Perfect Sound Forever


Todd, circa 1991, photo by Danny O'Connell

interview by Jorge Luis Fernandez

(August 2020)

And at last, I saw him. It was the least perfect ocassion, I must admit. But, for years, I yearned to see him live ever since I heard the epiphany of A Wizzard, A True Star back in the early Nineties. And then, a few years later, I started using his name as an e-mail password, every new homepage password and even a password for smartphones applications (now I've changed it, mind you). That's what the most honest, devoted fan could do while being introduced to the new millennia craze with his faith in 20th century art-rock intact, I think.

But yeah, It was far from being perfect. I'm an Argentinean, born and raised, and inevitably resident, too, so seldomly do I have the chance to fly and stalk good concerts as every modern urban boy should have the benefit of doing. Last December, I'd schedulled a visit to my brother, newly relocated to Phoenix for work reasons. And bingo, it was the ocassion to fulfill my long-standing wish when I checked that Todd Rundgren, my hero, was doing a gig right there, in a stadium of sorts, celebrating -which means replicating- The Beatles' White Album on its 50th anniversary as part of a long-running national tour. Alas, Todd wasn't meant to be alone. As it often happens with this kind of celebratory extravaganzas, the rolling circus embarked him along with a crew of Sixties/Seventies outcasts including Christopher Cross, Micky Dolenz (of The Monkeys fame) and lesser acts completely unbeknownst to me, like one Jason Scheff, who happened not to be a culinary expert but the latter day replacement of Chicago's Peter Cetera. Etc..

In an interview I read beforehand, Todd himself said the album was far from being his favorite, and that the tour was being mostly made for the fun -and, between the lines, one could read the money- of it. Therefore, I was dutifully advised. Bearing in mind all that, you could bet that I didn't do a blind dive. An inordinately expensive seat in the first rows wasn't of the essence, neither attendance with my beloved vintage Todd album original yellow T-shirt, which my dear friend Erik Lindgren -of the minimalist prog rock band Birdsongs Of The Mesozoic, himself a harcore Todd fan- outfitted me on my first visit to the States many moons ago.

And yet. Oh boy, I saw my lifetime's most resilient hero wearing pink ballet tights and tiptoe dancing, like a later-day Nureyev, throwing roses to the audience while singing a perfunctory version of "Sexy Sadie" and running/yelling from one corner to the other of the stage over a prerecorded instrumental track of "Helter Skelter." He took it seriously only through a good rendition of "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" (his personal favorite, he admited in the deadly-honest interview, but not mine). But then he again retorted to nonchalantly, perfunctory mode while performing his de rigueur own two classics, "Hello, It's Me" and "I Saw The Light," a by-numbers routine previously established and coupled with twoffers from the rest of the outcasted crew -oh yes, I had to even swallow two songs penned by the ersatz-Cetera. All in all, I have to say that Todd's acrobatics on stage remain undiminished.

Several months went by and now, in our globally quarantine-confined state, broken stereo included, I found myself instead submerged in YouTube obssessed nostalgia, where I longed for pristine Todd's renditions of "The Last Ride," "Sometimes I Don't Know What To Feel" and many others gems that didn't make it into the White Album extravaganza. Dear YouTube, you're but the only globally-allied friend that I made. And then, I remembered. Not so long ago, in 2015, I had a phone conversation with him while he was visiting Buenos Aires as part of another bizarre tour of sorts, his being part of Ringo's All-Starr Band entourage, which he also did for the fun -and money- of it.

Back then, Todd had been kind enough to revisit his glorious past, eager to rummage in the brief span of a 18 minutes interview and coming up with insightful ideas, not only about his music but also on his notoriously heartfelt comments on love, the most ancient and always recurring topic in popular music. Sadly, the interview was shortly made before Todd had something of a reappraisal for younger generations since Tame Impala's Kevin Parker mentioned him as an influence, a praise somehow retributed with Rundgren's remix of Impala's "Elephant." So no comment about that, but anyway, it really matters?

A ferociously abridged version of the interview was published at the time on a local newspaper (La Nacion) in 2015, due only to my fancore-induced badgering on the editor. But now, ladies and gentlemen, this is the interview in full. Droolings unedited.

Q: In the beginning, you were some sort of a multiinstrumentalist, since you played many instruments in early records like The Ballad Of Todd Rundgren and Something/Anything? How did you make the transition to work mostly with the studio as an instrument?

TR: Well, originally I was just a guitar player. When I was in high school, that's what I wanted to be. I wanted to be the next Clapton (laughs), and I didn't think about songwriting or singing or about anything. But I did have play a little bit of piano, and I discovered eventually that piano was maybe in some ways a songwriting tool. The guitar has physical limitations. So, by the time I was making my first solo record, I was mostly playing piano and guitar, and maybe percussion things, and I did my second album pretty much the same way. But then I had an exposure to the drums and I started practising a little bit, and I thought, 'maybe I can undertake the drums as well' (laughs). Which at that point meant that I only needed another players for specialized things. And I discovered in the long run, that often, if you just find the right thing to play, you don't have to be really a virtuoso. For instance, I played saxophone on a few records.

Q: On Runt, your first album.

TR: Yeah, but that doesn't make me a sax player (laughs). It just means I sound the notes that I can hit, fitting with the song, and that's about it. And then there were so many others instruments. It's always about the sound and putting it out in the right settings. That's really enough, you don't have to be, like I said, a virtuoso.

Q: And what about playing with the studio itself rather than just playing in a studio?

TR: Yeah, well, that kind of happened when I had my first studio, which I called The Secret Sounds. That studio was kind of built with the purpose of making A Wizard, A True Star, and also some sort of projects where you could do things with the equipment that other studios didn't want you to do (laughs). We could set up the room and set up things and not be competing with other sessions, you know: having other people come in and turn down everything they've done, and then we'd have to put it all back together again. So, if I've got an idea for something that I wanted to do like, at ten o'clock in the night, I can just go into the studio and start putting it down. And that ability to think of the studio as being something you can access anytime you want kind of changes all the attitude about it, and allowed us to be more creative with it. Because otherwise, you're always watching the clock and trying to maximize the use of the time, and that doesn't give you a lot of opportunities to experiment. So having, you know, complete access to the studio opens the door to a lot of experimentation it mightn't never happen otherwise.

Q: How did you arrange things in order to make those albums, which are structured with disparate elements? For instance, the opening on Todd is an instrumental experiment with keyboards, which rapidly merges into a ballad, and so on.

TR: Well, as time went on, and I think today I've reached a combination of the project, I kind of start recording things in fragments. Often it would be, you know, a whole song, but I might not have everything written already. I would just get the players and tell them what I wanted them to play, and they'd all be like in the dark about what the song was like, which a lot of people weren't used to. I used to get a lot of complaints from them. They had trouble imagining where to go with it, because it was still somewhere in my head. And as time has gone on, my whole songwriting process has become sort of backwards. I complete the tracks and I write everything, all of the music and stuff, and I come up with the words as the very last part of the process, and I do it almost subconsciously now. There has been exceptions, of course. When I did my live-in-the-studio albums, like Nearly Human and Second Wind, I demoed the songs out because I had, you know, sometimes twenty or thirty players playing at once (laughs). And I had to have a whole song, and there were background vocals and everything, and I was singing live. So, of course, those songs had to be completelly written first.

Q: You kind of created an unconceived genre, which we may call experimental soul. And it's a stillborn genre, because after those two albums, Wizard and Todd, nobody did anything remotely similar to it. How did you come up with that?

TR: Well, I still reflect on my influences from when I was growing up. I grew up in Philadelphia, where we've got a lot of soul music in there, so I always wanted to get a bit of that in what I was doing. But much of my direction comes from the fact that, for most of my career, I had another job: I was a record producer for other people. And so when I went to the studio, I wouldn't think the way other artists would like to think. I always went to the studio thinking, "where haven't I gone?" "Where is the new territory and ideas that I can explore?" And so, I became very difficult to pin down with my music, if you have some sort of expectation. So I'd put down a record that you really liked and the next one wasn't anything like it (laughs). That often turned out to be case. But I think that's also the reason why I still have a career today. That's because the things that have stuck through that process are really kind of... You know, they really understand what I'm trying to do. They're excited to find out what the next thing is. They find that a learning experience is as well as, you know, just listening to music.

Q: And about the sounds you were experimenting with, in the early Seventies, what were your influences?

TR: Oh, it's funny. When I was in high school, I met a guy who was a college profesor and he introduced me to music that I wasn't familiar with in particular, like jazz artists. I hadn't listened to a lot of jazz before that. And then, when the English Invation happened, those bands were much more influenced by blues than American artists were. So it was a funny process where by studying them, I kind of learned about the musical genre that was written in front of me all the time but I never listened to. So by the time I started my career, there were all kinds of influences in there. There was soul music, there was blues, straight-ahead rock'n'roll and what we may now call heavy metal. And even electronic music. When I was in high school, I went through a phase where I was very much into electronic music.

Q: Did you listen to electronic composers like Stockhausen?

TR: That kind of thing was called musique concrete in those days. I would do things like cut the tape up in pieces and place them back together...

Q: Did you use that method on your albums?

TR: Well, I used it a little bit. I would say that A Wizard, A True Star was the greatest example of that kind of cut-and-paste thing. Because we recorded everything, sometimes in larger or smaller fragments, and it wasn't until afterwards when I figured it out how to put it all down together. But nowadays, it's kind of standard procedure, because we use digital tools that makes it very easy to move things around. So often, you record something that sounds like a verse at the time, and then you add another little piece later, and in the end, you realize, "now, maybe that first thing is the chorus and this one is the verse" (laughs). And you move things around until it sounds right. Now, it's second nature.

Q: You are the master of the torch song, I think. You took the style to the ultimate, and I must even say I hear hints of José Feliciano in your singing style.

TR: Yeah?

Q: Yeah. Which qualities do you think a torch song requires to become a timeless piece of music?

TR: That's something I have never thought a lot about. These songs are usually a part of a larger group of songs, and then I think, you know, 'I need a certain moment...' Often in my records it isn't so much that I'm trying to say something that's really particular, but I'm trying to get an emotional balance. You know, wild-hearted moments and funny moments, and then moments where you really sort of bare your soul. And I guess that's the most important thing about a torch song, or whatever is that. It has to be beliavable! It has to feel like the singer really believes what he's saying. And in that sense, the process of writing usually has something to do with going deep inside yourself. And often, you know, recalling something that happened to you that really affected you emotionally.

Q: In those cases, you write both music and lyrics at the same time?

TR: I often find that the lyrics are the last thing for me. I create a musical landscape that suggests me the form of the song. And so I may just have a title. And I won't have the entire lyrics, but the title will inspire the music and then, once the music is done, it inspires a particular set of lyrics.

Q: Before I bought any of your albums, I recall having bought an album dedicated to you. It's called For The Love Of Todd.

TR: Oh yeah! (laughs).

Q: It included versions of your songs made by artists that admire you. And I recall having an immediate affinity for the album, because if there's something that defines your greatest stuff, that's precisely love. In which ways do you relate love to the song as a vehicle?

TR: I suppose some people would have to be subconscious about it. I know that at a certain point, I stopped using the word. It was right after Something/Anything?, because as well as feeling like the music was being kind of formulaic, there was also the fact that everybody wrote love songs. Every song that you heard on the radio was about a boy-girl relationship, or something like that. And I thought, 'that's fine, but there's got to be other stuff in the world to write about.' But often, you know, the word 'love' was used interchangeably with 'sex,' and there's a big difference between love and sex. So for a while, I stopped using the word, just because I thought it was overused, and because people made assumptions about what it meant when you did use it. So it took me a long time to get back to being comfortable using the word, and I usually only use it when I'm exploring something specific.

Q: I presume you returned to the subject with "The Meaning Of The Verb To Love," from 1976.

TR: Yes, and that was my dilemma. When you say the word 'love,' what actually do you mean? I guess I'm much more careful now (laughs), when I'm using the word.

Also see our articles on the Nazz and Utopia

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