A Conversation With Todd Rundgren
Mike Ragogna: Hi, Todd. First, let's get into your new release, Todd, a live DVD/CD culled together from your 2010 performances. These were culled from six dates?
Todd Rundgren: Yeah, I've been doing these tributes. I didn't do one this last year, but the previous two years, I did. Essentially, they're recreations of classic albums of mine that have never really been performed in their entirety before. So, this is, you could say, Volume Two, Part One, because we actually did two Todd albums.
MR: So this is an ongoing thing, you're revisiting your albums "live" for a while longer?
TR: Well, it's not ongoing, because this past year in 2011, I refused to do one. I don't want to get stuck just recreating old stuff. It's important for me to write and to come up with new sorts of work, that's the reason why I felt like I wanted to take a year off from it. I didn't want to constantly be possessed with recreating old stuff, and aside from that, as you mentioned, we did about six shows. But it takes months to prepare these things. You know, we're trying to recreate a record that's maybe four decades old. I have to go back and find the original master tapes and deconstruct everything so everyone knows what parts to play and that sort of thing. It's a lot of work for just a very few dates. That's why the documentary DVD is important. We don't do this very often.
MR: Speaking of recreating old stuff, you did a project last year in honor of Robert Johnson called Johnson.
TR: I didn't do that last year either. (laughs)
MR: Sorry, I should have said it finally came out last year. What inspired you to visit that body of work?
TR: Well, a couple of years ago, I completed an album called Arena. It was something of a tribute to guitar players that had influenced me in a certain kind of music that I hadn't really delved that far into. Nowadays, we make the records and then we find someone to distribute them, as opposed to the old days when you had a multi-album contract with somebody. During that process, we found someone willing to distribute that album, and they also had coincidentally acquired the publishing rights to the Robert Johnson catalog but they had no actual recordings of Robert Johnson songs, they only had the publishing rights. So in order to kind of activate that whole thing, they wanted someone to re-record some Robert Johnson material, and in order to get my album distributed, I agreed to do that. The reason why I agreed to it, or the reason I felt comfortable agreeing to it, was because my very first gig out of high school was in a blues band, so this was a chance for me to sit there and revisit my own past but do it in a way that highlighted the work of a foundational blues master. Through that roundabout method, I wound up studying the catalog of Robert Johnson in a way that I actually hadn't before, but the interesting or peculiar thing about that was that I delivered that record two and a half years ago, or something like that, and it only came out last Spring. I toured behind the record with the expectation that it was coming out and the label just kept pushing the release off by six months at a time. By the time the record came out, I was done touring behind it. We would do maybe one or two songs from the Robert Johnson catalog, but if you really wanted to see me get down and dirty with it, I'm sorry, it's too late, I already did.
MR: As you looked at Robert Johnson's material more deeply, as a player, were there things you discovered?
TR: I didn't have the same sort of attraction directly to Robert Johnson that a lot of other people did. My interest in the music was mostly secondhand because I was mostly into these English blues guitar players like Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck, and I wanted to be like them and they wanted to be like Robert Johnson, so I kind of discovered the music in a way I hadn't when I was a younger player. But I also quickly realized I wasn't going to fare well if I tried to be authentic about it because better musicians than myself have already devoted themselves to that, like Eric Clapton has made a second career of tributing Robert Johnson. I decided I would tribute those guitar players that influenced me who were in turn influenced by Robert Johnson. I had to listen to Robert Johnson in a way that ideally would result in something that wasn't the same as what everyone else had done because Robert Johnson's most signature songs were already stuck in people's minds, like Cream's version of "Crossroads." Am I going to do that again? I can't compete with that. I have to do something that sounds completely different. So that was the challenge, finding new arrangements that were different from the ones that everyone was familiar with already.
MR: And you already did that to yourself on your "[Re]Production" album. (note: I adjusted this question's album title.)
TR: I did it to the material that I had helped bring into the ears of the public as a producer. I don't have a long history of hit singles of my own. I had a few and I had a little hot streak in the '70s, but I've had a lot of success producing other people. I took that challenge on, not necessarily to better the work that I'd done with others, but to see whether I could make that material sound contemporary using all of those latter day production tricks that had become familiar in the ears of the listening public. It was an opportunity for me to reeducate myself.
MR: Of course, you are associated with experimenting with new technologies. Let's first talk a little about PatroNet.
TR: PatroNet is a concept that was designed to piggyback on the internet when nobody was exactly sure how to use the it to, well, get money out of people. Back in the '90s, first it was the internet, which was essentially a free thing, mostly used by colleges and the military. And then, people started thinking of ways we could capitalize off of it and use it to fund things. My idea was, since record labels were not keeping up technologically where the audience was going, to replace record labels, take out the middleman that the record label represents and get our funding directly from the audience who we expect will eventually buy the record anyway. And that was the foundational concept for PatroNet, which did go online for a while, but then was kind of swamped by better-funded and more aggressive concepts for getting money out of the internet. Philosophically, PatroNet still exists and probably could be implemented in a much more practical way nowadays. I haven't spent much time working on it even though I believe in the foundation of the concept.
MR: You were also involved with CDI -- the CD Interactive format -- for a while, right?
TR: Yeah, that was a short-lived format. I got it into my head in the early '90s that there were different ways to present music especially because things were happening in the music business that perhaps the art form was eating itself in a while. Back in the early '90s, the biggest single of the year was "Can't Touch This" by MC Hammer, which was a Rick James song from years and years earlier. Suddenly, I started to realize that perhaps, you know, it wasn't so much about writing new music as much as figuring out how to re-contextualize music that already existed.
So I decided that I would actually see if I could find the technology and show people what I was thinking of in terms of how music might be presented differently. The end result was an album called New World Order, but it was also a CDI, as you mentioned, which was in a proprietary Phillips format. Then there were CD ROMS, which ran on Macintosh and Windows computers. The whole idea was that you could specify what you wanted as a listener in terms of tempo or mood and other aspects. You could navigate your way around this body of music so that the music might be repurposed for something other than simply listening, for example, doing your aerobics or background music for a dinner party or something like that. Although we had some success with the concept, it never became a huge commercial thing. Part of the reason was because record labels at the time refused to put their music on servers. First of all, it violated relationships with brick and mortar stores like WalMart, and they didn't have a pre-existing model for how the artists would get compensated. At the time we were just building an experimental installation in a small suburb of Orlando, Florida. Warner Brothers had asked me to realize this concept for people, find out if people in their homes have any interest in on-demand music services. Obviously, they do have an interest in on-demand music services, but at the time... Now, there aren't any record labels. There's the internet and there's no record industry, so...
MR: I believe "Time Heals" was the second video played on MTV after The Buggles' "Video Killed The Radio Star." Your video blended together live action and computer graphics, and I think it was the first one to do that, right?
TR: I don't want to make such a claim. There was a lot of stuff happening and I was in the midst of it. I had a video studio of my own which I funded with the fabulous receipts of my production of the Bat Out Of Hell record, which eventually did return quite handsomely. I got it in my head that I wanted to build a video studio in the late '70s early '80s and try to experiment and not do smoke bombs and scantily clad women, but to try different things with video. For a decade, the studio existed with that purpose. I'm not sure it was the first things we did, but it characterized what we did -- create these fantasy realms and dropped human beings into them.
MR: And one of the projects you tackled was Holst's The Planets.
TR: RCA had come out with this new format called the laser disc, which doesn't exist anymore, but it was a big LP sized optical disc. Anyone that owns one, they may be valuable or are already valuable at this point. RCA was looking for some independent content to sort of hype this thing. The ironic thing about a videodisc in those days was it was barely big enough to hold a whole movie. So, they wanted something that was thin on it and also something that people hadn't seen before that would make them excited, somehow, to buy a laser disc player. I had been doing experiments in the fantasy realm that involved a lot of this green screen or colored matting, things like that. I had one of the few pieces of equipment that allowed you to do that. I exploited my ownership of this equipment in order to get this gig with RCA and produced essentially half of a video accompaniment for Tomita's version of Holst's ...Planets. Tomita was... still is, as far as I know, he is still alive -- a Japanese synthesizer artist, in the same vein as Walter Carlos who did an album called Switched On Bach, which put the word "Moog" into people's ears, even though it's pronounced "moag." That was the first time that people started to focus on this thing called the synthesizer and what kind of sounds could be made with it. Tomita was kin of the Japanese Walter Carlos, and he took on, to my ear, more challenging music and sounds, while Carlos took on Bach mostly. It's a very mathematical kind of music and very much suited to the synthesizer as an instrument, but Tomita took on, you know, French Impressionists, like Debussy, like Holst's Planets, and things that had a lot more musical texture to them, and that inspired me to do that. RCA was looking for something similar to what I was doing, and that's how I wound up finishing this up for RCA to put on a laser disc, which came out anecdotally, and then the entire format disappeared.
MR: Exactly. Actually, I think some are going for quite a penny now, though some are literally selling for a penny.
TR: I have a few, and if they're going for a penny, I'd like to find out where the auction is. (laughs) I have nothing to play them on, but I only have the discs. I acquired a lot of them in Japan. Japan has always been a leader when these new formats come out. I have great, fond memories of going to a store called Wave in Roppongi in Tokyo that was like a seven story building full of CDs that you hadn't heard for most of your lifetime. They were the ones that I credit with discovering whole new genres of music and remarketing them, like the so-called "cocktail" fad that happened in the early '90s. This happened in Japan first. They went back and found all of these records from the '50s and the early '60s and re-mastered them onto CDs. I know long before that cocktail thing happened here, I was buying all of those CDs in Japan. We can credit a lot of what happens technologically to what happens in the Japanese market. What succeeds there, eventually, we're going to be buying.
MR: Although it is frustrating when we create competitive formats, like SACD and DVD Audio, never really educate the public, and then the formats die.
TR: Well, I'm sort of optimistic about the progress that the internet has made in a strictly sort of presentational standpoint. It used to be, and I mentioned this before, the internet was originally intended to be a marketplace for anything but ideas. It was a place where colleges could interconnect with each other and college students could interconnect with each other and people would use it mostly for research. Then we suddenly got it into our heads that we can make a lot of money off of this thing, and now, it is the sewer of all of those things that overly capitalized things eventually become. It would be really great if someone would invent a new internet with the specific purpose of not making money off of it, but making it what it originally was, a free marketplace of ideas, and there are still aspects of the internet that are that. Wikipedia, essentially, is still the bastion of the original ideals of the internet. It is built and maintained by the users of the internet and gains its integrity from that. Entire industries have grown to depend on it. I can't imagine what MSNBC would do in terms of research if they didn't have Wikipedia.
MR: Or anybody, really. I think Wikipedia is the number one research site for everyone now.
TR: Well, that's why it was so incredibly effective when they said we're shutting down for 24 hours. Ka-boom! The entire US Congress had suddenly done a 180. There's power in bottom-up information at this point. I found that whole action really inspiring. I hope they're not afraid to do it again.
MR: Even Google participated, but they only put that little black strip over the logo.
TR: They should have, and maybe next time they will. But at least they made a symbolic gesture. They blacked out the logo.
MR: Well, it was something.
TR: Yeah, it's something, but you're still making your money, aren't you.
MR: Right. Hey, you produced the classic album, Bat Out Of Hell. What's your Meat Loaf story?
TR: Okay, the Meat Loaf story. A friend of mine was trying to break into the production business. We had partnered and built a studio in New York called Secret Sound and we did a lot of projects there. I'd produced a few things there. Moogy (Klingman) was interested in becoming more of a record producer himself so he came to me and said, "If I bring you these asks and you're interested in them, I'll do all the leg work and you do the basic sort of production thing that you do and that way, I'll get back into the production thing." He came to me and said, "I've got this guy Meat Loaf and he wants to do a live audition and we don't have any demo tapes." They had, for some reason, not recorded any demo tape.
I knew who Meat Loaf was because I'd seen The Rocky Horror Picture Show off Broadway. I went to a rehearsal studio in New York City and apparently, they had auditioned for nearly any producer in the business who would listen to them. Everybody said, "These songs are too long," no one could figure out which one was the single, "The guy is really big and fat and not attractive," you know, all of these excuses of why nobody was interested in making a record with them. So I go into this rehearsal studio and there is Meat Loaf and there are two background singers and there is Jim Steinman, the guy who composed the record, sitting at the piano. They essentially performed the entire record for me, the four of them. It was like everything you've seen in the videos, like "Paradise By The Dashboard Light," with Meat Loaf mopping his brow with the rag, and singer Ellen Foley, who was with this fat, sweaty guy, and they're doing the entire thing in front of me. In my mind, I'm thinking, "This is a spoof on Bruce Springsteen, and that's why I have to do it. Even though every other producer in the world has turned it down, I have to do it because it's a spoof on Springsteen and Springsteen needs to be spoofed." I don't know if you recall at the time, but he was on the cover of Time Magazine -- "The Savior of Rock 'n' Roll" -- and he's doing all these overly long songs with these tortured kind of James Dean lyrics -- motorcycles and switchblades and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, stuff out of the '50s. "Man," I thought, "This is so cornball, I can't figure out why people are so crazy for it." So when Meat Loaf came along, I said, "This has got to be a big spoof of Bruce Springsteen," so I undertook the record.
Meat Loaf had a label at the time who was going to pay for it, but I guess they were a little bit shy about it because they were already talking, "Let's get a 60 piece orchestra for this song." We got it, actually. It wasn't my idea, but to kind of drive home that this was Springsteen spoof, Steinman insisted on us having Max Weinberg and Roy Bitten from the E Street Band playing on the record. So we'd been rehearsing for a week, maybe 10 days, and we're ready to go into the studio to start this record and the day before, Meat Loaf comes to me and says, "I don't think my label understands me, I want to get off of them." My response was, "I'm not your manager, I can't tell you what to do. But you know, we're supposed to go into the studio tomorrow and start recording this record, and if you fire your label, there'll be nobody to pay for it." And he went and did it. I had to go to the record company to say, "Put it on my tab. Charge it to me and after it's done, you'll get right of first refusal. So we finished the record and they turned it down, so does Warner Brothers. I'm stuck with this record that cost a couple of hundred thousand dollars to make and no label, nobody to release it, so they and their lawyer start going out and they start trying to sell the record. They couldn't find a producer before and now they can't find a label for it. Finally, after six or eight months, they find this tiny little label, Cleveland International, which is a subsidiary of CBS, distributed by Epic, and one of the biggest labels in the world at the time. It doesn't exist anymore, but the guy just, for some reason, heard the record, had faith in it, put out one single and nothing happened, put out another single and nothing happened, and then put out the third single and finally something happened. During all of this time, two things are going on. Meat Loaf is touring relentlessly; any place he can play, he will play, and TV suddenly comes online and starts playing "Paradise By The Dashboard Light" in its entirety constantly and that was what eventually broke it, and then, here we are, (Bat Out Of Hell) is the fifth biggest selling album of all time. From Bruce Springsteen spoof to biggest selling album of all time, a bigger selling album than Bruce Springsteen ever had.
MR: Nice investment on your part.
TR: Oh, it certainly was, yeah! (laughs)
MR: Todd, let's get back to your material and history with Utopia, The Nazz, and as a solo artist. Can we start with "Hello It's Me"?
TR: It's the very first song I ever wrote, which is one of the ironies of it. People constantly want to hear it and it's the first song I ever wrote. The chords were based on this little improvised introduction on a live recording of Jimmy Smith, the organ player. The song that he was playing was "When Johnny Comes Marching Home," which everyone knows how that goes. But he did this whole mono intro into it, these descending chords which I copped and used as the central chordal motif of the song. It's a signature element of the song and it's constantly descending chords. I wrote a song about my high school girlfriend who broke my heart and have been milking it ever since. The irony of it is, it's the very first song I ever wrote and it's the song that's pinned on my back, kind of like "kick me."
MR: Todd, it's a great record man! What about Something/Anything, the album it came from?
TR: Yeah, the irony was that I wasn't setting out to make a hugely commercial record. It was my most successful record in terms of singles and things like that. It had like three hit singles off of it. But, it was only me. I was making a terrific living as a record producer. The records that I made for myself were really just to get stuff out of my system, to exercise the musical frustration, or something like that. I was never thinking, "This is the record that's going to make me a big star," because I didn't desire such a thing. I had already taken a shot at it with The Nazz and already experienced the highs and the lows that the music business had to offer. After all of that, I decided that being the front man or being in anyway the figurehead of a musical act was not what I wanted. I wanted to make records, so I became a record producer and got really successful at it and made my own records kind of as a sideline, you know, as a way to diffuse that musical frustration of my own. For my own projects, I had the liberty to realize different kinds of ideas that really weren't already saturating the marketplace, experimenting in a lot of ways with songwriting, recording methods, and the concept of an "album," in some sense.
So the success of Something/Anything, which everyone at the label expected me to reproduce on the next record, really didn't factor in to where I was going. The record after Something/Anything was A Wizard, A True Star, and it didn't represent any record that anybody had ever put out and had no singles on it at all and caused great consternation at the label. The whole reason why was because I was still thinking as a record producer, thinking I don't have to succeed commercially with any of my records. I'm succeeding commercially with the records I'm doing for other people, I have the liberty to do things that other people don't have the liberty to do because they're too worried about how the records will sell and that's been the foundation, essentially, of my whole career as a recording artist. I'm trying to do stuff that possibly other people won't do or that I haven't done before.
MR: However, your love of the "pop" structure clearly shines in some on your more catchy songs -- "Can We Still Be Friends," "I Saw the Light,"...
TR: I certainly have a fascination with pop music as a musical form, not necessarily as a lifelong commitment. I guess you could say I'm like a Casanova of music. I can't seem to settle down with one musical form.
MR: And Utopia was another adventure for exploration, wasn't it?
TR: Yeah, Utopia came principally out of, well, a fascination of a musical form that was popular at the time, which we now call Prog Rock. But also, my songwriting had drawn me away from the guitar and closer to the piano as a songwriting instrument, and I felt at the time I was kind of losing my chops. I had gone to a lot of effort in my young life trying to become a half-decent guitar player, and suddenly, I was spending all of my time tinkling on the piano and I thought, "I don't want to lose that hard won aptitude." In a way, I created Utopia as a platform for me to become more of a guitar player and less of the kind of balladeer that people were taking me for. And it kind of continues to this day. I have to consciously write records or build bands around the idea of playing the guitar in order for me to continue having any skill at playing the guitar. It's also one of the driving influences in the Robert Johnson record... an excuse to play guitar.
MR: You're also an arranger. You also had your mitts on things like Crime Story, Dumb & Dumber and Pee Wee's Playhouse.
TR: Yes, scoring is a satisfying sideline. But, the problem is, unless you want to fully commit yourself to that lifestyle, it can be very frustrating for a musician who's used to charting his own course. Movies are one thing, and I've done a couple of movies. Fortunately, those experiences were educational and not so disheartening as a composer. But, when you're doing things like TV, you're the lowest man on the totem pole. Everyone else has done their thing already and the only thing left to do is their final combining of the sound and the picture in the final post-production. Depending on who you're working with, it can be almost soul destroying because you go into the process taking the music kind of seriously, but that's because you're used to listening to the music. When you watch a TV show, people are following the dialog, there is a story arch and a mood that is going on, and you're supposed to be playing to that, not to people's musical sensibilities. You'll compose something that is really great and really appropriate and when the director or line producer finally get it and lay it in there and they find one little theme they like in it, they'll loop it in there and they'll play it over and over so low you can't hear it. You've gone to all of this kind of effort, sometimes, for just nothing.
But, worse than that, I was still living in Woodstock. My studio was still in the Woodstock area in New York, and most all of the shows are being done in Hollywood. So after they did the final video edit, a courier would deliver a tape and spotting notes to me on a Monday, and I would have until Thursday night to get it back. It could be ten minutes worth of music or it could be forty minutes of music for an hour long show, which you have to compose and record within three days. You do this week after week after week and at a certain point, it just really burns you out unless you have a method and sensibility for it. A guy like Mike Post, whose credits you may have seen at the end of other shows, did all of the themes, all these very simple themes that you hear in front of all of these crime shows. He came up with a lot of them.
MR: Still, for four notes, the pay is pretty good.
TR: Well, it's unbelievable. It was good enough, for instance, to get Jan Hammer to get for Miami Vice to simply put his finger down on the Moog synthesizer on any random key and hold it there for a whole minute and that was all that was required... find some drone-y sound and put one finger down and hold it there and get paid $15,000 a week to do that.
MR: How did it work with Pee Wee's Playhouse?
TR: They would send me the edit and would say, "Put music where you think it goes," and they would use all of it and they would never question any of it.
MR: Let's talk about your connection with your buddies from Philly, Daryl Hall and John Oates.
TR: Of course, now Daryl's got his...
MR: ...Live From Daryl's House.
TR: Yeah, his house, yes. I've done that twice. Likely, I'll probably do it again if the series goes on long enough.
MR: Todd, I loved your on-camera relationship with Daryl while performing "Everytime You Go Away" and "It Wouldn't Have Made Any Difference." It was like you guys could have been the same voice as you were trading vocals. It was very tight.
TR: You know, it's funny. People think we listen to each other a lot. It's not like we ignore each other, but it's really a product of our common influences. We were fortunate enough to grow up in a town that had a DJ that would make sure we knew what was happening in the world of R&B. You can't say that about every town, especially as you move into certain areas of the country. The Northeast was actually pretty good. The Northeast was friendly to the black population and so black music came with them and we got to hear this sort of R&B. Some poor people in the South call that music "race records," and people could not hear real R&B. Fortunately in Philadelphia, we're right on the Mason Dixon line there and we also had a DJ named Jerry Blavat who was a white guy but pretended to be a black guy. Anybody who didn't see him would think he was a black guy from the hood. He would play pretty much exclusively black music, pretty much R&B black music from the '50s Coasters and Platters and things like that all the way through the '60s. Eventually, black music became hip and, unfortunately for him, he became un-hip because everyone started playing black music, eventually. But, it was a real asset to grow up in that milieu to be able to hear these artists and draw influences from it. I guess there may be a certain amount of civic pride as time went along and people started to recognize that Philadelphia was a place that produced a unique and somewhat sophisticated kind of R&B. There was also a bit of civic pride in trying to understand and be able to reproduce that sort of music.
MR: Wonderful history lesson, thanks man. As far as your work with Hall & Oates, I loved War Babies, an album you produced.
TR: Yeah, I had moved on to New York and Hall & Oates were still in Philadelphia. They were starting to break out, and the irony was that was the record that got them booted from Atlantic, their original label, mostly because expectations were that they were going to do an album full of "She's Gone." What most people don't realize is that Hall & Oates was a very eclectic and experimental unit, and "She's Gone" was just one of those experiments, I guess, and it broke out and became a signature song for them and the expectation was that they would do that kind of song again. War Babies was just continuing on their original quest of absorbing influences and re-synthesizing them, and when they got kicked off, their manager told them, "No more farting around, you're going to do 'She's Gone,' 'She's Gone, Part Two' and 'She's Gone, Part Three.' Keep it in that R&B vein," and they had huge success with that.
MR: "Sara Smile," "Rich Girl,"...
TR: Yeah, that "Sara Smile" really worked for them. But, Daryl has been frustrated in that he's musically curious and wants to do things other than R&B. People are not able to get their heads around that, so the solo records are kind of unfamiliar to most people.
MR: Daryl's Sacred Songs solo album is a real perfect example of what you're talking about.
TR: Yeah. Like I said, he's musically curious and wants to do other things. Often, your listeners want to keep you in a certain box of something they're familiar with.
MR: How about the recordings you produced with Grand Funk Railroad. You really reworked the sound, and it gave them their biggest hits.
TR: A little keyboard tinkling sometimes does a world of good for you. Yeah, that was a kind of a fortuitous experience because they were actually better musicians than most people thought they were. They were being produced by their manager, who had no skill as a record producer, so the records were kind of bloated and didn't sound that great. It made the band sound kind of puny in a way. They had accomplished everything they had accomplished by their live gigs. So by the time I got to work with them, it was kind of like these guys can write and sing and play but for some reason, they hadn't been doing it. I just had to refocus them on the fundamentals, sit back, and let them do it.
MR: And you spent time with the great performance artist, Patti Smith.
TR: Well, Patti and I were friends from when we both first came to New York. We hung out a lot together. I always thought of Patti as a poet and a soul who performed her hardest. I got to see Patti with her little 45 record player doing her improvisations and reading her poetry. She's just an incredibly remarkable and powerful person in that context. You can actually see her aura crackling around her. I thought that the din of the instruments drown out what was unique about her. But, lo and behold, she connected with something; she connected with people. She did something that no other girl was brave enough to do, and she built a career around that. By the time I actually got to work with her, it wasn't necessarily out of a musical prerogative; it was out of a personal prerogative. She came to me and said, "I've met the love of my life and I'm going to go off and raise a family and I haven't told the band this yet, but essentially, this is going to be my last record for the foreseeable future." In that context, it wasn't that I was the best producer for the record, but that this was maybe our last chance to work together on a record and that's how I wound up working on Wave. She was coming off of a real hot streak with her previous record "Because the Night" that she wrote with Bruce Springsteen. But, by the time she got to Wave, the record we did together, her head was in a whole other place. Her head was in Michigan. It was something of a bittersweet experience. It wasn't until we got to the very end of the record that the band even found out that this was going to be their last record.
MR: You mentioned that you had a handful of hits, and that includes the anthem "Bang The Drum All Day."
TR: But I don't look at it as an anthem, I look at it as a cash cow.
MR: (laughs) It's basically played everywhere in America on Friday afternoons.
TR: The Friday drive-time song, that's where the phenomenon started. Ironically enough, at a point in my career when the album that contained that song came out, the album was called The Ever Popular Tortured Artist Effect. I made that album essentially as a statement of resignation to my label. What I was saying is that I know you don't take me seriously as an artist anymore, so I'm going to make a goofball record that I don't take seriously, and essentially, The Ever Popular Tortured Artist Effect was just that. It was a random collection of songs -- no concept behind it, some nice ditties -- but I was kind of in my head thinking, "It doesn't matter to the label what kind of record I make." But in the process of making the record -- and it often happens when I get deep into the process -- my brain will start writing songs when I'm not paying attention. I was dead asleep and I was dreaming this song, "Bang The Drum All Day." I'm dreaming this song. Fortunately, I'm in Lake Hill where my studio is, and I go to the studio and capture the song and it makes no sense to me. It's like a kid's song or something like that. It's not something I can fully identify with. I've never had a real job. I've never had a boss. I essentially transcribed something that popped into my head with almost no effort.
I delivered the record to the label and they didn't release anything off of the record. Maybe they did, but they definitely did not release "Bang the Drum All Day" as a single. Somehow, the song lingers around long enough for some DJs to start playing it as a Friday drive-time anthem. Then somehow, it finds itself into basketball arenas and hockey rinks, and people sing this song when somebody scores. Then it finds itself at football stadiums and it becomes the scoring celebration for the Green Bay Packers and the St. Louis Rams. Two football teams play this song when they score, and I realize that the entire country knows this song and they have no idea who's singing it, where they heard it from first, or who wrote it. And that doesn't matter to me one bit! It's like I wrote "Happy Birthday." It's like you write some piece of music that so thoroughly penetrates the cultural consciousness that nobody can remember who first heard it or who wrote it or first sang it or something like that. It's just in everybody. It's like I impregnated the entire nation and they don't who did it.
MR: (laughs) And in a way, the recording used the social media of the day to promote itself.
TR: Yeah, it was totally viral. It's what everybody's looking to have happen. It's Rebecca Black and it's "Friday." Just like Rebecca Black, you fade into the background again. It doesn't mean anything for you personally, but it meant something collectively.
MR: You composed at least two other anthems in the hits "Can We Still Be Friends?" recorded by Robert Palmer and "Love Is The Answer" by England Dan and John Ford Coley, covering your Utopia song.
TR: Yeah, it's interesting. I don't know whether it's ironic or not, but other people have had such great success with songs we released and they just never went anywhere for us. You would like to historically blame the ineptitude of the label as opposed to the weakness of your own performance, but it's certainly gratifying when someone else can kind of bring it all home to people. It's funny that "Can We Still Be Friends?" is a song that seems to really appeal to a lot of other performers. Rod Stewart has done it; you mentioned Robert Palmer did it; Colin Blunstone, the original lead singer from The Zombies has covered it, too. I can go on and on. A lot of people have covered that song, but ironically enough, none of us has had a hit record with it. None of us has had a hit single with it. So I'm not sure what to say about it. It's a song that has a lot of appeal to singers. I'm not sure how great the appeal is to the listeners.
MR: I think "Can We Still Be Friends?" was one of the late Robert Palmer's greatest recordings.
TR: I think he did a terrific version of it. I was always a big fan of Robert Palmer and his singing, going back before the thing with all of the girls dressed in black with the red lipstick...
MR: ...and lobotomized kickline.
TR: Yeah, he essentially, in the age of video, became a somewhat slick artist, I guess. You know, he started out as a blues singer and I was really kind of impressed with his early work. As time went on, he became more pop-oriented, especially as he worked with Power Station and became more of a pop idol and less of an author, in a way.
MR: I'm a fan of his early records like Sneaking Sally Through the Alley, which was kind of like The Meters (who actually played on the album, thanks Sal!) meets Little Feat.
TR: Yeah, very funky, his early stuff. It got less funky as he went along, for some reason.
MR: Todd, I ask all artists I interview this question, but I'm especially interested in your response. What advice do you have for new artists?
TR: I've got one word for you... YouTube! That's two words stuck together, but yeah, I think that you know, a lot of people still make the mistake in thinking that their success will come by getting signed to a record label. The real foundation of your career is live performance. If every iPhone in the universe disappears tomorrow, we'll still be playing music live. The more you do it, the better you get at it. This whole distraction of trying to get a record label, first of all, is not practical any longer. Second of all, the record label is going to try to keep all of the money you could make for yourself. If you just figure out how to use the tools that are available, it's no longer necessary to have tens, if not hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding in order to go into an expensive recording studio somewhere. You can, for a couple of thousand dollars, buy yourself a top of the line laptop, the software and the hardware interfaces necessary to have your own traveling recording studio. Any impediments have disappeared along with the need for companies. The other thing the record company was supposedly good for was getting you on the radio, but syndicated radio has been freakin' tight as an a**hole for the last 30 or 40 years, you know. It's a tiny little playlist managed by a tiny little bunch of people, unless you're lucky enough to get on satellite radio. But everyone knows satellite radio does not break new artists. New artists get broken through YouTube nowadays. If you can figure out how to get your music recorded and get yourself a little video camera and you and your friends make some video just like Rebecca Black, you can be a worldwide sensation without ever having anything to do with a record label.
MR: Good one, that's excellent. Okay, some Todd Rundgren-produced favorites for me are The Tubes' Remote Control, Rick Derringer's Guitars And Women, XTC's Skylarking, Jill Sobule's Things Here Are Different.
TR: Oh man, Jill. She's the greatest. Jill's still out there working, but she's developed a unique career path for herself. There are all of these egghead conventions going on -- I think TED was one of the first ones. There are a whole bunch of them all over the world now where big movers and shakers and people with big ideas present to each other so you can get some estimation of where the world might be headed. I've participated in a couple of those. Jill has carved out a niche for herself as new age minstrel. She goes to all of these events and between these presentations, she'll write a song and perform her song throughout the event. She's making respectable money at them and doesn't think in conventional terms of a record business. I'm sure she has music recorded, but it's not what she's about. It's about showing up at an event, making music about the event, and performing it at the event.
MR: Well, Todd, we did get words of wisdom in your advice for new artists, but do you have any other words of wisdom?
TR: I don't know. It's not the season for wisdom, is it? Whenever we're in one of these political seasons, I like to follow along to see what's going on, but my own take on it is different than most people's. As a songwriter, I have a somewhat holistic view of people and why they do the things they do and why they say the things that they say and it has nothing to do at all with politics. I always see politics as a symptom as opposed to a real thing that people have inside them. It's a product of your psychology. I've become totally convinced that the farther right or the farther left you go, the more it exhibits a personality disorder. That's the way I explain people like Newt Gingrich. He has a personality disorder, and the way that he exhibits it is through politics. The way that I get through these times is to constantly remind myself how much people are constant slaves to their emotions and their inner demons. That's the only practical way to explain why they do the things that they do and why they say the things that they say.
MR: Is there anybody out there that you admire, I don't mean as an endorsement, but maybe somebody as a role model. Like, Bill Bradley was my hero.
TR: Gosh, where is Bill Bradley? These days, people like Bill Bradley can't survive because he's too well balanced. Anybody who is well balanced enough to be admired for it is unable to accomplish anything nowadays.
MR: Do you think it's because we have a culture that is more interested in entertainment than really taking care of business?
TR: Well, perhaps. But I watch my TV fairly religiously just so I don't miss anything. I usually have MSNBC on for a good portion of the day. If there's anybody there I admire, it would be probably Rachel Maddow because she goes to the trouble to explain things to people. It might be her own slant on it, but she doesn't assume that you're on her side or that you already know what her argument is.
MR: To that point, I miss Keith Obermann on MSNBC.
TR: We don't have Al Gore's TV network here where I live, so I haven't kept up with what he's doing. But there's the other side of the coin. There are people on MSNBC, even though it's still left-leaning, that I can't stand. The TV goes black when Dylan Ratigan goes on, because I don't think that he's interested in explaining anything to me. He's going to pound on me and that's not the kind of TV that interests me.
MR: Me neither, it's like abuse. So, any touring for Todd?
TR: I'm going on the road with Ringo this summer for about a month. I've done it twice before and it's really fun to do.
MR: This interview reminds me of the one I did with Joe Walsh and, of course, he's Ringo's brother-in-law.
TR: Yes, he is with his brother-in-law now. Joe just had a record come out, had a premier party in LA just this last February 1st. Unfortunately, I was not able to go but I heard it was star-studded. Joe is somebody I've known for a real long time and I've always gotten along with. I expect to be hanging out with Joe next time I get to LA. I see myself as something of a mench and Joe is something of a mench. When traveling with Ringo, there were the people who were in AA and the people who weren't. But the real dividing line, I think, were the people who knew how to have fun and the people who didn't know how to have fun. Joe has always known how to have fun. Regardless of where he's at in his personal evolution, Joe has always been a great guy to hang out with.
MR: Yeah, and he was a blast to interview. So I guess you'll be producing the Eagles soon.
TR: Sure I will... (laughs) It's funny, that first tour I did with Ringo? Timothy B. Schmit was also on the tour, and Timothy and I were kind of like buddies throughout the entire tour.
MR: Yeah, he's another interviewee I loved. He's great, really smart, really laid back.
TR: He also has a house here on Kauai. He doesn't spend all his time here, but I see him every once in awhile. Not in LA, or anywhere else, out here on the islands.
MR: You'll have to beat up Daryl for him to be on his show. We'll have to get the three of you on one show.
TR: That'd be cool. Put a bug in somebody's ear.
MR: That would be Jonathan Wolfson. Dude, get crackin'! Okay, you really are the best for hanging in there with this very long interview. You know, there is so much else we could talk about, but let's do it another time. I admittedly love most of your records, and the only reason I say "most" is because I can't keep up.
TR: Okay, I'll buy that.
MR: (laughs) Todd, let's do part two in the near future.
TR: Okay, talk to you later.
Transcribed by Brian O'Neal
TONIGHT ALIVE - "Starlight" (Acoustic Version)
Hailing from Sydney, Australia, feisty fivesome Tonight Alive are infiltrating the U.S. with their female-fronted power pop-punk. Lead by Jenna McDougall, their 19-year-old ingénue-with-attitude, Tonight Alive has already taken their native scene by storm, developing a rabid young fanbase enthralled by the band's ebullient, fist-pumping anthemery, arena-sized hooks and high-voltage live performances. Following their success in their homeland, Tonight Alive have their sights set on a US takeover with their recently released album, What Are You So Scared Of?, available now from Fearless Records. Check out the band's song "Starlight," an exclusive to HuffPost readers.
THE BOX STORY - "Under The Smoke"
....and here's the latest in the continuing adventures of The Box Story. The song was produced by Andres Levin, and you can catch them this Saturday, March 10 at 4pm, at The Bowery Electric.