ZIG ZAG INTERVIEW - volume 6 issue 5 august 1975.
A ZigZag interview with Todd Rundgren could get well out of hand if we weren't too careful. Not only has he been around long enough to be in a group that made three albums and then gone on to produce seven albums of his own, but each one of those albums deserves more consideration than I'm afraid we've got time or space for. In my eyes Todd Rundgren is one of the most important figures to emerge in rock music in the 1970's. Although it's sometimes hard to perceive, his roots are mainly in early 60's British pop and American Blues, and the rest is just product of his own, fervent imagination and 70's technology. His music is more demanding and complex than most, the musicians he surrounds himself with are as good as you'll find anywhere, and his stage show and performance is more elaborate and visually exciting than the average American rock 'n' roll band. (He's also a fucking ace producer.)
Todd Rundgren has a reputation for being pretentious eccentric, as technically precise in his speech as he is in his music, absurd, bombastic, and just plain weird. His critics say that. And I must admit that as time goes by there seem to be more of them....disappointed with every further release and unable (or unwilling) to come to terms with Todd's philosophies and musical ambitions. Reaction to his most recent album, Initiation, has been mixed to say the least, but I like it a great deal. But there again I like all his albums for one reason or another, and if by chance you've yet to lend your ears to anything he's done, try the two double albums Something/Anything? and Todd for a fairly balanced indication of his ability.
The interview that follows took place during Rundgren's recent visit to this country when he finalized dates for a British tour to commence sometime in October. Interjections by me are left to the minimum to avoid sending you to sleep, and my usual astoundingly perceptive powers of analysis have been mercifully curbed so there is no heavy intellectual toffee apple job done on his albums...just the man himself talking.
I had a band called Woody's truck stop when 'underground music' was recognized as an entity in 1966 - about the time the first FM stations appeared in the States. I had just graduated from High School and I had no salable skill except to play guitar, so I joined this local band - a band that played the blues in a very white manner - it was hip to do so in those days. I became second guitar player in this band - I didn't deserve lead guitar player status yet. That was where I essentially learned how to play guitar...my nine months or so with that band, after which I left and started The Nazz.
ZZ: Paul Fishkin was the manager of Woody's Truck Stop wasn't he?
He was, yeah. He wasn't a manager in the sense that a manager is today because in those days we were all hippies and he just happened to be the one with the money so he paid for our equipment and stuff.
The Personnel of Woody's truck stop changed about three million times during it's undistinguished career, but while Todd was in the band, the line-up was mostly Alan Miller (Lead Guitar), Bobby Radeloff (Vocals), Kenny Radeloff, Carsen Van Osten, and Todd. Who were all these people?
No-one memorable. Alan Miller played guitar and his claim to fame was that he was in Time magazine - this is how the band got famous. He was in Time magazine because he had grown his hair and refused to cut it, and the state said he had the right to have long hair but the school authorities wouldn't let him in school. So they had him go to school by telephone. They had a picture of him at home with a little speaker listening to the teacher at school. At any rate he didn't even go to college after that - he went right into this rock 'n' roll band. There were two brothers - Bobby and Kenny Radeloff. Bobby was the dig stud lead singer that all the girls went for and the last I heard he was working in a studio in Florida - the studio that Steve Alaimo does a lot of work at. Betty Wright cut 'clean up woman' there. Kenny Radeloff - I have no idea what happened to him. There were in-numerable personnel changes. In fact I think during the life of the band they had some twenty-two members. The final band didn't have one original member but the name kept going.
ZZ: So did you actually join them and leave?
I joined them and left and the band kept going. I left because they became subject to the psychedelic craze and decided they wanted to 'go country and get their heads together'. You could tell psychedelic music because it didn't have a steady rhythm - it would speed up and slow down and get loud and quiet. And that was their music. After that I started The Nazz.
I started the Nazz using local musicians. I stole the bass player from Woody's Truck Stop - Carsen Van Osten, and the last I heard of him he was in LA working for Walt Disney drawing Mickey Mouse comic books for European distribution. In fact I think they're even letting him make up his own stories... you go to school and they teach you to draw Mickey Mouse exactly the same as everybody else. I stole members from other local bands. At any rate we formed the Nazz and The Nazz was our concept band - we were going to take the world by storm. We had this way we dressed, and we acted in this whole affected manner, like English mods I suppose. anyway after about 1.5 years that all disintegrated into personnel hassles and management hassles, and just dissatisfaction all around. I think I was the second member to split, the first was the bass player. The last I heard of Stewkey he was working in Philidelphia. He had a band called The Sad Old Men Of Europe (sic) or something like that - I think I heard a demo that they did. As far as I know no-one in that band has made any inroads as a professional musician. After I left the band they tried to keep it going for a while. I left the band and I didn't have any money and the were doing gigs because they needed the money so I did a few gigs with them, and every time I showed up there would be a different bass player there. Eventually I just got tired of that.
Rundgren then signed to Albert Grossman's management company as an engineer/producer.
Initially I didn't think of myself as a solo artists, I wanted to produce at that time. And I'd got a certain amount of encouragement from a few people so I started producing. First I started producing a local band in Philidelphia who were signed to Bearsville Records called The American Dream,. They were also managed by Paul Fishkin - that was they we signed them - and by this time Paul was becoming more professional as opposed to being a hippie businessman, and ultimately he became president of Bearsville records. My production and engineering credits include albums by Jesse Winchester, Halfnelson (later to become Sparks), Moogy Klingman, American Dream, Ian and Sylvia's Great Speckled Bird, James Cotton, The Band, Paul Butterfield, Badfinger, Grand Funk, Felix Cavaliere, New York dolls, Hello People, Daryl Hall and John Oates. I never engineer an album that I'm not producing because engineering is a non-creative job for the most part - your supposed to take instructions and the blame if anything goes wrong.
I hadn't really planned on a solo career, but at a certain point I had some time and some songs that I'd been fooling around with and I thought I'd give it a try. So I went out and recorded the album Runt,a nd as it turned out it shocked everybody because they didn't think I was capable of doing it in terms of an album with that much individuality to it. For me it was a very experimental album. I'd never done a solo thing before and I didn't know what I was supposed to do or what I could do. So I just did a whole variety of things.
And then I did an album called The Ballad of Todd Rundgren which everybody who heard it loved the crap out of it but it didn't sell anything - it sold the least of all my albums, because it had no hit single on it or whatever. It also came out at a time when Ampex Records were folding and we were in the process of transferring to Warner Bros. So it really didn't get the promotion that it deserved. Ultimately, that and the first album are going to be re-released probably within the next year as a double package.
The making of the two albums mentioned above go hand in hand with the existence of an informal band simply called Runt which consisted of Todd, and two brothers, Hunt and Tony Sales;Hunt played the drums and was later to be replaced by N.D.Smart II from Mountain for a while and Tony played Bass. Various other people helped out on the albums.
Tony and Hunt Sales were local characters on the scene in New York. There's a club in New York called Steve Paul's The Scene and all the English acts used to open there when they first came to the states. It's like the Marquee, something like that. That was where they would play and everybody used to come down to jam. Jimi Hendrix was always down there, and Buddy Miles and everybody, and so I met Hunt and Tony during one of the innumerable jams that went on there. At any rate they had a house uptown and they had amplifiers and stuff set up. They wanted to be The Cream but they didn't have a guitar player and I was a great Eric Clapton imitator - I knew how to play all that stuff, so we would like completely blast our ears out for hours. But when it came to doing the albums my eclectic attitude always too over so I never did those kind of albums I never did like a totally heavy guitar oriented album,. As a result of that, Tony and Hunt lost interest after a while - they didn't want to play ballads and things like that. I think nowadays they're playing with Ray Manzarek.
There was a transition between record companies and they weren't really together. But eventually I did Something/Anything? That was the last album I did in LA. I was living there at the time and did some of it in the studio and some of it in my house, and them I recorded one 'live' side in New York which I did in a succession of days. In a sense there were two unique things about that album for me; on three sides it was all me which I'd never before, and on the other side it was all 'live' which I'd never done before. It was good experience, I enjoyed it but at the same time I'd got into a very pat style of writing, and so by the time I was ready to do the next album, A Wizard a True Star, I decided to abandon that style and try to develop something that was more uniquely my own. I thought seriously about the record and I realized that I don't make singles and that most albums are simply a compilation of singles, so I thought that when I make albums I should make them by the sides as opposed to by the four minute cut, and the Wizard album was the first one that was done like that.
The first prototype Utopia was around about the time of the Wizard album. Hunt and Tony Sales were in that band also. We tried to make a second crack at it and it was a very high concept bad. It had the total Cocteau concept of futuristic rock bands, it was total black and white...black and white costumes, and no equipment of any kind visible on the stage except the drums. We had this special geodesic dome for the synthesizer player to sit in with special constructions that made it look like a lunar excursion module with the drummer sitting on top of it, either feet of the ground. Me and the bass player both had double necked guitars, but the show was so ambitious technically that it never came off. So anyway that folded and I shelved the concept temporarily and went back to producing again. And then I did the Todd album. I'd been working with some musicians at the time who were highly sympathetic to what I was doing. I formed a band out of mostly these people. It was all the people who were on the next album, Utopia. That was the original personnel and since then there's been two personnel changes. There's a new synthesizer player and a new drummer. The synthesizer player we got last year after we finished recording the album, and the drummer we got just a moth ago. So we've been rehearsing him for the past month.
This band doesn't have the same concept as the original prototype but the second prototype concept is still fairly intact, being a communal music situation as opposed to a shock value situation which was the original concept. This one is much more spiritually balanced, and subsequently it's much more successful in concert. In fact I would say that it's an unqualified success because we play the entire show - 2.5 hours - without an opening act, and we probably haven't played more than five gigs where we haven't done three encores. It's an incredible response, and the response is unique also in the way that the audience reacts; they don't go crazy during the show, they sit and listen and then go nuts at the end of the show. We're coming to play over here in October and we'll probably be doing the exact show we do in the States; we'll be doing the whole thing ourselves. We won't have a support band, it wouldn't be good for us or them. Besides we perform such a diversity of material, and there are six people so extremely talented that we need that much time to extend ourselves. Everybody in the band is just an incredible musician - some are the best at their instruments that there are. Like the synthesizer player, roger Powell, is probably the best synthesizer player in the world only because he's Moog's personal synthesizer player, and if they make something new they ask him what to do. He comes to Europe all the time to demonstrate new synthesizer. He started out as a jazz pianist so he has all that keyboard technique but he is also much more aware of the possibilities of the synthesizer than most keyboard players. And our bass player John Siegler is acknowledged as one of the best.
If you've got any or all of Todd's last four albums especially, you'll be only too aware of the quite astonishing complexity of not only the compositions, but also of the arrangements and the actual execution. The mind veritably boggles at the difficulties that any band would encounter when trying to perform such material on-stage.
With this particular band it's no difficulty. This band has such a density and range of sounds - like we have three keyboard players and two of the keyboard players have four keyboards each, all with different sound. And the synthesizer player has the biggest portable synthesizer in the world. We have a great range of sounds and at the same time we're very self-conscious about that. We're conscious of exploring as many sounds as possible. On-stage I used to play keyboards but I don't any longer. I don't play anywhere near as well as the keyboard players we've got so it's just embarrassing for me. No, it's not embarrassing, it's silly.
ZZ: You've been quoted as saying that you don't consider your music as an end unto itself, but as a means towards some other end.
Well I distinguish myself, possibly with some degree of pretension, I don't know, but I distinguish myself as an artist as opposed to somebody who makes a living in music. So being an artist, music is just my means of expression. An artist is someone who has a vision that supposedly the normal person does not have or has not been conditioned to see. And the artist renders this vision in a certain technique that he's good at - sculpture, painting, poetry, music, whatever it happens to be. But the important thing is his vision, his concept that he actually exercises his technique on,. And that to me is always the most important thing. It's not whether I come up with a record or not, it's whether I have something to say. And if for some reason I should be prevented from making records, it won't be the end of my artistic vision, I'll just find another technique or another outlet. In fact right now I'm moving into the video aspect of things as a means of more complete expression.