Todd Rundgren: The Studio Wizard Returns with White Knight

By Jeff Maisey

Todd Rundgren continues to push the envelope with a sense of experimentation on his new album titled “White Knight,” featuring something unique for this wizard of the recording studio – collaborations.

Rundgren (performing Tuesday, May 16 at Sandler Center) has had an interesting career as both recording artist and record producer/engineer.

After a brief stint in the late 1960s with The Nazz, Rundgren found success with dynamic, slightly odd albums like “Something/Anything” (1972) and “Todd” (1974). His early hit singles include “Hello, It’s Me,” “We’ve Got to Get You a Woman,” and “I Saw the Light.”

Rundgren went deep into prog rock mode in the mid-‘70s and again on his project called Utopia.

In 1982, Rundgren scored chart success with “Bang the Drum All Day.”

As an in-demand record producer and engineer, Rundgren left his mark on such works as Badfinger’s “Straight Up,” XTC’s “Skylarking,” and Meatloaf’s “Bat Out of Hell.” The list is long.

On his new studio album, Rundgren maintains cohesiveness through the overall tonality of the use of keyboards. Contributors include Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen on “Tin Foil Hat,” Nine Inch Nails Trent Reznor on “Deaf Ears,” New Orleans jazz vocalist John Boutte on “Beginning (Of the End),” and The Eagles’ Joe Walsh on “Sleep.”

The most commercial tune is “That Could Have Been Me,” featuring the vocals of Swedish pop star Robyn. If you heard the song on the radio, you’d likely never suspect it’s a Rundgren-penned track.

Other standout songs: “Chance For Us” (feat. Daryl Hall w/Bobby Strickland),  “This Is Not A Drill” (feat. Joe Satriani with Prairie Prince, Kasim Sulton) and “Naked & Afraid” (feat. Bettye LaVette).

I had an opportunity to interview Todd Rundgren by phone. Though he’ll be back in the 757 in November as part of Ringo Starr’s All Star Band, I focused my questions here of Rundgren’s own work. Following is only an excerpt of our conversation.

 

Did your experience as a record producer in the past benefit you on a project featuring numerous collaborations?

 

Things are a lot different nowadays than they used to be. Collaboration in the so-called old days required physical presence. Nowadays we do everything more or less virtually. I send the project to someone else and they complete the work whenever they feel compelled to do it, and then send it back to me to consolidate it.

There’s less of that personal interaction, back-and-forth. In some ways that’s an advantage because the reason why I wanted to make a more collaborative record is to break a lot of my own habits and the way I think about and make music. The best way to do that is to get someone else’s ideas in there. For instance, we were physically in the same space I might be tempted to constantly advise them on how to they should perform the song. The more I do that the less it represents their sensibility.

While we don’t have the advantage of being in the same room, accept for “Tin Foil Hat,” which me and Donald (Fagen) wrote and I captured his performance in the same room and that was just a coincidence because he happened to be here, but otherwise everything else was done in a by-schedule manner.

 

Do you record a sketch vocal track when you send the audio files so the singer can know the melody, or do you send music and ask them to write lyrics and vocal melody?

 

In the case of another vocalist, I write the song and a reference vocal for them, which is challenging on a song like “That Could Have Been Me” because I’m singing way out of my range. It was written for a female singer. The only alternative I can think of is to write in out in standard tablature but then you’d have to put in all these expressive terms throughout it. It’s always easiest, if you can, do a reference vocal that has the phrasing you have in mind.

 

You mention the song “That Could Have Been Me” that Robyn performed on. To me, it sounds very current, very now. I wonder if it was an experiment to see if you could crack the Billboard Hot 100 singles charts again?

 

No. I don’t think about it in those terms. I think about it more in genre related terms. When I was preparing to do this record I had conversations with pretty much all the artists that participated as well as many artists who did not participate. We had the opportunity to have some interaction. Some of the artists were people I had never worked with before. For instance, Robyn I had never had any conversations with her before. It was like a first date, in a way.

It became obvious in a lot of my conversations that the people who were familiar with my work all seemed to have a preference for the ballads. It seems like writing a ballad is a challenge for people. I wrote a lot of ballads for the record because that’s what people liked out of my libretto.

In the case of that particular song, it is challenging to write a ballad that, first of all, sounds contemporary and, second of all, doesn’t come off like an attempt to sound like Adele. That was my greatest concern, you know? Even though it has the earmarks of an Adele record, I just wanted it to come off a little more empowered than that.

 

Well, certainly the cohesive tone of the keyboards throughout “White Knight,” and the Robyn track included, set it apart from an Adele album.

 

Hopefully. (laughing)

 

When I was a pre-teen one of the first albums I owned was “Todd,” back in 1974 I believe.

 

That’s an interesting one to start with. (laughing)

 

There were some great ballads on that album like “A Dream Goes on Forever” and “The Last Ride.” To me they were every bit as strong as “Hello, It’s Me,” which remains your biggest hit. I’m wondering if you might reflect on your commercial success of your 1970s-era records.

 

Well, it was a different time in the business because there was what is referred to as “album artists.” There was a distinct difference in radio programming between AM and FM radio. FM radio decided they would focus more on the broader musical aspects of what an artist might be doing, while AM radio remained focus on singles.

Most of my success actually was during that album artist era in which songs on the record might get some airplay that weren’t necessarily the singles.

At the same time we were touring with special effects laden spectacles. The market was less driven by what was happening on the singles chart. It was almost as if there were two parallel music industries going on at the same time.

Usually album artists and FM looked down on AM artists. It’s so different nowadays because things have become non-linear. You used to have to go to the radio and discover what was happening in music. Now you have an app of some kind like Napster to discover new music. You don’t discover it in the way you used to.

It used to be the audience, in general, would all experience the music in relatively the same time because they’re hearing it through the radio. It’s being “broad-cast.” It is going to a broad audience. Nowadays everything is a bit more narrow-cast. The ultimate goal is not as much to get on the radio it is to get on TV.

 

It is a tremendous loss for the Album Oriented Rock (AOR) format, especially for concept albums where each song was like a chapter in a book. That sort of creativity doesn’t seem encouraged anymore, does it?

 

Again it is because the audience doesn’t listen to the records from top to bottom anymore. They cherry-pick what they want to hear out of it. They build playlists. They’re experiencing things in bite-size chunks. It is part of what the net has done to audience consciousness. You are constantly bombarded with options and so you don’t dwell for a long time on any one of them.

Aside from that there is the whole dynamic of the portable listening device. You are old enough – and certainly I am old enough – to remember when the only kind of personal listening experience you could have was in your own house because the Walkman hadn’t been invented yet.

You waited for the new release by your favorite artist and then you would make time to hear the whole record. Well, people don’t do that anymore. That’s kind of destroyed the idea of the concept album. Indeed the idea of the album itself has become more of a marketing thing. Kind of like it originally was. An album originally was what it sounds like – a collection of songs. You would release singles and then once you had enough singles then you had an album. People didn’t wouldn’t go in and make an album, and then start releasing singles off of it.

So the idea of the album artist was part of the evolution of the music industry, certainly post Beatles. The Beatles were the first act to release an album with no singles on it, which was “Sgt. Pepper.” People don’t remember but there were no singles on “Sgt. Pepper.” Everybody listened to the whole record. While favorite songs came out of it, most people don’t recall there were no singles released off of it.

That was essentially the beginning of the so-called album artist. That lasted probably up until the disco era. Then it when back to singles and stuff like that.

 

You mentioned The Beatles and I immediately thought of your album with Utopia “Deface the Music.” But you have a new album so let’s talk more about it. How much material from “White Knight” do you plan to perform on this tour?

 

Well, obviously it is a little problematic playing, let’s say, a song like “That Could Have Been Me.” I can’t do a proper imitation of Robyn and she likely won’t be on stage with me. Regardless of how successful that song might be otherwise it’s going to be difficult to fit it into the set.

For the most part it’s the same songs I sing on the record, and then one or two instances a song that I can cover like “Chance for Us,” which is a duet with Darryl (Hall). We sing in pretty much the same range. I can do that song without a lot of difficulty.

 

“White Knight” is released on Cleopatra Records. I recall they were primarily a goth label in the early 1990s. How did you select them for this record?

 

They’re an interesting label because they are still completely committed to the traditional artifacts of music. They sell a lot of vinyl. It’s real important to them. They sell DVD and stuff like that. It’s all this legacy material.

There is something of a vinyl movement out there. People are rediscovering it for whatever reason. From my standpoint having to do a vinyl release just brought back nightmares because there were so many issues involved. I used to write records that were too long for vinyl, so mastering them was always a challenge and a hassle. There was always a ridiculous lead-time, like two to three months between the time you actually mastered the record and when it came out.

For different reasons that hasn’t changed. Even though we could do CD and electronic delivery in a matter of weeks, to do the vinyl part of it took months because there’s so much time for vinyl now.

As you may deduce, I’m not as much a fan of vinyl as some other people are.

To Cleopatra, they actually approached me. It used to be, especially after I first got off Warner Brothers in the late ‘80s, very early ‘90s, that I would make a record and then we would shop the record and go find someone to distribute it.

It is unusual that some of these smaller labels in the last few years have been approaching me and asking me, offering me money to make records. It’s like the old days. And you don’t pass that up.

We made a deal with Cleopatra based on the fact they wanted the record without having any idea what the record would be like.

 

They must have faith in you, Todd. With all the renewed interest in vinyl, do you feel compelled to perform the whimsical “LP’s Worth of Tunes” just for plain ol’ fun?  

 

More recently my sets have been including a lot of material that fans have wanted to hear. In other words, the past two albums I put out – “State” and “Global” – we made some high tech, very modern presentations of those, and while some people really liked it and saw it as a refreshing change of pace, other people had really violent, negative reaction to it.

The past year I have gone out and consciously mollified everybody by playing the material they expected to hear. At this point I’m trying to figure out what’s the happy median between the newer material that I feel I need to perform in order not to become thought of as a legacy artist. In other words, there’s not a point where I want to stop writing new music; stop experimenting with new musical forms. That’s not going to happen. I’m too into the possibilities of what music are to simply play all of the old stuff I’ve written.

My biggest challenge is how do I satisfy both? How do I satisfy myself and those parts of my audience interested in hearing new things, as well as satisfy people who come to a show to hear some particular old song that they remember.

 

WANT TO GO?

Todd Rundgren

May 16

Sandler Center for the Performing Arts

www.sandlercenter.org

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