Wednesday, May 29, 2013

BackTalk: Todd Rundgren’s Swampland Utopia

BackTalk: Todd Rundgren’s Swampland Utopia

Musician and producer Todd Rundgren first took the world stage in the mid-60s, fronting his band the Nazz. This June, Rundgren celebrates his 65th birthday at a party in swampy rural Louisiana, where his most loyal fans and disciples will pay for the opportunity to enter his personal space for six days. A previous “Toddstock” event celebrating Rundgren’s 60th took place at his palatial Hawaiian home in Kauai. Toddstock II v6.5 will find Rundgren and his minions celebrating and jamming on the mainland, along the Mississippi River at Nottoway Plantation, the South’s largest remaining antebellum mansion.
Todd Rundgren, photo, Clayton Call
Todd Rundgren (Photo: Clayton Call)
At his Louisiana birthday party, Rundgren will premiere the three-piece band he’s put together to tour State. The State tour officially begins 80 miles away in New Orleans, the day after Toddstock ends. Via phone from his home in Hawaii, the musical legend laughs away the risk involved with offering himself up to those who’d pay $799 to hang out with him – though as he explains in the interview below, that not-insignificant ticket price gets fans more than face-time with the wizard, the true star.

So who do you expect at your birthday party? Overly-dedicated superfans? Your family? Artists and others you’ve worked with?
We certainly expect to see the fans that show up to all the gigs and who want an opportunity to hang out with each other outside of that context. The only real agenda item we have this time is we’ll be premiering a version of State.

But aren’t you scared of the type of people who would pay $800 just to be around you?
The $800 isn’t simply to hang out with me. $800 is six days of getting fed and drunk money. When we had the first event, a few people early on would get a little over-excited, they wanted to monopolize the conversation. But eventually they calm down because they realize they have a whole week to get everything covered. Then a lot of them have been around for so long that they’ve developed almost a community ethos of their own, which is easily conveyed to people who have not experienced it. Oftentimes it’s hard to tell who’s strictly a fan, and who is a volunteer, and who’s actually a collaborator [laughs].

The last Toddstock in Hawaii was at your house. Why move it to Nottoway in Louisiana?
In Hawaii we set up a couple big tents so people could camp in the lot next to my house. But moving it to the mainland has a couple advantages, along with the party being more easily accessible: people can opt to stay in an actual room; they don’t have to camp if they don’t feel like it. Or you can bring an RV—which, it’s pretty much impossible to drive an RV to Kauai. Nottoway has wi-fi all over the entire estate, and it has the kitchens where they will prepare the food. That unburdens us from a lot of the stuff we’d have to otherwise deal with. If anyone wants to take a little hop into New Orleans it’s very close, and we expect people to take advantage of whatever kinds of local activities there are at Nottoway: river-boating, alligator wrestling…

Are you expecting any of your famous friends to attend? Since it’s your retirement party I figured all the stars would be out…
Retirement party?! I’m not retiring! I couldn’t afford it!

Kidding. I’m just going to the event myself, and so hoping Daryl Hall is there.
Daryl doesn’t get out much. He did a show here [Live at Daryl’s House] in Hawaii with me only because they were traveling back from Japan. But when he’s not on tour he pretty much holes up in Connecticut and I certainly don’t expect him to show up out of the blue. Then again, it being my birthday maybe he will. In terms of celebrities I haven’t gone out of my way to invite anybody. They don’t necessarily want to endure my fans unless I prep them for it.

I read that people shouldn’t think of this as rock-n-roll fantasy camp. You won’t be jamming with your fans?
You never know what’s going to happen. We will have a little jamming area set up. I am looking to just kind of goof off myself [laughs]. The last time we had this event I had to rehearse my band all week so I really didn’t get to enjoy myself and relax much at all except in the evening. So I am hoping to get some relaxing time in, and socialize.

What do you drink when you relax?
Well, during the daytime usually beer. And then at night we open up the martini bar. The fans last time built their own mai-tai bar. They got sick of martinis so they opened up another bar that made mai-tais.

So Toddstock will also feature you playing State. I’ve described State to friends as being like a Todd Rundgren rave record. It’s almost got a ’90s techno vibe, that nonetheless feels very fresh. To you, what is State about?
I had originally thought I was going to do a larger project that would involve a lot of collaborations, but with the deadline I realized I had to scale back to something a little bit more attainable. I decided I wanted to make a modern-sounding record, particularly because I’ve been working with some younger artists recently who cite my earlier work as influential to them. There’s a DJ from Norway, producer/recording artist Lindstrom; then from Australia, a new band called Tame Impala. When they started talking about albums like A Wizard, A True Star, I thought maybe I had to recover some of that approach to making records. And that was what inspired the direction I took with State. I also did a lot of musical research. I went on YouTube and listened to a lot of what is going on now—and as soon as I heard something I liked I stopped listening to it [laughs]. And then finally I got down to the process of trying to unload my subconscious into the computer.

State does sound like music the younger people today would like. It would work really well at some of these concerts they have now where people don’t look at the stage, they just dance.
[Laughs] That’s kind of the direction I am going with it. Lindstrom and I did a little studio work and I saw him DJ one night and it reminded me of what I was doing back in 1993, and so I thought maybe I should recapture some of that—the advantage being that all of that technology that was so difficult to deal with in those days is now, these days, just off-the-shelf. It wouldn’t be a question of me climbing this giant hill, this enormous learning curve. I wouldn’t have the hours and hours of preparation that went into say, the No World Order show. This time to do it live I don’t have to translate everything from one format to another; I can use a laptop. [The live show] can all be done as part of the whole overall process of recording the record.

So are you going to present State as a Todd Rundgren Dance Party kind of thing?
Kind of like that. Lights will be an important part of it. The band is stripped way down, just drums (Prairie Prince from The Tubes) and guitar (Jesse Gress). And there may be moments when they don’t play, when I go off on some improvisation or something. It’s not a formal concert presentation; it will be different every night.

So it’s safe to say the State tour won’t be a typical Greatest Hits show?
There may be a few hits, but it won’t be like my so-called Performing Art Center Show, which is supposed to be easy and for the dilettante to absorb.

You by this point couldn’t possibly have people coming to your shows expecting to have their expectations met.
Ideally, no. [laughs]. People come with few expectations. Or at least in the early parts of the tours they have no expectations. Then word gets out about what I am doing and if they haven’t bought their tickets yet who knows, they might decide not to [laughs]. Sales for this tour have been well even though people must be aware that I’ll be doing a new record for the most part.

A superfan of yours told me you had invented a new form of technology for this tour. He also warned me that you weren’t going to tell me about it.
What? [laughs heartily] I don’t know who came up with that. Maybe they think some way I’m building my new setup is revolutionary, but I don’t necessarily feel that way. I recorded State on my Apple laptop, and software called Reason. Aside from a little audio interface, a little guitar and singing, it was all done on that computer. The last time I did something like this it required me to more or less build the entire system from scratch using a programming language.

Once when I saw you, in the days before laptops, and you had taped music in the background, you said to the crowd, ‘Someday everybody will be doing this.’
[laughs] I think I was being facetious. But it wasn’t the last time I did it.

Have you made any steps toward digitizing yourself so you can live on into eternity, digitally? Artificial intelligence Todd? Hologram Todd?
Well, I’ve heard some pretty good cover bands at some of these birthday parties [chuckles]. I may just franchise it out to the officially authorized cover bands that will go out and play Utopia songs or something like that, something I’m not willing to do anymore.

Do you stand behind what you said in 1974: that you would give it all for one moment of enlightenment?
I probably said that before I had kids.

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