The Todd Rundgren Interview

Last updated 13:57 07/09/2010

A couple of months ago I wrote this when I heard the news that Todd Rundgren was coming to town. (You'll be able to go back to that post for some background context). Flash forward a month or so from when I wrote that and I'm actually speaking on the phone to Rundgren. A keen talker.

Todd Rundgren in the Nazz days

"The Robert Johnson thing," Rundgren tells me, as soon as we're connected and have said hello, "is really a chance for me to pay my respects to the era that influenced me, which is not," and there's a chortle here to pre-sell his point, "Robert Johnson - but rather the British bands that were influenced by Robert Johnson. My guitar heroes are Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck and people like that - so I've tried to make an album of Robert Johnson covers that, well, while not totally faithful for blues purists, is faithful for people, like me, that grew up with the 60s and the electric blues-rock versions of Johnson's songs."

Rundgren, ever the idiosyncratic performer and project-selector, says that it is mostly about fun, about "cranking the guitar again" and about indulging himself as well as presenting material for an audience. "It's something I can do - I can play the guitar, you know, in this sense, I can - hopefully - play these songs on electric guitar. Eric Clapton has basically cornered the market and created a sideline career for himself doing acoustic versions of Johnson songs, doing the authentic tribute - well I can't do that. But I can play these songs the way I want to. And that's been fun."

Doing things the way he wants - that could basically be Rundgren's motto/ethos.

It is rewarding, though, he says, "to have material that the audience is familiar with". He pauses and then almost shouts out a laugh, adding, "because I'm not exactly known for my hits!" He says the show, Todd Rundgren's Johnson, gives people a chance to enjoy his versions of the Robert Johnson material and "of course we go back and look at some of the things from my career, revisiting my earliest work with Nazz - we do a great new version of the song Kiddie Boy, one of my earliest tunes [click here to hear the original] and we go all the way forward to [2008's] Arena with a version of Weakness. So, it's something for everyone - hopefully..."

Rundgren agrees that Arena was very much a return to the guitar, for him, and in that sense it paved the way for Todd Rundgren's Johnson.

Todd Rundgren's Johnson"I'm a guitar player, really, I mean first and foremost - I grew up with all that great 1960s music, in terms of growing up, becoming a musician, so it's like first-love stuff, I'm always going to go back to it."

Rundgren is proud of what he calls his "unusual career". He was raised on classical and light contemporary music - "my father was not really into popular music, I had to learn about that for myself" - and says that his twists and turns, his "unusual career", come from being interested in the music rather than the fame.

"The Nazz survived for 18 months - that was my first taste of fame on some level and of the overall experience of being in a band. There are good and bad aspects and I got to taste some of both and, well, it's not as much fun as what you see in A Hard Day's Night, let me just say that" - and there's an almost exaggerated burst of laughter to back up (and mock) the point he's making.

"I realised, very early on, that I liked being in the studio and making records and really I took a job working as an engineer so that I could - first of all - make some money and secondly so that I could learn some tricks to go back and make my own records. And that has continued for me - to this day. I'll field calls and do production work and then I'll get bored of that after a while and decide to pick up my guitar again or to write some songs at the piano."

Rundgren says he's proud of his time behind the console - going back to his earliest work as a studio-hand. "It was the best education, I mean working on records by people like Ian & Sylvia and James Cotton, I mean you just don't forget it - and there's something you take away from each record."

But it wasn't long before the hunger to record himself was created ("I was making a healthy living - but I wanted to make my own records!") and thus, Something/Anything, Rundgren's early masterwork, was born.

Something/Anything"Really, I hid in the studio because I loved it. And that was why Something/Anything took the shape that it did. You realise that there are certain aspects relating to fame, due to making music, which you just don't want to deal with. Well, I did anyway. For me, the celebrity aspects of making music were never as important as the actual work. And so I often buried myself in the work, in the studio..."

The studio was the place where Rundgren discovered himself. And he says he realised that he wanted to work as a solo artist more often than being part of a band. "You are your own slave-driver as a solo act - that's a good thing, by the way. The difficult part can be getting the process started."

And when that process gets difficult, Rundgren has his production work and session work to return to. Recording backing vocals for Celine Dion, playing guitar for Meat Loaf  - it is all, in a sense, "work", rewarding because it provides money; rewarding because it leads to ideas explored in future solo work.

Of his time as one of the people at the helm of Bat Out of Hell, one of the most successful rock albums of all time, Rundgren laughs when he tells me "the best thing about that album was that you had three egos - three huge egos - in me, [Jim] Steinman and Meat". There's the perfect pause, and then, "of course that was also the worst thing about that record - and you can still hear that today - the best and worst".

"None of us thought it would be a success - it was such a crazy idea, as the record unfolded. I mean, can you believe we just wanted to get it done? We just wanted to hand it in - to have it finished."

And there Rundgren explains away one of rock's most deliberately over the top rock pantomimes as being, basically, a homework assignment that got out of hand and was finished just before deadline.

Cue discussion of Meat Loaf as "a huge personality". Cue me mentioning that Meat Loaf yelled at me for about 20 minutes earlier this year when he felt a bit threatened and I hadn't heard his new album even though he knew that. Cue Rundgren screaming with laughter and saying, "well that's great - it's good to know I am not the only one who has been yelled at by him!"

Then there was XTC's Skylarking; an album that is often mentioned in discussions of Rundgren's behind-the-scenes work.

He tells me "I had never had something as difficult as working with XTC. I was fully aware of 'The Syndrome' - which is to say, I was a fan. I listened to the records, I followed the band and I knew the band's dynamic. And by the time I got to working with them Andy's stage fright Todd Rundgrenmeant his entire musical life was in the studio. They never wanted to leave the studio - doing the work over and over. Once it ended, the music making was over and this meant that the band was really wearing down producers. I could see that Andy was really hijacking the process. I felt that Andy was very unfair to Colin during that album - and it was basically a nightmare." (You guessed it; we pause for a snort of laughter.)

"But, you know what, I mean, the cliché applies itself here - I am immensely proud of the record. I can still listen to it and I think that something really great was born, ultimately, of all that frustration. It's a great record."

Todd says he's attracted to work on a project because he always hopes he can do something for it and he always hopes it will do something for him. Sometimes, he half-jokes, that something is simply a pay cheque. Other times it is stretching him outside and away from the music he would make when left to himself.

But he is pleased with his Johnson album and tour because he feels "it's going full circle in a sense, returning me to the blues - and this version of the blues is one of the main influences on me as a musician. I like the idea of the blues too; of packing and travelling and taking the music to people."

Blog on the Tracks has ONE double-pass to the Auckland Todd Rundgren Show and ONE double-pass to the Wellington Todd Rundgren Show. I will pick one lucky winner for each region/show - simply leave a comment naming one of my favourite films (scored by Todd), your favourite album, why you would like to see Rundgren's Johnson. And please end the comment by stating either 'Auckland' or 'Wellington'.

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14 comments
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Andrew Prime   #1   03:11 pm Sep 07 2010

1. Dumb & Dumber 2. Something/Anything 3. Love Todd and Robert 4. Auckland

Cris Fulton   #2   03:23 pm Sep 07 2010

Dumb and dumber is the film scored by TRi, Todd is my favourite album and I'd love to see Todd live 'cause I've been a fan of his music for over 20 years and I've been enviously stuck in earthquake ravaged Christchurch whilst Todd has toured in the last decade with the Liars, Joe Jackson and Ethel and I haven't had the funds to go and see them. Wellington if possible please?

Remmy   #3   03:30 pm Sep 07 2010

Another good read Simon!..........BUT! just about every BLOG/news story is about CHCH and rightly so.

OK this is a music blog but you could at least mentioned it (quake)

I dont like hearing the "original" Robert J but love hearing other peoples takes. Dust my Broom rocks (who covered that?) and EC did a whole album of RJ covers that was awesome!

Paul   #4   04:46 pm Sep 07 2010

Definetly Dumb and Dumber opening song!!!

RK   #5   06:48 pm Sep 07 2010

1. One of your favourite films: Dumb & Dumber (with Todd soundtrack)

2. My favourite Todd album: 'Hermit of Mink Hollow' (1st equal with Utopia's 'Another Live' if Todd's Utopia days count...

3. Why I'd like to go? Well, Todd's been a 'wizard & true star' in my musical soundtrack since school days ....*and* when I was 17 I lived as an exchange student near where Robert Johnson was from (Clarksdale) ...so ..2 good reasons to want to see Todd's Johnson! (preferred venue: Auckland) PS Great interview...

Pat Lane   #6   07:09 pm Sep 07 2010

Todd Rundgren eh? I would go down to the crossroads to hear him and his guitar. Pity about the Celine Dion connection, guess he needs the dosh, so count me in for wgtn

Andy Bassett   #7   09:02 pm Sep 07 2010

1. Dumb & Dumber 2. A Cappella (actually I probably prefer Something/Anything, but I figured everyone would choose that) 3. Because I'd like to see him in an intimate venue, after seeing him as a thin yellow line in the distance at Knebworth in 1979. 4. Wellington

mikeb   #8   09:14 pm Sep 07 2010

Vanilla Sky would be your favourite. Faithful is mine. Anyone with a CV like his, is worth spending quality time with. Wellington

icehole   #9   12:44 am Sep 08 2010

Dumb & Dumber... Runt, Todd is a fricken legend, Wellington. "guess he needs the dosh" : ] yeah right... google todd rundgren wiki, I don't think he will have gone without a meal in a wee while... no offense intended..

Peter Anderson   #10   06:27 am Sep 08 2010

1. Dumb & Dumber 2. Something/Anything 3. Become obsessed with listening & watching Todd on Youtube. Todd is a very underated songwriter & performer who connects with people in a way that few do, particularly like this clip of him performing Tiny Demons...keep an eye on the girl bopping away at the front(very appropriate for the song. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fua9Waxu-4M&feature=related 4. Wellington


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