Tuesday, September 15, 2009

A Q&A With Todd Rundgren

From www.washingtoncitypaper.com-original article by Jonathan L. Fischer.

Todd Rundgren, you may be surprised to learn, doesn’t own a cell phone.

This fact might be unremarkable, except that an embrace of new technologies is the only unifier of this pop eccentric’s winding, four-decade career. As a prolific recording artist and producer, Rundgren was an early adapter of the synthesizer, and one of the first to realize its pop-music possibilities. On his mid-’70s solo albums and with his prog outfit Utopia, he pushed the limits of how much music an LP could hold. His Dali-loving 1981 video for “Time Heals” was the first to employ computer graphics; several of his mid-’90s albums were CD-ROMs; and he was an innovator of the internet as a music-distribution tool.

“I’m kind of selective about the technology I adapt for my lifestyle,” Rundgren said in a phone interview last week (he borrowed a friend’s). He was in Cleveland, rehearsing for his current tour, on which he’s reproducing in full his 1973 magnum opus A Wizard, A True Star. Rundgren and his band will perform the album at the Music Center at Strathmore on Thursday night.

“I suppose the first thing that caused me to make such a decision,” he said with a booming chuckle, “was observing the way people behave with cell phones—in dangerous ways, in anti-social ways. Cellphones can lead to a sort of self-importance, and I’m self-important enough already.”

At the very least, the man has chutzpah.

How else to account for A Wizard, A True Star, a sprawling, iconoclastic stream of consciousness that detonated Rundgren’s career as “the male Carole King?” With 19 tracks over 55 minutes—some songs are only a minute long; the longest is 10—the 1973 album more or less earned Rundgren mainstream excommunication, but it also attracted a devoted fanbase. “I was coming off the most successful recordings of my career, and there were a lot of people anxious to put me into a certain niche,” he said. “That was only because [my radio singles] were piano-oriented in an age that Carole King and Elton John were becoming successful.”

So when he entered his New York studio in 1972, he swore his next album would be “anti-formal”—not just a rejection of his fans’ expectations, but of prevailing notions of pop music, as well. “I was producing records for a number of people”—albums by The Band, Badfinger, and The New York Dolls—“and I wanted to do as much as I could do in the studio.” That didn’t just mean synthesizers. A Wizard, A True Star has tracks that seem to start without a beginning and finish without an end; a song lifted from Peter Pan and a medley of bubblegum-soul standards; finicky, operatic metal; and between it all, a generous helping of Brill Building-style pop.

Part of Rundgren’s strategy, he said, was looking to pop’s past, as well as its future. “ I think all musicians have a wider range of interest in music than what they exhibit,” he said. “So it’s just as legitimate to pay homage to the Marx Brothers and Gilbert and Sullivan and Maurice Ravel and Stephen Sondheim as Carole King and Elton John.” Rundgren grew up in Upper Darby, Pa., a Philadelphia suburb, and that city’s soul music also is integral to the album’s musical DNA.

As for pop’s future? “I came to the realization that we should look at the LP as completely unmapped space you can fill in any way you want,” he said. “Each song doesn’t have to be three minutes. It can be one minute, it can be five minutes, it can be eight minutes. And it doesn’t have to have a chorus and a verse; it can start abruptly, it can have found sounds. So the whole exercise for me was trying to map the—I won’t call it disorder—a more colorful range that comes from your head.” The point was to re-create on record the process of thinking about music—or how it feels, as Rundgren said, to “remember songs in pieces and then figure them out.”

For all its tight sequencing, the album was recorded quickly, Rundgren said. And although he was using the studio as an instrument, Rundgren said, he never let the electronics take over. Part of his approach to technology, then and now, “is trying to find a way that you can get a handle on it and use it to advance a nontechnological agenda,” he said. “You’re not using technology for its own sake. Kraftwerk discovered synths and said, ‘let’s sound like robots now.’ But I came from being a guitar player—I was always preferential to the organic nature of the guitar.”

Rundgren declined to reveal too much about the current set of shows, save that he’s restored the costumes from the album’s original tour—think Ziggy Stardust, but more neurotic—and beefed up the visual components. “It’s what I would have done at the time if there had been the demand,” he said. In other words, expect strange and theatrical.

Rundgren put it much better: “This is a cross between Las Vegas and a party.”

Monday, September 14, 2009

A Wizard, A True Star Live After 35 Years

Todd Rundgren's wildly eclectic career is such that even his devoted fans may only know part of what the man has achieved over the years, from his days with the Nazz, to producing everyone from the New York Dolls to Grand Funk Railroad to Meatloaf to Patti Smith to XTC, to blowing lots of progressive minds with the group Utopia, to foreseeing massive technological changes in the music business before just about anyone else.

On Todd's latest project, he's brought one of his finest and most completely trippy album A Wizard, A True Star to theatrical life for an ambitious series of shows in five states, with a DVD and CD release scheduled for next year.

I was one of the faithful who was there for the "tour" opener in Akron, Ohio. A good time was had by all. If you haven't listened to Todd lately, pick up his latest release, "Arena" and turn it up LOUD.

Rundgren took a few minutes out of his busy rehearsal schedule to chat with Gimme Noise, and I'm posting the brief interview here (and hopefully not violating any copyright laws in the process).

On your current tour, you are playing your record A Wizard, A True Star from start to finish at each show. Where did you get the idea for this project?

It was actually an idea of my British promoter, who was noting the fact that some younger artists, particularly electronic and turntable artists in Europe had discovered the record and were citing it as an influence and using samples off of it. So he thought that mounting an event around the record would be a good way to induce a younger crowd to come check it out.

You just performed the entire album live for the first time last week in Ohio. What was that experience like?

It was more than just doing the record, or the show that now accompanies the music. It was more like some sort of homecoming. Apparently they haven't had this many people show up in Akron in the last 30 years for any sort of event. We almost completely took over the town. [laughs] There was so much good will behind the whole thing that we almost could do wrong, regardless of what actually did go wrong -- and there were a lot of things that went wrong. It's one of those things that by the time we've got it all right, it's going to be nearly done. We'll be technically proficient at it for the next time that we go out. For this tour we have so many aspects to address that aren't usually in my productions -- we've got video projection, special effects lighting, things like that, as well as the dozen or so costume changes that I have to undergo under the course of an hour's worth of music.

Wow, a dozen costumes?

Well it wouldn't really work to simply play the music. Most of the people who are familiar with the record have sort of a mental movie that accompanies it. It's not the same for everybody, but the music evokes imagery, just naturally. And so I have to theatricalize it, in order to meet those expectations. If all we did was play it, it would be far less entertaining than if it's acted out as well.

Is it true that some of the costumes are from the original 1973 tour?

Yeah, we had some in our possession, and then we put out a call to the fans -- I had an estate sale a couple years ago when I moved away from Woodstock, and a lot of costumes were bought by fans. So we essentially put out a call and recovered some of them, and refurbished the ones that we had. So some of them are original costumes from back in the mid-'70s. And some don't fit anymore, and I can't possibly wear them. [laughs]

I read a review of the Akron show that said that you also played an opening set with your Utopia bandmates. Will you be playing Utopia songs at the Minneapolis show?

We're not calling it Utopia -- we don't want to raise people's expectations to that point. It's just because Roger [Powell] and Kasim [Sulton] are in the A Wizard, A True Star orchestra, and the A Wizard, A True Star album is only an hour's worth of music, so we had to have some sort of opening act. And since the three of us were there, we thought well, we know this music, it's music we don't have to learn from scratch, let's be our own opening act and play some Utopia songs because people like to hear those songs.

In the process of revisiting an album that was made over 35 years ago, are you tempted to tweak the songs, or do you try to stay faithful to the recording?

We've tried to remain as faithful as possible. I went back and essentially deconstructed the original master tapes so that we could see what all was going on in the chaos. And discovered a lot of stuff. Now it isn't possible for us, with only six people in the band, to cover every single sound that was made, but we have covered all the significant aspects of it. There was never any concept of rearranging them or anything like that. They're difficult enough to learn in their original form. And that's been the challenge for the week of rehearsal that we had before the first gig.

You were quoted recently as saying that A Wizard, A True Star was the beginning of your "real career as a musician." Can you explain that further?

I was always something of an experimentalist in the studio, and included some of these weird little asides even on my previous records, but most of the content of my previous records was me trying to find myself as a songwriter and singer, and it involved a lot of imitation of other artists, in a way. But mostly of the kind of popular song form that everyone was working in. I began to realize that this was an arbitrary limitation, and that I wasn't taking advantage of the other possibilities of, first of all, what could be placed on an LP, on a vinyl record, and also what could be done in the studio. So I determined that I was going to build my own studio to record this record, and then I consciously started deconstructing all of my habits, my songwriting habits and such. So what the album eventually represented was a more accurate view of who I really was, musically. I was no longer attempting to imitate other people all the time. I was certainly paying homage to a lot of my influences still during that record, but basically I felt that I had made some sort of a breakthrough in getting my personality down into the grooves. From that point on, I felt like I was more on my own path and less on the path that everyone else was on. And anyone who was my fan from that point on, they were more truly familiar with me and what I was trying to do.

That seems like it could be a rough transition, venturing out on your own. Were you nervous to make such a big change?

No, I never thought about that. The advantage that I had was that I was producing a lot of records for other people, and that was my living. So when I made my own records, I didn't have to have the same sort of economic considerations that a lot of other artists had to factor into their records. A lot of the artists would have to fear that the record would not sell enough or would not have a single on it to promote it. And those things never occurred to me. [laughs] I didn't have to be afraid of [my records] failing. I only had to be afraid of them failing in terms of my own vision.

As your music has evolved over the years, I imagine that critics have labeled you a lot of different things.

No. Because it's so confusing, what I do, that the critics don't bother to keep up with it. Critics don't really like to have to review my records. They don't have the measuring tools they need. Most of my records are pretty much ignored, critically. And that doesn't bother me either. I realize that I've got my audience, and the way that I'm going to increase my audience is to continue to play to my audience. And they'll go out and do the work of finding other listeners. The same way that you've been indoctrinated by your dad. [laughs] Now it's become trans-generational. There's a lot of younger fans showing up because they've been infected by their parents.