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TODD RUNDGREN TALKS: Singer - Songwriter - Producer Extraordinaire Talks About His Four Decade and Counting Career

by Ray Ecke

RAY ECKE: This Spring you toured with legendary bassist Tony Levin and drummer Jerry Marotta, and although I've seen you perform many times you seemed particularly energized by playing with this band. Can you talk about that tour?

TODD RUNDGREN: It's not as if the experience is over. We're looking for an opportunity to possibly do more, but it's part of just a general trend for me. A couple of years ago I had an album called Liars, which I made in a vacuum more or less and didn't know what I was going to do after it was finished. I didn't expect it to have the response that it got. So I put together a band and went out and enjoyed it but couldn't continue to do it because of the expenses involved. So I wound up going home and doing other things.

Todd Rundgren Interview

Then last summer while touring with the New Cars last year we had this incident where Elliott Easton broke his collarbone. That essentially brought our tour to an end. And there I was with the entire summer in front of me and nothing to do. For me, it doesn't feel right not to be working so I called up Jesse and he suggested the Tony Levin band and we quickly put together a tour. This all ties together, essentially, because my next record is going to be my take on arena rock.

RE: That's going to be the sound of the record? It's going to be a full band and kind of big songs.

TR: Yeah, and it will be very guitar riff oriented -- two guitars, bass, drums is the basic format that I'm going to be working in, as opposed to a Bosanova or the other things that I've done in recent years.

RE: It seems like you, and there are a few other artists that come to mind like a Prince or Neil Young, that always seem to go to great lengths to defy audience expectations and challenge them to follow you as opposed to doing what's been successful for you previously.

TR: While it sometimes seems as if I'm going out of my way to confound the audience, it isn't about the audience. It's about keeping yourself from becoming bored as a musically creative person. I don't know what's in Neil's mind or Prince's mind when they take on a new concept, but for me it's something I'm doing to satisfy criteria that I've developed for myself that very rarely factors an audience reaction.

RE: You don't get 'suggestions' from record execs or management? No whisperings in your ear asking for another Hermit of Mink Hollow?

TR: Not any more (laughs). It's been a long time since I've heard anything from a record exec about how to make music. Nobody expected my first solo record (Runt) to have a hit, least of all me, and if it hadn't had a hit I might have gotten maybe three records in my solo career and would have been forgotten. But getting on the radio made it possible to get on the radio again. When I followed that record with one that sounded like it had "commercial potential" (The Ballad of Todd Rundgren) it was not a hit record but by then it was too late by then. I had to remind them [record company] that Something/Anything was not really a commercial record, I was just on a writing and recording binge. Mostly I was able to be so prolific because I was stealing from myself. I was using a lot of the same sort of chord changes over and over again and singing about the same relationship that had long ago ceased to actually be. When Something/Anything was completed I just didn't have any more ideas like that. I had to move on to something else.

On top of that, there are things that I'm not willing to do in order to enjoy a career like that. For some people, the only ethic you have is to get on the radio and enjoy the fruits of that. But for me, hanging out with DJs and pretending that I really enjoy fielding questions about my personal life and stuff like that is one of my least favorite things to do. For me, sucking up to get my music played rankles.

RE: You've also followed that ideal in the records that you have produced over the years too. I'm guessing after the success of Bat Out of Hell, you could have produced records for a lot of commercially successful bands but it seems like you've consistenetly taken on a lot of projects outside of the perceived mainstream.

TR: For most artists if that's what they want, I try to make an accessible record, you know, a record that well, hopefully, will be commercially successful but that they will at least be happy with, and will have met their expectations even if commercial success doesn't happen.

RE: One of your more recent productions was Splendor's Halfway Down The Sky (1999) record, which I enjoyed and was a different sounding record than what some think of from you. It had a very big rock sound to it.

TR: I also did a Bad Religion record and a band called 12 Rods who don't exist any more after that. In the case of Splendor, that's an anecdote in a sense. It's one of those things where the label wants you to exercise some influence over the band and how they make the records, but the band has only acquiesced to the label's desire to have a producer. In that particular case there's one guy who writes almost all the material, the lead singer, and he thinks because he's made his demos at home and laid them down pretty good that he knows everything about making records. He doesn't really want a producer and essentially doesn't take any of your advice. They had some success with it but to my mind, it's not as good a record as it could have been if they had been willing to accept some advice.

RE: Sounds like it wasn't a very rewarding project for you?

TR: You hope to get something out of it for yourself as well, something musically or to feel like the contribution you make makes some sort of difference rather than being a babysitter for a record. Sometimes it just doesn't work out. Sometimes the central creative person is just so head strong and has such cemented ideas about the way they want things go that you really don't have creative input. In my experience, records aren't any better simply because the artist highjacked the process.

RE: I've heard you talk about this before, the 'Pink Floyd-ization' of record making, which you were rebelling against with Nearly Human and Second Wind, which were both recorded live.

TR: Yes, some have completely forgotten the roots of music. You know, there was a time when there was no such thing as multi tracking, overdubbing, or whatever. For instance, as long as he recorded, Frank Sinatra insisted that the only way to do it was with a full orchestra in the studio, no matter the expense. But in the long run it all becomes a wash if you're going to spend a year in the studio putting down one instrument at a time. It's the kind of thing that sometimes destroys bands. My approach has always been that you are progressively defining the record. You're always trying to capture as much of it with every take, as opposed to getting microscopic about every note.

RE: What's your creative process now like? When you write are home with an acoustic guitar or piano, or in your studio?

TR: It's like progressive refinement. I first just try to capture fragmentary ideas. They don't even necessarily belong to songs yet. I may be playing guitar. I may be programming a keyboard or something like that. Often it's a keyboard. Their only certain things you can play on a guitar. You run out of notes, and some fingerings that you can easily do on a keyboard are rather hard to impossible on a guitar. So I often write with keyboard but parts will be in place later on a guitar. And the singing and the lyrics all come kind of the very last minute.

RE: I love the lyrics on the Nearly Human. "Hawking," which you played on your recent tour, is one my favorite songs. The words are incredibly moving. I have this vision of you being out among the redwoods or somewhere writing the words.

TR: For that record I demoed all of the songs beforehand in one form or another, usually just with the piano, drum box and bass part. Then actually wrote out charts for all of the other things that were in there. So that was a different process for me in a sense from the way I've worked in the past. Usually the composition and the recording are all one process. I'm recording parts of the song even if I don't know what the song is about yet, but for Nearly Human and Second Wind, since the actual recording is everyone play at once. I wrote the songs, then come up with the arrangement and then taught the parts to the other musicians to perform.

RE: Let's talk about music technology. Today more artists are putting a lot of control in the hands of the audience. Nine Inch Nails put Garage Band tracks on thier website so anyone could remix the song. What's your take on technology and music? You were kind of way ahead on the curve on this stuff with your records No World Order and The Individualist?

TR: I don't know how many people would go to the trouble to download all of the necessary data to do one of these reconstructions, get it into Garage Band or whatever and then spend any amount of time trying to come up with something that was comparable to the original in terms of artistic sensibility. I've experienced a lot of this stuff over the years because I have been involved in leading edge stuff, the first to do this, the first to offer that, but sometimes in the long run it's like 'so what'? Technology evolved so fast. I had the first fully interactive CDI release. Now nobody even remembers CDI. You know, one way you have to say yeah we learned so much from doing it, but did it pay for itself in the long run? Did it usher in a whole era of CD technology? The thing that really made the difference in the end was the Internet. The effect was massive. Ten years ago most people were not on the Internet. The Internet was still, for most people, a dial up thing. The most they did with it was browse a few web pages.

RE: Something I've always been curious about, I remember reading somewhere that you had a war of words with John Lennon at one point in the 70's. What's the story behind that?

TR: Well, it was essentially a little dust up engineered by Melody Maker Magazine, or it might have been the New Musical Express, but they were trying to provoke things. They liked controversy. I did an interview for New Musical Express and said something about John Lennon.

RE: About him getting into a fight and thrown out of a restaurant?

TR: This was when he went out to LA and started bar hopping with Harry Nilsson. Essentially he was getting loaded and accosting waitresses. Something that bothers me a lot is hypocrisy and his expectations of others was always very high, and the way he had no qualms about, for instance, going after Paul McCartney. How do you sleep at night and all this other stuff and taking other people a task for their shortcomings.

Anyway, I made some comment about it. They made a big deal about it and solicited a comment from him. He characterized my so-called outburst as me bitching at my dad. They tried to get a counter response from me and I realized that they really didn't give shit about John Lennon or me. They just liked the controversy. We spoke to each other briefly on the phone. We were never friends or anything.

RE: Last question, what's the deal with Steven Colbert? How did you get on his "on notice" list?

TR: I don't understand why he keeps making reference to me. I mean I find it sort of flattering. We've attempted to contact his producers but they haven't responded.

BONUS QUESTION - POLITICS:

RE: Do you have a candidate in mind or are you political? Do you have someone you like in '08? We have like 27 candidates now...

TR Well, the problem is that I've been a registered voter in the state of Hawaii. What Hawaii can do in the primaries is pretty much irrelevant. It's all done by the time we poll in the primaries. So I choose not to even concern myself until things have been winnowed down at least to maybe two principal contenders for either party. It's all so entertaining and too much to keep track of and you just know some of these guys are not going to be there at the end. In fact, they're not going to be there after Iowa and New Hampshire. So yeah, I don't see the point. There are big players involved who are going to determine this thing. You know, people who can hold gazillion dollar fundraisers in Hollywood. I don't have that kind of power. It wouldn't make any difference who I was supporting they could still wind up not being the candidate.

BONUS QUESTION - AMERICAN IDOL:

RE: What do you think of American Idol?

TR I never watch it. I think that it de-legitimizes entertainment in general because for the most part legitimate artists don't suddenly get catapulted in front of the entire national and international audience based on the opinion of three people. Most artists have to work their way up.



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