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We let one of our dads interview Todd Rundgren

Rundgren, center, with the rest of the Runddans crew
Rundgren, center, with the rest of the Runddans crew

A legendary producer, songwriter, and performer, Todd Rundgren has been releasing albums since the late ’60s, when he first found success with Nazz. Later, on his own, he hit it big with “Hello It’s Me,” “I Saw The Light,” and “Bang The Drum All Day,” and his 1972 record, Something/Anything? went gold. Last month, Rundgren released his 25th solo album, Global, and this month he’ll release Runddans, a record that finds him teamed up with noted electronic musicians Hans-Peter Lindstrøm and Emil Nikolaisen. Fusing Rundgren’s blue-eyed soul with Lindstrøm and Nikolaisen’s studio trickery, it’s an entirely different project for the longtime musician, and one fans will hopefully accept.

Eric Eakin

For this interview, The A.V. Club is doing something different. A longtime “Todd” fanatic, Eric Eakin—father of associate editor Marah—conducted this chat, with Marah on the line, mortified. (To his credit, Rundgren was overwhelmingly game.) Doing his part for inquisitive and chatty sixtysomethings everywhere, Eric took Rundgren to task, asking hard-hitting questions about the rocker’s legacy, his friendships, and his Wikipedia page.

Eric Eakin: Are you familiar with The Onion, Todd?

Todd Rundgren: Yes, I am.

EE: Probably the greatest website in the history of humanity, and Marah’s lucky enough to work with a bunch of brilliant people, and she does the A.V. side of it and the music side of it, and that’s what’s brought us all here today.

TR: Terrific.

EE: And I am calling from beautiful Cleveland, Ohio!

TR: All right! My second home, I guess.

EE: Home of rock ’n’ roll.

TR: Of the Rock And Roll Museum, anyway.

EE: Yes, we met there, don’t you remember? [Laughs.]

Marah Eakin: He’s just joking.

EE: Yeah you were nice enough to come and… oh I forget when that was… couple of years ago. You were nice enough to come to the Rock Hall. And soon you will be in the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, I trust.

TR: Oh, I don’t know. I’m not losing any sleep over it, put it that way.

EE: [Laughs.] We’re going to talk about the new album and just Todd in general. Where are you calling from or talking from, sir?

TR: I’m in Denver right now.

EE: Nice. All right. Are you on tour now, or…?

TR: Right now I’m doing an artist-in-residence stint at the University Of Colorado in Denver. I’ve been here since Sunday, but the residence started on Monday and goes until Friday. Then I start rehearsals for the tour in Salt Lake City, and the tour starts… I guess a week from Friday. A week from tomorrow.

EE: And I will see you at the Cleveland show. It will probably be the 12th time I’ve seen you.

TR: Oh my goodness!

EE: Well, my buddy has seen you more than 100 times.

TR: You will get the free set of dishware after a dozen times.

EE: If you would just punch my ticket and validate my parking, I’d really appreciate that.

I am 62. We have grown up together, my friend. I have worn the grooves off of A Wizard, A True Star and Something/Anything? That’s why when this new collaboration came out and Marah got word of it through her music-industry connections, she thought it might be funny to add me to the mix and that’s why we’re here today.

TR: Well, what’s going on?

EE: This is quite a collaboration.

TR: Which one are you talking about?

ME: We’re talking about the Smalltown Supersound one.

TR: Oh, yeah. Well there’s two records coming out. One is my solo album, which is called Global, and then there’s the collaboration with the Norwegian deejays, that’s Runddans, and that comes out on May 7, I think.

EE: I guess we’ll talk mostly about Runddans. I’ve listened to that four times. It’s very interesting. It almost sounds like you’re starting off with an international feel and then it kind of goes sideways.

TR: It’s totally sideways. Actually we worked on this project over the past almost three years, I guess. It started out as something relatively small and concise and then it just kept spreading like a disease. I guess we finally got to the point where we couldn’t think of anything else to do with it anymore and decided to wrap it up and release it. So it is something that is different by today’s terms for the most part because it isn’t songs.

EE: Is it different by Todd terms?

TR: Well no, not as different, no. I’ve done things like this, in particular on an album like Initiation, where me and Roger Powell just set up a giant wall of synthesizers and started improvising with them. That’s what it sort of reminds me of. Because there is almost an element of improvisation in the way the whole thing came together. And there are some elements of A Wizard, A True Star in there in terms of the freakier, noisier parts.

EE: Yes. You pulled in a lot of samples. But it’s unmistakably Todd. Your voice is unmistakable. Has it changed with age?

TR: It has. It’s actually gotten better in some ways. It’s gotten more flexible and more dependable, I guess. You would have thought that as you got older the voice would tend to deteriorate in some ways, but I always look at somebody like Tony Bennett, who is my senior, and still can hit those high notes and still can belt it out as good as he ever did. So it must be something about the voice that’s unlike the rest of the muscles in your body.

EE: Now were either of these two guys vocalists, or all the vocals are yours?

TR: No, the vocals are all me. I mean there may be just a little bit of talking in there, but from a singing standpoint—

EE: What did you bring to this collaboration that they lacked?

TR: Well, there is the singing part. Neither of those guys are actually singers, per se. Although I’m not sure—Emil may have done some singing with his previous band, Serena-Maneesh. Nobody else did any singing on it, and, ergo, nobody else wrote any lyrics on it. [Laughs.] So I had to write the words that I sang as well, I guess bringing lyrical ideas is part of it. I had a few things here and there that weren’t vocals. There was some guitar playing at our original sessions. I’m not sure how much of that, if any of it, survived to the end.

EE: Were they instrumentalists in their own regard?

TR: They can play, yeah. Emil’s a drummer and Hans-Peter is a piano player. And at one point during our early sessions I had Hans-Peter play some interesting piano flourishes, but again I don’t know that they made it to the final product, either.

ME: How did you meet Emil and Hans-Peter?

TR: Well, Hans-Peter actually had me do a remix for him several years ago. The song was called “Quiet Place To Live,” and I guess he was fascinated with the work I had done early on, especially with A Wizard, A True Star and thought that I might add an interesting take to the mix. So I did the remix for him. And then I happened to be in Oslo speaking at a music convention, and they were in the studio working on this project, so I nipped over to the studio and in one afternoon I did some vocal improvisations, nothing lyrical at that point. We didn’t have a title yet for the project, but we did a couple sessions while I was there in Oslo. Then the rest of it we did sort of remotely, mailing what we call stems, which are the basic tracks of the project— mailing those back and forth, and really didn’t see each other until the project was done, and then they came over and visited me in Hawaii. We did some press while we were there and took some pictures, and hopefully we’ll get to do some performances around this if we can get the scheduling worked out.

EE: Really? That would be interesting.

TR: Yeah we haven’t figured out how we would do it, but there’s that possibility.

EE: Yeah, this is like… gosh… the guys who play with the helmets on…

ME: Daft Punk.

TR: The Cleveland Browns.

[All laugh.]

EE: I always wonder how they trigger all this music. It’s just an amazing thing.

TR: Well, we’d have to travel from the original format that it’s in. I think they use a program called Pro Tools. But Pro Tools isn’t really as appropriate for live presentations, so it has to all be kind of translated into some other format before we would do anything live.

EE: What did you learn from them?

TR: Well, I learned to kind of not stay in the box so much. You know, I used to be really wild and crazy in the studio, and I’ve gotten a little bit more conventional lately. Not really conventional, but definitely more conventional. And this was more wild, crazy, let’s just do anything we can think of. There’s a lot of liberation in that, but it doesn’t work necessarily for every project. For this one, it was sort of required that we continually get out of the box and stop trying to make it sound like it’s something more conventional than it is. It’s just an ever-evolving, continuous flow of music, and trying to stay in that space is something of a challenge because sometimes you want to do something that’s more familiar and conventional, so they kind of kept me on my toes in that regard.

EE: And what did they learn from you?

TR: No idea. [Laughs.]

EE: Swear words?

TR: I haven’t asked.

EE: Do you have any other collaborations planned?

TR: I recently did a little collaboration with Ringo [Starr] on his new record and that’s just come out. We co-wrote a song called “Postcards From Paradise,” which is the lead single, so that was fun. I’ve been working on and off with The Roots on kind of an R&B type project, but we don’t have a deadline for that so I have no idea when that will be finished.

EE: Oh, I’d love to hear that.

TR: But life goes on apace. Right now I’m going out on the road, and I guess to a certain degree that’s a collaboration. I’ll be out on the road until mid-June, have a short break, then go play a festival in Japan and continue touring through the rest of the summer. Then in October, Ringo wants to go out again.

EE: How about an album of duets?

TR: Duets! Well, I suppose that’s always a possibility, but since I’ve just got two albums coming out, this one and Global, I’d better focus on those for the time being.

EE: I mean, it’s done rather well for Tony Bennett.

TR: Yeah. I don’t know that I’m duets material. I’m sure that I could probably find a part to sing with most people. But, you know, it’s an idea. It’s something I haven’t done yet, so we’ll put that in the inbox.

EE: And there’s not much you haven’t done.

What would Johan Sigfrid Rundgren, your Swedish grandfather, think of this?

TR: Is that my grandfather? I’ve never met him! [Laughs.] He apparently was a naughty boy, my grandfather. I heard that he had a whole other family in Vancouver.

ME: Oh!

TR: Yeah. After he married my grandmother, he went off to Vancouver and had another family. So he’s kind of the black sheep of the family I guess.

ME: Well that was before your grandmother could snoop through his cell phone.

TR: Is that really his name?

EE: Well, according to your, uh… yeah.

ME: Somebody must have done your genealogy. Weird.

EE: What makes this new record unmistakably Todd? How can you tell it’s Todd when you listen to Runddans?

TR: Well, I suppose the voice, at this point, if you’re familiar enough with my body of work, my voice is a familiar totem, in a sense. I guess I have something characteristic in the way that I sing, although I’m not very personally self-conscious about it, so I don’t think about it that much. But when I hear the record I can tell it’s me.

EE: The guitar work is unmistakably you.

TR: Well, there isn’t much guitar on it, as far as I remember. As I said we did a little bit of improvisation but it was mostly like noise-making, à la the beginning of the Todd record. We worked on this for three years, and there’s probably enough material in there for like five records. How they got it down to one record, I’m not sure.

EE: What is it, like a 48-minute piece?

TR: Yeah. Well it just kept reeling out further and further. At one point it was well over an hour, and layered up so thick, you know, as I say, that you could have made five records out of it. But somehow we managed to figure out what was the most relevant aspects of it and pare it down to something that’s only about 40 minutes now.

EE: Where do you see yourself in 10 years?

TR: Ideally, I’ll still be working. Otherwise I’m going to have to find a sideline that I’m not very good at and try and survive on that.

EE: Still rocking ’n’ rolling. I like that.

TR: Ideally, yeah. All my heroes are still doing it, so…

EE: Who are your heroes?

TR: Oh you know like B.B. King and the aforementioned Tony Bennett, people who still do it when they’re rightfully retired but they still play and still do it well. I’d like to continue to play until I drop dead on stage or something.

EE: Electrocuted by some mic stand in a horrible flash of pain.

TR: Or crushed by a lighting fixture, I don’t know.

EE: You know, we’re in the midst of March Madness and they always say, “Is it the coach or is it the players?” As a producer, is it the producer or is it the artist?

TR: Well, it’s never the same relationship. I see my job as filling in the blanks. Whatever it is that the artist lacks in the process of making a record, I’m supposed to fill that in. And sometimes it’s a lot of stuff and I have to hector them about working on the material and that sort of thing. Sometimes you have an artist that’s really fairly self-sufficient; they just need another ear to offer some objective criticism, but otherwise pretty much know what they’re doing. It varies a lot. There have been instances in which I’ve even had to get down and help write the material. And the job also involves things that aren’t musical. Sometimes you’re a psychiatrist and sometimes you’re a group therapist. The dynamics in between people and the misgivings sometimes that artists have when they get into the studio because they’re under a different level of scrutiny. A lot of them can be insecure about it. My job is not simply to make musical determinations but sometimes to just keep people from flipping out during the process.

EE: Who’s on your current playlist?

TR: Gee willickers. I haven’t really had time to listen to a lot of music—I’ve been prepping all of my music from Global to take out on the road. As I mentioned, music gets recorded usually in one format, and when you have to take it out and perform it there are other applications and things like that that are better for the live performance. So I’ve been essentially not only deconstructing and reconstructing the material to make it suitable for the performance, but I’ve gone back and found some older material that’s appropriate for the show and I’ve re-recorded that as well in kind of a newer format. So I’ve been pretty much focused on my own thing. I’ve been here as an artist-in-residence all week, and not allowed to talk about anything but my own music. Tonight we do a concert and I have to play more of my own music, so I’ve got to rehearse today and remember some of it. As much as I’d like to be listening to other things, I can’t do that until I get all of this sort of put to bed. Make sure everything’s working up to snuff, and then I can start to let my mind wander a little bit.

EE: Who would you like to spend studio time with?

TR: It’s funny, I’ve had production offers with artists I really admire, and oftentimes that doesn’t work out. Sometimes it does, but… For instance I was asked if I wanted to do a Talking Heads album back in the late ’70s, early ’80s, and I was already working on a different project and didn’t have time, so I never got the opportunity to work with them. And I was up, at one point, to produce an album for The Who, but that didn’t happen either. At one point I heard from Pete Thomas that I might have been producing an Elvis Costello And The Attractions record and that would have been a lot of fun as well, but again, that didn’t come about for whatever reason. So, you know, it’s the things that don’t happen sometimes that you wish you had had the time for or wish had worked out.

EE: And yet you had time for Janis Joplin.

TR: Well, that was when I was starting out and I had to do anything they threw at me. But ultimately, you know, we only did one session and that was a session that management decided to throw together because they had someone in their songwriting shop come up with a tune that they thought was good for her. So they threw her and The Butterfield Band in the studio together, and I had already worked with Paul Butterfield, and we tried to get the song down. I don’t know that we were ever completely satisfied with what we got, but of course she isn’t around anymore so they decided eventually to release that tune on some sort of a compilation. But I didn’t want to produce any more of her record principally because of the difference in personal style, I guess. She needed a lot of ego management, and I usually wasn’t very good at that in those days.

EE: The most famous person you’ve ever met?

TR: Probably Ringo.

EE: That’s pretty good. What’s he like?

TR: Ringo’s great. He’s just a great guy to work for. He doesn’t really kind of pull rank on you very often, and he’s just one of the band. Even though it’s Ringo’s show, and Ringo is the star—

EE: You look over and there he is.

TR: Yeah. There he is. This is the third band that I’ve been in with him; this particular band he’s kept together for three years now. So we’re all pretty used to it now, you know? There certainly was a time when you had to pinch yourself and say, you know, “I’m playing with a Beatle.” But if he keeps this band together a couple more years, we will have outlasted the Beatles.

EE: Wow. Let’s get to the important questions. How’s your son’s baseball career?

TR: He hasn’t played baseball in a while.

EE: Oh, he hasn’t? Okay.

TR: Yeah. He’s retired, although his brother, who is also a baseball player—his younger brother, Randy, is living in Cleveland and coaching baseball there.

EE: Where?

TR: I don’t know the name of the facility but he’s partnered with another coach and they essentially coach kids from Little League all the way up to college level. And so he’s happy doing that. You could say that he’s still involved in baseball in a sense. His older brother, Rex, retired about two or three years ago, and is trying to break into the music business—not as a player but as a support person of some kind. He wants to possibly do some engineering, he’s interested in music publishing and stuff like that—so, ironically, he’s moving away from baseball and into music.

EE: Baseball will only serve you so long. Your knees don’t last forever but your ears are there forever.

TR: Well, he played for 11 years, and he essentially got an injury and it took him like half a season to recover from it. That’s when he thought, “Maybe my best days are behind me, baseball-wise, and I’ll look for something else.”

EE: Are your best days musically behind you?

TR: Certainly not. You could say that I likely won’t have another album like Something/ Anything?, an album that goes gold, just because the music business has changed so much. But as long as I’ve got an audience out there to play for, I’m going to continue to play. I have at least enough people that I can go out on the road for 10, 11 weeks at a time and then do it again in the fall, so there’s still people who want to hear it, and as long as there are, I’m going to be out there doing it.

EE: And I’m going to be there watching ya, buddy.

You know, my daughter, who is on the third line there—“Be Nice To Me” is probably why you’re here, Marah.

ME: Gross!

TR: Now you have to imagine your parents having sex.

EE: That’s my wife’s and my song.

TR: That’s your baby-making song.

ME: You’re killing me, guys.

EE: Well, it’s not “My milkshake brings all the boys to the yard,” but it does have a certain cachet. A certain je ne sais quoi to it.

Have you been in an elevator and heard “Hello It’s Me,” or…?

TR: I have heard Muzac versions. I think in a supermarket one time. There was a guy named Hank Ketchum who did a version of “I Saw The Light”—a country version. I used to hear that a lot. I guess country music works better in supermarkets.

ME: Dad, do you have one more question, maybe?

EE: No. I’m just tickled pink to talk with you, Todd. It’s been a real pleasure this afternoon. Thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to talk with Marah and me, and I can’t tell you… this has been great.

TR: Well it’s my pleasure, and The Onion rules.

ME: Thank you.

EE: It is the funniest website and they have great Photoshop artists there… they can put Joe Biden in any situation, and…

TR: In any embarrassing situation they want.

EE: With his shirt off and his Firebird out in the driveway.

TR: I get the print version whenever I can find it…

ME: Well, I’m sorry to say that we do not still print. It’s online only.

TR: Okay, well online it is.

EE: Yeah. Just like your new album. I’ve sent it to all my friends—thanks for that.

ME: Dad!

EE: Yeah, what do you think about music downloading. I mean, geez, that has really taken the wind out of music’s sails in many regards.

TR: Well, as long as you play live, you’ll do all right. Concert tickets are really sort of ultimately what you’re trying to sell. Because you always made the short money on records, and concert tickets—that’s where you make it all up. Recorded music has always been in a sense promotion for live performance, and some artists have discovered that giving it away is as effective as trying to sell it. Artists like Radiohead, you know? They put their stuff online and say pay as much as you want—including nothing—but ideally, anybody who listens to that will come out and see them when they play live. Buy a T-shirt and a CD at the merch table.

EE: Did you use auto-tune in this Runddans?

TR: I didn’t in that particular project, no.

EE: Good.

TR: Sometimes I use it on background vocals. It just saves some time, it get everything tweaked and tuned a little bit, but—

EE: Oh god, Todd. Isn’t that cheating?

TR: As a rule I don’t use it that much.

EE: Good. Good. It’s cheating. The guy that invented that should be—

TR: Well, you know, people got a little too self-conscious about the techniques that go into recording because sometimes, if you sing too well in tune, people accuse you of auto-tuning. It’s like you have to use auto-detuning or something.

ME: I think our time is up. Thank you so much, Todd.

EE: Thank you. Marah, it’s been a dream come true. Peace out!

TR: Peace out.