“Go ahead and ignore me” was a record company sales slogan employed
for one of Todd Rundgren’s early ’70s solo albums. And long since
that slogan was first unveiled, music fans have been unable to
ignore anything this immensely gifted musical visionary and icon has
created. Witness his extraordinary body of music with Nazz, solo
Rundgren and Utopia and his consummate production work for The Band,
Badfinger, Hall & Oates, Patti Smith, Meat Loaf, Cheap Trick, XTC
and countless others.
In 2011, there’s a lot happening in Todd’s musical universe. Just
released is Todd Rundgren’s Johnson, a song cycle which
showcases Todd’s crafty reinterpretation of blues legend Robert
Johnson’s celebrated canon. There’s also another new TR record
slated for release in September. Augmented by his talented band,
including long-time musical comrades bassist Kasim Sultan, ex-Tubes
drummer Prairie Prince and guitarist Jesse Gress, Todd will be back
on the road in September for a US solo tour.
You've always been an artist that's stayed true to yourself,
following the road less traveled. Looking back, do you think that's
worked against you in achieving greater commercial success?
Well, I don’t know how things could have gone any different. I had
certain advantages that other musicians may not have had in that for
most of my career I had a second job (laughs) and that was
producing records for other people. So [I didn’t have] the kind of
concern for success that a lot of artists had because maybe their
own recordings were their only source of sustenance. I always had
this other career going on. When it came to making my music, I never
felt I had to make it for any other reason than to please myself.
And that still holds true for what you’re doing today.
Well, pretty much. What you discover in the long run is most people
don’t make their living by simply selling records. If you’re
successful at selling records, it’s essentially promotion for your
live shows, which is where you make all the money. I’ve been
fortunate enough to have an audience with a certain level of
devotion. Even now while the production aspect of my career has
slacked off a bit, I can still make something of a living by
With that loyalty you’re able to have the leeway to challenge your
audience and not always give them what they want.
On this particular tour I’m between records. I don’t have anything
new to promote. We’re looking at a different sort of venue,
performing arts centers and places that have a lot of subscription
season ticket holders. So with this tour I’ve tried to put together
a show that is a little bit more familiar and a little less risqué
and challenging in some aspects and yet it’s mostly composted of
songs that I think my audience would request if I ever took
requests. (laughs) I’m making up for the fact that I’m not
doing necessarily doing anything evolutionary at this point by
playing some of the rarities that we don’t often incorporate into
Are you enjoying playing much of this material as you haven’t played
a lot for many years?
I do enjoy it although it’s one of those things where we’re getting
to the point in the tour where I’m starting to gain a certain
comfort level with it. Every time you put together a new show
there’s elements of pacing. One of the advantages of this kind of
show is that since we’re not making a formal presentation of new
material we can be kind of loose onstage and a little bit more
conversational with the audience – whereas with a lot of shows we’re
very much concerned with pacing and things like that. The general
tension level is lower (laughs) than it would normally be if
I was doing something that had all of the typical challenges in it.
Speaking of challenges, in the past several years you've undertaken
a series of album shows with
A Wizard, A True Star, Todd and Healing.
I didn’t initiate doing any of these album shows. This came through
and the fan base. They’re the ones who kind of decide which record
they’d like me to attempt to perform. Then I essentially will decide
to do it or not do it. (laughs) As a matter of fact we
considered doing something this year but as it works out there is so
much effort that goes into mounting these kind of shows and they
only run for ten days to two weeks. I’m
trying to find a way to amortize all of the labor that goes into
was the experience like to immerse yourself into the DNA of that
I enjoyed it but as much as I played on the original records all I
do mostly live is sing. On the Wizard show all I did was
mainly sing and played a little guitar. I played a little bit of
piano on the Todd and Healing show and a little bit of
guitar as well. But for the most part all I have to do is remember
the words (laughs). It’s the guys in the band who really have
the hard part of remembering all of the details. As a matter of
fact, with the Wizard show, it drove Roger Powell (former
Utopia keyboardist) back out of the music business. (laughs)
There were a couple of issues. One, he was taking a leave of absence
from his real job, which is at Electronic Arts. He couldn’t just
continually take off from work. But the other thing was he
discovered that to relearn so much music and to have to keep track
of it and have the responsibility of playing it correctly isn’t as
much fun once you’ve let so much time go by. Everyone else who
played in the band has continued to perform live whereas Roger
pretty much retired from touring when he started working for Apple.
He still plays little gigs around the Silicon Valley but nothing on
the scale of having to learn all the piano parts on an entire
record. As for doing other albums shows, I thought Acapella
would be a good record but it’s not long enough so it’d probably
have to be that one and another record. The thing about A Wizard,
A True Star. The record itself was especially long. But it still
wasn’t long enough for a whole show so we supplemented on the East
Coast with our little ¾ of a reunion of Utopia and on the West Coast
we do the Robert Johnson songs, the record of which has only just
now come out. It’s called Todd Rundgren’s Johnson.
Going back to your days in Utopia, your partnership with bassist
Kasim Sulton has been a constant. What does he bring to the table?
If he wasn’t such a good singer I would have probably considered
other players. When we did the Arena tour, Kasim was working
with Meat Loaf so I did hire another bass player. But if he’s
available he’s usually in the band. (laughs) Part of it is
because he knows so much of the material already having played it in
so many contexts and that makes it easier not having to teach
someone everything from the ground up.
You've appeared twice on Daryl Hall's web series, "Live at Daryl's
House show" and recently performed a show with him in Atlantic City.
Characterize the musical bond you have with Daryl and are there any
plans for future dates?
Of course, I produced the third record by Hall & Oates (War
Babies) so our history goes back into the early ‘70s. The thing
that we in Atlantic City was essentially a live version of “Live
from Daryl’s House.” It was sort of an experiment to see whether the
show would work in a live context and it went really well so
sometime next year we’re gonna go out on the road. Daryl’s just
finishing up a solo project. The syndicated network that he’s put
together to launch the episodes of the show starts in September.
From your work with the Nazz with songs like "If That's the Way you
Feel" and "Gonna Cry Today" to early solo gems like "Believe in Me"
to your work with Utopia on a song like "I'm Looking At You But I'm
Talking to Myself", I'm struck by your choice of sophisticated and
often unusual chordal progressions. Explain where that approach
I grew up in a household that had eclectic choices. My dad didn’t
like typical pop music. He didn’t want it played on his mono Hi-Fi.
Alternatively, I was exposed to a lot of music that I might have
overlooked. I credit that to why I have a broader musical
sensibility than some other musicians. It was almost enforced in a
way. (laughs) It just continued as I grew older. I just had
eclectic interests in music and felt like if there was something
that I thought I understood I would simply try to incorporate it
into what I was doing.
You’re not writing simple, three chord songs.
That sophistication comes from classical composers like Ravel and
Bernstein, people like that, as well as generally having a kind of
non-mainstream sensibility and taste in music. I always appreciate
the fact that the Beatles were constantly trying to incorporate new
influences into what they were doing. I thought that was what you’re
supposed to do which was evolve, not simply play the same music all
of the time.
I understand you've finished a new record, interpreting material by
acts you produced.
That’s the record that hasn’t come out yet. I finished that in
January. It’s essentially me doing dance versions of songs that I’ve
produced for other people.
Yeah, I wanted to do a record that was somewhat contemporary and it
was tied into this recording camp thing in which campers got to
audition and participate in parts of the record. So the material had
to be somewhat familiar to them. That’s why I decided to do songs
that I had produced for other people and give them a more
I can’t imagine a song by Badfinger, for instance, being a dance
Well it’s hard to imagine (laughs) but that’s part of the
challenge. Some of the tunes we did were “Dancing Barefoot” [by
Patti Smith], “Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad” [Meat Loaf], “Personality
Crisis” by The Dolls and “Take It All” by Badfinger. It wasn’t a hit
single. It was the first song on Straight Up.
So you literally reinvented these songs with this record?
Yeah. Some of them it takes a little while into the song before you
recognize what the song is. (laughs) I found making the
record enjoyable. It was interesting to deconstruct songs and try
and re-map them onto a contemporary sensibility. The record will be
out in September.
Lastly, what is “Toddstock”?
That happened three years ago. I turned 60 and had also just
finished building my house in Kauai. I invited anyone who could make
it there to camp out for a week or two while we had a big party and
celebration. And it all got taped and put onto a DVD. The DVD has
been winning independent film festival awards so Toddstock is
now a DVD. I think we had about 200, 250 permanent campers and then
would ebb and swell depending upon how many locals showed up. We had
people from all around the world, people from South America and
Eastern Europe, Japan, all over the place.
TODD RUNDGREN PERFORMING "BANG ON THE DRUM ALL DAY" AND
"WAIT FOR ME" WITH DARYL HALL ON "LIVE FROM DARYL'S HOUSE!"