Interview of Todd Rundgren by Bean of KROQ radio station on November 1, 1997

Transcribed by Karen Pals

Bean: Hello and welcome to the historic Sunset Boulevard. We are at the House of Blues in West Hollywood. Welcome to liveconcerts.com. I am Bean from the morning show of KROQ radio here in Los Angeles. For those of you who spend a lot of time on the Internet, our guest tonight certainly needs no introduction. Let's say hello to Todd Rundgren. Hey, Todd, how are you?

Todd: Fine, thank you.

Bean: We are now at the House of Blues where Todd is going to be performing tonight and the show is going to be cybercast at around, I am told, 10:30 West coast time. So your fans on the East coast will be staying up late I guess.

Todd: Yeah. That's about 1:30, right?

Bean: We're not allowed to show you the set as it's being built in progress, but it's one of the neatest things that I've seen here at the House of Blues and let's let Todd tell us what we can look forward to seeing tonight. What's going on with your stage over there, Todd?

Todd: Well, it's kind of a stage within a stage. A little club within the House of Blues that is highly reminiscent of the tiki bars of the '50s and '60s. I think after World War II and probably particularly after South Pacific was a big hit movie, this whole fad of tropical paradise swept over the mainland and just about every major metropolitan area opened up these tropical style tiki bars. I guess it peaked with the Trader Vic's chain.

Bean: That's when they killed it, right?

Todd: Yeah, you knew it was all downhill after that but there are still tiki bars in the world, particularly where I live out in Hawaii so I'm just imagining myself twenty, thirty years down the road being kind of a Don Ho personality, you know, playing the same venue every night for a bus full of tourists as they come in.

Bean: Trotting out Melikiliki Maka every now and then?

Todd: Yeah, trotting out the usual standards and having a little floor show in the middle.

Bean: Dancing girls?

Todd: Well, I'm the only dancing thing there is, if you consider that dancing.

Bean: Now is this a tie-in because of the sound of the new record?

Todd: Well, it's an element. It does tie together a lot of these elements which coincidentally happen to be trendy but have been one of the guilty pleasures of me and the guys in the band for years because we've been touring Japan a lot. I have a fairly strong Japanese following and the Japanese are rabid audiophiles so they turn everything into CDs. They've had these exotica departments in the record stores for the last decade. Whenever we go there to tour, we would raid the record stores and get all the old Martin Denny and Arthur Lyman, Les Baxter, Escovel, all the things people find on their cocktail ultralounge collections.

Bean: And now there's enormous categories in even the smallest record stores.

Todd: Yeah, even small record stores consider this a legitimate musical category.

Bean: Now, With A Twist is the new album that's out. Why did you decide you needed to have a Todd Rundgren record in that category? What was the inspiration for that?

Todd: It was two coincidental elements. One was, I had been pondering doing something for the South American music market because it's becoming larger. I'd never been there, toured there, attempted to promote any music there, so I thought if I was going to court the South American market, what kind of musical style would I be comfortable with and I've always enjoyed bossa nova so I thought I'd take a crack at that. That was sort of in the back of my mind when Angel Records, or Guardian Records depending on how you read the label on the back, they approached me and said they were doing a series of records with artists who had a lot of hit records in the '60s and '70s. They asked me if I would do that and I said, sure, I'll do it if I can do a bossa nova album. I think they thought I was kidding at the time until they got the record and they found out I wasn't kidding.

Bean: So, it served your purpose at the time with theirs also.

Todd: I think so. The great thing about this arrangement is that it will be a worldwide distribution deal which I haven't had in a couple of records. I've been distributed mostly in Japan and then sporadically in the rest of the world.

Bean: Now, you say they thought you were kidding, yet on the back of the new record you say "Am I serious?". What are the fans supposed to take away from that? Are you serious about it?

Todd: Well, see, I was hoping by putting that on the back of the album, that nobody would ask me that, because everyone asks me "Are you serious?" And I think that if you listen to the record, it sounds serious. It's not a gimmick or a joke, if you really like the music. It also enables me to revisit these tunes that I'm not especially enthusiastic about doing again in their original versions, and be able to get something new and interesting out of them for myself.

Bean: It seems like artists have two ways to approach a song. They either put down the definitive version and that's the version they want, or there are artists who, year to year, the same song could sound completely different. I guess that does keep it a lot more exciting for you to be able to do something brand new with an old song.

Todd: Yeah, there's a fine line. At a certain point, I guess people who have attached themselves to a certain version will not respond to your reworkings but I have to stay interested. I mean, it's not going to be interesting for anybody else if I don't have enthusiasm for what I'm doing. I kind of damn the torpedoes, do it the way that I think works best for the frame of mind that I happen to be in and then hopefully other people will respond to it as well.

Bean: We have hundreds of questions that we have been taking through the liveconcerts.com Web site. We're going to read a bunch of them here, from your fans, from all over the world, including Japan. Before we do that, let's talk a little bit about the technology of the Internet. You're the first celebrity I ever heard talk about cyberspace and it's been many many years. How did you first learn about it and fall in love with computers?

Todd: I was probably eight or ten. When I was really young I was very much into technology. I was particularly into rocket ships and robots. I wanted a little robot friend because I was such a lonely child. (says wistfully) So I soon after that discovered the concept of cybernetics, of digital computing, computers and the fact that if you were going to have a little robot friend, he needed a brain, so I started reading about anything I could find that explained the basic concepts. By the time I graduated from high school I was hanging around in the Bell Telephone billing office, just watching them do data processing. And I thought if I were to go back to school I would go to some school that would teach me how to program a computer. Fortunately, I got out of high school and right into a band. I never had to go back to school or have a real job.

Bean: So when it came time to be able to use computers in your music, it was the best of both worlds for you.

Todd: Yeah, being a musician you have a lot of freedom with what you do with your time so when computers first came out, anytime a new personal computer would come out I would buy one and diddle around with it, try to learn something. When Apple II came out, I got serious and actually took a year off and learned to program a computer. So, from about 1979 on, I've been a serious computer programmer. Apple actually put the program out, they distributed the program. So, I've been as much a Silicon Valley computer hacker maven as I've been a musician since about the 1980's.

Bean: That's astounding. You're almost as famous now for the stuff that isn't your music just because of the advances you've made in everything from CD-ROMs to downloading music.

Todd: I have something of an audience of people who are more interested in the computer aspect than they were in the musical aspects and that was kind of exciting because I would go to events in the mid-'80s, like the hackers' conferences, where all these people who are now millionaires would come and they were just long-haired weirdos who dropped a lot of Jolt cola.

Bean: Like you.

Todd: Yeah, like me. And it really reminded me of the '60s when music was happening and anybody could get in a band. You could get a gig being in a band. The only thing you ever wanted to do was all about music and discovering new things. The computer realm was the same way because it was so new. Personal computers were very new. They weren't in every store the way they are now. They were only in specialty computer stores.

Bean: It's funny now to think that there were people who were respected in their fields at the time who would say things like "Why on Earth would anyone ever need a computer at home?"

Todd: Yeah, exactly. You had to be a specialist to use a computer. I think Apple was the first computer for the rest of us. They had a big campaign. They started teaching their developers how to make programs that the average person could use. That's actually when it started to get really exciting because these guys who thought they were just working in this very specialized field, suddenly discovered that people were very interested in what they were doing and they could start to make a lot of money off of it. All of these itinerant little millionaires and little geniuses.

Bean: And the astounding thing is that it's barely begun.

Todd: That's the hard thing to believe. That so little has actually happened. Everything is Internet-this and Internet-that. It's not even three years old as far as the public consciousness is concerned. It was originally developed by the Department of Defense to prevent the defenses of the country from going down if they hit a main computer somewhere. A way to keep them all connected.

Bean: Let's try to blow through. We only have a total of 30 minutes with Todd here before the show so we're going to try to blow through as many questions as we can from your fans, as I say, from all over the world. The first one does deal with the Internet, so we'll start with Ken, from Carlsbad, California. I've heard that you're interested in selling your music directly to your fans via the Internet. I assume this is to avoid dealing with record labels and the record business status quo. Would you care to comment?

Todd: Well, it is reactive, I have to admit. There's a reaction to the way record labels do things but as I've studied the problem, it's not so much conscious malfeasance on their part as the fact that the record industry, the inventory, disc delivery based record industry, is very much oriented toward young people because they have the disposable income to spend on records. So, if you're somebody like me who has been in the business for 30 years, your audience may have dwindled but also they are less inclined to buy records because that disposable income is now their kids' allowance. Also, your audience is more spread out. They may be just as devoted but they are not noticeable from a demographic standpoint. So, the Internet allows you to get those people connected and collected together into an audience that can be of significant size, but not one that the record labels necessarily have a practical way of reaching.

Bean: There's no question really that record labels will at some point be obsolete because they are an unnecessary middleman now that we have the ability to download music on our own, right?

Todd: Well, it's not the labels per se, the whole media, the disc-thing, has a lot of middlemen involved in it. People who manufacture discs who aren't involved in the production of it are being replaced. Trucking the stuff around. Putting it in trucks and driving it to a big distribution warehouse where it gets stacked up in big boxes until some retailer orders some more of it in which case another truck driver takes it there. All these people get a piece out of the record. That doesn't have anything to do with the consumer's enjoyment of the music. So, if it's all about the sound, cut out as many middlemen as you can. Tighten up the communication loop between the listener and the creator of the music. The other problem with discs is they have this whole dynamic that's about two or three years. Your product cycle is two or three years because of that, so much is invested in the chances of the disc succeeding. Being connected to the Internet, I can let people know where my musical head is at now.

Bean: That's right, today. How successful do you think the music that you've offered for your fans to download, how successful a project has that been for you over the years? You've done that quite a few times.

Todd: I've done things similar to this. My fans, fortunately, are very loyal and long-suffering, to put up with a lot of this cutting-edge stuff, kind of for the adventure. But I discovered when I tried to distribute heavy-duty media over the Internet, there were a number of elements getting in the way and muddying up the waters for me. Because they are so big and unwieldy at this point, they have other issues that they compete on to make it difficult, first of all, for me to write for both of them. And also because the consumer gets a different experience at the other end, it's hard for me to guarantee what's going to happen for them. So I spend a lot of time dealing with Netscape Navigator and Internet Explorer customer service complaints, rather than delivering my product. So I've spent the last couple of months writing my own sort of browser. It's not a browser but it connects people to the live content through the Web, but doesn't have all of the overhead of the normal browsers. I'll be delivering that directly to the fans in the next couple of weeks.

Bean: You touched on some of this question but let me read it because I know a lot of folks will want to know. This is John from Hamilton, Ontario. What's happening with PatroNet?

Todd: PatroNet is a concept that I got about a year ago and got such a good response on it that I figured I had to hurry up and try to demonstrate it. Essentially, if somebody like me wants to get connected to their audience through the Web, there are a lot of technical and business details involved in it that many artists may not want to deal with or be experienced in. The idea of PatroNet is to help them get connected, provide them with all the services they need to do that without ever getting editorially involved with the music. If you want to collect subscriptions for people, somebody has to build and maintain the database. If you want to have email and chat and bulletin board services or whatever else in your site to enhance the value of it and make your customers more satisfied, you may not know how to implement that stuff or maybe special expensive server software is necessary.

Bean: It's a lot of work to be first.

Todd: Yeah, it's not only a lot of work to be first. It's a lot of work to get in the game at all on the Internet now. PatroNet is mostly supposed to smooth that connection as much as possible and essentially be invisible, not really toot its own horn. Work as efficiently as possible, kind of like the phone company. When you're making a phone call, you don't worry about what the phone company is doing, you just want to talk to the person at the other end of the line.

Bean: I'm sure we'll go back to some of the technology because your fans are so interested in that. Let's talk about the music for a little bit. You have With A Twist we mentioned which if I'm not mistaken, is all previously released songs redone.

Todd: It's all my songs and two songs that I've performed before.

Bean: What is happening with you musically? What kinds of things are you into? Is it still exciting for you? Are you writing a lot of songs? Where are you in 1997?

Todd: Well, I have a lot of songs in my head. As I say, I've been dealing with the delivery issues so that I can free my mind up and concentrate on the music. I wrote a brand new song that's already available on the Web to anybody that is kind of like a free sample. I have another song that I had written for Al Green that never got used, so I took the demo and tarted it up a little bit and made that available. That's kind of representative of the things you might find. You would not only get new material. I might dig up some rarity for you. Or rework a piece of old material in an interesting new way.

Bean: Will you make a conventional Todd Rundgren CD of new material for a company that will go out in the stores at any time in the foreseeable future?

Todd: Well the idea of this is that the fans become the first line of investment in the artist. The real underwriters of the record in that when they subscribe they essentially pay up front for whatever they get in the next year and then I deliver it to them periodically. Then, at the end of the year, I'll have a CD's worth of material which I can take to a record company and make a conventional transaction-based deal to reach all the people who aren't on the Web who are interested to hear what's happening, or who don't necessarily want to be involved at that level. Who just want to make a disc purchase and get out of the store.

Bean: And not invest their lives in what's up with Todd Rundgren. You mentioned writing a song for Al Green. You've had probably hundreds of people cover your songs over the years and certainly a few come to mind. The Isley Brothers were phenomenal interpreters of Hello, It's Me.

Todd: Oh, Hello It's Me was an amazing version.

Bean: It was great. Do you have favorites of folks who have taken your songs and made them their own?

Todd: I've heard some that have really pleased me. Recently, there have been a couple of tribute records. In some ways, I like those songs more. I like the ones that are done by people who either haven't actually succeeded in the music business or made a big name for themselves. So these things are usually done for charitable purposes rather than profit, except that one just got released this summer in Japan that was all Japanese artists doing my material, some of whom are very famous in Japan and some of whom are less well-known and some of whom are musical contributors who don't even have a record deal. I really enjoyed that. To hear some of my songs done in an almost unrecognizable style and in Japanese, it is one of the weirdest crosscultural thrills you can have.

Bean: Let me ask you about one of my favorite songs that you wrote, which is Love is the Answer. I've never heard you talk about the story and if you wouldn't mind, is that something you wrote and recorded and then it was covered as a pop hit?

Todd: Yeah, it was covered afterwards by England Dan and John Ford Coley, I guess.

Bean: They did a phenomenal job with it.

Todd: They did a fairly faithful version, cleaned up and tarted up for the AM radio. Our version is kind of raw.

Bean: It's such a spiritual song.

Todd: Well, it is. We never had those kinds of expectations. I don't regard a song and say, "Oh, this is a single." It either does become a hit single or it doesn't. I don't think the record label ever released that song as a single. That was on Oops Wrong Planet which overall was a kind of a gritty, postpunk, very politically oriented record. So that song maybe stuck out in a way in that it was not as much political as spiritual and sociological in a way. I tend to write a lot of songs that are not so much about the ostensible issues in a subject but the buried under the skin issues involved and the anthropological underpinnings. The way people act and stuff like that. As time goes on, I see love as less a product of romance and more a product of genetic necessity.

Bean: So, Love is the Answer '97 would be a very different song then.

Todd: It certainly would be. Except, Love is the Answer '97 is actually a bossa nova number.

Bean: You're so famous as a producer and you've done so many different kinds of music as a producer, what is it that makes you go into the studio from time to time and do almost a dead-perfect cover of someone else's song? What do you gain from that? Good Vibrations comes to mind and others.

Todd: Well, you gain an education. I haven't done so many of those lately. In fact, I can't recall anything since, for instance, The Ever Popular Tortured Artist Effect or a Small Faces song. Everything since then has been originals. In that particular instance, on Faithful, that was like 10 years after I had gotten into the music business and I was trying to give people who either had never experienced it or had forgotten it, a taste of what it was like to move through the culture at that time. What was on the radio, what they were playing in the boutiques or in the record stores, the kind of songs you would hear. So I took a cross-section of mostly songs that were popular in 1966 and did them as dead-on as I could. People were supposed to pretend that they were listening to '66 radio or going from store to store in a hip neighborhood in 1966 and hearing what people were listening to then.

Bean: Interesting. Let me take a couple more Internet questions here at liveconcerts.com. If you're just joining us, we have Todd Rundgren here with us and the show is going to be on at 10:30 p.m. on the West Coast live from the House of Blues here in West Hollywood. This is Chris from Gulfport, Mississippi, wants to know if you've tried any of the new electronic instruments and if you're having any fun with those.

Todd: Actually, the electronic instrument I'm most intrigued by is a fully-computerized piece of studio software called q*base VST that essentially allows you to have a 32 track fully digital hard disk recording system on my Macintosh 3400 laptop. The million dollar roomful of equipment has now been shrunk down to the size of a local phone book. You can do the most amazing things with it. All the studio effects you could possibly have plus MIDI control. I'm going to be doing some experimenting on the road with this seeing what kind of production I can realize, utilizing almost no acoustic sounds at all. I have a pretty big library of sampling discs that I can get all the sounds off of.

Bean: Essentially, all digital recordings.

Todd: Steal all the sounds off of CDs. Get whatever vocals I need, like record them into a DAT machine and then digitize them into this virtual studio environment and essentially build, arrange and mix totally on the laptop without ever having to go into the physical real environment, except to get whatever vocals I need.

Bean: Part 2 of the question from Chris, "Would you ever do a blues album? I have heard you play Black Maria, it was fantastic and I know you can play some blues."

Todd: I started out in a blues band when I got out of high school. Blues was still a big thing for white guys to play. There was Paul Butterfield Blues band, the Yardbirds, of course, the Rolling Stones professed to be a blues band. So there were a lot of white bands and white guitar players who kind of cut their teeth on the blues. How authentic they were is open to argument but that's where I started and the kind of music I first played. I would love to play a blues album, I just don't know if another label is going to come along and ask me if I want to do a blues album of all my old songs.

Bean: Lisa, from Kaiser, West Virginia, "Tell us about your recent trip to China. What significance did it have for you? What was the atmosphere like? What do you remember from it?"

Todd: Before going to China, I had no idea at all of what it was going to be like. I had been to Hong Kong a couple of times so I had been around Chinese people. Of course, I go to Japan all the time. This was the first time I'd ever been in China. You're going into the largest remaining Communist country in the world. What's it going to be like? Are there going to be Red Guard soldiers marching around behind me all the time? But it reminded me more of a cross between India and Thailand. Very crowded, noisy and stratified economically. I was brought over by a Western company and spent a lot of time in this Western enclave. Shanghai is the most Western of Chinese cities on the mainland.

Bean: Do they know your music there at all?

Todd: The Chinese? No, I doubt it. They have been very cloistered and purposefully separated from Western cultures so they don't know much about Western artists. There are some styles that leak in there. Most of the culture they have been exposed to is through Hong Kong but Hong Kong has its own culture, very kind of cruddy music actually, to be quite honest. They have these kind of croony singers who can't sing very well. It's a music scene made up almost entirely of Barry Manilows.

Bean: Imitators of things from the West.

Todd: Imitators, and not very good imitators of things from the West, and those are the artists who made the most inroads into the Chinese culture.

Bean: Here's Jenny from Gainesville, Florida. She wants to ask about the radio show The Difference, which I guess you had a real good run with. "Why did you stop doing it? Do you think you'd ever do anything like that again?"

Todd: I had to stop doing it because it stopped being The Difference actually. When we started out there was a little bit more freedom because we were modeling the show around what we thought was a new format. It was called Triple-A, it was adult album alternative which was essentially meant for an older, more discriminating, more musically interested audience rather than a purely stylistic or peer oriented audience.

Bean: It was, play it if it's good and the person who likes this music will also like that music not that they have to be similar.

Todd: The music was there on its merits not necessarily its trendiness. Subsequently, I refused to ever play Hootie and the Blowfish even though they were a linchpin of the format. What happened after about a year is that the format broke down. AAA started to lose its impact, mostly because the way that radio works. It's a business. It's also a business in which it's very easy to go out of business. So, people who actually own and run radio stations don't really care about the format so much as they care about what kind of audience advertisers are interested in attracting. So, a lot of the people who are original syndicators changed format, dropped the show, and you had to scramble to find somebody else in the market to pick up the show.

Bean: Maybe an Internet radio show.

Todd: Essentially, that's the next move to take advantage of the Internet and hopefully get some number of conventional broadcast radio to kind of come along, to leverage off of that. Essentially, a show of the same slant. Music that's there on its merits, not necessarily because it's stylistically trendy or it's on the right label or because it bought its way on there.

Bean: We lost our station in Los Angeles like that last year too. Todd, I know we're almost out of time and in the remaining moments we have, anything else you want to tell us about that's coming up, that you're excited about, things your fans should look forward to?

Todd: I think I wanted to get the word out to my fans if they're out there...

Bean: They're out there.

Todd: ...that the browser will be available, I shouldn't call it a browser, probably in the next two weeks. I'm going to get copies of it up there so people can try it out and see how it works and after that we're going to go back to square one and do the PatroNet thing right.

Bean: If Microsoft came to you after they saw your browser and wanted to buy it, would you sell it to them?

Todd: Hmm, something to think about isn't it? It's always a question how far into bed you want to get with Microsoft. I personally have no fear of Microsoft. I've always been somebody who's had no trouble reclaiming my independence and also, I don't think that what I do necessarily favors or disfavors any particular company. I'm so much concerned with establishing new paradigms even if they don't have any immediate commercial viability that often these people aren't interested in what I'm doing until it's been proven. Also, I can take Bill Gates. I think he's a weenie little nerd but I can take him.

Bean: Last question, in a few seconds, tell us about the show we'll see tonight here at liveconcerts.com. What can we expect on the stage at the House of Blues tonight?

Todd: At the House of Blues tonight, you're going to get three sets including, I think, a ventriloquist somewhere in there, but essentially the band plays three sets. We do an opening set of mostly the material from the new album, then we do a middle set that's kind of like a floor show, and then we do a last set which is kind of like an after hours chill down set.

Bean: Great. Well, Todd, you've been delightful. Thank you for spending this time with us. A real pleasure to meet you, been a fan for a long time. And thank you for tuning in to liveconcerts.com. Tell your friends that this interview will be archived so you'll have the opportunity to see it again and/or tape it or bring your friends in or whatever. And don't forget, on this site, the 12 Days of Christmas from the 12th through the 23rd of December, some of the best of liveconcerts.com from the year 1997. You'll be able to tune in and see concerts and interviews with the Cure, Depeche Mode, Counting Crows, tons of others. So just check the site for details. Tune back in at 10:30 West coast time tonight for Todd Rundgren on stage at the House of Blues from West Hollywood. Good night.

Todd: Bye, bye.