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Arts and Entertainment

LAist Interview: Todd Rundgren

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Todd Rundgren (Custom).jpg
Photo from the artist's Myspace page.

Photo from the artist's Myspace page.
Todd Rundgren, the boundary-defying musician, vocalist, composer, producer and original Zen Master of computer technology applied to music, embarks on a very special mini-tour this week, performing his 1973 release A Wizard, A True Star in its entirety in four California cities. This Friday at the Orpheum Theater, Todd and his band will reprise an album so full of music, the pressing required narrowing the grooves so that it could all fit. Covering just about every rock/pop genre even a journeyman fan could imagine, even inventing a few more in the process, it has over time been proclaimed Rundgren's White Album, OK Computer and Pet Sounds.Acknowledged to be a musician’s musician - on 1972’s Something / Anything, he played all instruments - for this unveiling of A Wizard, A True Star Rundgren has enlisted some phenomenal support players. His touring band for this jaunt consists of drummer Prairie Prince (The Tubes, skinbasher on the Rundgren-produced Skylarking by XTC); bassist Kasim Sulton from Rundgren’s 70’s-era band Utopia; Cars keysman Greg Hawkes; guitarist Jesse Gress (Tony Levin, Robbie Dupree, Adrian Belew); saxophonist Bobby Strickland (The Band, Grateful Dead, Dick Dale), and pianist Ralph Schuckett (another Utopia vet whose session ledger includes James Taylor, Lou Reed, and George Benson though unfotunately not all on the same session). Expect a higher than usual turnout of studio technicians and Musicians Institute grads.

Backed by this fiery group of players, Rundgren will open with a set of “other material”, including songs he has never performed live, before launching into what is sure to be one of the highlights of LA music for 2009. Promising something more than a note for note duplication, he playfully remarks “This is not that”. Expect staging, costume changes and songs fully brought to life with Rundgren making use of his own theatrical sensibilities and Prairie Prince’s talent with set design. (You have to wonder what the visual motif on ‘Rock and Roll Pussy’ - Runt’s purported jab at John Lennon from Lennon’s year of exile in LA - is going to be).

Rundgren spoke to LAist on the phone from his home in Hawaii shortly before heading to LA to begin tour rehearsals.

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The album that you’re performing at the Orpheum, A Wizard A True Star, came out in 1973, the same year as Grand Funk Railroad’s We’re An American Band and the New York Dolls’ debut album. Can you tell us what it was like having so many projects happening in such a short amount of time?

Well in those days the entire industry was a little different. It didn’t take months and months to make a record. I guess people didn’t have the idea of “perfection” that they do nowadays, where the idea is that enough perspiration can makes up for inspiration, uh, I don’t know. But it was not incredibly unusual for a producer, which I principally was at that point in time, for a producer to do three, four, as many as a half a dozen projects a year. Because they all took, more or less, an average of a month to record. Also it was just a time in my life where I had no other preoccupations but music. I also built a studio in New York, and that facilitated a lot as well, in that I could record some of my projects in my own studio or even produce from my studio. And that was a situation where we weren’t really under any kind of time limitations, in terms of what time we could come in to record, and how long we spent working. So that made our use of the studio time, I think, more efficient. And, I had no family to demand that I spend time with them. So I could spend all this time, you know, traveling or doing these productions in studios around the world, to record these various records.

Of all the albums that you could have chosen to give this kind of “live in entirety” treatment, why did you pick this one?

I didn’t choose it, and that’s how. I was on tour in England about a year ago, and our promoter approached me with the idea of doing the album once, in London. And he was inspired by the fact that a generation of younger musicians had begun to discover A Wizard A True Star, the record. And exactly how, I don’t know, how they discover that album from 1973 is mysterious to me. But in any case, a bunch of younger musicians were mentioning the record, and it was being sampled on records as well. So he thought it’d be a great way to introduce me to a younger audience in England by essentially doing a special event that would possibly feature some of these younger musicians. When word of that possibility got back to the United States, a group of fans decided that England was too far for them to go, and they wanted to see that album performed. So essentially, they found a venue in Akron and started promoting it themselves. By the time word of this got through the internet to all the fans, we wound up doing seven shows in five cities during the first ten days or so of September. So it went from being a single special event to being a series of dates and because the production is more elaborate than what I usually do, we can only do it in limited runs anyway. So we’re also doing these four dates in California, and we’ll finally make it to London in the beginning of next year, we’ll play a date in London and then a date in Amsterdam.

With all the different styles and textures on the tracks on A Wizard A True Star, how did you approach the recording? Was there a standard method of doing tracks live in the studio and overdubbing from there, or did that approach change with every song?

Well, in those days I had been working in a couple of contexts. One was the Something/ Anything context, which was me playing everything. And then there was the fourth side of Something/ Anything, and this is the record I did right before A Wizard A True Star. And the fourth side of that is all live sessions with a band. So I was not locked into doing things one way or another way. But this was the first project we did at the studio we built in New York called Secret Sound. We were still wiring up the console and stuff like that when guys were turning up to the first session. We’re frantically trying to get everything working while they were rehearsing the songs. So in some cases it would be like that, it would be live and very much resemble a live session, and in some cases it would be just me, by myself, and the biggest difference there was that I was essentially the engineer. We had no engineer to really operate the tape machine, I would have to turn it on and then run out and play whatever I was gonna play. Or, we did do a lot of recording in the control room.

So, much of our approach was out of the fact that we had our own environment to work in, and were freed of the usual limitations. I was… I could do anything I wanted that other studios might frown upon, like running it too hot or wiring things together in these weird configurations that they were not comfortable or familiar with. So it was really a different record from the stand point of how we worked. It was more like a college project or something. It wasn’t a typical kind of studio thing. Although I imagine that the Beatles had a similar kind of freedom in the studio, where you could take over a studio for a month and not have to share it with anyone else. So that was a principal element, the complete freedom to ignore the usual constraints of being in the studio.

There’s a very unique bass sound on some of those tracks, that’s kind of a quavering, wobbly bass sound. How did you achieve that effect?

We had a limited number of effects available to us in those days because it was all analog, you know, pre-digital. A lot of the vocal effects, nowadays they would use what would be referred to as a digital delay. Well there was no such thing in those days. If you wanted that kind of delay, you had to do it by an analog method. So we had a thing called a Cooper Time Cube which essentially was a couple of long pieces of hose inside a box, with a funnel speaker on one end and a microphone on the other end. So you would get this synthetic doubling effect, And one of the pedals we used to depend on a lot was called the Univibe, It’s essentially a classic effect that a lot of people used, Jimi Hendrix used it a lot on his guitar. Not so much on the bass. But we were working from a different kind of ethic, that whole idea that there were no rules that we were compelled to follow. So we would apply things that probably people didn’t think of. But using the Univibe on the bass, was, it wasn’t that unusual for the way we were working. Let’s just plug everything into everything else and see what it sounds like.

You were one of the first prominent musicians to offer a direct to consumer model for purchasing music over the internet. What did you find rewarding about that experience and, do you plan to continue working that way?

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Well it was not exactly….it wasn’t based so much on sales. It was called PatroNet. And the idea was that artists would get underwriting to create new music, and that the underwriters would get the chance to kind of look over the artist’s shoulder and peek at what they were doing. And so it was not a standard consumer model, it was supposed to be for people who were particularly devoted to certain artists.

And it was great for a while but the problem was, it was always a technological burden, and I needed to have the participation and the help of other entities. And at some point we sold it to someone who then proceeded to dismantle it. Put no money into it, starved it to death and essentially brought the whole enterprise to its knees. And it hasn’t recovered since. I would like to go back to the concept again, which is different from the standard, record sales. More sort of long term underwriting, and a different sort of relationship between the artist and the people who listen to the music. But at this particular point in time I’m too involved in musical things, I suppose, to get back into the whole technology trip. But that doesn’t mean I won’t get to a place where I will revisit the concept and try and re-prog.

Regarding the 2004 album Liars, did you begin with the concept before writing the songs or did you notice that you had a lot of songs with a common theme?

The concept evolved… I had done a little bit of recording but at the time, I was very sort of unfocused about it. I wasn’t really thinking I was ready. I was just… writing songs and recording them. And eventually I got to the point that I thought, I’ve got enough basic groundwork done, I should start to think about finishing a record. And I realized I wanted to do something that was conceptual, which I hadn’t done in a while. And I realized that at least some of this stuff I had been writing about was on the topic of, not just truth, but also reality and surreality and all these sort of glamours and things like that that I discovered, after ruminating, seem to be almost endemic in human character. And so after that, it almost started to write itself from a lyrical standpoint. Eighty minutes worth of music, all of it about that central topic. It turned to out to be a real goldmine, I guess, of ideas for things to write about. Once you realize and acknowledge the fact that this weird relationship that human beings have with the truth creates so much conflict, how much conflict and turmoil… that’s where most music comes from. It comes from turmoil. Most art is the product of some kind of turmoil deep inside that artist’s soul.

Working as a producer, have you ever worked on a project that ended up having an effect on your own music?

Almost all of my productions have had some eventual effect on my music. In many instances, I’m only interested in doing artists that present a kind of challenge. Production means a lot of things, and one of the things I don’t really feel should be in the category of production is simple babysitting. So if the producer is not making some of kind of contribution, and conversely becoming more and more educated about the act that he’s working with, then there’s not enough music in it for me. So I tend to choose artists that I’m not necessarily 100% comfortable with, and even then I’m trying to challenge us to come up with something beyond the mundane. And so in that sense, I’m always ideally learning something and getting something from the people that I’m working with, even if I don’t directly incorporate that into anything that I do. I mean, I did produce a country album once. I haven’t really done any country music. But in that sense, the answer is yes, I do get affected by the people I work with.

Are there any production jobs that you’ve passed over and later wished that you’d accepted?

Well, there are jobs that just, for whatever reason, just don’t happen. Because many artists are on a schedule, you know, they’ve gotta get a record done so they can go on the road and tour it, often can’t wait for you to finish another project that you’re working on and you lose the opportunity. I was working on a Tubes album when I was approached to do a Talking Heads record. And I was a big fan of the band and I was always disappointed I never got to do that. But ce’st la vie, you know? That’s the breaks. And there are other things that you get to do that make up for it. You know, I did an XTC record that was a Herculean task from a psychic standpoint. It was a very satisfying record to do, and a finished product that only I would have done. And those are the kinds of records that you’re waiting for, the ones that are the perfect match for you.

It was interesting reading XTC’s interviews in response to the production of that record, and, well, you’ve read them too...

It comes with the territory, I guess. You hope that your time with an artist will be pleasant and fruitful. And if it can’t be both of those, it can at least be fruitful. We helped their career, and beyond that, the turmoil just comes with the territory. Put it this way: it would have been horrible if we’d gone through all that AND the record sucked.

Todd Rundgren performs A Wizard, A True Star and other selections at the Orpheum Theater, 842 S. Broadway, on Friday December 4. Tickets, $45 to $75, are available at Ticketmaster..

Preview written by Randy Eliopolus and Bobzilla.

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