Todd Rundgren on: Touring, Songwriting, Utopia and David Bowie (Q&A)

Todd Rundgren on: Touring, Songwriting, Utopia and David Bowie (Q&A)

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If there’s one thing you can safely say about Todd Rundgren is that he’s unpredictable.

Never afraid to upset the apple cart, never afraid to test the patience of his loyal fan base with music that challenges his audiences and refuses to conform to commercial expectations, as an artist Todd always takes the road less traveled.

For his latest tour, dubbed an “Evening with Todd Rundgren,” he’s staying true to form and doing something, well, unpredictable by delivering the kind of show his fans have been clamoring for; in essence giving the the people what they want by delivering a commanding performance culling many fan favorites plucked from his days with his ’60s band Nazz, prog/power poppers Utopia and as a solo artist.

Currently out on tour augmented by a terrific band including Rundgren stalwarts, bassist Kasim Sulton, drummer Prairie Prince, guitarist Jesse Gress and keyboardist John Ferenzik , this writer caught a recent show in Los Angeles and witnessed an artist still at the top of his game both vocally and as an incendiary guitar hero.

Taking a moment from his hectic touring schedule, join us for a conversation with everyone’s favorite “Wizard A True Star,” Todd Rundgren.

On this tour, you’re delivering a batch of your most well-known songs. I’d like you to provide the back story for a few of them starting with the show opener, I Saw the Light.

Todd Rundgren: By the time I got to the actual work of doing Something/Anything, in those days I didn’t have a studio of my own so I had to write outside the studio and essentially record in more or less a conventional way. I had a couple of songs done for the record and I certainly had enough songs to get the record started.

I didn’t have all the songs and indeed when I started Something/Anything I didn’t know  that it was gonna turn out to be a double album. The stuff started coming out and when it stopped (laughs) there was a double album. I got into this sort of almost a habit of songwriting that as that particular era was coming to a head, a lot of songs used the basic patterns of major seventh chords ascending and descending. By the time I sat down to write “I Saw the Light” I just had this little grain of an idea and 20 minutes later the song, words and all was finished.(laughs) It just kind of spurted out because things were becoming a bit habitual. For me, I had an aversion to the real flat sort of chords unless you were doing them on a loud guitar, just playing triads and things like that didn’t appeal to me as much on the piano.

I like a lot of suspensions. As for the guitar solo, I have no idea what inspired it. It just came out. I knew I had to have a solo and the first part was easy because that was just the melody of the song but the second half of it I’m not exactly sure what I was thinking at the time but it was all done in the studio. I hadn’t worked it out before hand. I just started messing with some ideas and that’s what I came up with. It’s a little bit of The BeatlesAnd Your Bird Can Sing, I guess, but the exact influence on it I can’t tell you.

Couldn’t I Just Tell You is a power pop gem of yours.

Todd Rundgren: There likely was some influence of the Who in there for Couldn’t I Just Tell You. It had a resemblance in some ways of the more jangly Who songs like Substitute or Pictures of Lily although Pete Townshend eventually kind of eschewed a lot of the pattern playing for just power-chording.

But I would say that would be a legitimate influence; all of that pre-70s pop. By the time Something/Anything came out music was moving towards the singer/songwriter thing and then it went quickly onto jazz-rock fusion until everything fell apart into disco. Couldn’t I Just Tell You is part of an era, the era where I was principally a guitar player. As time went on I started to do more and more of the songwriting on piano until you got to Hermit of Mink Hollow which was almost completely a piano album with a few guitar part on it. I started out as a guitar player even before I had written any songs and I needed things to play guitar on (laughs) and indeed in a lot of our early shows that song was pretty much the encore, the last song in the set every night so it has something of a special place because of that.

You go back to your days with your ‘60s band, The Nazz and perform Open My Eyes. Rick Nielsen of Cheap Trick recently cited in an article on Rolling Stone that being one of the five songs he’d wished he’d written.

Todd Rundgren: That whole introductory thing was I Can’t Explain with a slight variation. We just essentially stole stuff from all the different things that we liked. We had that whole kind of almost jazzy Beach Boys bridge in it. The song was a pastiche of all the influences that we wanted to exhibit. Michael Friedman got his name on that record as a co-producer but he wasn’t really a record producer. He was John Kurland’s partner in the management thing.

He didn’t really know anything about the studio. It was pretty much the engineer and Michael Friedman was there and I guess he got to do it. The difference between that song and the rest of the album is we recorded that in a studio in New York. I think it was the first song we did. As a matter of fact, we did Open My Eyes and Hello It’s Me first as a single. We were kind of excited about the whole session because we had a real hot shot engineer. It was done in a really tiny studio, really microscopic. We may have recorded it live. The engineer was doing a lot of bouncing and trying to get all of the effects that we wanted in there.

Determination from the Hermit of Mink Hollow album is an amazing but lesser-known in your catalog.

Todd Rundgren: It’s pretty much a guitar song. It’s kind of an antidote in the context of Hermit of Mink Hollow where things can get early piano-y and singer/songwriter. When I go out live I’m the least comfortable at the piano. I’m comfortable flailing away on the guitar and when I get warmed up playing a few solos. The piano is this sort of combination of precision and complexity; both hands have to be exactly in the right place (laughs) at all times. I find that when I’m singing I can lose track of that and if I do it’s a potential disaster.

I was pleased with Determination as a song. I do these record pretty much myself and I’m the arbiter of what belongs on the record and what doesn’t belong on the record  and I really usually know where I’m going and hopefully I realize when I’ve arrived (laughs) at where I’m going. Determination was a good one.

How about One World?

Todd Rundgren: The particular challenge of One World was how to make a simple straight-ahead message song that wasn’t hard to follow. It had a few simple parts in it that people could ultimately pick up by the time they got to the end of the song which I think is the objective in a song like that. If you’ve got a song where you expect people to sing along, it better be simple enough that they can pick up the little “one world” part at least (laughs) by the time you get to the end of the tune. So it was an exercise in simplicity and it still is a popular tune for us to play even now.

What’s the first song you wrote that was more a personal statement that was purely and less a nod to your musical inspirations?

Todd Rundgren: Probably the first song I wrote (laughs) which is inevitably part of your inspirations but  I always thought I was gonna write songs like the Beatles or The Who or something like that and the first song I write is this quasi jazz ballad called Hello It’s Me.”

That’s actually the very first song I wrote and the inspiration was just a set of chords I heard on a Jimmy Smith live record. I don’t know I came up with the lyrics but I had to start somewhere. I was singing about some high school relationship that I continued to mope about even after it was long over. (laughs)

Well, it yielded some good songs.

Todd Rundgren: Yeah and that was the first one. Even though I assumed that it was motivated by experiences that happened to me I continued to write about that same relationship for years (laughs) until it became obvious that I was just doing what everybody else did.

Did this former girlfriend know you’d written all these songs about her?

Todd Rundgren: Did she know that Hello It’s Me was inspired by her? (laughs) I don’t know whether she was or not. I know that I never ran into her again in order to explain it to her. Wait, as a matter of fact, I did hear from her again. I went out with her briefly in high school. She was a really hot girl and I just thought I didn’t deserve a really hot girl like this. What eventually happened is her father found out I had long hair. I brought her home one day and her father turned a hose on me and that was kind of the end of the relationship. (laughs)  She was not willing to defy her father.

Your use of chords ranging from early Nazz songs like Gonna Cry Today and If That’s The Way You Feel to songs like A Dream Goes On Forever or I’m Looking At You But I’m Talking To Myself are highly advanced and sophisticated. Can you pinpoint the primary source of that style of writing?

Todd Rundgren: Well, my early influences were mostly not pop music. When I was growing up my dad didn’t like to have rock music played in the house so alternatively he was playing contemporary classics all of the time, things like Rimsky-Korsakov to Leonard Bernstein, a whole range of stuff. It was mostly stuff like show times or orchestral works, things like that.

So that rubbed off on you.

Todd Rundgren: Oh yeah. I was kind of steeped in that to start with and then when I started focusing on songwriting one of the first people who really affected me was Burt Bacharach, particularly Dionne Warwick’s first record. Every record was like a pop gem. He had this thing of playing with rhythm and playing with the changes and using more sophisticated changes so that had a big influence on me and probably affected the way I heard music later on.

Writing these beautiful, expansive melodies and chord changes helped you stand apart from other in the rock field.

Todd Rundgren: Well, I suppose that’s part of it. Part of it is things you naturally hear but there is also the temptation to be reactionary and to purposefully avoid doing things that are more or less conventional or the things that most people would do. After Something/Anything, I began to get even more aggressive about it because people started to compare me to Carole King. They called me the male Carole King and while there’s nothing wrong with Carole King, you don’t want to be compared to somebody else. You want to be able to make your own sort of impression.

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And so I sort of stopped doing the formulaic song constructions, the verse chorus, verse chorus, bridge chorus and fade out kind of writing and tried to define a different approach for myself.

Which you pulled off with the A Wizard, A True Star album.

Todd Rundgren: Right. So while my style still has a somewhat conventional form, the way that the parts are stuck together and things like that was probably pretty personal by that point.

Off the top of your head knowing it would change if I asked you tomorrow, can you pick a few favorite chord change in your songs?

Todd Rundgren: There are occasions when I dream songs and there was one song that I dreamed that nearly confounded me in terms of its complexity and its harmonic interaction. It was a song that appeared on Nearly Human called The Waiting Game. I was having a dream and I dreamed that I was in the studio with the Manhattan Transfer (laughs) and we were working on a record and this song was coming out of the monitors fully realized. So the challenge for me was to remember what I had dreamed and that was really complicated.

So I was pretty proud of myself that I was able to capture most of it or at least the essence of it after I woke up. Another one I dreamed was Bang The Drum All Day. But that one is not particularly sophisticated. (laughs)  In fact, it took a dream for me to come up with something so dumb. (laughs) If I had been consciously trying to do that I don’t think it would have had the same sort of immediate effect that it seems to have on people.

It paid off.

Todd Rundgren: Yeah, it paid off, especially when Carnival Cruise lines were keeping their boats afloat. (laughs)

With the news of David Bowie’s death, you closed a recent show performing his song Rebel Rebel. Ironically, you produced a version of that song decades ago on the Shaun Cassidy album, Wasp.

Todd Rundgren: Yeah, that was one reason why I kind of knew were the key was. (laughs)

Did you see him perform in the ’70s?

Todd Rundgren: I saw him a few times. I saw the first show he did in New York at Radio City Music Hall as Ziggy Stardust. It wasn’t his first shows in the U.S. but the first show where people knew who he was. (laughs)

Did he have a direct influence on you as both a songwriter and uncanny image maker/provocateur?

Todd Rundgren: Certainly the image-making had an effect but I wasn’t in the driver’s seat for that. I kind of made myself a willing guinea pig for other designers and makeup artists to do their sort of thing with me. But I wasn’t really saying, ‘We have to do this or we have to do this other thing where this is the image I’m going for.’” For me, it was like a thing you do onstage.

But the difference for David Bowie was he was that character all of the time. Whenever he would develop a new persona he had to be that persona.

It wasn’t just a stage persona and then he goes back to being some recognizable person afterwards. (laughs) And this for me is a big difference because I never had the desire to sustain the idea of a simulated personality and all of the responsibility that comes within inhabiting that. It’s more like being an actor, being a method actor who can’t get out until the movie’s over, you know. (laughs)

DAVID BOWIE

What impressed you the most about  David Bowie artistically?

Todd Rundgren: Well, I have to be quite honest and say that I was not always impressed with him artistically. The constant gadding about and experimenting sometimes came up with something useful and interesting and just as often for my ear came up with something that was no more than what he had invested in it in the first place.

He was notorious for doing things like literally pulling lyrics out of a hat, cutting up snippets of magazines and books and start throwing them into a hat and pulling them out and that became the lyrics to the song. So that leaves the audience open to their own interpretation and putting it in their there but it also means the artist doesn’t mean anything (laughs) when he’s doing it. So a lot of that stuff just never reached me.

Sometimes the personalities did not connect with me. When he decided to be an R&B singer but he sang like Anthony Newley. I thought, this is missing the point (laughs). But some of his work I did really enjoy. The record that I most enjoyed by David Bowie was Hunky Dory. It exhibited all of the pieces that he would later use to build those personalities. But it just showed you a little bit more of an overview of the ideas that were in his head, all of his various influences and things like that. So it was a much more vulnerable and revelatory album than a lot of the ones where he’s playing a character.

In another tragic passing, we recently lost your old Nazz band mate, Carson Van Osten. How do you remember him?

Todd Rundgren: My fondest memory of Carson was when he would slip in character every once in a while. He was an incredibly droll guy, very talented. He used to slip in this character of an old Delta blues man and it was very convincing and you couldn’t understand a word he said. He would just start ad-libbing this really sick sort of patois of bluesy syllables and stuff.

It reminded me of this David Allan Grier character; he used to be on the TV show, In Living Color. He’d bust into this Delta blues thing and Carson used to do that and it would just crack me up every time he did.

We recorded a little bit of it for what was supposed to be a Nazz double album but because since we broke it into two albums, all of these funny little interstitial things never made it.  But we did capture him doing that and somewhere it’s on tape and its really hysterical. That was him the old blues man, Carson Van Osten. (laughs)

He was a sensible and sane guy and he had the good sense to get out of the music business while the getting’ was good and went on to have a great career working for Disney. He rose pretty much in the company. He really worked his way up from doing Spanish Donald Duck comic books. (laughs) I ran into him for the last time in Paris and I think at that time he was working for Euro Disney. He was a really good guy and deserved all of his success.

In your recent shows, you have been performing a series of Utopia songs like Rock Love, Secret Society and One World among others. Are there any plans in the works for a Utopia reunion?

Todd Rundgren: This is a topic that has been on the table but there have been a lot of factors that have compromised our ability to do this. One is me and my attitude. My attitude is it’s not worth rehearsing for a couple of days and then going out and playing all of the songs that everybody wants to hear in some manner and then we all go back to what we’re doing.

I thought, if we’re gonna do it, we have to do it properly. We have to be out for like three to six months and to do that justified a whole lot of rehearsal and level or production. It’s not enough to just put the original band back together and relearn the music.

We had pretty high standards for ourselves back in the day and I don’t see any reason why we would lower those standards simply to satisfy the longings of the fans. (laughs) Additionally, as time goes on it gets more difficult. Various people get committed to other things. For me, as it is I tour eight to ten months out of the year between my own stuff and Ringo’s band, the All Starrs. So it’s hard for me to even find the time to do something like that.

Would you ever consider recording another Utopia record?

Todd Rundgren: Well, that doesn’t involve any less sort of level of commitment. We don’t have a pile of songs ready to go. Also, it’s not as if we’re all gonna show up in the studio and have it be like the last time we played was yesterday. The last time we played was in 1992 (laughs) and we only did a Japanese tour. We never even got to do an American tour because the inner dynamic of the band just didn’t work in that particular sense. Then there are other factors like Roger (Powell) has more of less left the music business. He still makes music but he doesn’t tour on the road and he had a regular job working at Electronic Arts, the game company supervising music.

So all in all, you shouldn’t hold your breath but it would be nice if we could. We did put together the original Utopia for a couple weeks as a benefit for Moogy Klingman when he was ailing and that was a lot of fun. It also reconnected a lot of us, Kevin Elliman and John Siegler and Ralph Schuckett. We hadn’t really kept in touch much and then we did that reunion and we’ve all been in touch ever since.

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“An Evening with Todd Rundgren” Tour dates:

FEBRUARY

Mon      1              Rocky Mount, VA @ Harvester PAC

Tue        2              Annapolis, MD  @ Rams Head on Stage

Thu        4              Stroudsburg, PA @ Sherman Theatre

Fri           5              Westbury, NY    @  Westbury Music Hall

Sat          6              Atlantic City, NJ @ Golden Nugget

Tue        9              Durham, NC @ Carolina Theatre

Wed      10           Charleston, SC @ Charleston Music Hall

Fri         12           Atlanta, GA @ Centerstage

Sat        13           Daytona, FL @

Sun       14          St. Petersburg, FL @ The Mahaffey Theatre

Fri         19          Groningen, Netherlands — “Up Against It” performed with the North Netherlands Orchestra –

AUGUST

Mon    22-26        Todd’s Music Camp “Tyrolean Getaway” — Stowe VT

SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER

Sept 22- Oct  1  Artist-In Residence – Notre Dame University

 

4 Responses to "Todd Rundgren on: Touring, Songwriting, Utopia and David Bowie (Q&A)"

  1. Ronald Sykes   June 3, 2016 at 1:23 pm

    Yeah! That introductory thing as you say was basically taken from the who’s (can’t explain) but what really made the song is what comes next and played mostly throughout the song (the riff) which was taken from The band ” The Ventures” Walk Don’t Run originally written by Johnny Smith in 1954. The Ventures version came out in the 60’s.

    Reply
    • John Williams   June 17, 2016 at 8:26 pm

      Ronald Sykes, you have no ears at all; the notes on the Nazz song ‘Open My Eyes’ have ZERO to do with ‘Walk Don’t Run’. If you’re a musician, you’re a tone-deaf one.

      To the author, nice article.

      Reply
      • Gary Frisbie   March 3, 2017 at 11:32 am

        John Williams, what Ronald Sykes is referring to is the rhythmic context, that is, the pulse of the notes. There is a bit of “Walk Don’t Run” in the Da, da da da, da da da, da da da rhythmic structure, I think.

        That’s the main connection I can hear. I hope Ronald wasn’t trying to say that the Nazz riff was “copied” from the Ventures song. They are still two completely different riffs note-wise.

        Reply
  2. H.M.   September 10, 2016 at 1:36 am

    Second time reading this interview. very interesting indeed.

    Reply

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