If Ever A Wizard There Was:
Todd Rundgren Continues To Plow
New Musical Ground With 'Global'

Few artists of his generation have been as prolific, diverse and unpredictable as Todd Rundgren. The one-time rainbow-haired whiz kid has evolved into a musical statesman extraordinaire, while still exploring and pushing musical boundaries. With his 2015 studio album, Global, Rundgren pushes the EDM envelope he discovered on 2013’s State a little bit farther while still weaving in many of his trademark, thinking man's sonic hooks.

Clearly, he continues to embrace modern music while never turning his back on sophisticated pop craftsmanship which blends intelligence, irony and humor in a way that comfortably can be called “Rundgren-esque.” We had the pleasure of speaking with Todd recently about the new album, the way he works and his ever-amazing voice, which just seems to be getting stronger as times marches on.

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Todd, it feels like there is a connection between Global and your last album, State, in that they both share lots of electronic dance music grooves along with other modern textures. Were you deliberately reacting to State?

Well, there definitely is a connection. State was a record for me to kind of learn some new things, modernize and get up to date. It's not as if I was never inclined to experiment in the studio, but nowadays you have a generation of musicians and that's really their reason for being — to push the musical envelope in a way. About three or so years ago, I started getting requests from younger artists to do remixes for them, just out of the blue. Amongst them, the album most cited as an influence on them was my record A Wizard, A True Star. That album was a radical break back then from the music that I had been making. And I thought that these new artists had kind of an advantage because they knew more about me than I did about them. And so I started doing some research on the stuff that they did. I spent a lot of time on YouTube wandering my way into the world of their music and I applied all of the stuff that made sense on the State. And so that particular project would probably fall into a category, which some of my other records fall into, that finds me actively trying to incorporate some new influences and new approaches. The end result is possibly satisfying but in some ways it's a necessary thing for me to do and then after I've learned, I will try and merge it into what I'm doing now. And so Global is essentially what I learned making State, merged with my more traditional approaches to songwriting and album production. So while it’s definitely related, it’s not really an exploratory record as much as it is me taking the stuff I’ve learned and applying it.

Historically, you’ve hardly ever been afraid of using machines in the studio. You mentioned your album Wizard, but also on Todd, Initiation, A Capella — many of your records have tapped into early forms of electronic and even industrial music. In terms of using the studio as an instrument, I think it’s fair to say that a lot of people are just catching up to you.

Well, they may be. And I think a lot of it may have to do with the technological advances of the last 10 years. Before that, you would probably still have to make a significant financial investment to make a record and then get into the game. But the power of the laptop at this point has really overtaken that. You no longer need a $25,000 ProTools setup. Everything is on a laptop, so today you have this whole new generation of laptop geniuses that work out of bedrooms, making their music and even doing all of their own self-promotion. Everything is completely self-contained. If you can afford a laptop and some software then you’re in the game. I think that is a terrific development because outside of that there’s still a tendency to turn music into a formula. If you look at the credits on a Katy Perry record, it seems that almost every song will have like five writers and three producers. There are some people that think you can just go into laboratory and produce contemporary music, and that’s all well and good. But underneath that there are more interesting things happening on a smaller scale. You never have to go look for a Katy Perry. She’s always everywhere and in your face. Me, I’d rather look underneath for stuff.

On the Grammy Awards this year, after Kanye's now infamous attack on Beck, someone pointed out how many songwriters Beyoncé used versus the fact that Beck wrote everything on his record.

Exactly (laughs). Kanye is complaining about the fact that he couldn't bludgeon somebody like Beck out of existence by using every songwriter in the world! I usually don't watch the Grammys but I did catch part of it this year and what I saw was one of the worst things ever. I thought the music was awful, and all the performances were awful and that's compared with what I thought was a pretty good Grammy awards last year. It just goes to show you how quickly things can go to pot (laughs).

Over the years, you had your own studios. You are never really on the meter so you could afford to explore and experiment. There was the Secret Sound in New York City, Utopia Sound up in Woodstock, and since the mid 90s you been making most of your music in Hawaii where you live. How has that environment affected your music?

It's funny, when I first moved to Hawaii, it was something of an adjustment for me to not have access to other players like I did on the mainland. One of my favorite personal periods in my life was when I moved from Woodstock to the San Francisco Bay area. In Woodstock, I really didn't have a connection with a lot of the local musicians, who were more folk-based. But two things happened when I arrived in the Bay Area. First, that was the point when the whole Silicon Valley was starting to heat up and I was very much interested in computers and very involved on a bunch of levels. For me that was kind of like the birth of rock 'n roll all over again. The same excitement surrounding the computer industry reminded me of the 1960s right after the Beatles showed up and everybody wanted to be in a band. Only now, everybody wanted to be designing computers which was really exciting. The other thing that happened was, I was all of a sudden in touch with a lot of great musicians who came from all sorts of backgrounds and played many different varieties and styles. I think two of the best records of my career came out of that period, Nearly Human and 2nd Wind. Those two records I am especially fond of.

Anyway, in Hawaii I can't just call somebody up and say, "Come to this session today." Because I would have to fly them to the islands and that became impractical pretty quickly. But the experience on the islands was sort of like when I lived in Woodstock. The quality of music that I create when I'm alone has something really different about it. It's hard for me to say exactly what that quality is, but I think that sort of isolation and internalism is liberating in a way. When it's just you, you can get into the proper frame of mind that completely opens up all of these new creative vistas. You don’t have to get approval from anybody else on anything you're doing. It's total freedom. When I lived in San Francisco, I would often go back to Woodstock to make music because that was the only place where I could feel completely alone since I'd moved my family out west. I would go back there up in the woods, be completely alone and away from distractions and I really liked making music that way. Here's the thing, there are so many distractions and so much noise in your daily life. There are always lots of things trying to get your attention to the point that you're never quite sure you're actually thinking. You're constantly sharing your mind with other people. So my attitude is, if I can get alone for long enough to make the noise dissolve away, that's when I start to figure out what I'm really thinking underneath. That's when I get to the point, it's almost subconscious, where I don’t even have to think too hard about lyrics or melodies. They just come spilling out almost as if I've bored a little hole in my head. That to me is when the real things come out of you. If you're too consciously involved than you’re always second guessing yourself and always putting yourself too much in the listener's place as opposed to putting yourself in the creator's place. Modern art, to me, is all about self-discovery, and not about manipulating people. The key is trying to find something in yourself that other people are interested in experiencing.

For all the technology on the new record, the warmth of your voice really seems to trump everything. It's an instrument that seems to be getting better as you age.

It's kind of weird. And I really don't know what it is. When you get older, most of your faculties are supposed to start to compromise and for some reason my voice just won't give up. I think a lot of it comes because I'm using my voice more than ever these days. I tour a lot with my own material, as well as being on the road a lot with Ringo Starr. So I suppose from all that singing that I've developed a certain confidence that I probably never have had before. I didn't start out this way. I never wanted to be a singer. I started out wanting to be a guitar player. So in that respect I started to sing much later than most natural singers do. You know, like people that start singing when they are a kid or even in their teens. I mean, I could carry a tune up until that point, but I never wanted to be a front man so I never really focused on singing back in the early days. It wasn't until after I started making my own records that I realized all of the shortcomings I had as a vocalist and how far I had to go to get better. It was during the making of my album Something / Anything? that I really started figuring out how to sing but it wasn't until years later that I could even put on a single show without losing my voice. So again, I started a little bit later and maybe that's why it's lasting a little bit longer. I've grown to depend on my voice and have also grown to enjoy it a lot more than I used to. I was very self-conscious about my voice for so long and I felt that I had overcome that self-consciousness in certain ways. Maybe I would try to make the song writing a bit more clever, or maybe I would start adopting certain vocal affectations in my voice that kind of made it almost like I wasn't taking it too seriously. But nowadays it's a whole different story. Almost everything you hear on the new record I did on the first or second take. That's for me was like the ultimate satisfaction, the fact that I didn't have to struggle to get the performances that I really wanted. When Frank Sinatra recorded all those records during the Capitol years, apparently most of those were first takes. Frank would just come in to the studio, he knew the song and the orchestra knew the song and after one take it's a classic. He knew the songs inside-out and so he had a certain confidence when he recorded them. That's like the place I feel I'm in right now. I have this confidence that the material I have in my head I can deliver out of my head in a way that satisfies. Times are good (laughs).

On most of your solo records, there always seems to be that one song that automatically stands out as a Rundgren ballad. This time the song “Soothe” seems to fit into that category. Is it a deliberate thing for you to always try and include one of those type of songs or do they just happen as part of the organic creative process?

On this particular record, I felt that I really needed something at the end. And this was the last song that I wrote. Overall, the record is pretty happy sounding and I do a lot of cheerleading although it does have its scolding moments. But you can't have a record with a fully monolithic mood, at least I can't, so when I sensed there was something missing, that’s what I came up with. I really felt that there was some emotional space that needed to be filled and that just felt like the right way to go.

Todd, in terms of the upcoming tour for Global, what can you share about the content of production?

Will the new record will certainly be a focus and I'm also going to draw a few things from the previous record, State. But then I'm also going back and looking for material for my career that I think will work well within this new format. Rather than try to DJ myself like I did on the State tour, this year I’m bringing somebody out, his name is Dam-Funk, and he's a really good artist in his own right. Having him there will allow me to front the show and not worry so much about the technical stuff. I've also got a couple of background singers/dancers and a lot of production. Lots of lights and video walls to cover the fact that I don’t have a large band. Because I still play a variety of both large and small venues, it's a show that I'm able to scale depending on where I'm appearing. I think it will be a lot of fun for people. Lots of surprises, I assure you.

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