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an interview with a wizard, a true star...

TODD RUNDGREN

 

 

Part 2
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Robert Silverstein: RS
Todd Rundgren: TR


RS: 20th Century Guitar wanted me to ask you about Eric Clapton’s SG, the 1961 Les Paul SG that you bought from Jackie Lomax in 1971.

TR: Yeah, that guitar.


RS: Didn’t you auction it off at Sothebys last year?

TR: I’m not allowed to talk too much about that incident because I got into a legal thing with Sothebys over it. Basically I didn’t think they did a good job. Yes the guitar did get auctioned. To whom I don’t know. But it was surrounded with some unpleasantness (laughter). I can’t go into the details of the auction. All I can say is that I did own the guitar.

RS: I was reading that Clapton had recorded Disraeli Gears with that guitar.

TR: Yeah, I believe he did.

RS: What other guitars were you using early on in your career?

TR: Let me see now...early on I did have an SG of my own, a red one that resembled that. I also had a Flying V as I recall that I would play alot. Not an original one, one of the second or third generation reproductions. I probably had a Les Paul guitar that was a holdover from when I was in a blues band, but I don’t know how long I had that or used it. It was principally the Flying V and the Les Paul Junior style guitar that I was playing.

RS: Do you remember your first guitar?

TR: The first guitar I ever owned was probably Korean made, a twenty five dollar acoustic guitar that you got for cheap if you bought guitar lessons. My parents bought me just the minimum number of guitar lessons necessary to get the guitar and then I stopped (laughter).

RS: So, just jumping around in time, Sanctuary’s Todd Rundgren Bootleg Series looks to be a pretty interesting proposition moving forward. The double CD Live At The Forum London ‘94 is amazing. I’ve never heard a more animated performance from you.

TR: Oh, Live At The Forum. That was what we called the No World Order tour and set-up. It probably is fairly lively and animated because it depends so much on audience participation for the show to come off successfully. Those shows—every single one of them—was completely improvised. So some nights we would have a good crowd and I would get into a good groove and we’d have a great show and (laughter) then some nights one or the other might not be on. But the show in London was pretty much an ideal night. We had an audience that was totally into the groove from the beginning of the show and peaked at the right time. And I had a fairly good show—not the best one I ever had—but it was a good show. And the whole basis of that was the audience and the performer driving each other. I think that show reflected pretty much the ideal that I was going for. So yeah, and that was ten years ago so I was a little bit more spry then. (laughter)

RS: That was during the TR-I days.

TR: Yeah, well that one actually has been released on DVD...I believe. I know that it came out on VHS.

RS: So that was a one man show?

TR: Yeah, I had some dancers, but otherwise it was just me and a whole bunch of electronic gear and a thing that looked like a space ship. And unlike the usual show that I would do, instead of being on a persinium stage, it would be set up in the round and the audience would surround it.

RS: Even though you were using the Mac computer to program everything you did play some guitar that night.

TR: Yeah, still gotta get some guitar in (laughter). Well actually there’s one point in the show that’s the most guitar-laden and that’s a song called “Secret Society”. And what happens is that I would start that and play for a while and then essentially we would turn it almost into guitar auditions. You know, anyone who thought they could play the guitar could come up onto the center stage and play along with the songs. Sometimes we had some really good guys and (laughter) sometimes we had some guys who just thought they wanted to play guitar, y’know, till they got it in their hands and suddenly discovered they couldn’t (laughter).

RS: Are you still wrapped up in high-tech things these days and what do you think the future holds for music, computers and the internet?

TR: Well I really depend on the internet and computers to distribute what I do and to stay in contact with my fans. I don’t know what it would have been like moving to Hawaii without something like the internet that allows you to keep a more or less global presence going. And I take as much advantage of it as I can. I have a whole subscription service for my kind of hard core fans. They get to hear music that I’m working on before it gets released and things like that so yeah, I’m into the internet, internet music distribution and trying to sort that whole thing out.

RS: I guess the current condition of the planet is not a hospitable place for futuristic technology.

TR: Who’s got anything good to say now? (laughter). It doesn’t take much to carp. But we have a view of the world that’s kind of centered around ourselves. And if we don’t think things are good for us, we don’t think things are good for the world. In that sense, I’ve lived through times that I thought were just as bad (laughter) I guess. I don’t have any solutions or magic bullets. In my philosophy of life it isn’t governments and things like that have control over the world, it’s the way people live and think. If I have any input or anything to talk about from my standpoint, it’s just the same old thing—it’s human self-centeredness and stupidity and stuff and sometimes those people are running whole countries.

RS: Yeah in a way we’ve kind of lived through stuff like this before.

TR: You know there were times in which we weren’t sort of like in the front lines though we were still involved in some way—at least tangentially—in the world of terrorism because of our support of Israel or whatever, you know, we’d be at least in the line of fire if we weren’t taking the full brunt, you know? And they tried to take down the World Trade Center before, they just didn’t figure out how to do it. (laughter)

RS: Yeah, the first time they were six parking spaces too far to the left.

TR: Yeah, something like that. It’s not a brand new thing. I think that just people feel that because the other guy had some success with us that the world is different. It was always our position to run roughshod over everybody else (laughter). And from that standpoint, I mean our economy...they say it’s gone flat, but it’s still way better off then most people in the world.

RS: Well I’d vote for you for president!

TR: Yeah, I don’t know what power I would have. But I know I ain’t as ignorant as that guy in now (laughter). You could say that about most people.

RS: Your 2000 album One Long Year is your first album of the 21st Century. It came out on Artemis Records and I guess you’re no longer on that label?

TR: Well, it originally was supposed to be released independently by another label and indeed was for some window I believe. Or maybe not, maybe we changed it just before the release date. The album was made in an unusual way in that instead of going into the studio and recording a whole album at once, I just let the songs come one at a time till I had an album’s worth. And to a certain extent that’s the way that I record now although I’m going to be getting into a little more accelerated phase here because I’ve spent so much time concentrating on other things that I have to do a little bit more concentrated recording. But the idea was that instead of being a reflection of where my head is at in a one month window, it’s more the evolution of where your head is at over a longer period of time. So that the songs represent snapshots along the way. I don’t know whether they assemble a coherent picture per se, but they are not necessarily the product of me sitting down and saying, ‘okay now I’ve got to come up with a whole album’s worth of stuff’. They just come when they come (laughter) and that’s it.

RS: On One Long Year I really enjoy the remake of “Love Of The Common Man” which is one of the bigger production numbers on the album.

TR: It sounds that way because it’s actually a leftover from the album that I completed before that which was called With A Twist. And that was all standards of mine I guess—songs that I had performed and that other people had associated with me—that I had done in a bossa nova style with a full orchestration. And that song just didn’t seem to fit on the record so it got held over and I decided that people still would want to hear it so I included it on the subsequent record One Long Year.

RS: “Love Of The Common Man” featured excellent performances from keyboardist John Ferenzik and guitarist Jesse Gress. Those guys are amazing.

TR: Oh, they’re some great players. They were in my band previous to that, the one that performed songs from The Individualist. That was an album that came out in the earlier ‘90s, I guess around ‘92 or ‘93. And that was the band that I had and when I got the opportunity to do this bossa nova album I called them all up and had them come out to Hawaii and we recorded the album together and then toured subsequent to that. And the only personnel change there was Kasim Sultan playing bass. Previous to that it was Larry Tagg.

RS: The With A Twist album, that came out on the short lived Guardian label, was that inspired by your moving to Hawaii?

TR: Well I guess there was an element to that, but it was more an interest in Latin music and the Latin market. That came about because we had been approached by a Latin American publishing company who wanted to acquire my catalog and it got me thinking, ‘the Latin market, I know that they sell alot of records but now that they’re sort of like, crossing over, or merging, maybe I ought to think about doing something in the Latin vein (laughter). So oddly enough, within a timely period, I got offered this opportunity to do a record of my old standards and I thought, ‘well here’s my chance to go bossa nova!’. (laughter)

RS: You also mentioned you were inspired by the lounge music sounds of Martin Denny and Esquivel.

TR: Oh yeah, well I was building up my collection before I’d moved to Hawaii. It was sort of coincidental that alot of that is—particularly Arthur Lyman and to a lesser degree Martin Denny—associated specifically with Hawaii. So yeah, we still play that music (laughter). We still like it.

RS: I thought that was one the best things to come out of the ‘90s...

TR: The lounge revival, yeah.

RS: One Long Year starts off with “I Hate My Frickin’ ISP” and closes with another song that sounds like a homage to the ocean or ‘surfing’ the internet, “The Surf Talks”. I wrote here that I’ve come a long way since my ‘99 dial up with bway.net (laughter), so we’ve made some progress on the net.

TR: The song isn’t as relevant now but it is still relevant. I know when I go out on the road still alot of hotels only have regular dial-up. Bad enough as it is trying to get connected at home, doing it on the road in a hotel where they charge you a buck fifty every time you pick up the phone. That’s a real annoyance. That was a kind of a setting of “I Hate My Frickin’ ISP” because I don’t have to deal with the same problems when I’m at home now. We have a high speed connection.

RS: And on “The Surf Talks” you have the double entendre where you’re almost comparing the vastness of the ocean and the internet.

TR: Yeah, well it is. And that one was a song that was inspired by the Hawaiian environment. Had alot to do with ruminations I would have while walking on the beach and at the same time my whole connection, once I moved to Hawaii was dependent, my connection to my fans was dependent on the internet. It wasn’t like I was going out to nationally covered local events (laughter)...places kind of like Alabama. It’s really rural. Yeah, the whole song is a paean to the powers of the internet and metaphorically what the ocean is like. You know the fact that the ocean connects. Even though we say there are seven seas, it’s one continuous body of water and people are connected by it. People all over the world are connected by this body of water so... I had this image of like, I was standing ankle deep in the water and I suddenly realized that the ocean—if you look at it as an entity, in the way that the internet is looked at as an entity—if you connect with anybody else you’d have to be standing in it at the time. So that was like a metaphorical image I had.

RS: I also enjoyed the Hawaiian flavored remake of “Bang On The Drum” which on One Long Year you call “Bang On The Ukelele Daily”. You throw in a few licks from “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”. How about Hawaiian guitar music, like slack key or pedal steel?

TR: I’m into some of it and then some of it I’m not so much into. The more traditional base slack-key stuff and lap steel stuff—if it’s played well, is really thrilling music. Unfortunately, contemporary Hawaiian music is not (laughter) thrilling at all. It’s just kind of watered down Jamaican style music that, instead of having a political edge to it, is singing about coconuts (laughter) and things like that. Contemporary Hawaiian music really needs some help cause it’s too much dependent on this Reggae thing.

RS: What kind of guitars are you using on the One Long Year CD?

TR: The guitars that I’ve been using lately...the one that I use principally is actually a Stratocaster style guitar that I believe is made by Fernandes under the label P Project, and I got it in Japan. I didn’t actually buy it. There was a time when the Japanese economy was healthier than the American economy. And the Japanese have a lovely custom of giving you gifts and if they’re doing well, the gifts can be really nice (laughter). And so I would be coming back from touring Japan with like five guitars that various people would give me. And one day I just went through all of them trying to find the one that I thought played and sounded the best and it turned out to be this, more or less a knock-off and with a little bit of modification it’s been the guitar that I’ve played for the last ten years at least.

RS: So that’s the Stratocaster Fernandes?

TR: Yeah, it’s a Stratocaster style but’s it’s got an odd pickup configuration. It’s got two Strat style pickups and then a wide Humbucker at the bridge. We put a few switches in there to get all the possible pickup combinations (laughter). The five position switch wouldn’t give us enough. Let me see now what else do I play...? I play a Takamine acoustic guitar. I used to play an Ovation 12 string but my hand couldn’t take it for a whole set.

RS: Also from One Long Year, the song “Mary And The Holy Ghost” is a pretty scary song...

TR: Scary? It’s supposed to be a Christmas carol! (laughter)

RS: The song with the line ‘war time coming - gonna be a son of a gun’? Even though the album came out a couple years ago, it kinda sounds like what’s happening right now.

TR: Actually, that song is supposed to be a relatively pleasant tune (laughter). It’s got a heavy underpinning to it but it’s mostly a Christmas song. I recorded it for a Christmas collection and then included it on One Long Year. And it’s supposed to be about the appearance of the Holy Ghost to Mary before the birth of Christ.

RS: How does the instrumental sound fit in with what you do these days? Are you still into instrumental music?

TR: I am and I think that there will always be a portion of the records that I make that’ll mainly be focused on the instrumental. There was a point, like for instance on The Individualist, where there would be large, orchestrated instrumental passages and to accommodate that the songs would be hugely long. They’d be like seven, eight minutes long. Nowadays I feel just as comfortable doing an instrumental song that doesn’t have any vocal component at all.

RS: One Long Year also harkens back to the Something/Anything sound with the pop sound of “Where Does The Time Go”.

TR: Yeah, that was a song I did as a demo to get re-signed to Warner Bros. for a three album deal. That was in the late ‘80s I believe. I did it knowing they would like it but it didn’t fit into the album that came after that, or the two albums that came after that. It just kind of languished. That first album that I did after moving from Bearsville to Warner Bros. was Nearly Human and that was a 14 piece live band thing. And the album after that was similarly construed and the album after that was No World Order (laughter). So the song went for a long time without fitting on anything and then I decided I would finish it up and put it on One Long Year because that was an album that was meant to be sort of odd-ments that came from different times and places.

RS: Who owns your albums that are in Bearsville catalog?

TR: Bearsville still owns them but I believe Rhino has some control over how they’re distributed.

RS: Weren’t the Bearsville albums remastered and reissued on CD recently with bonus tracks?

TR: Well we’ve had redistribution deals with a company called Castle Records who did a big re-release a few years ago. I did ten hours worth of recollections for new liner notes and stuff like that and it came out in a beautiful set about three CDs at a time. If you bought all the CDs they formed a picture along the spine. So that was a real nice re-release. But as far as the ongoing availability of catalog material, it mostly goes through Rhino I think. But Rhino, I’m not sure of the state of, at this point (laughter). The founders have left and I don’t know what the future of Rhino’s gonna be so...

RS: I know they just moved their offices.

TR: Maybe they moved into a Warner Bros. owned building or something, ‘cause I believe they’re part of Warner Special Products now.

RS: The first concert I saw you do was at Carnegie Hall with The Hello People after Something / Anything came out in ‘72. Do you remember playing Carnegie Hall?

TR: I remember. I played Carnegie Hall a couple times I think. I played Carnegie Hall with Utopia as well, the original seven piece configuration.

RS: Moving to Warner Bros. for Something / Anything must have had a huge effect on your music...

TR: It was good to be distributed by somebody who had the kind of clout that Warner Bros. did. We didn’t technically move to Warner Bros. I was still signed to Bearsville and if you went outside the United States the records could appear on any label. Bearsville reserved the right to make X U.S. distribution deals to anyone they wanted to. And those would change every couple years. It was a real nightmare. It made it hard to get established internationally.

RS: Did you meet Mo Ostin at Warners? You couldn’t have picked a better time...

TR: He was still the president at the time so I imagine he must have had some voice in it. Yeah, the label was great in those days when Mo was still firmly in charge and they hadn’t been fully conglomerated into Time Warner and all that other stuff. Gulf & Western...(laughter) Companies that had nothing to do with music who were gobbling up all the labels because they were making so much money.

RS: As good as Something/Anything is, I think your ‘73 follow-up A Wizard, A True Star is another milestone of 20th Century pop. I saw you play at C.W. Post college on Long Island after that album came out.


TR: I vaguely remember it. I think we played there a couple of times but that was pretty early in my musical career. Anything that happened in the ‘70s, I always question my recollection (laughter).

RS: Whose idea was to do that funny die-cut album jacket on A Wizard, A True Star?

TR: Well I always like to invest a little more in the packaging. I figure it’ll enhance the shelf appeal but also increase the value over time to the people who owned it. It would stand out as something unusual to them. And with die-cutting again it’s something that’s kind of expensive but after the success of Something / Anything, the commercial success, they were willing to go along with me on a few things and that included the packaging on A Wizard, A True Star. Unfortunately, there were no breakout hits on A Wizard, A True Star. In fact, it (laughter) upset a lot of people when it came out.

RS: Well the album did have “International Feel” and “Just One Victory”. Those are as good a songs as anybody’s ever written.

TR: Well they still appear and are still requested in performances although some songs have been a little played out for me. But the album has, in retrospect become more successful than it was. It was considered a failure because it was too ambitious and didn’t follow up on the commercial success of of Something / Anything.

RS: You took over as the producer of the Badfinger album Straight Up after George Harrison left the project. What kind of influence did George Harrison have on your guitar playing?

TR: Well as far as guitar playing, I wasn’t even aware there was such a thing as a lead guitar player until The Beatles came out. George Harrison sort of defined this, had this job description that changed the lives of alot of guitar players who thought they were just going to strum away for a few years and then go get a serious job. And I think I could be beholden to him for that, at least. The Badfinger thing was just logistical. I didn’t have hardly any interaction with George at all on that. He had run out of time. And he was indeed the second producer on the record. They had already had Geoff Emmerick try to do a record. And they weren’t satisfied with that. And then George started up a record but didn’t get more then a couple songs in before he was distracted by the Bangla Desh project. So that’s when I came in and it was pretty much recording half an album’s worth of new material and reworking the various things the other producers had left uncompleted.

RS: Have you thought of producing any other artists like Jeff Lynne or Paul McCartney?

TR: Jeff Lynne, obviously, he’s a producer, he’ll produce himself. And Paul McCartney doesn’t write songs like he used to, so I never really thought (laughter) ‘oh, I gotta produce a Paul McCartney album’. He pretty much produces himself. He may get another person involved but it’s a matter of record of how involved he gets in the process and how strong an opinion he has about what happens. Most of the productions that I’ve done, or a good percentage of them are artists who have never made a record before or who have made records that are failing to satisfy them and their listeners. And so often it’s not a famous artist. And working with a famous artist or a well known artist or one who has established a recognizable style, there are responsibilities and liabilities in that, that shouldn’t be taken lightly (laughter). So I don’t go around asking people to produce their records. They have to have the desire and the belief in you in the first place before you can assume that position.

RS: I probably was thinking not only to produce them but to record with them as well.

TR: Well, that’s always fun! Anytime I get an opportunity to do something like that, yeah I would take it on, but it doesn’t happen so much partly because I’ve always stayed out of the limelight and lived in fairly remote places. So I’m not around. And if you’re not around people don’t think of your name and say, hey (laughter), ‘why don’t you come in and do something with us?’

RS: What are you listening to these days?

TR: Well I listen to music that I hear occasionally that I enjoy. I did discover something I liked when I was on the road. It was a band called The Gourds from Austin, Texas. Ostensibly they’re a country band but they don’t do country songs. Well they (laughter) do do country songs but they do some non country songs in such a peculiar way that they really appeal to me. But for the last several months...I’ve bought property out here and I’ve been living in, not a temporary dwelling but a place that’s meant to be temporary in a sense and we’re in the process of moving out of that house and are building a new house so things have been real chaotic for me for the past six months trying to keep this project going and do all the necessary research. I kind of like, haven’t been listening to music very much lately (laughter). And the radio is no solace...

 

Thanks to Todd Rundgren @ www.tr-i.com, Mary Lou Arnold, Jolyn Matsummuro @ The Brookes Company - www.brookescompany.com - Louanne Lisk @ www.toddisgodd.com and Bas Hartong @ Sanctuary Records - www.sanctuarygroup.com

 

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