Todd Rundgren

Rock’s True Renaissance Man
Todd Rundgren
Todd Rundgren: Elliot Stephen Cohen.

For 50 years, Todd Rundgren has been compiling one the most eclectic and impressive resumés in music. From forming the Nazz in 1967 to stints with Utopia, Runt, The New Cars, and a successful solo career, his accomplishments as a multi-instrumentalist, singer, composer, engineer, and record producer are rarely equaled by even his most-distinguished contemporaries. After also establishing himself as a pioneering video director and champion of electronic music, Rundgren was the first major artist to sell his own music directly to fans via the internet.

Albums engineered or produced by Rundgren include Hall and Oates’ War Babies, The Band’s Stage Fright, Grand Funk Railroad’s We’re An American Band, Badfinger’s Straight Up, XTC’s Skylarking, and Meat Loaf’s Bat Out Of Hell (which has sold more than 43 million copies worldwide). Additionally, for the past six years he’s been a charter member of Ringo’s All-Starr Band.

One would assume Rundgren is in The Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame, considering the one-hit wonder inductees who didn’t even write their one hit. Does he feel slighted?

“No,” he says, very matter-of-factly. “I never really think about it until someone brings it up. You know, honestly, from the very first time I heard about it, I thought it was a dopey idea. These things don’t exist for the reasons the populace at large believes they do. The idea that you’re more legitimate because you’re in or less legitimate because you’re not… I don’t even know what legitimate means in those freakin’ terms. It’s just another way for them to keep the wheel spinning.”

Rundgren’s commercial breakthrough occurred in 1972 with the double album Something/Anything?, for which he composed all of the material, played every instrument on three of the four sides in addition to doing all vocals, and which included two signature songs, “Hello It’s Me” and “I Saw The Light.”

His latest album, White Knight, exhibits his continued passion for musical diversity, featuring guitarists Joe Satriani and Joe Walsh, Steely Dan keyboardist Donald Fagan, rapper Dam-Funk, singers Daryl Hall and Bettye LaVette, plus industrial-metal rocker Trent Reznor.

Rundgren ’70s: NBC/VG Archive. Rundgren in the mid ’70s with the Gibson SG “Fool” that had previously been used by Eric Clapton in Cream.

How did your guitar playing days begin?

My parents bought me this cheap, really cheesy acoustic, but I had to commit to two months of guitar lessons at the local music store. I hated the lessons – hated having to learn to read, because I could easily pick things up by ear. I also hated the discipline of technique that the teacher tried to put on me. He would always say, “Always pick down. Never pick up.” That didn’t feel right to me, so I was just happy to have the lessons over. When I first started performing with the Nazz, the guitar was like a shield for me. You felt kind of naked with without it. Now, I’m pretty comfortable with or without one.

At what point did you first consider being in a band?

I was in junior high when The Beatles started happening, and I could already see that they represented some kind of revolution. It seemed all you had to do was get four guys together, dress them all the same, grow your hair long, and find the right songs. There was a lot of fake controversy at the time as to who was better or more authentic, the Beatles or Rolling Stones, but the Stones didn’t unify the world. The Beatles did.

You’ve cited The Yardbirds as a major influence, even naming your band after one of their songs.

The B-side of “Happenings Ten Years Time Ago” was called “The Nazz Are Blue,” and it was also the first time we ever heard Jeff Beck’s voice. We didn’t know what “nazz” meant, but we liked the sound of it. We were just looking for something that didn’t really have a whole lot of meaning and wasn’t silly.

What mainly attracted you to their music?

The way Beck was playing slide guitar on the first album really freaked me out, because it was the first time I heard that particular sound. I was unfamiliar with the Telecaster and thought slide guitar was a particular kind of guitar! I was as much into The Yardbirds as I was into the Beatles because I was a guitar player and they were basically a guitar-playing academy, with Beck, Eric Clapton, and Jimmy Page all going through at some point. It was easy enough to copy a finely composed George Harrison eight-bar solo, but trying to improvise on the guitar the way those three did was what really got me to be serious about the instrument.

How influential were The Beatles’ early recordings to your development as a record producer?

One of the things I noticed when I heard the first Beatles songs and other records from the British Invasion was how they had a very different sound and different tightness than American records, which seemed to be mixed weird and flabby-sounding, probably from some old studio or session approach. There was a discernible difference between the way records were made in Europe and over here. Following the way they did theirs, you had learn how to reverse-engineer the sounds, which is essentially how I learned to mix, engineer, and produce records.

It seems Nazz was highly influenced by the wave of garage bands that were popular a few years earlier.

Yeah, I think it all goes back to “Louie, Louie,” which I consider one of the foundational elements of all rock and roll. Later, we’d have loved to have been part of the scene in England, like some bands that actually moved there to get their careers kick-started. The New York Dolls couldn’t get any attention here, so they went to England, which took to them right away and turned them into a phenomenon that eventually influenced The Sex Pistols.

One of your first successes as an independent producer was the Dolls’ 1973 debut album. Many critics insist their aggressive sound was never faithfully captured on record. Would you record them any differently today?

Well, the biggest problem was that the band got a little too much in a hurry at the end of the recording process. There was a lot of, “We gotta wrap this up because we got a gig to go to.” In recording any band, there’s always a bit of “herding cats” involved. Another thing I learned right away is to never allow a band in the room while you’re mixing. What a mistake that is! “I can’t hear my drums,” “I can’t hear my guitar!” Eventually, all of the faders are at the top of the board and you have to start over.  The record would also have had so much more punch if we had the budget to take the tapes to a state-of-the-art mastering lab like Sterling instead of using an old, non-variable pitch lathe at The Record Plant.

Rundgren with ankh guitar: Ebet Roberts. Rundgren with one of two “ankh” he designed and had built by John Veleno in 1977. It has a hollow round-rimmed body with a bridge humbucker and single-coil on the crossbar.

It’s a shame the band didn’t enjoy greater commercial success.

You know, some things are defined by their lack of discipline. One reason the Stones have lasted so long is that no matter how wild and woolly their image is, and even if drugs were involved, they took the business side of things seriously. The Dolls never did. Also, bad boy Mick Jagger is still one of the fittest human beings on the planet.

Though Grand Funk in the early ’70s was breaking attendance records set by The Beatles, they never really cracked the singles charts until you produced “We’re An American Band.” It seems you really streamlined their sound.

Well, their biggest problem up ’til that time was that their former manager, Terry Knight, was also producing their records and was a terrible producer. He’d let them spend too much time jamming in the studio, and everyone around thought the band was compromising their talent in terms of their ability to write songs and to deliver a tight performance. They were all good players, but after I started working with them, they realized they weren’t Cream. They came from that Detroit R&B scene, so they started getting back to their roots and becoming more song-oriented.

What’s the history of Bat Out of Hell, which went from very modest beginnings to becoming one of the biggest-selling albums?

When we started, there was no record company. I wound up underwriting the album myself. So essentially, I owed Bearsville Records the budget for the making of the album until they found a label for it. Every major label turned us down. We had to find a little subsidiary Cleveland International, before we could even put it out.

Besides playing lead guitar on the album, what are some of your fondest memories of the recording sessions?

Well, it was one of the last albums for a long time that was done primarily live in the studio, which is kind of the fun part of making music. If you can get everyone familiar enough with the material, get the sound in the headphones just right so no one is complaining and just focused on the music, that’s one of the fringe benefits of recording that way. When you can make that happen, as a producer you realize you might be listening to what the final product is going to sound like while it’s happening. Bat was essentially a live recording.

Can you contrast the pros and cons of the way you recorded Bat with your new album, where the collaborators sent parts for you to overdub, without their involvement?

Well, living in Hawaii, it’s difficult for me to call a session (laughs), and that necessitated the way this and most of my recent records have been done. Yes, the downside is you don’t have fun anecdotes to tell about being in the same room. The upside is that because I wasn’t with any of the artists when they made their recordings, there wasn’t any pressure on them because, as a producer, it’s my prerogative to constantly make suggestions. I think this way I was able to get more-natural performances out of everybody. Everyone kind of sounds like themselves instead of what I imagine they should sound like. It’s a lot more democratic.

What was your original vision for the album?

When Cleopatra Records approached me, I didn’t have a particular concept in mind. Then I decided on the collaboration aspect, but what really got me going… and I don’t know if it’s a matter of legacy, but after Bowie and Prince died, I realized that you never really know how much time you have left. So, I started thinking of the album as a serious crusade. Bowie, Prince, and I had some things in common, being the kind of unpredictable auteurs who don’t really adopt one style and stick to it. We’re always experimenting with other things.

Where does the album’s title come from?

In the urban dictionary, a “white knight” means either somebody who comes in and saves a company from a hostile takeover or a guy who defends women who are harassed on the internet. The implication is also that he may be trying for some romantic reward, and I say, “Why not?” (laughs)

Do you think this is the kind of album your long-time fans were expecting in 2017?

I don’t really know what they expect at this point. The last two records were pretty aggressive experiments in modern music. A lot of my fans are not as up on that as I am because I do a lot of research before I make a record. I do think the previous albums have been challenging to fans, so they were probably expecting something even further challenging in that regard. The collaborations on the new album kind of evened everything out, in a songwriting sense. As it turns out, it seems to be a more-accessible record than some of the previous ones, which took a few listens to get used to.

One track has generated some controversy – “Tin Foil Hat” – which is not exactly praising President Trump. Reportedly, you’ve received death threats because of it.

There have been, but I don’t take them that seriously. I mean, Stephen Colbert makes fun of Trump on a nightly basis, sometimes savagely. He must be getting threats. And when I was on Jimmy Fallon’s show I asked if he gets them, and he said, “Yes.” You really have more to fear from the fan who’s off his rocker, the Mark David Chapmans. Those are the guys that actually act out. These other people are too busy trolling to get off their chairs. As far as the ticket cancellations, a lot of people who don’t realize there’s politics and sociology in what I do are the ones who haven’t come to a show in years, and when they do, if they don’t hear “Bang The Drum,” “I Saw The Light” and “Hello, It’s Me,” in the first half hour, are gonna walk out anyway. So I think that’s a wash in that regard.

Todd Rundgren: Elliot Stephen Cohen.

What’s your favored gear these days?

For some time, I’ve been using Reason [software with amp and effects simulators for guitar], which until recently had Line 6 stuff built into it. When I perform, I’m pretty much a Line 6 guy, principally because of the simplicity of it. I understand the system and how to program it, but whatever licensing deal they had has ended and the devices are no longer standard equipment. They’ve licensed other technology I’m not as comfortable with, but we’re still using Line 6 onstage. When I can get it, I’ll use a Flextone 111 amp. I also own an original AX 212 amp I really like, but I’m hesitant to take it out on the road.

Speaking of gear, you’ve recently favored a green guitar onstage.

I used to tour Japan a lot in the late ’80s; the Japanese were flush, and a guy who worked for a guitar company would show up with a half-dozen guitars and let me pick one. So, I kept coming back from Japan with lots of guitars that were piling up in storage. I went through them, and the P-Project one had the best combination of pickups and was the easiest to play.

Do you use the same guitars on solo shows and with Ringo?

Pretty much. With Ringo, I play a lot of acoustic – a Guild that was provided for the tour. I carry just three electric guitars to keep it kind of simple. We carry extra guitars for the heck of it, not because they’re alternate tunings, but just because they look different. So for one song now and then I’ll play a guitar somebody gave me that has rhinestones all over it and sounds okay, though I probably wouldn’t use it outside of that context. Or, I’ll play the Fool replica.

From seeing The Beatles on “The Ed Sullivan Show” in 1964 to now working with Ringo, it all must seem almost surreal. Even after six years, do you still pinch yourself and think, “My God, I’m actually working with a Beatle!”

Well, you not only pinch yourself, you say, “I’m flying on a private jet with a Beatle! I’m having dinner with a Beatle!” He’s the boss because somebody’s gotta be the boss, but otherwise he just wants to be one of the guys and hang out with the band, like he did with The Beatles. It’s not as if he travels separately from us or stays in different hotels. It’s more than simply playing with him, you know? It’s being friends on a day-to-day basis.

Sitting behind the drums, Ringo at 76 seems almost like a teen having the time of his life.

He gets incredibly bored on the road when we’re not playing, because he’s been everywhere and done everything. Also, he can’t just go out walking around the streets because people will hassle him. So he winds up stuck in a hotel room, the whole point of his day being to get behind the drums. It’s fun watching him have fun. The more fun he has, the more fun we have.

When The Beatles first came over, could you have imagined any of them – or any rock musicians – still performing in their 60s and 70s?

I couldn’t even imagine myself being 50. Now that I’m 19 years beyond that, I realize there’s still a lot of distance to cover. I’ve learned to respect and idolize people who continue to play until they’re physically unable to do so. At this point, I actually feel better onstage than when I’m off. I still expend as much energy as I can in the process. That’s what people pay money for; they want to see you do something unusual or extraordinary and be at the top of your game or edge of your limits. That’s what performance is all about.

This article originally appeared in VG December 2017 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

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