Songwriter and recording artist Todd Rundgren not only put out such classics as “Can We Still Be Friends?,” “I Saw the Light,” “Hello It’s Me,” “Love is the Answer,” “We Gotta Get You a Woman,” and “Bang the Drum All Day,” but he has embraced numerous other roles as well, throughout his 40-plus year career.
Rundgren is highly respected as a record producer (Badfinger, Meatloaf, Hall & Oates, XTC, Patti Smith, New York Dolls and many others), computer software developer, video pioneer, conceptualist and interactive artist. He earned recognition for his critically acclaimed 1972 release, Something/Anything? Amazingly, he sang all of the vocal parts, played all of the instruments and produced this masterful work. Rundgren received the Les Paul Award in 2014 at the 29th annual NAMM (National Association of Music Merchants) TEC Awards.
His latest album, Global, has been described as a contemporary fusion of styles – rock, soul and electronica. An accompanying Limited Edition 2 Disc CD/DVD is set to be released on April 15, 2015.
I connected with Todd Rundgren in March during a stop in Mexico City while he was touring with Ringo Starr and his All Starr band.
Jane Spietz: This is not your first gig with Ringo. What’s it like to work with a former member of the Beatles who is a great musician in his own right?
Todd Rundgren: It’s an honor and kind of something you have to do. If a Beatle calls, you must answer because they had so much to do with most of us even getting into the music business. This band has been together almost three years so we’re all well used to each other. That initial awe has turned into almost a family relationship at this point.
JS: Musician, songwriter, recording artist, video pioneer, computer software developer, producer – which of your many roles do you feel you have enjoyed the most and why?
TR: It’s one of those things where if you do the same thing all the time you get kind of jaded about it. And these other things are an opportunity to kind of ‘clear my head’ sometimes of musical responsibilities, like when I first got into learning computer programming. I took a whole year off and didn’t tour, and didn’t write any music at all. (Laughs) I sometimes need to step away, step back for a while and think about everything just so I can still feel refreshed when I have to get involved in music again. But ultimately, it’s going to wind up being something to do with music. And all of those other things in the end, somehow wound up leaping back to music. All of the things that I did with computers, which I thought at first would have more to do with the visual aspects – graphics and things like that – also informed me about changes in the music business when that digital technology started to be applied to recording and such. So, these are the diversions that are ultimately going to have to do with music in the end.
JS: Which of your musical periods have you most enjoyed?
TR: I always have fond recollections of what we call the Nearly Human era, which was in the late 80’s. I did two records completely live in the studio with no overdubs. And the bands that I had in those days, and the relationships with the people in those bands kind of sustain even to this day. I still work with the same people…sometimes in various contexts. The sort of family atmosphere that we had and the incredible performances that we put on will always be kind of like a golden age to me. But I don’t spend a lot of time dwelling on the past. So if you had a list of questions asking me about things that used to be, I’m probably not going to have a lot to say about it. (Laughs) For instance, right now I’m about to wrap this tour up, and then 100% of my consciousness is going into preparing for the tour that we’re about to do behind the new record.
JS: Yes, Global. I have listened to it. It’s great!
TR: Thank you. I tried, in this particular project, to regroup in a way. My last record was aggressively experimental. I was incorporating a lot of new techniques and sound. I was essentially educating myself at the expense of my audience which is not unusual. I’ve done it several times before. (Laughs) This record is an opportunity to take the things that I learned on the last record and merge it with my kind of more traditional sensibilities and my inclination to write about larger concepts. I think in that sense it makes a more accessible record.
JS: You were quoted as saying “I don’t really do what I do for recognition. I do it because music is – if you’re lucky enough – the most satisfying thing in the world to do.” Please expand on that.
TR: A lot of people think that they would like to be a musician because they feel that they don’t have any responsibilities or some other mythology that revolves around being a musician. I learn about myself and I express myself in music. I could probably do the same with some other art form or with some other kind of pursuit. But after all this time it’s just become second nature to me. It’s the way I make the world make sense to me, and it’s also the way I objectivize my thought processes. Often I do it just for my own benefit. I do it to get the thoughts out of my head and into a sense of reality so I can see whether they make any sense or not. The audience essentially is watching me. I’m not doing this trying to get in somebody else’s head. I’m trying to get into my own head, and the entertainment – if there is any in that – is watching me go through that process.
JS: In 2014, at the 29th annual NAMM (National Association of Music Merchants) TEC Awards, you received the Les Paul Award. What did that mean for you personally?
TR: It’s always humbling to be recognized by your peers, especially the people you have so much respect for. And then when they show you respect, it’s very satisfying. At the same time, I’ve never desired to have awards, to the consternation of my fans. They would like me to be in the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. They’d like me to have a Grammy because it justifies all of the faith they’ve put in me over the years. (Laughs) But personally, the reward is in the ability to continue to do it. The ability to be able to make the music and have ears willingly listen to it. I can’t think of anything, at least in my own experience, that’s more satisfying than that – except maybe having children.
JS: Tell us about Toddstock and the development of the Spirit of Harmony Foundation.
TR: Toddstock’s are held specifically on years where I have a significant birthday. The first one was my 60th birthday. That was out in Hawaii. When I turned 65, which is the one we did in New Orleans, people wanted to call it Toddstock because it was a significant birthday. And I hadn’t planned to do another thing like that until I was 70, but a lot of my fans, being as old as I am or older, thought they might not make it that far. (Laughs) The fans decided they wanted to do something for the city of New Orleans because it was still reeling from the effects of the hurricane. We found a music program down in the Lower Ninth Ward that was still struggling to meet their expenses, so the fans got together and collected $10,000. It was all strings. Kids from the age of 5 or so, all the way up to high school. They were all playing violins, violas and double basses and they gave us a little recital. We then gave them the check. Everyone felt so good about the experience they said we don’t want this to be a one-time thing; we want something more to happen. We want this to be a permanent part of our collective identity. That’s when we developed the idea of the Spirit of Harmony Foundation. It was actually developed by a couple of our associates. They brought it to me and said, “You’re going to have to figurehead this thing!” (Laughs) And so I said, I’ve not done anything like this before but I can’t think of anything better to do. We applied for our nonprofit status and got it in like record time, so fast that we’re still trying to refine our mission. Actually, just a few weeks after the tour starts we’ll be at the Clinton Library in Little Rock. We’re going to have a big symposium with a lot of participants. It’ll be our first big public event. That’s where we’re going to lay out our mission which is essentially to convince people, convince school systems and parents alike that music education is actually an integral part of a well-rounded educational experience. That what you learn in music education applies to other aspects, and indeed literally changes the way the brain works and makes it easier to learn other things. What we’re trying to do is recover lost ground. When school systems run out of money, things like music education are the first thing to go. We’re trying to reverse that trend.
TR: Well, it doesn’t take a lot of education to learn how to play the ukulele. To learn how to play it really well requires a lot of time and effort and there are some spectacular players out there. I just noodle around on it. Somebody who’s a great ukulele player is Greg Hawkes from the Cars. He goes everywhere with a ukulele! There’s somebody with a real commitment to the instrument that I don’t yet possess. Maybe when I get old and infirm and can’t move around so much that would be my instrument of choice. (Laughs)
JS: What would you like to take on musically that you have not yet done?
TR: Hmm, well there isn’t a lot, but I’d like to learn a little bit more about jazz theory. I incorporate some unusual changes in what I do, but I don’t really have the proper education to understand a lot of what’s going on. I like listening to it, but I could never play it. Even if I just learned a little bit, I think I would be an overall better musician.
JS: Todd, what’s in store musically for your audience in Milwaukee on April 21st?
TR: We’re bringing an unusual show in terms of maybe what people are used to. I’m fronting a very small group. I’ve got a DJ – his name is Dan Funk – you can look him up. He’ll be in charge of the sounds. I have a couple of background singers so there’ll be something nice to look at. And we’ll have kind of a fairly elaborate light and video show to go along with it so that we can set a lot of different moods and kind of bring the whole room into the show. We’re going to make everyone feel like they’re onstage.