The best place to find Todd Rundgren on the popular music radar is on the outer screen, or out of sight completely. Since 1970, Rundgren has released a series of albums that continue to be potent, and at times, even inscrutable. Within a year of enjoying success with 1972’s “Hello It’s Me” and “I Saw the Light,” Rundgren was delving into prog rock with Utopia.
If there are three consistent aspects of Rundgren’s career, they are: self-reliance, conceptualism and certain unpredictability. A hallmark of his career has been in writing, recording and producing his own work, even playing all of the instruments as needed. Styles and ideas flip from pensive, blue-eyed soul to pure power-pop scorch. He’s a longtime vocal critic of the record industry, and his fans have always followed him into sonic territories where the music biz has feared to go. Rundgren’s time as a producer—working with artists like New York Dolls #and# The Band—highlights a career that’s tantamount to a perpetually moving target.
More than 30 years ago, Rundgren began focusing his attentions toward nascent digital/video technologies, an interest of his that preceded any spark among his peers and certainly the promo men in the recording industry, who surely thought Rundgren’s championing of things like multimedia, computer platforms made him the Nikolai Tesla of Reagan-era, pastel-drenched pop.
If there is such a thing as mainstream music, the now-68-year-old Rundgren remains its stubborn sidestream, via music, technology, even as a kind of artistic conscience and industry gadfly.
On his latest release, Rundgren explores the role of being a collaborator. White Knight includes collaborations with Donald Fagen, Bettye LaVette, Daryl Hall, Joe Walsh and Trent Reznor, among others, with 15 tracks running the gamut from soul and R&B to EDM to somber pop.
In support of his new album, on May 22, Rundgren returns to The Florida Theatre. The multi-instrumentalist/songwriter spoke to Folio Weekly from a tour stop in Manhattan. What follows are some highlights from that conversation.
Folio Weekly: In a news story that Variety ran yesterday [May 14], you were quoted as saying, in part, “If I had the power, I’d say: If you’re a Trump supporter, don’t come to my show, because you won’t have a good time.”
Todd Rundgren: [Laughs.] I guess I do have the power to say it.
On White Knight, you and Donald Fagen wrote a fierce takedown of Trump with “Tin Foil Hat.” Have you ever felt compelled or even obligated to be this directly politicized with your music?
Rarely. But as everyone’s beginning to recognize, this has no precedent. This is kind of just the weirdest thing that’s ever happened in my recollection, in terms of American politics. For literally months, me and everybody that I know have just been mystified and angry and when I got together with Donald, there just didn’t seem to be any other subject matter [laughs] that was on both of our minds. We didn’t start in that direction but everything else seemed more trivial.
The broken heart can wait.
[Laughs.] Yeah, you’ll still have the broken heart tomorrow but unless people stay militant #right now,# and continue to keep up the pressure, all kinds of horrible shit can happen.
In a weird science-fiction way, Trump is the digital president, since he communicates via tweets and tries to cut-and-paste reality before our eyes.
Well, he’s not really the enabler. If you want to trace this back to its roots, it’s that pervert who owns FOX News, Rupert Murdoch, who’s done this all over the planet and ruined any kind of credibility for anybody—across the entire globe. We should start by blowing that guy’s brains out.
[Laughs.] There’s my pullquote! I knew you’d worked with Fagen before, but “Tin Foil Hat” sounds like a really remarkable mashup of your separate styles, since you both have very distinct songwriting qualities. It’s a really bizarre kind of success.
The way it came about was even more bizarre since that track might not have even happened. It was just a coincidence that in the final weeks of trying to wrap up this record, Donald was taking a vacation on the island [Kauai] and we went out to dinner and I told him, “Well, I have an orphan track that I don’t know what to do with. Would you like to listen to it?” He said, “Sure,” so I sent him the track and then he started sending titles back, some of which were funny and curious and could’ve gone anywhere, but the “Tin Foil Hat” seemed to be the one that we both immediately agreed on. Because it was kind of a follow-up to our dinner conversation about Trump. “How could this have happened?” At least Donald and I got a little catharsis out of it.
On the album, there are some rather notable collaborators. From the beginning, was collaboration a conceptual premise for making this?
Yeah, that was part of the basic concept. I’d been making my records in Kauai since I moved there 20 years ago and most of these had been just me in my studio, by myself, with not a lot of input from other people. For certain kinds of records, that works, like a record where I’m trying to absorb new influences and merge them with my old influences. The path of least resistance is just to do it all myself. But after a while, you’re living in your own echo chamber and also becoming more and more insular and you wind up talking to the same audience; because it’s just you. So it came to the point where I felt I needed input from other artists so I’m not simply talking to myself and also that I need the opportunity to reach other audiences—and one of the better ways to do that is through collaboration.
Out of all the musicians on the album, surely Trent Reznor shares your “monastic” approach to writing, creating and producing music solo. Just in production style alone, you must have influenced him to some degree. Did you have any conversations with him about that approach?
Well, Trent has obviously carved out a unique niche for himself that a lot of people have followed up on. But I have had conversations with Trent because I did a mix for him a couple years ago for a project of his. That’s one of the reasons I though that it would be good to work with him again, to kind of even things up. But in my conversations with him, he’s proclaimed that A Wizard, A True Star was a big influence on him and he would still listen to it once a month. So there’s definitely a sort of commonality between Trent and me in that regard. I can see the potential for the monastic comparison, in the sense that you go away and labor on something and spring it on the public at large, rather than working blindly out in the open like Kanye West [laughs] or something like that.
You mentioned being in that “echo chamber” and, I imagine, at some point, self-reflection can morph into self-centeredness. But when you were 20 years old you were already working in a very isolated way. Over the course of your career, how have you learned to self-edit?
Well, a lot of it has to do with your relative prolixity at any particular point. In the early days, I might be doing two solo albums and a Utopia album in one year and obviously there was hardly any editing going on at that point. Most of my records turned out to be too long to fit on vinyl so we’d have to do screwy things to them to get them to fit. As a result, I was happy when CDs came out because my records sounded better. And nowadays I just do it until I feel like I’ve got enough and the target is a larger target than it used to be. The target used to be the LP and you wanted less than 40 minutes of music if you wanted it to sound good. When I did the album Liars (’04), it almost overran the length of a CD—which was 80 minutes of music. I wasn’t paying any attention. [Laughs.] I was just lucky that I stopped at that point!
I grew up in the ’70s and ’80s and can remember how, during the ’80s, you were championing the arrival of video and multimedia work—and you seemed like an anomaly. At least in my mind, maybe other than Neil Young, no other rock musicians were that rabid about the possibilities the then-developing technology. Do you feel somewhat, if not vindicated, at least a sense of pride that you were right on the money predicting the now-standard aspects of music?
It’s hard to describe what I feel in retrospect, considering that I took some credit of bringing concepts to the major labels—that they should think about putting their music on servers and at the time they just would not hear of it. At the time, the record labels were completely fixated on bootlegging. They thought that bootlegging was the reason people weren’t buying as much music. It went to such as lengths as them suing and having arrested their own customers. [Laughs.] Which is the kind of thinking that was essentially the seeds of their downfall: the inability to see any other model than what they were applying at that time. I don’t feel necessarily vindicated or satisfaction of any kind that they did not see that coming. I do feel, since I moved my mind out of that zone and into another zone—[laughs] maybe a sense of self-preservation.
How do you think that awareness and shift helped you?
Because I wasn’t succeeding that well with the old model.
No? Why do you say that? Because you weren’t having big hits?
I wasn’t selling that many records and when I got to what was supposed to be the third album of a three-album deal for Warner Brothers, I delivered two albums and at that point, I was getting into multimedia and stuff like that, and I knew for a fact that the record labels would want to own what I did, but they wouldn’t know what to do with it, after they owned it. So I went to Warner Brothers and said, “It’s only going to cost you more money if I make this final album. So why don’t we just end the contract now?” And from that point on, I was finding independent distributors for whatever I did and then I started doing CD-ROMs and interactive-music projects and then I got into online projects, kind of what Facebook turned out to be, building my audience online and that sort of thing and trying to figure out ways to survive as a musician outside of the traditional record company relationship. I didn’t really predict or expect everything in the record industry would collapse as quickly as it did. It collapsed so quickly that even if the record companies had said, “OK, let’s think about putting our music on servers,” by the time they would’ve come to a conclusion about it, they would’ve been too late anyway, because Napster had such a head start on them. Because in the long run, if they don’t have people inside the business, thinking about and studying the technologies and the means and audience reactions to these new things, if there aren’t people actively doing that inside these corporate behemoths, then they are destined to fail anyway.
You know, on the topic of technology, when in 1989 I was 17 and I got a Tascam Porta Two [four-track cassette recorder], I suddenly fucking thought I was The Beatles!
[Laughs.] You had more [mulitrack recording] than the Beatles!
I know, right? In hindsight, that’s nuts. But fast-forward 30 years later and now musicians are carrying around recording studios in their smart phones. And I think that’s cool, since it’s a truly egalitarian development in that it levels the playing field. But on the flip side, do you think this also might be creating a glut of impulsively-made, bad records? I mean, if Todd Rundgren has problems editing his own music …
Well, if there was only one avenue to get the music, then that could be a problem. But everything is spread out so … horizontally that I only see kind of the good possibilities. I see it as affording worthwhile artists who couldn’t get through all of those filters before, who couldn’t find an A&R person who’d believe in them and take [them] to a label and a label who would believe in them and deficit spend on them so the artist’s music could become established. There were probably lots and lots of musicians who never made it through that filtering process and also musicians who did, who probably weren’t worth the trouble. [Laughs.] Because, well, if you’re a big-enough whore, record labels will work with you. But the fact that the cost of the music has come down and there are no obstructions to creativity, and also there are new opportunities to promote yourself using YouTube and stuff like that, now those artists have a chance to be discovered. And the dreck will find its own level, you know, just like water. If there’s a market for dreck, that market will get serviced, but thankfully it’s no longer the only game in town. So I think it’s great that anyone who wants to get in the game has no material obstructions to doing that, or promotional obstructions to doing that, so the quality of what you do is the only thing that ultimately matters.