Roots Report: An Interview with Todd Rundgren

Okee dokee … I spoke with Todd Rundgren for about an hour last month in advance of his May 14 performance at The Odeum in East Greenwich. Here is the conversation.

John Fuzek: Are you in Hawaii?
Todd Rundgren: I am at the moment, yes.
JF: Are you vacationing or do you live there now?
TR: I’ve lived here for about 22 years now.
JF: Is that the place that in the “Daryl’s House” video?
TR: Yes, it is
JF: I actually thought that you lived in upstate NY.
TR: I did until the mid ’80s, then I moved the family up to San Francisco. I kept the place in
Woodstock for a while and only went back and did projects, and in the mid ’90s we moved here.
JF: You’re playing The Odeum on May 14. That’s an intimate venue. Do you choose to play those smaller venues?
TR:  No, we usually find larger venues to accommodate our production; the smaller venues are
“pick up dates” or fill dates.
JF: I saw you last year and it seemed pretty straight-forward with just the band; what do you have for production?
TR: Last year I was not promoting a new record, I was trying to mollify the fans after a spate of somewhat challenging shows. The tour before last year I was promoting an album called Global, two singer/dancers and a DJ and a lot of lights (laughs). Tour before was me, Kassim, Prairie and Jesse. I was the DJ, and I discovered I couldn’t do all the singing that I needed to do and also DJ. This tour doesn’t have a DJ; this production is a band plus the girls and a pretty substantial production — lots of video, lights and things like that to the degree that we can fit it into any particular venue.
JF: I see you have a new CD coming out, White Night.
TR: The official release date is May 12, but there’s already a track out that is being featured off of it. My understanding is that the label may release a couple more tracks before May 12. Another one may come out at any moment, I was surprised by the first one.
JF: So what is the feel of this record? Every time you’ve done something, you’ve taken a leap and have done something dramatically different from the previous album and you have gotten very experimental over the years.
TR: This is my most collaborative record in a very long time. It has a lot of  guest artists, things were written with other people. On the song that’s out now, the guest vocalist is Robin, a Swedish singer. Another track coming out is with Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails. During the break I will do a video for another song that I did with
Daryll Hall, another with Joe Walsh, Joe Satriani and couple others, but I don’t have the list in front of me (laughs). A lot of collaborations.
JF: Are these people that you hang out with normally? I see you do a lot with Daryl Hall; are you friends or just someone you work with occasionally?
TR: I’ve done tours with them and produced an album for them in the ’70s. It’s a decades-long association on one level or another, and it was kind of obvious to ask Daryl to be involved once I got into doing collaborations cause we harmonize well (laughs).
JF: I like the stuff you’ve done for the Daryl’s house show! Are you going to perform a lot of stuff off this new album or a mix of old and new?
TR: It’s going to be a mix of old and new. The previous album the shows focused on those because I was performing everything myself anyway, but there’s so much collaborative stuff on this record that unless the artist shows up I can’t really do the song (laughs). The album is about half me singing and about half other people singing, so I will focus on the stuff where I sing.
JF: Last year you played a lot of songs I was thrilled to hear. I know you are probably sick of playing “Hello It’s Me” and that is the song everybody wants you to play, but that’s the one that got me into you back in ’72-’73.
TR: My version came out then. The song was originally written for the Nazz that was the B side to “Open My Eyes”
and that came out in 1968 or ’69.
JF: I heard that you were 16 when you wrote that.
TR: No, I was 18! (laughs) But it was the first song I ever finished writing, yes.
JF: That’s a pretty damn good song for the first finished song!
TR: I got lucky the first time, yeah (laughs).
JF: One I’d love to hear you play is “Time Heals,” I remember when it was in heavy rotation in the early days
of MTV when they actually used to play music.
TR: I think there was a point that I did it, but we haven’t done it in a while. There’s a balance between nostalgia, satisfying the older fans with fond memories, and creating new memories. As you get older, if you’re going out live, you tend to lose audiences. Older fans don’t go out as much or buy records as much, if you want to survive you have to try to appeal to a younger audience, refresh your audience somehow. Those people don’t have the fond
old memories if they’re only in their 20s (laughs). They’re just starting to make those memories.
JF: So of all the fond old memories songs, which is you’re least favorite to play?
TR:  Yeah, it’s probably “Hello It’s Me” (starts laughing). It’s dogged me my entire career, 50 friggin’ years now, to have a song follow you for half a century it gets a little tired. I go through long periods where I don’t perform that old stuff. It’s not out of  obstinance, it’s just having written 300 some songs and constantly having to do the same song, it’s just kind of a little weird.
JF: I’m a performer. I write and record all my own songs, and you’re an inspiration to me in that aspect of recording and song writing and style. One of the things that impressed me was your production capabilities. You took your “Meatloaf money” and built a video studio.
TR: Yes, coincidentally there was a technological  breakthough in terms of price and getting into the video game. It used to be to make professional video you needed this gigantic thing that was the size of a car and cost a quarter million dollars each (laughs). And then suddenly Sony came out with one that cost 75,000 each and allowed me to get into some rather serious professional video production.
JF: After watching some of your early videos I was wondering, did you do these by yourself?
TR: No, we started out early on doing stuff by myself in my house, but it was the level of equipment that I couldn’t do broadcast production with. Once I got into the broadcast game, it’s the kind of thing where you needed electricians, people to run the lights and calibrate the machines, and by the time we did stuff that appeared on MTV we needed a lot of real technical support.
JF: So are you still playing the foam green Strat?
TR: Foamy? Yes, Foamy I still play (laughs). Foamy is pretty much the old stand-by now.
JF: Are you using the Line 6 equipment?
TR: I’ve been using it consistently, recently, even when I’m with Ringo. We use a Line 6 four pedal and put it through a Fender Twin Reverb or something like that. That’s only because we haven’t been able to dependably get Line 6 equipment when we go to places like Australia.
JF: So you’re going out on the road with Ringo again?
TR: Yeah, it’s not a big tour. As a matter of fact, I’d say half is in Las Vegas. That’ll be interesting.
JF: You’ve been doing that for a while. You must enjoy it.
TR: He essentially has decided that this is the band that he wants. He wanted to go out this summer and some of us had already committed to putting out a new album. I had to promote my own stuff over the summer so he essentially postponed everything till the fall when everyone in this particular line up is available. It’s kind of like a little reunion. JF: I think Ringo shows are some of the more fun shows that I have been to. Ringo has a lot of energy; I don’t know he can do that at his age.
TR: He takes good care of himself!
JF: He must; he was doing jumping jacks at the end of a two-hour show.
TR: It’s a lot of exercise; he has a very strict diet and gets proper sleep. That’s why he can still do it.
JF: What about you?
TR: I try not to do anything in too much excess on the road, except I try to sleep as much as possible (laughs).
JF: Has the stage taken a toll on your body? I know that I when I do a 2 1/2 hour show I’m catatonic the next day. I don’t know if I had your rigid schedule I could survive it.
TR: (laughs) It is a challenge, and you have to do it the right way. If you’re young, there are some things that you can get away with that you can’t when you are up here. It isn’t the stage that takes its toll, it’s your age; when you’re 68, your joints start to stiffen up there’s no way around it. Each member has their own issue, everyone has achy joints,   you pop a bunch of Advil before you hit the stage and grin and bear it, and once the adrenaline kicks in you’re not feeling it that much anymore. Last year I was having pretty acute problems with my knee, especially on Ringo’s tour,
from jumping around a lot.
JF: So are you going to be playing any piano this time around?
TR: Not on this tour, no. I used to play more in my solo shows, but when I am with the band it’s too weird for me to get the keyboard just to play a couple of songs and I’m not that good of a keyboard player live (laughs). Probably not in the studio, either. It used to be that I would practice more of my own songs and learn them so I could play them
well enough. I don’t consider myself a piano player. I can’t play anything but my own material.
JF: I noticed that you like Gilbert & Sullivan operettas; which one is your favorite?
TR: The Mikado is hysterically funny and Pirates of Penzance, but I might prefer HMS Pinafore to that.
JF: Have you ever performed in one?
TR: I have performed songs from G&S but not an entire operetta, it would obviously be fun to do.
JF: Do you have a favorite Broadway musical?
TR: I’m preferential to Sondheim, “Sunday in the Park with George”  very musical, we were just in NY and we were participating in a tribute to Aretha Franklin at Carnegie Hall. We saw two musicals that I found quite unmemorable
(laughs). There was a revival of “Sunday in the Park with George” that we wanted to see with Jake Gyllenhall. I guess he went to a performance arts HS and used to sing a lot, but the tickets were ridiculous, too expensive, like $400. We didn’t want to blow our wad on another musical.
JF: How do you feel about Hedwig and the Angry Inch?
TR: I saw that a long time ago. They wanted me to produce a cast album. It was running way off Broadway. Danny Devito’s company had just acquired it. I think they did the film. The whole thing made me uncomfortable and I declined to participate in it.
JF: What made you uncomfortable?
TR: The pedophilia elements of it, trying to glamorize pedophilia in some way, I
just could not go for that. I also thought it was a lame attempt to be like a Rocky Horror thing — trying to be outrageous, but was not as artful or family friendly as Rocky Horror (laughs).
JF: Have you written a rock opera?
TR: Well I did write a musical called Up Against It. The play part of it was written by someone else who was
supposed to become the Beatle’s third movie, and the  NY Shakespeare fest asked me to do the music for it and I did, but it never made it to public theater. It was not a success, but just last year I went to Holland and we revived it. We did the music part of it, full orchestra and chorus, and somewhere on the internet under Up Against It and my name, it was produced on Dutch radio and at some point will be a video.
JF: do you have a large fan base in Europe?
TR: Somewhat. They are isolated to certain parts of Europe,  not a lot of fans in Italy. I probably have no fans in France and Germany; I do in  Holland, England, Scandinavia, so I can tour there.
JF: You said you’re going to Australia with Ringo..
TR: Not this time, but I have been there. I wouldn’t mind going again! (laughs)
JF: So how does it feel now being 68 and you look back on recordings you did when you were 22;  would you do anything differently?
TR: I don’t really revisit those things; I’ve always got another project that’s coming up, so looking back and fretting about past projects is counterproductive from my standpoint. There was no expectation when I was making that record; it was me alone in the studio. It was the first time I decided I  was playing everything myself cause I usually had a rhythm section for that. I was dealing with the challenges to adapt to that way of recording. I had to learn how to sing all the songs in my head while playing the drums. I always laid the drums down first. I tried doing it different ways. I couldn’t play with the click track and I kept getting out of time with the click track. I tried laying down the piano first so I would have some guide to play the drums with but kept getting out of sync with  that  all the time. The only alternative was to essentially play the song in my head while I played the drums. The end result of  that is that for a lot of songs, the tempo at the beginning is completely different than the tempo at the end (laughs).  “I Saw The Light” starts out about 5 or 6 beats per minute slower than where it ends up (laughs) at the end. My studio is my laptop now and I record and mix without using any other hardware except for an audio interface. That is only because I’ve been doing the recording myself. If I had to do a session with a whole lot of microphones, I might use some other hardware.
JF: Is this how you did White Night? On your laptop?
TR: Yes,  I’ve pretty much done everything that way probably since the ’90s when I got my first digital
recording equipment.
JF: You’ve always been a pioneer and been ahead of the game as far as recording, haven’t you?
TR: I always want to know what’s available; I don’t always use what’s available. I didn’t get into the digital recording thing right at the outset cause of the expense and inconvenience because there weren’t a lot of standards. I didn’t get into a lot of synthesizers that people used in the early ’80s until I figured out exactly how to fit it into what I was doing, and there’s technologies I still don’t  get into. I don’t own a cell phone.
JF: You don’t have one?
TR: Likely, never will. I don’t need it; I have email, that’s how I do most of my communications. Once you have a cell phone, people know they can get a hold of you. That is something I never want to encourage. I want to be able to deal with people issues when I’m ready to deal with them not when they demand that I deal with them. Once you have a cell phone even if people can’t reach you they get mad at you. Self importance in people comes with it. They expect that you should be able to answer (laughs). Anytime they want or anytime an idea pops into their head, you better be there to hear it. I am perfectly happy without it, but the problem is now they don’t have pay phones anymore.
JF: I think about 25 years ago, you were on “60 Minutes” and you were talking about the music/recording business and were very pessimistic  about it. You were almost discouraging people from becoming performers/musicians, cause you were having a hard time making money at it.

TR: I never discouraged anyone from playing music or getting into the business. but the whole idea depended on you getting a certain kind of  label deal before you even consider it. That was fallacious and time has proven that out; you used think that records were the most important thing that you did, but as it turned out they are another way to merchandise the music you’re are supposed play to live and if you have a hit record of any size, you can make a certain amount of money off that, but you’d make ten times as much going out and playing live behind that hit record. Of course it’s the way costs are divided up. ou’re making maybe 10% of retail price of a record but 80% of the price of a concert ticket and you’re selling t-shirts. So in terms of making a living, you have to play live. You can’t make a living making records alone.
JF: Are you traveling by bus again this year ?
TR: Yes, Ringo flies, I go by bus. It’s a whole different order of magnitude in terms of expense (laughs). Ringo spends more on one trip than I do in a month on a bus. A private jet is a very expensive thing.
JF: I’m wondering how you felt when Carnival Cruise licensed “Bang On The Drum.” Did you like that for the money or the fact they were using your song?
TR: I loved it for the money (laughs). I wish they were still doing it; it would take a lot of the pressure off. But then they started sinking all those boats (laughs) and figured they should change their image or something (laughter).
JF: Is that another song that you don’t enjoy playing that much anymore?
TR: I only ever play it when I’m with Ringo or I’ll do a ukulele version of it; it’s a dorky little ditty (laughs).
JF: Well, people enjoy the song.
TR: Well, people enjoy dorky things! (laughs)
JF: When I’m interviewing someone I usually ask my Facebook followers what they would like to know. Someone wanted to know what kind of music you listen to.
TR: Usually when I’m doing a new record, that is when I listen the most. I’m doing research,
I want to know what’s new, what’s happening and that can be a whole range of things, so I listen to what other people are listening to. Often it’s current, but I have young fans who are in the music business, and you often become dissatisfied with the music you grew up with. If you’re a musician you eventually want to explore other things and often you can try to explore the future, but most often you end up exploring the past to find influence so sometimes I am listening to new artists or get pointed to new artists and the reason that I am listening to them is ’cause they’re listening to music I used to make.

JF: do you find inspiration in using old pieces of musical equipment? I know that old synthesizers are
coming back.
TR: Well pretty much everything has been virtualized at this point. On my iPad i have a Fairlight (synth) with all the original samples that were in a Fairlight sampler. I have what was called a Putney synthesizer, the very first synthesizer I ever bought, it is now virtually on my iPad. So, I don’t have to go out and find that hardware usually, if the hardware was any good they are recreating it now in software.
JF: So when you go to record, how much do you work the song out beforehand?
TR: Ever since I built the secret sound in the early ’70s to record in, the studio has become one of the components I use to compose. In other words, when studio time was really expensive, you’d spend as much time learning the song outside the studio as you could so once you got in there you weren’t burning money up trying to work things out (laughs). Once I built a studio of my own then there was no longer a meter on it. I could live there and as soon as I got enough of the song worked out I could lay it down. I took  that philosophy from the Beatles. The very first record they put out in the states, Meet the Beatles, had a pic on the back and underneath it listed all of the instruments that they played on the record. Even in the early days of the Nazz recordings the first thing I would do was go to the rental studio and say send that on Tuesday and send those kettle drums on Thursday. Send the Glockenspeil on Saturday. All you had to do was make a sound on it. You didn’t have to become proficient at the instrument, you just had to make a sound with it. And that philosophy has followed me through and now that we have digital samplers you don’t have to have the actual instrument. You just have a sample  and get it into the proper context.
JF: Now you don’t have that studio anymore, right?
TR: I don’t know it exists anymore. When I moved to upstate NY I took any equipment I thought I needed with me and repopulated it and that was the last studio I built, the one in upstate NY. I had it till the mid ’90s, then things were going digital. For a while I used ADAT machines. I finally got a Protools system  and now i don’t use Protools anymore. I use something called Reason, which doesn’t require special hardware.

JF: Someone wanted me to ask how you felt doing a score for a 911 documentary.
TR: Well, a friend of mine did a short film after 911. It wasn’t really a documentary it was just about
the wall where people had put pictures and messages and things like that. He essentially filmed along that wall
and I had a musical fragment. I don’t know what it was for; I might have been doing a TV score. I had been doing some TV and movie scoring back then, and I adapted it to the film. It had already been cut, so it was more like scoring a film than making a record.
JF: Someone wanted to know what the meaning behind the song “Weakness” was.
TR: I was imaging that you have some information and you’re a spy or something and you get captured and  physically they torture you and can threaten you, but if they threaten someone that you loved, you know, they would have discovered how to get to you.
JF: How about “God Said”?
TR: That’s people thinking that they know what God thinks (laughs).
JF: Do you find that it’s very applicable now?
TR: It’s always applicable, forever, (laughs). People always think they know what God thinks and that there is a god who thinks like them. God was made in man’s image, put it that way.
JF: Most people won’t acknowledge that, though.
TR: That’s what I mean. They want the authority that comes with proclaiming that God has said this
and God has said that. They’ll never say, “No, that’s just what I think.” That doesn’t come with a lot of authority.

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