(Photo: Danny O’Connor)
A new box set, The Road to Utopia, 1974-1982, documents a remarkable band that defied categorization, delivering a series of extraordinary albums marked by smart songcraft and fierce musicianship.
With albums like Adventures In Utopia, Todd Rundgren’s Utopia, Oops! Wrong Planet, Ra and their 1982 self-titled Utopia record, the group carved out their own idiosyncratic path on the musical landscape, navigating a multitude of genres, from jazz-fusion to power pop, arena rock to smoldering R&B, prog rock to futuristic new wave. Upending convention, uncompromised in their artistic vision, Utopia were in a constant state of evolution, forward-thinkers on a quest of continued sonic adventures.
In 2018, there’s exciting news in the Utopia camp. Inactive as a touring unit for 33 years, save a short Japan tour in 1992, Todd Rundgen’s Utopia (with three-fourths of the classic latter day Utopia lineup — Todd Rundgren, Kasim Sulton and Willie Wilcox — on board, as keyboardist Roger Powell had to opt out for health reasons, and has been replaced by touring keyboardist Gil Assayas), have reunited for a U.S. tour, which kicks off on April 18th.
We spoke to Todd, Willie and Kasim for the backstory behind how this unlikeliest of reunions finally took shape.
Rock Cellar: Todd, for over 30 years fans have been asking about a Utopia reunion tour. What made this the right time to finally do it?
Todd Rundgren: Well, it wasn’t the first time it occurred to us. There have been continuing issues regarding availability, for the most part. More recently we’ve been waiting for Roger (Powell) to see if he was gonna be able to do it. As it turns out he’s had some health issues, so he won’t be touring anymore. So it was at that point we had to decide either permanently shelve the idea or go in a different direction.
It suddenly occurred to us, ‘Hey, Ralph Schuckett is still around!’ (laughs) He doesn’t tour anymore, but he has been part of a more recent original Utopia reunion when we went out as a benefit for Moogy Klingman. We contacted Ralph and he was open to the idea. But for him, as well as for everybody else, he had other obligations that had to be satisfied. We went out to promoters to let them know we were thinking of doing this and the response that we got was extremely positive. So it made it a little bit more plausible.
Rock Cellar: The band never officially broke up, so this truly has been a very long break. If you were a betting man, what were the odds you felt a reunion would eventually occur?
Kasim Sulton: I honestly didn’t know. Aside from the tour that we did in Japan in ’92, I guess on some level we never did officially announce that we had broken up. I had hoped a reunion would happen, I just couldn’t say it with any certainty if it would or would not happen. It was this kind of really weird nebulous area, a never say never.
But the chances of it happening were kind of slim. The idea of doing some shows was presented, and there was possibility that it could happen, and I was asked if I was interested. I think out of everybody in the band that has taken a hiatus, I don’t want to say I’ve been more vocal than any band member, between myself, Todd, Roger and Willie, but I’m always the one who every few years would joke around, “Wouldn’t it be great if we could do it? Wouldn’t it be cool if we could?”
So if anything, I was more prepared for it than anybody else, on some level.
Rock Cellar: Todd, you’ve played a few Utopia songs in your solo sets over the years, but much of this material has been left unplayed since the band ceased touring. Are you excited to be playing this Utopia material again?
Todd Rundgren: Yeah, it’s excitement and apprehension. (laughs) Most of the material that we’ll be doing we haven’t played in years and years. So I think we’re all excited and apprehensive because of the workload that we’ve set out for ourselves.
Rock Cellar: How are you preparing for the tour, Todd?
Todd Rundgren: Well, I’m mostly refreshing myself on the guitar with the songs and also I’m getting a new setup for the guitar. Especially in the earlier days, we used to do a funny sort of processing on the guitar sound that made it distinctive in a way. So I’ll be working on trying to reproduce some of those sounds as well as re-learning much of the material. (laughs)
For me, the most challenging aspect are the songs that have the most words in them. (laughs)
Rock Cellar: So it’s less worry on your part about the actual playing itself?
Todd Rundgren: Yeah, I don’t think we’re as apprehensive about the playing. Once we all get together, that should fall into place as long as everyone has properly refreshed themselves on that. But one thing that we can’t do when we’re not in the same room together is assign vocal parts and do the vocal rehearsals. We have to wait until we’re all together to do that. From that particular standpoint, the biggest unknown we have at this point is what happens when we all get in the same room and start singing together (laughs) but hopefully that’ll work as well.
We have to compensate a little bit. Roger had a very high falsetto. He was a very dependable singer and sang falsetto on just about every song and nobody in the band right now has that particular range — so figuring out how to reassign everything and get everything covered will be our biggest challenge.
Willie Wilcox: For me personally, the most challenging thing will be being prepared and developing the stamina for a two-hour show. It’s a long show and it’s rigorous for anybody, especially me since I have not been playing for some time so that is one of the things I’m working on every day, the stamina to play. I have set up a whole process which I have been sharing on my Instagram page where I have everything in Pro Tools and I have every song digitized and I can just play parts of our songs from the record and get comfortable with the figures and living within those zones.
Rock Cellar: Todd, what were your ambitions/goals for Utopia at the beginning and how did that change over time?
Todd Rundgren: As I say, we were much more instrumentally oriented. The band came together during the prog rock/fusion era so that’s what we were interested in playing. We were all highly affected by Mahavishnu Orchestra; their first record, The Inner Mounting Flame, just blew everybody’s head up.
And so we felt like we were in that category and the emphasis on the vocals was much less because a lot of the bands we were listening to didn’t have any vocals at all — like Return to Forever and Weather Report. But as time went on, the guys in the band decided they wanted to do other things. They didn’t like touring so much. We toured pretty heavily there for a couple of years and then one by one the guys in the band wanted to try and do different things.
Eventually Utopia got down to a four-piece with John Siegler and we never made an actual Utopia record with that configuration. But we did Disco Jets with that configuration. (laughs) It was a fun record. It took us a weekend to record it. (laughs)
We said, “Let’s find all of these popular space-oriented memes.” That was essentially the only record that configuration made. Then John Siegler said he was done with touring and couldn’t do it anymore and then we started auditioning bass players. I don’t remember exactly how Kasim got recommended to us. But we realized if we were gonna take Kasim into the band it meant that we were gonna have to change directions to a certain degree. Also, the whole prog-rock thing and the jazz fusion thing was starting to fade, and it wasn’t as popular as it had been.
So we started focusing more on a song-oriented approach. In many instances, while we still did the same kind of collaboration we did in the original Utopia, it was also more likely for people to come in with whole songs, sometimes with lyrics and sometimes without. But it became more of a round robin thing rather than everybody doing everything all at the same time.
Rock Cellar: To me, there’s two Utopia albums that best align with current political climate tapping into the tumult of life in 2018 — Swing To The Right and Oops! Wrong Planet, can you see that connection?
Todd Rundgren: Yeah. When I was going through the Utopia material and listening to that kind of stuff, I went, “Well, this is ironic,” (laughs) nothing has changed since the Reagan era. It seems like such a long time ago when the Obama administration was in office and now it’s almost like you went to sleep in the ‘80s and you woke up in 2017. You could say those records are prescient except for the fact for the fact that we were talking about things that were happening then.
We were taking about the religious right, the movement towards materialism, that sort of thing. Money, money, money. Everything was about money again. The hippie dream was long buried by this point.
Nobody’s a hippie anymore. I’m kind of waiting for that to come back; I’m waiting for the ‘60s again. (laughs)
Rock Cellar: While the tour is dubbed Todd Rundgren’s Utopia, it’s a celebration of Utopia and all its members, not just Todd’s work.
Willie Wilcox: For me personally, there is a strong distinction between what Todd does as his solo career and what Utopia is. So for me, this particular band, Utopia, Todd formed the group many years ago and it was called Todd Rundgren’s Utopia. Live Nation felt that using that name would be the best advertising and business perspective in order to promote the tour.
But for the fans and the interest for this project, it all lies in the long-running time period of the band that became what most people considered to be called Utopia — and those were the four members, Todd Rundgren, Roger Powell, Kasim Sulton and Willie Wilcox. We had a large body of music that was made where everybody was contributing to writing, production, lyrics, melodies. We toured for a very strong and important part of our lives with that band and so for me, I think that it really has to do with that entity and I think that’s what the fans are responding to and why there’s a strong interest for this particular project.
For me, I don’t see it as a project, I see it as a band.
Rock Cellar: Are there any songs that you’d personally like to have played in the show but won’t make the cut?
Willie Wilcox: There are songs that I think we should be doing but we can’t do everything. To me, there are certain songs that I think connect like “Fix Your Gaze,” I like “Sunburst Finish.” I don’t think we’re doing “You Make Me Crazy,” which I think we probably should be doing. We’re not doing ballads like “Mated” and “Only Human.” I think those are important ones to do.
“Love Is The Answer” was a big hit for England Dan & John Ford Coley and certainly recognizable for us but I thought that maybe “Mated” and “Only Human” were more Utopian.
This is the first time we’ve been together in many many years. Things could change in rehearsals. I still think there are some things in the set that need adjusting. We just won’t know what works and what doesn’t until we start playing them and seeing what the momentum is for the set. I wouldn’t say we can count out adding some different songs and replacing some songs, but the issue is we have such a very short window to prepare so we don’t have a lot of leeway.
Kasim Sulton: It doesn’t matter to me what songs we do or don’t do. It’s whatever works for the show. You have to look at it as an entire show; you can’t look at it as ‘let’s stick this song in because it’s a good song.’ If it doesn’t work within the context of the rest of the stuff that we’re doing, there’s no point in doing it.
Rock Cellar: With such an impressive back catalog, how are you narrowing down songs to play in the show?
Todd Rundgren: The set list has always been determined. We’ve got a set list and eventually it will be set in stone because we have production that has to go with each particular song. At this point, everyone in the band seems to be in agreement that we’ve covered expectations but it is always possible that we’ll discover when we get to rehearsal that something is just not working. We may have to make a change at that point, but it’s not as if we won’t be able to find something to replace it with, (laughs). We’ve done ten albums and we have a set list of about 22 songs, some of which are very long obviously so that’s on average, two songs per album.
Rock Cellar: If the tour goes well and everyone gets along, could a new album by Utopia be in the offing or an occasional tour?
Willie Wilcox: Yeah, absolutely, I think we need to wait and see how we do, how this tour goes and how we all feel being together again, how successful the tour is from a business perspective and there’s a viable opportunity and option for this to continue, by all means then I think it should continue.
Todd Rundgren: We’ll all consider it. It doesn’t mean those other kinds of problems disappear, everybody will go back to what they were doing before. In Willie’s case it’s a regular job with a regular salary and they’re not gonna let him take off any old time that he wants. We’ll see how this goes if it goes well. That will be a factor of our performance and ticket sales — they’ll be the two things to determine whether it’s going well or not.
Rock Cellar: A newly released box set, Road To Utopia 1974- 1982, includes 15 bonus tracks and features two rare B-sides, “Special Interest” and “Umbrella Man.” What’s the back story behind these tracks?
Willie Wilcox: I sang lead vocals on “Special Interest.” I like the track. That would have been a fun song to do for our current show. In fact, we’ve never done that song live. It was fun to record and it was fun to sing.
Todd Rundgren: “Special Interest” didn’t wind up on an album possibly because of an issue with album length. At certain points with Utopia we might have gotten overly prolific, and usually it’s a collective decision with the band but usually not involving the label. An example of that was the Network album (1982 self-titled), which turned out to be an album and a half. We thought we were making an album but by the time we got finished we had more songs that we could possibly physically fit on a record. So we had a tendency sometimes to over-record. We would have extra songs for B-sides. I liked “Special Interest” and “Umbrella Man” too.
Rock Cellar: Tell me about “Umbrella Man.”
Kasim Sulton: Utopia overcut songs at that time and maybe if there were 10 or 11 songs on a record, we would record and then as they progressed with overdubs and background vocals or ideas from each individual band member, there were some songs that survived and then there were some which we thought we’d save for another record. The one thing about “Umbrella Man” I remember is we were recording Adventures In Utopia and we would schedule a recording session starting at eleven or twelve o’ clock in the afternoon and then go until eight or nine o’clock at night.
So it would be a question of what we are doing today, ‘oh, Roger has some keyboard stuff from 2-4PM, Kasim has some vocals to do from Noon to two, Willie has some percussion to do from five to seven.’ So there was a schedule that we had to live by. In any case, I drove up to Todd’s house which was in Lake Hill, New York on Mink Hollow Road, which was where Utopia Studios were. It was pouring down rain; there was deluge.
I drove up to the parking area to the side of the studio and there’s a microphone standing outside in the rain. This was a three thousand dollar microphone on a mic stand in the rain! (laughs) I walked in and I said to Todd, “What are you doing?”
“I’m recording rain for this track that we’re working on called ‘Umbrella Man.’”
The dates for the Utopia tour (with VIP packages available via this link):
4/18 Jim Thorpe, PA, Penn’s Peak
4/20 Englewood, NJ, Bergen Performing Arts Center
4/22 Houston, TX, House of Blues
4/23 Dallas, TX, Majestic Theater
4/25 Broward, FL, Broward Center for the Performing Arts
4/27 St. Petersburg, FL, Mahaffey Theater
4/28 Atlanta, GA, Tabernacle
4/29 Durham, NC, Carolina Theater
4/1 Huntington, NY, Paramount Theater
4/2 Washington, DC, Warner Theater
4/3 New York, NY, Town Hall
4/5 Philadelphia, PA, Tower Theater
5/6 Boston, MA, Orpheum Theater
5/7 Ridgefield, CT, Ridgefield Theater
5/9 St. Louis, MO, Peabody Opera House
5/10 Cincinnati, OH, Taft Theater
5/12 Milwaukee, WI, Pabst Theater
5/13 Minneapolis, MN, State Theater
5/15 Grand Rapids, MI, 20 Monroe Live
5/15 Toronto, ON, Massey Hall
5/17 Detroit, MI, the Fillmore
5/19 Cleveland, OH, Hard Rock Live
5/22 Chicago, IL, Chicago Theater
5/24 Denver, CO, Paramount Theater
5/26 Las Vegas, NV, The Joint at Hard Rock
5/27 Phoenix, AZ, Comerica Theater
5/29 Los Angeles, CA, the Wiltern
5/30 San Francisco, CA, the Masonic
6/1 Seattle, WA, Moore Theater
6/2 Portland, OR, Revolution Theater
6/4 Sacramento, CA, Crest Theatre
6/5 Riverside, CA, Fox Performing Arts Center