Todd Rundgren's Utopia
In late February/early March, 2018, it was announced to the delight of music fans from coast-to-coast that Todd Rundgren’s Utopia would be reuniting for their first North American tour in 32 years! Originally the tour was slated to reunite all four Utopia members: Rundgren, Kasim Sulton, Willie Wilcox, and Ralph Schuckett, but soon it was determined that Schuckett had to bow out due to health issues, and is replaced on this tour by Gil Assayas on keyboards. The Utopia tour began on April 18th, and is scheduled for presentation in Milwaukee, Saturday May 12 at the Pabst Theater, and in Chicago at the Chicago Theater, Tuesday May 22. In late March, Maximum Ink field reporter Sal Serio had the opportunity to speak with bassist Kasim Sulton via telephone.
MAXIMUM INK: Kasim, I saw you perform as a member of Blue Öyster Cult a little over a year ago, at Ho-Chunk Casino along with April Wine.
KASIM SULTON: Oh yeah, they probably do that show every year. Normally Blue Öyster Cult doesn’t play in cities, they go to the outer boroughs [laughing]. But, yeah, I enjoyed my time playing in that band. I don’t play with them any longer.
MI: Besides BÖC, you’ve worked with some major hitters in the music industry, including Meat Loaf, Hall & Oates, Joan Jett, and of course I’ve seen you many times with Todd Rundgren’s show as well. Comparing the experiences of playing in a working class band like BÖC, or being on tour with Todd, what differences do you bring to the group, and what do you take away from it as well?
KS: It’s funny that you should ask that. Reflecting on it right now, I think there are certain bands I have been associated with in the past that tend to cater a little bit more towards being able to be more creative on stage. I’m speaking strictly as a bass player, because it’s different for every instrument. But, as a bass player, the time that I enjoy with Todd tends to be more in my comfort zone in terms of the genre of music. I mean, listen, I’ve really run the gamut in my career, [and] I’ve been lucky. I’ve worked with… well, you mentioned Joan Jett, which is meat-and-potatoes rock ‘n roll, 3 or 4 chords in a 4 minute song, to Hall & Oates, which is the other end of the spectrum. That was really incredibly crafted pop music that sounds simple but is actually very intricate. So, there are bands that I’ve worked with where you really just have to be a pedestrian in, and keep it as simple as possible to get that particular message of the music across, and, there are bands that I have been in that allow me to stretch out as a bass player, and broaden my horizons playing-wise.
MI: Especially with Utopia, considering all the transitions that band went through over the years, from prog to the more new-wavy pop sound of the late 70s/early 80s. That must really give you the opportunity to stretch and explore your chops.
KS: It’s interesting, because in some ways a band like that can be just a little bit more restrictive on a certain level, because the songs are so intricate and riff-oriented. There’s really no room for improvisation, especially [on] stuff that requires a tremendous amount of background vocals. So, I would say that it’s a double-edged sword. There are points during Utopia’s music where one can stretch and try new stuff, but there are also points where you really have to be conscious of what you’re doing and make sure you’re playing the same thing night after night, because that’s what the song requires. [It] depends on the song.
MI: As you mentioned, your vocals are very important in Utopia. Not only because you sing lead on, say “Set Me Free”, but the harmonies in general are key elements in Utopia’s repertoire. When you’re on tour are there vocal exercises you do to prepare for the performances?
KS: Oh, you know, I should! [laughing] Normally I don’t. On gigs like right now, I’m out with Don Felder from The Eagles, I’m just a background singer. There’s no lead work. When I do my own solo shows, I do warm up prior to a show. I have a CD that I listen to. It’s kind of embarrassing because you’re making all of these ridiculously weird sounds, [laughing] but, it does help. If I have to sing a lot of leads, it behooves me to warm up, but if I’m just singing backgrounds, I can kind of get by belting it out for an hour, or 90 minutes.
MI: I remember when ‘Adventures In Utopia’ came out, 1980 I guess, and Album Oriented Radio [AOR] was more free-form back then. Here in Wisconsin, “Caravan” and “Last Of The New Wave Riders” were big hits! Was that case all over the country?
KS: I wasn’t privy to a lot of the record charts [so] I don’t know. When we were doing that, there was just too much other stuff to be concentrating on. But, I do know that “Caravan”, in particular, was a big fan favorite, and that might have translated from the amount of airplay it got. I remember hearing it on the radio a few times in New York, and in order to have made it on the air in New York, it had to have been requested countless times in the rest of the country. So, I think in that particular case “Caravan” was a minor AOR radio hit. “Last Of The New Wave Riders, I’m not sure… that was certainly a concert staple. I’ve mentioned [this] in my solo shows, there were certain songs that, for whatever reasons, became fan favorites, and that’s why I chose to do them in my solo Utopia shows.
MI: In Utopia’s heyday of touring, the stage show and production was very important. The lights and lasers were part of the group’s identity. Will Utopia try to do anything like that for the new tour?
KS: Yeah, we’re going to have a tremendous amount of production on these shows. One of things we discussed prior to agreeing to do this, was that it wasn’t just going to be us standing on stage, playing and singing the songs that everybody knows and loves. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Bands do that all the time. But I think our past and our reputation requires us to do a little bit above average stage show. So, we will have some spectacular lighting, video screens, and special effects in store for these upcoming shows.
MI: You know, it’s been 30+ years since the last Utopia studio album. Is there any talk of writing songs for a new release?
KS: Yeah, there has been, and we all say the same thing: Let’s get through these six weeks of touring, and we’ll see how it’s accepted by the fans, and if everything goes well I’m sure we’ll talk about doing it again at some point in the not too distant future… certainly not in another 30 years because then we’d all be in our nineties [laughing] some even pushing 100, but I would venture to say that if we do it again there will probably be some new music involved. But, that’s way far down the road.
MI: Will the tour contain any music that is not specifically Utopia, like from solo albums?
KS: No. This tour and this show is all about Utopia from the start to the finish: from the 1972/’73 version of Utopia all the way up to our last album in 1985.
MI: You recently had a Utopia tribute band of your own.
KS: Yeah, in February I did a bunch of shows as myself: Kasim Sulton’s Utopia. I had my shows booked in September 2017, and I had gone to Todd in August of last year and said I’m thinking of doing this, I hope it’s okay. If you have a problem with it, let me know and I can make an adjustment, but otherwise I’m going to do some Utopia shows! I’m going to bill it as “Kasim Sulton’s Utopia”, and it’s going to just be an evening of Utopia music, and he said, yeah that’s fine. So, I did that, and the shows wound up selling extremely well out of the gate. I think I sold out my New York show in about a week, and the other two shows I was doing sold out within a month. Then, I guess it was the beginning of November, management approached us [and] said we have some interest in a possible Utopia tour, would you be willing to sign on to it for some time in Spring of next year? That’s when this whole thing started.
MI: It just seemed very coincidental, and I wondered if the success of your solo shows planted the seed for this proper Utopia reunion.
KS: I don’t know if that’s true or not, and it kind of doesn’t really matter. The only reason I did my shows is I got tired of hearing people ask me when Utopia was going to get back together again, [laughing] I mean, it was year in and year out. So I said, you know what? These fans have been so loyal, so great and so kind, and helped me to make a living on a yearly basis, that it was time for me to give something back to them. I think that, on some level, because [my shows] were received so well, it probably made some difference as to whether or not Todd would agree to do a full-blown Utopia tour.
MI: In the past I’ve had the pleasure to be backstage at some of Todd Rundgren’s concerts… you and I have met before, actually… but I’m always taken by Todd’s goofy personality and unique sense of humor.
KS: Yeah, he’s a funny guy! [But] you know, we all have unique personalities. There are no two people on this planet that are exactly the same. It’s just a question of whether you want to be around somebody! [laughing] There are people I choose to not be around and people I choose to be around. I mean, I think it’s kind of obvious that for the last 40 years of my life I’ve chosen to be around Todd, and that says a lot for me, that he has allowed me to be in his inner circle for that amount of time.
MI: Well, it always results in fantastic music having the two of you together on stage, and I am sure with all of Utopia reunited it will really be an incredible experience. So, I am definitely looking forward to the show!
KS: So am I! We haven’t even started rehearsing yet, we start in a couple weeks. There’s a tremendous amount of work to do, and I’m really, really, looking forward to it.
MI: Good luck with the rehearsals, please stay safe on the road, and I can’t wait to see you in Milwaukee!
KS: Thank you very much, and I look forward to saying “hi” again.
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Todd Rundgren’s Utopia
CD: The Road To Utopia: The Complete Recordings (1974-82) Record Label: Friday Music
• Purchase The Road To Utopia: The Complete Recordings (1974-82) on Amazon