A few years ago Todd Rundgren toured New Zealand with a ‘blues’ show. It wasn’t very good – but the two-song encore (I Saw The Light and Can We Still Be Friends) was worth the price of admission. I wish he’d tour here again, maybe with his solo piano show, with anything in fact…
I was lucky enough to get to interview him over the phone ahead of that New Zealand trip – and we crammed a lot in over a short space of time. I’d love to sit down with him for a chat. He was one of my favourite interviewees, so here again, for anyone that missed it the first time, is my interview with Todd.
“The Robert Johnson thing” Rundgren tells me, as soon as we’re connected and have said hello, “is really a chance for me to pay my respects to the era that influenced me which is not” and there’s a chortled laugh here to pre-sell his point, “Robert Johnson – but rather the British bands that were influenced by Robert Johnson. My guitar heroes are Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck and people like that – so I’ve tried to make an album of Robert Johnson covers that, well, while not totally faithful for blues purists is faithful for people, like me, that grew up with the sixties and the electric blues-rock versions of Johnson’s songs”.
Rundgren, ever the idiosyncratic performer and project-selector, says that it is mostly about fun, about “cranking the guitar again” and about indulging himself as well as presenting material for an audience. “It’s something I can do – I can play the guitar, you know, in this sense, I can – hopefully – play these songs on electric guitar. Eric Clapton has basically cornered the market and created a sideline career for himself doing acoustic version of Johnson songs, doing the authentic tribute, well I can’t do that. But I can play these songs the way I want to. And that’s been fun”.
Doing things the way he wants – that could basically be Rundgren’s motto/ethos.
It is rewarding though, he says, “to have material that the audience is familiar with”. He pauses and then almost shouts out a laugh, adding, “because I’m not exactly known for my hits!” He says the show, Todd Rundgren’s Johnson, gives people a chance to enjoy his versions of the Robert Johnson material and “of course we go back and look at some of the things from my career, revisiting my earliest work with Nazz – we do a great new version of the song Kiddie Boy, one of my earliest tunes (click here to hear the original) and we go all the way forward to [2008’s] Arena with a version of Weakness. So, it’s something for everyone – hopefully…”
Rundgren agrees that Arena was very much a return to the guitar, for him, and in that sense it paved the way for Todd Rundgren’s Johnson.
“I’m a guitar player, really, I mean first and foremost – I grew up with all that great 1960s music – in terms of growing up, becoming a musician, so it’s like first-love stuff, I’m always going to go back to it”.
Rundgren is proud of what he calls his “unusual career”. He was raised on classical and light contemporary music – “my father was not really in to popular music, I had to learn about that for myself” – and says that his twists and turns, his “unusual career” comes from being interested in the music rather than the fame.
“The Nazz survived for 18 months – that was my first taste of fame on some level and of the overall experience of being in a band. There are good and bad aspects and I got to taste some of both and, well, it’s not as much fun as what you see in A Hard Day’s Night, let me just say that” – and there’s an almost exaggerated burst of laughter to back up (and mock) the point he’s making.
“I realised, very early on, that I liked being in the studio and making records and really I took a job working as an engineer so that I could – first of all – make some money and secondly so that I could learn some tricks to go back and make my own records. And that has continued for me – to this day. I’ll field calls and do production work and then I’ll get bored of that after a while and decide to pick up my guitar again or to write some songs at the piano”.
Rundgren says he’s proud of his time behind the console – going back to his earliest work as a studio-hand. “It was the best education, I mean working on records by people like Ian & Sylvia and James Cotton, I mean you just don’t forget it – and there’s something you take away from each record”.
But it wasn’t long before the hunger to record himself was created (“I was making a healthy living – but I wanted to make my own records!”) and thus, Something/Anything – Rundgren’s early masterwork was born.
“Really, I hid in the studio because I loved it. And that was why Something/Anything took the shape that it did. You realise that there are certain aspects relating to fame, due to making music, which you just don’t want to deal with. Well, I did anyway. For me, the celebrity aspects of making music were never as important as the actual work. And so I often buried myself in the work, in the studio…”
The studio was the place where Rundgren discovered himself. And he says he realised that he wanted to work as a solo artist more often than being part of a band. “You are your own slave-driver as a solo act, that’s a good thing by the way. The difficult part can be getting the process started”.
And when that process gets difficult Rundgren has his production work and session work to return to. Recording backing vocals for Celine Dion, playing guitar for Meat Loaf it is all, in a sense “work” – rewarding because it provides money; rewarding because it leads to ideas explored in future solo work.
Of his time as one of the people at the helm of Bat Out Of Hell, one of the most successful rock albums of all time, Rundgren laughs when he tells me “the best thing about that album was that you had three egos – three huge egos – in me, [Jim] Steinman and Meat”. There’s the perfect pause, and then, “of course that was also the worst thing about that record – and you can still hear that today – the best and worst”.
“None of us thought it would be a success – it was such a crazy idea, as the record unfolded. I mean, can you believe we just wanted to get it done. We just wanted to hand it in – to have it finished”.
And there Rundgren explains away one of rock’s most deliberately over the top rock pantomimes as being, basically, a homework assignment that got out of hand and was finished just before deadline.
Cue discussion of Meat Loaf as “a huge personality”. Cue me mentioning that Meat Loaf yelled at me for about 20 minutes earlier this year when he felt a bit threatened and I hadn’t heard his new album even though he knew that. Cue Rundgren screaming with laughter and saying, “well that’s great – it’s good to know I am not the only one who has been yelled at by him!”
Then there was XTC’s Skylarking; an album that is often mentioned in discussions of Rundgren’s behind-the-scenes work.
He tells me “I had never had something as difficult as working with XTC. I was fully aware of ‘The Syndrome’ – which is to say, I was a fan. I listened to the records, I followed the band and I knew the band’s dynamic. And by the time I got to working with them Andy’s stage fright meant his entire musical life was in the studio. They never wanted to leave the studio – doing the work over and over. Once it ended, the music making was over and this meant that the band was really wearing down producers. I could see that Andy was really hijacking the process. I felt that Andy was very unfair to Colin during that album – and it was basically a nightmare”. (You guessed it, we pause for a snort of laughter).
“But, you know what, I mean, the cliché applies itself here – I am immensely proud of the record. I can still listen to it and I think that something really great was born, ultimately, of all that frustration. It’s a great record”.
Todd says he’s attracted to work on a project because he always hopes he can do something for it and he always hopes it will do something for him. Sometimes, he half-jokes, that something is simply a paycheque. Other times it is stretching him outside and away from the music he would make when left to himself.
But he is pleased with his Johnson album and tour because he feels “it’s going full circle in a sense, returning me to the blues – and this version of the blues is one of the main influences on me as a musician. I like the idea of the blues too; of packing and travelling and taking the music to people”.