TODD RUNDGREN: THE WIZARD/TRUE STARíS MUSICAL JOURNEY CONTINUES

By Paul Freeman [December 2015 Interview]

Quite a few rock musicians who launched their careers in the 60s are still going strong. But many of them are simply living off their early efforts. Some of them view technological advance as, at best, a necessary evil, if not something to be ignored entirely.

Todd Rundgren stands at the opposite end of the spectrum. Always enthusiastically embracing change - musical and technological - this innovative artist has never been one to rest on his creative laurels.

Rundgren first earned attention with the band Nazz, which emerged from Philadelphia in 1967. His solo hits include ďHello Itís Me,Ē ďI Saw The Light,Ē ďCan We Still Be FriendsĒ and ďBang The Drum All Day.Ē Albums like 1972ís ďSomething/AnythingĒ and the follow-up, ďA Wizard, A Star,Ē sound fresh and modern even today. Through the decades, Rundgren, a creative chameleon, has continued to explore a wide variety of styles and sounds.

As a producer, Rundgren has enhanced the work of such artists as Cheap Trick, The Psychedelic Furs, Felix Cavaliere, Meat Loaf (ďBat Out of HellĒ), The Tubes, Jill Sobule, Hall and Oates, Grand Funk Railroad, Patti Smith, Badfinger and New York Dolls.

With his natural sense of curiosity, Rundgren has retained a perpetual sense of discovery. Over the years, he has leapt to the forefront of music videos, computer software development, conceptualism and interactive arts.

This past spring, Rundgren, 67, released his 25th solo album, ďGlobal.Ē

POP CULTURE CLASSICS:
Performing live, is that still as exhilarating as ever for you?

TODD RUNDGREN:
ExhilaratingÖ hmmÖ I guess thatís a pretty apt description for certain parts of the show [laughs]. And then some are just plain wearying.

PCC:
But not for the audience.

RUNDGREN:
Hopefully not, no. Youíre out there laying your life on the line, for their entertainment dollar [laughs].

PCC:
It seems youíve never been content to rest on your laurelsÖ or on your catalog. So how essential is it to you to always be exploring something new?

RUNDGREN:
Thatís kind of my purpose. There have always been plenty of artists who have sought a personal style and once they hit on that, you know, you kind of mine it until you wind up playing casinos for the rest of your life [laughs]. But I always thought my purpose was to tempt the audience, kind of like a carrot and stick thing. Every once in a while, Iíll do something thatís easy to assimilate, but then Iím going to challenge myself and my audience to try something new, every once in a while. So itís one of the things that I feel differentiates me from most artists.

And it comes from the fact that I was a record producer and I had a whole other career, often a more lucrative career, doing that, making records for other people. And when it came to making my own records, I never felt like I had to get into that whole game of trying to figure out what the audience expects from you and constantly deliver that.

PCC:
In producing so many diverse artists, was it all about serving the artistís sound and vision, rather than making your own imprint on the project?

RUNDGREN:
Yeah, well, at first, it was hard to tell the difference. There were points at which I would kind of step in and do things that maybe I should have let the artist do. [Chuckles]. Material is a very important part of making a record. You need good songs, if youíre going to make a record. And there were times, when I was tempted to just step in and write a line or come up with a melody line for the artist, as opposed to insisting that they do it for themselves.

And, in that sense, youíre making maybe more of an impression than you mean to. So as time went on, I guess I changed the process, to put more emphasis on the songwriting and kind of encourage the artist to do all of that work before we got into the studio. And so thatís when, I guess, I got a little bit better at trying to figure out what the artistís vision was and work around that, as opposed to filling in the blanks for them, letís say.

PCC:
When youíre working on your own records, to what degree can you decide what direction you want to take next, musically, and how much is it a case of going where the music takes you?

RUNDGREN:
Well, sometimes you may lapse into a sort of a comfortable space and maybe a habitual way of making music. And every once in a while, at least for me, I have to shake that up. So, like a couple of albums ago, I did a whole lot of research into what was happening not only in kind of like the most popular music, but also what was happening in the fringes and the cutting edge and stuff like that. And I learned a lot. I was also sort of reminded of the approach that I had, when I was first making records.

By the time I got to ďA Wizard, A True StarĒ and the records following that, we were pretty aggressive in our experimentation in the studio. And thatís become an earmark of some of the modern music - how aggressively you can manipulate the sound. So I learned a lot, even just recently, from a whole new generation of artists. And thatís what kind of makes it continually interesting and challenging - that music still has possibilities that may not have occurred to me [laughs]. And thatís why itís still interesting, that there are still mysteries about it, I guess.

PCC:
Retaining a sense of discovery, is that just part of your natural curiosity? Or is that something you always have to work at?

RUNDGREN:
No, I think that thatís part of what makes life in these times interesting, is the pace of change and how quickly things get replaced by new things and how it actually affects human beings, to live in times like this, where so much is happening so fast. And I guess it kind indicates whether you have a natural liberal or conservative mentality. And I guess my natural mentality is liberal.

I like new ideas. I like trying to get my head around how they work and how I can get something out of it. And trying to figure out where things are going to go, as a result of these new discoveries and new memes and things like that. So, yeah, it does come naturally to me in a certain way, but I also feel sort of obligated to represent that in my so-called art.

PCC:
For you, whatís been the most rewarding aspect of the life in music, to this point?

RUNDGREN:
Well, Iíve always felt that there are two kinds of artists. And what you get out of it sort of depends on how you approach music. I always considered like Michael Jackson as like, in a way, an obfuscater. You present a picture of yourself that isnít actually real and you know that. Youíre trying to create some sort of ideal of yourself, or some ideal image, and you convey that in the way that you express yourself.

Then there are artists who are revelatory, who are actually trying as hard as they can to expose themselves to you, to get them to know what they really are, in the deepest way that they can express it. An artist like Laura Nyro, something like that. And Iíve always felt like I am in the latter category, in that Iím constantly trying to delve into my subconscious and drag things out, sometimes that I donít even recognize.

But the process of discovering that and exposing that and putting that in a certain setting is palliative for me. It makes me understand myself better and brings me a certain amount of contentment, because of it. So, yeah, in a way, I need to do it, just for my own benefit. And the audience, the reward they get out of it is watching me go through the process, as opposed to me, essentially, trying to woo them with every song that I write.

PCC:
It seems like you have endless creativity. Have you found ways to coax the muse over the years?

RUNDGREN:
I find it more and more is a process that takes place, or should take place, in the subconscious. So when Iím making a record, Iím kind of filling my head with various ideas and putting off the kind of final realization of the song until the very last minute. In other words, I record the entire track, all the instruments and stuff, and then in about a half-an-hour or an hour, I write and perform the actual song itself. And it comes out almost as automatic writing.

Maybe some artists, they torture themselves over a song. Itíll take them weeks to come up with exactly what it is that they think is necessary to convey the idea. For me, I may invest some amount of that time in coming up with the musical aspect of it, but the actual song itself comes out almost without me having any control over it.

PCC:
Are there still some as yet unfulfilled goals or creative dreams? Or do you just like to be open and see where things take you?

RUNDGREN:
No, I think, if there was a specific goal, thatís like the end. You get there and what do you do then? Yeah, itís about the journey, I guess, as opposed to the destination. Once you get to the next mountaintop, you see another mountaintop you want to go climb [laughs]. So, yeah, there is no ultimate goal.

For the latest tour dates, visit www.todd-rundgren.com.