Todd Rundgren has never been a musician who sat on his laurels. He had hit pop records with "I Saw the Light," "Hello, It's Me," and "Can We Still Be Friends," but tossed the pop hits out to embrace prog rock with his band Utopia. A master in the studio, Rundgren produced Meatloaf, XTC, Patti Smith, The Tubes, Grand Funk Railroad, The New York Dolls, Badfinger, Hall and Oates, Bad Religion, Cheap Trick, Foghat, Ian Hunter, Lords of the New Church, The Psychedelic Furs and Sparks. Rundgren is also a pioneer in video, web and music downloading. To find out more than space allows me, check out his website at www.tr-i.com
Rundgren has a new CD, “Liars,” and is performing at Milwaukee’s Potawatomi Casino on Thursday, April 8. He will also perform back-to-back shows at the Chicago House Of Blues, Saturday and Sunday, April 10th and 11th.
Maximum Ink: Tell me about this new tour?
Todd: In part it is a return to a previous form and I’m reassembling the band that I took out in the mid-90’s to promote “With A Twist” and “The Individualist.” What we are taking out is a different kind of lighting that people usually use on the road so that we can try to maintain a certain level of production. We normally we wouldn’t be carrying lighting mostly because it would require another truck with all kinds of trusses and crap in it. We’re still not at the level of playing arenas, so to bring production out on the road is a challenge especially if you don’t have the traditional deficit financing of a record label, so I decided to try out this new kind of lighting which is actually high intensity LED lighting, so we can light all the guys in the band really close and do really interesting things with the lights on each individual person and they don’t end up dying from the heat. Principally that is what the show is all about, the music and the lights. We don’t have too many other kinds of props.
MI: What happened to the Sphinx [which was the center piece of Todd’s stage show during the late 1970’s]?
Todd: As a matter of fact the Sphinx is sitting in the basement of a recording studio in Bearsville. We just haven’t figured out what to do with it and we are too sentimentally attached to just throw it out. Eventually we’ll put it up for auction, maybe. For the most part all of the pieces are all there; as a matter of fact it had been set up after that tour for almost two decades in somebody’s art space, which was an old church. I never got to see it in there, but I heard it was quite something.
MI: What is the new album like?
Todd: This would be one of my more eclectic records, but it is all about a single concept, which is untruth or the difference between what is really true and what people prefer to believe. Although there is a lot of stylistic territory covered, it’s got an overall sound, which I refer to as retro-modern. It has influences that go all the way back to the 60’s, but it is not an attempt to sound like an old 60’s record. It uses all the modern techniques available.
MI: I’ve noticed that there are a lot of interesting things coming out that are doing that right now.
Todd: Well, it seems like the rules of musical engagement are not as strict as they used to be and that always happens when we’re in-between crazes, I guess. Which is where we are at now. The last craze would have to be the teenybopper craze; your Justin Timberlakes and your Britney Spears. I don’t fit very well in there and many artists don’t so when a craze like that happens we all become invisible. Everybody is only listening to certain kinds of music and suddenly there’s a space that opens up when everyone gets tired of the old thing and the old artist. But something new hasn’t happened yet.
MI: You’ve seen this cycle quite a few times.
Todd: Oh yeah, plenty of times. The time that mattered to me, I guess is when Nirvana kicked off that whole revitalization of music played by bands and that lasted until The Spice Girls. The Spice Girls brought us back to sort of teenybopper age of music in which the music wasn’t that important and the quality wasn’t that important.
MI: You were a pioneer in that too.
Todd: I still consider my online enterprises my principle way that I communicate when I’m not out on the road. I distribute music that way and I discover music that way. So even though I’m an older artist I’ve followed more of a dynamic that mirrors the younger audience in terms of online music. My core belief is that musicians should really be looking to live performances to get their compensation and stop thinking that regardless of how much they struggle that they will be able to survive on record royalties for the rest of their lives. Even if they were able to capture every penny in royalties that they were owed, it is still all-relative anyway. I haven’t sold a fraction of the records that Christina Aguilera has sold in the last 5 years, so in that sense I’m not going to generate enough money in royalties to live off of. I’m going to have to be a musician like musicians have been through all history and that is you get your butt out on the road and do your wandering minstrel thing.
MI: They make records for eight year old kids anyway.
Todd: Well, they make records for the demographics that buy records and that has historically been people under 30 and for certain kinds of artist, under 20. Older people like me and you and other grown ups that the disposable income that they used to spend on music is now their kid’s allowance so nobody is looking at middle-aged people as being a rich market to be cultivated. But on top of that, after catering to that youth audience - the record industry is being, (quote) ‘victimized’ by them because of all the downloading of music.
MI: That’s kind of funny coming from the studio wizard that you are.
Todd: The studio is a good place to capture performances and for me it has always been a composition tool in a way. Instead of working everything out completely before I ever get to record it, I’ve had the advantage, long before most other musicians, of having complete and free access to a studio. Nowadays, all musicians have that because all musicians have recording equipment. It allowed me to approach composition in a different way, which was almost interactive. I can make sounds and listen to them back and then decide what new sounds I needed, what words worked best and all that other stuff in a more or less interactive environment.
MI: About 25 years ago, you said that in 20 years nobody is going to be listening to rock music and that has become pretty much true.
MI: I get about 30 CD’s a month and I’m lucky if there are three that are really good.
Todd: Yeah, and then you’re also lucky if they are all good. Some can be good and then there is the filler problem. That is going to be endemic. There was a time when top artist could get away with delivering a half an hour or less of total music to put on an LP. It is like those Foreigner albums - 15 minutes on a side.; they got 5 three-minute songs. That was before CD’s and CD’s can hold up to 80 minutes worth of music on them, but unfortunately that doesn’t mean that artist suddenly became three times more prolific than they used to be, so eventually they will run out of stuff and have to start filling things in.
MI: That’s what I used to like about singles and EP’s.
Todd: That’s what is good about concepts like online singles, songs that you can buy one at a time. You can put together your own greatest hits records. My only argument with that some songs are worth nothing and some are priceless.
MI: What song are you embarrassed that you wrote?
Todd: That’s the song that everyone is buying. [laughs] So anyway I think that the online thing is for the good because it allows more musicians to get exposed one way or another. In that sense you have to give up the idea of having a hit album but hey, three or four songs that move well can get audiences to see your live show. A lot of artist, their record sales are focused around their gigs. They put the albums on the merchandise table and you can be your own record store as well.
MI: There is always trouble with distribution, especially for indie labels and bands.
Todd: Indie labels are performing a great service, I have to say, by at least making it possible for artist on the fringe to record and to get released, but they don’t have the clout and deep pockets to put an artist on the road for six months with a real expensive show that never makes back the cost of it. You have to be very careful about how you put it together so that you don’t overextend yourself and lose money. Ideally what you have to do is work within your means, but work. For instance the last three years or so, I’ve been doing mostly solo shows and mostly with the purpose of reconsolidating my markets and going to places that I’ve hadn’t been before. So the only way that I could do that was to be stripped down to the bone and just be me and one other guy. And that has paid off now in putting together this tour, because now that I have a band there is a lot of excitement to see the band. But also the houses are going clean like instantly. Cleveland, two shows at the Palace Theater gone, boom, just like that. House of Blues, one show went on sale and boom, like that so they added another one. So it looks like we are going to have some really good attendance at the shows and if the buzz continues then the shows and areas; I can always count on Cleveland and I can always count on Chicago, it is when I get down to North Carolina I’m not so sure anymore.
MI: So what does your hometown think of you?
Todd: I’m so far away from there and beyond that there is a whole generational change. I left Philadelphia when I was still in my teens and never really took up residence again, although I go back with great regularity and I still see people that I knew from when I was there in the 60’s.
MI: So they never gave you the key to the city?
Todd: A long time ago I think I got one of those sidewalk things, one of those deals when they first started doing local recognition.
MI: What is in your CD player right now.
Todd: Right now there is nothing in my CD player. I just finished the record and now everything I have to do is concerned with the record; doing edits, doing other versions and things like that. I haven’t had a chance to sit down and just be open to a record. As soon as I get through this, there are things that I have to listen to. I have to go through a significant part of the Fireside Theater recorded work.
MI: Do you yell at your kids to turn down their music?
Todd: I don’t usually, but sometimes the kids will get stuck on one song. My teenager kids don’t live in the house anymore. My oldest, he’s 23 and is playing baseball with the Marlin’s organization. His younger brother is 18 now and a senior in high school and he is likely to be drafted [onto a baseball team] and they tended to listen to a lot of hip-hop music. The only thing that you can hear from any part of the house is a thundering low end. You can’t understand any of the lyrics, although I’m sure there is a lot of motherfucker all over it. But sometimes they’d get stuck in a rut and play the same thing over and over again, you got to say turn that crap down just because it’s boring now.
MI: Can we talk about some of the bands that you produced? Just one question?
Todd: Well lately I haven’t produced anything. That pop bubblegum thing has never been my specialty. I like pop music and I like doing a pop song every once in a while. The kind of stuff that I do is more thoughtful, more experimental or more daring in some way. So in that sense, I’m waiting around for music to come back. I do get approached every once in a while but artists don’t have as much money to work with so they have to go with maybe a newer producer, because that is what they can afford.
MI: I think that you’d be a great producer for Christina Aguilera or one of those people because a lot of these people are singing these soul songs but they are really horrible. When you look at some of the things that you’ve written or the Finn brothers from Crowded House, it is like some New Zealanders have written the best soul songs in the last 20 years.
Todd: Yeah, ironic.
MI: I’ve been listening to The Tubes “Remote Control” [produced by Rundgren] and Prime Time would be a great song for Britney Spears and I think that it would be great for someone like you to produce, because production almost all sounds the same right now.
Todd: Yeah, it is because they go to the same pool of people and it’s the same as it ever was. There was a time when the only name on anyone’s lips was Bob Clearmountain [Bryan Adams, The Pretenders, The Church, Bruce Springsteen, Crowded House, The Cure, Kiss, The Rolling Stones] because he had the sound. Big huge snare drums but even Bob has been reduced to doing a lot of remixes as opposed to new productions because his name just doesn’t come up. And for me as well. I never really took to a life in Los Angeles and I don’t live in New York anymore and those are still the two centers of recording in this country and if you’re not around then your name just doesn’t come up. They don’t remember that you are there. That is probably as much as an aspect as anything. The fact that you haven’t gotten some albums on the charts recently.
MI: That probably doesn’t matter that much to you in this point of your career, does it?
Todd: Well, certainly at this moment in time it doesn’t matter because I’m on the start of a world tour. I’ll be likely out on the road for six months of this year.
MI: How is the book coming along?
Todd: It tends to be at the back of the cue for some reason. It is partly because something always pops up that I seem to need to do. The other is that the writing part of it always puts me in the frame of mind of being back in school, so it is very difficult for me to apply myself to completing the whole 250 pages or whatever. But I got a good bunch of it and at some point I will develop the window and discipline to get it done and it will get done, but hey, more things happen in between.