Interview With A Legend: Todd Rundgren

Todd Rundgren (photo: Lynn Goldsmith)
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Todd Rundgren (photo: Lynn Goldsmith)
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Todd Rundgren (photo: © Lynn Goldsmith)

I had the opportunity to speak with one of music’s most influential figures, Todd Rundgren.

Todd is a true pioneer of DIY.  He’s among the first to record, produce and play all the instruments on his albums.

He’s also teamed up with various bands throughout the years, including The Nazz, Utopia, The New Cars and Ringo Starr and his All Starr Band.   You may know Todd from hits like “Hello It’s Me” or “I Saw The Light,” but he’s also famous for “Bang On The Drum All Day”.

Rundgren is a constantly changing artist.  No two albums sound quite the same, he’s not afraid to progress.  Even being on the forefront of technology is par-for-the-course with Todd!

In 1992, he had the first ever commercially available downloadable music via CompuServe.  He then pioneered a subscription platform (suspiciously similar to Patreon…. yes, shade) called Patronet.  It allowed fans to bypass the CD makers and industry middle-men and get content directly from Todd for a subscription fee of $40 per year.

He is also one of the most respected producers in music, having worked on albums for Badfinger, The New York Dolls, Grand Funk Railroad, The Tubes, The Band, Hall and Oates, MeatLoaf, Patti Smith, XTC and many more.

There was way too much to go over in 20 minutes, but I did my best with the time allotted.  Here is what we discussed (full transcription below).

Noah Itman: Excellent. Well Todd, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me; it’s really an honor to have you on the line.

Todd Rundgren: Oh, thank you so much.

NI: Excellent. So I wanted to talk to you just about all of the facets in your career within 20 minutes, so I’m going to try to cram a lot in there.

TR: No problem.

NI: So from The Nazz to now, you’ve reached so many different parts of music. And I feel as though the variety of albums you’ve created has been extremely diverse. So I’m curious, what has been sort of like the catalyst for change? What has allowed you to be such a shape shifter within music?

TR: Well, it’s part of what I grew up with. The Beatles were, well they were more than like a musical inspiration; they had a form factor that didn’t really exist before. I mean, there were always guys that [had] put bands together, but there was no sort of success [to] where The Beatles defined it. So that was the excuse to get into music in the first place, just find three or four other friends in the neighborhood, you form a band. And that meant that me, a guy who wasn’t too handsome, and too forward, I could be in a band. And once you became a Beatles fan, you realized that they didn’t stay still, they just kept evolving, and changing. So I thought that’s what you were supposed to do; so that’s what I did.

NI: Well, I think it turned out to be a fantastic path. And with The Beatles in mind, the first time that I actually got to see you was at a Beatles tribute in Minnesota where I lived, you were doing a tribute with Ann Wilson, John Entwistle, and Alan Parsons. I’m wondering what that experience was like, to be able to do a cover show for a band that influenced you so greatly.

TR: Well I mean, that was a lot of fun, but more significantly I guess was playing with Ringo, and actually playing with a Beatle; as opposed to just playing Beatles material. And I guess through that, I also got — getting to know Ringo, you sort of get — you absorb a lot of history. It’s not like you sit down and grill him, but over the years, he tells you little anecdotes and stories about what The Beatles went through. So it’s as if you were a temporary Beatle, yourself.

NI: Wow, what a feeling.

TR: I know. You have to kind of — it’s something you have to sort of get over, if you’re going to play with Ringo; you can’t be in constant awe of the fact that he was in the world’s most influential band.

NI: Yeah, absolutely. I can see that being a hurdle myself. I also wanted to talk a little bit about your intersections with The Beatles via production, specifically with Badfinger Straight Up. So within that album, it’s always been a favorite of mine, particularly your versions of songs. And one always stood out to me that I was curious about, and that is with the song “Suitcase.” I find the version from your production, versus George Harrison’s production, to be so wildly different that I’m wondering if it was the same tracks that were initially used, or if it’s completely re-recorded.

TR: Some things were re-recorded. When I got there, they had — actually, they were halfway through a second version of a record. So they did a whole album withGeoff Emerick, and from what I understand, Apple America didn’t feel like there was a single on it. That’s when they went back and started working with George Harrison. But then George got distracted by the concert for Bangladesh. So he dropped out of the project, and then essentially just left it to me to tie together whatever there was from the first two recording projects. And then whatever else I did new. So when I first got there, we started recording material that had been written in the interim; that had not been available for the first two projects. And then when we got through those, went back and evaluated both the Geoff Emerick sessions, and the George Harrison sessions, and then pulled out what I thought would fit. Even the George Harrison stuff had overdubs and remixes done to make it sound less like Phil Spector, which is what George — what all of his records sounded like in those days, like five acoustic guitar players, and the drums, like in the soup, way back, and lots of reverb and stuff. So I sort of undid that, trying to find a sound that wound unify all three sets of sessions.

NI: Well, it did really turn out fantastically; it’s one of my favorite albums. So moving forward to, I wanted to ask about A Cappellaa little bit. So within A Cappella, there’s — I feel like that’s a really unique album, in and of itself, just for the recording methodology that you used. Was there — so I know that you already mentioned that The Beatles were a major influence for allowing you to be so — just changing, in an evolving way. But with A Cappella specifically, was there a certain moment in time that spurred that influence?

TR: I don’t know that there was a particular moment.

I had in my head a lot of different possible projects that I wanted to try; I mean even at one point, I wanted to do an album that was essentially all marching band.

NI: Wow.

TR: But I never got to that. I could still get to it, I suppose. But essentially, I had in my head the possibility of doing an album that was essentially all vocally based. And it just seemed like, to me, the time to do it, mostly because of sampler technology. By then, I had a sampler, and I could like put vocal sounds into it, and essentially play it like a keyboard. So it could have been a much more sort of conventional sounding acapella record if all I did was sing, but I did a lot of processing of vocals, and vocal sounds, and putting them into a sampler, and playing them with the sampler and that sort of thing. So I think that technology did, ironically enough, have a hand in the Acappellaalbum, in terms of making it possible.

NI: So I’m glad that you mentioned technology, because I feel as though technology has been something that you’re always on the forefront of. I remember watching a video of you doing digital rendering of video in the 80s. And so I wanted to know what the future holds for your video and music combinations.

TR: Well, I’ve done a lot of video for the current show that we’re touring.

NI: Oh, awesome.

TR:  Since it’s a combination of the usual spring tour that I would do. But since I don’t have a record out, we’re sort of focusing on the book that was released in December. And that entails not just playing the songs, but there’s also a lot of archival material. And it’s essentially parts of the show where the band almost becomes a soundtrack to the video; in other words, the point of focus would be the video more than would be the actual live performance. Because there’s a travel log, essentially, about the trip that I made around the world. There’s sort of a fashion show video that shows all of the different outfits that I’ve worn, and that sort of thing. So yeah, I continue to do video, and actually, it’s become so much easier than it used to be; that I’m able to do the lion’s share of it just on my iPad.

NI: Wow, that’s impressive.

TR: Well, yeah. The impressive part is the fact that I can do it on the iPad.

NI: Yeah, just as a one man act, I mean, that’s extremely cool. And it’s really your voice that’s being translated then, so it’s your visual message, which I think is extremely cool. On the technology note. So being the first like major artist to be commercially available via download, what was the inspiration, like what got that as such an important factor for you to have that available?

TR: Well I was attending a lot of computer conventions, and things like that, and symposia, and I was giving talks about certain stuff. And I got invited to one that was focusing in particular on sort of music and arts, and computers. And had reached a point here, in around the mid ‘90s, that unfortunately, everyone is now scrambling to monetize the internet. I think up until that point, it had been, essentially, a free forum of ideas and stuff. So I got the idea, since I didn’t have anything in particular that I wanted to speak about, or I wasn’t hyping a product. I was just listening before I had to do my speech, and it occurred to me that you could devise something that would replace what a record company does; in that a record company, essentially, is a bank, in a way, and they get money from people who buy the records.

And then they give it to you, but they usually give it to you in advance, before the record has sold. And I realized, if you already had an audience, and you went directly to that audience, and you said, okay, I will give you a behind the scenes look at what I’m doing, and give you things that the average public would not have access to, if you pay me upfront, essentially, to make the record. And that was the basis of Patron basically replacing the record company, or taking them out of the formula, and allowing the artists to go directly to their audience to get funding for their projects.

NI: It’s so interesting, and especially with the name being Patron. I wonder with the service Patreon becoming so prevalent currently, if you feel as though there’s sort of a similarity between the two concepts.

TR: Well, that was the essential concept, the whole idea was to build an environment that fans of artists would occupy. But that it would also be — it would be like an authoring environment, so everyone who was a member could also have a space that people could visit, and you could expose your work even if you didn’t have an audience yet. You could build an audience using that environment. But I also discovered all of the issues that are now plaguing YouTube and other similar services, bad actors within your own system, privacy, and security issues, and all of that other stuff. In the end, I didn’t have the resources to keep up. So that’s when I just stopped supporting it.

NI: I can understand it. I also had a music tech venture that had a similar outcome, but nowhere near as cool as Patronet, so definitely can relate to that. So to go back to music, with White Knight, there was — the focus seemed to be collaborations. I’m curious, what was the order in which that was determined? Did you decide that you wanted to do an album of collaborations and then reach out to the different artists that participated? Or was it that you had this pool of artists that wanted to work with you, and so that was the creation of the White Knightalbum.

TR: It was more the former than the latter. I wanted to get into collaboration for a couple of reasons. One is it’s actually a more normal way to work nowadays; the music world is rife with collaboration, so I thought, let’s give this a try. It was also, aside from the creative possibilities, when you’re in a world where you have to essentially promote yourself, in a post recording industry world. One of the best ways to do it is to collaborate, because every time you work with someone, you get exposed to their audience, and they get exposed to yours. So I think aside from whatever musical successes White Knight might represent, it was the audience expansion part that I was just as interested in, and that seemed to be going fine. So I’m going to continue to do collaborations, although I won’t necessarily base entire albums on them. It’s kind of the other issue we’re dealing with; the fact that audience listening habits have changed so radically, that making an album is sometimes overkill, because people buy songs. And then occasionally, they buy albums, but they don’t make the kind of quality time to listen to a whole album anymore. So you’re kind of wasting — to a degree, it’s wasted effort, for some portion of audience.

NI: I can understand that, but I still feel, at least on a personal level, that the cohesive nature of an album is something that I personally really appreciate, and [that] I feel as though you particularly excel at. I mean, A Wizard, a True Star, which I had the pleasure of getting to see live at the anniversary tour, through Liarsand White Knight.  Just the cohesiveness of the album, to me, it’s always been something that I really appreciate. So if there’s any — just thought that I could interject there; I think that your fans still very much appreciate it.

TR: Well, I’ve always been an album artist; it’s been easier for me to come up with an overarching concept to guide the writing process. And I probably will continue to make records that way. It’s just that the way that the music finds its way into people’s ears may naturally have to change; in other words, it goes back to something like before the ‘60s, when an album was exactly that, it was a collection of songs that had been previously released. So it’s possible to record an album, but you don’t release it as an album, you release a bunch of songs, and then eventually, you release the album.  And that can, I guess, ostensibly satisfy both kinds of listeners; those who are just taking things a song at a time, and that dwindling audience who makes time to sit down and listen to a whole album.

NI: That makes sense, and I think that there’s definitely a place for both. So thinking of just individual tracks. One question I had for you was, for the various places that you’ve had synchronized placements, is there one that was a favorite for you? That you were like oh, it really blends well with my song, or you just particularly like the film or TV show that you were being synced in?

TR: Well, I don’t think about it too much. It’s not like I — when you’re doing sync licenses and things like that, that’s kind of found money, so you don’t mettle with it that much. There are probably circumstances in which I wouldn’t want the music to be used, but otherwise, if someone thinks that it’s especially appropriate, I’m not going to be precious about it. It still bothers me to hear Beatles songs used in commercials, but it’s a whole other audience now; a lot of times they’re selling products to people who weren’t even born when The Beatles were big. So they don’t feel the same way about it. And likely people don’t feel the same way about my stuff. I do have to say that it’s never been a large part of my income, except for one instance, and that was “Bang The Drum All Day.” And especially when it became the theme song for Carnival Cruise Lines, I almost could have retired on that. But then they started sinking all those boats, and they had to change their image. So waiting for someone else to come along to nab that spot.

NI: Okay, well thank you so much for your time, Todd. I really do appreciate getting this opportunity to speak with with one of the most important figures in rock n’ roll history.

TR: Thank you very much. I wish we had more time, but it’s one of those things.

3 Responses

  1. Michael Ward

    Thank you! Lucky guy to get interview!

  2. StuStewson

    Jeff Enric should be Geoff Emerick. Research is your friend.