TODD RUNDGREN: IT FEELS GOOD TO SURVIVE
illustration by bob kurthy
Todd Rundgren is the kind of musician who can do just about anything—a wizard just like one of his album titles explained, a technophile who seizes the chance to experiment as soon as the first pixel lights up and a songwriter with such fluency that he doesn’t so much work as effortlessly will music into being. And besides: who else has the history, vision and personality to provoke passion enough to pull off a Toddstock, a homemade festival celebration—in the truest sense of the word—of all things Todd? Rundgren is currently touring his newest album Global (with L.A. mainstay Dam-Funk playing keys in the live band) as well as enjoying the release of the fascinating Runddans project, an anything-goes-all-the-time album-length suite recorded with Norwegian producer Lindstrøm and Emil Nikolaisen of Serena-Maneesh. Here, Jonathan Rado of L.A.’s formidable Foxygen—erudite Rundgrenians for sure—talks to Todd about the collapse of the temporal barriers and the earthquake that told him to move out of L.A.
I listen to your early records and there’s something so modern, so 2015 about it—like you predicted where music would go. How does it feel to listen to music now and hear your influence reigning over a lot of it?
It feels good to survive, you know? It’s always good to feel like you’re part of something bigger. At a certain point, I felt I was outside of everything, separate from everything. Part of that is by design and part of it is me trying to fill a hole in the musical fabric rather than just repeat what somebody else is doing. But music never stands still. It continues to evolve. I guess if you can survive long enough, whatever it is you do becomes interesting again. I’m kind of in that phase now. Enough musical generations have gone by, and the atmosphere in music now is very … I feel it’s palpably different. Everything that used to exist and everything that’s existing now that’s really brand new and coming into existence is all in the same place—it’s all on the internet. You can’t say historically that everyone had unlimited access to everything that’s happening in music. Not only just the very old stuff—like I see video clips of musical acts from the ‘50s and I wonder why I never heard of them? Likely it was that they were really popular in the Philippines and not much anywhere else. We’re now in a generation of listeners and musicians who don’t see a temporal dividing line between music that might have been created years and years ago and music being created today. When you’re on YouTube™, it’s totally egalitarian. It’s all equally reachable, in a way. That’s finally sunk in to the audience—that music is not necessarily what you hear on terrestrial radio, not what necessarily gets recognized by the Grammys, that there’s just so much more to it. I’m just a beneficiary cuz I’ve been around long enough!
When you were making records like A Wizard, A True Star, did you feel you were doing things ahead of your time? Or like a man out of time—like ‘People aren’t ready for this yet’?
I don’t usually think of time, music-wise. We’re still listening to music that was composed hundreds and hundreds of years ago. People will buy a concert ticket to go see an orchestra play music that’s 500 years old. Music—and a lot of art, I suppose, if it’s really art—transcends any sort of timeframe. I wasn’t thinking, when I was making A Wizard, A True Star, ‘Oh, someday people will get this.’ I was thinking, ‘People will get this or they won’t get this … in whatever time frame they listen to this.’ They’ll get it or they won’t get it. I was just trying to be different from everything else that was happening. And also try to represent more truly a certain kind of musical thought process—to try and grab the process before it produced what was a more standard industry-standard output, which would be a song—a song with a typical structure. Verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-solo-chorus-chorus-chorus. I thought, ‘You know, those are the kind of the arrangements you make cause that’s what expected.’ But when you’re writing a song, you don’t have the full structure usually mapped out in your head. It starts with a little melody line and maybe a lyric to go with it, and you essentially expound on that. Develop it. You may discover that what you thought was the verse was actually the chorus. Or you may discover you’ve got a song that in same senses has no chorus at all. A song like ‘I Saw The Light’ or ‘Hello It’s Me’ ironically have no choruses in them. They’re just big long verses and bridges! And solos! When I was doing A Wizard, A True Star, I was thinking, ‘Get all that idea of verses and choruses out of your head, and just start writing music and figuring out how it all fit together.’ Sometimes it’ll dovetail well and sometimes it’ll be like you did it with a glue gun, just sticking stuff together that wouldn’t naturally hang together. And just see what the effect is of all that! So the record was definitely a conscious experiment in disrupting the usual habits and ways of turning music into songs, and actively exploring other possibilities and doing it in a way that exposed a broader range of my musical sensibilities and influences. In other words, when I did Something / Anything, people started referring to me as the male Carole King. And I thought, ‘That’s just too cramped a box to be in.’ So I self-consciously started doing other kinds of music just to get out of that box.
I think people think a Carole King thing is just anything that uses a major 7th chord—that’s Carole King.
Carole King was a song craftsman essentially, and by the time I got to Something / Anything, I was at a point I could just whip these things out. I was using the same kind of forms and similar chord structures and lyrics that were always about the boy-girl relationship—a relationship I’d had in high school five years earlier than I’d completely gotten over, and I used it as lyrical fuel. I suddenly realized that’s a no-no. You’re singing about stuff that you don’t really care about.
Something / Anything is an amazing album to me. The first thing that struck me about it—that I fell in love with—was that you’re doing it all yourself and playing all the instruments. Why? A creative choice? An efficiency choice?
I was moving in that direction. My first two solo records I had at least a bass and drum player—the Sales brothers on a lot of it, and other people on some songs. It had a lot to do with the fact that I didn’t have a space that I could practice the drums in. The drums make a lot of noise! It wasn’t until I’d done several productions that I felt confident, cuz during a break in one of productions, I’d be in the studio and I could go and essentially mess around on the drums while everyone is on break. That was the way I learned how to play. I didn’t have drums in my apartment and if I had, I would’ve been kicked out! I used the opportunity to get on the drums while I was in the studio and eventually develop the confidence that I could at least batter my way through my own songs. The only problem was trying to figure out what to do first. I at first tried to play piano parts to the songs and then do the drums afterward and that turned out to be impossible. I couldn’t follow my own piano playing. So essentially I learned how to sing the songs in my head while I played the drums and then put everything on afterward, which is logically the way to do it. But if you put a metronome on it, everything would be all over the place! It all smooths out in the end after you add all the other instruments. It was a question of access, you know? Me getting enough access to the point where I thought I could play the drums as well, and the advantage of that—the continuing advantage—is you don’t have to teach anyone else the parts. You just think of the parts you want and you just play them.
You can hear that in the record. A few tracks of Something / Anything were recorded at your house. That’s written about but never elaborated on. Did you record a lot at your house? What were you doing?