Interview: Todd Rundgren

Todd Rundgren has worn many musical hats, from principal songwriter and guitarist for the 1960’s Anglophile band The Nazz, to the pop meister who wrote the 1972 hit “Hello, It’s Me” and co-wrote the 1983 anti-work anthem “Bang the Drum All Day,” to a member of the prog-rock ensemble Utopia, to the lead singer of The New Cars after Ric Ocasek decided not to join a reunion of The Cars, to the producer of Meat Loaf’s Bat Out of Hell, The New York Dolls’ debut album, and albums by many other artists including Patti Smith, Grand Funk Railroad, and XTC.

This interview was conducted by phone on 11/23/09, and formed the basis of a preview article for Rundgren’s show on 12/05/09 at the Majestic Ventura Theatre at which he performed the entire album A Wizard, A True Star (AWATS). A review of the concert is here.
The full interview follows:

Jeff Moehlis: At this show you are going to be performing your album AWATS Why this album, and why now?

Todd Rundgren: About a year ago I was touring in Great Britain, and my promoter there proposed the idea of doing a one-off special event, which would be AWATS as the whole record. The reason he thought that would be a good idea is because there was a young generation of turn-tablists and mixologist-type artists who had discovered the record and were mentioning it in interviews and sampling it for thieir own records, and things like that. So he thought that an event like that would be a great way to introduce me to a younger audience via these younger artists.

When word got back to the mainland that I was considering such a thing, a group of U.S. fans got together and decided they wanted it to happen here first. So they promoted the shows themselves. As a matter of fact, it started with one night in Akron, Ohio, with the potential of adding a second one, and then it stretched into seven dates in five cities. At first it was only going to be potentially a one night or two night event in a single theater, and it just turned into something more than that.

Now we’re taking it to other parts of the country, but kind of on a regional level because it’s an expensive show to mount and to carry around. So that’s why it’s not like an ongoing tour. It’s more of an event thing.

JM: Can we expect to see costumes at the show?

TR: There will be lights and smoke and all the stuff you would expect to find at a 70’s-style arena-style show. But in addition I have had a history of flamboyant costumery back in the day, so we’re making that a featured aspect, principally because that is something that is attainable. Building a giant hydraulic set, or something like that… we’re not playing places large enough to justify that sort of investment. So the costumes actually turned out to be something that was both apropos and practical.

JM: I’m looking forward to that. I was only three years old when the album came out so I didn’t see any of the crazy 70’s rock shows.

TR: Actually, the record was never performed in its entirety in the 70’s. Parts of it were performed. But as far as trying to recreate the record, a lot of the record was a product of studio experimentation, and we weren’t able to haul all of that stuff that we had in the studio out on the road. Essentially we would do what was within our grasp to do, and then the rest of it just never got done.

The onward progress of technology has made it possible for us to reproduce pretty much anything that is on the record. If we can’t find the synthesizers or whatever to make the sounds, we can literally sample them off the masters. Which is something that I would have had no philosophical problem with at the time. For instance, I used to open the show, and perform some of these songs, and the only accompaniment was a tape recorder [laughs]. The band would come out for the second half of the show. Had we had samplers, yeah, we might have attempted to do more of the record back in the day.

But eventually, you know, I moved onto other things, and never thought that I would have to deconstruct a record in order to perform it in its entirety. But then, here we are [laughs].

JM: Your answer brings up something I’m quite interested in, which is the relationship between music and technology. I was wondering about your thoughts on what are the good and the bad about how technology has evolved, in regard to making music.

TR: I think that technology is good if you have a sensibility that transcends whatever technology you’re using. There’s only room for so many Kraftwerk’s in the world. Not everyone can simply program machines and let them run and call it music. Before you twist a knob or plug in a wire, you have to have some idea of what you’re trying to accomplish. So a lack of that is a musical fatal flaw regardless of the level of technology that you’re dealing with.

It’s curious, it is possible, I think it’s totally possible that some people only have so much music in them, and then it eventually runs out. But they are making a living as a musician, so they continue to make music anyway, even though all of the good music has pretty much drained out of them [laughs]. That’s not an excuse to make music. The technology makes that kind of approach that much easier, it makes creating dreck easier. It doesn’t necessarily make creating good music easier.

JM: It almost seems too easy to make music nowadays.

TR: Well, it’s easy to blur the distinction between being a musician, being a performer, and being an entertainer. They’re actually completely distinct roles, and it’s only in our latter-day music business that we get them all blurred together. But it’s possible to be a musician and have no facility to actually play [laughs], to be able to perform. Somebody like Burt Bacharach, who writes incredible songs, but he can’t sing them [laughs]. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard him try to sing – he’s not very good at it.

JM: I don’t remember hearing him sing, which is probably telling, right?

TR: He writes the most incredible songs, but he can’t really sing them. He can play them on the piano, but he can’t really sing them. So it doesn’t necessarily hold that if you’re a great musician, you’re also a great performer.

Also, at the same time, there is a distinction between performance and entertainment. And the audience criteria are in some ways different. For instance, Pavarotti is one of the most incredible performers of all time. But it isn’t necessarily entertaining to watch him, because he just stands there and sings. In an opera, it might be. But if he’s just standing up and singing an aria in front of an orchestra, for most people you’ve got to figure out how to entertain yourself by watching him, you know, like how fat he is, or the way his eyes bug out [laughs], or something like that. But he’s not trying to entertain you, he’s trying to sing the song as perfectly as he can. He’s taking a very challenging piece of music, and trying to perform it as close to perfection as possible. That’s what the entertainment value is for other people, but he’s not dancing around the stage [laughs], and grinning at people, and stuff like that, like Christina Aguilera or Lady Gaga.

There are these three completely distinct roles, and it’s only nowadays that we have the expectation that someone is all three. The likely weak point is the first thing, is the musicianship. That’s where they’re most likely to be weak. Because all of the other stuff is fairly easily learned, you know how to dance, and how to smile at people, and you can take singing lessons and things like that. All of that other stuff can pretty much be learned, but having something to say as a musician is the most difficult challenge for anyone.

JM: Now, of course, I have to ask you, because you set yourself up. How do you primarily see yourself, as a musician, a performer, or an entertainer?

TR: Well, I’ve always seen my fallback position as being a musician. I was never a natural entertainer, and I became a performer because I wanted to be able to create my own music and be able to have control over some aspect of it.

I always had an inclination to listen to a wide range of music, and too often attempt to perform some aspect of it. For as early as I can remember, I was into banging around on the piano that my grandmother had in her attic every time we would go visit, when I was five or something like that. When I got into elementary school in those days, they had music lessons available as an extracurricular activity, and you could rent an instrument from a school. So I think the first instrument that I wanted to learn how to play was the flute, not realizing how difficult it was to actually play.

At a certain point I latched onto the guitar, both because of my appreciation for the instrument, and also because of its attainability. I knew a guy up the street who had an electric guitar, and actually made money playing it. So my first instrument was the guitar.

And, while I had a great fascination with music, I didn’t really know myself well enough to become a great performer, in the sense that I was devoted to technique, that I would woodshed for years like Eddie Van Halen, or something like that [laughs]. I could do a certain amount of woodshedding, but I only really enjoyed playing it in a real musical context.

Eventually, I started writing songs out of necessity, out of that idea that all musicians, all performers wrote their own music. Because that’s what the Beatles did. Before them, it wasn’t like that. Frank Sinatra didn’t write his own music. Frank Sinatra didn’t play anything. All Frank Sinatra did was perform, and entertain [laughs]. He was a musician, and he probably could, and maybe did, write a song or two. But for the most part he depended on songwriters, who wrote for other performers.

Eventually, it got to the point where if I was going to be in a group that made records, we were going to have to record our own material. We couldn’t keep doing cover songs all of the time.

JM: I dug out a review of AWATS which came out when it was released, by Patti Smith. I was wondering if I could read the end of the review to you and get your comments or reaction. It says “Rock and roll for the skull. A very noble concept. Past present and tomorrow in one glance. Understanding through musical sensation. Todd Rundgren is preparing us for a generation of frenzied children who will dream in animation.”

TR: Well, I must say I’ve read it before, because Patti is actually part of the package. The original record had a poem by Patti, as an insert on something that looked like a big band-aid. There was also a postcard in there. So it was a pretty elaborate package. Patti and I were good friends at the time, and she wasn’t making money yet as an artist. She would do poetry readings and make a little bit money, but she wasn’t doing a band thing. So it was also a way for her to make money, writing reviews. So she didn’t just review me, she reviewed other music as well. And it was a way for her to use her language and stuff, and get paid for it [laughs]. The music business is a somewhat inside thing, and so we arranged, I believe probably, to have Patti do a review for someone so that she could get paid for it. And we knew in advance it would be a good review, because Patti was actually part of the package [laughs].

JM: Well, she does have a way as language.

TR: At the same time she was writing reviews, she was still performing her art. She was not simply writing reviews, she was putting the words together in a certain way that only she would do. I think that this is part of the grand legacy of literature, which is that most writers don’t get paid for their own writing. They get paid to write on a per-word basis for a newspaper or something like that, often doing reviews, while they actually are dreaming up the great American novel. While not being paid to write it.

JM: As it turns out, for the record, I’m doing this for free.

TR: [laughs]

JM: I enjoy music. I enjoy listening to it, and reading about it, so I thought, hey, I should write about it, too.

TR: You can also get your voice out there, which is a good thing.

JM: How would you place AWATS in comparison with your other albums? When you look back on it, what is special about it, or what is different?

TR: Well, it triggered The Great Migration, as it were. I had a lot of commercial success with the previous album, with Something/Anything? I wasn’t being necessarily contrarian, and trying to do something different, it’s just that I didn’t have a goal to be commercially successful. I was making a fine living as a producer. So I did my own records, in part, for my own amusement, and just to sort of document my own musical evolution. But without thinking, “OK, I’m going to quit record production and just go out and try to be a success as an artist.” So I was going to evolve to some place anyway, it wasn’t always going to be Something/Anything? record after record.

But the shift was so radical that it caused a whole schism in my audience. You can say that there are people who don’t know anything about me from AWATS on. They’ve listed to Something/Anything? until they’ve had to buy five replacement copies, or something like that [laughs]. But of anything that has happened after that, they are completely unfamiliar. And I have a lot of sympathy for them, because often they will see that I’m playing in town, and say to themselves, “Oh, I remember him back from the 70’s, all those great songs from Something/Anything? Let’s go see him.” They show up, and there’s all these decades of other music that has happened in the intervening time, none of which they recognize. So they never buy another concert ticket again [laughs]. They feel completely burned by the fact that I have evolved past that.

But the audience will mostly be filled with people who are completely aware of the fact that I’ve gone through all these changes, they weathered the storm that AWATS represented, and have actually developed a preference for that kind of off-the-wall approach, that almost anti-commercial approach that a lot of my records represent.

[Regarding] exactly what went on in the record, I don’t attempt to reproduce that record over and over again. You know, it was a record, and then I moved on to doing different kinds of records, and I continue trying to find new and interesting things for myself to do musically. But the milieu surrounding it, the way that it upset the apple cart, caused essentially a culling of my audience, or a bifurcating of my audience into pre- and post-Wizard audience members.

I think in a way, that’s part of the reason why I’m still able to make music when so many other people have had incendiary careers that are now over, in a sense, because the audience has moved on. The audience starts to think, “I guess I’ve heard everything this musician is capable of. I’m going to find something different to listen to.” That’s just
a natural dynamic in the music business. The audience moves on.

What actually happens is the audience is perpetually young. The demographic for record sales always skews towards people under thirty, because they’re usually single, and they have disposable income that they spend on clothes and music. Then, by the time they reach thirty, they’re starting to get married, and all of that disposable income becomes their childrens’ allowance. So the music business is constantly about youth, and about other people the same age as the record buyers who are making the music. And they don’t care if the music is redundant, if it’s something that’s been done before. And they don’t care if it’s original, either. Whatever it is, they want to hear people their own age doing it. That’s just the way it has always been.

So to hang on to your audience as you move into your later decades, requires that you elicit a higher level of commitment out of them, because it’s that much harder for them to get out of the house, as it were [laughs].

JM: What advice would you give to an aspiring musician?

TR: Well, as you will recall, I gave you this whole dissertation about the difference between being a musician, and a performer, and an entertainer. The first thing to do is to have a clear distinction of what you’re trying to accomplish in that regard.

So if you want to be a musician, the first thing you need to do is get a day job [laughs]. You need to find something to do to feed yourself because music is one of these things where there aren’t success guarantees. It’s not like going to business school, getting an MBA, and then finding a job in a company somewhere. You’re going to go through this period of mystery regarding whether or not you are going to be able to ever make a living at making music. At some point you will have to make a decision that, yes, this is the life that I want to live, and that this is enough success for me to at least make a commitment to that lifestyle. Or you’re going to give up and find something else to do.

The question that you’ll have to answer for yourself at that point is, “am I really any good at it?” If I’m good at it, then regardless of what I have to do otherwise, I’m going to continue to do it. Because I’m good at it, you know? Because it means something to me to do it. And being good at it means that people respond to you.

I mean, you could say that there are egg-headed measures that only a musician would understand, in order to determine if something’s good. But really, the bottom line is, do other people enjoy listening to what you do? If they enjoy it enough to eventually go out of pocket to hear it.

But if you really just believe that you’re doing something musically important, and other people don’t understand it yet or whatever, and you’ll be lauded after you die for your incredible musicality that nobody was yet ready to listen to, then I don’t have any advice, you know [laughs]. You already have the level of self-assurance that makes you keep going regardless of what kind of success you have.

If the kind of advice is, how can I succeed as a musician, in other words, to get paid to do it… you know, I’m having enough trouble myself and I don’t need the competition. So if I knew how, I wouldn’t reveal it [laughs]. And I wouldn’t be telling you how to do it.

JM: Do you have any plans to perform any of your other old albums, either Utopia or solo albums in the near future?

TR: Well, this is unlike a lot of my tours in which I have a record done and I decide that I’m going to go out to play it, or I’m not doing anything else and I need to keep working so I go out and play music for people. It’s just a demand-driven thing.

It’s not the kind of thing where I’m going to decide, OK, now I’m going to do this record because I did that record. It’s a bottom-up thing. It has to be a product of audience demand, so that I have some assurance that the investment I’m about to make is not going to break me [laughs].

The response to the first offering [of AWATS] that we had back in September when we first started doing this, the response let me know that I could make an investment of a certain level. I could make the band a certain size, I could make the production a certain size, the number of crew would be this, that, and the other thing. In other words, it isn’t the same as me just packing up the truck with the amps and heading off. It isn’t a store-bought cake – it’s a cake from scratch.

So I’m certainly open to the possibility of doing another record, but that’s a bridge that has to be crossed when someone, in the manner that this Wizard thing kind of unfolded, takes it upon themselves to first of all canvas the audience to figure out what record it is that they really and truly want to hear, and then do what any other promoter does, which is gamble [laughs] on the production, by first of all putting a 50% downpayment on the table so that I can start paying for rehearsals and stuff like that. And then ideally nobody goes bust, and even more ideally we all make money at it.

JM: Well, I would put my vote in for the first Utopia album.

TR: There’s nothing preventing it, there’s nothing preventing a reproduction of perhaps any of the records.

Certain things that aren’t going to happen are, for instance… Roger Powell, who played in the shows that we did last September, is likely not going to be doing any more shows. We were lucky to get him away from his regular job [laughs] long enough to come out and do that string of dates. But he is not perpetually available to us. He still plays on occasion, but the whole ordeal of touring and stuff, he’s not into that anymore. He’s had his fill of it, and now he’d rather just do a regular job.

JM: I hope it’s fun for you to play this stuff.

TR: Well, as I say we only have done seven shows altogether. So it hasn’t gotten to the point where we’ve gotten tired of it. To the contrary, we’re still kind of learning it in a way [laughs]. We’re still lucky to get through a show without some musical disaster occurring, just because it’s so complicated and because we haven’t really ever taken it out on a formal tour, we’ve just sort of done this limited string of dates.

JM: Or there could be a wardrobe malfunction.

TR: Oh yeah, we’ve had those [laughs]. That’s usually one of the more entertaining aspects of the show, if you understand what’s going on. Yeah, we have those, we have wardrobe malfunctions. We have all manner of challenges. But it just seems to be something that the audience wants so badly, and wants to enjoy so badly that it’s hard to spoil it. It’s hard for it to go so horribly wrong that people aren’t still having a good time.


2 comments for “Interview: Todd Rundgren”

  1. EXCELLENT interview full of insight and wisdom and humor…
    VERY well-done!

    Posted by Jeff"Weavil"Gauss | February 11, 2010, 10:46 am
  2. very insightful interview. Todd’s always been an influence. I play in several types of bands,but my MySpace
    is original instrumental -I do all the guitars and yamaha does the drumming….so, I consider myself a musician – would be open to comments or reviews of my guitaristic expressions…….peace,blessings.

    Posted by bill neyland | February 12, 2010, 4:48 pm

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