Introduction by Cory Perla, interview by Karl Hohn
At the age of 69, Todd Rundgren is still experimenting and exploring the edges of progressive music. Rolling Stone has called Rundgren a virtuoso and that is certainly true, but unlike most musicians, he’s not virtuosic on simply one instrument, but in composing and performing, from jazz to pop, rock, and electronic music. The list of bands he’s either formed, produced, or played with is nearly endless. As a producer he’s made records for bands as wide ranging as the New York Dolls, Hall & Oates, Meat Loaf, Patti Smith, the Psychedelic Furs, Cheap Trick, and even Bad Religion. As a solo act he’s released 24 studio albums since his solo debut, 1970’s Runt. His latest solo album, White Knight was released in May of this year and features a genre-spanning collection of tracks that features everyone from Robyn to Trent Reznor, Dâm-Funk, and Daryl Hall. His latest tour, dubbed “An Unpredictable Evening With Todd Rundgren” features a full band and comes to the Rapids Theatre in Niagara Falls on Monday, November 20. This week we spoke with Rundgren about his many collaborations, the politics of his new album, White Knight, and dealing, or not dealing, with expectations.
Your new album, White Knight, features a broad range of collaborators, from contemporaries of yours like Darryl Hall and Donald Fagen to younger artists like Robyn and Trent Reznor. How did you pick your collaborators? How did you balance working with friends versus artists that may have challenged you a bit more? Which collaboration would you say pushed you out of your comfort zone the most?
Well, I made a list of potential collaborators with probably about two dozen people on it, we contacted them, and then anyone who responded positively I would engage them in one of several possibilities. One is that they have some song fragment or something that they couldn’t finish and would like to hand it over to me, see what I can do with it. Or I might have something and I would give it to them, see how they work with it. Sometimes I would write for a particular artist if they didn’t happen to have anything for me. But it was a variety of different approaches- it wasn’t all the same.
There was only one instance in which I was in the same room with my collaborator, and that was with Donald Fagen on “Tin Foil Hat”. That’s the coincidence- we happened to be in the same place at the same time. He was out on Kauai where I live when I was finishing the record up, so that enabled that.
Challenges? Well, sometimes it’s all a challenge in that you’re trying to adapt to what somebody else is doing, or conversely they’re trying to adapt to something that you’d like, but I kept it all pretty loose. I didn’t want to do things like duets where people are simply trying to out-sing each other, or a lot of the typical approaches—I would kind of just let it happen, and try to apply whatever my sensibility happens to be to that, but I didn’t do a whole lot of demanding retakes and that sort of thing. There were only one or two instance where, for instance, somebody might have sung a wrong lyric and I’d have to have them sing a line over, but aside from that it wasn’t really that difficult.
You mentioned “Tin Foil Hat”—it’s one of the most overtly political songs in your catalog, and you haven’t pulled any punches when it comes to letting people know your opinion of our current president. But rather than ask more specifically about that, I’d like to explore the idea of the role of artists in times like these- I’ve heard comparisons drawn between the current political unrest and that of the 1960s, when you were starting out. Aside from topical material, does that political climate motivate you in any way to put your voice out there?
I usually view things through more of a sociological lens than a political lens, politics just being a symptom of the way people behave with each other. “Tin Foil Hat” was pretty much situational. We did it in January, right around the inauguration, and we were all pretty upset about it, and we needed to do something that would make us feel better. That was about it. It didn’t necessarily herald an entire era of political music, although I certainly see the need for it. It seems like artists are not the sort of liberated individuals that you always dreamed they were in the past, y’know? [laughs] So much is calculated- even the fights that they have with each other are calculated in order to draw attention to what is essentially extremely thin music. It’s more about the personalities nowadays than it is about the music. So expecting artists to be politically conscientious when they aren’t naturally so is kind of asking a bit much. I mean, if you ask me, I think Taylor Swift is a Republican, y’know?
The album is really eclectic, and you explore a very fresh, modern palette while retaining the signature feel of your classic work. It’s safe to assume at this point you know your audience pretty well, and what they expect of you. Do you feel any pressure to play to your fans’ expectations, and on the flip side of that, how would you manage that against any pressure to try and reach a younger audience?
I blew away that expectations thing long, long ago- that was when I followed up Something/Anything? with A Wizard, A True Star. [laughs] So any expectations that people had, record labels included, were kind of out the window from then on.
Sometimes I’ll make a more conventional record, a record that I think is accessible. But when I think of my audience, I don’t think of them as being necessarily preferential to one kind of music or another. Some of them are Utopia fans and like that prog rock stuff, some of them like the ballads, the r&b stuff. Some of them are disappointed when I don’t play enough guitar. It’s a whole variety of things. And as you say, there’s also the constant effort to get a new audience in there, which seems to be working pretty well for me. And I think that the combination of the expectations that I’ve- I don’t know whether I’ve given people expectations or thwarted expectations, but in any case, if I do something that is more geared toward a younger audience, it’s not gonna strike my older audience as any better or worse than any other thing I do.
Yeah, I feel like people expect you to do what you’re gonna do—there’s no straightahead Todd Rundgren formula, you’re gonna explore something and do whatever you want to do on whatever album, and that’s what your fans are gonna expect.
Pretty much. I talk to a lot of interviewers and stuff, and when they realize this is like the 27th album and I’m about to turn 70, they point out the fact that most artists have kind of determined what they’re gonna do for the rest of their lives. And if they got this far, they’ve racked up enough hits to just kind of play greatest hits for the rest of their careers. But I don’t have that many hits. [laughs] I’ve got a mere handful of hits, and if I played them back to back, it’d be a half hour show, maximum. So it’s really about the broader musical ethos that’s in there. The idea of exploring new things is part of it. Part of it is also still trying to improve what you’re doing- I think I’m a better singer now than I probably have ever been. A lot of that comes from doing journeyman work like being in Ringo’s All-Starr Band, where I have to sing lots of backgrounds at the top of my range and things like that, which is almost like doing exercises. So the idea that you won’t get worse as you get older is also somewhat anti-intuitive, but I’m still trying to improve what I do, as well as trying to find new influences to add.
You brought up Utopia and the prog rock material. You toured with Yes recently, and you’ve performed prog, but you’ve always struck me as an experimentalist, and you’re pushing the boundaries of form and convention and blurring genre lines no matter which project you’re working on. Would you describe your work as “progressive” even outside the specific connotations of prog-rock? How does working in different genres push you and the tone of your work?
Well as the whole, the term “rock” is the perjorative part of it. Once you add “rock” to something, people already have expectations of the way your music should be, and I never considered myself a rock musician. As a matter of fact, rock ‘n roll as it’s originally constituted hasn’t been around since Elvis got out of the army. So whatever happened after that, to me it’s just music. Other people need to apply genres to it for the sake of marketing and things like that- y’know, what section of the record store (if you can find a record store) would the record appear in. And I don’t think about those things. I don’t think about genre things. I think sometimes about eras in music- like for instance, on White Knight, I wanted to create a sound that was somewhat redolent of a period near the end of disco and the beginning of new age in which there was still some funk in the music, there were funky drumbeats and things like that, but a lot of synthesizers and these big orchestral-sounding synthesizer textures. So sometimes I think in terms of eras or the instruments that were used in a certain period, and focus that way instead of thinking in terms of genre.
So it’s more about stylistic application, and less about specific genre references.
Yeah. I mean, once you start thinking genres, you tend to shut down the creative process because you say, “well that doesn’t fit the genre, so I’m going to skip that idea.” I kind of take to heart all the musical ideas that occur to me when I’m making a record.
You remixed Tame Impala a few years back, and performed with The Lemon Twigs. What newer acts are you listening to these days? Is there anybody you see as a “rising star”, or anyone that you think could have the same staying power you’ve managed to find?
Well, the Twigs are still rising. [laughs] As a matter of fact, I’m gonna be doing a session with them in a couple of weeks- they live in Long Island, I’m playing in Long Island and I get a day off after that, so we’re gonna go into the studio and noodle around and see whether we come up with anything.
I get confused nowadays. I can’t keep track of all the “Lil’ This” and “Gucci That” – nobody’s got their real name anymore![laughs] And half of them die of something or go to jail, and I can’t keep track anymore.
I suppose, essentially, I have to go on one of my “search missions”. When I do a record I do a lot of research. I’ll go to YouTube or something, I’ll get some suggestions from my kids about music they think is interesting, and I’ll start there and just start hitting the sidebar until I feel exhausted or whatever. But it’s a really useful way to find out what is happening in music, especially what’s happening in the fringes. The mainstream stuff doesn’t appeal to me, it’s too easy to find.
You like to dig a little bit.
Yeah, I like to dig around and find things that are a little bit obscure but have great musical value to them. My youngest son, who’s actually in his twenties and is an aspiring guitar player, he listens to a band called Chon, and when I mention that band to anybody, nobody’s ever heard of them. But when you play the music they go like, “wow, where have these guys been? Who does this kind of woodshedding anymore?” [laughs] They’re a quartet from California, they play mostly electrified acoustic guitars- very intricate and interesting arrangements.
All right, well thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me.
My pleasure. Take care.