Todd Rundgren

Interview by Dennis Morgillo

Todd Rundgren is a musical genius. He has had an ecelectic and varied career as a band member, solo artist, producer, engineer, song writer and multi instrumentalist. Todd has just released his 27th studio album - 'White Knight'

Madhouse Magazine:    We're going to talk about what's currently going on in your life, and then we'll circle back, we'll wrap up your whole life and your career on this one call here.
Todd Rundgren:    Yeah, okay.

Madhouse:    So you have a new album out now, it's the White Knight, and you have a lot of esteemed colleagues on here playing with you, like Joe Walsh, Trent Reznor, and Daryl Hall. Tell us how the recording process took place, because I'm picturing you all in one room jamming together, but I kind of think it really wasn't like that, kind of long distance, maybe?
Todd Rundgren:    Yeah, there may have been a time when that was necessary, but nowadays with the advent of file-sharing services and things like that it's more likely that collaborations like this will take place remotely rather than romantically, you're all in the same room at the same time. Of course, it's always possible to try and arrange logistically for perhaps me and one or two other artists to be in the same place, but to do it with that many artists, it's like a world tour in a way. And it actually turned out, I think, for the better because I wasn't interested in doing a duets record where I sing with somebody else all the time and we're stepping all over each other's performance. I really wanted it to be something where whenever somebody else participated they got featured and I try and get out of the way a little bit, rather than make sure that people know that I'm in there somewhere. 
    So it kind of worked out, I think, for the best because I wasn't standing over the other artists and telling them what they were supposed to do. They kind of did it however they felt, whatever felt natural to them, and so I think I got a little bit more of their true representation, as opposed to if I had been there and making suggestions the entire time about how they should perform or what they should write.

Madhouse:    How did the songwriting process work?
Todd Rundgren:    Well, some of the songs I wrote and then sent to others to add their contributions. And then there were instances in which other people had song ideas they sent to me, which I completed, and then would perhaps sing on, like Joe Walsh's song or the one that I did with Joe Satriani. They actually had songs already, not fully composed, but they had musical ideas that weren't finished and they sent them to me to complete. For the most part, if I sent somebody else a song it was already written, but usually with them in mind. For instance, the song "That Could Have Been Me" I sort of knew that it was going to be a female singer on it so I wrote it in that particular range.
    And then there were other instances in which I had to perhaps adapt a range or make changes to the song to accommodate the other performer. But beyond that, I was pretty much hoping that they would put themselves into it, do it the way that they would do it rather than the way that I would do it.

Madhouse:    Robyn performs on the album. How did you come to collaborate with her?
Todd Rundgren:    Yeah, Robyn, she's actually a Swedish singer. She had a big hit record a couple of years ago, it was "Call Your Girlfriend". She's more well known in Europe, but she had a sort of international breakout with that song. And she had the kind of voice that I was looking for, because a lot of female singers sound too much like Whitney Houston or Christina Aguilera, where they torture the hell out of a song. I wanted somebody who sounded like themselves, wasn't trying to sound like somebody else. And she had that kind of straight-ahead pop singer voice that I was looking for. Yeah, I wasn't necessarily going for the most familiar names, I was trying to hit certain points throughout the record that I thought would complete the bigger picture. 
    And so I knew I had a song that I wanted a girl to sing, and fortunately the girl that I asked to sing it liked the song and went ahead and did it. The artists come from a range of eras as well, some of them are younger artists and some of them are older artists, so that's probably what affects their familiarity level, I guess. Some of the younger artists, my fans might not be familiar with because my fans tend to be older.

Madhouse:    It's great how you keep your finger on the pulse of the music business still. This album is really fresh and new, and I've got to commend you on a great album. Very excellent album.
Todd Rundgren:    Thank you. I do a lot of research before I do a record, especially nowadays, because the internet and services like Spotify and SoundCloud and things like that have broadened the range of the kind of music that you can find on the internet. And what used to be Rhapsody is now Napster, has maybe almost every record ever recorded available. So when it comes time to make a record I don't usually have a grand plan in my head, I have to develop something, and a lot of that is a product of the research that I do, when I go out and listen to what other people are listening to and see how any of that might dovetail with my own musical tastes and proclivities.

Madhouse:    I talk to a lot of people, and a lot of artists don't know how to navigate the current music industry. They don't know really how to make money, how to bring this all together yet, and I'm thinking you are always an innovator, if anyone has this answer it's going to be Todd Rundgren. So how do you navigate this? What is the best way to make money? How do you make money? Is it selling albums, music, touring, etc?
Todd Rundgren:    Well, most certainly you can make some money off of merchandise if your name is familiar enough. But I think people forget that there was a time before records, which was only about 150 years ago, and before that there was only one way for a musician to make money, or one principal way for a musician to make money, and that was to play music for people, for which you would be compensated. And low and behold, that's still there. And whenever anyone ask me, "Well, how do you make a living in the music business?" It's the same way you always did, you have to go out and play for people. 
    The whole era of recorded music, while it hasn't gone away, has mutated into a whole different kind of thing, it's more of a service nowadays. People are less and less inclined to buy whole albums and more inclined to download songs, and also to experience music in a different way. In other words, they don't go to the record store and buy an album and then bring it home and listen to the whole thing anymore. The whole way that you find music is different, and the venues in which you can experience it is different. That's the part that confuses a lot of musicians and people trying to make money in the music business. 
    But all of those things, for the most part, are, and always have been, more valuable as promotion than they are as a product themselves. Certainly, you could make a lot of money selling records if you sell them by the millions, but the arrangement by which you do that usually leaves the musician with the shorter end of the stick; you're usually getting somewhere between 10 and 20% of the retail costs per record. But when you sell a concert ticket you make like 80-85% of that, and then you have the opportunity to sell whatever you want once you get people to come to your gig. So that is the way, I think, at least to make money going forward. Because I know acts who never sell their music, they only play live gigs and sell merchandise, and never release records ever. All they released is videos on YouTube all the time.

Madhouse:    Or if you release it just give it away. It used to be that touring was to promote the music, and now it's kind of the other way around.
Todd Rundgren:    Yeah, there are other sorts of opportunities like corporate associations and things like that. Things that I wish I had, a company who would pay for all of my buses and trucks when I go out on the road so that they can plaster their advertising on the side. But, again, that all hinges on your ability to build an audience of people who are willing to come out and see you live.

Madhouse:    You have had a great eclectic career, similar to Zappa, Bowie and Price. Do you think that there'll ever be someone similar to you guys, or is there already somebody similar and we're not allowed to hear about them, or do we have to put in the work and search to find them?
Todd Rundgren:    I think what's happened is the music business has split into two distinct sort of categories. One is still trying to recapture that control over the audience, and the control of the image of the artist, like in the old days. And those artists are like Katy Perry and Adele, and people that you hear about all the time. Whenever I go to my news app or my iPad they're always talking about somebody, so and so just put out the album of the year, or blah, blah, blah, blah." It's always the same names. 
    And surprisingly enough, it's like female artists have taken over what is the traditional music business. It's Lady Gaga, it's Adele, it's Katy Perry, it's Taylor Swift. The most highly paid artists in the world are all female artists at this point. So that can be a little disheartening if you're not one of those. But there is a whole other aspect of the music business of artists, as I say, who ... For instance, EDM artists, whose names you very rarely hear anymore but are still getting $100,000-200,000 to play a festival somewhere, like deadmau5 or somebody like that, or Skrillex. They've never had a Top 40 hit record, but they're still highly in demand because they play a kind of music that fits a certain venue.
    So, again, it kind of gets back to what can you accomplish live. There are bands on television, I see so-and-so plays Wembley Stadium, and it's a band I've never ever heard of. There's a whole other part of the music business that isn't driven by that traditional heavy-handed sort of promotion that record companies are used to. There's a whole other kind of roots-up way of promoting music. Again, it kind of depends on your ability to show up somewhere and make people remember your performance.

Madhouse:    I guess, on a good note, a good thing about this is that you don't have to deal with the record company executives anymore. I imagine, in your career, you must have dealt with a lot of douches. The record company executives giving you a hard time, pressuring you?
Todd Rundgren:    I did have a douche or two to deal with, but I had a different relationship than other artists. My relationship was not so adversarial as other artists would be because I was producing records for the labels as well, many of which were big hits. 
Madhouse:    Of course.
Todd Rundgren:    So I was sort of indulged on my own stuff because I was still making the industry standard kinds of records that they wanted. After a certain amount of time I defined my own little area and I was able to maintain it, and have been able to maintain it somewhat to this day. I have not the world's biggest audience, but not an insignificant audience either.

Madhouse:    It's a great career.
Todd Rundgren:    Yeah, there are enough to keep me going. And every once in a while I get a bump of some kind. This recent record has gotten a pretty good response. So as long as they keep the wheels spinning, put a little inertia behind it again, I don't really have to do that sort of trad thing. When I do, I do it with a grain of salt. Like for instance, I had to sign 1000 posters for a meet-and-greet program, and things like that, which is a tedious chore, there's no other way to describe it. You kind of do it because it's part of the overall promotion of the music, and if I cop an attitude about it or refuse to do it then I can imagine that people at the record label would get upset. But as long as I'm cooperating nobody has to be douche-y to anybody.

Madhouse:    Nobody gets hurt. So you're touring now, has it started already, the Yes and the ELP tour?
Todd Rundgren:    Well, we're in the break in between what was the first leg, or the inaugural leg, of the White Knight tour. We're doing an abridged version because we're not the headliner, we're doing about an hour, possibly a little bit more if we can accelerate our changeovers during the show. But there's three acts during the Yestival show, and we're in the middle so we have to accommodate that. We have to realize that most people are there probably to see the headliner.
Madhouse:    Well, not me.
Todd Rundgren:    Take as much opportunity as we can to make an impression on that audience.

Madhouse:    Yeah, that's a great mix Yes, ELP and Todd Rundgren. When I first heard it, I was a little taken aback, but the i said "Well, yeah, it makes sense."
Todd Rundgren:    Well, it's a little bit different. I think at first they thought, "Okay, I'll do a bunch of Utopia stuff and then it'll be a prog rock festival", or something like that. But I've written so much music over the years, it's hard to pare it down to just an hour's worth and have it be fully representative. So there'll be a little bit of that, there'll be a guitar playing, there'll be the staff that hopefully will keep us somewhat in the same ballpark. But, for instance, as far as I know neither Yes nor Carl Palmer have ever dabbled too seriously in the R&B area, which I tend to go into with some regularity. And I can't refuse to do that just because ostensibly it's a prog rock show; I have to do what I do.

Madhouse:    I want to ask you about some of your producing sessions, especially with the New York Dolls and Meat Loaf. What was it like working with the Dolls? Because they must have been problematic, especially Johnny Thunders, they're in their throes of drug addiction at this time, I imagine.
Todd Rundgren:    This was, of course, their first record so they didn't have money for drugs as they would have a little bit later. But it was futile for me to make any sort of rules about studio behavior, what you should be on. They'd be smoking, they'd be drinking, if there was cocaine around they would do that. But for the most part, David Johansen was pretty straight arrow when we were doing the sessions, and so I would depend on him to keep the rest of the guys sort of focused. 
    It was a bit of a circus atmosphere because every critic in New York, and every groupie in New York, wanted to be at the sessions and the band liked that idea, whereas I would have preferred to get into the studio and knuckle down and focus on the music. So the biggest problem with the band was, essentially, distraction. They were constantly distracted by things, which made it a bit of a slog to get through it. I mean, the biggest effect that that had was when they insisted on being at the mixers, which I learned after that was a stupid idea that I've never done since. Because everybody in a band only hears their own thing.

Madhouse:    Right, exactly.
Todd Rundgren:    So everyone's saying, "Make my guitar louder. Make the drums louder. Make the vocal louder. Make this louder, make that louder." Eventually you're looking at the board and all the faders are pinned at the top. Then you have to start all over again. And then they would be in a big hurry to get it because they had a gig out on Long Island or something, so they didn't take some parts of the process as seriously as they should have.

Madhouse:    But still, that's a classic album, of course. And then, you have the  opposite, which is Meat Loaf ‘Bat Out of Hell’, Did anything exciting or interesting happen during that time with Meat Loaf?
Todd Rundgren:    Whatever Meat Loaf turned out to be, I saw it as a different thing. I saw Meat Loaf as a spoof of Bruce Springsteen, and to me it was a comedy album.

Madhouse:    Oh, really?
Todd Rundgren:    That was my approach to the whole thing, making a somewhat sophisticated comedy record here. And you kind of had to think that, when you saw Meat Loaf he was so not the kind of typical rockstar. Being a big, fat, sweaty guy he was more like Pavarotti something like that.

Madhouse:    With the handkerchief, yeah.
Todd Rundgren:    He was part of the reason why they had so much trouble getting signed in the first place, and even after we finished the record, because Meat Loaf got off his label like the day before we started recording because he didn't think the label understood him. And I had to foot the bill for the record. And even after we finished the record it took them like six months to find somebody willing to release it. So it was never the kind of slamdunk that everyone figures, that I would have seen Meat Loaf and said, "Oh man, this is going to sell millions and millions of records." No, I was just hoping to get the damn record done. That was it. 

Madhouse:    And then it took you a while to get your money back, right? But you've since made a lot.
Todd Rundgren:    Once they did get the record released it didn't hit right away, they released two singles that didn't go anywhere before they had their first hit. And then they went back and started releasing all those other singles again, and so it really steamrolled. But it was a combination of things, I think, that played into the success of Meat Loaf. One was his constant touring, he just toured day in and day out once the record came out, and never gave up on it. And the other thing that happened was MTV had just come on the air, and they didn't have a whole lot of videos to play so "Paradise By The Dashboard Light" played every hour, or something like that. And that, I think, was the biggest contributor to his breakthrough. That video just got played constantly.

Madhouse:    Are you going to be touring with Ringo this year as well?
Todd Rundgren:    Yeah, in October we go out with Ringo for about a month, or five weeks, something like that. Almost like a token little tour because Ringo just can't stand the idea of the band not playing. We're in our sixth year with the same lineup, so that's never happened before. And Ringo, at this point, kind of considers it his band, as opposed to the All-Starrs and you never know who's going to show up. This particular lineup, you do know who's going to show up, it's going to be the same guys.

Madhouse:    That's great. When you first started playing with Ringo, obviously you must have been a big Beatles fan, did you look over and say, "Damn, I'm playing with Ringo Starr," or have you met him previously?
Todd Rundgren:    The first time I met and played with Ringo was actually in the late 70s, and it was for a Jerry Lewis telethon. Jerry Lewis felt that he wasn't appealing enough to a younger audience so he decided to do something he called "Jerry's Dance Party", and put together a little "supergroup", which was Ringo and Bill Wyman and me and some guys from Utopia, and Dave Mason and a couple of other artists. And we got together in the afternoon and worked up a bunch of songs, essentially easy songs, and then played it for a nearly empty auditorium, people on the UNLV campus. 
    And we kind of got along pretty well, but Ringo was still in his "Ringo's wild years" where he was drinking a lot and taking a lot of drugs and things like that. When he formed the All-Starrs it was actually part of his rehab. He realized he just had too much time on his hands. He was just carousing with Harry Nilsson all the time and taking all the drugs they could find and getting in trouble and stuff. And he realized that if he didn't want to become a casualty he had to clean up, and the reason why he was so self-indulgent is because he'd stopped playing drums, essentially. He would maybe play in the studio, play his records, but he never played for people, and that was what was kind of instrumental in getting him straightened out, cleaned up. He made a whole reassessment of himself, he's a completely different person at this point. 
    While it was fun to play with "Ringo the Beatle" back then, it's kind of just as much, if not more, fun to play with "Ringo your pal" we've been playing with for six years now.

Madhouse:    That's amazing. And it all comes back to live music again. That's what keeps you going.
Todd Rundgren:    Yeah, it gets back to the live thing. It saved Ringo.

Madhouse:    What's coming up next? Do you have any plans for an autobiography?
Todd Rundgren:    Well, that's kind of what I'm working on now during the break. It's been like a side project, and it often feels like homework to me, which makes it harder for me to focus on it and concentrate and get it done. But I'm doing my homework now and hope to have this done before I go out on the road again with Yestival, so if that happens it should be out before the end of the year.

Madhouse:    Great, I'm looking forward to that. And I'm going to check out YouTube and see you playing the Jerry Lewis show.
Todd Rundgren:    Yeah, it might be in there somewhere. Back in those days nobody had camera phones so ... But we did have a brief appearance on air, so maybe that's somewhere.

Madhouse:    Of everything you've done in your career, what are you most proud of? Your musical prowess, your singing, composing, your influence on others, your arranging, engineering, producing, etc. What are you most proud of?
Todd Rundgren:    I'm not a particularly prideful person, I find that an indulgence, but I do have satisfaction in certain things. I think the thing that satisfies me the most is that certain point in my career, maybe after Something/Anything? I decided that wanted to separate myself from the mainstream in a sense. Not because I didn't enjoy that music, I continued to make commercial records for lots of artists, but I felt like I was covering ground that other people had already covered and I wanted to do things that no one else had done, or at least do them in a way that no one else had done them.  
    And as you mentioned, that's finally accrued over the years to me being a certain kind of artist, like a David Bowie or like Prince or somebody like that, where it's hard to compare you to other people because of the fact that you don't do the same thing all the time. That you change up what you do and you absorb new influences and you're somewhat prolific. In other words, you don't keep playing the same old songs that you played in your heyday, you continue to come up with new material and new ideas.
    The fact that I've carved that place out for myself is satisfying to me, especially as there is an audience who recognizes that and is there for the journey more or less. So I don't expect that I have to kind of breakdown and try and pander to people and do things that I know will please them. They're pleased to have me do whatever it is I do. And maybe that's because so many artists are trying to read your minds and give you exactly what you want.

Madhouse:    Well, I want to thank you for all the music. I want to thank you for this great career. Congratulations on this excellent album here. And I'll be seeing you in the New York/New Jersey area when you come around. 
Todd Rundgren:    All right, terrific. Take care, man.

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White Knight - The new album from Todd Rundgren. The album features all new songs written by Rundgren and the album's guest performers. The 15 tracks span moody pop and hip-hop to synth-powered rock and lush R&B. Guests include Daryl Hall, Joe Walsh, Donald Fagen, Joe Satriani and much more. Get it wherever albums are sold ! 

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