Tuesday, June 2, 2015

cd signing in LA



illustration by bob kurthy

Todd Rundgren is the kind of musician who can do just about anything—a wizard just like one of his album titles explained, a technophile who seizes the chance to experiment as soon as the first pixel lights up and a songwriter with such fluency that he doesn’t so much work as effortlessly will music into being. And besides: who else has the history, vision and personality to provoke passion enough to pull off a Toddstock, a homemade festival celebration—in the truest sense of the word—of all things Todd? Rundgren is currently touring his newest album Global (with L.A. mainstay Dam-Funk playing keys in the live band) as well as enjoying the release of the fascinating Runddans project, an anything-goes-all-the-time album-length suite recorded with Norwegian producer Lindstrøm and Emil Nikolaisen of Serena-Maneesh. Here, Jonathan Rado of L.A.’s formidable Foxygen—erudite Rundgrenians for sure—talks to Todd about the collapse of the temporal barriers and the earthquake that told him to move out of L.A.

I listen to your early records and there’s something so modern, so 2015 about it—like you predicted where music would go. How does it feel to listen to music now and hear your influence reigning over a lot of it?

It feels good to survive, you know? It’s always good to feel like you’re part of something bigger. At a certain point, I felt I was outside of everything, separate from everything. Part of that is by design and part of it is me trying to fill a hole in the musical fabric rather than just repeat what somebody else is doing. But music never stands still. It continues to evolve. I guess if you can survive long enough, whatever it is you do becomes interesting again. I’m kind of in that phase now. Enough musical generations have gone by, and the atmosphere in music now is very … I feel it’s palpably different. Everything that used to exist and everything that’s existing now that’s really brand new and coming into existence is all in the same place—it’s all on the internet. You can’t say historically that everyone had unlimited access to everything that’s happening in music. Not only just the very old stuff—like I see video clips of musical acts from the ‘50s and I wonder why I never heard of them? Likely it was that they were really popular in the Philippines and not much anywhere else. We’re now in a generation of listeners and musicians who don’t see a temporal dividing line between music that might have been created years and years ago and music being created today. When you’re on YouTube™, it’s totally egalitarian. It’s all equally reachable, in a way. That’s finally sunk in to the audience—that music is not necessarily what you hear on terrestrial radio, not what necessarily gets recognized by the Grammys, that there’s just so much more to it. I’m just a beneficiary cuz I’ve been around long enough!

When you were making records like A Wizard, A True Star, did you feel you were doing things ahead of your time? Or like a man out of time—like ‘People aren’t ready for this yet’?

I don’t usually think of time, music-wise. We’re still listening to music that was composed hundreds and hundreds of years ago. People will buy a concert ticket to go see an orchestra play music that’s 500 years old. Music—and a lot of art, I suppose, if it’s really art—transcends any sort of timeframe. I wasn’t thinking, when I was making A Wizard, A True Star, ‘Oh, someday people will get this.’ I was thinking, ‘People will get this or they won’t get this … in whatever time frame they listen to this.’ They’ll get it or they won’t get it. I was just trying to be different from everything else that was happening. And also try to represent more truly a certain kind of musical thought process—to try and grab the process before it produced what was a more standard industry-standard output, which would be a song—a song with a typical structure. Verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-solo-chorus-chorus-chorus. I thought, ‘You know, those are the kind of the arrangements you make cause that’s what expected.’ But when you’re writing a song, you don’t have the full structure usually mapped out in your head. It starts with a little melody line and maybe a lyric to go with it, and you essentially expound on that. Develop it. You may discover that what you thought was the verse was actually the chorus. Or you may discover you’ve got a song that in same senses has no chorus at all. A song like ‘I Saw The Light’ or ‘Hello It’s Me’ ironically have no choruses in them. They’re just big long verses and bridges! And solos! When I was doing A Wizard, A True Star, I was thinking, ‘Get all that idea of verses and choruses out of your head, and just start writing music and figuring out how it all fit together.’ Sometimes it’ll dovetail well and sometimes it’ll be like you did it with a glue gun, just sticking stuff together that wouldn’t naturally hang together. And just see what the effect is of all that! So the record was definitely a conscious experiment in disrupting the usual habits and ways of turning music into songs, and actively exploring other possibilities and doing it in a way that exposed a broader range of my musical sensibilities and influences. In other words, when I did Something / Anything, people started referring to me as the male Carole King. And I thought, ‘That’s just too cramped a box to be in.’ So I self-consciously started doing other kinds of music just to get out of that box.

I think people think a Carole King thing is just anything that uses a major 7th chord—that’s Carole King.

Carole King was a song craftsman essentially, and by the time I got to Something / Anything, I was at a point I could just whip these things out. I was using the same kind of forms and similar chord structures and lyrics that were always about the boy-girl relationship—a relationship I’d had in high school five years earlier than I’d completely gotten over, and I used it as lyrical fuel. I suddenly realized that’s a no-no. You’re singing about stuff that you don’t really care about.

Something / Anything is an amazing album to me. The first thing that struck me about it—that I fell in love with—was that you’re doing it all yourself and playing all the instruments. Why? A creative choice? An efficiency choice?

I was moving in that direction. My first two solo records I had at least a bass and drum player—the Sales brothers on a lot of it, and other people on some songs. It had a lot to do with the fact that I didn’t have a space that I could practice the drums in. The drums make a lot of noise! It wasn’t until I’d done several productions that I felt confident, cuz during a break in one of productions, I’d be in the studio and I could go and essentially mess around on the drums while everyone is on break. That was the way I learned how to play. I didn’t have drums in my apartment and if I had, I would’ve been kicked out! I used the opportunity to get on the drums while I was in the studio and eventually develop the confidence that I could at least batter my way through my own songs. The only problem was trying to figure out what to do first. I at first tried to play piano parts to the songs and then do the drums afterward and that turned out to be impossible. I couldn’t follow my own piano playing. So essentially I learned how to sing the songs in my head while I played the drums and then put everything on afterward, which is logically the way to do it. But if you put a metronome on it, everything would be all over the place! It all smooths out in the end after you add all the other instruments. It was a question of access, you know? Me getting enough access to the point where I thought I could play the drums as well, and the advantage of that—the continuing advantage—is you don’t have to teach anyone else the parts. You just think of the parts you want and you just play them.

You can hear that in the record. A few tracks of Something / Anything were recorded at your house. That’s written about but never elaborated on. Did you record a lot at your house? What were you doing?

There were three or four songs and they were particularly kind of odd songs. Odd songs that I was experimenting with at the time. Like ‘Breathless,’ which was all instrumental and had a drum machine rather than regular drums. I did it in my house, so I couldn’t play the drums. Indeed, I don’t think I even had … I’m trying to figure out how I did my monitoring? I don’t quite remember, but I probably had some sort of little mixer. Then there were songs like … I think I did ‘One More Day’ at home and ‘I Went To The Mirror.’ ‘I Went To The Mirror,’ I can’t remember whether I did the drums before or after the rest of the recording, but I essentially married drums I’d done in the studio with piano and other instruments and voice I’d done in my house. It essentially became part of my routine. I’d record all day long, songs I’d already written in my head, and I’d come home at night and have a little something to eat and go to work recording again—this time with things that were being developed as I went along. That part of the recording actually became more the template for future recordings than the idea of me going to the studio and playing a drum part and layering all the instruments over top. As a matter of fact, I didn’t do much of that again until I got to A Wizard, A True Star, which was me playing all the instruments again.
You moved from L.A. to New York for A Wizard, A True Star—
I only lived in L.A. for a year. I was living on the East Coast and thought I wanted to try living in L.A. I still had my floor-through in a brownstone in New York, and was I guess commuting to get Something / Anythingcompleted. By the time I got to A Wizard, A True Star, I was firmly back in New York. I didn’t—in the long run—enjoy my time in L.A. as much as I’d thought I would. I got fed up with the fact you had to drive everywhere. You couldn’t walk anywhere. Right near the end of the recording, there was a major earthquake in L.A.—as a matter of fact, the inside picture on Something / Anything of me with a microphone on a broomstick and the light coming from behind it, that was in the house I had rented in L.A. and was taken the night before the major earthquake happened. That was the first time I was ever in an earthquake and I thought, ‘This I don’t like. I’m not gonna put up with this.’ That was another reason I decided to move out of L.A. I had fun there, I met a lot of girls there, did a few productive things and met some musicians and got to see a lot of live music … but L.A. evolved as the years went by into a place where most everybody was not from L.A. Almost everybody you met in L.A. was coming to L.A. with a personal agenda. This evolved to the point where people … for instance, people who work in the movies, they call you up and say, ‘We need a song for this movie, for the credits or the opening … we tried to hire some people and it’s not working out. We need it right away, we’re in production, please help us right away cuz we really need it!’ So you’ll burn a weekend coming up with a demo for a song for their film and deliver it, and you won’t hear from them for three weeks. Then you’ll track them down and say, ‘Whatever happened to that?’ ‘Oh, we, uh, went with something else about two weeks ago.’ ‘Were you never gonna call me? You were gonna demand I help you out, and once you get what you want, you never even bother to acknowledge it?’ That’s kind of the way people think in L.A. and one of the reasons I don’t really enjoy myself when I’m there. I could go on! I moved back to New York, built the studio and that’s when the era of A Wizard, A True Star and the Todd record and all the aggressive experimentation started.
In the liner notes on Something / Anything, for ‘Little Red Lights’ you say it’s a ‘you-know-what for you-know-who.’ Is that about James Dean?
No—it was actually a tribute to Jimi Hendrix. Jimi Hendrix had this totally different approach to guitar from anybody I’d seen before that. It was a magical sound-creating device as opposed to a guitar, in Jimi Hendrix’s hand, through the combination of treatments he did to the sound and his totally liberated way of playing the guitar. He gets all kinds of sounds out of the instrument that were imitative of other things—seabirds and sirens and engines revving, motorcycles, ‘Crosstown Traffic.’ I kinda copped it from him, that whole making-motorcycle-sounds-with-your-guitar. It came in especially handy when the production of [Meatloaf’s] Bat Out Of Hell came around. The end part, where he kinda hops on his motorcycles and drives off and crashes … we were in the studio and I think [composer Jim] Steinman was asking, ‘Can we get a sample of a motorcycle?’ And he somehow dropped a sample of a motorcycle in there, like ‘Leader of the Pack’ or whatever. I thought, ‘Why don’t we try this? It’ll be more seamlessly musical, since I’m playing guitar anyway. See how you like this—see if this reminds you of a motorcycle?’ So I did the Jimi Hendrix trick. You need a certain guitar equipped in a certain way—with a vibrato tailpiece, and you crush the tailpiece. You push it down all the way. I was playing at the time a Fender Mustang, which is a shorter scale guitar—what they’d call a ‘student guitar.’ I played it for specific reasons, even though my fingers were a little bit too fat for it. It had the full 22 frets. A Stratocaster has 21 frets, which means it’s hard to choke up or pull two octaves on the E string. I preferred it cuz it had the extra fret. Due to the fact that it had the weird tailpiece on it, and due to the fact that it was a shorter scale guitar, when you push that tailpiece down all the way, the strings would go completely limp. They’d just hang. That’s how you get those rumbling low frequencies, as if you’d tuned the guitar down until the strings were just flopping all over the pickups. You’d eventually keep pulling up on that tailpiece until at the opposite end, the unique aspect of the tailpiece on the Mustang was that it could get you these incredibly high squealing notes as well. So that was me doing the Jimi Hendrix on the Fender Mustang.
Are you still always trying to search for new sounds?
It’s harder and harder to find what you’d call ‘new sounds.’ Since we’ve developed digital technology and digital samplers and that kind of thing, the world of sound has been sampled. Maybe not necessarily always used in a musical context, but it’s pretty much out there and available. And the audience has become more liberal in terms of what kind of sound they’ve become accustomed to hearing. So the idea of finding a new sound like a particular noise or something like that … or a new use for a sound is kind of less challenging than it is trying to figure out how to put those sounds together in an interesting way that’s still musical. That happens all the time. Probably the most innovative sound experimentalist now is like Skrillex and his ilk. It’s not as important to write a song so much as it is to create a sonic atmosphere and effects and excitement and emotion within that atmosphere. I mean—what does ‘Bangarang’ mean? It doesn’t mean anything. What it means is a giant hit record for one guy! But the problem is things change so fast that you mention Skrillex and you’re talking about an artist who’s probably peaked in a way already. When his record came out, it didn’t create hardly any kind of a stir. He’d already made his mark. I can see him moving on to doing film work, more than I can see him working in pop music, as it were. His career is still doing really well. But making those kind of records has certain limitations, put it that way. He’ll be really hot for a while, but they won’t last cuz they don’t have the kind of hooks people remember. If the content of your music is all really hyperbolic sound and little fragments of words here and there and little fragments of lyrics that may or may not make any particular sense, years from now people won’t have anything to hang on to cuz they can’t describe sound. People say, ‘Remember that song that …’ But unless you went with a lyric, it’s impossible to make the sound of the record with their mouth. They wanna say, ‘Did you ever hear that song that goes REEEEEEEEE-ERNNNNNNNO-ooowowoooo-wowowowo? You know?’ It’s not how people describe music. They’ll try and remember a melodic fragment with a memorable lyric. You’re gonna have to constantly produce new sound for your name to remain familiar to people. It’s just a bind in doing that kind of music. I imagine he’ll use those talents to either go into writing scores for movies, which I believe he’s already done, or two collaborate with other people and create more traditional song structures cuz that’s what people remember.
This new album with Lindstrøm is very aware of your career. It’s like a self-aware record. It’s modern and also a throwback than I think you’ve ever made. What did it feel like to have these young dudes know your sound so well? And to put this together so it’s like four of your records playing at once?
The internet plays a pivotal role in these kind of things. As I mentioned before, it flattens everything out. You can find everything. It’s all there somewhere. Modern musicians … you get jaded with the music of your contemporaries. There’s always musicians who wanna do something different and personal and unique and it’s hard to do it in a world where everyone’s trying to find a formula for success—where all the artists around you seem to be baking the same thing. The internet enables you to do research and find music that appeals to you but may not co-exist in your particular timeframe. It may be something from the past. That happens to me all the time. In the mid-90s, I got approached to do a record that was essentially covers of my old songs as part of a series Angel Records was doing. They got I think James Taylor to do it … as it turned out, most artists were just doing acoustic versions of their old songs that had more elaborate arrangements. Just really simplifying them. But when they came to me, I’d been spending a lot of time in Japan where they were way ahead of the game in re-releasing old records on CD. I started finding all this music I thought had disappeared after the 50s and 60s—in particular a lot of lounge music and bossa nova. I suddenly realized I really enjoyed listening to bossa nova. So I said, ‘OK, I’m gonna make a bossa nova record.’ That’s kind of the same thing that happened with this Lindstrøm thing. You get it into your head that everybody’s making the same kind of record—so I’m gonna find some kind of music that is more fun or out of the ordinary and try and build something on that. That’s my only explanation for it! I can’t really answer for everybody who has suddenly discovered music from the past and the reason why they respond to it. But Lindstrøm asked me to do a remix before I ever knew who Lindstrøm is. The EDM scene in Europe is way healthier than it is the US. I was kind of flattered to have this opportunity to work with a younger artist, and I did a remix of a song called ‘Quiet Place To Live.’ I was over in Oslo to speak at a music conference and Lindstrøm was in the studio working on this new project with Emil Nokolaisen. We thought wouldn’t it be interesting if I dropped by and maybe made a few contributions to this project? Which I did over the course of two days—came in, did a little singing, little guitar playing, and on the second session, I had them do some playing and singing of what I thought would work. And then we decided that we would all three collaborate on this project cuz neither of those guys did a lot of singing—they weren’t comfortable doing a lot of singing—and the project might need some voice on it. So we collaborated remotely for about three years and finally wrapped it up and got it released [last month].
If you could go to one artist’s ToddStock, who would it be?
Who would I like to hang out with? I always enjoyed Elvis Costello and his approach to songwriting and the way he … he’s never gone electronic as far as I know, but he likes to incorporate various styles. Sometimes he’ll do a country thing or an American roots music thing or something with a string quartet, and then he’ll put the Attractions back together and do an old-fashioned Elvis Costello record. So I think going to Elvis Costello camp would be a lot of fun cuz there’s so many things you could talk about, that you could ask him questions about how these things came about … you might get to meet Diana Krall in the process, too!
It takes a certain type of artist to have a three-day festival in their honor. It has to be interesting.
There have to be stories to tell—it may be more interesting to go to a Motorhead band camp, cuz I imagine there are a lot of non-musical tales that go on there!