A Long Time, A Long Way To Go:
Todd Rundgren – Past, Present and Tomorrow
Todd Rundgren’s professional musical career began in the 1960s when he was guitarist for a Who-influenced Philadelphia group called Nazz. That group never found widespread commercial success, though one of their singles (the original version of Rundgren’s “Hello It’s Me”) was a hit in some markets. By the dawn of the 1970s, Rundgren had embarked on a solo career of his own that would include a long and endlessly varied string of albums; a parallel career with his band Utopia; and a list of production credits for other acts including Badfinger, the New York Dolls, Grand Funk Railroad, the Psychedelic Furs, XTC, Meat Loaf’s Bat Out of Hell, and dozens more.
Along the way, Rundgren scored the occasional hit (his 1972 solo remake of “Hello It’s Me,” “I Saw the Light,” “Can We Still Be Friends?” “Bang the Drum All Day”) but became revered as a cult hero on the strength and breadth of his musical vision, and for his technological innovations. In addition to writing the code for one of the earliest computer paint programs (long before Windows); he launched one of the first video production studios (in the pre-MTV era); he started PatroNet, one of the first artist-to-fan online networks (years before Myspace or Facebook); and he was involved in many other innovations.
One thing that Rundgren has rarely done, though, is look back. At age 67, he still releases new albums regularly, and unlike many of his contemporaries, has long resisted the lure of greatest-hits tours (though he’s often been a part of Ringo Starr’s All-Starr Band tour lineups). Instead, Rundgren focuses on new music: in 2015 alone, he released two new albums that found him continuing to push boundaries: Global, for example, is a decidedly EDM-flavored release. And while that might seem an odd choice for an artist nearing seventy, one would do well to remember that Rundgren released an interactive hip-hop album (No World Order) way back in 1993. Todd’s other 2015 release, Runddans, found him collaborating with a pair of Scandinavian musicians on an album of what one might term “tuneful ambient” music.
It’s something of a surprise, then – even when considering that Rundgren can always be counted upon to surprise – that in late 2015 he launched a concert series called “An Evening with Todd Rundgren.” This tour is one in which he – gasp! – focuses on the hits and fan favorites from his vast catalog. Backed by longtime musical associates Jesse Gress (guitar), Kasim Sulton (bass), John Ferenzik (keyboards), and drummer Prairie Prince, Rundgren serves up both deep catalog gems and his biggest hits, the kind of set list longtime hardcore fans have only dreamed of. Rundgren and band bring that tour to Atlanta’s Center Stage Theater on Friday, February 12. I recently spoke with Todd Rundgren about the tour, his past, and his future.
While you’ve enlisted different players for different projects, the band for this current tour brings back a lineup you’ve worked with since, if I recall correctly, the With a Twist era shows circa 1997…
We’re about twenty years with this particular lineup.
Aside from the fact that they’re all excellent musicians, what draws you to this particular group of players?
You’re trying to find someone who understands what you’re going for, even while you’re having difficulty conveying that to them. It’s the same kind of thing as with the audience: you have to be used to having to re-adapt often. Learn new stuff, or take a different approach to things.
That was pretty much what With a Twist was about in the first place: taking all those conventional arrangements, and completely recasting them in a different era. It keeps it interesting for all of us. And I think the band would be no more happy than I would be if we had to play the same songs every night, in the same order, year after year after year.
With modern technological developments, artists such as yourself are able to make albums using a computer rather than a traditional studio. For many years, you produced other people’s albums. These days, you’re doing less of that. Are those two things connected?
No, I don’t begrudge other people learning how to make their own records! I realize that producing used to be my principal source of income. But that had to go, along with the traditional record company model. I have always tried to gather as much of the process to myself as I could over the years; that’s why I built a studio for myself fairly early on. And most all of my recordings have been done in some facility of my own creation, even if it’s only, ya know, a barn that I rent for the course of a recording.
It would be really hypocritical of me to say, ‘Oh, nobody else should do that; they should let me continue to control things!’ And I think that a lot of amazing music comes out of [self-producing]. People have the freedom to spend as much time as they want, noodling around with their own ideas, refining their approach. In the end, music is supposed to be what matters, not the entire economic system that revolves around it. But the experience of hearing something, of making something that excites you in some way, speaks to you in some way.
At certain points in your career, you’ve made it seem as if writing a hit is the easiest thing in the world for you, but at the same time you’ve made it clear that doing so isn’t something you find very interesting. What part or parts of the creative process do you find most rewarding?
As time has gone on, I most enjoy the process of subconscious expression. In other words, I don’t depend so much on my conscious ‘mentating,’ of trying to come out with a scheme of how a song should evolve, or how a record should sound. I more try to fill my head in general with all of the musical and lyrical fodder that may be germane to the final product. I let it just sit in there and ferment. And then the actual creative part of the process I do in a pretty short amount of time. So I’m depending on my subconscious to do a lot of the work to come up with something that seems coherent.
Something about you that’s often remarked upon is your tendency to be ahead of the curve. Going back to the video production studio, and PatroNet, it sometimes seems as if you put an idea into motion just slightly ahead of the emergence of a market for it. So you end up getting critical acclaim, but you’re left to watch others capitalize on the ideas. Do you think that’s a fair characterization?
It sounds pretty accurate. But the point is, I’m not a capitalist. That’s the problem. I would be much better off if I sat on one of these ideas long enough for it to come to that sort of economic fruition that some of those ideas have come to. But that’s not my purpose.
Second of all, there’s a horrible karma that comes with that. PatroNet, we did in the ’90s when there wasn’t any Facebook, Myspace, or anything like that. [I learned about] the evils of social networking! People would just do the most awful things, because they weren’t right there in front of you, [where] you could pop ’em right in the eye. Instead, they use the advantage of distance to vent their most evil thoughts. While that’s not what most people are doing, it turns into a policing job for you, protecting everybody else from these people. That’s all I did. So I eventually shut the whole thing down. I can’t take that responsibility of trying to mediate all this weird karma that people are creating with each other.
You’ve made a career out of confounding and challenging your fans. And speaking for myself at least, that’s appreciated. Last year’s Global and its subsequent tour were certainly a departure, and then the Runddans album was seen by fans of, say, Healing as – if you’ll forgive the term – a “return to form.” When I interviewed you in 2008, you said, “I’m not like Paul McCartney, longing to write my symphony.” I’m sure you’ve already given it some thought: Can you provide any clues about your next project?
I am slated to do another record; it might not be related to any sort of concept I might have had. But what it will be about is still a mystery to me at this point.
I have some very interesting things to get to once this tour is over. In mid-February, I’m going to Holland to do a revival. I had written a musical [Up Against It, adapted from Joe Orton’s original screenplay] for the Public Theater, for the New York Shakespeare Festival, and it was mounted in the late 1980s. And now we have an opportunity to do it with a full orchestra and chorus, in English. And we’ll have an actual [audiovisual] document of it, something that has never existed before.
At one of the earlier shows on this tour, you said something to the audience along the lines of “This is the ‘Coma’ tour, with folks coming out of a 45-year coma to request the songs on this tour’s playlist.” There have been rumors – and I think you’ve said as much sometime over the course of your career – that you don’t especially enjoy playing the hits. But by most reports, you seem to be enjoying yourself on this tour. Can you speak to that?
Well, I’m kind of feeling like I should try and have as much fun as I can at this point, considering that I’m lucky that my body is holding up. My voice is holding up. So every time that I get on a stage and then manage to get off a stage without embarrassing myself, it’s a good day. My expectations aren’t much greater than that; I’m glad to still be able to perform, and still have an audience to perform to.
My commentary was about the fact that some people endure a whole lot of frustration at being a fan of mine, in that I don’t often do exactly what they expect me to do, or what they’ve been longing for me to do. This [tour] is one of those few times that I will factor that in. And I hope that everyone realizes that – unless they want this show so much that they’re willing to pay $250 a ticket for it – I’m eventually going to go off and do something else.