Todd Rundgren has had one of those eclectic careers that keeps your name on the musical radar even when you’re sitting at home twiddling your thumbs … which is not something Rundgren does very often. He is full of gears and switches and nobs that keep his brain humming and his body synchronizing out the plans. Some people consider him brilliant, a mastermind full of genius/quirky molecules that turn notes into music that is eye opening or head-scratching or both.
Take his credits, for instance. They have a way of jumping out at you like a long lost friend but remain a circus of curiosities and illusions and outer space holograms, oddly different yet cannily familiar at the same time: He was in Nazz and Utopia; he produced Meatloaf’s Bat Out Of Hell and the New York Dolls self-titled 1973 debut album; he wrote and sang “Hello It’s Me” and “Bang The Drum All Day;” he has performed with orchestras, DJs and Ringo Starr; he is a husband, father, teacher and tireless thinker. And we haven’t even mentioned his guitar playing.
So when you have an opportunity to sit down and chat with the man for a few minutes you have to whittle down from a million questions to a select few, which is not as easy as it sounds. For someone like Rundgren, whose music is so intricate and innovative, the paths you can go down are endless: songwriting, producing, technology in the studio and transferring it to a live stage, influences, going from a geeky Pennsylvania boy to a guitar hero, wiring the mind to create science-fictional sounds that weave in and out of the brain’s sonic hemisphere like falling into a wormhole. All these things that construct his inner makeup could take years to understand.
So we start with his new record, appropriately titled Global out April 7th, with a tour supporting it starting up a few days later, and nibble on a few bits and pieces of a career still in full-throttle.
You certainly seem to have a lot on your mind about the world today and it comes out on Global. How did this album get started?
It’s funny, for the last twenty-some years I think, I’ve been doing my production independently. In other words, I finance them myself and do them at my own pace and when I have a record done, I find a distributor for it. But the last two records, this one and the previous one, I’ve actually had a label approach me and offer me an advance to make a record, which is, well, for an artist my age, I guess, is somewhat unusual (laughs). But also the fact that someone has enough faith in you to gamble on your ability to make a marketable record, and gives you the money in advance to do it, you know, is pretty bold. So I hadn’t actually been thinking about a record until the label came back to me and said, “Would you like to make another one?” They wanted it done by the end of 2014 for release in the spring and I said, “Well, I can’t pass up the opportunity even though I don’t right now have an idea what I’m doing.” (laughs)
But I had been working on another project with a couple of Norwegian DJ’s and I had a song leftover from that project and that became essentially the foundation for the album. The song was “Global Nation” and that song essentially is kind of a cheerleading song. I’ve done a lot of music that’s like scolding, I guess (laughs) and there is a little bit of scolding on this record, but I wanted to make a record that would kind of bring everybody together in a way, to bring some unity to people, considering the fact that we have issues to deal with which, you know, surpass the ability of any individual to handle. So my first concept was to make a feel good record in a certain way but also to find a central theme and the central theme was a sort of planetary consciousness both in the ecological sense but also in the sort of, what is humanity’s place on this planet sense.
Do you think that Earth as a living organism will turn against us, the human race, to try to save itself?
Well, I make that assumption. I make the assumption that the Earth is always fine, it’s our problem, you know. And in a way, I had like an existential crisis in the middle of making this record because all of the crap that is going on with ISIS and the typical sort of human shenanigans that make you kind of lose faith, or tempt you to lose faith, in the species altogether. So in the middle of the record I was thinking, what the hell am I doing this for? Humanity is going to hell in a handcart anyway (laughs). But what I did was, I stopped watching the news and it made it all a lot easier. I just stopped paying attention, Leslie, to what people were doing in order to complete the record.
On the song “Blind,” you can hear your frustration in your words and in your voice.
You know, this is a reason you’ve got to turn off the television, because I find myself yelling at it all the time. Every time I see John Boehner, I just go, “Liar, liar, liar, coward.” (laughs). It’s like I start screaming, you know, and at a certain point, yeah, you do get frustrated with being lied to, with being treated like you’re an ignoramus and this whole bullshit about, “Oh, I’m not a scientist but I’m going to have an opinion like I am one,” it’s just pure hypocrisy. So yeah, there are moments of frustration in there.
But you then you come back with something like “Soothe” where there seems to be compassion and hope.
Yeah, there’s got to be a certain balance. I don’t want my records to be monolithic, in a sense. I feel like if you kind of harp on one sort of emotion all the time you sort of become numb to it. So you’ve got to be able to express a range of feelings around a particular topic. Everyone wants to keep a cool head but every once in a while you’ve just got to let off some steam.
What was the last song to come in for Global?
You mentioned “Soothe” and that was the last song that I wrote. I looked at the material I had and said, well, there’s not really anything kind of quiet and personal on the record, nothing like a traditional ballad. So I came up with that song. Sometimes I try to not come up with a completely clear idea of what I’m going for and let my subconscious do a lot of the work. Then I usually write the words and sing the tunes the very last part of the production. So in some ways, I guess, I was trying to identify a need in the record. It needed a moment like that and that’s why I came up with the song.
On “Mother Earth,” you call out some pretty important women. How did that song originate?
I got it into my head that sometimes people think that men are supposed to do all the hard work (laughs). That women are supposed to sit on the sidelines and appreciate it. That is not really good enough anymore for anyone and in some cases women will do the heavy lifting when the men fail to. If we’re going to get over the issues that the race needs to deal with, we’re going to need all hands on deck. We’re not just going to need, you know, the menfolk. We’re going to need everybody to do the heavy lifting.
You’ve been inspired and influenced by some pretty strong female songwriters – Patti Smith and Laura Nyro – do you still feel their touch upon your music?
I certainly do, which fortunately, I have that to hang onto when I have to hear the Godawful screeching of Taylor Swift and Katy Perry (laughs). So yes, I wish there were more female artists of substance like Laura Nyro or like Patti Smith. We’re in the doldrums all around. We don’t have a whole lot of really inspiring artists, male or female, at this point in my estimation. That doesn’t mean that things won’t change but we’re just in a very shallow place musically and I always like to go back to those touchstones. But a lot of it is our common influences as well. I always appreciated Laura Nyro because her roots were someway similar to mine. R&B was music that you grew up with and that had a great influence on what you did.
How early did you feel the pull to actually write songs?
Actually, early, all I wanted to do was play guitar and be on the same par as Eric Clapton or something like that. That’s when I was first starting out in the music business and it’s all I thought about. Then I came to realize that that’s kind of a self-limitation in a way and that also if I was going to have a band of my own that was ever going to get signed, we were going to have to start writing our own material. So it was sort of, at first, more out of necessity than out of kind of a personal need to express. But as time went on, I realized this was going to be my principle outlet, this was going to be the way that I expressed myself to other people in musical terms.
What else do you have to explore?
Well, it’s hard to figure out where I would have the time to do more (laughs). At any particular moment, I’ve got probably two or three musical projects somewhere in the works. And that’s true now as it was in the past. I’m putting together a tour of my own. I’ve got not only this release coming out but a collaboration I did with some Norwegian DJ’s that’s coming out in May. I’m working on an album with The Roots that we don’t know when it will be done because it’s kind of a more casual collaboration. But at some point we’ll have enough songs out of it to have a release. And then ostensibly, the Bat Out Of Hell musical, which has been in the works for decades is actually going into production this fall and I’m supposed to be the Choral Director for that. There is always something on the table. I don’t think there’s ever a moment in which, at least in my life now, there isn’t something already on the horizon as I’m completing whatever it is I’m involved in at the moment.
What we can expect from this tour? What are you going to do?
My tours are rarely similar. I’ve been in so many different configurations, and even sometimes during the same touring season. Like a year ago or two years ago, I did some solo shows with just me and a guitar and piano. I did shows with Ethel String Quartet. I did appearances with the Metropole Orchestra in Holland for some special performances. I toured behind State, which was a highly EDM light show oriented thing. Then I did what we call the Unpredictable Evening With …, which is just whatever pops into my head. I have a small band and I play whatever pops into my head.
So it’s hard to say whether anything is similar to anything else (laughs) but I’m going out with a different DJ of some note. His name is Dam-Funk and he’ll be essentially in charge of the musical aspect of it. I’ll have a couple of background singers/dancers and me and that’s it; and essentially a lot of production, lights and video walls and that sort of thing. So it’ll be something of a spectacular but at the same time, unlike the State show which was almost sort of designed to bring an arena into smaller places, this will be more of an actual show. It will have an arc to it. It’ll have certain specific sort of moments within it that are designed for a theatrical impact.
You’ve had hit records, you’ve worked with wonderful musicians, you have a legion of devoted fans. What constitutes success to you?
Well, if you’re talking about professional success, I believe I’m already experiencing it in a way because so many artists will have their moment in the sun and then they’ll have to, you know, go work for the record label or something like that instead of continuing to create. And the artists that I admire are people like BB King and Tony Bennett who will do it until they drop over. And that’s what I’d like to be able to do. To just be able to play, physically able to do so, and that’s success as a musician. Success is not having to go find another job.
Live photographs by Leslie Michele Derrough and Amy Harris