Todd Rundgren Interview

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Todd Rundgren built a name for himself as a pop singer/songwriter in the ‘70s, as well as for his abilities as a top-notch producer, and he’s maintained a solid reputation in the music industry ever since. After releasing a solo album (Liars) in 2004, Rundgren surprised folks with the announcement of his new gig: fronting the New Cars, replacing Ric Ocasek as the band’s frontman. The group released a live album earlier this year which included a few new studio tracks for good measure, and they’ve been touring behind it ever since, so we knew we had to take a shot at chatting with Rundgren about his new job as well as the many other things on his résumé. When the day of the interview arrived, I received a call from the New Cars’ publicist, who said Rundgren was in a hotel, and that he’d connect us in just a moment. He did…and the conversation began with Rundgren informing me that he could barely hear me, and that I sounded like a little lost boy at the bottom of a well. Fortunately, things got better as the conversation progressed.

Bullz-Eye: So I understand you’re in a hotel. What city are you in at the moment?

Todd Rundgren: We’re in…well, it’s not a city! (Laughs) It’s an Indian reservation. We’re playing the Foxwoods Resort Casino, in Connecticut.

BE: Oh, okay. Well, the first question is the one I know you’ve been asked a thousand times, and yet it has to be asked: how did you end up fronting the New Cars in the first place?

TR: Um, I think the original intention was to try to get Ric to come back and join up with Eliot (Easton) and Greg (Hawkes), and as I understand it, they discussed it probably for at least a year, trying to figure out the logistics of it. And Ric decided he didn’t want to tour any longer, so they had to find someone else, and I was somewhere near the top of that list, although I couldn’t explain exactly why that was.

BE: (Laughs)

TR: But I was approached by Eliot last July, we discussed it, I said, “Let’s just take it a step at a time and see if it flies,” and…it’s flown this far! (Laughs) We just took it a step at a time. We did some playing together; that sounded all right. We went into the studio and recorded a few things; that sounded all right. We rounded out the rhythm section and recorded a live album, and that came out pretty good, so at that point, there just didn’t seem to be any reason to stop. The only thing that slowed us down, essentially, was the bus accident in which Eliot broke his collarbone.

BE: Ouch.

TR: We probably would’ve been playing all through the summer; it’s turned out instead that we only got about a month of our summer tour done…and now we’re just revving up again.

BE: I was trying to backdate it: did you first meet Eliot on Jules Shear’s Watch Dog album, or did you know him prior to that? (Writer’s note: the album, released in 1983, featured Easton on guitar and was produced by Rundgren. Amazingly, it has never been released on CD.)

"Ric (Ocasek) decided he didn’t want to tour any longer, so they had to find someone else, and I was somewhere near the top of that list…although I couldn’t explain exactly why that was."
TR: That was the first time Eliot and I did anything in the studio together, and it may be a factor in why my name came up. As I said, I don’t know if any single person took responsibility for that! (Laughs)

BE: But you knew him prior to working with him on that album?

TR: Well, we had shared stages at various venues when the Cars were still together and Utopia was still together. We did a gig called the World Series of Rock and Roll, at Giants Stadium, in New Jersey. And we did one where we had kind of a triple-bill headline, with the Cars, Cheap Trick, and Utopia, in a place called Nelson Ledges (in Ohio). We played to about 35,000 people there, and that was something that I had always recalled, how well that gig went. So we had had an opportunity to play together and…not necessarily to socialize, but at least to become familiar with each other even before the Watch Dog record.

BE: I’ve read a few quotes which said that the big reasons you took the gig were that it gave you more exposure for your music, a paycheck, and that you got to play with musicians who you liked and respected.

TR: All of that is true. In fact, at least for me, that’s standard criteria for why you decide to do any one thing.

BE: Is that more or less why you did the Ringo Starr All-Starr Band and the “Walk Down Abbey Road” tours as well?

TR: Yeah, the fact is that for me to take a band of my own out requires me to take on a lot of…well, a lot of fiscal responsibility, for one thing. And also, the audience that I’m playing to is probably already familiar with a lot of what I’m doing. You can’t depend on the radio anymore to gain broader exposure for what you’re doing; you have to go out and kind of pound the pavement, I suppose, by taking a gig that will bring in a broader range of spectators than you would alone. Any of these sorts of gigs is always worth consideration, and hopefully the end result is that, when I do go out again by myself, I can depend on having enough people show up that, uh, bankruptcy is not an option. (Laughs)

BE: I know you did “I Saw the Light” and “Open My Eyes” on the live album. Have you incorporated any more of your material into the New Cars’ sets?

TR: We’ve got a couple more songs in there. We also worked up a few more Cars songs since the summer. We originally went out as a double bill with Blondie, and they tended to play a headliner set, and that would cause us some nights to never even get to our encore! So the advantage now is that we have a new band as an opener, they play an appropriate opener’s-length set, and we’ve added some new material. So we’ve got an even more broad range of songs in our repertoire now than we did last summer.

BE: It seems like some of those early ‘80s Utopia songs would fit perfectly in a Cars set list.

TR: Yeah, and the only limitation, I suppose, is that the Cars have so many hits…so many songs that people want to hear…that once you’ve accommodated that, there’s not a whole lot of time left over! One of the remarkable things about the band’s history is the copious number of hits they did have during their lifetime, and that’s one of things that makes it enjoyable and interesting to play: we’re well into the set – eight songs into the set – and everybody still knows every tune and most of the lyrics.

BE: I know the live album has a few new tracks. Have you written any more new material, and is there any chance of a full-length studio album?

TR: Well, we’re kind of recovering, as I said, from our unexpected eruption of our summer tour. Before we can consider writing more material, we have to get a little bit of a gauge as to where the audience is at and, generally, what kind of desire there is to have us add on to that repertoire of old Cars song that people are familiar with. Once we’re done with this tour…once we reach December 17th, which is the cut-off date here…we’re gonna have an idea what the future holds, and what 2007 will require.

BE: Have you managed to reconcile with “The Colbert Report” since Ric put you on notice with the show?

TR: Yeah, I noticed that. I’ve been trying to get in touch with them, because I want to get off notice…because if you don’t get off notice in a timely matter, apparently, you become dead to him.

BE: (Laughs) So I guess the real question, then, is are you really on notice with Ric? I know he gave his blessing to the tour, more or less, but…

"Hopefully the end result (of the New Cars) is that, when I do go out again by myself, I can depend on having enough people show up that bankruptcy is not an option."TR: As a matter of fact, Ric and I have not really had any…have not exchanged any words over this project. He was pretty clear about the fact that he just wasn’t interested in touring any longer, so I don’t think it’s a matter of any sort of grudge or anything. I think it was something of an inside joke, and even on the follow-up jokes to that, we all find that pretty amusing. I just don’t want to wind up dead to him. (Chuckles)

BE: Do you have any plans for a follow-up to your solo album, Liars? Because “Afterlife” was one of my favorite songs of 2004.

TR: Yeah, my next project will be another album for myself, and once I get that done, I’ll likely be touring behind that…but I don’t yet have any sort of timetable. Liars was an album that, while it wasn’t particularly a protracted recording experience, took a long time to get to…and I’m hoping to get to the next record in a little bit more expeditious manner. So, ideally, by the end of 2007, I will have completed that and have a release date for that.

BE: (Liars) was probably my favorite of your albums since (1989’s) Nearly Human, which I also really loved.

TR: That was a great period for me, because of the fact that I got to play with…I guess what you’d call a “show band.” The old style rock ‘n’ roll usually involved not simply posturing and smoke bombs and all the volume you could muster. The original rock & roll shows were taut and would involve a variety of acts that usually like a really large backup band. Shows like “The TAMI Show.” I don’t know if you recall that…

BE: Right. Spelled T-A-M-I.

TR: ...but it was an old black and white movie, and it had the Rolling Stones and James Brown, and Gerry and the Pacemakers dueling with Chuck Berry. It was a very fantastic couple of hours of music. And I also recall a Murray the K show in New York where I saw for the first time on American soil the Who and Cream…and that show, as I recall, was co-headlined by Mitch Ryder and Wilson Pickett. And so you’d have these almost variety shows in those days that would have a big band, dancers, and stuff like that. And I had always wanted to go out with something like that, so I put together a record that more or less utilized that kind of set-up, and then eventually went out and toured for a couple of years with it. It was pretty successful for me, and probably one of the more enjoyable periods of my life, in terms of touring.

BE: You know, I’ve recently done interviews with two people whose names are kind of irrevocably linked to yours: Andy Partridge and Meat Loaf. I know your credit on Bat out of Hell III is for “Vocal Arrangements,” but how involved in the album were you?

TR: Not very. (Laughs) My relationship to Meat Loaf’s recordings has, of course, evolved over the years. I produced the first (Bat out of Hell), and was in the process of producing the second record when we discovered that Meat Loaf would be unable to sing that record! It was then years and years and years before he actually got to what’s known as Bat II, and in that particular instance, by then, Jim Steinman was already a fairly experienced record producer, so he was helming that, and I was in charge of the background vocals. So I did pretty much the entire album’s worth of background vocals; I arranged them and helped sing them. By the time we got to Bat III, that project, as I understand it, went much more quickly than the typical Meat Loaf album, which previously might’ve taken years. And by the time they got it all organized and figured out, there were really only a couple of songs left for me to do anything on. So I came into L.A. for a couple of days and Kasim (Sulton, Rundgren’s regular bassist) came in, as was the routine, and we did maybe three songs…two or three songs…just so that I’d have a few fingerprints on the record. I think someone, maybe Meat Loaf, said that to keep everything covered, I had to be in there somewhere…but not necessarily running the whole thing. So my involvement was pretty much peripheral.

BE: And as far as XTC’s Skylarking, did you feel any sense of vindication when Andy Partridge finally conceded that, for all the personality conflicts, the album turned out really well?

On Bat Out of Hell III: "We did two or three songs, just so that I’d have a few fingerprints on the record. I think someone…maybe Meat Loaf…said that to keep everything covered, I had to be in there somewhere."
TR: Well, I’ve heard…but in the big picture, that realization probably came too late. Because now, as I understand it, there isn’t even an XTC any longer. Dave Gregory left, and now I believe that Andy and Colin have pretty much stopped working together. It was a difficult record to make, and while Andy and I had some conflicts, we did manage to get through the project; most of the acrimony came out after we were done, so it didn’t affect the quality of the record. But, of course, it did affect Andy’s attitude…and it certainly affected mine. I couldn’t listen to XTC again after that!

BE: As far as some of your other productions, I think my favorite semi-obscurity on your résumé is Hunter’s Dreams of Ordinary Men

TR: (Laughs long and loud) That’s another band who…well, they had been around for a terrifically long time and were quite successful in Australia. The lead singer was…I found him to be something like the Stephen Seagal of rock and roll. He was someone who at one point was considered to be a talented singer and something of a dreamboat, but by the time I was working with them, it was much more of a tugboat thing. But they had a great collection of musicians, and they could still perform pretty well, so we managed to get through that record. The record that I delivered is different from the one that came out, in that they took it and remixed the whole thing and came out with what, to me, was a much more soupy, echo-laden production than what we’d originally done. But that’s their prerogative, and I have to say, I don’t know what the success of it was. I know that it didn’t break any new ground in the United States.

BE: I picked it up in a cut-out bin, if that says anything. It’s funny that you said he was perceived as a dreamboat. Did he know, do you think, that “Midnight Sun” (a Rundgren composition recorded by Hunter for their album) was originally recorded by Shaun Cassidy?

TR: I don’t know that they did know that. (Laughs) Yeah, at that particular point in the time, as I understand it, they were trying to recover something, and they weren’t actually working on what would’ve been a string of hit albums. The project was supposed to be something of a comeback, and that may be why they wanted me to get involved; a lot of the records I have done, historically, have come at certain points in a band’s career where they might have gotten stuck. Like Grand Funk Railroad, for instance. Grand Funk Railroad and Badfinger were both projects in which either the momentum had gone away and they couldn’t seem to get the record finished, in the case of Badfinger, or audience and critical expectations had gotten low to the point where they needed to gain legitimacy, in the case of Grand Funk Railroad. Or, as you mentioned, with XTC, the fact that, while they were still somewhat prolific, each successive record was selling less and less, and the record label was getting frustrated with how long and expensive, how much time was involved and how much expense was involved, in each successive XTC album. And they demanded something in terms of success at that point. So in the case of Hunter, I guess the expectations had fallen from a certain point, where they seemed like they were old hat or something, so they came all the way to the United States for something with a slightly different approach. But as it turned out, they just wound up kind of finishing it off themselves. They took it and remixed it all into a different kind of sound, something I found to be overly slick and, as I say, a little too much effect on it…to the point where whatever live-ness was in the band was kind of pushed back. In the end, I don’t know whether it would’ve been more successful if they’d left it alone, but it was an experience for me in that I got to work with some of Australia’s better musicians...people like Tommy… (Pauses) I can’t think of his last name! But they essentially hired for the purpose of making the record one of Australia’s premier guitar players. And that was the most pleasurable thing on the record for me.

(In a lengthy interview with writer Chuck Miller in Goldmine, Hunter’s frontman and resident dreamboat, Mark Hunter, offered his take on Rundgren’s work: "We sat there for two months and recorded Dreams of Ordinary Men up there. And he took it himself and mixed it, and his recording style was hard to remix. He put a lot of things to tape. XTC came in around that same time and he produced an album for them, too, and they hated the process. His thing is get it done and mix 3-4 songs in a day. It wasn't what we were used to, and when the songs that were going to be singles went to be remixed in New York, they just had a hell of a time, because they had to reprocess and redo so many things; the EQ's, delays, reverb and all were pretty tough to remix.")

BE: Okay, and I’ve got three quick questions to close with. First, do you have a favorite production of yours from over the years?

On "Bang on the Drum All Day": "I like the idea that I’ve written a song that is well known to a broad segment of the population…and they have no idea why they know it!"TR: Um…let me see. I have a lot of favorite productions. Some of the best records I’ve made have been so poorly handled by the labels that commissioned them that a lot of people have never heard them. And in some cases, the records never even got released! One of the biggest crimes in all of music, to me, was an album I did for an artist named Julie Christiansen that the label decided just not to put out. They made a purely commercial decision that had certainly nothing to do with the quality of the record, which I thought was, at least from my standpoint, the strength of the singer, the variety of the material she had, the quality of the musicianship was as good as anything I’d ever worked on…but the record never saw the light of day. And more recently, I did an album for a band called 12 Rods…

BE: …which I also have, and I love.

TR: I thought that that was an incredible record…which the record (label) did absolutely nothing with. And that’s another band that’s broken up! So their ultimate potential will never be revealed. So there are favorites that I have, and I usually dote on them because they haven’t been fully appreciated.

BE: Did you have any say on the track listing for the new compilation, The Definitive Rock Collection?

TR: (Hesitates) I don’t think so.

BE: (Laughs)

TR: The Definitive Rock Collection?

BE: Yeah, it’s on Rhino, I think.

TR: Oh, well, most of those Rhino Records…and I say “most,” but…as I’m sure you know, since you seem to have a pretty good grasp on all of the various things I’ve been involved in…at one point, Rhino had access to this archive of material that we had, some of which was live, some of which was recorded, and, of course, the Bearsville catalog, which was granted to Rhino. And for most of that period, I’d had a very cooperative relationship with them and was able to check out all of the releases that they made. As time went on, that whole relationship changed, and the archive went to a label called Sanctuary. Now, Sanctuary Records has more or less collapsed under its own weight, and I believe that archive…and I’m not exactly sure, it may still be that there’s a relationship between Bearsville and Rhino, but that’s something that I don’t’ have any control over. So I’m often unaware of exactly the distributional relationship of my original masters, who’s gonna get hold of them, how they’re gonna package them and put them out. So while I can say that, for the most part, if I have any control over it, I will have some participation in figuring out what the running order might be and helping put the record together, but I can’t guarantee that for every single re-release and compilation. So I would say that it’s likely I did…but I can’t guarantee it. (Laughs)

BE: And the last question: without offering any financial specifics, would you say it’s safe to say that you’ve pulled in more royalties from “Bang on the Drum All Day” than anything else you’ve ever recorded?

TR: Well, if the royalties could be collected from every sporting event that the song was ever played at, then I could say yes. But I think that, for the most part, there is no mechanism to…if a stadium full of people start singing a song, I don’t know that BMI or ASCAP has a plan to dock them all to take the money. And I don’t exactly know, for instance, what the liability is for a TV network if they have some of that playing in the background. I do know that, in other instances, there is a more direct liability, for instance. A lot of times, someone will want to convey a sort of party atmosphere in a movie trailer or a pizza commercial or something like that, and they’ll try to get a mechanical license for “Bang the Drum.” Often, in the case of a movie, they only want that in the trailer, and the song doesn’t appear in the film…so I’ll get something of a mechanical license for that part of it, but, unfortunately, the song won’t appear on the soundtrack album. So there’s a limit to the royalties, in that sense. I would have to say that there’s no other song I can think of that competes on that level. And even if I don’t get every last penny of royalties because of whatever spontaneous performances may come from it, I like the idea that I’ve written a song that is well known to a broad segment of the population…and they have no idea why they know it! In the same sense that everybody knows “Happy Birthday,” but they can’t remember the first time they heard it, and they have no idea who wrote it. But you’ve penetrated the cultural consciousness in a way that transcends the typical pop song, and what it means is that if I never have another hit record on the radio again, that song is still going to be around likely twenty-five years from now.

BE: You’re immortal!

TR: Well, in that sense, once people have gotten it into their heads…I mean, people probably don’t remember Gary Glitter, but they know “Rock and Roll, Pt. 2”! And in that sense, it has somewhat of a more protractile life span, I guess.

BE: All right, well, I think that’s it. It’s been a pleasure talking to you…and sorry about the volume of the phone.

TR: Okay, my pleasure, and I’ll…talk to you soon, I guess.