A Quick Chat With TR

A few years ago, I had a great chat with Todd Rundgren backstage in Seattle, the day before he released the Arena album, which lead to a formal interview a few weeks later.  So for all the Todd fans in the crowd, here’s a little bit of history.

TA: How are you feeling after kicking the show off in Seattle?  It seemed like the audience responded well and everyone I talked to in line before the show had already purchased the new album, which was released yesterday.

TR: It’s been surprisingly well received for an unfamiliar batch of music. The release was originally supposed to be in July, so we expected to be playing for an audience more familiar with the material. I guess the word of mouth has been good, or we never would have made it back to Seattle.

TA: You mentioned the album is a bit of a continuation of what you started with
Liars. I guess the Socrates quote about the “unexamined life isn’t worth living” does not apply to Todd Rundgren?

TR: I have selfish reasons for making my records. Sometimes it’s just self-entertainment, but I’m usually trying to externalize my own thoughts. It helps me figure out to what degree I’m bullshitting myself — it can be very revelatory to hear what you think said out loud.

TA: Though Liars and Arena are part of your ongoing self-exploration, they are very different texturally, with Liars being a much more keyboard-oriented record and Arena being a heavy guitar record.  What led you down this path?

TR: When the New Cars prematurely ended the first tour because of Elliot (Easton’s) collarbone accident, I was looking at a summer with no gigs. I put together a guitar quartet with Jesse Gress, Tony Levin and Jerry Marotta and toured across Canada for a few weeks. The response was so enthusiastic that I continued the format in the U.S. and Japan. People seemed to like the return to the ‘70s approach, so I knew when I got around to recording that the guitar would be the featured instrument.

TA: As always, you had a great choice of material last night, but where did “Lunatic Fringe” come from?  Didn’t think I’d ever see you doing that song, but it was killer…

TR: Sometimes a great song will go unplayed because the original act (in this case, Red Rider) has ceased touring. I like to adopt one or two of these orphans every once in a while, especially if the subject matter fits in with what I’m doing with my own material.

TA: How did you meet Rachel Haden, (daughter of bassist Charlie Haden) and decide on her for the bass slot in the band?

TR: I met Rachel last winter when she was on Kauai visiting her brother-in-law, Jack Black (he was filming Tropic Thunder). I didn’t know she was a bass player at the time, but her name came up when we were looking for a replacement for Kas when he went out with Meat Loaf. Someone suggested we hire a girl for the position and the idea intrigued me. While there were other candidates, I took our prior connection as a sign and asked her to do the gig.

TA: Are you doing everything on Arena: playing, singing, mixing, etc., or are some of the guys from the current band playing on it?  I could swear I hear some Kasim backing vocals!

TR: Once again, it’s all me. Living in Kauai, it’s hard to just call a session and have people hop over. If I had been on the mainland, I likely would have incorporated other players.

TA: You’ve been doing the solo thing on and off for a long time.  Is it easier or more difficult to work alone?  How hard is it for you to say, “That’s it, I’m done” when you know you can always do one more track?  Are you the consummate perfectionist or a pretty task- oriented guy?

TR: It always depends on what I’m going for. Often, spontaneity is not the principal goal; recording can be an exercise in precision since the result can be so carefully examined. For a record like Nearly Human, spontaneity was the principal goal. Arena, not so much.

TA:How has your style of working changed since Something/Anything?  Do you still write, compose and play in the same way or has your thought process changed dramatically over the years?

TR: I was a more conventional songwriter in the Something/Anything days, probably because most of my writing was done outside the studio. The more I had continual access to the studio and the more flexible the tools became, the more composition became a part of the recording process. Now it’s hard to distinguish between recording and composition.

TA: Digital tools have changed the audio and visual world and you’ve been an early adopter of both. Has the digital world helped you maintain your level of innovation and set you free creatively, or do you have more limitations now?

TR: I was never an analog nut, so I’m perfectly used to the digital approach. A greater range of tools in all price ranges has changed the game the most. Arena was done entirely on my laptop, and from a budgetary standpoint is probably the cheapest and easiest record I’ve ever produced.

TR: I hope this isn’t a sore spot, but seeing that you have always been such a technically oriented guy, why don’t you have a major Web presence?  Is it just too much to deal with these days?

TR: I don’t, as some people assume, have a slavish fascination with technology. I don’t own a cell phone, and I hate driving. There was a time when the effort and skills needed to build a Web presence were beyond the average person. Now everyone in the world is contributing to the noise. The digital soapbox is sometimes occupied by some truly nasty personalities, which has made me something of a digital hermit.

TA: Speaking of creativity, how much has the move to Hawaii changed your life?  It seems that instead of slowing down, you’ve done just the opposite.  What’s the next big idea on the horizon?

TR: My location doesn’t seem to have a major effect on my creative juices. It’s still the same culture that gives me most of my ideas. The isolation does make it a bit more difficult to collaborate, but I travel enough to make up for that.

TA: What are you doing to take such good care of your voice?  While some guys your age (and younger for that matter) are really struggling to belt it out, you’re singing better and stronger than ever.

TR: In some ways, I’m not taking care of it. It’s just a set of muscles, and like body building, you sometimes have to abuse them to make them stronger. The tour in Japan last spring was pretty abusive, with ten shows over six nights. As long as I don’t try to fix my voice artificially, by using drugs to get through a show, a little rest is usually all I need.

TA:Do you still stay in touch with Willie Wilcox and Roger Powell?  Is there any chance of one last round of Utopia shows with the original lineup?

TR: That is the 64 million dollar question. Every couple years we discuss the possibility, and something usually happens to end that discussion. For my foreseeable future I’m playing with the Arena lineup.

TA: Have you been producing anyone lately, or is that period of your life over?  You did a lot of great records over the years.

TR: We still have discussions with potential production partners. Scheduling is always a problem, especially with my current touring itinerary. There are some possibilities after this year.

TA: Though you are known best for being up front and center with a guitar, what’s your favorite instrument to play after all these years?  Is there anything you hate to play?

TR: I’ve learned not to play the piano live any more. I’ve never been able to develop that Billy Joel/Elton John comfort level. I put too much focus on the singing and any instrument I’m playing is going to suffer. With only six strings, the guitar has fewer mistakes available to make.

TA: Is there anyone that you are listening to these days that you really enjoy?

TR: I’m just trying to get some listening time in, period.

Editor Bob Gendron’s new blog…

It’s All One Song
By Bob Gendron

January is traditionally a slow time for live shows. Yet soon enough, announcements for spring dates, the excitement associated with South By Southwest, and the unveiling of lineups for destination festivals will put everyone back into a virtual club—or, in the case of Lollapalooza, a virtual lakefront park). Such anticipation prompts reflection on the year that just was.

In addition to reporting for the Chicago Tribune on the three-day fests otherwise known as Lollapalooza, Pitchfork Music Festival, and the Dave Matthews Caravan, and taking in the Montreal International Jazz Festival for TONE Audio, I had the privilege of witnessing more than 60 standalone concerts in 2011. Of the more than 250 artists I saw onstage, here are my ten favorite performances.

1. Deadmau5 at Lollapalooza (August 7, Chicago)
Starting his headlining performance almost exactly at the moment a pounding rainstorm commenced, the Toronto electronic maestro turned Grant Park into the world’s biggest and liveliest mud pit with a scorching light show and nonstop dance beats.

2. Drive-By Truckers at Vic Theatre (February 25, Chicago)
Playing with tremendous purpose and intensity, the always-reliable Truckers delivered a career-spanning set that made a case for the Alabama ensemble being the best live rock band on any given night.

3. Janelle Monae at Aragon Ballroom (May 27, Chicago)
Drawing on everything from golden-era silent films to science-fiction themes, the R&B phenomenon sang, danced, and painted her way through a breathtaking affair teeming with fervent energy and bold vision.

4. Guns N’ Roses at Allstate Arena (November 15, Chicago)
Fans that waited nearly two decades for Axl Rose to channel his old self were rewarded with a marathon extravaganza that, while falling short of the excellence displayed in 1991-92, eclipsed the original band’s 1993 trek. Don’t believe it? Cue up “Estranged” here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aOzrtr3IsBc.

5. (TIE) Prince at Metropolis; Brad Mehldau and Joshua Redman at Theatre Maisonneuve (June 25, Montreal)
On one night, pianist Mehldau and longtime collaborator Redman gave a clinic in pointillistic jazz while, hours later, the Purple One took over a small club with unrivaled showmanship, astounding instrumental acumen, and an enviable way with song.

6. Twilight Singers at Metro (May 17, Chicago)
On his best showing since the Afghan Whigs disbanded, Greg Dulli led his enthusiastic band through an unforgettably soulful show that renews one’s faith in music and prompts them to binge on the performer’s catalog for weeks.

7. Titus Andronicus at Lollapalooza (August 8, Chicago)
Setting a new standard that all Lollapalooza openers should follow, Titus Andronicus blazed through underdog-themed anthems tailor-made for a society mired in economic disparity and social unease.

8. Rihanna at United Center (June 15, Chicago)
No mainstream pop star better understands the secrets to an engaging arena spectacle than Rihanna, who buffeted a balanced blend of costume changes, visual props, and dance routines with a constant stream of contagious hits.

9. Elvis Costello at Chicago Theatre (May 15, Chicago)
The return of the Spectacular Spinning Songbook concept found Costello recharged, tearing through five opening songs in less than 16 minutes and accenting older material with avant-garde solos plucked from Thurston Moore’s playbook.

10. Brandi Carlile at Park West (December 1, Chicago)
Blowing away anything she’s put on record, the Seattle-based singer-songwriter went it alone and charmed with a disarming voice and independent streak that suggested Adele-like fame could be in her future if she makes a solo record absent a backing band.