Todd ‘the runt’ Rundgren is a true musician. Singer. Songwriter. Instrumentalist. Record Producer. Engineer. First as a solo artist, then later with Utopia. And in all of those capacities, he’s influenced countless other artists. Even if you’re not familiar with his work you know the songs “Hello It’s Me” and “I Saw the Light”. He’s always experimented with sound and stayed at the front working with new technologies. This week he stopped by the SiriusXM studios to talk with Ron Bennington about his summer music camp, and going back on the road again. Excerpts from the interview appear below. Anyone who loves music should give it a read.
Ron Bennington: You’re getting stuff ready for this summer musical camp, you’ve done this before right?
Todd Rundgren: We did it for the first time last summer. Last summer we did it in June, this summer we’re doing it in the end of July so the weather may be perhaps a little more humid. We had a bit of rain last year so we didn’t get to do our fabulous hike up the hill and that sort of stuff so we’re going to take another crack at that this year.
Ron Bennington: So it’s up in the Catskills, that’s where you’re doing it at, right?
Todd Rundgren: Yeah, and of course that’s an old stomping ground for me, I used to live up there in the Bearsville area, and this is just a bit further up the road from Woodstock.
Ron Bennington: But guys can come there and play with you and play with some of the people that you have, and these are guys that—of course they’re not professional musicians most of them, right?
Todd Rundgren: Well, I’ve never put the emphasis necessarily on the musicianship aspect. Last year I just assumed that a lot of the people who would want to come have interest in music but don’t necessarily want to have guitar lessons or drumming tips or something like that. It’s not that we couldn’t offer that and not that we wouldn’t if we thought that it was what people were there for, but a lot of our fans, they go to these events to kind of like hang out with each other, and then to have some sort of minimal agenda. You know, an excuse for why we’re there. And last year I took it real serious, you know. It was like a TED conference or something. I had all these panels with experts on all kinds of aspects of the music industry because I thought it would be better to broaden it out to things that people might be interested in that are not necessarily how to play an instrument, but more like how do you make a video and get it on YouTube? Or more like, what is the actual state of the music business? Does it make any sense to even try a get a record label? Are there a lot of other ways to promote yourself? But in any case, it was more an overall understanding, and the feedback we got from people was that, while the panels were really interesting—no one had any complaint about the content—but we kind of used up all the time for the goofing off and stuff. We didn’t have cocktail parties around the pool or volleyball games or that sort of stuff. The rain hampered some of it, but it seemed like there was more of a thirst for traditional camp activities.
Ron Bennington: Well your career—the fact that you’ve done so much more than just be a song writer/musician; you’re an engineer and basically one of the people who came up with music videos. You were doing music videos before there was even a place to play music videos.
Todd Rundgren: Well yeah, it was just a personal fascination of mine and actually the so-called “MTV Concept,” it wasn’t devised by me, but it was suggested by my manager because I had already acquired all the equipment for professional video making and so he got this idea that we would use this equipment also for collecting all of the videos that, in those days, were made to send to foreign territories most of the time to get shown on English television and things like that. So there was a fair collection of them out there, but nobody had gotten it into their head to take the DJ concept and make it the VJ concept. He had that idea and we went and pitched it to a couple of people and one of the people we pitched it to were entities that eventually became Viacom and they said, “We don’t see it,” and a year later they announced MTV.
Ron Bennington: That is unbelievable. So, when MTV came on you’re just like, “Aw thanks, dude.”
Todd Rundgren: Well, you know, I really didn’t know how to respond to it because I couldn’t’ get it where I lived. It was originally cable television, I lived up in the Catskills and they didn’t have cable running to the end of my road. I had a 13 inch satellite dish and that was the only way I could get television and MTV wasn’t on satellite that I could reach. So I would occasionally see it when I was on the road in a hotel that was carrying it, but otherwise the first several years of MTV are a mystery to me.
Ron Bennington: Was it that long, like seven years before you finally saw it?
Todd Rundgren: Before I finally had a way to see it with any sort of regularity, and I didn’t really watch a whole lot of MTV. I sort of preferred the more haute programing of like, VH1’s late-night stuff. Like Liquid Television and 120 Minutes, but that didn’t really come online until the late ’80s.
Ron Bennington: It’s really funny that, I guess if people thought that they had to do a little more thinking for that, it won’t reach the masses, will it? Like, the experimental stuff is always going to take a while before it sinks in to the mainstream, and it still needs the edges kind of taken care of.
Todd Rundgren: It’s really interesting, there is something of a revival in younger people who are making music. A sudden interest in not only historical music, but the techniques that went into making it, and so you could say that the idea of being ahead of the curve—you could be way ahead of the curve—but some of the things they’re fascinated with is like the awful audio byproducts that some old analogue piece of equipment would produce.
Ron Bennington: Right, I know, I’ve talked to some people in Brooklyn who are now trying to set up analogue studios and go back and do it exactly, because they think that we’ve gotten away from it. Just when everybody was like, “Hey, I can do this whole thing on a laptop, it’s easier.”
Todd Rundgren: Well, I ain’t going back. I’m sticking with a laptop, sorry.
Ron Bennington: But you’ve already been there, man. You were doing all that stuff—
Todd Rundgren: That’s what I mean, there’s no reason for me to try and recreate that because then I would be thinking about it too much, you know? At the time you’re not thinking oh, I’m being futuristic here. The whole idea, for instance, of the studio that I built here in New York after Something/Anything? was partly to have the freedom to do things that were considered unconventional or even perhaps dangerous in another studio. And you can understand that because first of all, in another studio they’re doing a more conventional kind of recording, but also they have different clients come in all the time so they don’t’ want any one client burning up the console so that the other clients can’t use it. But if it’s your own studio you can do all kinds of weird shit like run it in the red constantly, and plug things into other things in ways that perhaps they weren’t meant to. I mean, because it’s kind of an amateur studio, a lot of these artifacts are because you don’t understand impedance matching. You know, so you’ve got 8 ohms going into 4 ohms and all this other weird, technical stuff, and that adds to the—you know, things that are accidentally out of phase. You don’t mean to do it that way, but people think that they could recreate your mistakes.
Ron Bennington: And this album that you’ve put out, all these artists were albums that you produced. These were all people that you’ve produced, and the fact that your career is really just taking off through a lot of this, and yet you still wanted to produce other artists which I’m sure that had to drive—
Todd Rundgren: It’s actually the other way around.
Ron Bennington: Is that right?
Todd Rundgren: I had the intention of being a record producer and not having to deal with the personality cult or any of that other stuff of being an artist and I made records of my own for my own amusement and edification. Not thinking “Oh, I’m going to be a big hit and I want to leave all this record production behind.” I was making such a comfortable living as a record producer that that would’ve been foolish, you know, to give up being a record producer. It didn’t seem foolish at all for me to put out a record like Something/Anything? and then follow it up with a record like A Wizard, a True Star in which there were no singles at all.
Ron Bennington: So that’s why it felt easy enough for you to experiment because you felt like your day job was actually producing records.
Todd Rundgren: Exactly.
Ron Bennington: I never thought of that with you, by the way. I always thought wow how interesting, he’s doing all this other stuff in between his albums.
Todd Rundgren: I know, but when you think about it, it totally explains why I don’t have a linear career as an artist. I do an album and then I take a look at where I’m at and then I choose a direction and it doesn’t necessarily follow a straight line. It could be a complete right turn or a left turn or something like that. So, it’s more of a zigzagging kind of career arc.
Ron Bennington: Do you feel like your whole career was just stuff that you did for yourself though? It was never set out to please others?
Todd Rundgren: Pretty much. At the same time I feel that I do it a certain way and it isn’t because of some pleasure principle, but I do think that people need for me to do it in a way that’s kind of without the pandering that makes it more—whether they like it or not, it’s plausible to them, you know?
Ron Bennington: Yeah.
Todd Rundgren: Whereas if I make a conscious attempt to figure out what they want me to do, I will probably only wind up satisfying some subset, some segment perhaps, of the fan base and offend the rest of them. It’s better to be an equal opportunity offender, put it that way.
Ron Bennington: As a producer, and some of these names that you’re going over here are phenomenal. The New York Dolls, Patti Smith, The Tubes, Hall and Oates, Cheap Trick, just great, great names all through here, but have there been times that you get in the studio with an artist just going I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing these guys, I don’t know if I can make this work.
Todd Rundgren: There’s no way you can help having it happen. You hope to see it coming. In the case of like, working with XTC, I knew that it was going to be rough. I knew it would be rough, Andy has a reputation for driving his producers out of the studio, but what often happens is that an artist doesn’t want a producer at all but the label is making them take on a producer, and that’s an unhealthy situation because they get into the studio and they think they know it all and they’re not interested in your opinion. So yeah, what am I doing here?
Ron Bennington: But the stuff that you did with them was great, you know what I mean?
Todd Rundgren: Well, XTC, but as I say, I knew that was going to be tense. That was not a surprise so I wasn’t thinking “Oh, I wish I was out of here.” No, quite the contrary. I told them before I started their record I’d be the last one to leave. They were not going to drive me out of the studio like they did all their previous producers. But yeah, there have been other incidence where the artist they’re just, they’re not interested in your opinion. They only pretended for the sake of getting the record started, and once they’re in the studio they’d just as soon you sat in the lobby.
Ron Bennington: And plus I guess in those days there was still a lot of partying going on, right? With a lot of artists whether they were on the road or not on the road, they were treating it the same way.
Todd Rundgren: You’d be surprised how different personalities can be. I always try and make the experience of being in the studios kind of unselfconscious. You don’t want to think that the studio is some special environment that requires some special quality of performance. You’re supposed to do the same thing you do whenever you play. But the problem people get is when they get in the studio they just start putting a microscope on themselves and probably part of my job as a producer is to keep them from getting too distracted by things and just focus on the performance.
Ron Bennington: And sometimes I guess it’s just a clock ticking is the distraction. Just like, Oh my god, this thing’s still going on, we haven’t found it yet.
Todd Rundgren: Well, only in the sense that you’re probably spinning your wheels at a certain point thinking that if you did yet another take it would be the one. That kind of thing, you know. And sometimes it’s better just to stop. But, I guess part of my style as a producer, and mostly the evolution of style in terms of making records, most people will take as long as they need to, to get the record, and sometimes that’s a good thing, you know, attention to certain details will make a difference in the record, and for other people it’s a waste of time. You know, they got it on the first take.
Ron Bennington: You’re back on the road this year too, right?
Todd Rundgren: I’m out on the road in a number of guises. I’m finishing up here in New York, I’ve got two more shows and The Winery, City Winery here in New York, then I play a song at The Apollo, I believe it’s next Tuesday or something like that, they’re doing a Robert Johnson tribute and of course I did a Robert Johnson record a couple of years ago, and then at the end of the month I start on a tour that goes from St. Louis to California. All sort of West Coast and Southwest, and that will be me and my basic core unit. Then there’ s a couple—like at the end of May—there’s a couple of weird things like a rib-fest in Cleveland, and then I do two nights with the Rockford Symphony Orchestra which is kind of following on what I did last fall with the Metropole Orchestra in Amsterdam. And then, after a little bit more of that, I start rehearsals with Ringo and go out with Ringo Starr for pretty much the month of June until nearly the end of July, and then we have our revival camp at the end of July.
Ron Bennington: The stuff with Ringo is you’re doing a couple songs, he’s doing a couple songs, everybody that’s up there does a few too right?
Todd Rundgren: Yeah, there’s a whole range of players there and it’s different every time. This is a group of musicians that I know and that I’ve met and in some cases have worked with, but not with Ringo before.
Ron Bennington: So all this stuff keeps you from getting into a rut. I mean, every time you turn around you’re doing something completely different.
Todd Rundgren: Well I have to finish a record this year apparently as well, so I guess I did something very strange and unusual, at least in the current context, I signed a contract to actually make a record, instead of making a record and going to find somebody to distribute it which is the way my records have mostly been made over the past couple of decades with rare exceptions. But to actually get an advance to make a record is unusual.
Ron Bennington: Did you already have the songs written, do you know what you’re doing with this record?
Todd Rundgren: I have an idea of the approach, but the songs aren’t written yet. Possibly a duets record, I don’t know.
Ron Bennington: With maybe some of the same people who have—
Todd Rundgren: No. It will be with all brand new people. All people that maybe you haven’t heart of.
Ron Bennington: That would be great. And this is I think just amazing to get the chance to get to come and hang out with him. July 23rd-27th at the Full Moon Resort. You’re going to have Mark Volman from Flo & Eddie hanging out, Peter Buck from REM and some surprise guests.
Todd Rundgren: Yeah, we’re still working out some logistics and details, but we will have further announcements about people to hang with, and yeah, we’re just hosting them for a day and you get to hang out and talk to them and just relax.
Ron Bennington: And does it become a jam every night at the end of the night?
Todd Rundgren: Every night, a jam at the roadhouse. The resort comes with its own roadhouse.
Ron Bennington: That’s just phenomenal. Todd Rundgren, great to see you again man.
Todd Rundgren: My pleasure.
Ron Bennington: I’ll see you next time coming through.