Todd Rundgren Q&A: Space Travel, Mortality, Revisiting His Past on the Road and the Rock Hall

Ken SharpCategories:Featured ArticlesFeatures

Rock Cellar Magazine

For more than  50 years, Todd Rundgren has proven to be a true musical wunderkind, blessed with dazzling skills as a singer, instrumentalist, songwriter and arranger with his bands The Nazz and Utopia and as a solo artist.

He is rightly championed for his production/engineering work with the likes of The Band, Grand Funk, the New York Dolls, Badfinger, Meatloaf, Rick Derringer, XTC, Cheap Trick and more. He’s an uncompromising musical maverick who follows his own unique and typically idiosyncratic path, a musical visionary who lives life by his own rules.

After years of being inexplicably passed over by the powers that be at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, they finally got it right and Todd is one of this year’s inductees. A harsh and outspoken critic of the politics behind the Rock Hall nominating process, Todd won’t be in attendance at the ceremony and instead will be performing a show on his The Individualist/A True Star tour, in Cincinnati, which is apt and a pure Todd move, going against the grain, remaining true to his principles and refusing to compromise.

Rock Cellar: I’m a Philly native and I live now in LA. Being fellow Philly boys, settle this pressing question. You have to choose, is it a Philly cheesesteak or Philly hoagie?

Todd Rundgren: Always a cheesesteak. I think it’s remarkably difficult to reproduce a good cheesesteak. With a hoagie it’s a little easier. You’re just slapping the cold cuts on there, and in the end, it gets down to the bread. It’s a tough call, but usually if I go back to Philly, I’ll get a cheesesteak. Rarely will I try and search out a hoagie.

I grew up in a housing development outside of West Philadelphia, and it was a very small, almost like village, the shopping area that we had. I grew up in the suburbs, so we had a pizza parlor and I remember going there and playing pinball and having the occasional cheesesteak or hoagie.

todd rundgren tour 2021

Rock Cellar: Okay, now let’s jump into talking about the tour. The tour is called The Individualist/A True Star. Fill us in on what’s planned for these shows.

Todd Rundgren: Sure. The Individualist actually is a continuation of the tour that I did going on three years ago.  It was based around the release of my autobiography. All of the material is kind of a retrospective of my catalog and a lot of the songs that people like to hear, but that I don’t often play. If I have a new album out, I focus on that if I go out on tour. So I’m always dumping new music on people.

And in this particular case, there are no brand new songs. They’re all older songs, more familiar songs that follow in some way the chronology of my music career, because there’s a story behind it, which happens to be my life. And it was the first half of the show and then the second half of the show I would just do a grab bag of various material just to make it different every night. And we decided to do something that people haven’t seen in a long time for the second half of the show.

So we are doing one or another side of the A Wizard A True Star album. Most of our gigs are two nights in the same city, so we have the opportunity to do one side on one night and the other side on the following night.

Click here to shop Todd Rundgren in our Rock Cellar Store

Rock Cellar: I saw you perform that full album in L.A. in 2009. What made you want to revisit that one? And was there a thought to possibly spotlight another album that you’ve never performed in its entirety?

Todd Rundgren: Well, actually, this was a suggestion of Live Nation, who’s promoting the tour. I was ready to do something completely different, not necessarily a new album, but something like what I did last spring when we did the virtual tour, which was to revisit the kind of live review era where I had a large band with background singers and horns and everything, and they wanted to continue to capitalize on the on The Individualist show, which was quite satisfying for the fans because I played all that older material. They said if I do one more tour and focus on the old material, then I’ll be allowed to do something else.

Rock Cellar: Well, I know that you’re very fond of the A Wizard, A True Star album. That’s the album you created experimenting with psychedelics. As a guy who was pretty much a teetotaler in the Nazz days and then you were smoking pot and taking Ritalin during the recording of Something/Anything?, what prompted you to experiment with psychedelics?

Todd Rundgren: Well, the reason I didn’t take drugs was the aspect of it, “turn on, tune in, drop out.” I didn’t see a lot of tuning in. I saw a lot of dropping out, and so I wasn’t interested in emulating that kind of behavior. But when I saw it as a potential to expand my creative horizons, that’s when I got more interested.

Also, my best friend, Randy, from my elementary school days, eventually went on to be a psychiatrist and he had access to all these experimental drugs, and if he recommended it, then I was bound to try it. The first psychedelic experience I had was in his presence in his house. And I have to say that that wasn’t what inspired me to experiment further.

The first thing that I did was DMT, and that was just severely hallucinogenic and not very creatively inspiring. So it took a while for me to figure out what worked for me. So I would occasionally have a trip that was mind-bending, but not particularly useful. And then I eventually found what worked for me, which happened after somebody sent me a box of peyote buttons and I was high for a month. Yeah, it was never about simply being high as some sort of escapist exercise. It was always to expand the creative horizons.

Todd Rundgren live (Photo: Hiroki Nishioka)

Todd Rundgren live (Photo: Hiroki Nishioka)

Rock Cellar: How do you think that experimentation with psychedelics impacted on the way you wrote song and put together records?

Todd Rundgren: Putting together the records was kind of a combination of opportunities and influences. I was wiring my studio, Secret Sound, while I was tripping at the same time. So it was kind of like there was the experience of building the studio. And then there was the experience of using the studio. But I pretty much had in mind, even as I was dreaming up the idea that it would be a place of experimentation, that once you had your own studio, you didn’t have to play by the rules that a regular commercial studio did because you’re the only one using it.

So we had sessions where any other time you went into another studio, you had to keep track of the hours you were in there, both in terms of paying for a studio and paying the musicians and we just forgot all that and had our own sort of musical playpen. And so it became more and more like writing in the studio and the studio itself becoming like a feedback mechanism that affected the writing process.

In other words, I could think something up and lay it down on tape and hear it back and then decide whether it worked or not, as opposed to the traditional thing where you had to have all of your arrangements and your music written before you went into the studio because you didn’t want to waste the time while you were in there. And that process, I guess, has persisted for me personally until today. When you’re working with other people that’s not necessarily the way you want to go. But for me, the studio as an experimental medium was part of the process.

Rock Cellar: When do you think your sense of spirituality, which you can certainly hear in a lot of your music, became fully formed? How has it changed through the years?

Todd Rundgren: It’s a combination of skepticism, sometimes bordering on cynicism, and aspirations for what is possible based on the occasional demonstrations that being put out. I mean, it’s very hard, especially in today’s world, where there’s just too many voices. There are too many news sources. There are too many influencer outlets, too many places to get music even and it all starts to sound like noise after a while. And how do you maintain any sort of equilibrium in that?

Part of it is manifest in the way I live. I moved to Hawaii and I built a house that has three sides on it [laughs] so I’m essentially in nature all the time and that helps keep me sane. I have an appreciation for the world without us as kind of a foundational thing. It’s all good if you take us out of the equation. [laughs]

Once you put us into the equation, that’s when the need for some sort of personal guidepost comes in, because, like I say, living in the world today, having especially gone through the last four years, it’s very easy to lose faith in everything. But what you have to remind yourself is that human beings and human ideas are not everything. Maybe there are higher powers or greater intelligences, and if so, we should not aspire to have them be like us. We should aspire to be like them.

Rock Cellar: I hope you have many more miles ahead of you, but now you’re in your seventies, do you think about death and your own mortality?

Todd Rundgren: I think about death more and more because when you got older, regardless of your own condition, friends and family die off and I’m certainly in the middle of that phase now. I’ve had quite a number of close friends pass away in the last year or two, some of it related to the pandemic and some not, and that’s going to continue. That’s going to accelerate it until I die [laughs] or until everybody I know is dead. [laughs]

And so in a sense, I realized at some point I will have to start confronting it. But it’s more about how am I going to handle everybody that I know eventually dying if I continue to live. So it’s a different dilemma then simply getting up every day and counting the days you have left. [laughs] It’s really trying to steel yourself for what you know is going to be plainly a lonelier, lonelier time.

Rock Cellar: You’ve always been extremely ballsy and confident and have gone against the grain. Where do you trace the origins of that ethos? 

Todd Rundgren: When I was growing up, I had a condition that probably is more easily diagnosed nowadays. But in those days, it was just considered “uppity.” I had an extremely short attention span. So I had ADD or ADHD or whatever it is. I had that in spades, but nobody called it that. It was just called troublesome. And it wasn’t a question of whether I had the intelligence. When they would give me any sort of testing, as long as I could focus on it I would do really well.

Every school year would start out with great hopes, and maybe I’d get through the first quarter with some decent grades and then it was downhill after that. And eventually I’m always the odd man out until I was in my high school years. I was very small for my age so I tended to get picked on, and I felt sort of isolated. But I didn’t feel stupid. In other words, I didn’t feel like I had nothing and that I had no prospects or anything like that. By the time I got to high school, I would do weird things to prove otherwise, like memorize the entire Gilbert and Sullivan libretto.

Rock Cellar: And weren’t you also trying to build a robot?

Todd RundgrenYeah. As I was growing up, I learned a lot of things that later would be valuable for me just because I fantasized about having a robot friend, and that caused me to learn about digital logic and binary number systems and other things that would help me when they started teaching the new math in high school. What everyone else might have some trouble with, in a day I easily grasped. So it was helpful, at least, having a fantasy like that. But more to the point of your question, I spent my almost my entire life, and I got more and more focused as I got closer to graduation from high school, seeing everything as like a yoke that I would eventually be free of.

And once that was off, I realized after all of my travails and my indignance about it that it was up to me to demonstrate that I really did have something to offer. And as that went on, I started out being very sensitive to other people’s comments and that never fully goes away, because you don’t do it completely for yourself if you release it to the world. I got to the point where I just don’t listen to other people’s comments about what I do, good or bad.

I appreciate the fact that they may enjoy it, or I may acknowledge the fact that they do not enjoy it, but I’m determined not to let it affect what I do. In a sense, if people are always discouraging you, then you will alter your behavior in order to get to stop discouraging you. But that never occurs to me. My guiding principle has been that I have to do what nobody else would do or could do.

There’s no point in me doing what everybody else does. I have to find a niche of some kind to even justify the effort that I’m going through.

Rock Cellar: I’m a singer/songwriter and make records and I’m continually blown away by your skills as an arranger and your almost supernatural talent in putting together background vocals and harmonies. Who were your teachers to gain that skill set? 

Todd Rundgren: I think I always had an appreciation for that. My dad was a big music fan, and while a lot of it was neo-classical orchestral music and things like that, he also really enjoyed Broadway shows, stage shows, and would take us to see summer stock like Music Man and Kismet and things like that. So the whole chorale thing, there’s obviously the places where the individuals sing.

But the chorale parts are so integral to the musical and every single musical ends with the entire cast on stage singing. So that was probably a signature element. And then when I got to junior high school, I took an elective in chorus, and it was my favorite class of all of my school years. [laughs]

I had a great teacher, and he taught us a lot about singing and about the very basics of singing, you know, where it comes from and what sort of vowels to use when you have to hold a note out and all that stuff. And we would do, yearly by yearly, I think Christmas and Easter, we would do big chorale concerts. With those concerts the only accompaniment was a piano, but big arrangements like Handel’s Messiah and stuff like that and sometimes jazzy arrangements of things like “Mr. Sandman,” but substituting “Mr. Santa” for Christmas.

So I learned a whole lot about what you could do with voices in that class, and that probably is part of it. I also very much appreciate when other people would do that. When we formed the Nazz, I wanted it to be a cross between the Beatles and the Beach Boys and The Who but the Beach Boys element was something I was always fascinated with, the arrangements on their records. So it sort of came naturally to me to do it. And once we got into the age of multi-tracking where you can overdub yourself, then I essentially went nuts at that point.

Rock Cellar: The Broadway connection is very interesting because there’s a particular song of yours that I love called “All the Children Sing” from the Hermit of Mink Hollow album, which is just one example for a song that would work for Broadway.

Todd Rundgren: It could have been because many of the songs have an implied story behind them. I’ve been approached a number of people to somehow rework the material into a Broadway show and if we could only figure out the story that tied it all together, [laughs] it would probably be in pre-production now. But it’s been years and years, and we just haven’t been able to figure out what the story is that would tie together a song like that or another song.

I mean, we’ve had various ideas that range from show business to monasteries. [laughs] It’s a really thorny problem because that’s the only thing that counts in Broadway is coming up with that story.

Rock Cellar: Next year is the 50th anniversary of Something/Anything. I’m taking part a 50th anniversary tribute album overseen by Fernando Perdomo and I’ve done my version of “It Wouldn’t Have Made Any Difference.” I know you’ve looked at that album as very conventional, but when you strip away some of the hits and more commercial things, there’s a lot of weird shit on that record. Do you have a sense of that too?

Todd Rundgren: Yeah, I understand that. I mean, the weird kind of “sounds of the studio” thing, the Les Paul-ish ness of “Breathless.” A lot of the stuff in there is purely homage and found music at the end [laughs] for my old band Money and Woody’s Truck Stop. Old found recordings.

I was starting to lean towards A Wizard, A True Star, which is more about sound than it is about conventional music. There’s certainly songs on it, and some of them are very conventional. But the idea was not to fret over song form and just use musical fragments as long as they worked and some of it would be instrumental in some of the vocals, and it would just be all over the map. That was not the intention of Something/Anything, but Something/Anything didn’t actually start with the concept anyway. It just started with a bunch of songs, mostly the more conventional ones and a process and that process just started to go on and on and on and that’s how the album turned into a double album.

Rock Cellar: What’s a more left-of-center song on Something/Anything that you still enjoy?

Todd Rundgren: Well, if there’s a song that I still perform and that people still like to hear me perform and that’s “Black Maria.” And that’s something that was always a disappointment in some ways to me, that people thought that I was now a singer/songwriter, and the piano was my main instrument. Piano was never more than a songwriting tool for me, and I’ve always been terrified to play it live, which is why I don’t do it anymore.

But there’s more personal music expression in it, from an instrumental standpoint, in the guitar playing on that record then there is in the piano playing. The piano playing is just merely accompaniment. I’m happy to play that song. It gives me a chance to get back to the instrument that I kind of cut my teeth on, and that got me into the music business.

Rock Cellar: I know you had a troubled childhood and didn’t have a good relationship with your parents. But now decades on, can you look back and pinpoint the best traits you garnered from them?

Todd Rundgren: I think that what maybe made my family a little bit different from other families was my parents both had a great appreciation of the arts, and both tried to express to the degree that they were able as artists. They both sang. They would sing in the car, and it would sound like Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy. [laughs] And then my dad painted for relaxation. He was a painter, even though his job was an engineer.

There was his job and the fact that it kept us closely aligned with emerging technology. He worked at DuPont factory in Philadelphia, and there was a lab associated with that. So a lot of stuff that was in development or that they were trying to reproduce from other people’s experiments would often find its way home. And if there was one enjoyable, common thing that we did together, me and my dad, it was things like building a radio kit from Radio Shack, something like that. So that appreciation for technology, that lack of fear of technology that I have has enabled me to learn a lot of things that other people find daunting.

I always say that I learned more after I left school than I ever would have if I stayed in school. [laughs] My dad never graduated high school, but he was self-educated so that appreciation was part of it as well. Another unusual thing is my parents were not racist. They taught us not to be racist. They had a great appreciation for Black art and Black artists and we were one of the few people in the neighborhood who ever had a Black person over to our house and so I appreciate that now, especially given that so many people are ambivalent about it and so many people are dealing with, perhaps issues that they never had to confront when they were young.

You know, my family was set straight pretty early.

Rock Cellar: I want to do a little show and tell with a few photos (Author’s note: I sent Todd a few images to comment upon). The first is an image of you sitting on the floor of a record store looking at the Beatles just-released Sgt. Pepper album in June of 1967.

Todd Rundgren: At that moment, I was probably just approaching 19 years old. I just formed The Nazz within the record store on Chestnut Street, where the two guys who ran it eventually became the Nazz’s first managers and the record quite obviously is Sgt. Pepper, which I did not buy, [laughs] and I did not at the time appreciate. I was still high from Revolver.

I thought the next Revolver is going to be really killer. And then when they came out with this essentially British Christmas show record and initially, I was not impressed. And also I resisted it a lot because everyone around me, and I was still a teetotaler at the time, said you can’t really hear the record unless you’re on acid. And I said, [laughing] “Well, I guess I’m not going to really hear this record.” So for a long time I didn’t have much appreciation for Sgt. Pepper and in some ways I looked at it as the beginning of the end because after Sgt. Pepper they never toured again.

Rock Cellar: Here’s another cool photo, it’s a color image of you in The Nazz opening for the Doors in Philadelphia circa 1967/1968. You’re playing a Fender Telecaster guitar, and it looks like there is a slogan of some kind written in big letters on the guitar, what was written on that guitar?

Todd Rundgren: I looked at the photo and I was trying to figure out what it was. The Telecaster itself is probably one that I bought because underneath the paint it would look like maybe Jeff Beck’s guitar that he played in The Yardbirds or Michael Bloomfield’s first Tele from a picture that I saw. But when the Nazz started doing serious gigs and I was no longer in a blues band, I think I likely had Carson[Van Osten] do the paint job on it.

I’ll get the picture out and I’ll see if I can at least make a stab at what the hell it says. I sure didn’t buy the guitar off the rack. I’m going to take one more look at it, and maybe I can figure it out. I have to blow it up. I have no idea. There’s just not enough resolution in the picture. But I must say I was kind of impressed at the style that The Nazz were already exhibiting copped mostly from The Who at that point.

Rock Cellar: The final photo is a photo of The Carpenters at home and in the photo they’re surrounded by albums and one of those is The Ballad of Todd Rundgren, which Karen has in her hands and is looking at.

Todd Rundgren: Well, here’s the weird thing. I think I’ve seen the picture before but never focused on the record she was holding and this was the first time I’m looking around the picture and thinking, why is this relevant? And it was the first time I noticed that she was holding the Ballad album. So any feelings I had about it, I’ve only just had now. And I thought, well, if she was still alive, I would ask if she wanted to collaborate.

Rock Cellar: I think songs like “Be Nice To Me” and “Believe In Me,” with their Bacharach feel, would have appealed to Karen and definitely make sense to have been in her wheelhouse.

Todd Rundgren: Yeah. Burt Bacharach was a big early influence, even when I wasn’t writing songs yet. I didn’t own a whole lot of records when I was getting out of high school. A lot of them were just really odd records that I found in the cutout bin, but I did own the Dionne Warwick album where Burt Bacharach produced it and did all the arrangements and wrote all the songs and I just played the hell out of that record when I was in high school.

So Bacharach was embedded in me and when I got around to refining my own songwriting style, I was certainly going to emulate whatever was in there. A lot of it is the odd time signature thrown in every once in a while, the chord suspensions that he uses and the non-traditional song structures. But in the end, there’s something so hooky about it that you can’t resist.

Rock Cellar: You have a song called “Future,” which name checks the 1964/1965 New York World’s Fair where you mention the world of tomorrow. What are your memories of going to the World’s Fair?

Todd Rundgren: Well, the first time we went, my parents took me. It ran two consecutive years and I had a lot of fun. We went to the family oriented things, and I wanted to live there. I didn’t want to go home with them. [laughs] When it was time to leave I sulked all the way home.

Rock Cellar: Which exhibit did you want to live in?

Todd Rundgren: Just the whole place. We moved from exhibit to exhibit and I had always entertained ideas of running away. So there were points during the trip with my parents where I thought “maybe I’ll just sneak off and they’ll leave and they won’t notice.” But for the second year of the fair, I decided to go back by myself. This would have been in 1965 and I was 15 or 16, something like that.

I went by myself and stayed until the park closed and I don’t remember how I got around. I used to hitchhike back and forth to New York City from Philadelphia, which these days wouldn’t be sensible but I used to do it regularly, and so I may have hitched there or taken a bus to New York City and then hitchhiked out to Flushing, Queens.

Rock Cellar: So was it the futuristic elements that appealed to you or the thought of a better tomorrow?

Todd Rundgren: The whole point of the song is about lost opportunities. It’s like, weren’t we supposed to have flying cars by now? Wasn’t this supposed to happen? And it was because our heads were too far in the future and not enough in the present, the thing that actually creates the future. And while we are dreaming about the flying cars and stuff like that, we are fucking our shit up in the atmosphere all over the place and now we’re paying the price for it.

So the biggest thing in the news recently was tourists go to outer space. Fine. [laughs] Fly some tourists to outer space, but that’s not going to solve anything. They think, “Oh, well, it’ll give you a greater view of the planet as a whole,” but that won’t help you appreciate the fact that your house just burnt down.

Rock Cellar: Lastly, I know you have very conflicted feelings about the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. You’re finally being inducted this year. For me as a longtime fan and this of course applies to the rest of your fan base, there was anger and frustration over the years that you were wrongly passed over. Now we feel vindicated that you’re finally in. Knowing you’re conflicted about it, is there anything positive that you can take from it?

Todd Rundgren: The positive is that I’ll never be nominated again, so I won’t have to go through that again. [laughs] Endless nominations are the worst because you’re supposed to encourage your fans to go out and participate in something that you know is just fake. They say to go out and vote in the fan poll. But the fan poll doesn’t mean anything. Like the whole nomination process, which from what I understand, can be sunk by a single person.

So the mystery behind it doesn’t help. But the best thing about it is that you guys got it, that you guys have gotten your vindication, because I know that I’m something of a fringe artist and justifying that to your friends who are into whatever is hot nowadays is challenging. But I always acknowledge the fact that I wouldn’t be here. I wouldn’t still be making records unless I had a loyal fan base that appreciates the effort I put into it. And the fact that that my fans have finally been acknowledged is the most important thing to me and I go to great pains because I can’t be a hypocrite and say, “oh, no, I changed my mind, now I suddenly love the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.” [laughs

Rock Cellar: If you weren’t playing in Cincinnati the night of the induction, would you have gone to the ceremony?

Todd Rundgren: Likely no. I’m so uncomfortable at all those things. All of those red carpet events make me so uncomfortable because I don’t naturally seek to just go out there and get attention and have people take my picture. When I’m on stage, I really enjoy it and when I’m making records, I do my best to live by my own standards, otherwise, I’m a home boy.

I’m a family man. I don’t seek the limelight for things that I don’t feel are actual accomplishments.

Related Posts