Todd Rundgren: Subconscious Creativity

By Jeb Wright

Over his career, Todd Rundgren has dipped his musical toe into nearly every musical genre on the planet.  Either as a producer, performer or songwriter, the talented muse has toyed with Pop, Rock, Blues, Hard Rock and Punk.  Elements of nearly every other musical style can be found peeking out somewhere in his music repertoire, as well; every form of music other than perhaps Electronica…that is until now.   

On April 9, 2013, Rundgren will add that genre to his musical pallet on his latest album of all original material titled State.  Rundgren and Electronica…yeah I can see that.  It could work.  So long as he mixes enough of himself within the musical mix.  And, the good news is that he does and it does! 

When one interviews the reclusive musical genius they better be prepared for a different kind of rock and roll chat, as Todd is much smarter than your average Rock Star.  Of course, he is the farthest thing from a Rock Star.  Tit flashes are not the norm at his concerts and we are pretty sure even past dabbling in substances was done more as an experiment in creativity than for recreational bliss.  

The stereotypes found in the industry don’t apply to Todd.  For starters, he is both intelligent and street smart.  He prefers to look forward rather than live in the glory of his past.  He is always pushing the creative envelope, often to the point of confusing the hell out of music lovers, including his own fans.  Yet, they remain loyal, actually waiting anxiously to see what he will come up with next. 

State is not one of Todd’s more esoteric works.  While there is, as one would expect, musical experimentation, the path of Rundgern inspired Electronica actually fits him like a glove.  Never afraid of the future, or of technology, State is full of songs that are both modern, yet classic, allowing Rundgren to, once again, embrace musical, lyrical and human duality.
 


 

Jeb: You have done it, once again, Rundgren, a new musical style.  Is it important for you to always be looking for something new? 

Todd: Well, not every record is an exploration in modern science.  The record that I did before this—well, I think it was the one before this.  It is hard to keep track, as a lot of these records never seem to make it.  It has become a rarefied atmosphere. 

My last album of original material was called Arena, which came out five years ago.  When we found a distributor for that, they wanted me to do another album of Robert Johnson covers, which was a very conventional record.  I even tried to make it sound like it was made in the ‘60’s.  I essentially mimicked the music that influenced me when I was really young, which was a bunch of white guys trying to turn old blues songs into opportunities to jam on the guitar.  It was, more or less, conventional.  

The record that I did after that, which barely saw the light of day, was called [Re]Productions.  They were songs that I had produced for other artists.  I gave them sort of a modern, dance treatment, which was, sort of, a little bridge to State—so it wasn’t completely new.  

The unusual thing was that, nowadays, you don’t often get offered a real contract.  For the last couple of decades, I would underwrite the production of my own records and then go out and find a distributor for them.  In this particular instance, I got approached by a label that said, “Would you produce an album of new, original music? We’ll pay you to do it.”  I thought, “Wow, I can’t pass this up.”  They had a release deadline in mind already, so I had to quickly develop an approach for the record.  I started recording in September and delivered it in January.  

Jeb: That is a pretty quick turnaround. 

Todd: It was relatively quick.  My albums, recently, have taken a long time to record.  If I am not under the restraint of a label, there is no hurry; I can take as long as I want to make a record.  I can ruminate about what I’ve accomplished afterwards.  In this instance, with the label involved, I was recording right up until the deadline.  

Jeb: Did the label ask you not to go too nuts in what you write? 

Todd: They did not put any pressure on me, in terms of what the content would be.  I put a lot of pressure on myself.  If they were going to make this leap of faith, then I would not do the most obtuse thing that I could think of.  I didn’t want to discourage them; I wanted to keep them enthusiastic.  

I did a lot of research, in terms of what is out there in the contemporary scene, and tried to hybridize as much of that with my own natural sensibilities, as possible.  Fortunately, there is an atmosphere that is very amenable to the way that I used to make records way back in the ‘70’s, which is utilizing a lot of unnatural sounds like synthesizers and electronic sounds, less depending on the natural sounds of guitars, bass and drums.  

Jeb: My guess is that this appealed to you. 

Todd: It is an interesting time out there.  Things have happened, even in the last decade that are starting to reveal themselves.  The last stranglehold on the recording process lost its grip with ProTools.  There was a price point that the average person just couldn’t bear anymore, no matter how inspired they were.  It limited what they had available to create their music with.  Now, laptops have become so powerful that you don’t even need a desktop anymore for sound applications.  The software has become much less expensive.  

I don’t use ProTools anymore; I use Reason, which is also a relatively open system, so I can expand with other capabilities.  The price point is different than ProTools; it is an order of magnitude less.  The end result of that is that there are a lot of entrepreneurial musically adventurous people out there making a place for themselves, in a way that wouldn’t have been possible, even ten years ago.  

Jeb: A lot of guys from your era do not care for digital sound and prefer the warmth of analog.  You seem to have embraced the digital fortress.  

Todd: I’ve never been much about any of that.  Early on, I built my own studio, just so I would have the freedom to explore things that either might be time consuming, or might involve doing things to the equipment that the original owner wouldn’t approve of.  I don’t think, at any point, I ever saw sound as a fixed thing.  I saw it as an important component, but I didn’t think there was a way that things had to sound.  Quite obviously, most listeners don’t either.  

It is impossible to control the circumstance under which someone listens to your music.  It has never been more impossible than it is now.  You’ve got half the people using ten dollar Earbuds that came with their player.  You’ve got others who have 5000 watts of bottom end in their car so you can hear them coming from a mile off.  The whole idea that there is one way that sound should be has lost its potency and it is not even an argument that I care to get into.  

Jeb: There is no song called “State” so what does the title mean? 

Todd: It has a lot to do with my research and how I envisioned the music being performed.  In the early ‘90’s, I was doing performances from my album called No World Order.  Essentially, I built a system that allowed me to improvise my performance every night.  The system was called a State machine.  It does one thing until you tell it to do something else.  It would sit there and wait for me to instruct it.  

A lot of that is possible nowadays, but it is way easier because everything has collapsed down to the laptop.  I don’t need any of the complicated equipment that I needed before to do that.  Just like a contemporary deejay, I can set up in any venue.  

Jeb: The press release says Todd Rundgern has made an Electronica album.  That is sort of true, but this is more than that going on. 

Todd: I think the label was taking their best stab at describing something that is better heard than written about.  That is the way it has always been, historically.  I don’t necessarily think in terms of labels when I’m making the music.  I think in terms of particular artists, because the artists that are the most interesting are the ones that are out there and the hardest to categorize. 

When I was doing my research, I wasn’t doing it so much genre based, as I was asking my kids, “Who is hot now?”  They would give me a name and I would start there.  Because YouTube has that great referential sidebar thing, I could start wandering there and wind up in a completely different place in a little while, and discover something that I didn’t know I was looking for.  

Jeb: There is that old saying that says, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” but you had to learn some new tricks.  

Todd: I try to depend on my subconscious a lot.  I cram everything in there and hope that it comes out in a way that sounds naturally like me.  Whenever I would share something in my musical travels that I thought was really germane, and I wanted to get some of that influence into it, then I would have to stop listening to it.  

I have a tendency to deconstruct. I spent so long as a record producer that the first time I listen to a song I hear the song.  The second time I listen to a song I am listening to everything underneath the song.  In an effort to avoid getting sucked into that, I would decide not to listen to something I liked again.  I can listen to it now that I’ve done the record, but I couldn’t listen to it at the time.  

Jeb: I could see the creative process for State either being very, very selective, or with you going nuts and having tons of hours of music that you had whittle down. 

Todd: It really was a formative process, it was additive, as opposed to subtractive. There are two different types of sculptures.  One you take bits of clay and you add to it until the thing looks like what you want.  There is another kind where you take a big block of stone and chip away everything that doesn’t look like what you want.  I was more the former in this particular project.  

I was very careful not to spend too many hours just sitting there idly noodling and not going anywhere with it.  If I didn’t feel like I was making progress, then I would stop and go away for awhile. Eventually, something in my brain would start to process something and I would find myself back in front of the computer. 

Jeb: Are you the type of artist that is more cognitively inspired, or emotionally inspired?  

Todd: It starts out, principally, as a cognitive thing.  Every once in a while I hear something that grabs me emotionally, musically.  I am just as likely to loose that fascination as I am to hang onto it and utilize it.  I am looking for something that really tickles my musical fancy, in a way.  “Hey, I have not heard that before” or “I have not heard that in a long time” sort of thing.  If it resembles too much of what is already easily available, then I don’t get the point.  

Jeb: Let’s talk about the song “Angry Bird.”  I hear some of the New Cars sound.  Did that tour influence you a bit? 

Todd: I don’t know if that ever crossed my mind when I made that song.  My main objective was to make a song that sounded like a video game.  When you start dabbling in anything that can be called Electronica, historically, you run up against the whole 8-bit realm, as the origin of that music is really video games. I felt like I had to do something in there that was relevant to video game music.  When you start talking video games, then everyone knows Angry Birds has redefined the entire video game market.  

From a lyrical standpoint, we had this whole election cycle and part of that was this so called War on Woman.  I realized that the basis for the War on Woman is also the basis for the game Angry Birds.  Some pigs are trying to control the reproduction of the birds.  

Jeb: I never would have thought of that. 

Todd: I know!  It suddenly occurred to me, ‘Wait a minute, this really is what Angry Birds is about.”  These pigs are controlling the ovaries of the females.  It is funny that people have been responding to this song, as I thought it was really just a novelty song.  I thought it was just a novelty knockoff and I almost didn’t put it on the record, as I thought it was so silly.  I think people like silly every once in a while.  

Jeb: My favorite song on the album is “In My Mouth.” 

Todd: That is a fun song and it is one where the whole subconscious aspect really came into play.  People ask me what that is about and I still don’t know.  It sounds like it means something but… 

Jeb: You have a great song in “Collide-A-Scope.” 

Todd: That was me, in a way, trying to enjoy the freedom that comes with making music in this way.  Life, essentially, is extremes and that is what people identify with, even though they exist in the gray areas.  

I was trying to accomplish two things that are not associated.  One thing was to do something that sounded like a performance, but was actually purely electronic improvisation. The crazy drums that go through that are all just one drum pattern, but I am, in real time, manipulating the way the pattern is played in order to make is sound like the drummer from the Muppets orchestra.  

At the same time, within all of this chaos, I am trying to find order.  The crux of that is the extreme that we coexist with, and that we rarely identify with, the extremes in reality.  People claim to be liberal, or conservative, but if you pose the right question, then you discover, in this instance, they are neither.  

Jeb: There is a limited edition release of State that has a bonus CD of a concert you played with an orchestra in Amsterdam.  

Todd: I have done this a couple of times with the Metropolitan Orchestra in Amsterdam, Holland.  They are really terrific events.  They are the kind of thing that is extremely difficult to pull off, because most places don’t have state funded orchestras to fund these kinds of indulgences.  

It is a great opportunity and it is fairly clever because the label thinks this is good way to get the new album into people’s hands by stealth-ing them, so that they get all of these old familiar songs in a new orchestral context and then they end up owning the new record anyway.    

Jeb: Will there be a DVD of a performance? 

Todd: There is not a DVD of the orchestra shows, but they are on YouTube.  It is fairly remarkable because they are the product of one guy who goes and collects all of the cell phone footage from everyone who was there.  He cuts them altogether into what ends up being like a 25 camera shoot.  

Jeb: Oh, that is so Rundgren… 

Todd: [laughter] That is so Rundgren Fan.  

Jeb: You’re misunderstood.  You do a huge fan event called Toddstock where you mingle with your hardcore fans.  Everyone thinks you are just this reclusive genius who is a strange musical guy, but you care about your fans.

Todd: Those people do represent my livelihood, in one very practical sense, but they have also stuck with me for so long that I have to reciprocate.  The fact that I live such a reclusive existence allows me to get out every once in a while and commiserate with the fans.  They realize that I need the solitude in order to create.  We will go have a good time and then we will all go home and feel contented.  

Jeb: Last one: Do you feel you are misunderstood by the music industry, and, if so, are you proud of that? 

Todd: I don’t think the music industry understands the music industry at this point.  I think they have done enough damage to prove so.  I never really have been that self-conscious.  

The advantage I had was that I produced records for other people, therefore, when I made my own records, I never had to think, “If this does not sell then my career is over.”  Most other artists have that hanging over their heads.  So, people think, “Oh maybe he does this whole picking up new genres and tricking his fans out of spite—he’s just being clever.”  I’ve always thought of myself as having two careers, one as a record producer and one as a recording artist.  One has actually enabled the other. 

Purchase the 2-CD State with Bonus Disc Here: http://www.cherryred.co.uk/esoteric-exd.asp?id=4072

Comments

 

The views of the comments below are not necessarily those of Classic Rock Revisited