Musician Todd Rundgren has been writing, performing and producing music for over four decades. “Runt”, “The Ballad of Todd Rundgren” and “Something Anything” are just three of his great albums he’s released. He’s also engineered or produced music for other great artists including Badfinger, The Band, The New York Dolls and Meatloaf. He recently stopped by the SiriusXM studios to sit down with Ron Bennington and talk about his new album, State. Excerpts from the interview appear below.
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Ron Bennington: “DJ Odd” is the new handle?
Todd Rundgren: (laughs) Umm…yeah. It’s a little bit of a…it’s somewhat punny. But it has a lot to do with…there’s a storefront and it just…right there in big letters – it says “Odd” with 2 D’s. And the guys that I’ve been working with were kind of like encouraging me to think about deejaying a little and stuff like that. It’s a very European thing. (laughs) And I thought – what’s my handle going to be? I saw “Odd” and they said – yeah, it’s a common name here. It’s just the name of the owner of the store. Whatever. And I thought – well, that’s my DJ handle.
Ron Bennington: Well, how long have you paid attention to this whole Electronica thing before you started to do any yourself?
Todd Rundgren: Well, apparently since the ’70s. (laughs) Which is why these artists have shown some interest in what I’m doing. The kind of stuff I was doing back with “A Wizard, a True Star” and that sort of thing and a lot of experimental sounds and that sort of thing seems to…some contemporary artists seem to find some inspiration in that.
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Ron Bennington: I was watching this documentary on Journey where they went out and got the Filipino kid to sing just like Steve Perry. And you could see that they’re not really that interested in what are we going to do now. It’s like – can we make that exact sound for this audience who wants to come up on some level of nostalgia as well as appreciation.
Todd Rundgren: It’s a legitimate goal, I think. If your alternative is to have to go get a regular old job or have to play your old hits night after night – I suppose I would still opt for playing my old hits as opposed to having to get up 9 to 5 every day. But for me, there’s too much interesting going on. Especially now because sometimes things happen so fast, you lose track of how much progress there’s been. And even 10, 15 years ago, it was a pretty expensive proposition to get into a situation where you could record your own music. You would have to buy like Pro Tools and it would cost you like $25,000. And a lot of artists, they couldn’t rationalize it or didn’t have the cash on hand or whatever. But in the interim, every thing has kind of collapsed down into a laptop. And now, there’s an entire generation of artist who have never had anything but a laptop. And have learned it all by doing. And have built international reputations for themselves without the help of record label or anything like that. And this was all only made possible, even in like the last 5, 10 years, laptops became powerful enough to do every thing you need to make a record without having to buy a lot of additional hardware, so artists like Skrillex and Tipper and a lot of other names – they’re all self-made artists. They never had to have a label come in and give them a pile of money in order for them to get started.
Ron Bennington: And they go directly to their audience and then they do these gigs, which seems like they spend a lot of money on light shows to me.
Todd Rundgren: The light show is definitely where it’s at. And as a matter of fact, I’ve taken that as my own. On my new tour, I’ve essentially stripped the band down to like 3 people, so that I could afford to bring lights. (laughs)
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Ron Bennington: But the experience of making [music] has to be completely different – you’re at a laptop or you’re in Sound City, that’s got to be 2 different experiences, right? To put this together.
Todd Rundgren: Well, it is and I’ve been at both ends of the spectrum. I’ve made live albums with 2, 3 dozen people in the studio all playing at once. And then, I’ve done the self-made track at a time productions as well. And the difference I think in this recent one, “State”, is that I was trying to broaden the sonic palet as opposed to trying to sound realistic as it were. Like my previous studio album, well, the previous 2 studio albums…wait a minute, I’m skipping one. (laughs) A lot of my previous records – it’s an attempt to sound like people playing. Sound like real drums and program them so it sounds like a real player and you get bass sounds and guitar sounds and things like that. In this particular instance and for this kind of music, you really don’t have those boundaries any longer. You can go for any kind of sound that you imagine. You can even do things that are kind of sonically anomalous – that make no sense to the human ear. And somehow nowadays, the listening audience has evolved to a certain point that that doesn’t sound as strange to them as it might have 10 years ago or something like that. So, a lot of the end result of this individual experimentation is a more sophisticated audience. An audience that is open to a broader range of musical approaches.
Ron Bennington: Well, it’s always like that. Every generation almost has a different ear then the generation before – what they’re able to handle and what they expect to handle.
Todd Rundgren: Yeah and a lot of it comes from…not simply from the so-called music business, but it comes from the culture in general. When I did the album called “Liars”, my principle inspiration was listening to the music that was behind TV commercials. Because the music was selected for it’s ability to convey some sort of newness or youthfulness or whatever. The same thing is true today. I mean when we were growing up, commercials were always kind of like jingles. (laughs) They would take a little jingle and it was in a style that had like remained unaltered since the ’30s or something like that.
Ron Bennington: That’s really true.
Todd Rundgren: And then suddenly, they started…I think the pivotal moment was when they got…when they licensed the Beatles “Revolution” for…it might have been shoes or something like that. But when they started licensing familiar artists’ tunes to essentially, obviously appeal to a certain audience, it kind of changed the ground rules. Now that people are looking for the hippest, most cutting edge kind of stuff.
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Ron Bennington: And you feel like you should have your job down once you’ve been doing it for 30 years. And now to hear – alright, take all that stuff and throw it out because we’re going in a new direction.
Todd Rundgren: I’m kind of surprised at the breadth of music styles that are popular nowadays. I mean you’ve got your Mumford & Sons – which is one guy with a bass drum and banjoes and things like that. That’s one way to see it. Another way to see it is there’s a whole revival in R&B with people like Frank Ocean and stuff like that. Taking it back to a more kind of simple and very personal thing instead of all the freaking bombast and stuff that a lot of modern R&B has come to represent. And again, there’s the laptop boys. You go on to Youtube or something like that and you start one place and you wind up a complete other place, because of the whole side bar thing. And you suddenly discover, there’s an entire generation of interconnected – they all know each other and they’re all interconnected and they are essentially self-made men, in a way. They’ve got themselves a laptop, taught themselves how to use it, learned from other people and now they’re playing for 50,000 fans at a time. (laughs)
Ron Bennington: If you’re listening to a Frank Ocean, are you being analytical about it or can you still listen to music the way you could when you were a kid? Can you just enjoy it?
Todd Rundgren: I don’t even think I would remember Frank Ocean unless I responded to what he had done. (laughs) I heard the name before that, but I wasn’t fully familiar with the band that he was in. But then, I think I saw him on Saturday Night Live perform his thing and I thought – this is very personal, very kind of unlike a lot of this R&B where you’re just trying to hit the highest damn note you can – where you’re very loud and the dance routines and all this other stuff. Essentially to distract from the vapidness of the material. Instead, it seemed like he was just delivering something very personal and without a whole lot of flash and stuff like that. And that appealed to me.
Ron Bennington: It’s always interesting to me when we see somebody and I go – well, he could have even made it in another generation. Like I could have pictured that kid in the ’70s. And you can’t do that with a lot of those guys.
Todd Rundgren: It’s always hard to tell what the shelf life is of any new musical fad. I mean there are some things that are just…you know, you’re praying for them to go away. (laughs) Hopefully, they do within some reasonable period of time. I mean I don’t get Taylor Swift at all. I mean, I don’t see the talent there. I was on the TV the other night and they had a musical…I was on the Letterman show and they had some musical guest and I thought – there must be 20 girls in the audience who could of done what those girls did, which is carry a tune in a bucket. (laughs) And sometimes I just don’t get it. And you realize there’s just so many other aspects to success in this business and a lot of it some times has nothing to do with the quality of the music. It has to do with finding an audience who are your potential consumers and giving them industry standard product like you’re making cookies or something. And that will always be there. That aspect of the music business will always be there. But that’s not the reason why I stay involved.
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Ron Bennington: But you had that when you were younger and it kind of turned you off a little bit? The kind of business of the music business?
Todd Rundgren: Very early on, when I was in the Nazz – our essential experience was about as meteoric as you could have without any of the actual substance of success. (laughs) Our manager, it was his first time as a manager. He originally was a publicist, so we saw every thing in terms of how do you promote and publicize the band? He was far less skilled at the actual management part of it. My experience with the band was only about 18 months from start to finish. We managed to get 2 records done and really broke up of the course of making the second record, finishing the second record. And there was just so many extreme kind of show bizzy things that you thought you were like dying to have. Like “16” magazine would have us on their cover even before we had found a record deal, because our manager / promotion man, he…
Ron Bennington: …knew how to do that.
Todd Rundgren: He knew Gloria Stavers, the editor of the magazine, so he said – alright, we’re going to make these pretty boys the next big thing, even before we get a record deal. And so, that kind of…you know, being sold without the actual substance of what you’re doing and being a part of it – that was just the start of it. And then, when you actually get out on the road and you realize how feckless a lot of the business is and how difficult the politics of being in a band is. Probably the biggest issue from the band’s inception was that we really didn’t grow up together – like kind of put the band together in like a super group manner. When I left the band that I was in, in Philadelphia, Woody’s Truck Stop, I went out to all the other bands and I listened to the players and I asked them if they wanted to join my band, so there wasn’t a lot of history.
Ron Bennington: You don’t have that gang mentality. It’s us against the world.
Todd Rundgren: Exactly. And we didn’t develop our musical philosophy together. I essentially imposed it on everybody else. (laughs) So, that made the foundation of the band a little shaky to start with. And then, you start putting pressure on that and kaboom, it’s doesn’t take long for everything to fall apart.
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Ron Bennington: The business people are always going to want sales and chart and push things faster and faster. I’m sure every time you produced a record, you had somebody calling you saying – when’s it going to be done?
Todd Rundgren: (laughs) Well, my style as a producer was to get it done, so I didn’t really experience a lot of that. It was often the reason why people called me – was I developed a reputation for getting in the studio and making music. Not getting in the studio and making a lot of politics or sociology or whatever else gets involved. The whole idea of being in the studio is to get something done because it isn’t the most fun place to play music. You’ve got no audience there. A lot of people find it sterile in some ways and so, many artists are completely out of their element when they’re in the studio. And it’s your job to distract them from that in a way. (laughs) To remind them what the priorities are and stop getting all anal about the sound and things like that. We’ll worry about that in good time. The whole point is to perform the way you would in front of an audience. And a lot of artists forget that. They think they’re making some precious little model airplane or something, I don’t know. (laughs)
Ron Bennington: Well, a lot of that has to do with the mythology of the Beatles too, I think. That when people think about a record, they’re going to think “Sgt. Pepper’s” or “Pet Sounds” and that somehow at the end of this, this is going to be this thing that hangs around forever and they’re going to be judged upon it.
Todd Rundgren: There’s legitimacy in that. I’ve always felt that a record is forever. That’s why it’s called a record. (laughs) And so, if my records don’t succeed when I put them out, it doesn’t suddenly mean I failed at something. I got the record done. It’s there. You can’t make it disappear now. And so eventually, somebody may listen to the record and it will do something for them. And the thing that you don’t get is the fame and fortune that might come with a big smash hit, but over the long run, a record can be just as important.
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Ron Bennington: “State” is available in stores and online now, and this one’s charting.
Todd Rundgren: I actually got on the dance charts.
Ron Bennington: That’s crazy, huh?
Todd Rundgren: It’s gratifying since I was attempting to do a record that had a contemporary patina to it. So, actually getting on the charts and actually getting on the dance charts which is probably even more important in some ways because it means that I succeeded in what I was trying to do.
Ron Bennington: Yeah, there’s another audience out there for you.
Todd Rundgren: Well, I’m 65 now. And if you want to have an audience for as long as you live, you’re going to have to start moving a few new people into it. It’s like Tony Bennett is one of my idols. Not only because he has the most amazing voice, but because he just still continues to do it. He continues to do it and he could only have done it if he had opened himself up to a younger audience – to a new audience. And he did it as well as a bunch of other older artists, by doing these duet albums. Working with younger artists and suddenly the younger audience says – well geez, I’d like to see who Lady Gaga is singing with. This old fart. (laughs) And suddenly, they think – wow, he’s pretty good.
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Ron Bennington: Great to see you again, my man. Hope to see you next time coming through.
Todd Rundgren: Great to be here. Thank you very much.
You can hear this interview in its entirety exclusively on SiriusXM satellite radio. Not yet a subscriber? Click here for a free trial subscription.
You can learn more about Ron Bennington’s two interview shows, Unmasked and Ron Bennington Interviews atRonBenningtonInterviews.com.
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