By Steve Bell
For almost 60 years now Philadelphia-born and bred singer-songwriter/producer Todd Rundgren has marched resolutely to the beat of his own drum, conceiving and making music across a vast array of musical styles with little consideration for prevailing trends or fashions.
He’s dabbled in psychedelia, classic rock, power-pop, prog rock and even electronica, seeming to follow his idiosyncratic muse to a new destination every time he feels too settled in one particular oeuvre.
The restless nature of his career can be traced back five decades to his fourth solo album A Wizard, A True Star (1973) – the follow-up to his successful breakthrough Something/Anything? (1972) – that record completely eschewing the straight pop blueprint which had made the predecessor so successful, instead favouring a psych-tinged sonic collage which didn’t do well commercially but was in time highly influential to ensuing generations of musicians.
“I traditionally made a good living as a producer, so I didn’t have the same sort of pressure that other artists would have when they’re doing their own material,” Rundgren offers of that era. “In other words, I would still make a living even if my records didn’t sell. It was kind of enraging for the record label, you know, because they wanted me to just do more of that and I was kind of contrarian.
“I arrived at the conclusion at a certain point that I shouldn’t waste that freedom that I had and that I should avoid doing what other people have already done. It seemed to me that was my purpose. If I had that freedom, then I should take advantage of it and I should do something that nobody else would do because they didn’t have the freedom to do it.
“And that’s been more or less my modus operandi throughout my career, trying to avoid copying what everybody else is doing while at the same time remaining adaptable, you know, being able to absorb new influences.
“And it’s that hybridisation that makes my sound kind of uniquely mine. I don’t stick to one sort of genre, I mix them all together – sometimes within the same song – and that helps. Well, it keeps it interesting for me for one thing because I’m not constantly chasing what other people are doing, and to the degree that the audience is overly familiar or bored with what’s happening they can depend on me to do something that isn’t necessarily what’s happening. That’s my purpose.”
It’s such a rare approach for an artist to so fervently place art above commerce, but fortunately over the years Rundgren has built a strong and loyal following willing to follow and embrace these experimental tendencies.
“We kind of lost the dilettante audience early on, you know the people who wanted to hear the same thing over and over again,” he chuckles. “So my audience has a good – or generally a greater – sense of adventure than the audience at large, but also they’re spread much more thinly.
“In other words, I don’t have millions of people in every town, but I have enough people in every town, and they’re loyal enough that I can go play a nice gig and bring some production. And, ironically enough, it seems that that approach has paid off, especially in terms of attracting a younger audience.
“You know, an audience that is also kind of bored with the repetition of their own generation of artists who tend to do the same thing over and over again. And they’re no less curious about other kinds of music and other ways of making music than my own older audience is.
“So, I find that there are a lot of young faces out there, which is quite gratifying. It makes you feel less like an old fart, but also it means that there’s still a segment of the audience who’s interested in stuff outside of the mainstream.
“When you get bored with what your own generation is doing, you tend to go back and look at prior generations, and the younger artists that I sort of identify with are the ones who are almost reliving all of musical history again.”
Rundgren’s contrarian nature surfaced again recently in 2021 when he was inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, an auspicious achievement about which the music legend seemed largely nonplussed.
“I don’t pay much heed to those sort of accolades for a number of reasons,” he reflects. “One is that people start praising you for one thing and then they expect you to keep doing that thing. And then the other dangerous thing is that it might lead to some kind of personal hubris or thinking, ‘Oh, I’ve solved it! I’m doing it right now, no more effort necessary’.
“And that to me would take a lot of the joy out of music because for me every time I set myself to doing a new project it’s like exploring a new country in a way, I’m trying to discover new things… or they aren’t even necessarily new things, but as long as they’re new to me, it’s all I’m concerned about.
“So, I may decide to do a polka record at some point, I don’t know. As long as it’s something that I haven’t done before, then it has some interest for me. And, you know, the Rock Hall of Fame in particular, that always seemed like a stupid idea to me. Rock is the kind of music that is supposed to evolve, that if you try and like capture it in amber, it loses all of its life, which is essentially what’s happened.
“And then, as time goes on, they just run out of legitimate people to induct. I mean, I knew by the time they got to me they were in trouble – essentially they’d run out of people. And the process is so opaque nobody knows why anybody gets in or doesn’t get in.
“In the end the thing that kind of angered me was intimating that the fans had any input at all in terms of who would wind up getting inducted – they had a bogus fan vote, which was not a factor at all – it doesn’t matter who all of the fans want, the cabal will decide who gets inducted in the end.”
Ahead of his Australian return this February – his first trip Down Under since 2018 – Rundgren admits that the favourite period of his amorphous career transpired at the tail-end of last Millennium, when he had free rein at pulling together the perfect live production.
“Well, the era that was the most maybe productive and also rewarding was probably the late-‘90s when I had like a large band with background singers and horns and everything,” he tells. “That gave us a lot of range, we could do almost anything. We could do the rock songs, but then we could do the R&B songs and the more orchestral numbers.
“And when I had a chance recently I did something of a reproduction of that in the midst of the COVID epidemic. I did a series of five live shows all from a venue in Chicago that were timed to go out to 25 cities in the US and that was kind of the same setup: I had background singers, I had like three background singers, I had a horn section, I had two double keyboards, and the whole sort of nine yards.
“If I had the budget, that’s how I would tour. I’d tour with a big band so that we would be able to cover the whole gamut of things. But when I don’t have that I’ve got a regular band of really great musicians and singers, and from what I understand our opening act when we get to Australia is going to help us out so we will have the addition of background singers and horns and that allows us to do a broader range of stuff when we’re down there.
“I still really enjoy playing and touring, it keeps me healthy. I do enjoy connecting with and being with the fans and it’s great to get that sort of immediate feedback. The travelling is always a pain though, so as I get older, it requires some sort of adjustment in the way that I tour. I prefer having at least a day off after each show as a general rule, it makes the traveling a lot less hectic.
“But when we come to Australia it’s gonna be hectic, with no days off and heaps of travel because everything’s so far away from everything else. But that’s alright, we get to see some great people we haven’t seen in a long time and reconnect over music, I’m pretty sure there’s a lot of people out there a lot worse off than me and my first world problems!”
TODD RUNDGREN TOUR DATES
February 22, Thursday
Melbourne (Richmond VIC) , Australia – Corner Hotel
February 23, Friday
Brisbane QLD, Australia – The Triffid
February 24, Saturday
Sydney (Marrickville), Australia – Factory Theater