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Nobody Beats the Wiz: Todd Rundgren on Norwegian Space Disco, Taylor Swift, and 40 Years of Musical Exploration

A conversation with one of pop music’s true wizards.

When Todd Rundgren called his fourth solo album A Wizard, a True Star back in 1973, it was a tongue-in-cheek title — a grandiose joke about the pop idol as grandiose joke. But it was also a prophecy. Rundgren went on to lead a double life creatively, ping-ponging between wizardly experimentalism and pop accessibility, winsome ballads and prog-rock sprawl, AOR and ADD. Wizard itself was a sharp left — a mescaline-fueled brain dump of brilliant, woolly pop songs seemingly custom-built to alienate Todd fans primed for a sequel to his 1972 breakthrough Something/Anything? and its biggest hit, the destined-for-deathlessness “Hello It’s Me.” And his post-Wizard solo discography is confounding in its breadth and variety. My personal Deep Todd playlist starts with 1975’s “A Treatise on Cosmic Fire” (a four-part, 35-minute synthesizer excursion inspired by the writings of early 20th-century occultist Alice Bailey) and ends with the touchdown-dance standard “Bang the Drum All Day.” Now in his mid-sixties, he’s still throwing curveballs at his cult. His output this decade includes the sleek synth-pop album State and a collection of Robert Johnson covers puckishly titled Todd Rundgren’s Johnson.

In this context, an album like Runddans, out this week on Smalltown Supersound, almost qualifies as a back-to-basics move on Rundgren’s part. It’s an album-length collaboration with space-disco auteur Hans-Peter Lindstrøm and Emil Nikolaisen of Norwegian proggers Serena-Maneesh; obvious touchstones include the spiraling weirdness of 1974’s “In and Out the Chakras We Go (Formerly ‘Shaft Goes to Outer Space’)” and Rundgren’s 1985 vocal-sampling tour de force A Cappella. Plaintive ballads give way to bursts of electronic noise; a phone conversation about how not to confuse an audience gets chopped into disjointed syllables; retro signifiers (dial-up-Internet squelch, Todd singing the refrain from Little Anthony & the Imperials’ “Goin’ Out of My Head”) drift through the mix like jetsam from a dead starship. And although Rundgren describes the trio’s collaboration as organic and open-ended, the dominant aesthetic is his. Rundgren is currently touring with the L.A. electro-boogie producer Dam-Funk as the sole member of his backing band, another bold choice it’s hard to imagine any other rocker of Rundgren’s vintage making. He called from Cleveland, Ohio, the morning after a show in Grand Rapids.

I feel like if there’s one thing that you’ve done right in your career, it’s that you’ve really prepared your fans to expect …

The unexpected!

Exactly. Sudden changes in direction.

Yeah, it’s a double-edged sword, because every once in a while I’m going to start dabbling in something that maybe a portion of the audience isn’t interested in hearing, but they can be reassured that even if they don’t like what I just put out, by the time I put out the next one it’ll be something completely different. So they might have an opportunity to like that, even if they don’t like what I’m doing now.

It’s like waiting for a bus — the next one will be along soon enough …

… and it may smell better to you. Something like that. But it is a certain kind of conditioning, and for an artist like myself, there are advantages to that. I think in the long run, it smooths itself out. The peaks and the valleys.

When you rearrange those old songs, how much of that is about keeping yourself from getting bored?

There’s always that aspect of it. I’ve got maybe five different versions of “Hello It’s Me.” People still yell that song out but I don’t always want to play it the exact way they remember it. If I’ve got a certain lineup or a certain kind of sound that I’m presenting, I don’t want [the older songs] to just kind of sit there like a turd in a punch bowl, if you know what I mean. If you suddenly do this literal interpretation of the song people want to hear, it’s like you’re just buying them off.

So people still yell out for “Hello It’s Me” at your shows? That seems kind of unnecessary.

Yeah, although whether or not it even penetrates depends on what kind of show I’m doing. The show that I’m doing now has a fairly strict running order and timing to it, and so a lot of that gets drowned out.

I’m always struck by how modern your old stuff sounds. I just listened to A Cappella again, which is from 1985 and could have come out yesterday.

Yeah, I have this kind of contrarian attitude when I make records most of the time, which is to not duplicate what’s happening [elsewhere] in the marketplace. I always figured that since my production work underwrote my lifestyle, I could be out of the mainstream anytime I made a record, and that gave my records more purpose.

So you made enough doing outside production that you didn’t have to worry as much about record sales?

I made enough to have my own studio, which was one of the determining factors of where the music would go. Because otherwise I would’ve had to continue with a more traditional method of songwriting. Write everything outside of the studio, come in in the briefest amount of time, try to capture it. Instead, by the time I had got to A Wizard, a True Star, we had built our own studio. We were doing a lot of composition interactively in the studio instead of writing whole songs and coming in and singing them. We were coming up with musical fragments that we could assemble almost like building blocks. And that sort of changed my whole attitude about production, as well. The studio became more of an interactive composition device, an instrument of its own. And nowadays we take that for granted — that the studio is going to play a role in crafting the final sound.

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And now you don’t even have to build a studio. Anyone can make their Wizard, a True Star on a laptop. I can’t tell from listening to the Runddans album if you guys were even in the same room at any point, except cosmically. How did this record take shape?

It started when I was in Oslo speaking at a music conference. Norwegians are just wallowing in money at this point.

Why? Where’s all their money coming from?

It’s coming from the oil. Probably comes from some fairly sound fiscal policy as well. They also have not adopted the Euro. Essentially, their money is worth more than Euros, and they’re so flush that they can afford to fly me all the way from Hawaii to Oslo to do a Q&A for an hour and a half. So I figured if I’m gonna go all that way, I might as well do something else while I’m there. I had done a remix for Lindstrøm [in 2012]. He’d teamed up with Emil Nikolaisen and they had this very germinal project — it didn’t even have a title at the time — that they wanted me to add some things to. Some guitar playing, some guitar noises, just some scat singing. I did that one day, then came back a couple days later and had them add some things — some piano, some drum things. I think I might’ve done a bit more singing. And then I left. I did whatever else I was supposed to do [in Oslo], I came home, then we came to this realization that this project probably needed some vocals on it. It was an all-instrumental project before I got involved. So we got into what turned out to be a three-way collaboration to try and finish this thing. It kept expanding and getting pared down again and expanding and morphing into other things as various ideas were thrown into the pot.

But it points out the modern advantages that we have, even [over] just like 10 years ago. When I moved to Kauai 10 years ago, everything was dial-up. Everything was limited. I was the first person on the island to get DSL. First person to have any sort of high-speed Internet. Nobody had ever asked for it before. So I had gotten used to that, but the idea of doing the kind of collaboration that we do now, sending somebody the entire multitrack of a record — even 10 years ago, that idea was kind of extravagant. Most people didn’t have the bandwidth to move that much data around. Now we’ve got services like Dropbox, and faster machines — my laptop now is my entire studio. It replaced what I used to have, which was a Pro Tools setup that required the biggest, most expensive desktop computer you could find, and a lot of external hardware and stuff that now I don’t need at all. We’re at a particularly golden moment, in terms of the process — not necessarily the music overall, because we still have to listen to Taylor Swift. But in terms of access, collaboration, that sort of stuff — we’re in great shape.

Do you think of yourself as a good collaborator? You’ve made great records with other people — everyone from Meat Loaf to the New York Dolls to your own band, Utopia — but when I picture you, I think of the Hermit of Mink Hollow, the man alone in the studio who can and does do everything himself.

First of all, I have to be a collaborator in a sense to be a record producer. You’re not simply lording everybody in the studio. You’re working in the service of the music act, whoever that happens to be, to help them get a product that their label wants to promote and sell. So that certainly requires collaboration, but I don’t like to go into the studio and have nothing happen. So I will instigate, in other words — if it’s some sort of collaborative thing and everybody’s in the studio and it doesn’t seem like it’s going anywhere, I’m just going to start to take over. I instigate to get something done. But with Runddans, I’m the only singer, so I can pretty much do anything I feel like, as long as I believe it’s appropriate to the music that’s happening.

Was there anything in particular from your back catalogue that came up in your conversations about this record, anything Emil and Lindstrøm wanted to reach back to?

I think Emil and Lindstrøm were both fans of A Wizard, a True Star. That was when we started being more aggressive with sound and started using the processing devices, synthesizers, non-conventional sounds …

Is it weird for you to have that be the one that people continue to key in on? In the arc of your career, it comes right after “Hello It’s Me” hits, and people are expecting a follow-up to that, and instead you disappear into the studio and emerge with this fairly bizarre space odyssey.

At the time there was a lot of stink around that record — both critically and inside the label. The label freaked out. Fortunately, [Bearsville Records head] Albert Grossman had kind of a perverse sense of humor and decided to put it out. He’d already gone through the electrification of Bob Dylan and how badly that upset all the traditional folkies. I think he kind of enjoyed upsetting everybody. So it didn’t get me kicked off the label. But at the time, everybody thought, What’s wrong with this guy?

What was wrong with you?

I came to the realization that after Something/Anything?, I was writing to a certain sort of formula. I was writing about subject matter that wasn’t really occupying my thoughts. I was writing about a relationship I had with a girl in high school and didn’t even think about anymore! It was just that everybody wrote songs about relationships. But what’s the point of me making records if I’m just gonna write by formula and duplicate what everybody else is doing and become the quote-unquote male Carole King? I’m going to build a studio to make this record in, I’m going to try to capture the stream of consciousness that’s in my head, with all the incomplete thoughts. Just take a different approach to recording and let the chips fall where they may. [A Wizard] was the end product of that. And even though it upset a lot of people, it felt natural for me. Sometimes there’d be instrumentals, sometimes the vocal would be the focus, sometimes it would just be weird sounds — aggressive manipulation of the sound, all these different textures and filters and weird devices that I just got for the purpose of noodling around.

I just found the process more satisfying than [on] any of the records I had made up to that point. The die was cast. My whole attitude changed — I went from being the traditional sort of songwriter who wrote three-, three-and-a-half, four-minute songs that were about relationships to essentially being an explorer. Every record offered new opportunities to discover new things or to develop or refine a previous idea but without any obligation to hang on to that. Now I put out a record and by the next record, I don’t even think about the last record anymore.