Todd Rundgren interview: Full transcript
This article is from 2008.
What follows is a transcript of an interview I did with the great American musician and record producer Todd Rundgren on Tuesday 21 October. He spoke to me down the line from his Hawaii home, it was 8.30pm UK time and 12.30pm Pacific Mean Time when we started and it was almost 10pm UK time when we finished. I have long been fascinated in Rundgren and believe that the multi-generic fusion music he made in the 1970s influenced American pop, rock and electronica in fundamental, often untold ways. So speaking to him was a rare privilege. I was speaking to him shortly after the release of his fantastic new album Arena and before his UK tour. I hope you enjoy this unedited transcript.
Arena is an absolutely fantastic album; I have been listening to it all day and for the last couple of weeks, its just great, are you happy with the album yourself?
I never know right when I finish the record because I make them in kind of an insular process, so I have to take other people's word for it. I listen to it and I have my hopes for it, but I guess I don't really know until I go out and actually play it for people. In this particular instance we had an opportunity to play it before the record itself was released, because of the fortunate circumstance that we got an international distribution deal which means its coming out in Scotland as well as the rest the of the world at the same time. But it delayed the release by about two months, so we wound up out on the road playing the record for people who had never heard any of it before and didn't really have an opportunity to buy it yet. I think it was their response that gave me a bit more confidence in the whole thing.
I've read that you wanted it to be a return to riff-orientated-guitar rock with this record and that you wanted it to sound like Utopia, was there a game plan?
Yeah, but I didn't devise this whole thing altogether on my own. There was a circumstance that put me in the position of being the 'guitar-playing front man' again, and it was the way that people reacted to it that steered me in a direction of sticking with the guitar for a while. I think more in terms usually when planning a record -- 'what is the subject matter?' 'What it's going to be about?' I don't have any fear that I'll have trouble coming up with the musical aspect of it. The hardest part is always what the hell are you singing about, especially when you are up in your 25th album, what's left to sing about? The biggest challenge for me is trying to figure out what the record will be about, once I've accomplished that, I think I have a bit of confidence that the musical part of it will come to me somehow.
It's be four years since Liars, is the process of trying things out on audiences something you do regularly?
Well no, as a matter of fact I wrote and recorded the whole album pretty much all myself out in Kihei [Rundgren's home in Hawaii] and had no feedback of any kind. But when it came time to go on the road, I thought I would rather be playing new stuff than old stuff, I mean the old stuff is fine, but as time goes on you cant simply be doing things because you assume that the audience enjoys them. You have to do things for yourself sometimes and have the audience react to that, react to the level of your commitment to the music, as opposed to your simple willingness to play anything that they request.
Actually making the album, were you working by yourself or were you using other musicians?
No, I would have used other musicians, it was a great opportunity to take advantage of some of the players I know, but living in Hawaii its difficult to just say 'Hey, come on over, I got this song I want to record'. It becomes a big ordeal with scheduling and transporting people and it goes a little bit antithetical to the whole spontaneity that I'm trying to achieve.
When you were putting the tour together, and you were getting a band together to play, were they not giving you feedback saying 'this album is great'?
Oh yeah, I was getting good feedback from the players and also they were as much in the dark as everyone about exactly what the music would be like. So when they got it, I imagine that they don't receive it in the same way that everyone else does because they realise 'oh, I also have to play this!' Its not just about what they think about it from a listening stand point, they have to wrap their heads around it in a different way than a typical listener. So I think when they realise its also intended to be fun to play, then we didn't really have much problems in rehearsal apart from the usual things which is details, very rarely capturing the feel of it, its mostly trying to remember the little parts and stuff.
Is it a new touring band you are using different members?
Its pretty much the Liars band with minor modifications. I've marginalised pretty much the keyboards because it is supposed to be a guitar record and the live presentation follows upon that so we have four of the same guys who were in Liars. There's me, Jesse Gress on guitar, there's Prairie Prince on drums and there's Kasim Sulton who was playing bass but is now the third guitar player and does some incidental keyboard parts and Rachel Haden is now handling the bass.
You tend to record a lot of concert films of many of your tours, will you be making a film of your new tour?
Well we have already done a high-definition videotaping one of the first gigs we did, which in some ways was unfortunate because we learned to play much better after that, but that is just being wrapped up now that will be broadcast on HDNet here in the US. I don't know about worldwide, but it will also be made into a DVD. So we do have something in the can, but I'm hoping at some particular point that we'll get a chance to do something else now that the band has become more seasoned and a little more expert at the material.
And that's something that appeals to you, using as many different formats and genres as possible to your technological side I suppose...
Yeah, it's partly that and it's partly that my audience is maybe a little more technologically orientated than I am. I get involved in these technologies because I don't have a fear of new things, but I am not necessarily prepossessed with all technology. I don't own a cell phone and I don't really like to be in an automobile. All for various reasons that seem to me rational, and maybe irrational to other people, but in the end, equate to eschewing certain technologies, the fact that something is new or flashy doesn't necessarily make it a good thing.
There is a certain trend at the moment, bands like the White Stripes and the Ting Tings are taking technology back and using old analogue stuff just to get a certain sound, do you have that temptation to recreate sounds you had in '74, '75, is that something that appeals to you?
I don't think about it that much, but again it's all about trying to stay open to the possibilities. This latest record, even though it sounds like a big band, was done entirely on my laptop and that was just a matter of circumstance. I could have done it other ways but I was too wrapped up in the creative aspects to worry about the technical aspects. 'Whatever works' is the attitude I took, if my ProTool system won't start up, I'm not going to wait around for that, I'm going to find another way to get it done. So, even in practice the record has a certain guerrilla nature to it, you got to make do with whatever is available and that's going to be the world that we will be facing in the future. It's going to be a world where there is less stuff, where we have to make more creative use of what we do have available.
Is there an environmental agenda here also?
Its implicit not explicit in there, is the idea that we will have to change our habits and change assumptions, and essentially change is where it is at. The whole idea that we could suddenly stabilise everything and live in a world of predictability, I don't see things trending that way. Thank God we have the internet that we have this extemporaneous communication system that allows smaller groups of people to try and accomplish things that sometimes the mass can't develop the political will to do.
Is that an idea that you hope carries through the album?
To be specific, the message is towards the men of the world, in that we have had terrible examples of leadership and that men will think all by the same deviousness, cowardice and fecklessness that's how you gain power nowadays. I'm thinking that we need to hark back to saying something more heroic where men's responsibilities were to bear the unbearable burdens and to brave the storm and to protect the weak and to find the lost lamb and to seek the truth as opposed to looking at power as an end in itself.
Hints of religious belief in there?
The cover of the album is a visual quote from the movie 300 and there's elements of that movie in, part of my subject material was from the movie 300, partly because it was visual but also because the story which was about a small band of men realising what their responsibility was, knowing how slim their hopes were, but they stood at the gates of Thermopylae anyway, even when the reinforcements didn't come, they didn't run away they just stood there because they know this is our responsibility, this is our example to our children, all of those things that nowadays seem to be in today's political climate, quaint.
Who are you voting for in the election?
I don't see any way I can vote for John McCain, put it that way, and I vote religiously by a matter of induction I guess you could figure out how I am voting. People get so possessed with the presidential thing that they don't think of all the so-called 'down ticket 'stuff, which is what affects people more directly. Presidents can do certain things, but if you have got yourself an idiot congressman you are in big trouble.
Do you have yourself an 'idiot congressman' in Hawaii?
They can be clownish at times but Hawaii is an extremely liberal state, very polyglot, many different races of people and have pretty much figured out how to get along with each other, so it's an inherently liberal environment.
On Arena is the track Gun your homage to AC/DC?
[Laughs] I actually didn't know at the time that AC/DC was about to come out with a record as well, so I'm a flea spec compared to them.
Seriously, you really rock out on this album in a way you haven't done for a while....
I know, but just in terms of where the votes will be, no one has been waiting in bated breath for my record to come out, everybody has been waiting 10 years for an AC/DC record.
I don't know about that, I think you have still got a big band of followers...
Well we are certainly going to prove or disprove that hypothesis in the near future.
These things are very relative I think... talking about the album, there are so many different genres and feeling, its so energetic, do you ever just think, oh I just want to sit down and just keep to one thing and have an afternoon nap...
As the saying goes, 'sleep when you are dead', take that long dirt nap, but for now, I don't know, I suppose its just a vanity in me that thinks that if you have any sort of talent you simultaneously have purpose, that you are supposed to apply that to something and in that sense people can get really annoyed with me 'you are just a pop musician, why are you taking it so seriously'. Before I was a pop musician, before I was a performer, I wanted to be a musician, I knew this was the way I would to express myself and whatever else goes on, that prevails for me and the way that musicians have always proven themselves is by playing its not by releasing records, records are documents of how you play. If Thomas Edison had not come up with the process we would still be making music and in that sense, no matter what reputation I have made for myself as a record producer or a recording artist, I always remember that it starts with a good piece of music and then you have to figure out how to play it in a convincing manner and what is recording once you have done that? You are just pushing a button. So the most important part is to feel like this is still what you are supposed to be doing it is at least to me what I am supposed to be doing instead of some other thing.
And in terms of the tour, is it the first time you have been to Scotland?
I think we were there with Liars and I think I was there even more recently with Joe Jackson and I recall having a lovely time because he is quite an authority on single malt whiskies, Edinburgh is a lovely place to go out exploring single malt whisky.
Do you find Scottish audiences different to anywhere else?
I have found they are hugely enthusiastic from the first concerts I can remember, they go out to the show intending on making their contribution to the show. You contrast with places like Japan where everything is really staid and they maybe look at the shows in some ways like a product and you deliver it in precisely this amount of time with this amount of brio, they are satisfied but the Scottish audience always seem to be egging you on, get it a little crazier, push it a little further.
There is possibly a little bit of machismo in the culture as well?
Yeah, and partly that and partly being inebriated always helps! But I'm likely to be a little bit inebriated at the time also so...
There's nothing wrong with that, right culture for it, it's absolutely freezing up here at the moment so...
Oh, now you are bumming me out...
You will need some whisky or something to keep you warm...
Yeah I will, I will get my hip flask out
What do you listen to at the moment, is there anything that is really ticking your box at the moment?
I have actually been listening up on Robert Johnson, there's a clause in my contract which means I have to cover a certain amount of Robert Johnson songs within the next six months or so, its an odd thing, but it has something to do with publishing and there's a quid pro quo to it, so if I do some Robert Johnson songs, someone else will be encouraged to do versions of my songs so it's a way in the struggling music business to maximize things all around.
So is the idea like a trade-off when you play tunes...
Well I do an EP of Robert Johnson covers which they will market in some way which is still mysterious to me and the whole point is that they control the publishing of Robert Johnson so my recording it adds value to the catalogue and the quid pro quo essentially is that they own the publishing for this record from Arena, and they will be encouraging other people to cover some songs from this record, thereby giving me some writers royalties in the future.
I heard about a Todd Rundgren homage album, where other artists record your songs
There have been a few of those and they are always quite intriguing. Some of them are actually musically challenging to me. Steve Lukather did a version of Tiny Demons which I found mystifying; there is no way that I would have been able to do what he did with it...
Mystifying good or mystifying bad?
No, great, amazing, he turned the guitar into something more concrete whereas all I was doing was making noises.
Does it make you feel proud that you've got this legacy?
Oh yeah, to have other musicians play your music is really the goal, being a solo guitar player or wondering vagabond, that's great and you get all the satisfaction from the people you play for, but its a whole other quality getting the satisfaction from the people you play with because they understand it at a completely different level.
Is the New Cars project over with now?
Its pretty much done for now, we may occasionally do what they call a corporate, where you play a private event and those are always good because a band like the Cars has a catalogue that is familiar to a lot of people who didn't have to be Cars fans, the so permeated the radio that any random group of people will be able to sing along to a bunch of Cars songs, so it works in that context but trying to rebuild an audience, especially from my stand point when I am eventually going to go back and start doing my own thing again, its hard to make that open-ended investment and because we had an accident very early on in the touring schedule, Eliot the guitar player broke his collar bone and that took the wind out of our sails very quickly because by the time we had got out on the road and he had healed we had expected we would be in phase two and not picking up the pieces of phase one.
The tour you were doing with Joe Jackson was brilliant, I actually saw you two on tour, absolutely fantastic, is there anyone else you would consider working with in that way again?
Well its a good way to tour, especially in this day and age, the expenses of touring are so onerous, the price of full and the cost of hotels everything has started to cost more, so cutting down the musicians is the quickest way to save money, but in some instances it isn't appropriate, I couldn't go out and do an acoustic version of Arena I have got to take a band out, there is always a possibility I could go back to that, but I think in the future I will not play the piano, I am just not that good at it, I am particularly not going to play piano on stage with a real piano player like Joe Jackson
I suppose it must depends on whether you like the person to go on tour with them...
You don't necessarily have to love them, but it would be good to have some sort of musical parody, you had mutual respect for each other that's probably the more important thing.
The people that I would like to work with frighten me, in the sense that if you go on stage with them, then you will get compared to them, the more formidable artist that you would like to be with the more of a challenge it is for you to perform, you set your own bar higher
Well they may be frightened of you.
Yes, that's true.
So what's next for you?
Well we get back from tour at the end of November and we start another tour in December, I may be doing production early in the year and then we will go back out on tour again after the record, I think the promotion has only just started, its only been in about three weeks
So this is the European leg of the tour, so is it American leg next?
Yeah, we will be going back to do more of the American leg and some of the territories that I haven't been to before. We will just have to see how the reaction to the record mounts up.
Are you thinking of going back into the studio after that?
I'm not going to rush back, these days it takes me a little while to come up with a ripe enough concept to go back in the studio, principally because I have done quite a few records and it gets to be a more of a challenge to find a new territory to work on.