Sunday, July 26, 2009

INTERVIEW : One On One with Todd Rundgren

One On One with Todd Rundgren
Part One by Steve Beck

If you know me, you'll know that I credit Todd Rundgren with my life-long appreciation of music. I was sixteen and had already seen a few concerts. However, the night I saw Todd with Utopia in Scranton, PA, influenced me more than any other. I was totaly blown away and couldn't stop thinking about the show. I wanted to see more live music, work on my guitar playing, and get involved with other musicians.

When one looks at Todd Rundgren's musical biography, they're sure to find something that they've been influenced by as well. From his own collection of hit songs including "I Saw The Light", "Just One Victory", "Hello It's Me" and "Can We Still Be Friends" to his production credits with artists such as Patti Smith, Cheap Trick, Psychedelic Furs, Meatloaf, XTC, Grand Funk Railroad, and Hall and Oates, most all of us have been touched by his work.

Some thirty years after that life-changing show I find myself on the phone talking to Todd Rundgren from his home in Hawaii, discussing his recent tour, his upcoming performances of A Wizard, A True Star, along with his guitar and recording session

You’ve just finished touring in support of your latest release Arena and you seem to be out on the road a lot over the past few years. Do you enjoy touring or do you consider it necessary as a working musician?

Well I enjoy the playing. The traveling is kind of grim, especially in these sort of stressed-out times. When the price of fuel went up, it made it more prohibitive, for instance, to get a tour bus. But it is still incredibly inconvenient and unpleasant a lot of times to have to fly. We find ourselves doing it the real old-fashioned way by driving around in a mini-van from gig to gig just as if we are starting over again but in some ways it’s the only practical way to travel. So the playing part I’ve always enjoyed and I still enjoy, but the traveling is as bad as it’s ever been.

Does that influence the size of the band that you take out on the road?

It is a consideration. Every time you add another member, you're talking about transporting them and their stuff and then housing them. Whatever you pay them in salary, that isn’t the actual bottom line. It’s all of the expenses in moving a human being around in this day in age. So it is a consideration but it isn’t the principle one. In other words, I’m not going to compromise what I think needs to be done in terms of bringing the music to people live. If we have to carry another band member, if we need a five-piece band, or a six-piece to pull it off, then that’s what it’s going to be.

There is a lot of excitement building over the upcoming performances of your 1973 album A Wizard, A True Star (AWATS). You’ve already assembled the band, but how do you even approach a project like this?

Well, you’ve got to be methodical about it. Right now I’m in the process of breaking it down into proper-size chunks. And, in addition to that, it’s not simply a musical presentation, its got to be more of a theatrical thing. I think the expectations exceed a typical sort of concert. Also it’s of an era when, at least with my shows, I think most artists were doing something that was a little bit more production-oriented live. People were wearing costumes and they had special effects and lasers and that sort of stuff to enhance the shows. We’re going to truck a bunch of that out as well.

That was actually one of my questions. Can we expect any theatrics or costumes?

Yeah, it will not just be the music of the era; it’ll be a presentation in the style of that era.

How will you handle the instrumentation, the different sounds and the audio effects used in 1973? Will you use vintage equipment or samples?

We will, if necessary, sample things that we can’t reproduce live. We don’t intend to do a lot of click tracks or an extensive amount of looping or anything like that. I think that we’re going to try, as much as possible, to play and sing the record. Parts of it have been done before. It's never been done in its entirety but certainly parts of the record have been performed.

How do you envision the show? Will you perform this all as one set or as Side “A”, intermission then Side “B”?

At this particular point it will be mostly true to the original in its running order but I am going to make some slight modifications to accommodate the fact that there are certain peaks and climaxes in the music that appeared where they did because, in those days, all recorded music came in two parts -- Side “A” and Side “B” -- and when performing it live that constraint, of course, isn’t there. I think that as a piece it might actually benefit a little bit by just a slight variation in running order from the original. But there won’t be a whole lot of that. We may expand a few things and it’s conceivable that we might interject one or two small things into it that may not have been in the original but might suit the presentation overall. So I’m not being absolutely doctrinaire about how it’s done. I’m not going to do it just as Side “A” and Side “B” and there you have it.

You’ve often revisited your material and your With A Twist release is one example. How does this differ?

I don’t think that we’re going to transform the material the way we did on With A Twist. That was the essential conceit of that record. It was all familiar songs done in an unfamiliar way. But this will be done, pretty much, in a familiar way and the modifications will all be in terms of the theatrical aspects of it. In other words it’s got another layer to it and I suppose that With A Twist had an additional layer as well in that we were doing more than just playing the music. We were putting on, I don’t know how to describe it exactly, it was a show, but it was us kind of pre-living a fantasy of instead of being a touring band, we were a band that played in the same place every night.

I often wonder what happened to the Tiki Bar from that tour?

It got transformed and reused in various states. As a matter of fact, pieces of it were recycled bits from the No World Order tour, which was a big kind of aluminum pod construction that sat in the center of a room, and we used chunks of it to build the bar for the Tiki tour. At one point after the whole Tiki tour thing was done we packed up a bunch of that stuff and went and set-up an installation at Burning Man. So it did have another life after that, briefly. It’s all sitting in a warehouse in Sacramento and could conceivably be trucked out again.

We used to have a local Tiki Bar called the “Lanai” but it’s gone now.

You know they were a big craze for a while and then they disappeared. Then there was another little mini-craze and in most major cities there’s a tiki bar. Then again, we’ve lost some significant examples. Most importantly was the Kahiki in Columbus, which was a huge place that got taken down so they could build a drug store or something.

As of now you have six AWATS shows scheduled in the US and two overseas. Will there be additional shows?

I believe we’re adding one more in the US. I think in Minneapolis.

So we need to get out to one of those if we’re going to see this?

So far, yes. There are a couple of constraints. One is that it being a much larger production, we have to compress the production period down into something relatively compact. It’s not something that I can take off the road for a while and then just start up again. And the significant musical constraint is that Roger Powell still has a regular job which he has to return to. So he can’t go out for months and months at a time. He can go out for a couple of weeks and then has to go back to the job.

Are there plans to record and release the show either as a CD or DVD?

It’ll be recorded, it’ll be video taped and other possible things were thinking of is a pay-per-view Internet stream live during the show for people in other parts of the world who can’t make the trip. While it’s happening, we’re going to exploit the hell out of it because it’s going to take us a week to rehearse it then we only play seven dates. We hope it is successful enough so that we might get some additional dates added in Europe.

It seems that would make sense being that things are closer together in Europe compared with the US.

Yes, once you get there, you might as well go to more than two places. England and the Netherlands are just two of my stronger markets.

The All Tomorrow’s Parties Festival has been having artists perform complete albums and Lou Reed has had success working with Julian Schnabel on the live concerts and film of his album Berlin.

A number of people have done that. I hear that it’s a big thing for Cheap Trick and for Sparks and a number of others. Van Morrison is doing Astral Weeks. The difference in this is that we’re not simply reproducing the album; we’re turning the album into a show. We used to have theatrics in our shows a lot but this particular record never got the theatrical treatment.

One On One with Todd Rundgren
Part Two by Steve Beck

- Read Part One -

In Part One of my interview with Todd Rundgren we talked about his upcoming performances of his 1973 album A Wizard, A True Star. Below is Part Two where Todd goes a bit more in depth about his gear and recording set-up.He also talks about what it takes to become a sucessful musician in this current era.

Getting back to your equipment, I noticed you were using a Line 6 Flextone III amp.

That’s kind of what’s available. My personal amp is an old Line 6 AX212. That’s what I keep at home but it’s just too big of an ordeal to ship it back and forth to the mainland all of the time. It’s got a wider range of sounds, or at least a range of sounds that I can fairly easily tweak what I want out of it. The Flextones are kind of a sub-set of it. It’s not exactly the same thing and not the same degree of controllability, so under ideal circumstances I would take my AX212. Then again, I think the (Line 6) guitar Pod probably has more sounds than the Flextone does.

Do you use the off-the-shelf Line 6 software for creating your sounds or have you developed your own tweaks?

For Arena I used (Line 6) GearBox. I actually did Arena entirely on my laptop.

Right, I saw an interview where you described recording Arena using Reason and RiffWorks.

Yeah…Reason, RiffWorks and GearBox were the principle software tools and then I just used my Line 6 export as the audio I/O.

Do you see that as the direction your studio is going? Smaller and more portable?

Yes, smaller and more compact. I’m moving away from the hardware dependent systems like Pro Tools. Pro Tools is still standard as long as you get sound in and out of it you can work with other people, but I have, especially out here, so many problems with the hardware. The air is much saltier here and if you don’t turn the thing on for eight months then it doesn’t come on when you hit the switch. I find Digidesign to just be artist-hostile as well. If I were buying $250,000 worth of equipment for a studio, they’d be real friendly to me. If you’re just somebody with a small system, they make you jump through all sorts of hoops. It’s a pain. I’m going for much more of a generic sort of thing. I’m on the beta program for this program called Record which is Propellerhead’s next evolution of Reason. Essentially it integrates it into a whole multi-track recording environment using FireWire interfaces and things like that instead of cards that have to be plugged into a desktop computer. I have no reason to use a desktop computer anymore.

With this, can you now use the studio as more of a songwriting tool?

It sort of evolves from the songwriting directly into the recording. It used to be when the studio was a particular and separate environment the songwriting had to be done whereever you could do it, and then you went in and recorded it, but now it seems like the songwriting goes seamlessly into the recording in a way. You start working with Reason and after a while you refine the sounds to the point that they’re the final sounds that you use. Formerly, once I did the compositional work in Reason, I would take the bits out that I wanted to keep, transfer them into Pro Tools and then overdub voices and other instruments on top. But, with my Pro Tools thing giving me trouble as usual, I don’t even want to go through the hassle of fixing it only to have it stop working again, so I figured a way to do it without Pro Tools. As I say, this was pre the latest evolution of Reason that allows you to record directly into it. I would have to use RiffWorks to essentially record all of the vocal and guitar parts as samples, which then got loaded into a sampler that Reason had triggered. So it’s a very strange process in a way, but it gives you a great deal of flexibility in that you can move where samples get triggered and things like that. Kind of a simple, more brain-dead approach than you might need with something like Pro Tools.

Are there any key pieces of software or equipment that you must have for recording?

Well I’ve been using Reason pretty extensively and the great advantage of it is that it runs well on a laptop so wherever I am I have the advantages of all of those sounds, all of those kinds of samplers, and things like that. Over the years, there were limitations in it that would cause you to think twice about trying to do certain things like, for a long time, they had a sort of tempo mapping. So whatever you did in Reason, it was the starting tempo. You couldn’t do any rubato or ritardando or any of that sort of stuff, you had to be stuck at one place. But now there’s not only that but the Record software also has time stretching built into it. The advantage is I can do a lot of sophisticated repair work that I couldn’t have done before. Jesse (Gress), my guitar player, had a specific problem and I wasn’t exactly sure how it could be solved, but now this new time-stretching ability has offered a solution to it. I guess it’s getting to a point where you can’t compact things down much smaller. Pretty much all the software you need is in the laptop. Maybe people someday will be doing full-on production with an iPhone. You’d be able to get maybe two sliders onto the screen. For me, when I get down to the serious part of mixing, I’ll connect a larger monitor to the laptop just so you have more workspace for all of those virtual devices.

Earlier this year you’ve re-united with the New York Dolls to produce their new album Cause I Sez So. Are there any up-and-coming bands that you are working with either as a producer or a mentor?

Not at the moment. I’m usually in discussions with someone about doing something but there is nothing pinned down right now. As far as I know, I’m going to be working on the AWATS thing and then doing some additional touring behind Arena, going probably into October. That would give me a brief window in November and December, and who knows? Something could always come up between now and then. But having to tour more than I used to doesn’t give me the same sort of wide-open schedule that I might have had back in the day when I would only tour maybe three months a year. Now it’s six to eight months a year just because the whole economics of the music industry has changed.

Does that mean you have to play more now?

Yeah, well that’s the same as it ever was. If you really wanted to capitalize on whatever success you've had with records, you went out on the road because you’re keeping 80% of the ticket price as compared to 10% of the album price. It was always more lucrative to have a healthy touring life than to have mediocre success with records. I’ve always known that I would have to continue to tour to keep myself visible and now it’s a significant aspect of my income. The production side of things has been affected just like everything else has. There are fewer (label) records being made. The ones that are made have smaller budgets.

One last question, what advice could you give to someone who is trying to break into the music industry and survive long term?

I still realize that regardless of the condition of the music business or your position in it, it’s always better to cultivate an audience by performing. The labor may be more intense then just sitting home collecting record royalties but the rate of return is higher because you’re selling your t-shirts and merch. And nowadays most artists probably sell more CDs at their merch tables than they do in a record store. You’ll still make records and you’ll still do all of that other stuff, but your principle means of promotion is going to be (playing) live and representations of your live performance. For instance, clips that wind up on YouTube or something. Most of us are not going to get onto Saturday Night Live.

We’re still trying…

Yeah, but you know you have to elbow Kelly Clarkson out of the way or something.

# # # #

Todd Rundgren performs the British Premiere of A Wizard, A True Star at the HMV London Hammersmith Apollo on Saturday 6th February 2010. Box Office: 08700 603 777. Book Online:

Confirmed US Dates:

Sun. 9/6/09 Akron, OH - Akron Civic Theater
Mon. 9/7/09 Akron, OH - Akron Civic Theater
Wed. 9/9/09 Stamford, CT – Palace Theatre
Thurs. 9/10/09 Bethesda, MD – The Strathmore
Sat. 9/12/09 Chicago, IL – The Park West
Sun. 9/13/09 Chicago, IL – The Park West


Steve Beck founded OnlineRock in 1999 as a place for musicians to post music and share information. In 2001 Beck launched OnlineRock Records which has released music from Gregory Paul, Autumdivers and Ike Willis (former Zappa front man). He has traveled to Sierra Leone, Montenegro and Zambia on behalf of the US State Department to talk to musicians about the industry. As time permits, Beck records and performs with Julie Cornett under the band name Needle. Contact him at

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