Todd Rundgren has certainly carved a unique niche in the world of music and technology.
With over 40 years in the business the singer-songwriter-guitarist - (inhale) - record producer, and computer programmer's groundbreaking techniques incorporating different aspects of computer technology have become extremely influential to the many artists that followed him.
'Runt' has never been afraid to implement radical changes in his sound (or look), even when that meant throwing a wrench or two into the machine that brought him mainstream success.
The pop masterpiece, Something/Anything (1972), which contains the hits "Hello It's Me" and "I Saw the Light," showcased a sea of soft-rock themes and orchestrations.
I wouldn't say that the double-album actually drowned in a sea of Yacht Rock, though, as it also gave us glimpses of the progressive rock we'd hear prevalently in Rundgren's later work.
But the aforementioned hits from Something/Anything prompted many listeners to become comfortable with Rundgren's '70s soft-rock vibe; one that threatened to define the 'sound' of the artist.
Runt saw things differently.
The Philadelphia native had become heavily influenced by different aspects of jazz fusion, psychedelic rock and Eastern religion and philosophies--all of which he wanted to include in his music.
A 'tech-y' from early on, Todd learned different programs and techniques that allowed him to implement new sounds in innovative ways leading to Something/Anything?'s experimental follow-up, A Wizard, A True Star (AWATS) (1973).
Goodbye melodic soft-rocker, hello avant garde progressive-rock genius?
Well, not totally.
The great thing about AWATS is that, yes, it became a significant piece of the multifaceted puzzle that is Rundgren's career; marking his concentration on the more musically complex (ala the Stravinsky meets Frank Zappa feel).
But he did this without completely abandoning his soul influences and love for a good melodies; hints of classic R&B, and doo-wop are scattered through AWATS.
It was also at this time that Rundgren formed the band Utopia, which had several influential albums of their own.
The band backed him on the AWATS album and many would consider this band to be the front runners in the progressive rock era.
A Wizard, A True Star, pointed Todd Rundgren in a direction that would further lead him to try more and more new techniques in his music.
He also went on to implement his techniques in the production of many albums from other artists, including: Hall & Oates's War Babies (1974), Meat Loaf's Bat Out Of Hell (1977), The New York Dolls's Debut (1973) and Cause I Sez So (2009), and many more.
Dec. 1 will mark the first time Rundgren will perform 'A Wizard, A True Star' in its entirety on the West Coast; beginning in San Francisco, then on to Sacramento (Dec.2), Los Angeles (Dec.4), and Ventura-Dec.5.
We caught up with Todd Rundgren to chat about AWATS, songwriting and current pop music.
S&S/Raina: Thanks for taking time out to talk to us!
TR: Thank You.
S&S/James: So...word has it you were packin' sausages with Daryl Hall?
TR: Well...so to speak! (laughs) You can see what all went on there on the website.
S&S/James: Ok, Ok...(laughs)
S&S/Raina: James and I were just re-watching the episode with you performing at Daryl's house, you guys were awesome.
TR: It was good. Kinda hard to find though!
S&S/Raina: Was that the first time you'd worked with Daryl since the 70's?
TR: No, no not all...we've corresponded. Actually I'd sung on a song with him on the Do It For Love album a few years ago. ("Someday We'll Know")
S&S/Raina: You guys always sound great together. Can you tell us a bit about what inspired you to perform 'A Wizard, A True Star' live now?
TR: I came out with an album called Something/Anything? that sparked a couple of hits and I wanted to follow it with something completely different.
S&S/Raina: To get out of the soft-rock pigeon-hole?
TR: Well, they started to call me "the male Carole King" (laughs) soo...
S&S/James&Raina: Whooa...(laughs), no disrespect to Carol King, of course.
TR: Yeah...so, I released 'A Wizard A True Star ' which most would consider a turning point in my career musically. The choice to do it live now was to try and introduce me to a younger audience, that's where the original idea came from.
S&S/James: I like what you did with allot of the behind the scenes production with alot of the new wave artists in the 80's. You were all over the board!
S&S/Raina: You've worked with so many diverse artists from Meatloaf to the New York Dolls. You've also worked with them again recently?
TR: Yeah, we did the record last February, so it's been out and about for a while. They're now touring behind it.
S&S/Raina: As far as producing, are there certain types of artists you seek out to produce?
TR: Um.....no, actually. I look more for good material. If the material is strong, then I like to try and adapt to different styles myself. It helps me to be a more worldly musician I guess. Working with artists that I'm not always 100% comfortable with or familiar with. But if they write good songs, that to me is the basic criteria for making a record. Then of course they have to perform them with some degree of competence (laughs) but beyond that, the hardest thing for most artists to come up with is a good song to play.
S&S/James: I like what you did with XTC! I didn't know that you produced them. Raina actually told me that...I was a big XTC fan back then.
TR: Well they were certainly a challenge to work with and sort of a notorious challenge because of the fact that their entire musical life pretty much took place in the studio. Andy Patridge has this horrible stage fright and early in the bands career they essentially just stopped touring. So when they would go in to the studio to make a record they'd be in there forever (laughs) if they ever came out--so it was always a challenge working with XTC and I knew about their modus operandi before I'd started, so I was a little bit better prepared than allot of other producers I guess.
S&S/James: Well I'm glad they got those tracks out. You know on our radio program we actually just play vinyl non-stop and it lets us fish in the deeper tracks.
TR: So you're saying anything that wasn't released on vinyl doesn't get played? (laughs) So essentially anything from 85 on doesn't get any airplay...
S&S/James/Raina: That's basically it! (laughs)/Pretty much, we play all music from the 80's back..
S&S/James: I love you're albums for the fact that every song is not the same. You take people for a ride...it's all mixed.
S&S/Raina: What would you say are the main themes/elements of your music and what is your process?
TR: Well, for me, I look at each recording or each opportunity to make a record as being ideally an adventure in self discovery. That's why they're always different. If I've adequately explored some aspect of my personality or my thought process, I usually don't feel like I have to revisit it again. So I'm therefore off to explore something else. Lyrically, my method essentially is designed to kind of shut out any kind of extraneous noise so that I can listen to what my brain is actually doing.
In the every day you spend so much of your time formulating how to interact with other people and allot of your brain power is committed to that or figuring out how to deal with other people's issues and things like that. And most people, especially nowadays, are so connected that they don't know what solitude is--and so they never get to hear what they're actually thinking. So my process essentially is to try and create enough quiet for me to hear what I'm actually thinking and to do that I often have to go away from wherever it is that I'm living, away from family, away from conventional distractions and things like that. 'Cause it can take a couple hours before things settle down enough for you to really hear your own thoughts.
S&S/James: Well, I appreciate that you take the time to put out an ALBUM that you can listen to. A whole album. There's not enough of that going on in the music scene now.
TR: Well I guess I've also slowed down a little bit in my later years here. At a certain point I was making records at such a pace that I would have like 2 solo records, a Utopia record and 3 or 4 productions in one year (laughs).
S&S/Raina: It seemed like you were releasing an album every year throughout the 70's.
TR: Yeah, and that was in the 70's where there was enough of an appetite for music in those days where people actually did release an album a year. And this whole idea of taking a year to make a record was unheard of. Ya know, the whole Bruce Springsteen thing where he would spend an entire year working on a record. And artists later like Michael Jackson, would take 5 years to make a record and he'd tour it for 2-3 years, so therefore his records would be 8-10 years in between.
I slowed down my pace a little bit mostly because I'm more careful than I used to be. I used to make records as quickly as I possibly could. Like I was in some kind of a hurry or there was a gun to my head. I eventually slowed down realizing that I want to create records that have a greater depth. But also in the old days you could fill a record up with half an hours worth of music, you didn't have to write as much. But then when CD's came out
they had twice the capacity of the previous records so I started to fill those up as well. An album like Liars that I released a couple years ago ran to almost 80 minutes--which is almost three times as much material as I used to have to come up with to fill a record.
So, yeah, you just naturally slow down because you have to come up with more material. But also because once you've made 30 records, you start to consider more carefully what your records are gonna be about.
S&S/James: You know I was telling Raina on our show, sometimes I'm surprised at who actually produced certain records. Someone actually went and invested in certain albums of people no one has ever heard of. It's really interesting to see that. Was it that easy to go into a studio and record anything?
TR: (laughs)...well...in a way it was. If you have an ear. If you've always been interested in music and you pay attention to music and you know something about music. You don't necessarily have to be a musician or a technician of any particular kind...
S&S/James: Right, it's an art form.
TR: In a way. You have to know what sounds right, what doesn't sound right. But if you want to step up to the role of producer as well, you have to develop a way to convey that to other musicians. Musicians speak a certain language. You also have to develop skills as a psychologist and as a diplomat (laughs)...ya know? It's the same as running an office in a way because you have to develop all of these people skills because when someone's making a record for themselves, they're usually very self-conscious, sometimes trepidacious, they're not completely confident in what they're doing. If they were, they wouldn't need you! (laughs)
S&S/Raina: Exactly. You know, allot of the newer musicians are becoming mainstream fast, but they're making music that's disposable. You can't really listen to "Rollout" by Ludacris 20 years from now, you know what I mean?
TR: Yeah, and that's the problem, you sing a song about how impressive you are (laughs) and then of course the song, 10 years from now, will be about how impressive you were. You know, 'what have you done for me lately', that's' pop music. The thing is there's nothing wrong with disposable music. That's what folk music is. Rock music or pop music essentially is a folk art form. In that sense, most folk art doesn't wind up hanging in a museum anywhere. It gets purchased on the roadside. Sorta Iike Navajo jewelry or something. Somebody will drive by and see something they like and they'll buy it, take it home and one day it will get lost or forgotten about, but nobody looks at it as high art.
S&S/James: Hmm...interesting perspective.
TR: Yeah, but there is the potential for art within it. Just like there's potential for art even within the most naively produced kind of art work. You see allot of that stuff actually hanging up in the House of Blues--what they call 'outsider art' It's art that's made by people who have never been to or even thought of going to an art school.
***Hear a clip of this interview on our radio show 'Thrift Store Records w/James & Raina', SATURDAY NIGHT 11/14 on 90.7 KFSR Fresno, CA or www.KFSR.org between 10-Midnight (PST)***
The Runt Don't Front!
Todd is notorious for keeping connected to his fans! To keep in 'the know' about his whereabouts and upcoming West Coast AWATS tour, visit these sites:
Up-to-date news and information about the 'A Wizard, A True Star' tour: www.AWATSlive.com