel about the [XTC] record Skylarking is mostly based upon the fact that I actually got it done in an era when the band was sabotaging its own career with great gusto.

Then there are those productions that people might assume I have a great deal of pride in, for instance, Meat Loaf. But that’s because they don’t know the whole story of Meat Loaf and the fact that I did it, thinking it [Bat Out Of Hell] was a spoof of Bruce Springsteen.  So, in my mind it was always a novelty record.  Everyone else took it seriously, but took it way more seriously than I did. In the end it turned out to be… the fifth biggest-selling album of all time. And if I hadn’t decided to take on the project, it probably never would have gotten made.  So there would be an excuse to be prideful of it.  But my reason for doing it had nothing to do with, you know, why I should feel proud about it.

Clive Davis supposedly didn’t like any of the early Bat Out Of Hell demos that were made before you entered the picture.

Most people did not see it. The songs are really long.  They’re all about stuff that happened in the ’50s.  But that’s also what Bruce Springsteen’s earmarks were – overly long songs full of “Rebel Without A Cause” imagery.  That’s why I thought it would have made a perfect spoof.

The problem was, right before we started making the record, Meat Loaf came to me and said, “My label doesn’t understand me and I want to get off them.”

[I told him,] “Well, I’m not you’re manager, you can do whatever you want, but that means that I’m going to have to figure out how to get this album underwritten.”

So I wound up getting Bearsville (Records) to put it on my tab.  Even Bearsville turned it down when it was finished.  It never was a no-brainer.  It was a lot of perspiration all along the way and I don’t think most people are aware of that. They think, “Oh, it’s the fifth biggest-selling album of all time. You must have known that.”  No, we never knew that.

You were a music-video pioneer, having made videos for your music before MTV began.  At that time did you see the video becoming an art form in itself as opposed to just being an advertisement for the song?

That was my vision, that artists wouldn’t simply use it as advertising, that they would use it to find a setting for their more unusual music, music that wasn’t the singles.  I always figured people are hearing the singles already.  Why bother with that?  Why not use this medium to explore the nether realms of your oof and help sell the songs by visualizing them in interesting ways.

As it turned out, it became more practical, I guess, to think of it as an advertising medium as opposed to an actual creative medium.  So, as MTV moved on, I kind of lost interest.  It became less and less about video techniques and things like that, and more and more about scantily clad women and smoke bombs. … That didn’t interest me.

You have your camp coming up this year – Toddstock in (White Castle, La., June 17-22.

It’s not the typical camp.  These things get confused because I got involved in this summer camp thing that happens up in a resort in the Catskills the past couple of years. That was actually something that other people sort of founded and established as a viable way to interact with your fans and to make a little bit of income in the process.

But what’s happening this year is essentially a commemoration of an event we had five years ago when I turned 60, and when I moved into my new house out here in Hawaii. We thought, “Let’s just invite the fans out and anybody who can make it out to Hawaii, we’ll provide a campsite for them and we’ll celebrate my 60th birthday.”  I, coincidentally also was finishing a record at the time so we premiered the record at the event and then I went out on tour.

And the fans kind of wanted to relive that particular event.  I had thought, you know, I only do this every 10 years.  I’m not going to do it if I turn 70.  And I think a lot of people got concerned that either I or they wouldn’t make it that far. So they kind of besieged me to do an event for my 65th birthday instead. Essentially, that is what the basis of that is. It doesn’t have the same kind of agenda as the musical summer camp in that we’re just there to hang out and kind of improvise our days, to not have a strict agenda.  The last event, I was still rehearsing a band and I didn’t get to enjoy myself very much.  I was working the whole time.

Do you have hobbies or interests completely separate from music?

I like to cook.  I like food and I like to cook, so I consider that the only serious hobby I have.  Ironically, if I manage to get enough time off of the road, I do like to travel to different parts of the world.  I don’t think I could ever get enough of Rome.  There are other places that I haven’t seen that I would like to visit.  I’m looking forward to going to South America in November with Ringo because I’ve never been there.  That will be fun.  Even though I’m playing, my agenda is to see the place and to be there.

Traveling the world, what was the strangest place or situation where you hear your music played?

It was probably an episode of “Beavis and Butt-head.”  And it wasn’t even my music being played. It was Beavis saying, “Hey, that chick looks like Todd Rundgren.”  And Butt-head saying, “Who?”  That was pretty surreal.

The advance press on your new album, State, describes it as “a fusion of rock, soul, R&B, and electronica that is at once danceable, groundbreaking, spiritual challenging and infectious.” How do you think your fans will perceive it?

Hmm … I don’t know.  From what I understand it’s gotten leaked around a bit already, so I think they’re perceiving it already.  I actually don’t know.  I do know, which is gratifying, that the record label is satisfied with it.  That’s important because this is the first time I’ve made a record under contract in, like, decades.  In other words, for the most part all my records I financed myself and I found someone to distribute them afterwards. And that’s a fairly common practice nowadays.  But to have a label actually approach you before a record is made and say, “Hey, we’ll give you money to make a record and we won’t even demand that it be a particular kind of record.”  That’s unusual nowadays, so I’m gratified that the label’s happy with it and they’re putting their resources behind it. 

It’s kind of actually a little bit disconcerting because most of the time my records come out, we do the conventional amount of promotion and then it kinds of goes away [laughs].  In this particular instance, the press demands have been pretty substantial so I have to assume they’re doing the full-court press on it.

Among the descriptions, the advance press describes it as “danceable” and I was trying to imagine Todd Rungren getting out on a dance floor and shakin’ it.  Do you dance?

Well, just because it’s danceable doesn’t mean I’m going to dance.  I geek around onstage.  That’s probably the only place I am comfortable doing that.  I understand certain elements of music, like groove and that sort of thing.  It’s not as if I couldn’t [dance] if I was inclined to.  I’ve never thought, “Oh, I have to get up on the dance floor and boogie.”  I just never had that feeling.

But if somebody asked your wife (Michele Gray) if her husband likes to dance, what would she say?

She would say, “No.”  I’ve never danced with her and she’s a professional dancer.

“I tend to record in a way that a lot of people would consider backwards.  I create the entire kind of soundtrack to what I’m doing before I ever write the actual song itself.”

Upcoming shows include Woodstock, N.Y., at Bearsville Theater May 5-6; Norfolk, Conn., at Infinity Hall May 8; New York City at The Gramercy Theatre May 10; Philadelphia at Trocadero Theatre Nay 11; Huntington, N.Y., at The Paramount May 12 and Kent, Ohio, at The Kent Stage May 14. 

State drops April 9 on Esoteric Antenna via Cherry Red.  For more information, click here for Todd Rundgren’s website, here for the fan site TR Connection and here for the Toddstock website.