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Ready For Rundgren

He may sing about banging the drum all day but, really, Todd Rundgren remains a creative workhorse. Goldmine speaks to the creative wizard about the past, present and future.

Publicity photo, courtesy of Esoteric Recordings

By Ken Sharp

The only thing predictableabout Todd Rundgren is his unpredictability. A master at confounding expectations and stubbornly following his muse­ — often to his own commercial detriment — Todd’s raison d’être as an artist is to constantly challenge himself and forge new musical ground. Case in point: his new album “Global” embraces electronica and electronic dance music (EDM) while still retaining the artist’s own idiosyncratic creative stamp. “Go ahead and ignore me” was a record company sales slogan employed for one of Todd Rundgren’s early ’70s solo albums. And long since that slogan was first unveiled, music fans have been unable to ignore anything this gifted music visionary has created. Witness his extraordinary body of music with Nazz, solo Rundgren and Utopia and his consummate production work for The Band, Badfinger, Hall & Oates, Patti Smith, Meat Loaf, Cheap Trick, XTC and countless others. A musical maverick, whether touring with Ringo Starr’s All-Starr band or performing and recording as a solo act, Todd Rundgren is one artist you can never ignore.

Goldmine: “Global” carries over some of the touchstones on your last studio album, but in many ways broadens it. What did you learn from “State” that you apply to the new CD and that informs your approach??

Todd Rundgren:Well, “State” was sort of a catch-up record for me. I was getting a lot of requests to do remixes for younger bands and I was sort of wondering what that was all about (laughs). The record that got cited the most by them was “A Wizard, A True Star.” That was a record where I set aside all the rules. I thought I understood and tried to, as much as possible, experiment and learn new things. So “State” was that kind of record; it was me playing catch-up in a way. I did a lot of research before I did the record. I traveled on YouTube and tried to see what was happening and what was new and interesting to me. There were a lot of things I tried to fold into it with greater or lesser coherence. But I fully admit, and admitted at the time, that it was new territory for me in that sense — but not in the sense that I was uncomfortable meddling around and fiddling with things and plugging things into other things. But from the standpoint of suddenly that being where it was at (laughs), that was my catch-up record and once I’d done that I’d kind of assimilated things and knew better what I wanted to do with the things that I’ve learned. Then I also had more of a focus about what the record should be about. It started out that I wanted to make a kind of cheerleading record, a feel-good record in a way. But I also realized that there was an important topic that I’d never fully addressed before, which was the affect we’re having on our planet. So I thought, I’ve got a lot of work to do but let’s do it cheerfully. Let’s all get together and get down to work and we’ll sing our field hollers and we’ll laugh and sing and get down to the hard work that we have to do.

GM: Where much of EDM music does not impress me with having much soul, this record does; you could strip away your gritty soulful vocals on songs like “Evrybody,” “Global Nation” and “Earth Mother” and they’d work on a funk record.

TR:I had pictured in my own mind that I’d tell people the genre was neo-R&B; that I was trying to retain some of my R&B sensibility in the way that I sing. I wanted to keep the songs pretty simple and not too complicated, but that it was going to sound modern and that it would have all the stuff I learned on “State” in it. So I think all of choices throughout the construction of the record were kind of leaning in that direction thinking, how can I make this a little bit more soulful and how can I make it more personal, that sort of thing. Hopefully the record has a certain amount of soul to it as well as all of the electronic trickery.

GM: Where some people might view “Global” and your prior record “State” as a major departure, going back to the late ‘70s with Utopia’s “Disco Jets” album, or tracks like “Rock Love” and “Too Much Water,” it’s a milieu you’ve embraced many times.

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TR:Yeah, we’ve been in and out of it. But the one thing I was never into was disco. The “Disco Jets” album was sort of a spoof for us (laughs). No matter if Blondie went disco or if Rod Stewart went disco, we were not going disco (laughs). That doesn’t mean you don’t want your music to be danceable. But disco represented a whole sort of mindlessness that wasn’t what I was about or what Utopia was ever about.

GM: But you nailed that dance vibe with intelligence back in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s with the Utopia songs, “Rock Love” and “Too Much Water.”

TR:Yeah, well, that’s ideally what you’re going for. With “Global,” there’s a song called “Flesh and Blood,” and that’s about the phenomenon if you create the right sort atmosphere and the right music and the right place you can turn tens of thousands of people into a single organism. And that’s kind of what you need to accomplish the stuff that we need to accomplish. We need to be able to unify people in that way, and music is one of those things that in some way short circuits people’s brains (laughs) and makes them stop thinking about other things and focus on the thing that you’re dealing with right now.

GM: There’s also a cerebral vibe to some of the tracks on the album, namely “Holyland” and “Soothe,” which bring to mind the textures of your “Healing” album. Can you see that connection?

TR:It’s not surprising you say that. I didn’t want the album to be flat and just have one sort of mood or tone to it so even through some of the happy-go-lucky numbers there are scolding moments, like “Blind” is a pretty scolding song. And then there are moments of introspection and those moments are necessary because you need a breather and you need to step back every once in a while; sometimes you need to just calm down and collect your breath every once in a while. I want those moments to be as much a part of the experience as the happy-go-lucky dance-y moments.

GM: Has the process changed in the manner you write songs and record today as opposed to 30 years ago?

TR:It’s actually not different, it’s gotten more and more to this sort of extreme that started on the “A Wizard, A True Star” record. On “Something/Anything” I had to have songs before I went into the studio. But with “A Wizard, A True Star,” I’d built my own studio just for the purpose of being able to kind of experiment and take as long as I needed to develop the ideas that I wanted without any sort of interference or time limit or time frame (laughs). If I got an idea at one o’clock in the morning I’d be able to go into my own studio and work on it. And ever since that’s pretty much been my ideal environment except for just a couple of records like the live records that I did at the end of the ‘80s. I’d been using the studio – or whatever passes for the studio – as an interactive composition device. Instead of dreaming of something in your head and then putting dots down on a paper, instead you go directly to the sound that you imagine and you put it down on the tape or now you put it down in a digital file. Then you can immediately tell if those are the right notes or whether it’s the right sound and if it is or isn’t, you can change it and make it conform with what you imagine. Sometimes you discover things that you hadn’t imagined. That’s the exciting part when you’re actually doing it all in real time, when the ideas are coming and being realized almost in a complete unbroken flow. So I tend nowadays to complete almost the entire track before I sing a word or indeed before I even write a word. I’ll have a title or placeholder and eventually I’ll get to the point where I think I’ve finally gestated the idea of what I’m trying to write about and I’ll write the lyrics in 20 minutes or a half an hour. Then I’ll sing them right after that and usually sing them in the first one or two takes. So it’s become more and more like that to work in that way rather than less that way.

GM: In terms of predictability, as an artist you’ve always followed the road less traveled. Following up a huge success of “Something/Anything” with “A Wizard, ATrue Star” or Utopia’s “Adventures in Utopia” with “Deface the Music,” is this just the contrarian in you or simply the way you keep things creative and fresh?

TR:Well, for me personally, it’s not just kind of ingrained in the way that I work. I started out in a band (The Nazz), and that didn’t work out so well. So shortly after that I started working as a record producer and engineer and that went quite well for me. That became kind of lucrative. So when it came to making my own records I never thought that I had to continue to satisfy a certain audience or do the same thing over and over again in order to build up an audience. I was perfectly satisfied to produce other people’s records and worry about those concerns for them. Then when I made my own records I didn’t have to think about any of that. I could just think about what musical things I’d like to accomplish. So whether as a solo artist or working with Utopia, that’s been the way I’ve worked. It’s just become the way that I work now. I suppose that I could enact the same discipline on myself than I would on another act if they came to me and said, “Help us make a coherent and commercial record.” (laughs) But there’s a world full of people doing that and as for me, half the time I’m trying to educate myself in a way by learning new things and learning new techniques or refine the techniques that I have. So that’s why I continue to produce records for other people, and do remixes for other people, which leaves me free to choose my own direction.

GM: Just released is a “Todd Rundgren-Live at the BBC 1972-1982” multi-CD/DVD set. On the set there’s footage of Utopia performing “Singring and the Glass Guitar” and shows you climbing to the top of the pyramid prop and throwing yourself off of it, proving, Mr. Rundgren, that you have balls of steel.

TR:(laughs) That was shot in a field up in Woodstock. The BBC came to cover Bearsville Records in general and all of its artists; they also interviewed Albert Grossman.Albert thought it would be a good finale for us to set up the “Ra” set but there was no building at the time big enough to hold it or big enough so that the camera could get back far enough to get the whole thing in the frame. So they essentially prepped a bit of field next to some houses that Albert had and we put the setup outdoors. And as I recall, during that particular performance I had the flu; I had stomach flu and could barely get through it. After I did the flip off on top of the pyramid, it’s been edited out, but I went off the back of the stage and puked my guts out. The band then came back and finished the song. Doing that flip off the pyramid was just foolhardiness (laughs). Today I’d never do it. That pyramid is actually setup on a friend’s property up in Rhode Island. I’ve been up there and I’ve seen other people climb up the pyramid but I would never do that again. I would never dare go up that thing again. The other thing is, it’s harder to go up than come down. So the flip part is the easy part, as long as you have the proper tension. It was what we did in the old days, upping the ante all of the time with theatrics.

GM: In the past 10 years you’ve undertaken a series of album shows with “A Wizard, A True Star,” “Todd” and “Healing.”

TR:I didn’t initiate doing any of these album shows. This came through and the fan base. They’re the ones who kind of decide which record they’d like me to attempt to perform. Then I essentially will decide to do it or not do it (laughs). As a matter of fact, we considered doing something this year, but as it works out there is so much effort that goes into mounting these kinds of shows and they only run for 10 days to two weeks. I’m trying to find a way to amortize all of the labor that goes into them.

GM: There’s been talk of a Utopia reunion tour of the classic Todd, Roger Powell, Willie Wilcox and Kasim Sulton lineup. Is it just talk or would you consider it?

TR:Well, it’s always just talk (laughs). We never know. It’s something that gets bandied about. It’s a circumstance that depends first of all on my availability because I’m still working a lot and Kas’ availability because he still works a lot. Roger (Powell) and Willie (Wilcox) don’t tour much anymore. It’s not the kind of thing where I would be satisfied just going out and showing up and playing a couple of the songs. People have a greater expectation than that. We have to play really well and to play really well requires a goodly amount of rehearsal and warm-up dates and stuff like that. And once you go through all that rehearsal, you don’t want to play just two weeks worth of dates; you’ve gotta play a couple of months worth of dates to make it all worthwhile. We did have an original Utopia revival a couple of years ago and that was a lot of fun. We were dong the serious prog rock (laughs). I’m not ruling it out, but there’s a certain bar there that I require. I’m not willing to go back and be worse than we were. It needs to be as good as we were, and that’s gonna require a lot of commitment and effort to do that.

GM: You’re a current member of Ringo Starr & His All-Starr Band. The first time you played with Ringo Starr was back in the ‘70s for a Jerry Lewis Telethon, right?

TR:Yeah, that’s right. We didn’t get to meet Jerry (laughs). He was in God knows, Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas where the event was held and we were performing in the UNLV gymnasium. It was basically Ringo, Bill Wyman, a couple of members of Utopia and Dave Mason. He refused to come to rehearsal but he showed up eventually during the actual show (laughs).

GM: You didn’t play a Beatles song, you did a Rolling Stones song.

TR:Yeah we did “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and did things like “Money.” It was great playing with Ringo, but by that time he was the only Beatle I had not met. I’d had at least some contact with all of the other Beatles under some circumstance. So playing with him wasn’t the first time I had met a Beatle. But Ringo is a simple, humble guy and doesn’t have a lot of attitude about it. He’s easy to get along with and we had a good time.

GM: Before Utopia recorded the “Deface the Music” album, you’d already met the entire band.

TR:The reason why we did that record wasn’t really because we had some long standing desire to make a Beatles-style record; we were kind of contrarians. The Knack was really hot at the time with “My Sharona.” They dressed like the Beatles and were doing that whole ‘60s English Invasion thing, so we recorded a power pop song called “I Just Want to Touch You” for laughs and submitted it for the movie soundtrack for a film called “Roadie.” I had produced two songs for Alice Cooper for that album and they said to us, “Why don’t you put a Utopia song on the soundtrack?” We weren’t using Alice’s band, so Utopia played on the records and actually appeared in the movie, except for me (laughs). So we gave them that song and they came back and gave us the excuse that it sounds too much like The Beatles. They were afraid The Beatles might take some issues with it and sue them. You have to remember that Apple was very litigious at that point. I can’t see what issues they could have had with it; maybe they just didn’t want to use the song. So here we go and say, “Well, screw you, we’re gonna do a whole album of Beatles inspired songs like this.” We had a lot of fun with that record. We thought it would get some attention just for the novelty of it. We did a little bit of touring behind “Deface the Music” but we didn’t actively promote it because we considered it a novelty (laughs). We did it as an act of spite.

GM: Prior to “Deface the Music,” you had deconstructed some Beatles songs and covered “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Rain” on your solo album, “Faithful.”

TR:I was also musical adviser on the set of the movie version of “Beatlemania.” I don’t even know if I was credited but I spent the whole frigging time there (laughs) while they were essentially just filming the Beatlemaniacs onstage with an invited audience.

GM: What’s impressed you the most about Ringo as a player?

TR: This is a topic of conversation amongst all of us in the All-Starr Band, which is how disappointed we are that Ringo won’t play a song without a second drummer. When he first went out on the road he had two other drummers on his very first tour.

GM: Who do you think he’s reticent to play without another drummer?

TR:I think it’s just a habit at this point. But he was just paranoid about taking on the entire load himself of being the only drummer. Part of it is he likes songs that are simple and straight ahead in terms of his own playing, If it gets too complicated it becomes an issue. Remember, the first tour I did with him one of the songs I did was called “Black Maria” and there’s all these odd stops and starts in there and odd bar counts. As soon as we started practicing that one Ringo said, “No, I’m gonna sit this one out.” So I think he depends on the other drummer to sort of remind him where in the song we’re at because we’re playing some songs that are five or six minutes long (laughs), particularly the Santana songs — we do have some odd time signatures in there. So he depends on the other drummer to kind of cue him to what’s happening. But from a playing standpoint it’s a great disappointment that we don’t ever get to just play with Ringo and get to wallow in that groove.

GM: What is it about his groove that makes it work so well?

TR:There’s a little bit of a shuffle or something in everything he does. He’s got this other feel going on over top of it and also the fact that when you hear the drum arrangements he’s come up with on records, often times he can slip in and out of various feels with a relative degree of ease. He can go from a shuffle feel to a straight eight feel without having to think about it. For instance, the drum part on “Rain,” at the time people had a hard time figuring out how do you do that. How do you play this combination of solid rhythm and at the same time over this bizarre syncopation going through it. With his playing on “Rain,” in that sense he characterized the entire song.

GM: This incarnation of the All-Starr Band has stayed together for a much longer time than all the other versions. It seemed like you are not just aligned musically but also personally as well.

TR:We all sort of felt that way in the beginning. When Ringo puts these acts together he doesn’t really require that you undergo a psychological evaluation; you just have to have three hits (laughs). So there certainly have been instances where there were issues with people in the band. I think it also affected how Ringo would feel about the bands. Personality-wise we all clicked since day one and I think that’s one of the reasons why Ringo has kept the band together. It’s not only a superlative group of musicians but also it’s just a fun bunch of guys to be with.

GM: With Utopia you did the album “Deface the Music,” a Beatles spoof. Fast forward years later and you’ve written a song with Ringo Starr for his new album.

TR:There’s actually two songs that I participated in; one was a sound check jam that turned into a whole song after a couple of writing sessions. That’s called “Island in the Sun.” Right before the tour ended and right before Ringo was wrapping the record up he comes in and sits down next to me in the dressing room and says, “You fancy writing a song with me?” I said, “Well sure but it’s kind of last minute.” But he had an idea about what he wanted to do. He wanted to use titles from Beatles songs. With the Beatles growing up previous to the age of emails, even after the band broke up they communicated with each other by sending postcards. Ringo found a whole shoebox full of them, these postcards from the other guys in the band that he’d received. Ringo published a book of those postcards (“Postcards from the Boys”). He thought that maybe there’s an idea in there, and I came up with the “Postcards from Paradise” idea. I essentially came up with the lyrics and wrote this little melody, but he writes with a synthesizer that had a drum machine in it and a chord player and stuff like that. He had a little track he gave me first that I wrote to.

GM: Lastly, do you have a lot of unreleased material in the can?

TR:I don’t have a lot of unfinished songs laying around. If I don’t get past the first kind of couple of instrumental passes at it — if it doesn’t turn me on or I can’t visualize where it’s going — I just kind of drop it. I have little fragments of ideas that never turned into songs. When you release legacy material people always want bonus material and there really isn’t any (laughs). Everything that you hear on the record of mine is pretty much everything that I recorded. GM

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