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Interview: Todd Rundgren on His New Album, "Global", and Playing With Ringo Starr

Todd Rundgren is one of the great chameleons of the music world. He began in the garage rock band Nazz, moved to his own pop rock group Runt, carrying the style over to his solo career while continually integrating a wide variety of other genres. Less than ten years after he started, he had moved headlong into progressive rock both solo and with Utopia but it has been rare, throughout his career, to see him stay in one style for very long.

Rundgren's latest albums, State and the upcoming Global, have seen him testing the waters of EDM (Electronic Dance Music), with his latest set combining some of his best music in years with a modern electronica sound.

VVN Music had the pleasure of talking with Todd on the new album along with his work over the last three years with Ringo Starr's All-Starr Band.

VVN Music (VVN): Congratulations on the new album.

Todd Rundgren (TR): Thank you. Well, it isn't even out yet, so...

VVN: April 7 is the release date, right?

TR: Correct. I suppose just getting one finished and released is an accomplishment.

VVN: Well, you've done it about 35 times between yourself and Utopia.

TR: Something like that. For myself that is.

VVN: How do you have the energy to do that and produce and do videos and tour...

TR: Well, I don't have any other hobbies or anything. I'm not into cars. I don't want to have a tequila bar somewhere or boats or any of the other kinds of things that people spend a lot of money or time on. I'm pretty much making music or thinking about making music in once sense or another.

VVN: The new album is a definite move towards electronica, which is not that unusual for you. I know that you have dabbled in so many different genres over your career. One of the things that impressed me with the album is, unlike so many others that have tried to move in that direction, the electronic sounds are not overwhelming the music. It's mixed and arranged in such a way that it accentuates rather becoming the focus of the album. Is that something that was part of your plan?

TR: The material is always the most important part. This is probably an even more material oriented record than the last one, State, which was a little more hardcore EDM, but that one, for me, was like a self education. I had been making records the same way for awhile and I realized a lot was going on, a lot had changed, in what was being made, so I did a whole research study before I made my last album. I went to YouTube and followed the trails hither-and-thither. Just loaded my head up with all that was happening.

That was about two years ago or so. This new one, I'm trying to hang that all a little more on a formal songwriting structure in order to make the songs central … make them simple in a way … and design everything around that to emphasize, to a degree, the simplicity of the songs. Also to retain a certain amount of listenability and danceability as necessary.

VVN: I wasn't provided with the credits from the album but I assume you wrote all of the songs and produced the album.

TR: That's correct.

VVN: Who else is on the album with you?

TR: Well, let's see. Kasim Sulton provided some lead vocal harmonies on Skyscraper. Bobby Strickland added a sax solo on the song Blind. On Earth Mother I have about a half a dozen girls I've worked with in one capacity or another contribute vocals. Let me see if I can remember them all … Jill Sobule, Tal Wilkenfeld, Rachel Haden, ah, I don't want to forget anybody. Michelle Rundgren [laughs]. Janet Kirker and I think that's it. It's five girls.

VVN: Just to show your overall involvement in the album, you also contributed to the artwork on the cover.

TR: Yes, that's true, but I usually do to some degree. I have an idea in my head of what it should look like and sometimes I can execute it myself. For example, the last album, State, was pretty simple. Mostly all photographs. This one I wanted to look like a propaganda poster so we noodled around with a couple of things to get it to what I thought it should look like in the end.

VVN: The album opens with the great song Everybody. It has a fantastic hook to it, so what was the thought process to having Global Nation be the first track released to the public?

TR: Global Nation was the first song completed for the record. As a matter of fact, I completed Global Nation even before I had contracted to do the new record so the record was sort of inspired by that song, the sort of cheer-leading nature of it. The think globally act locally aspect of the record all kind of came out of that original idea.

I might have opened the album with Global Nation but I thought that was too obvious. I'll write something else that is just simpler and catchier and we'll save Global Nation for a bit further into the record.

Nowadays, I'm not sure people still listen to records beginning-to-end. A lot of times, people just pull out tracks and listen to them.

VVN: I think there are still some of us that listen to whole albums.

TR: That's why you're vintage.

VVN: What's the background on the track Holy Land? Did you write it as a call for tolerance between religions?

TR: Well, I'm an areligious person in that sense so I wish people would just forget about religion all together instead of using it as an excuse. I mean I can tolerate religion and religious belief but a lot of people just have ridiculous notions about what religion means.

It's more about the idea of trying to take some part of the planet as your own like you own it for whatever reason. Whether you think God gave it to you or you think it is part of some crusade or whatever. It truly doesn't belong to anybody. We have to get back to the idea of how unique this place is. How unique the planet that we live on is. How we have, in some ways, lost respect for that. It doesn't matter what you believe, you have to regain respect for this remarkable set of circumstances that has allowed us to exist. In that sense, I don't care if there is religion or family feuds or any other sort of things. It's really a question about seeing the world in a different way. Seeing it not divided up into separate parcels that people own and seeing it as a whole.

VVN: Right in the middle of the album is the track Blind which you mentioned before. What struck me was that here is a song in the middle of an album that is very organic. There is very little electronic instrumentation on it except maybe a drum machine. Was that something you did purposely to try and “reset” the music from the electronic sounds?

TR: Well, the environment I work in doesn't make any distinctions between the two. So many of the instruments have been historically unwieldy, so to say, like a Hammond B3 organ with accompanying Leslie cabinet which is expensive, high maintenance and most people don't have easy access to them. The environment I'm working in, everything is very virtualized so I have a virtual Hammond organ and I can decide to use that sound or I can decide to use another sound, but all the sound is being produced, essentially, in the same way. The Hammond organ emulator I have can also sound like other things that don't sound like a Hammond organ. It can sound like a string section or something else. To me, it's just another synthesizer. It's just another thing connected to the keyboard. The question is, how do you play it in a manner that is consistent with the way people are used to hearing it. It sounds like a great Hammond organ but it's just a plug-in to my digital audio work station.

I always thought that that particular song had to have an old-timey, churchy feel to it because it's preachy, a little bit scoldy, and it needed a little bit of weight behind it to have the proper conviction. So, I loaded it up with the kind of old fashioned things that don't have a whole lot of high end in them. Fender Rhodes piano sounds which don't have a lot of high end. An organ sound that is a little bit overblown so the high end is masked by a little bit of distortion. I adapted the sounds to what the song is about.

VVN: It just stood out to me as a sort of island in the middle of these electronic sounds.

TR: I don't really set hard-and-fast rules for myself when I start these things. I say it all has to work in service to the material. When I write a song like Blind, I only hear it in certain ways. I don't hear it with a lot of arpeggio synthesizers all over the place. I hear it in a more organic sense.

VVN: Another song that really struck me on the album was Smooth. It is just a really beautiful ballad. What was your inspiration behind that?

TR: It was one of the last songs I wrote and I realized that, maybe it needed a moment like that in order to have a little more balance on the record.

Then there was this Sam Smith song that was all over the radio and I heard it and said “I can do that with my eyes closed and my hands tied behind my back.” I though, “if that's what people want to hear, I already got you covered here.”

VVN: Turns out Sam Smith was thinking the same thing when he copied another song.

TR: See, I don't think he actually copied Tom Petty. He was too young to have lived through that era of Tom Petty. It's just a really obvious melody. It's one of the reasons I'm not that crazy about the song. It's kind of a sappy lyric and a real obvious melody. All somebody had to do was find the song that resembled it and make a stink about it.

VVN: With only twelve notes, you're going to have the same combination sometime.

TR: Exactly. We have the twelve-tone scale and we only like to hear certain combinations of those notes, anyway. Nobody wants serial music all the time where you play one note from the scale after another until they're all used up. I mean, half the music written nowadays has one note. They'll go through a whole freaking verse of the song and have just one note. I guess you could make a case that somebody stole MY one note song.

VVN: I want to ask you about your involvement on the new Ringo Starr album and how you got involved with the All Starr Band. I know you were with them around the fifth version and now have been back with them for the last three years.

TR: The funny thing is that this band has been together for three years and Ringo has never done that before but he just came up with a combination of players who just got along and were all competent enough to compliment each other's material instead of just being able to play their own songs and nothing else. It's what he's always dreamed of having and that's why he's kept it together for so long.

VVN: And you are going to continue into this year between your own world tour dates?

TR: This tour ended in March and there is talk of another tour sometime but I don't know the details.

As far as the songwriting, that was an almost last minute thing. During the last days of the tour we did in November, we were jamming around during soundcheck and we came up with this song called Island in the Sun. We all contributed to that.

Then, just two days before the tour was about to end, Ringo comes into the dressing room and says “You fancy writing a song with me?” Well, sure, but it's not a lot of notice but he had an idea of what the song would be about and so I set myself to it and a couple of days later sent him the demo. It ended up being the song he decided to lead off the record with.

Todd Rundgren's new album, Global, will be released this Tuesday on Esoteric Antenna.