Exclusive Interview: Todd Rundgren on New Blues Album, Studio History Book and Joe Walsh’s Bunny Outfit
by: Matt Wardlaw
You’ve no doubt heard the phrase “Todd is God” over the years in relation to our current interview subject, musician and producer Todd Rundgren. The recent book ‘A Wizard, A true Star,’ authored by Paul Myers, details Rundgren’s work on both sides of the studio console, and proves how true that phrase really is.
When you consider all the time Rundgren spent in his career recording albums both solo and with his prog-rock band Utopia, plus doing production work on hit albums for artists like Meat Loaf, Badfinger, Grand Funk Railroad and others, it’s a wonder that he had time to pursue a touring career as well. But he did.
Rundgren is currently promoting a new album of Robert Johnson covers, creatively titled ‘Todd Rundgren’s Johnson,’ in celebration of the blues legend’s centennial year. We talked to him about the new record and many other interesting subjects:
Congratulations on finally finding a way to put out an album called ‘Todd Rundgren’s Johnson.’
God, am I fortunate or what? It does bear some explanation, I assume — it’s a tribute to the music of Robert Johnson, who is not alive, but were he, he’d be celebrating his 100th birthday now. I actually made this record two years ago. The label has been trying to find a distribution deal with a larger entity, so the record kept being scheduled for release and then it wouldn’t come out and I’d still be playing [songs from] it on the road. So it’s kind of a relief to finally get the record out now.
Besides this being the centennial year for Robert Johnson, what was the appeal personally of recording an album’s worth of Johnson’s material for you?
When I first got out of high school, my first gig was in a blues band. I was fascinated with the music and all through high school started exploring recordings by a lot of the originals. Ironically enough, Robert Johnson wasn’t one of the people that I was familiar with. He was from an era of acoustic blues and I was very much into electric blues.
But he did have a huge influence on a lot of the people that were influencing me — most particularly Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and that whole crop of English blues guitar players. So it was an opportunity to kind of close the circle a little bit. It’s actually a kind of music that I still enjoy playing. I had it in the back of my mind that someday I might do some sort of blues project. So it was a fortunate coincidence when I was asked to do an album of Robert Johnson cover songs, it enabled me to go back and pretend that I had just gotten out of high school again and I was nothing but a guitar player.
Sometimes projects like this can come off as being really self-indulgent, but I really do think you got a nice Rundgren spin on a lot of this material while still staying true to the overall legacy of Johnson’s recorded intent. What vibe were you trying to capture and who are the players with you on this project?
It’s me and Kasim Sulton on the record, Kasim plays bass and I play everything else. I looked at it as an opportunity to pay tribute to not necessarily Robert Johnson himself, but those guitarists and those bands who had an influence on me when I was getting out of high school. For example, Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Cream, The Yardbirds and a whole crop of mostly English bands, I guess. As I mentioned, I was not fully aware of Robert Johnson himself, but I was hearing other people doing versions of his songs. Most famously for instance, the Cream version of ‘Crossroads,’ which became kind of a signature song for them. I wasn’t really fully aware of who had written the song or what the meaning of it was. Everything was an opportunity to play guitar!
I had to, for this record, re-educate myself about the original material. There were some challenges there, because the music is basically improvisational. The hardest thing to do is figure out what exactly is the essential melody for these songs. Because he doesn’t sing the song the same way twice in a row — if you listen to the remaining recordings of Robert Johnson, which were done in the ’20s or ’30s, I believe, he’s got different versions of some of the songs. They don’t sound anything the same! He plays it differently every time. So the biggest challenge I think for me was to try and determine “okay, what is the melody of this song,” and “what makes this song different from any of his other songs?” It was an interesting exercise for me.
Hearing you talk about playing all of the instruments yourself; you’ve always been a very tech-savvy guy, so with the way recording technology has changed, do you prefer to have a band behind you or would you rather play it all by yourself and build it track by track?
I really enjoy playing with a band and playing with other musicians. As a matter of fact, the more live you can do it, the better it is for me. But the problem is that I live in a somewhat remote part of the world now. The people that I play with are in other parts of the world, and it makes it hard to just call a session. So that naturally means I’m going to be doing a lot of it myself.
Rundgren fans are easily top five on the list of most dedicated fanbases. In the past year, you’ve been recreating some of your albums live with full performances. I understand that the idea came around initially from fans and that you might have needed some convincing. What has your ultimate takeaway been after living out the concept with a small portion of your catalog?
Well, it’s something that I enjoy doing, but problematically involves more production than I normally take out, and therefore these shows are limited runs. The tours only go for about two weeks or so, but they take months to prepare. I usually go back to the original multi-track recordings and extract out all of the different parts of it. For instance, the singers can learn what they’re supposed to sing, and the instrumentalists can learn a little bit better what they’re supposed to do.
And then there’s all of the production aspects that go with it, so we rehearse for a week and a half before we do these shows and then the shows only run a week and a half. [Laughs] So I think that this year, I may just take a break, because it’s such a labor intensive process.
Is there a particular album of yours that you’d still be interested in revisiting?
Well, it’s funny, the records that the fans have chosen so far in the first year that we did this, which was two years ago. They chose ‘A Wizard, A True Star,’ which is an unusual record, it’s actually more of a studio project than a real performance piece, but we managed to recreate it fairly well. This past year, they chose two records, ‘Todd’ and ‘Healing,’ which was a little unusual because the records are not contemporaneous, there’s a good five or six years between them. And we actually took that out twice – we went out last fall and then this last spring, we also went out and did a short run of that show as well.
The shows are a lot of fun to do because they involve a level of production that I normally can’t afford to take out. And so there’s lights, special effects and things that geez, if I could afford it, I’d have them [at] every show. It makes the whole presentation more of an event for the fans, because it is a much bigger deal [and] we’ll be doing it in bigger venues than I normally play in. I think that even though we’re taking a hiatus this year, it’s something that I probably will do again in the future.
You’re going to take a lifetime of things learned on the road and in the studio and channel those things into your Musical Survival Camp later this month. What can camp attendees expect?
Well, there’s a lot of new models for artists to take advantage of, now that the traditional record label model has lost a lot of its potency. One of those things can be a “camp,” something where people are able to attend and participate with you in a way that they can’t just coming to see a show. They get to interact with you and in some cases, learn from you. I decided that I wanted to do this camp not just for musicians, but for anybody who had an interest in music and wanted to know more about where the industry was at.
What are the challenges that artists are facing and what are the challenges that audiences are facing, for that matter? So the idea of this survival camp is over the course of four days, to get a series of seminars and panels that will be about all aspects of the modern music industry. What is it like to tour nowadays, what are the challenges in getting your music exposed to a wider audience, and what actually is the state of music from a musical standpoint nowadays? In other words, we’re kind of in a phase that’s between crazes. There’s been a lot of signature movements in music, like punk, hip-hop and grunge and stuff like that, but we’re sort of in musical doldrums right now. It may be hard for people to be able to filter I guess, what’s actually going to be music that lasts, and what’s music that’s just filling in the space until some new musical craze comes along?
The book that Paul Myers did about your studio work, both personally and the productions that you have been involved with, was pretty mind blowing. Can we talk a little bit about your work with Badfinger?
Well, it was an interesting project in that it had been handed down — it had a lot of fingerprints on it by the time I got involved. They had originally recorded an entire album with Geoff Emerick, who was the Beatles engineer. He produced a record, but they weren’t happy with the end result. George Harrison got involved and [then] got too busy with ‘The Concert from Bangladesh’ to continue the record. That’s when I got called in. So they had been working on the record for more than a year before I showed up.
One of the reasons why they hired me was because I had a reputation of getting into the studio and getting it done. So I flew to England and we started recording right away and it took us maybe 10 days to finish the record. It had two Top 10 singles off of it, so it was a pretty successful project in the end, but one that went so fast in a way that the band and I never really bonded over it. I was the last one there. They expected results and we got the results, fortunately, but when it came time to do the follow-up record to that, we got in the studio, did a little bit of tracking and then by mutual agreement decided that I would not finish the record.
Whose idea was it for Joe Walsh to dress up as the Energizer Bunny while you were singing ‘Bang on the Drum’ on tour with Ringo?
[Laughs] That was Joe’s idea! He was a pretty crazy guy in those days. He’s calmed down a bit in the intervening time. I think that at the same time, he was on this campaign where he was running for President or something? The bass drum on various nights would have “Joe Walsh for President” on the head of it while he played. I think that on any number of nights, he was wearing rabbit ears as well.
I got along pretty well with Joe, because he was so crazy and amusing on the road. I remember one night he called me to his room. He had, with a hot glue gun, glued all of the furniture in his room to the ceiling, except for the television, which was lying in a heap on the floor; of course, it wouldn’t stay on the ceiling. He had an ashtray with a lit cigarette in it and everything, the entire room was upside down. I always had a lot of fun with Joe on the road!