The title of Todd Rundgren’s 1973 solo album, A Wizard – A True Star, perhaps best sums up the artistic contributions of this multi-faceted musician and state-of-the-art producer to contemporary music. As a songwriter, video pioneer, producer, recording artist, computer software developer, conceptualist and artist, Rundgren is a Rock ‘n Roll ‘Renaissance Man’ that has made a lasting impact on both the form and content of popular music.
I had a rare opportunity to interview Rundgren in the midst of his current concert tour, billed as An Evening with Todd Rundgren, which will be coming to Saginaw on Saturday, May 14th at The Red Room inside The Dow Event Center. Tickets are $32 and $49 and are available at all Ticketmaster Outlets, The Dow Event Center Box Office and by phoning 800-745-3000.
For the uninitiated, Rundgren’s resume is impressive. Born & raised in Philadelphia, he began playing guitar as a teenager and went on to found and front The Nazz, a pioneering force in quintessential ‘60’s psychedelic rock; and in 1969 left the band to pursue a solo career. On the 1972 release Something/Anything he played all the instruments, sang all the vocal parts, and acted as his own producer, which catapulted him to superstar status in the wake of such timeless hits as I Saw the Light, Hello It’s Me, and Can We Still be Friends?
In 1974 Todd formed Utopia, an entirely new approach to the concept of interactive musicianship; and also gained a reputation as an A-Class producer, helping shape the sound for albums by Patti Smith, Badfinger, Cheap Trick, Psychedelic Furs, Meatloaf, XTC, Grand Funk Railroad and Hall & Oates.
In 1998 he debuted his new PatroNet technology, which for the first time allowed fans of a musical artist to subscribe directly to the artist’s musical output via the internet, which caps a long history of groundbreaking early multi-media ‘firsts’, including the first live nationally broadcast stereo radio concert that linked 40 cities around the country in 1978; creation of the first color graphics tablet in 1980, which was licensed to Apple; and the first live national cablecast of a rock concert on the USA Network, which was simulcast in stereo to over 120 radio stations. And this year he is producing the world’s first full length concert shot with multiple Virtual Reality 360-degree cameras.
Rundgren was gracious enough to grant me a 30-minute interview prior to sound-check at his L.A. performance; and I found him to be attentive, thoughtful, good-humored, and amazingly humble – a remarkable quality in itself for a man with so many achievements to boost from his storied resume, in a business that nowadays is centered so much around self-involvement.
Review: Looking back at the expanse of your career from the early ground-breaking days with The NAZZ up through this current tour, what do you feel is the key quality that distinguishes your sound the most?
Rundgren: That’s kind of a trick question, because the quality that characterizes me the most is the difficulty people have categorizing me. My core fan base has come to expect not to expect anything predictable.
Review: Good point! Let me rephrase the question this way: Looking back, what do you consider your greatest professional musical achievement? Is there any particular period that you are especially proud of?
Rundgren: Again, this is kind of in murky territory for me. I try to avoid things like pride, first of all; because essentially sometimes a new project turns out well and sometimes not so well. There are musical projects I’ve poured myself into and thought they would be milestones for me as an artist, only to have the record label just drop it and tell me that people won’t care and nobody gets to hear it.
When that happens you can’t really be proud of something that nobody’s heard; and in that sense, you feel more disappointment than pride and you move on. In fact, that’s kind of like the nature of the business. The thing about the music business is that nobody can be on the top tier 100 percent of the time. If you are up there you will falter and fall eventually; and when that moment happens, it drives some artists insane.
Review: Let’s shift to your role behind the mixing board, because as a producer you’ve earned a remarkable reputation for excellence that hangs right up there with the music that you create. You’ve worked with some of my favorite artists on some of the best albums they’ve ever created, such as Patti Smith’s ‘Wave’; ‘Skylarking by XTC; Badfinger, and of course being from Michigan, Grand Funk Railroad. How do you approach your role as a producer when asked by different groups to present the music they’re bringing to the table? What do you feel is your strongest suit as a producer?
Rundgren: Producers take different approaches, depending upon their backgrounds. A lot of these guys started out as engineers, so their specialty is the sound of the recordings they produce – the drums will always sound the same; and their general texture is kind of like a formula they come up with and people will come to them and say make my record sound that way.
Then you have producers who essentially set a mood. Some producers I’ve seen work whom I know have no knowledge of music – they couldn’t tell you what chord somebody is even playing, but essentially they’re successful in terms of psychology – they pump the artist up and put them in a good mood to create.
My approach turned out to be first remove all those headaches that go with the engineering aspect of recording a new record, so because I’m an engineer, first I get the sound down quick, so there’s no distraction over getting the right sound for the artist. On the psychology side, my philosophy is you don’t give any more input than necessary; and concentrate on filling in the gaps from whatever the band brings to the table. Sometimes they come and have 30 minutes’ worth of songs and need encouragement to go back and create more, or write better, before we start making the record. All of this will be done before we even start to record.
Then again, you have some people like XTC that have an embarrassment of great material, so it wasn’t hard dealing with that part of the process; but working with them did involve as much psychology as I’ve ever had to bring to bare because of the personalities involved. So there’s a big difference between what I have to do as a producer.
Grand Funk Railroad, on the other hand, were a surprising experience. They had their material down and it was mostly a few suggestions that I offered, along with helping them arrange some things; but beyond that they were surprisingly together in terms of all the stuff they had to do. They rehearsed the hell out of their material, so it wasn’t like I had to record take after take after take; and they knew how to sing their songs and how to play them. It was kind of a revelation for me because everyone had such a poor opinion of them as a band at that time. Their manager Terry Knight was also producing their records up to then and he didn’t know anything about it. He would tell them to go into the studio and jam for 20 minutes and turn the recording machines on.
Review: Are there any groups you’ve produced that just stand out overall as being a memorable experience that registered really high on the Richter scale for you?
Rundgren: Yeah – working with Cheap Trick was always incredible fun, partly because we’ve had some history together. Apart from playing the same stages together there is actually a direct connection between Rick Nielsen and Robin Zander and The NAZZ, because they were actually in it for a period of time; plus they also have great songs and perform them with great gusto. There’s no crapping around – they’re rehearsed and ready to play and not self-conscious in the studio. That record I worked on with them was a great experience. They haven’t lost their touch and are a great rock band – you know this when working with them.
Review: What’s your current state of mind regarding the entire music industry right now? There’s been dramatic changes over the decades and it seems that before concerts existed to sell albums; but now it’s the concert where the musician makes most of their money and the records are practically given away.
Rundgren: Concerts have always been where the money is. If you had a hit record back in the day you would be selling out arenas and the split on a hit record is 10-20% if you’re lucky; at a concert people pay at least twice as much as the cost of a CD and the artist gets 80% of it. Plus, with all the merchandizing and t-shirt sales, a lot of bands realize they’re better off giving their music away so they can get a hit, but always want to make sure you buy a concert ticket when they come around to perform. But look at the history of recorded music – it’s less than a century-and-a-half old and the history of music itself is thousands of years old. That’s the way musicians have always made money – playing for people.
Review: A lot of promoters are worried about what happens when the Classic Marquee Artists start to drop off – and we’ve lost a lot of important ones this year thus far – because the new artists coming out are hard to know and hard for crowds to distinguish, so they can’t fill seats the way established artists have been able to do back when you had FM Radio filtering and marketing the best of the new material being released.
Rundgren: The problem there, Bob, is there’s no middle anymore in the music business – it’s disappearing. Everything is going to either small venues or large arenas and the middle is kind of missing. Part of this is in the nature of where music is at because the biggest artists now are Carnival-like and girls. Female singers are the biggest selling artists in rock music and the next level down is with bands like The Magic Dragons and this really calculated international sounding music that doesn’t have a lot of soul to it, which is why there’s no middle. Those bands are designing themselves to go right to the arenas from some little indie club to the big time.
Actually, most of what you see in the middle now is being filled by comedians. Comedy is big now. Of course, there’s no social glue to music nowadays – it all has that hip-hop sensibility and is very narcissistic. It’s all about the stuff you have and your attitude – that kind of thing. Not very pithy subject matter.
I don’t know when or how that changes, but it’s not like The Beatles – who almost immediately after they got popular started to morph into social relevancy. The medium was more than the music at one point for them and you became interested in that – whether it was drugs or religion or politics – and music doesn’t have that same kind of totemic power that it used to have in the sixties. But there wasn’t a whole lot of other media back then, either. Most places only had 3 TV channels.
Review: And when a new album came out by your favorite artist you would take it home and listen to it in front of a stereo instead of putting on ear-buds…
Rundgren: There was no such thing as a personal music experience outside of your home back then. Once you got the record you listened in your own house, would lock the door, unplug the phone, and sit there listening to the whole thing – maybe twice. Who does that now? Back then you listened without distractions.
Review: What musicians do you admire the most?
Rundgren: I like artists like B.B. King that last and are people who never retire from making music. You do it until you physically can’t anymore, which is what I expect to do. I admire my contemporaries for various things, whether they be songwriting skills or prowess as a player – but if you go well past retirement age that’s what a musician really wants.
There’s no such thing as retirement for a musician. It takes stamina and isn’t like riding a bike – you can’t just hop back on. I know people who retired for awhile and had to come back and play for whatever reason; and its hard – its difficult getting back into not simply the physical shape to perform, but the mental attitude – because it is performance – just like sports or anything else. People pay to see you do it without stopping.
Review: What’s it been like working with Ringo Starr’s All-Star Band? I saw the first incarnation of that with Burton Cummings from the Guess Who, yourself, Timothy B. Schmidt & Joe Walsh from The Eagles and Nils Lofgren.
Rundgren: This current version a whole different band than tha onet. The first time was interesting because it was a weird conglomeration of personalities, but the current line-up that he’s got has been together four years now and essentially is the band I think Ringo was always looking for.
His only criteria initially was that you had to have hit songs somewhere during your career to play during his show, but that means nobody ever gets a psychological evaluation. And sometimes the only 3 songs they could play were their own hit songs and they couldn’t play anybody else’s material; so this current line-up we all really like each other, all get along well, and all play each other’s material as well as it can be performed.
Review: So tell me about this show coming up? What can audiences expect at The Dow Event Center on May 14th?
Rundgren: This current show consists of material I’ve avoided playing because I’m always coming up with new records and a new show to go with the record, so this time I’m essentially giving the audience what their expectations are – the material they want to hear played performed in the way they remember it. That’s only because when I finish this tour at the end of May, I will be done touring my own stuff for the year and will start working on a new project and tour to go along with that.
Review: What is that new project going to be like? Can you give us a taste?
Rundgren: I don’t really have enough of an idea fleshed out yet about what I’m doing; the only thing I know is that it will be more collaborative than my recent albums. Lately I’ve been doing all these solo recordings because I live in Hawaii and its hard to get people to show up and jam when I’m living 5000 miles away from them. I’m going to figure a way around that, so it wont be just me on this next one.
Review: Final question. What’s your wildest experience on the road?
Rundgren: I’m trying to figure what anecdote I could tell you that would qualify for that.
Review: Okay, how about your most memorable touring experience?
Rundgren: One of the most memorable things I ever did was three nights with the Los Angeles Philharmonic known as the L.A. Pops at the Hollywood Bowl. It was essentially a tribute to The Beatles and I had the opportunity to perform A Day in the Life with the full orchestra on three different nights. That was definitely a musical highlight.