The final installment of our conversation with SOHF President Todd Rundgren.
AM: You’ve expressed a disdain for country music, and for almost half a century you’ve only recorded a single and arguably satiric country influenced song. [Todd chuckles]. What are the music genres that you really like the least, and which the most?
TR: That I like the least?
TR: Well, the reason why I do or don’t prefer a genre, is the degree to which it tolerates non-creativity and formula. Country music, contemporary country music, worships formula. You get these songwriters, this artist, and this producer, these players because they make these records all the time. Beyond that, you know, to varying or lesser degrees, it’s just the blatant insincerity in the performances. So it will make your voice sound that way, but the thing is, most country singers are not from the country anymore. They come from suburbs, and from all over the country, but when they become a country singer they pretend that they’ve been driving a pickup truck all their lives; they buy a cowboy hat, cowboy boots and stuff like that. It’s all fake. It’s the fakest [sic] genre that I can think of. Now you can say that to a certain degree about any genre, there are fakers in every genre. There are people who just do it by formula. They don’t try and inject any sort of creativity, originality, or even true emotionality into it. Now rap music has had to evolve out of that. It just became just too formulaic. You laid down an 808 bass drum and start bragging about yourself, and just all becomes a blur after a while. Some of it is designed to blur; you rap so fast that nobody understands what you’re saying [laughs]. So you just kinda show off your technique. That doesn’t mean that there’s nothing in rap, or that there’s nothing in country that isn’t actually real, somewhere.
AM: Those are the artists that stand out.
TR: Yeah, those are the artists that usually stand out, because the real artists are thinking “How can I change this genre and adapt it to myself? How can I avoid copying what somebody else is doing so it will be more me?” But, it seems like so of them are more satisfied to just do what everyone else is doing.
AM: So to whom and to what are you listening most these days?
TR: When I get ready to make a record, especially nowadays, I tend to do a lot of musical research. So I go out and listen to … I want to see what people are listening to, so I go to Napster and see what’s popular, check some of that out, if it’s a genre I’m interested in. I will hear specific artists that will occur to me. Sometimes they are suggested to me. Often use YouTube, start with one artist, and let the sidebar fill up with other artists that are similar; in a few clicks later you’re in a completely different part of the musical world. So I sometimes often tend just to listen to the first half of the song to get the idea what’s happening or where it’s going. If I don’t think there’s going to be anything different happening, that’s all I listen to. And again if I hear a song that I think has something to offer from top to end, I’ll listen to the whole thing, and I may listen to it again. But when I’m making a record, it’s incredibly dangerous to focus on one thing, ’cause then that thing starts to have an influence on the creative process. For this [forthcoming] album, especially since I’ve been making all my albums recently as a completely solo artist writing everything, playing, and singing everything except for a few, a couple of exceptions, I decided I wanted to make a more collaborative record as perhaps a different way of doing the same thing. Instead of me going out and listening to other people’s music, I want them to make a direct contribution to my music and see what kind of influence that has on me, see if I can find the proper setting for it, whatever that contribution happens to be, highlight the artist at their best, as well as being the producer, principal songwriter and principal vocalist on the record.
AM: I’ll be looking forward to that. I was going to ask about any particular classical pieces and composers to which you are drawn.
TR: Well, as I said, the further back you go, the less sheer enjoyment I get out of hearing what essentially is music created by these newly learned formulas. As things get a little bit later, and people like … well, you take somebody like Mozart, who almost didn’t need teaching, he just started making the music, and therefore he didn’t follow all those same rules as everyone else did, he had the power and confidence to do that. But my favorite era in classical music going forward is probably around the latter half of the 1800’s, French Impressionists, where painting movements and musical movements were kind of being coined all the time. My wheelhouse is kind of French Impressionist composers, and that may be because they became the ultimate inspiration for almost every movie soundtrack you ever heard. Because then they were really starting to refine how you use music to affect … to take people to different places … to specific places emotionally.
AM: The musical theater has had a strong influence on you, especially Gilbert and Sullivan, and when I’m preaching the Rundgren gospel, I always point out that only one artist has recorded the two show tunes that, as a kid, were my two show tunes! [Todd laughs]. Of course, “Somethings Coming,” and “NeverNeverLand.” But so far, you’ve authored just one straightforward musical score. How come?
TR: I’m actually in discussions to do another musical.
AM: The “Bat Out Of Hell” thing?
TR: No, my music.
TR: But it won’t be original music. It’ll be what’s popular now where you take some artist’s libretto and you build a musical around it. That doesn’t … my only creative involvement is helping to figure out what the story is because I obviously don’t have to write a lot of new music. There may be a few little new things. You make money if you write a verse that didn’t exist before [laughs]. It’s a whole other kind of structure. But I’ve wanted to do something like that. My friend in Holland, who produces all the big orchestral shows that I do over there, wants me to do something for an Arts Festival, and I’ll develop an old idea that I had for a musical. I’d dearly love to just do one from scratch. They take a long time. “Up Against It,” I was fortunate enough to get involved after they has secured all the rights to everything. In other words, it was a couple of years already into what the process would have been, so by the time I got involved, it was less than a year until it went into actual production, or maybe approximately a year till it went into actual production. So if we had the story for an original musical today, it would be anywhere … 2, 3, 4 years to get it onto the stage.
AM: That’s a whole process in itself. Once it’s all written, it’s finding the producers ..
TR: Exactly, the money people.
AM: You’ve commented that when writing a song, the music always comes first, followed by the lyrics. Has this always been the case, and do they ever have a feedback effect where the lyrics go back to re-inform the music?
TR: Well often when I’m writing the music I have a title, and maybe some sort of idea of the overall structure, and what I’m going for. And that title, even though I don’t have all the lyrics yet — I may have some lyrical fragments or something — but it will determine the overall mood of what I’m doing. And that much of the lyric can effect it, but I like to have the record almost done before I start writing the words [laughs]. It’s given me plenty of time to think about what I want to say to the point that when I do get down to that process it becomes almost like automatic writing. If I can get the first line, the rest of it just seems to come out because I have stewed over it for a while, not necessarily coming up with all the lyrics and stuff like that. But I have a better idea of what the song is about,
AM: You’ve stated that your early family life was not idyllic, but Ruth Rundgren became one of your biggest boosters as your career accelerated. You’ve raised three fine young man, even relocated at one point for family reasons. I’m just wondering, has family informed your music in any way that might not be obvious to your audience.
TR: Well, that family [laughs]. On my 18th birthday I left home. Like a lot of people I left all of that garbage at the door. I did not take it with me. I declared to myself, “Me and you, we’re done. This never happened.” I’m not gonna through the rest of my life blaming everything that goes wrong on my parents. And after a year or two, when I didn’t come back looking for money…. as a matter of fact, after a year or so my dad was calling me up asking if I could help my sister go to college. And I didn’t have money, you know, I was playing in a little… I was playing with Woody’s Truck Stop in a little place called the Artist’s Hut, where if we were lucky we’d walk out with twenty five dollars apiece, which went pretty far in those days because you were likely sleeping in somebody else’s house or mooching off somebody who’s still going to college and their parents are paying for their lifestyle … Gotta go!
AM: O.K. Thank you, Todd.
Well, we barely got through half of the questions, but I hope you’ve all enjoyed the conversation. Perhaps we’ll manage another session sometime in the not-too-distant future.
Alan Meerow works as a tropical plant research biologist in Florida and is the managing editor of the Spirit of Harmony Foundation blog pages.