Extended interview with Todd Rundgren (Unpublished. June 2013).


Musical wizard Todd Rundgren, first took the world stage as a teenager, fronting his band The Nazz. This summer Rundgren celebrates his 65th birthday in swampy rural Louisiana, in intimate proximity to his most loyal fans. Toddstock II v6.5 gives Rundgren’s disciples the opportunity to enter his personal space for six days, for the direct purpose of just hanging out. A previous “Toddstock” event took place at his palatial Hawaiian digs in Kauai. This year’s Toddstock (June 17-22) will find Rundgren and his minions celebrating and jamming on the Mississippi River at Nottoway Plantation, the South’s largest remaining antebellum mansion. Tickets to bring your own tent and camp at Toddstock II v6.5 are $799 apiece.

The Philadelphia genius’ career seems to have stretched over hundreds of years, and thousands of styles. Rundgren has written and recorded classics from the gentle pop staple “Hello It’s Me,” to the progressive psych rock of Utopia. In pre-laptop 1993, Rundgren wrote his own software to create the apocalyptic electronic rap album No World Order. He somewhat revisits his early 90s work with his new album State, which offers a few guitar-heavy moments hidden inside a minimal, psychedelic rave record. Rundgren has produced artists from Janis Joplin to the Psychedelic Furs, to XTCs classic, Skylarking, and claims that State was influenced by his recent work with Tame Impala, and Swedish DJ, Lindstrom.

At his Louisiana birthday party, Rudgren will premier the three-piece band he’s put together to tour State – a tour that kicks off ___ miles away in New Orleans the day after Todd Stock ends. The musical legend scoffs at the risk involved with offering yourself up to fans who would pay $800 to hang out with you – though as he explains in the interview below, that not-insignificant amount of money gets fans much more than face-time with the wizard, the true star.

What is in your mouth, for us? (Ed: this is a reference to the chorus of a song on his new album which repeatedly claims “I have something in my mouth for you”)?

Teeth? [laughs] A minty fresh aroma?

I love the new album. What was it recorded on?

My Apple laptop, and software called Reason. Aside from a little audio interface, a little guitar and singing, it was all done on that computer.

Did you record it in a single stretch?

This was the first time in a long time where I’ve done an album that was under contract and there was a planned release date. I was just trying to figure out what the record was going to be about and I already have a release date [laughs]. The deadline made it all one sort of…Let’s put it this way, I had maybe a trip or two inside the time frame I was working on the record.

Do you enjoy a deadline?

Deadlines are good to have sometimes, and in this instance it helped me move the process along. I am more used to –especially in this day and age – coming at my own sweet time, and finishing it and having some time to kind of live with it and make song changes. There was none of that with [State]. There was a deadline and I pretty much went right up to it. I didn’t have much time to reflect it was just There it goes, out the door…

I’ve described State to friends as being like a Todd Rundgren rave record. It’s almost got like a 90s techno feel, that feels very fresh. To you, what it about?

I had originally thought I was going to do a larger project that would involve a lot of collaborations but with the deadline I realized I had to scale back to something a little bit more attainable. I decided I wanted to make a modern sounding record. Particularly because I’ve been working with some younger artists recently, some of which cite my earlier work as influential to them. There’s a DJ from Norway, producer, recording artist called Lindstrom, then from Australia, new band called Tame Impala. When they started talking about albums like A Wizard, A True Star I thought maybe I had to recover some of that approach to making records. And that was what inspired the direction I took. I did do a lot of research. I went on YouTube and listened to a lot of what was going on and as soon as I heard something I liked I stopped listening to it [laughs] so that I wouldn’t become biased. And then I got down to the process of trying to unload my self conscious into the computer.

Not to be over-simplistic but it does sound like something the younger people of today would enjoy. It seems like it would really work at some of these concerts they have now where people don’t look at the stage. They just dance.

[Laughs] That’s kind of the direction I am going with it. Lindstrom, a little more than a year ago just to speak [laughs] and I did a little studio work with Lindstrom while I was there, at a music festival essentially. I saw him DJ one night and it reminded me of what I was doing back in 1993 and so I thought maybe I should recapture some of that – the advantage being that all of that technology that was so difficult to deal with in those days in now, these days, just off the shelf. It wouldn’t be a question of me climbing this giant hill, this enormous learning curve. I wouldn’t have the hours and hours of preparation that went into say, the No World Order show. This can all be done almost as part of the whole overall process of recording the record.

(interview continued after this video of Todd performing “Imagination” from his new album STATE)

So are you going to present it in a Todd Rundgren Dance Party kind of way.

Kind of like that. Lights will be an important part of it. The band is stripped way down, just drums (Prairie Prince from The Tubes) and guitar (Jesse Gress), and there may be moments when they don’t play, when I go off on some improvisation or something. It’s not a formal concert presentation, it will be different every night.

A superfan of your told me you had invented a new form of technology for this tour. He also warned me that you weren’t going to tell me about it.

What? [laughs heartily] I don’t know who came up with that. Well I dunno, we’ll see what happens, maybe they think some way I am building my setup is revolutionary, but I don’t necessarily feel that way.

But you have invented some software and other equipment to suit your music in the past, right?

Yeah the last time I did something like this it required me to more or less build the entire system from scratch using a programming language. Whereas this time I can pretty much use the same tools required to record the album in the first place. It isn’t such a big leap. I don’t have to translate everything from one format to another.

So it’s safe to say this won’t be a typical Greatest Hits show?

There may be a few hits, but it won’t be like my so-called Performing Art Center Show, which is supposed to be easy and for the dilatant to absorb.

You by this point couldn’t possibly have people coming to your shows expecting to have their expectations met.

Ideally, no. [laughs]. People come with few expectations. Or at least in the early parts of the tours they have no expectations and then word gets out about what I am doing and if they haven’t bought their tickets yet who knows, they might decide not to [laughs] Then again they may be encouraged to if reports are enthusiastic. Sales for this tour have been well even though people must be aware that I’ll be doing a new record for the most part.

You haven’t played New Orleans in seven years. Is this your first trip since Katrina? You’re a regular to New Orleans though, right?

Not my first time in New Orleans, but maybe my first time playing. I have friends who live there, so when I have time we go down with the family and have a good time. I probably wouldn’t spend as much time there unless I did know people.

Do you partake of our lively music scene while in town?

I know some musicians there, but I just go to listen, not to participate that much. I am not that great at the [laughs] more authentic New Orleans style music.

So your birthday. Aren’t you scared of people who would pay $800 just to be around you? Aren’t you almost taking a risk.

[laughs] The $800 isn’t simply to hang out with me. $800 is six days of getting fed and drunk money. When we had the original Todd Stock was five years out here on the island of Kawaii, and I just had a lot next to my house and I just opened it up and said, Anyone who can get themselves here and can put up $350 for food and booze, then everyone was free to show up. There isn’t a central agenda, the only real agenda item we had was, I’d just gotten done recording the record [      ???    ] and this time we’ll be [premiering] a version of State.

But do you expect it to be your super fans, or people from your longtime family of fans, or your real family, or people you’ve known?

We certainly expect to see the fans that show up to all the gigs and they want to have an opportunity to hang out outside of that contest. When we had the first event a few people early on would get a little over-excited and wanted to monopolize the conversation. But it’s funny, it all sort of evens out; eventually they calm down because they realize the have a whole week to get everything covered [laughs]. The fans even each other out in a way. A lot of them have been around for so long that I’ve developed an almost an ethos of their own, which is easily conveyed to people who have not experienced it [laughs]. So it’s a combination of fans who may have evolved into other sorts of working relationships or things like that, so sometimes it’s hard to tell who’s strictly a fan and who is a volunteer and who’s actually a collaborator.

The one in Hawaii was at your house. That’s risky.

Yeah we set up a couple big tents so people could camp. The change, moving it to the mainland has a couple advantages. People can opt to stay in an actual room; they don’t have to camp if they don’t feel like it. Or you can bring an RV, which it’s pretty much impossible to drive an RV to Kawaii.

This all seems to illustrate to me that in the same way you are a risk taker musically, you are simply a risk taker.

In general, yes I am. This is kind of my sales and promotion team. You have these events every once in a while and then they go back and they prolesthetize me!

It’s the end of the year employee party. So who do you expect to be there in terms of notable names? I am hoping Daryl Hall is there.

Daryl doesn’t get out much. He did a show here [Daryl’s House] in Hawaii with me only because they were traveling back from Japan. But when he’s not on tour he pretty much holes up in Connecticut and I certainly don’t expect him to show up out of the blue. Then again, it being my birthday maybe he will.

Since it’s your retirement party I figured all the stars would be out.

Retirement party?! I couldn’t afford it!

Patti Smith won’t be there? You don’t know who will be there?

In terms of celebrities I haven’t gone out of my way to invite anybody. They don’t necessarily want to endure my fans unless I prep them for it. When we were doing our musical summer camp the past couple years we would have celebrity friends and stuff like that to come up to hang out with the campers and that all works out fine, everyone has a good time, but in that case I am essentially paying them to do it.

I read though that people shouldn’t think of this as rock-n-roll fantasy camp. You won’t be jamming with your fans?

You never know what’s going to happen. We will have a little jamming area set up. I am looking to just kind of goof off myself [laughs]. The last time we had this event I had to rehearse my band all week so I really didn’t get to enjoy myself and relax much at all except in the evening. So I am hoping to get some relaxing time in, socialize.

What is your drink?

Well, during the time usually beer. And then at night we open up the martini bar. The fans last time built their own mao-tai bar, they got sick of martinis so they opened up another bar that made mao-tai.

So why Nottaway resort in White Castle, Louisiana?

Well, it had to be in that specific week there, and some areas didn’t have such a complete array of facilities. Nottaway has wi-fi all over the entire estate , and the kitchens where they will prepare the food. So that unburdens us from a lot of the stuff they’d have to deal with. It’s a central location; if anyone wants to take a little hop into New Orleans. And we expect people to take advantage of whatever kinds of local activities there are: river-boating, alligator wrestling, but…

June in Louisiana is something else. What does the musical term “psychedelic” mean to you?

It’s funny, there’s something of a revival, and talking about Tame Impala, who seems very influenced by the psychedelic era. But I’d say that genre has something to do with songs with long jams in them cause that was where you would just kind of go in the corner and spin while, you know, the drugs took effect. And often the lyrical themes are kind of whimsical or spacey or nonsensical even. And the tempos are not often really fast, the tempos are a little languid.

I thought you’d say synthesizers…

Well the Beatles pretty much invented psychedelic music and they did so without synths but with tape effects and things like that, and playing things backwards [laughs].

Once when I saw you, in the days before laptops, and you had taped music in the background, and you said to the crowd, ‘Someday everybody will be doing this.’

[laughs] I think I was being facetious. It wasn’t the last time I did it.

Have you made an steps toward digitizing yourself so you can live on into eternity? Artificial intelligence Todd? Hologram Todd?

I’ve heard some pretty good cover bands at some of the band parties. I may just franchise it, the officially authorized cover bands that will go out and play Utopia songs or something like that, that I’m not willing to do anymore.

You’ve read the Wikipedia article about yourself I am sure.

Uh, maybe [laughs]

In 1974, you said you would give it all for one moment of enlightenment.

That was probably before I had kids. That was a long time ago.

Have you got a memoir coming out ever?

At some point. I was working on it back in the 90 and it felt too much like homework. But I do feel like I need to get at least the first 50 years down before someone else tries to explain it for me.

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