Last night I popped two Benadryls to counter a bout of insomnia and itchy mosquito-bites. It knocked me into a fourteen hour coma whereby an elaborate dream-plot unravelled, involving the legendary Todd Rundgren.
Cast as a saintly godfather figure with his now silvery black hair, his undeniably Swedish bone structure and boyish eyes were hidden behind rounded, onyx spectacles. His words came articulate and heady, with a childlike aura preserved in the form of a carefree but obsessive nature– a chaotic orchestration of detail. I dreamed he’d landed in Oslo Spektrum and immediately explored every nook and cranny, climbing stairs, peeking behind walls patiently; while I, frantically ran like a backstage manager trying to fulfill a list of psychedelic wishes. Purple cowbells. A plate of fresh mussels. Egyptian dancers.
When I awoke, I realized it all coincided with the warm, glowing demeanor I’d experienced after calling him in his home in Hawaii. Hello, it’s me. I’m generally terrified of interviewing my heroes, for fear they’ll traumatically alter the image and perceptions I have of their music. Such was not the case. Todd Rundgren’s pop experiments and eccentricities throughout decades have made him one of rock’n’roll’s greatest pioneers– from bangin’ noise with Sixties’ garage band Nazz, to a ritalin-fueled extreme bout of genius releases in the Seventies including Something/Anything? (1972) and A Wizard, A True Star (1975), to working as a engineer/producer for Meat Loaf, Grand Funk Railroad and Patti Smith. No matter how complex his use of musical devices of the time, his music has always been loaded with a touch of a bleedin’ human. We discussed everything from his Scandinavian roots, the upcoming album, and the real, yes children, truth behind Healing (1981).
You played in Norway two years ago last, I believe, supporting the Arena tour at Norwegian Wood.
T: Uh-huh, two or three years ago.
What has been your experience of Norway?
T: Well I’ve been to Norway quite a few times under varying circumstances. I’ve been there touring, though I didn’t tour very regularly. Since the Seventies, I’ve toured there with Ringo Starr, my own thing, and I’m trying to remember if I got there with Joe Jackson. But I don’t think we did. Most of the time it’s when the weather was somewhat pleasant. But you’re right, the last time wasn’t so long ago.
Ringo Starr actually played Norwegian Wood this past year. Summertime is notoriously good weather-wise, other then that it’s eight months of darkness so… quite unlike Hawaii.
T: Well I’ve been to Stockholm in the winter, so I know what it’s like when it’s dark all day long (laughs). It won’t be a complete surprise– my name Rundgren of course, is of Scandinavian extraction. Swedish actually. My grandfather was Swedish, so I should have it in me somewhere….
Some kind of Scandinavian skin…
T: Yea, (laughs) somewhere in here…
Have you travelled much in Norway other than on tour?
T: No, I haven’t had any leisure time in Norway which I’d really like to have. My wife’s family is from Norway. Yea. She’s often mentioned wanting to go back and find some of her family roots, so that might happen sometime. But I can pretty much guarantee that’ll happen in the summer!
How was the response when you played here last? Hopefully not stereotypically deadpan norgs or subdued audiences.
T: Haha, no, well, when I played with Ringo, I remember people getting pretty excited. But let’s see… last time I played outside the festival context with my own thing, I remember the weather was kind of cold and wet. We didn’t have a huge crowd come out but the people that came out as I recall, were really enthusiastic. I think I have some small cult of fans in Norway that uh, keep the torch burning for me…
Yes, you do. You definitely have a cult following! Which leads me to ask– I know a lot of die-hard fans name Healing as their favorite album.
T: –Oh, that’s terrific!
Does this surprise you, or did it surprise you when fans in the States asked you to bring it back?
T: Yea, the show we did– I didn’t realise there was so much demand! (laughs) You know the problem is, there’s always someone between you and the fans, called the promoter. If the promoter doesn’t think he’ll be able to sell enough tickets, he’ll never offer you a gig. Part of the problem historically for me, has been trying to find promoters you know, who’ll put together a tour so we can play for instance, more than one festival. Or more than one city in Norway. I think that especially when you’re talking about a cult of audience who’d really come out and buy tickets, but aren’t visible to the promoters who actually book the gigs. That’s part of the problem. It used to be when we had a more traditional record company structure that record labels would do a lot to bring you over and build an audience for you. But of course now, record labels are few and far between. Most of them don’t make that kind of investment any longer.
So I guess on behalf of those who are huge fans of Healing, it’s not easy to foresee whether it’d be brought to Norway.
T: Well, part of the problem with that show was it’s somewhat expensive to travel with. That’s why it didn’t last longer then a couple of weeks in the United States. The particular shows where I reproduce a whole album usually have a theatrical component to them, it’s a bigger band and crew.
So we wouldn’t see a deconstructed version, like I dunno, like those mid-eighties tv studio sets? He he.
T: I guess there are different ways to do if we stripped the show down. Um… the solution I guess is like in the States, is groups of fans who can’t find a promoter, come together. They’ll promote their own shows, and that’s always a lot of fun. To do something that kind of doesn’t need a traditional sort of business structures. A certain level of enthusiasm that the promoters don’t feel.
Well that’s definitely becoming increasingly popular, All Tomorrow’s Parties festival in London comes to mind, when bands are coming back and playing older albums because of fan enthusiasm for it. I really hope with Healing in Europe, we generate enough fan interest if there’s no promoters to intervene.
T: It’s also a way to get a promoter’s attention. You know, if the fans hold an event that looks like it has enough sincere ticket buyers. Yea, it’s a whole new age out there. The internet certainly helps.
How has it been, since it’s only been these last few years playing entire albums like Healing, Todd and the Utopia reunion– translating them on stage? What’s been most difficult and what, perhaps, came easily?
T: Well as you mentioned, my tour has been a combination of things. Like in the last year, I toured oh, a lot of different ways. In the Spring I did more Healing shows, five or six shows, and that’s a kind of special show. Then I went out and did a new show, which is more familiar material, especially to my fans. But we were trying to put together a show we could take to performing arts centers. The difference between performing arts centers and regular venues is they have season ticket holders.
T: So you can do something that can appeal who aren’t necessarily your hardcore fans. So we did that in the summer, and we also went to Japan and did one show at the Fuji Rock Fest.
T: Yes, it was. And THEN, I came to Europe in October to perform with the Metropool Orchestra in Holland. So that was yet another kind of show, since I don’t tour with an orchestra (laughs). We rehearsed for five days and only did two shows. Next year it’s kinda the same thing, sometimes with my own show. As a matter of fact, when I’m going to Norway I’m doing…
…An acoustic show.
T: That’s right. And then in Stockholm. I’m doing a kind of show I never do at all, it’ll be a strictly solo show.
So you decided the kind of show according to the resources of each city.
T: Yea exactly, I would bring my whole band to Norway if we were doing enough shows, but we’re not doing enough to pay for the airline ticket. So I have to come by myself and do the best I can. Maybe under another circumstances we’ll come back with a band of my own. But we’re always looking to get to Europe, and places we don’t tour a lot. We actually have been looking at dates in Norway for sometime but for some reason there’s no promoters that wanted to put one on.
T: I think there were a few offers but not enough to get the band over. I think we played five shows in England and that’s it.
Ok, ok. That’s a shame. Well I guess it’s difficult for even Norwegian bands to tour Norway because of the terrain, and there’s only two major cities for larger acts, Oslo, the capital of just over half a million people, and Bergen.
T: Well. I’m playing them both! (laughs)
Between your touring schedule, which has gone in overdrive comparatively to years before it, as well as a very intense rehearsing schedule– how do you keep sane, I dunno, mind and body?
T: (laughs) Well traveling on the road can be a hardship, but I enjoy the playing still. It’s kinda physical thing. I put a lot of physical energy into it. And in my opinion, keeps me healthy in a way. If all I did was sit in a chair at home (laughs) I guess my muscles would atrophy. So fortunately doing a lot of shows gets me out of the chair and a lot of exercise. I usually feel pretty good while on the road.
Are there any particular pre-show rituals or tour superstitions?
T: I don’t think I do anything that’s peculiar…
So no blue M&M’s…
T: I guess I like to have about an hour before the show to gather my energy and clear my mind, but as far as doing some… I don’t even have a vocal exercise! I usually work it doing soundcheck but that’s pretty much it. Usually I don’t do anything special, I just hit the stage and start screaming.
That’s quite amazing. I wanted to return to Healing– I’ve heard so many competing myths and stories as to how this album came about. Could you clarify for us, or is the real, real reason something strictly personal.
T: Well some people thought it was an reenactment of having been robbed in my house. Which is one rumour I’ve heard.
That’s right, that’s one rumor I’ve heard as well.
T: Yea, unfortunately the actual sequence of events doesn’t support that theory. When that event happened, which was the late fall of October or something like that, I had already substantially finished the record. The record was already done. I did the record as an experiment. If the record could be therapeutic if you actually consciously try to make it so. And uh, while it was therapeutic for me creating a texture of sound that was amenable to that idea, after the album came out, some people told me they thought the record actually had therapeutic value. Now I’m wondering whether it was the quality of the music, or because there is some audio suggestion in there, when you call a record, “Healing”.
I think it’s definitely both.
You know, people get themselves in the frame of mind for it. Waiting for something therapeutic to happen.
T: I did it as an experiment but with no claims or guarantees that it’d have anything other than a musical effect. But as you mentioned, the record seems to have a deeper meaning for some people. But I guess that’s why when we solicited requests for what album our fans wanted to see reproduced on stage, Healing was one of the ones they picked. The first one they picked was A Wizard, A True Star, ironically enough. I was never aware there was a kind of soft spot in everyone’s heart for Healing.
It’s like you say, the musical elements– there are moments when the percussion and added instrumentation is quite complex… almost melting into a drone, which is quite hypnotic. But it could also be a favourite because of this cohesive mood, when it’s premise is something holistic or hopeful. That really shines through, like it has a collective feel as opposed to a lot of rock records which might be I dunno…(laugh) more destructive?
T: (laughs) Yea, the problem with making records like that is not getting bored with making a long textural thing. It’s a tendency to do a lot, or perhaps throw in a lot of more rhythmic elements or little tricks and things like that– I had to remind myself this is almost like creating a platform for self-hypnosis. The musical texture is integral to creating, like a brain wave pattern, or a delta wave.
T: And yet, you have to constantly remind yourself in the process to not get out of that groove. It has to stay in there long enough for the delta wave to form.
“Usually I don’t do anything special,
I just hit the stage and start screaming.”
Your approach has always been quite unconventional and experimental, particularly in regards to using technology of the time. To what degree does technology go hand-in-hand with your inspiration for songs?
T: Well I used to like to mess around with all of the gadgets in the studio, see what could be done with them in different configurations. The result of that is something like A Wizard, A True Star, which is aggressively experimenting not only with musical forms but the way the sounds are captured. And as time went on, I realised it wasn’t appropriate for every record– sometimes you want people to focus on the music and less on the sound of the instrument. Nowadays you have more options. I take to using Reason, and pretty much do everything on my laptop. I don’t so much think in terms of a studio environment, I think about making music pretty much anywhere I can find a space to make it. So if I’m producing somewhere else, especially here in Hawaii, I’m not looking for a studio but a house or barn somewhere, and set up an extemporaneous studio. That kind of flexibility has let me think in different ways– I used to have to teach myself– I don’t know how to write music, traditional musical notation– so I’d have to teach myself how to remember song ideas. But now I got my laptop.
Technology has almost grown into your hand, or as close to thinking as possible.
T: It’s very transparent. You don’t need the overhead of making a record, you can just jump right into it.
So has technology become a main source of inspiration, or are there timeless sources as well?
T: Well I have to say, actually someone said to me they saw it in a record store in Norway– recently I put out a record called [Re]production, where I recorded new versions of songs I produced for other people. I used that as an opportunity to mess with technology in a way aggressively I haven’t done recently. I had access to a lot of tools in my possession, like auto-tuning, but I hardly used it. Until this recent project where I learned the ear of the audience has been used to in certain contexts. The question is, if you can use it in an interesting way or not destroy what you’re trying to do in the music. So technology on this last record has played a big role.
Are there bands you’re currently producing or recommend?
T: I don’t do a lot of producing these days. A lot of the artists I’ve worked with simply don’t make records anymore (laughs). Or they do their own records now and promote themselves using the internet. I used to help a lot of new bands, help them through the recording process. But nowadays anybody can afford the tools they need to capture their own music… iPads, garageband, etc.
T: Yea, most artists I’d worked with are now self-propelled.
T: Well it’s important for me to continue to tour. The record industry isn’t the way it used to be, so my principle way of making money is touring. I have no intention of retiring in any sense. As I’ve said I’m going out next year in a number of configurations, I’m going out with a string quartet in the fall, bunch of all-star musicians in the spring. And I’m looking forward to coming to Norway to do a solo show. I have new ideas for records in my head, and I think we’re just waiting for… I’ve had offers to underwrite the recording… we’re just waiting for some things in the record industry to sort itself out. You know one more record label has just disappeared.
You mean EMI…
T: Yea. The major labels keep shrinking, and they’ve been absorbed by Sony. So at the time we were at talks with EMI and now, they have to go through all this reorganization. So I can’t give concrete dates or deadlines, but I can guarantee within the next year I’ll start a record. It might even be completed in time to come out next year.
We definitely look forward that. Anyway, thanks again for your time! Let us know if you need any recommendations in Oslo.
T: It’s my pleasure, and I definitely will. Last time I only had the chance to eat dinner, play, and leave. Thankfully this time we get to spend a few days so I’m really happy about that… See you in Oslo!
For By:Larm ticket holders and die-hard fans, Todd will be answering questions in a Q&A session led by Audun Vinger on Saturday, Feb 18th, 12:15pm-sharp at Folketeateret. He’ll then be performing the following Sunday at Parkteatret, a rare and solo concert.
**OBS! FYI! Due to the high demand of tickets on Sunday’s gig, there’s been an extra date at Parkteatret Monday 20th of Feb. When we mean get yr tickets fast, we mean FAST!!
Cover illustration by Ann Sung-an Lee.