A producer, musician, singer, and songwriter whose work has been covered by everybody from Big Star to The Isley Brothers, Todd Rundgren seemed poised for massive stardom in the early '70s, but chose to put experimentation and near-constant reinvention above commercial concerns. A doggedly devoted cult has followed him (and his groups Utopia and The Nazz) through each of his many sonic explorations, which include an album containing an equal number of covers and originals (1976's Faithful), a vocals-only album (1985's A Cappella), an album recorded live in the studio (1989's Nearly Human), an interactive album (1993's No World Order), and an album of Rundgren favorites re-imagined as laid-back lounge music (1997's With A Twist). Rundgren has also experienced considerable success as a producer for such dissimilar acts as Meat Loaf, New York Dolls, XTC, Cheap Trick, Patti Smith, Badfinger, and Bad Religion. Long a proponent of computers and technology, Rundgren has been focusing on Internet-related endeavors over the past decade, and plays an active role in maintaining his web site, tr-i.com. The Onion A.V. Club recently spoke with the rock Renaissance man about music, technology, and the ephemeral nature of pop stardom.
The Onion: You recently appeared on a tribute album to George Harrison. What did The Beatles mean to you?
Todd Rundgren: It's nearly redundant to enumerate the reasons The Beatles are important. There are probably different reasons why The Beatles are important to a musician like myself and to the millions of Beatles fans who just enjoy listening to the music. Significant among those reasons is the fact that many of us would probably not be in the music business–or never would have been in the music business–had The Beatles not demonstrated that this kind of music, or this kind of performance, was actually viable as a career alternative. Previous to that, few people set about learning an instrument and putting together a band with the idea that it would become the only job they had. I think for the vast majority of musicians previous to that, it was, "Don't quit your day job." If you did have a band, you might get some gigs over the summer, and maybe some weekend gigs, but you'd never make enough money to live off of, let alone raise a family on. The Beatles demonstrated that four guys could do this for as long as they wanted to, as opposed to just doing it in your spare time and then eventually losing interest in it, because it didn't get you any attention or money. I know that, previous to The Beatles, I wanted to be in a band and I wanted to play guitar. But I dared not think that that's what I'd do for a living, and The Beatles sort of changed all that. There were a lot of bands after that. It's almost obscene, in a way. Everybody was in a band, and everyone did it with the expectation that they would get a record deal and become famous. [Laughs.] That's continued to this day, even if it's only a small minority who actually survives.
O: What do you think you'd be doing if you weren't a musician?
TR: Well, it'd be something like what I'm doing anyway, which is working with computers. I was very interested in what was a brand-new field at the time I graduated from high school, and if I hadn't had any success in music, I probably would have figured out a way to go to some technology school and learn how to program computers.
O: What did you find intriguing about computers?
TR: Aside from being interested in technology and curious about technology of all kinds, I think I was first interested in it because I was interested in robotics. I wanted a robot pal like Robby The Robot. And you eventually get to the issue of "What do you put inside the head?" Which was all a mystery. The other stuff all seemed very mechanical: levers and springs. That seems fairly easy to comprehend, but when you get to the artificial-intelligence part of it, that was very hard to comprehend. At the time, they had only just invented the term cybernetics, which they used to refer to the connection of logical operations that could get a transistor to perform. So I knew about the fundamentals of it while I was still in high school, but a computer in those days was something that took up an entire city block. It would be a while before you'd be able to seriously learn anything, and that would be due to the access created by the Apple II. But that's another story.
O: When did you realize that you wanted to be a producer?
TR: Well, I was interested in the things that could be accomplished with sound in the studio, so I was always sort of aware of various developments and trying to get them incorporated, even in the first Nazz records we did. But I decided to become a record producer initially out of a kind of revulsion with the experience I had with The Nazz, which was pretty over-the-top. We were pushed as the next supergroup, another of those Next Beatles. In the process, we got to see how weird show business can be. I decided that I didn't want to be involved in the politics of maintaining a band, I didn't want to be interviewed by radio DJs who had no real interest in you–it was just part of the gag–and I didn't want the traveling and the lonely hotel rooms and all the other stuff. I got a big snootful of it early on, and didn't really like it that much. So I decided that if I wanted to remain involved in music, I'd have to develop some studio skills, and therefore I could still work with bands, and I could still be involved with the music business, but I wouldn't have to endure some of those other, less pleasant aspects.
O: Did you like any aspect of being a pop star?
TR: Well, it's fun to perform for people. Once you get to the point in your life where you have a style and a comfort level and things like that, then performing can be a huge amount of fun, but there are other perks that I've had which I wouldn't if I were only a record producer. Such as sometimes you get recognized, and upon being recognized, you get some favoritism. It's just what everybody wants. You may occasionally be recognized in restaurants and get better service, or you get some sort of accommodation at the airport. You get through security faster, because a security guard recognizes you, and you're not just an average schlub. Then again, if you're Whitney Houston, you'll probably be singled out for extra scrutiny. It can make life a little bit more civilized for you, in that people recognize you and give you some deference. But I have to be honest and admit: I appreciate that, but what you get on the other hand, on the other side of that coin, is scrutiny of parts of your life and behavior that you'd probably prefer not to have to endure. Celebrities are the fodder of much of the media business, so they're always interested in making you seem provocative when you're not, or trying to bring you some sort of embarrassment by revealing something you'd rather not have revealed. That's the downside of celebrity. I have a pretty good balance, in that I'm not so notorious or recognized that I can't make it through the mall, but at the same time, a lot of people who are my fans are now CEOs of corporations, and things like that. Like, someone from Briggs & Stratton that I met at a Hall & Oates concert sent me a free power washer when he heard that the only significant machinery I owned was a big lawnmower. It wasn't a Briggs & Stratton, and he said "You have to own a Briggs & Stratton," so he, out of the blue, sent me a top-of-the-line power washer. These are perks you get from being a celebrity. At the same time, people publish books with versions of your life in there, or other people's impressions of your behavior.
O: Isn't that the cost of fame, that people are going to be more interested in your life?
TR: Well, you know, Michael Jackson is a cake-and-eat-it kind of guy. He has never recognized or accepted the fact that when you shove yourself in people's face, they're not going to look just at the part you're showing them. People want to see everything that's connected to the face.
O: It sort of seems like you're uncomfortable with being a pop star.
TR: Well, "pop star" is a significant sub-category of celebrity. There are people who are known for some contribution to pop culture, but that doesn't mean that you've survived solely on your relevance to whatever is currently popular. That's what a pop star is, in that sense. You might start out as a pop star, but that's just an opportunity to become more relevant, if you possibly can. [Laughs.] A lot of people never do. They're only relevant as long as the style that they're doing is relevant, and they become wedded and attached to that, and when that style is no longer popular, neither are they.
O: That's never really been a problem with your career.
TR: I suppose that early on, I was trying to succeed on pop terms, and I really didn't know the difference at the time between a longer-lasting celebrity and a celebrity that's founded in an emphasis on the art rather than the pop part of it. You figure out a way to create or sustain or last, that transcends fads. For me, I had to learn how to do that fairly early, because of my initial rejection of the experience of being a pop celebrity. Eventually, it got around to a more thorough evaluation of what I was trying to do from a creative standpoint. That's when I started to recognize the influence of pop culture on what I did. For instance, up until a certain point, I wrote lyrics about the same subject matter that everybody wrote lyrics about in pop music: being in love, getting your heart broken, or some sort of thing to do with boy-girl relationships. "She loves you, yeah yeah," and you bandy the word love about, like every single song would have the word "love" in it for some reason. And I came to the realization that I was doing this stuff out of habit, or rote. I decided to evaluate the form and content of my lyrics in a way I hadn't previously. That's when I started to escape pop culture. People have always said that I could have been a highly successful pop artist, if only that were my intention. It never was. My original intention was to be a kind of behind-the-scenes participant in music, to just be a record producer and engineer. And I made a record for myself just so I could have an outlet for my musical ideas. It had a fluke hit single on it, and I ended up being kind of dragged back into the pop-music scene. After that, there were constant expectations that I would follow that up, or that I would refine that approach and become an Elton John type of character, or someone who's solidly a pop-music artist who can write singles off the top of his head and have a constant string of hit songs. I continued to think as an album artist, and also continued to think more in terms of a personal style and a craft, as opposed to what you're supposed to do in pop music: The "pop" is for "popular." You are supposed to understand what is popular, or what people want to hear, and then make some of that. That's never been my greatest strength.
O: What would you say is your foremost goal as an artist?
TR: Well, I'd have to make something that satisfies my own need to express. There was a time when I didn't really have to think about that too much. I had so little other distractions. I had no family, my taxes were always paid, and I didn't have other issues that would distract me from opening my subconscious and somehow rendering it in sound. As time has gone on, there have been greater distractions and less of an ability to just drop right into a creative mode. The approach becomes, therefore, more and more highly refined as time goes on, inasmuch as I'm constantly trying to improve my techniques as a songwriter and as a performer, transcendent of whatever message it is that I'm currently trying to convey. Then there is, as always, the content of what you're singing about. That is not a product of something strictly musical. That's your personal philosophy, and that's something that has to be developed 24/7. How do you feel about the war, and why? Trying to understand what your mind is truly thinking about, what your subconscious is truly possessed with, and trying to render that with your tools and skills as a musician–in that sense, it's a lot less of a dependable process. I can't simply say, "This week I'm going to write three songs," because I don't know whether I've gestated the necessary impetus for three songs. It either happens because it happens, or it happens because of the pressure I've put on myself to digest and ruminate and come to some conclusion that's worthy of being rendered in musical terms.
O: If you had to articulate a philosophy that's being expressed through your music, what would it be?
TR: I've always said, rather glibly, that the message of my career has been about individualism, about getting to know yourself and taking responsibility, not just for what you do, but what you think. It's fairly common for people to go through their lives with someone to blame: my Jewish guilt, or my parents, or "Society made me do it." There are any number of conditions as to why your life didn't turn out the way you intended it to. My whole philosophy has always been that there is no way to change anything else in the world if you don't have the capacity to change yourself. Therefore, if you're not satisfied with the way the world is, or if you think the world can be better, you have to figure out a way to know yourself and better yourself. Then you have the assurance that something in the world has improved.
O: How you feel about musicians whose work is overtly political?
TR: That's their right. People who are factory workers are political. People of all stripes are political, and celebrities have a right to be political. I suppose they also have to be a little more careful or circumspect if they're going to leverage their celebrity to promote their political aims. The problem is that politics is about the accretion of power, and it's very difficult not to get giddy with power. Once you start entering the world of politics and leveraging your celebrity, you can get this kind of Richard Gere hubris going: "I am right, I am right, I am the only one who is right. It's because I've got the biggest megaphone and I can drown other people out. That's what makes me right." That's dangerous. Too many people are afraid to call themselves philosophical as opposed to political, as if that predisposed some cowardice, that you're unwilling to go to the mat for your beliefs. But the problem is that people believe too firmly things they haven't actually considered very seriously.
O: You've done a lot of covers over the course of your career. What is the appeal of covering other people's songs?
TR: Well, if you have a choice about which song you're going to do, then often, from a musician's standpoint, it's "Geez, I wish I'd written that song, but at least I get to perform it." I think whenever I do a tribute, it's always a song that I wish I had written, or that I felt I might have had the capacity to write. That's one good reason. Another is that it gives you an opportunity to reinvent something that you really appreciate, and kind of collaborate on that particular thing you are so envious of. Even if it's not a direct collaboration, if you add something of your own, and if you try to do it in a way that's personal, then it becomes something that you can justify.
O: On the other side of the coin, a lot of people have covered your work. Do you have a favorite cover of a Todd Rundgren song?
TR: Well, there are some less well-known covers. Some of the ones that I like the most are the most startling. There are any number of versions, and some of them are kind of half-covers. Recently, there have been a couple of covers where I provided the vocals from the original masters and people came up with whole new tracks. One was called Deconstructed. That was a bunch of club mixers, and DJs did whole new tracks underneath. Then there was another one that came out last year that I didn't even know about. It used the same original vocal performances, and had a lot of the most well-known soloists and guitarists–and I think Edgar Winter was on there, he played sax–and a production team would essentially create new tracks with my vocals, and then Steve Vai and Dweezil Zappa and all these other people played solos over my songs. These were people where I couldn't even have any assurance that they were aware of my material. That was somewhat thrilling, to have a bunch of other well-known musicians make a contribution to essentially a tribute album. But some of the ones that I like the best are actually by fans who are not professional musicians. They go to a lot of trouble to organize and record their own tribute versions, and there's been half a dozen of them, I think. Those often have some of the most original impressions, and sometimes the most sincere impressions, because these people are not making a name for themselves, put it that way. The records are fairly obscure, and only other hardcore fans will hear them.
O: It seems like you have a very dedicated fan base. Why do you think that is?
TR: I don't know. There are a whole lot of vain things I could say. I've managed to just stick around, partly because a lot of people who take the approach that I do to music just never survive. I've become kind of a haven for people who like pop music, but that's not the only thing they like. They also like music in general, and want to be able to expand their own horizons. They haven't completely given up on music, and are willing to have somebody mediate new things that are happening in music to them. Often, I wind up doing that–I wind up incorporating influences that my audience has not been exposed to, or that they discounted, somehow repackaging it in a way that allows them to experience it in a way that's accessible to them. I have no compunction about rapping on a record. [Laughs.] Even though when I first did it, some of my fans took a bit of umbrage. Eventually, they get used to it, and they realize that the content of it is the same as the content of all the other stuff that I write about, and if they study it, something interesting will come out of it. The other thing I think about it is that they've made a connection to each other in a way that's more than just wearing the same T-shirt. There are other interests, for example, that I may have helped to pique–things like technology and computers, where they became early adopters of certain technology due to an understanding of it that other people didn't have, and that's useful and valuable to them.
O: Do you think the Internet has made music more democratic?
TR: That's helped. I've introduced my fans to the Internet by essentially, in the early '90s, extricating myself from the traditional relationships of the music business, and instead trying to build an alternative model. A lot of my fans are beginning to explore that new model. Hopefully, they'll be rewarded for enduring all this by being comfy and ready to go when whatever replaces the music business comes around.
O: What do you think is going to happen to the music business?
TR: I think the following should happen: First, artists should re-emphasize performance and de-emphasize recording. You always make more money if you have a healthy performing life than you will if you have even a moderately healthy recording life. Don't make recording the most important thing you do. Make performing the most important thing you do, and then you can make recordings and sell them at your shows, because record labels aren't going to be around to help you get on the radio stations, and the radio stations probably aren't going to play you anyway. The next thing in music is going to be more like Internet radio. Then, if I were in the record business, I would start getting out of the brick-and-mortar side of it and stop thinking of music as a commodity, and start thinking of it as a service, and develop models that more resemble cable television, where you pay a monthly fee and listen to as much as you can consume. If they can manage to do that, hey, if you get a million people paying 20 bucks a month, that's $20 million a month. That's $240 million a year, just off of a million people. So I think by that model, there's plenty of money to be made, but we've got to stop worrying about bootlegging and the economies around it. Make music a service that's easy to consume, and there'll be plenty of money for everyone.