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The iconic Todd Rundgren is rocking harder than ever

The producer, musician and rock and roll icon describes what it takes to be a musical wizard and a true star, chats about his stage show and ponders lost opportunities.
Todd Rundgren

Now in his 60s, Todd Rundgren remains a rock and roll icon. Photo courtesy PR That Rocks.

By Lee Zimmerman

When Todd Rundgren dubbed his fourth solo album “A Wizard, A True Star” it may have seemed presumptuous at the time, given that he had only begun recording a scant five years before. Nearly four decades later, that title has come to sum up one of the most remarkably prolific careers in rock’s vast lexicon. There’s practically nothing Rundgren hasn’t done, whether as a performer, producer, engineer or video pioneer.

Indeed, since making his bow with his first band, Woody’s Truck Stop, in his native Philadelphia and creeping into the national spotlight with The Nazz, Rundgren has freely delved into a dizzying array of musical ventures — from pop to prog, rock to retro, and practically everything in between. He’s had hits on his own — “Hello It’s Me, and “Bang the Drum All Day,” among them — and worked behind the boards to create hits for others: Badfinger, Meatloaf, XTC and Patti Smith, to name a scant few. He’s also helmed the experimental outfit Utopia and fallen back on the tried and true both as a member of Ringo Starr’s All-Starr band and as part of retro treks that paid homage to “Sgt. Pepper” and other Beatle bounties. To call him eclectic is like saying there’s sand in the Sahara.

(Love hits of the 1970s? Check out Billboard's countdown)

Rundgren’s last album, “Arena,” found him working in a decidedly harder rock vein while venting thoughts on our modern malaise. Not surprisingly then, when Goldmine had the opportunity to speak with him, he was equally enthused.

At 62, you’re rocking harder than ever. That’s an opposite approach from artists who start out very rambunctious and then mellow out.
Todd Rundgren: I didn’t realize myself how much I sort of miss the axe hanging around your neck. You can look at it in some ways as a sort of buffer area between you and the audience, the guitar itself, and it also, at least for me, takes a little while to get back up to speed and confidence with the instrument.

You could have had a very comfortable career when you were recording those very mellow and accessible pop songs early on. But then you chose to change directions and go into a more progressive and experimental vein with Utopia.
TR: I wanted to do a bit of both, and that was to satisfy myself. It wasn’t necessarily any career need to do that. When I got comfortable enough with my so-called solo career I was immediately wanting to put a band together so I could do that kind of music that bands do, that thing where the responsibility is spread around more, and I could simplify my role in a sense. I would only have to be the guitar player. I would never have to touch the piano. I’d have that opportunity to perform and develop as a performer in the context where I wouldn’t be judged alone for what I’d be doing.

Todd Rundgren Arena

Todd Rundgren's "Arena" focused on harder rock.

When you plot a new album, how much thought do you give to creating a new template or pursuing a new theme? After all these years, it must be difficult not to repeat yourself.
TR: That is an essential difficulty, that the more music you write, the more likely you are to repeat yourself and that’s the actuality for most artists, and that’s not a bad thing because for many artists, that’s the foundation of your career. Nobody expects Barry Manilow to reinvent himself ever, and for people who come to see him, their expectation is just a guy who’s going to sing “Without You” night after night after night after night after night without shooting himself in the head. I didn’t approach music as a performer, which is what a lot of other people do, and therefore they figure out afterwards what kind of music they want to make.
I found it was kind of easy for me to develop musical ideas and get them recorded, and very difficult for me to take them out on the road and do them in front of people. I guess that was the challenge of my career, because it didn’t come naturally to me — that sort of exhibitionism that comes with performance. But all my favorite performers I had to admit to myself were out there putting on a show. We wanted a band — like The Nazz, my first major band — to be like one part The Who, and so if you wanted to do that, you couldn’t just stand up there and sound like The Who, you had to be flailing and on the verge of falling over the edge of the stage – daring behavior to essentially elevate the live experience beyond simply recreation of the music. As time goes on, I am more self-conscious of that aspect when I do make a record, and in the case of “Arena,” there was a bit of trepidation. I was thinking to myself, “Am I going to be able to do this every night?” Especially with a song like “Strike,” which involves essentially self-strangulation (laughs). And if it’s a problem, we’ll have to lower some keys and not perform some songs, or whatever. But as it turned out, and as it usually turns out, the more you do, the easier it becomes. It’s essentially a form of bodybuilding, I suppose.

Todd Rundgren Publicity Photo

Todd Rundgren's solo hits include "Hello, It's Me" and "Bang The Drum All Day."

When you do go out under your own name, your audience must come with a lot of expectations. After all, you’ve touched on a lot of styles in your career and have written a lot of songs that people inevitably would like to hear. So how do you reconcile all those sides of yourself and satisfy all those needs?
TR: I realize that I can’t, and if I try to, it probably doesn’t satisfy anyone fully. There are occasions to find proper context for the older material. “Proper,” meaning something that I feel is musically interesting and challenging for me to do, as well as visiting in one form or another that material that everybody likes, the numbers from the ’70s. And probably the last time I did that was this whole bossa nova thing (“With a Twist”). I revisited all the old songs but in a new context. So anyone who was desperate to hear the originals, they were going to get them in that form. They wouldn’t sound exactly like the originals, but it would be that song with those same words. And, oftentimes, what people are most connected to in a song is the lyrics, and so in that sense we try to make it obvious that this is an opportunity for people to hear that, if that’s what they’re dying to hear. But I think also I’ve conditioned, at least the hardcore of my audience, not to have particular expectations when they first see a tour. It doesn’t mean I’m not going to change everything we do, but the nature of the show is not necessarily guaranteed, and the only thing I guarantee is that we will put our best effort into it. That’s the reason why I don’t really do my solo shows any more, because so many of those songs depend on a half-decent piano performance and I am not even a half-decent piano player.

Your recent sets have even found you dipping back into your old Nazz catalog.

TR: Well, yeah, now we have a proper context for it, and in that sense a lot of people are just as happy with this harder approach as long as it puts them in a place that they are familiar with. At a certain point I was touring almost exclusively with Utopia, and if we did any Todd Rundgren songs it would be within the context of a Utopia show. And so a lot of people have fond memories of Utopia shows they’ve been to, and those were never ballad-fests and introspective singer/songwriter type evenings of the kind I would do after the band broke up. So in that sense there is a significant portion of the audience that is happy to see me flailing away up there.

You've had a remarkably prolific career as a producer, working with a broad range of artists. When someone asks you to take on a production assignment, what is your criteria for deciding whether or not you’ll do it?

TR: Well the assumption is that nobody is going to approach you in the first place unless they have the wherewithal to make a record. In the old days that always meant a label, and someone who’s going to pay to have the record made. Nowadays, people are just as likely to be privately financed and maybe even shop a record later. So much of that has evolved as time has gone on, but my openness to different kinds of music again goes back to the fact that I didn’t think of myself, when I first got involved in music, as a performer so much as a musician who would have been just as happy to sit in the third row of the string section of the orchestra and fiddle away. And as time went on, I came to realize that if you only think in those terms you don’t get the benefit that The Beatles got for instance, having girls chase you down the street (laughs). Eventually you have to migrate to the stage, but I took with me the whole time an interest in music and a love of music. I grew up in a household where there was a variety of music, so in that sense, the production came fairly naturally to me, the whole idea of working in different genres. I felt that as a musician you had to have that capacity. A lot of that came from The Beatles. They were, whether self-consciously or not, one of the most eclectic musical acts ever, and they were self consciously evolutionary in that, at a certain point, all of their records started to sound different from each other. Coming of age in that era, I thought that’s what you were supposed to do. You were supposed to evolve, you were supposed to absorb other musical influences and express them, and so when it came to producing records, I had more of a George Martin approach. There was no one way to make a record and there was no one style I was going to specialize in.

Do you have any favorite projects and by contrast, were there any projects you turned down that you wish you had taken?

TR: Well, I have a lot of projects that I have fond memories of, from the hugely commercially successful, such as Meatloaf, to the more obscure and forgotten, like Pursuit of Happiness. But yeah, there have been some disappointment in terms of acts I would have liked to work with and just couldn’t do it. In most cases, it was a question of scheduling. I was asked at one point to produce a Talking Heads record and it went on to be the first production with Brian Eno, and I was already committed to a project in the same time period so I never got to do that. It was something I would have liked to have done. I understand from Pete Townshend that at one point that I was under discussion to possibly produce a Who album, probably in the early ’80s.

The Who — that would have really been something.

TR: Yeah, but for whatever reason it never happened. I don’t know. But there’s been talk and possibilities, and I have mixed feelings about having done or not done them because the more you admire an act, the greater responsibility it is to try to get their music the way you want it. And in some cases, it’s in lieu of actual friendship. In other words, being friends is not the basis of your relationship with the act. It’s having to help them through a process and sometimes make decisions that they may not be in 100 percent agreement with. XTC was a case in point. I was a big fan of the band, and while I’m still friends with a couple of the guys in the band, I’ll never be pals with Andy (Partridge) (laughs).

So we’ve heard…

TR: So in that sense when you commit to doing a production, you also give up the possibility of having a different kind of relationship, either friendship or a horizontal kind of relationship.