POP ROCKER, SOFTWARE GURU IS OFF TO KAUAI BUT STILL PLUGGED IN
by Jane Ganahl
Todd Rundgren surveys the boxes that clutter his Sausalito kitchen and sighs with worldly resignation. He's pretty much done it all: rock-stardom, producer-stardom, techno-stardom. So now it's time to move to Hawaii.
"The great exodus starts in July," chuckles the 48-year-old cult hero, prying up a jawbreaker one of his children planted in his deck. He still looks like the '70s pop rocker whose songs "Hello, It's Me" and "I Saw the Light" launched him into reluctant stardom: his long dark hair is streaked with yellow, plaid long johns emerge beneath an untucked baseball jersey. His eyes dance with the impish brilliance that bespeaks his odd career.
"Why Hawaii? What, as opposed to Yugoslavia? I think the answer's pretty obvious. I've been going there for 20 years, to a special place in Kauai. It's just time to move."
He still plans to keep a pied-a-terre in San Francisco ( "as soon as we find it" ) because he has so many Bay Area work connections - both musical and technological. In other words, he may be moving to Hawaii, but don't expect the eccentric workaholic to retire to his hammock beneath the coconut trees.
"Oh yeah, I've got a lot of things going on this year: development of enhanced CD and interactive TV. It puts me in something of a period of woodshedding, trying to get a grip on it all."
That's good news for the fans who mob Rundgren at normally staid events like MacWorld expos, anxious to talk to the pioneer of interactive music (TRI's "No World Order" ), computer-generated art ( "Flow Phaser" ) and art books ( "Music for the Eye" ), and various types of creative software he's developed with his company, Waking Dreams.
He's amused by the recent surge in techie fan-dom. "I still have a cult following for my early music but the word has gotten out that I have also done things that are germane to something people are now interested in. So now I find I have a whole new audience, some of whom don't know I was ever a performer."
But, he admits, he's a bit, uh, over that part of his life. "I try to avoid hype. Audiences think that suddenly you've changed from free agent to commercial whore. So I don't seek publicity unless it's for something I think is important."
He has emerged from the woodshed, this time, for a concert with former Jefferson Starshipper Paul Kantner on Saturday to benefit Presidio Hill School, which both their children attend.
All three of Rundgren's kids (4, 10 and 15) are moving to Kauai with him. He's rented two houses: one for his ex-wife and one for him and his wife and all three of the kids, two of whom are his by his ex-wife.
"It's a little crazy but it works out," he shrugs.
Right now, aside from his son's baseball game this afternoon ( "the kid's a prodigy" ), Rundgren's pet project is a new web service. "It's a new kind of service, not the same as Netscape. We are going to be building our own browser, our own immersive experience. And of course, music's still a big part of it."
Rundren says he looks forward to the day when music plays a more predominant role in his work, "but we're in this phase of finding new ways of delivering music to people, which to me is just as important as making the music. I had a lot of trouble with the old structure of music delivery but the old structure is starting to break down."
In the future, he says, "People will experience music directly, without having to go to the store, worry about whether the record store wants to buy it, and whether the radio station wants to play it. All these things are barriers between you and the audience. People will say I want to hear so-and-so, and ba-da-BING, just like that . . ."
Computer-generated music services won't take the place of live shows, Rundgren promises, "because people still crave that direct interaction, as musicians do."
Rundgren's nationally syndicated, taped radio show (in 43 cities - seemingly everywhere but the Bay Area) keeps him in touch with what's happening in the "real world" of popular music.
"I play no Hootie, no Cranberries," he grimaces. "We play Pete Droge, Matthew Sweet, The Waitresses, Pretenders, Wailing Souls, John Wesley Harding, Romeo Void. I like all kinds of music."
He opines that music's impact has changed significantly in recent years. "It used to be that all I thought about when I heard a song was "good song.' But music has transcended that. It's become a cultural thing. It's why I like hip-hop - it turns politics into amazing music."
He says rap is significant "because it legitimizes the deconstruction of music. It's the whole M.C. Hammer thing. He took someone else's song and wrote a whole new song on top of it. I think it's archly original. It's possible that just by randomness we've come up with all the original ideas! And if we come up with anything new it will be because we combine things."
Inspired, Rundgren launches into a dissertation on how our ways of perceiving things are different now, and it has something to do with how we see colors in the rods and cones of our eyes. I wonder aloud how I can make sense of this to readers.
"You can't," he laughs. "That's what all this new technology will be for. Just be prepared for how we broadcast ideas to fall completely out of the old formulas - the old Hollywood sitcom formulas, the typical book formula, the typical record formula. Those have been enforced for so long because they make money. But that's no longer the future."
He leaps up, puts his baseball cap and his proud father's grin on, and excuses himself. The future will have to wait for nine innings.