The Acoustic Storm Interviews
Todd Rundgren’s career goes back to 1970 and his days with Runt. A musical jack-of-all trades, Rundgren is not only a well-respected artist, but an accomplished producer as well.
ACOUSTIC STORM: What are your musical inspirations? Because I hear everything from R&B, to show tunes, to flat-out rock n roll.
TODD RUNDGREN: My dad was of the World War II generation and even though he enjoyed, I believe, the pop music of his era, he didn’t listen to it a home. He didn’t have any Andrews Sisters or anything like that. He preferred to listen to contemporary classical music pretty much from Mozart on. Also a lot of show music like ” Slaughter on Tenth Avenue” or “Kismet” and all that other stuff, and he’d sing along with that. But he was not that much into popular music and he really didn’t like anything that was considered rock n roll, and wouldn’t have it played in the house. So I got saturated, from a domestic standpoint, with mostly classical music and show music, and things like that; also anything on the radio that my mom would listen to, which was mostly from her generation. As I got older, into my early teens, I would hear more radio that other people were listening to. You know, you get out into the world and discover people listening to R&B stations and other kinds of music that never got played in my house. So when I did pick up on pop music, it was much later, and it was pretty much through a fixation on guitar, I wanted to be a guitar player. That would probably have been just a hobby, had it not been for the Beatles who demonstrated that a small group of players that could play and sing together could actually make a rewarding career at it. And that was a revelation, not just to me, but to innumerable itinerant musicians who all went out and started forming bands, a la the Beatles, with long hair and some sort of weird costume. Certainly it was still musically significant, and musically important, but it became the way you characterized yourself and attracted the opposite sex. So it moved out of the realm of being simply music and I suppose that’s how I became a pop musician. Just by luck, when I got out of high school, I managed to get into a band before I had to get a regular job. I’ve been a musician ever since I left high school and never had to work in an office or do anything that requires “withholding taxes”. (laughs)
ACOUSTIC STORM: You’ve always had an open-minded approach to making music.
RUNDGREN: I don’t believe I have any sort of fears about what the results of my musical explorations might produce. My natural proclivities prevent me from doing such things like trying to do a Country album, in all seriousness. Or something like that. There are only certain kinds that I feel I can sincerely work with. I’m always absorbing new influences, so it isn’t a question of ever keeping anything in reserve, it’s always a question of trying to discover what the potential of these other influences are. When I start out to make a record, I have some sort of amorphous idea of where I’m going with it, but a lot of it has to be discovered while I’m doing it. It’s not like I sit down and write the whole thing out before I make the record, I just never know what’s going to come out. So as far as creative throttle, I don’t have one because I don’t have a specific goal. I’m trying to discover what I really think and put it in musical terms, and the hardest part about that, nowadays, is trying to find new things to write about. Not the same old things.
ACOUSTIC STORM: At one point in your career you simultaneously had Utopia, Todd Rundgren solo, and you were producing other bands’ albums, although I’m sure you’re still a very busy guy. Was there ever any point when you felt your energies were split up more than you wanted them to be?
RUNDGREN: I did discover that, and it was after I had kids. Before that you can, even in the context of having a relationship with another person. You still have a whole lot of room to be selfish and to manage your own time and do everything you want to and think about the things you want to think about. In those days, I was playing on maybe three records in a year and producing another three records in a year, there were no other distractions or responsibilities. That was all I had to think about or commit my time to.
ACOUSTIC STORM: How did you find the time to do all those things?
RUNDGREN: It’s not that difficult. You know, in those days people didn’t spend a year to make a record. People could make a record in two weeks, and that wasn’t unusual. As a matter of fact, there was a time when spending two weeks to make a record was considered unusual. It’s more a question, I guess, of how careful you are with what you do. There was a time when the musical glass was, maybe, half-empty and so you could just fill it up with anything. Then as your musical glass gets more full you consider more carefully the things you get involved in, because there are not that many more things for me to do. I don’t know how many more albums I have in me. I know I’ve got more live performances in me, certainly, but at some point that’ll have to slack off. It’s never been a question of having the time available; it’s more of a question of whether you have the attention for it, whether you can commit your mind to it, because that’s when things get done efficiently.
ACOUSTIC STORM: What about some of your production projects, everybody from Badfinger to Meatloaf to XTC? There aren’t that many artists who have been successful producers as well. How do you approach other artists’ projects, and what motivates you to produce particular artists?
RUNDGREN: Aside from the basic quality of what they’re doing, if someone comes to me and there’s nothing any more unusual than that they write songs that are really solid and they perform them really well, that’s justification enough for doing a record. But I tend to gravitate and wind up producing artists who are either new or their potential is not understood. Maybe they’ve been around a while but have become frustrated with the quality of their records and want to do something different, or anything that’s just a basic challenge, or something that doesn’t fit into some sort of normal mode or approach. I’m not afraid to take that on and often my way of seeing and hearing things is more appropriate to those projects than the pedestrian approach. People have always said that I can write a commercial album full of top-ten singles if I wanted to, but that’s not true, I can’t. Occasionally I write a song that sounds like it might come from a top-ten album, but I don’t study the pop music genre enough that I would sit down and write guilelessly, you know, an album full of pop tunes that sincerely came right out of me. No, I would just start faking it at some point, and at the moment I start faking it, that’s when I start doing a bad job.
ACOUSTIC STORM: Why would you want to start that now?
RUNDGREN: Yeah exactly, it wouldn’t make any difference now anyway, if I hadn’t done that already. After “Something/Anything?” which was a phase I went through, I was figuring out a personal style of composition, and by the time I got through that record I had already really beaten it to death. That’s how it turned into a double album. I hadn’t intended it to be a double album, but when I started recording I continued to write and the songs just kept coming out. I was moving my hands up and down the keyboard in the same sort of patterns and writing how my heart got broke and a lot of the typical stuff. So, in a way, I guess I got it out of my system. But when I went to (the next album) “A Wizard A True Star,” it was nothing at all like that. It felt completely natural with me, and it seemed like a totally natural progression to me. But a lot of people just freaked out and said ‘why did you do that, why didn’t you just continue with all those little pop ditties?’ It just wasn’t in me.
ACOUSTIC STORM: You’ve obviously surpassed that phase of your career in more progressive ways, but looking back on that era of Todd Rundgren, how do you view it, and with what kind of perspective?
RUNDGREN: I don’t dwell on it like other people do. Of course, I’m forced to reassess it because people ask me about it in any number of contexts. We have an archive of stuff that’s being released by Sanctuary Records, there are DVD’s and CD’s of live shows and things like that, and every time one of those is released, it’s time to go back, you know, and describe what it was like and reminisce. And I would really prefer not to do that because I don’t dwell on it. Every once in a while, something will come up and you’ll go, oh, I remember those days (laughs), what it was like. Yeah it was fun, whatever, but it’s not like I have any problem with my life now, or that it’s gotten any more boring, which it hasn’t. My life is still interesting and there are still plenty of things to do, so I don’t dwell on that stuff. I don’t sit around and tote up my accomplishments. I’m working on a record now (\”Liars\”) that totally consumes what I’m thinking about musically. And that’s just it; I’m always trying to keep my head there. Performing shows is something of a distraction because I’m playing the some old material; the only advantage is it helps get my voice in shape for singing the new material. Yeah, it’s hard to keep your head in the project, hard enough to do that without constantly going back and trying to crawl into a head I had 25 years ago when I was writing that kind of music. The elements of it are still in there, but I don’t have the same sort of longings, perhaps, that other people have when they think, wouldn’t it be great if he’d just write another album like “Something/Anything?” Now wouldn’t that be great, but don’t hold your breath. You know, that’s just the bottom line. Essentially I’m not that person anymore. And it’s not that I don’t like pop music. I do, and I continue to absorb what it is, but most of my listeners haven’t. Most of my listeners, when I put out an album that had rap on it, you know most of them had said, ‘I’m never going to listen to rap my whole life.’ And then they were put into this sort of conundrum at that point because they had to surrender and listen to it. Some of them still didn’t like it, but others sort of got used to the idea that it’s got to be plastic and it’s got to move on. And I continue to put new things into it.
ACOUSTIC STORM: Of course, you are not known as an acoustic artist, per se, but can you talk about that genre of music and what it means to you?
RUNDGREN: I don’t necessarily have any basic prejudices against any kind of music as long as it’s played with some degree of competency and élan. I don’t think that I ever thought of myself as an acoustic musician in the sense that I was comfortable around folk musicians, or something like that. But there are kinds of music that are essentially acoustic that have a great deal of meaning for me, like, for instance, jazz. Until we got to the ’70s, I guess, with Weather Report and stuff like that, jazz was pretty much an all-acoustic affair, except maybe when they incorporated electric bass, which wasn’t supposed to sound too electrical and guitar players would get that Wes Montgomery sound, which was more or less an amplified, dry guitar thing. And so, that kind of music and atmosphere around it, was always very meaningful for me. But, a show like I’m doing now is acoustic by nature because it’s one person. I could go out there and do something like Moby; I have gone out with a giant array of electronic equipment and created a giant sound and only added my own vocalizations and occasional guitar playing into it. The show that I’m doing now really depends on me doing the most with the least, in a way, with just a guitar and voice, or piano and voice. I do a little bit of karaoke (laughs), but that’s for the bossa nova stuff. And that’s essentially an acoustic ensemblage as well, guitar, piano, strings, voices, things like that. It’s not the distorted heavy-metal guitars and over-amped drums like a lot of the records I produce have.
ACOUSTIC STORM: The album “With a Twist” has a version of “A Dream Goes On Forever” that has an acoustic feel.
RUNDGREN: Right, the whole album did, because it was a sort of a jazz, bossa nova tribute, and in that sense, the atmosphere required it to have that sort of naturalness. It’s hard for me to make clear distinctions. I don’t even see acoustic music as a genre because it almost describes a way of presentation as opposed to the style of music you might be playing. In that sense I always try to eschew labels. You know, the best point of reference, musically, is usually another piece of music. You say it sounds like “Dance To The Music” by Sly and the Family Stone or it sounds something like that; it’s always the best way to describe it instead of, oh it’s like funk with a bit of hip hop. Like all these contemporary terms, I don’t think they’re static, a lot of them. A lot of them change what they actually mean as time goes on, or what people understand them to mean. I appreciate the smaller sound, especially the performers that have the talent to work with it. Because the smaller the sound, the more it leaves you exposed, while the more electronified the music, that’s a great way to cover up all your weak spots.
-Transcribed by Dave Cooper