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Todd Rundgren Saw the Light

Updated: May 6

Todd Rundgren

Todd Rundgren

Todd Rundgren

Saw the Light

by Ken Sharp

“Go ahead and ignore me” was a record company sales slogan employed for one of Todd Rundgren’s early ’70s solo albums. And long since that slogan was first unveiled, music fans have been unable to ignore anything this immensely gifted musical visionary and icon has created. Witness his extraordinary body of music with Nazz, solo Rundgren and Utopia and his consummate production work for The Band, Badfinger, Hall & Oates, Patti Smith, Meat Loaf, Cheap Trick, XTC and countless others.

In 2011, there’s a lot happening in Todd’s musical universe. Just released is Todd Rundgren’s Johnson, a song cycle which showcases Todd’s crafty reinterpretation of blues legend Robert Johnson’s celebrated canon. There’s also another new TR record slated for release in September. Augmented by his talented band, including long-time musical comrades bassist Kasim Sultan, ex-Tubes drummer Prairie Prince and guitarist Jesse Gress, Todd will be back on the road in September for a US solo tour.

You’ve always been an artist that’s stayed true to yourself, following the road less traveled. Looking back, do you think that’s worked against you in achieving greater commercial success?

Well, I don’t know how things could have gone any different. I had certain advantages that other musicians may not have had in that for most of my career I had a second job (laughs) and that was producing records for other people. So [I didn’t have] the kind of concern for success that a lot of artists had because maybe their own recordings were their only source of sustenance. I always had this other career going on. When it came to making my music, I never felt I had to make it for any other reason than to please myself.

And that still holds true for what you’re doing today.

Well, pretty much. What you discover in the long run is most people don’t make their living by simply selling records. If you’re successful at selling records, it’s essentially promotion for your live shows, which is where you make all the money. I’ve been fortunate enough to have an audience with a certain level of devotion. Even now while the production aspect of my career has slacked off a bit, I can still make something of a living by performing live.

With that loyalty you’re able to have the leeway to challenge your audience and not always give them what they want. 

On this particular tour I’m between records. I don’t have anything new to promote. We’re looking at a different sort of venue, performing arts centers and places that have a lot of subscription season ticket holders. So with this tour I’ve tried to put together a show that is a little bit more familiar and a little less risqué and challenging in some aspects and yet it’s mostly composted of songs that I think my audience would request if I ever took requests. (laughs) I’m making up for the fact that I’m not doing necessarily doing anything  evolutionary at this point by playing some of the rarities that we don’t often incorporate into the shows.

Are you enjoying playing much of this material as you haven’t played a lot for many years?

I do enjoy it although it’s one of those things where we’re getting to the point in the tour where I’m starting to gain a certain comfort level with it. Every time you put together a new show there’s elements of pacing. One of the advantages of this kind of show is that since we’re not making a formal presentation of new material we can be kind of loose onstage and a little bit more conversational with the audience – whereas with a lot of shows we’re very much concerned with pacing and things like that. The general tension level is lower (laughs) than it would normally be if I was doing something that had all of the typical challenges in it.

Speaking of challenges, in the past several years you’ve undertaken a series of album shows with A Wizard, A True Star, Todd and Healing.

I didn’t initiate doing any of these album shows. This came through and the fan base. They’re the ones who kind of decide which record they’d like me to attempt to perform. Then I essentially will decide to do it or not do it. (laughs) As a matter of fact we considered doing something this year but as it works out there is so much effort that goes into mounting these kind of shows and they only run for ten days to two weeks. I’m trying to find a way to amortize all of the labor that goes into them.

What was the experience like to immerse yourself into the DNA of that music again? 

I enjoyed it but as much as I played on the original records all I do mostly live is sing. On the Wizard show all I did was mainly sing and played a little guitar. I played a little bit of piano on the Todd and Healing show and a little bit of guitar as well. But for the most part all I have to do is remember the words (laughs). It’s the guys in the band who really have the hard part of remembering all of the details. As a matter of fact, with the Wizard show, it drove Roger Powell (former Utopia keyboardist) back out of the music business. (laughs) There were a couple of issues. One, he was taking a leave of absence from his real job, which is at Electronic Arts. He couldn’t just continually take off from work. But the other thing was he discovered that to relearn so much music and to have to keep track of it and have the responsibility of playing it correctly isn’t as much fun once you’ve let so much time go by. Everyone else who played in the band has continued to perform live whereas Roger pretty much retired from touring when he started working for Apple. He still plays little gigs around the Silicon Valley but nothing on the scale of having to learn all the piano parts on an entire record. As for doing other albums shows, I thought Acapella would be a good record but it’s not long enough, so it’d probably have to be that one and another record. The thing about A Wizard, A True Star. The record itself was especially long. But it still wasn’t long enough for a whole show, so we supplemented on the East Coast with our little ¾ of a reunion of Utopia and on the West Coast we do the Robert Johnson songs, the record of which has only just now come out. It’s called Todd Rundgren’s Johnson

Going back to your days in Utopia, your partnership with bassist Kasim Sulton has been a constant. What does he bring to the table? 

If he wasn’t such a good singer, I would have probably considered other players. When we did the Arena tour, Kasim was working with Meat Loaf so I did hire another bass player. But if he’s available he’s usually in the band. (laughs) Part of it is because he knows so much of the material already having played it in so many contexts and that makes it easier not having to teach someone everything from the ground up. 

You've appeared twice on Daryl Hall's web series, "Live at Daryl's House show" and recently performed a show with him in Atlantic City. Characterize the musical bond you have with Daryl and are there any plans for future dates? 

Of course, I produced the third record by Hall & Oates (War Babies), so our history goes back into the early ‘70s. The thing that we in Atlantic City was essentially a live version of “Live from Daryl’s House.” It was sort of an experiment to see whether the show would work in a live context, and it went really well so sometime next year we’re going to go out on the road. Daryl’s just finishing up a solo project. The syndicated network that he’s put together to launch the episodes of the show starts in September. 

From your work with the Nazz with songs like "If That's the Way you Feel" and "Gonna Cry Today" to early solo gems like "Believe in Me" to your work with Utopia on a song like "I'm Looking At You But I'm Talking to Myself", I'm struck by your choice of sophisticated and often unusual chordal progressions. Explain where that approach originates? 

I grew up in a household that had eclectic choices. My dad didn’t like typical pop music. He didn’t want it played on his mono Hi-Fi. Alternatively, I was exposed to a lot of music that I might have overlooked. I credit that to why I have a broader musical sensibility than some other musicians. It was almost enforced in a way. (laughs) It just continued as I grew older. I just had eclectic interests in music and felt like if there was something that I thought I understood I would simply try to incorporate it into what I was doing. 

You’re not writing simple, three chord songs. 

That sophistication comes from classical composers like Ravel and Bernstein, people like that, as well as generally having a kind of non-mainstream sensibility and taste in music. I always appreciate the fact that the Beatles were constantly trying to incorporate new influences into what they were doing. I thought that was what you’re supposed to do which was evolve, not simply play the same music all of the time. 

I understand you've finished a new record, interpreting material by acts you produced. 

That’s the record that hasn’t come out yet. I finished that in January. It’s essentially me doing dance versions of songs that I’ve produced for other people. 

Dance versions? 

Yeah, I wanted to do a record that was somewhat contemporary, and it was tied into this recording camp thing in which campers got to audition and participate in parts of the record. So the material had to be somewhat familiar to them. That’s why I decided to do songs that I had produced for other people and give them a more contemporary finish. 

I can’t imagine a song by Badfinger, for instance, being a dance song.

Well it’s hard to imagine (laughs) but that’s part of the challenge. Some of the tunes we did were “Dancing Barefoot” [by Patti Smith], “Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad” [Meat Loaf], “Personality Crisis” by The Dolls and “Take It All” by Badfinger. It wasn’t a hit single. It was the first song on Straight Up. 

So you literally reinvented these songs with this record? 

Yeah. Some of them it takes a little while into the song before you recognize what the song is. (laughs) I found making the record enjoyable. It was interesting to deconstruct songs and try and re-map them onto a contemporary sensibility. The record will be out in September. 

Lastly, what is “Toddstock”? 

That happened three years ago. I turned 60 and had also just finished building my house in Kauai. I invited anyone who could make it there to camp out for a week or two while we had a big party and celebration. And it all got taped and put onto a DVD. The DVD has been winning independent film festival awards, so Toddstock is now a DVD. I think we had about 200, 250 permanent campers and then would ebb and swell depending upon how many locals showed up. We had people from all around the world, people from South America and Eastern Europe, Japan, all over the place.

Copyright ©2011 All rights reserved. Posted: July 14, 2011.

Photo Credits:

#1 © 2011 Courtesy of Todd Rundgren. All rights reserved.

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