Monday, October 31, 2011

Exclusive Interview: TODD RUNDGREN Talks UTOPIA Reunion With Ray Shasho



By Ray Shasho

The melodious ingenuity of Todd Rundgren will be evident when he reunites the progressive rock multi-instrumentalist ensemble Utopia for a Capitol Theatre appearance on Saturday November 5th in Downtown Clearwater.  After 35 years most of the original members of Todd Rundgren’s Utopia will be joining together on stage once more, a truly amazing feat in itself.

The tour kicks off in Hollywood, Florida on November 2nd at Hard Rock Live Seminole Casino followed by performances in Ft. Pierce, Clearwater and Jacksonville before heading north.
Todd Rundgren was inspired by virtuoso trendsetters Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Michael Bloomfield and Harvey Mandel. The Philadelphia native directed his creativities into launching the bands Money and Woody’s Truck Stop achieving regional success.

Rundgren then organized the nationally recognized Nazz in 1967. Initially formed as a psychedelic-blues rock band it discovered an array of eclectic musical styles. Todd Rundgren’s huge hit single “Hello It’s Me” was originally recorded with the Nazz in 1968. The Nazz became successful with the psychedelic tune “Open My Eyes” while opening shows for Jim Morrison and The Doors. After Nazz broke up Rundgren recorded several solo albums under the name Runt and Todd scored commercially with his first big solo hit “We Gotta Get You a Woman” in 1971.

The genius of Rundgren became even clearer with the release of his certified gold double album masterpiece Something/Anything? The album spawned the huge Top 40 singles “I Saw The Light” (#16 Billboard) and Nazz original composition “Hello It’s Me” (#5 Billboard).

Utopia was formed in 1973 but the band’s foundation was established in 1974. Rundgren magnified his musical inventiveness by fusing progressive, pop, psychedelic and hard rock into euphonious orchestrations. The band featured Todd Rundgren on guitars and vocals, Kevin Ellman on percussions, Moogy Klingman on keyboards, Ralph Schuckett on keyboards and John Siegler on bass and cello. After 1975 the band had numerous personnel changes. Kasim Sulton bassist/keyboardist joined the band in 1976. The 2011 Utopia lineup has added guitarist Jesse Gress (Tony Levin Band). Original Synthesist Jean-Yves “M. Frog” Labat was later replaced by Roger Powell in 1975. (These members will not be joining the 2011 tour)

Utopia’s signature anthem “Just One Victory” from the 1973 release A Wizard, A True Star is usually played at the end of every concert. Rundgren’s penned “Love Is The Answer” from Utopia’s Oops! Wrong Planet album in 1977 became a huge hit for England Dan & John Ford Coley in 1979 reaching number #10 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts.

Todd Rundgren maintained a highly successful solo career while recording and performing with Utopia. In 1978 Todd Rundgren released the sentimental “Can We Still Be Friends” becoming #29 on Billboard’s Hot 100.

Throughout the 70’s and 80’s Todd Rundgren established himself as an industrious musical genius in the recording studio producing and engineering for legendary artists including classic albums Straight Up by Badfinger, Stage Fright by The Band, The New York Dolls, We’re An American Band and Shinin’ On by Grand Funk Railroad, Bat Out Of Hell by Meatloaf and Skylarking by XTC. A full list of Todd’s credits are listed here on allmusic. Rundgren also contributed his extraordinary skills as a first rate musician and composer to a legion of legendary artists.

Utopia’s progressive rock improvisations landed the group cult status throughout its tenure. The groups lone Top 40 hit was “Set Me Free” from their most commercially successful album Adventures in Utopia in 1980. However the band held numerous AOR (album orientated rock) successes including “Caravan,” “Love In Action” and “Feet Don’t Fail Me Now” a proverbial favorite on MTV.

In 1983 Todd Rundgren wrote “Bang The Drum All Day” All the instruments on the song were performed by Rundgren. The tune is widely heard at professional sporting events around the country and used on TV commercials and movie trailers.

Utopia split up in 1986 and reunited briefly in 1992. But now in 2011 Utopia is back!

Last week I had the rare privilege of speaking with Todd Rundgren from his home in Kauai Hawaii.

Here’s my interview with legendary musical innovator/ musician/singer/ composer/ multi-instrumentalist/ record producer/ recording engineer/computer programmer/ and just a cool guy Todd Rundgren.

Mahalo Todd!

“Aloha!”

I spent my honeymoon on Waikiki Beach and I’m assuming that Kauai is nothing like Oahu?

“Yea Waikiki is the big city it’s pretty rural in the outlying islands and nice and quiet.”

When I visited Honolulu, it was a much bigger city than I had imagined.

“It gets busy down there and they have some of the world’s finest (Laughing) street women, the ladies of the night. It’s all a Waikiki phenomenon.”

You’ll be performing the first four dates of the tour in Florida including a stop at the Capitol Theatre in Clearwater on November 5th. For some reason Florida is usually last on the totem pole when it comes to concert tours but that’s not the case with a Todd Rundgren tour.

“I’ve had a degree of work in Florida for reasons that I can’t fully explain. There’s a whole gap of states that I barely ever get to Mississippi, Alabama, South Carolina and places like that and for me the south is like Richmond Virginia and Atlanta and it’s kind of an outpost and we don’t always get to it because the routing doesn’t always work out but fortunately we’re kicking off this tour in Florida.”

I understand your son Rex has been trying to make a career in baseball, does he still play ball?

“Yea he still plays but is in an Independent League now. He’s actually on a Canadian team this year. It’s a league that kind of spans borders I guess they merged together a bunch of Independent leagues and they’ve got teams in Canada and other teams on the west coast a team or two in Mexico and they even go as far west as Hawaii.”

What position does he play?

“Shortstop he’s always been a middle infielder. He handles it well he’s good at it and that’s why he’s still playing.”

Did you help coach him while he was growing up?

“No I can’t say that. (Laughing) I was never much of a baseball fan so I didn’t even know what to look for it was his high school coach that discovered his talent and lead us into it.”

How many children do you have?

“I have five and they’re all pretty much grown now the youngest is nineteen.”

Are you a Grandpa now?

“Yes I am and have been for quite a while now.

Many of the original Utopia members will be reuniting for the first time in 35 years or so?

“I don’t know if we’re celebrating an actual date when the band came together it was kind of an organic thing anyway we don’t even remember what the first date was I do recall many of the band members played on a gig that we did in Central Park that was mostly around my material we had yet to record an actual Utopia record. As I recall I did have most of the members that would actually end up in the band. A lot of the guys were playing on my records and doing gigs with me so Utopia kind of came together as a process I guess rather than declaring that we were a band.”

It’s quite an accomplishment just getting everyone back together again.

“Yea it is remarkable that everyone is still playing. And I don’t want to say it’s remarkable that everyone is still alive but most of us are up in our 60’s. But the fact that everyone is still doing gigs and is ready to play this music again like it’s suppose to be played that’s probably the most remarkable thing.”

You know it’s a real shame that there is so much bitterness that still exists between members of those legendary bands. A group that comes to mind is Grand Funk Railroad all the original members are still  playing and touring yet I spoke with Mark Farner recently and the vibes that I got were they’ll never get back together again and it’s a shame because the impact would be huge. 

“Yea I wonder baggage I guess for some acts and sometimes people don’t see the musical necessity they might be doing other things and I could understand that. This version of Utopia certainly hasn’t worked together for more than thirty years and it wasn’t like I was sitting around wishing the band would reform it was a series of circumstance that made it possible. Most likely this will be the only time that we ever do this it’s not going to turn into an endless string of touring.”

Were there intense rehearsing and preparations for this tour?

“We have yet to do our rehearsing. Well we played together for over two nights in January last year it was a benefit for one of the guys in the band who is having some medical issues and particularly the audience response that’s what spurred the idea of possibly doing more and it’s taken this long to find the circumstance to do that and one of the objectives was to play at better than we did over the two nights."

"Essentially because of me having flights cancelled on consecutive days we were supposed to get like three days of rehearsal in and instead only got a couple hours of rehearsals in. So as much as everyone was sort of enjoying the performance I know I spent the whole time just trying to grab fragments out of the air and not really feeling that confidant in what I was playing. So that was kind of the number one thing for me if we were going to do this again we would get some serious rehearsal in and that starts next weekend. So we’re going to get hopefully at least three solid days of rehearsal in before we do that first gig in Florida.”

Progressive Rock Music is so convoluted I compare it to working complicated mathematics problems.

“Part of Progressive Rock is the challenge of playing it physically but the other significant aspect is remembering. (Laughing) There’s lots of little details often and for me the biggest challenge is what comes next and making sure that I’ve got my head in the right space.”

That’s got to be a huge challenge after all these years to be putting all the pieces back together again right?

"Yea, as I said fortunately the other guys in the band they don’t tour as much as I do but they do get together with some regularity in a club in New York City and play this music so they’re pretty well familiar with it if I’m not."

Is the show going to be all Utopia material or will there will some of your solo material as well?

“Well we did do other material other sort of non Utopia material when we did the gig in New York. We have essentially two albums worth which where if you add them together it’s about a two hour show. So we’re going to try and learn everything that we use to know. (Laughing) And play that as well as we can and that of course includes certain oddments like our version of The Move’s “Do Ya” and “Something’s Coming” things that aren’t necessarily Utopia originals but we enjoyed playing live.”

It’s got to be great fun playing Progressive Rock Music because there’s plenty of room for improvisation.

“Well that was kind of the issue with our shows back in the day our shows use to go on for four and half hours sometimes because we had a guitar player and three keyboard players and everybody would take a ten minute solo on every song. The thing that’s different nowadays is that in all likelihood most of the audience won’t be on acid. (All Laughing) So they will notice how much time is going by compared to the old days when nobody noticed when five hours went by.”

Like earlier Pink Floyd concerts. I witnessed the heaviest intake of drug at Floyd shows, more than any other event. 

“And Grateful Dead shows were notorious for the combination of both the consumption of the contraband and the shows that go on forever.”
“But I think part of the appeal of this is the music of people’s youth and it’s an opportunity for them to go out and relive that youth in a way.”

Veteran musicians like Tony Levin continue to push the envelope with new Progressive Rock styles and collaborations. Do you hear Progressive Rock in today’s youth? 

“I guess there’s some contemporary bands that you could say qualify as Progressive Rock like Coheed & Cambria and some that aren’t actually Progressive Rock but base themselves on Progressive Rock bands of the past. It all depends on what the kids are into. Music is driven pretty much on what a younger audience wants to hear. So if they get bored with their Lady Gaga’s and such maybe they’ll see Progressive Rock is hip.”

I’ve enjoyed the way technology has evolved and I know that you have as well. Of course it’s much easier now to record and view the music that we love so much and the sound is incredible. But there are other aspects of the music industry that should probably go back to the basics.

“It’s hard to get like a traditional sort of record deal like multimillion dollar seven album deals don’t exist anymore. It’s also an era where there’s a lot more opportunities to promote yourself that didn’t exist during the heyday of the record labels. There’s YouTube now and people build entire careers on one video phenomenon or something like that. So while it’s kind of sad that it isn’t the way we remember it it’s really kind of what the record industry decided to do and I guess the evidence now is what they decided to do was not a good thing for them I mean the music will survive even the music industry.”

“But I think the biggest difference is there are eras in which music is kind of a center of life especially for younger audiences formative and developing an image of themselves but most important have the disposable income so fashion and music and film and everything tries to appeal to them and when we were growing up music was like the most important thing and there have been occasional eras where the music might have been the most important thing for a segment of the youth population like when Punk Rock was out and everybody wanted to put glue in their hair that’s youth and rebellion.”

“I guess the bigger problem is that youth actually runs things now. Everyone’s come to realize in a relatively wealthy society in which children are kind of doted upon and they don’t get a dollar for an allowance they get a hundred dollars for allowance and when kids have that much disposable income everything is kind of designed to appeal to them. When we were growing up it was like you young hippy kids don’t know anything blah-blah-blah so that created a polarization with the older generation and made music take on a greater significance. It’s like the South Park episode where Stan’s dad insists that he is going to like the kid’s music because that keeps him young even though listening to it makes him puke. So he likes it anyway. If you like what the kids like you’re automatically young.”

You’re right it doesn’t seem like the music is important today as it was with us. To me most of the popular music played today resembles dance music and just a variation of Disco.

“Yea that’s because there’s no sort of real fad like Grunge or Gangster Rap or whatever it is. We’re kind of in like a space in between and dance music is always there. It goes and like hides in Europe. Mostly it hides until there’s a barren space for it to come back again and that’s what’s been happening recently there’s no real kind of movement in music.”

Every time I have this discussion I always blame radio’s lack of effort for promoting good music.

“Well there is satellite radio which does really well for me. I get played a lot on satellite radio probably way more than terrestrial radio. But the part of the reason why the whole musical milieu is the way it is -is because of decisions that radio and record labels made in collusion with each other that they thought it was a great way to make money but all those decisions weren’t based on musical merit they were only based on advertising models and things like that. How do we coax money out of these kid’s pockets even if the music that we’re playing is really horrible. And ultimately what they did was engineered their own demise. At the same time they were refusing to adapt to new ways of listening to and acquiring music that have become the daily habits of listeners nowadays and that’s why people don’t listen to albums anymore because its impractical to download an entire album into your phone. So people are going back to just downloading songs. But I don’t think things are going to get stuck in that rut forever.”

The entertainment value of Radio and Television has also suffered because of the excessive advertising. I know the original idea for creating Radio and Television was to sell advertising but the entertainment side of it is all but vanished. 

“Radio threw itself whole heartedly into that when they started doing things like applying market analysis for the radio listening audience. Every time a potential single was going to get released the very first thing that they would do was to send it to Arbitron to get rated and if it didn’t get a high enough number then the single wouldn’t come out. I lived through that. I lived through the excuse of while we paid them five thousand dollars that people with little dials listen to the music and tell us whether they liked it or not. So everything is a product of a so called representative audience and nothing unusual ever finds its way onto the airwaves.”

I always questioned the validity of the Arbitron and Nielson rating system anyway. We were selected to be a Nielson family once and it was kind of an antiquated way to truly rate the programming.

“And they don’t really care if you like the shows or not they just want to know if you’re watching. So they figure if people are watching then we keep doing this and if people aren’t watching then we change what we’re doing. It’s been proven time and time again that it doesn’t necessarily always recognize things that are going to appeal if not to the entire audience to a very intensely devoted audience. It’s like what happened to Family Guy they got dropped from Fox and built an entire new audience from the ground up on The Cartoon Network. And nobody realized that they could have the potential of this incredibly devoted fan following. That’s more important than numbers of people it’s really important to have really- really devoted people because those are the ones who can be counted on to watch the show every time it comes on and be subject to all the advertising.”

I talked with Tommy James (Shondells) recently and he believes that we’ll see some kind of music subscription on your television one day soon where you can download all types of music from your TV remote.

“I think he’s substantially right in one regard and that is that in the long run people will prefer to have a subscription kind of model to music as opposed to this song at a time model which is kind of what killed the music business in the first place. How did the music business wind up so on the ropes and yet Television keeps expanding and adding more programming and stuff like that. Of course TV is based on a subscription model you pay a monthly fee and you watch as much or as little as you want and what that does is guarantee income to all the producers of Television just by virtue of the fact that somebody is paying a monthly cable bill and music needs the same kind of thing. What a subscription based model does is exposes more unusual things to a broader audience because people aren’t thinking this is going to cost me money to listen to they can listen to anything they want all they have to do is pay their ten dollars a month. I have a Rhapsody subscription and it’s the only place that I go to get music and I never have to think do I want to listen to this or download this or download that I can download all of it. I can just forget it and it will still be there if I want to go find it again later.”

“But the whole idea of being able to instantaneously purchase stuff is not simple but you can easily sort of do that they’ve got APS like SoundDogs where you hear something in a restaurant and you say hmm I like that I wonder what it is and you just hold up your cell phone and it identifies the music that’s playing. And then usually the next step is okay now that you know what it is there’s a button there that’ll take you to Amazon or the Apple store or something like that then to complete that transaction. So that’s becoming a more common place thing. The underlying model though is the one that I’ve always been concerned with which is whether it’s a subscription based thing or a commoditized thing and I’ve always felt that the commoditized model was the ultimate downfall of the music business.”

Napster comes to mind when you speak about the demise of the music business.

“Napster was the first service to sort of demonstrate that delivery was possible and that there was audience demand. And the music business did what it always done and they’re incredibly stupid in this regard. What they’ve always done is try to impede progress rather than try to understand the audience dynamic. How is this going to change the audience is the audience going to adapt to this. There’s always some unruly thing that they’ve been trying to control. And they just completely misread it or decided no we’re going to not allow the system to change and therefore no one will have any of these choices and that’s when somebody like Napster steps in and says hey anybody with a computer you can now download music regardless of what your freakin’ record company say. And suddenly the audience once they realize they can do this takes to it so avidly that the record companies are caught so completely flatfooted they have no idea how to exploit it because their only strategy was to try to prevent it from ever happening. And there it is it’s happened already. You can’t put it back in the bottle. And unfortunately instead of adapting to it and trying to figure out how to use it by the time they got hip to what was going on their lunch was already eaten and they were out of business.”

Is there any way to get that excitement back in music again the way it was back in the 60’s and 70’s, is it even possible?

“Like I said I think a lot has changed so nothing is going to be exactly like we remember it. It’s going to be potentially some variation like I said about The Beatles when they came out it was more than simply a new musical phenomenon they had their hair long and suddenly everybody wanted to grow their hair and this came up against a whole cultural means about what you were allowed to look like in public. People don’t recall but everybody pretty much was striving to be identical up until The Beatles appeared and then everybody was striving to grow their hair. But there’s something that goes completely counter to the current means and that is driven by a musical subculture. It isn’t necessarily musicians but a subculture that makes music.”

“The Viet Nam war and essentially what characterized youth attitudes and things like that were old people sending young people off to die and that’s enough to get your dander up.”

I’ve always admired Producers like you who are brought in to work on an album and then it becomes a classic. Very few people can do that and you seem to have a knack for it. 

“Well I can’t always do it. It’s just that sometimes you have all the necessary pieces. Sometimes you do have the necessary pieces but it just doesn’t work out. I’ve had some great albums come out by various artists and they don’t for some reason connect with either with the audience or the people who have to expose it to the audience that’s always disappointing but it is a phenomenon. There are lots of superior products that fail in the marketplace for whatever reason like the DeLorean.”

Who were some of the Producers that you admired?

“Well of course no one knew who a Producer was until George Martin so you would have to like start there. Nobody thought about what goes into making a great record even Producers historically especially in the U.S. had a different kind of function they were mostly in the studio to see that the recordings did not go over long and over budget. And I know that the very first Producer that I worked with I had high expectations of what his role was and finally discovered once we got into the studio that he was this old school Bean Counter and really contributed nothing. So I think in the long run becoming a record Producer and that whole definition changed as time went on and plus what the role of a Producer is -is completely different depending on the context. I know Producers who know very little about music per se but know how to get it out of people. They know how to get people to perform in the studio and that’s as important as anything.”

“A lot of Producers who’s works I’ve appreciated and maybe even gone to some lengths to incorporate Steve Lillywhite was a great Producer he had a characteristic sound at the time that he was at his height of Producer nobody else was able to recreate. And plus more importantly I think an ear for talent I guess knowing what a good song is knowing what it takes to make a good song I’ve always felt the material was the most important aspect that the Producers ear has to first of all focus on the material and then second of all worry about how it sounds.”

I’ve watched a lot of Beatles documentaries and had the rare privilege of attending a live lecture by Sir George Martin and it is truly amazing when he demonstrates the before and after on a Beatles album in the studio. He was definitely the fifth Beatle.

“Also the records that he was not involved always seemed to have less of certain things that you were expecting like The White Album as opposed to Abbey Road. The White Album what it seemed like was a disorganized jumble of ideas and when you learned later how they actually did the record you realize it was a disorganized jumble of ideas. I mean they would come in one at a time maybe two at a time and play something on one of the tracks probably half the tracks on the record involved one Beatle only doing everything himself and maybe asking just for a little bit of help on something or sing some background vocals on my song so it still sounds like The Beatles.”

“Then you take a record like Abbey Road which everyone thinks is maybe the height of The Beatles skills in the studio and that was when they decided to get back together again with George Martin.”

Todd you’re somewhat of an enigma because you compose and can play all the instruments on your recording and then produce it.

“I grew up in an era where you could. The costs for recording equipment was going continuously down and so I was able to relatively early part of my career build a studio of my own and to do sort of like experimental things that weren’t possible or encouraged at other studios and learned a lot that way because it was such a hands on experience.”

How did you first learn how to work in the studio was it basically just diving in and then trial and error?

“Pretty much you’ve got to put your hands on the console. I recall when we were first doing demos and things like that trying to get signed as the Nazz we’d be in a lot of union studios where nobody was even allowed to touch anything on the console or they would call union breaks every two and a half hours. You’d just starting to get hot and then they’d say we’ve got to call a session here that sort of thing. So the idea of having free reign in the studio total Carte Blanche that was relatively new I guess and I took some of the first money that I ever made and reinvested and built a studio for myself and it made a big difference.”

Didn’t you do a cover album recently devoted to Robert Johnson tunes?

“Essentially I did an album called Arena when we found a distributor for it they said okay we’ll put this record out but we want you to record an album of Robert Johnson songs because we’re administering the publishing and that’s a way for us to make some money and also we could possibly get master licenses so I said okay I’ll do that and then for like two years I promoted the record on the road and they kept pushing the release date back. So finally I gave up promoting on the road then they released the record last spring and since then I’ve been doing other things. Yea I did my stint as a blues man for awhile. So now I’m back to less bluesy concerns. I actually had another album come out this year and I’m not promoting that one either.” (Laughing)

Is that the [re]Production album?

“Yea it’s mostly dance versions. I wanted to make a contemporary sounding record so it’s kind of like a study in production and that also was a record that was done under a more or less unusual mandate it was a recording camp so the record also includes performances by campers who showed up and auditioned on various parts of the record. The problem is that it is a dance record and I have no idea how to promote it. (Laughing) It’s just out there and we’ll see if anything happens if it does happen I’ll figure out a way to turn it into a show.”

The album is essentially covering the music of the bands you produced in the studio, artist like Grand Funk Railroad, Meatloaf and you do a remake of XTC’s “Dear God,” I was on a huge Dukes of Stratosphear kick back when they were releasing albums and most people never realized that they were actually XTC.   

“They had no touring life. Andy had this debilitating stage fright so the band members never went out on the road they only made records. When they put out an XTC record and it’s not time for another one then they just changed the name of the band.”

One last comment, I really enjoyed the segment you did on Live from Daryl’s House with Daryl Hall.

“And that’s going to be on the air now on the actual Television. I’ve done the show twice and the latest one was at my house. The first one was from Daryl’s house in Connecticut and more recently from my house here in Kauai.”

It was cool to watch you singin’ and chillin’ at your home in Kauai.

“The reality of it is I can’t get any work out here so I’ve got to hit the road.” (Laughing)

Todd thank you so much for chatting with me today it was a great pleasure.  I’ll see you in Clearwater Florida on November 5th.

“Thanks Ray I’ll see you when we get there.”

Special Thanks goes out to Lynn Robnett of Panacea Entertainment, Mary Lou Arnold and Billy James.

Todd Rundgren’s Utopia will be performing at the historic Capitol Theatre on Cleveland Street in Downtown Clearwater on Saturday November 5th. I have been advised that Todd Rundgren's performance at the Capitol Theatre is SOLD OUT!
More Utopia Florida dates
November 2nd Hollywood, Fl -Seminole Casino- Hard Rock Live
November 3rd Ft. Pierce, Fl -Sunrise Theater
November 6th Jacksonville, Fl -Florida Theater

Order Todd Rundgren’s latest album [Re] Production at amazon.com

Todd Rundgren official website- http://www.tr-i.com/
RundgrenRadio.com- http://rundgrenradio.com/news.html

Order columnist/author Ray Shasho’s great new book Check the Gs -The True Story of an Eclectic American Family and Their Wacky Family Business at amazon.com, iuniverse.com, barnesandnoble.com, or borders.com Great holiday gift!

“I found Check the Gs to be pure entertainment, fantastic fun and a catalyst to igniting so many memories of my own life, as I too am within a few years of Ray.  So to all, I say if you have a bit of grey hair (or no hair), buy this book!  It’s a great gift for your “over-the-hill” friends, or for their kids, if they are the history buffs of younger generations trying to figure out why we are the way we are.”~~Pacific Book Review

Contact Ray Shasho at rockraymond.shasho@gmail.com

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At the Capitol Theatre in Clearwater 11/5/2011

 

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