Todd and his Johnson

Todd Rundgren is an extraordinary bloke. His musical career is about as eclectic as can be – from psych nuggets to blue-eyed soul to prog and fusion excess. Wearing his producer’s hat, he’s behind a load of amazing releases, including the New York Dolls, XTC’s ‘Skylarking’, and Meatloaf’s ‘Bat Out Of Hell’. Now he’s coming down here, to NZ, with a local pick up band, to mangle his Johnson. Gary Steel had a natter with the down-to-earth chap.

Witchdoctor – I’m calling you in Hawaii. Is that where you make your base these days?

Todd – That is where I make my home base.

WD – Are you a surf guy?

Todd – Actually no, I’ve never been a good enough swimmer, but I enjoy the island life, I enjoy the ocean, I enjoy the isolation, I like being away form the hubbub.

WD – Looking forward to tour down this way?

Todd – I am, it’ll be the first time I’ve gotten to play down under. I did get to participate in an event last year in Sydney, part of a group of people doing sea shanties on the steps of the Sydney Opera House, which gave me enough of a profile that we were able to find a promoter to get to Australia, and once we did that we thought, ‘let’s go to New Zealand as well’.

WD – It’s interesting that Stetson always seems to do the more idiosyncratic tours.

Todd – That’s me!

WD – Tell me a little about the Johnson project.

Todd – I had never had this longing to do a Robert Johnson record, although I had in the back of my mind the possibility that I would do something in the blues vein because it’s kind of where I started out in music. When I got out of highschool I really only thought of myself as a guitar player, and most guitar players wanted to be in a blues band, because that was the context you got to play the most guitar, and my guitar idols were mostly all from England and they were Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton, guys who had been in the Yardbirds and the John Mayall Blues group and the guys who went through that group like Peter Green, and that was pretty much what I aspired to be until the band I was in began to disintegrate in an acid haze (laughs), the rest of the guys in the band discovered the Grateful Dead and decided they wanted to go to the country and get their ‘heads together’ and take a bunch of acid and write a whole new bunch of music and that’s when I figured it was time for a change. And then I started a group called The Nazz, and that model was a bit more of a mix of Cream and Who and a different sort of evolution but still a lot of guitar noodling and improvisation. I had finished an album called Arena, this was about two years ago, and was looking for a distributor and found one but they had a condition that I also record an album of Robert Johnson songs and the reason why was they had acquired the administrative rights to the publishing, but they had no actual recorded versions of Robert Johnson songs, which they were desirous to have so they could license them to films and TV and stuff like that. So I agreed to do it making the assumption that since I had been in a blues band I would figure out a way to do this. When I finally opened up the time in my schedule and started researching it I came to the realisation that Eric Clapton had already made a second career of tributing Robert Johnson, and that disheartened me a lot, figuring out what I was going to do after that. And then I finally realised that – I was never directly influenced by Robert Johnson. There is an unusual phenomenon in terms of record distribution in England and the United States, a difference in the two. England being a sea-faring nation they had all these merchant marine sailors who would be on ships that would have ports of call like Mobile Alabama and Biloxi Mississippi and places where this music existed and where there were actually recorded examples of it that never made their way North because of radio policy. Music by black artists on black labels for black people were considered race records and you almost never heard any of that north of the Mason Dixon line, and the American guitarists found out about this second hand from English guitar players who actually got to hear these records and did their own electrified interpretations of them. So I decided that my Robert Johnson record, I would take the approach that I was an English guitar player in the ‘60s and I’m just trying to find ways to arrange the music so I can play guitar!”

WD – The record reminds me of those amped up Johnny Winter records from 1970 or ’71.

Todd – Yeah it’s really simple, there’s no keyboards of any kind on it, it’s essentially a trio and every once in awhile I’ll pipe in with a lead. Most of Johnny Winters’ records are performed live, he doesn’t add guitar and more guitar over that, so in that sense I’m doing more of what would have been an English approach in which they go and lay down a pretty much straight guitar part all through it, or more typically it’s a guitar quartet, and there’s a guy who’s quote the ‘rhythm guitar player’ who plays it straight all through and there’s the quote ‘lead guitar’ player and he starts to go nuts somewhere.

WD – It’s got that larger than life analogue sound to it. Is it, or is it something you’ve managed to fabricate?

Todd – I’ve always recorded according to what I hear, for the most part. I have enough experience that I could fake my way through it, but I never had any qualms with the transition between analogue and digital, like a lot of other artists had. For one thing it was kind of like arguing with the rain, it’s gonna fall anyway, the whole transition to digital once it started was inevitable, and any of those so-called digital artifacts, etc, had to be dealt with in some way, but we weren’t going back to analogue. Once that happened, I figured out how to produce the sound I liked in the digital domain, using whatever was available to me. So this particular record was recorded with the same stuff I would record any record with, it’s just that I know how to use the components within it to create the sound of the stuff that I like, and the sound that I like is rooted in this early analogue era, at a time when boards were natural compressors, because they had tubes instead of being solid state, so there’s a degree of compression in the entire sound, but it’s got to be a kind of compression that sounds pretty (laughs), doesn’t make it all sound harsh on the ear.

WD – It’s amazingly spontaneous sounding for an album that’s essentially overdubbed by yourself apart from a few contributions. How to you build up that excitement all by yourself. It sounds like you’re having fun.

Todd – It’s all about creating a proper setting, coming up with the arrangement and the bed of what the guitar is going to be doing. And then I do what any bluesman would do, which is take the edge off a couple of stiff drinks (laughs), and then just put your head down and go. There’s a big difference between the blues and r’n’b. Both have improvisational elements to them, as does jazz. All three kinds of music have their music rooted in the blues, or the early black experience, but r’n’b music essentially comes from the church, where there would be a formal arrangement over which you could improvise, and jazz is from that same lineage, and the blues is from the field, and what sounds like improvisation is actually the fact that you never bothered to learn it in the first place; you’re not trying to learn how to play it, you’re trying to remember how you FEEL when you play it. In that sense if you go back to the original Robert Johnson recordings there are a couple of instances of multiple takes of songs. You listen to the two takes and they don’t even sound like the same song half the time. You’re struggling to remember how to play it, but if you don’t play it the way you did the last time you don’t care, it’s more about the delivery of it and the lyrical idea, that’s it.

WD – There’s a short Johnson in America. Is the long  Johnson out yet?

Todd – The label has been in negotiations to get international distribution through Sony or Universal or one of the few big global labels left, and they’re about to conclude that deal with someone, which has essentially delayed the release of the album, because they want to have this be the first release of this new international arrangement. Unfortunately… I think there are two reasons it’s being released in New Zealand first and that’s because they won’t be able to get the records there before we tour, and we wanted to have something in the marketplace, so they made an independent deal with Stetson to release the record. So no, it’s not out in the States and we don’t have a release date yet, so it’s an advantage New Zealand has.

WD – Are Jesse Gress, Prairie Prince and Kasim Sultan with you on the tour?

Todd – Unfortunately Kasim and Prairie will not be on the downunder leg. The impediment all these years to me coming over and playing is that the kind of music I play is complex to the point that I have to have a very well rehearsed unit of people, and there’s never been enough dates to not have to deficit spend to fly all those people over there. Even though New Zealand and Australia are both below the equator, people make the mistake that they’re close to each other, so… so we’ve never been able to figure out the economic part of it. Fortunately we’ve got a promoter who’s been able to ferret out enough gigs that I can bring Jesse down, who will get together with a New Zealand rhythm section, and the only thing that makes it possible is this particularly bluesy approach, which is a lot simpler than some of the music I do, which takes even the guys I’ve been using for years two weeks on the road to get correct, and we’ll be gone in two weeks. So we’ll be picking up a couple of rhythm sections when we go through, which is pretty much a traditional approach as I understand it for acts that aren’t native to either New Zealand or Australia. [Really? – WD Ed]

WD – Will you get any time to rehearse with those guys?

Todd – The problem for me is that I have to create time for press and things like that, so Jesse will come down before I get there and rehearse the rhythm section, while I’m taking care of other business, but yeah, we’ll definitely have rehearsal time together.

WD – I gather that the other half of the show that isn’t Johnson material will be the slightly easier stuff…

Todd – We don’t choose it because it’s easier, but because it’s bluesier. As I did come from something of a blues background, all through my career there are songs that have either a blues influence or are literally blues songs, and so we’ve filled out the show with as many of those as possible, and some other obligatory material that may not qualify as blues at all but for those few hardcore fans who have been following the career over the years, there will be some songs they want to hear.

WD – Frank Zappa described his music as a heck of a thing to comprehend, and it seems to me that your music and career fits that description as well.

Todd – People get into music for different reasons. Lady Gaga – all she wants is attention, and quite obviously doesn’t care about musical respect, regardless of what kind of talent she might have in that respect. I wouldn’t want to put words into the late Frank Zappa’s mouth, but I think he always, regardless of how much he liked pop music, he always saw himself as a musician, and when you see yourself as a musician you are less bound by stylistic limitations, but the problem is you’re less likely also to penetrate that wider audience, who like things to be more straight forward and understandable and have some coherence from one single to the next without completely changing your sound all the time. And from Frank Zappa’s standpoint the subject matter could be about anything, and likely it’s about something that people are not used to hearing on radio, and beyond that he feels no limitations as a musician so he’ll play something that’s jazzy one second that’s bluesy the next that’s rocky the next that’s symphonic the next; it’ll be whatever his whim is because he’s following something that’s more musical than stylistic.

WD – You’re exactly the same in that sense; stylistically your music’s been incredibly wide.

Todd – It’s because you have a fascination with the art form in general, and you think ‘I’d like to see what that sounds like with my sensibility behind it’. Some of my favourite musicians, some of my biggest influences outside of pop music, like Maurice Ravel, was in a sense a stylist, but he did things that so confounded people that they would riot at his concerts. When he first performed ‘Bolero’ people thought it was the shittiest piece of music ever written and that he was playing a joke on everyone. He wanted to try something that was in the contemporary terms of the times almost primitive, in a way getting back to his roots, and the result was at the time nearly catastrophic for his career, but in the long run it’s the piece of music they think of first when they hear the name Ravel.

WD – Do you ever wish you had been a one-trick pony that had stuck to one thing like AC/DC?

Todd – I can appreciate that, but I don’t think it’s something that’s available to everybody. AC/DC had the sense to know the limitations of what they’re doing and that makes them almost trans-generational, but as I mentioned I got into this because I was into music. I got into pop music at first, because if you got into music and grew your hair long and played guitar you’d get laid. But early on I had experienced all the ups and downs and ins and outs of the business of music, and decided that what I really wanted to do was produce records and make records, and so my career actually became a sideline, a hobby, I was making so much money producing records for other people that I never had to worry about succeeding in a traditional sense with my own music, and that’s why I’ve had the freedom to eschew any particular style and play essentially what I feel like, because if the record were to flop commercially, I wouldn’t suffer financially, only the record label would suffer, and believe me they let me know about it, too!

WD – You’ve got so many firsts in your career, musically and technologically as well; is that curiosity, moving forward, discovering things, a big part of your musical life?

Todd – I learned most of what I know after I got out of highschool. I remember my formal education as sleepwalking. A lot of it was because I wasn’t given the opportunity to express myself and get that frustration out of the way, and secondly the actual nature of what they wanted to teach me, I couldn’t figure out how I was going to apply it to anything. I didn’t realise a good reason I should read the books they assigned me in English and do my homework was because I might later have to write lyrics, and have to understand grammar and things like that, but it was never put in that context while I was at school. They thought these crazy kids growing their hair long and playing their music, it’ll never amount to anything. So once I did have the freedom to structure my own life I incorporated a lot of make up education. That’s why I’m generally open to new ideas. But the other thing is a lot of what happens has to do with the evolution of technology, and I’ve always had a comfort level with technology that a lot of people don’t have. In part because I don’t mind making the investment in understanding how these things are applied and figuring out what I might have to learn to properly use them. I think that’s half the battle. The other side of the coin is I know when something is going to be useful for me, and when I’m likely going to be wasting my time in trying to adapt to a certain technology. I had a cellphone for a little while when cellphones first came out, and now I don’t own a cellphone. After observing the change in behaviour of everyone around me I thought I’m not going to be that, I’m not going to be a slave to this stupid thing in my pocket. And also I have enough problems with self-aggrandisement that I don’t need a device that makes me think that I’m the most important person in the world, and that I should be talking about my business everywhere I go, so that every stranger can hear about it. And I’ve gone completely off the automobile, I don’t own an automobile. I make my wife drive it all the time, and I hate being in it. So there are some aspects of modern life that some people have adapted to, where I’ve just decided that the technology’s not right for me.

WD – You’ve been at the forefront of music technologies; were you a little bit too early to benefit from it?

Todd – All benefits are financial. Like I said I think a lot of people have voluntarily ruined their lives by their slavishness to their cellphones. It’s not about what financial benefits you get, it’s about whether it’s an improvement to your lifestyle. More than anything I think about the quality of my life; I never think about money, I know my accountant tries to make me think about it. But what I think about is what kind of work do I want to do, how much time do I need to spend with my family. I have a business manager and an accountant who worries about money for me. All I do is expect them to tell me when I should get on the road and work, and when I can relax.

WD – Have you ever thought of doing a tribute to the many people you’ve worked with who aren’t around anymore? Like some of the New York Dolls.

Todd – Yeah, but the guys I worked with recently are still around. I’ve done things with David Johansen over the years, mostly live performance things where we participate together in some tribute to someone else. I worked with Laura Nyro, she’s gone; Badfinger, there’s at least one guy still alive.

WD – Paul Butterfield.

Todd – I actually haven’t kept track of who’s checked out, so the idea hasn’t occurred to me. I think it’s really important that I stay focused on musical ideas that I can realise or expose. The recent stuff makes it seem like I’ve gone retro, when I do an arena rock record and I do a blues record, and it seems like I’m just going to be recycling old material, but that’s not where my head is at, and where I hope to return to soon. People get annoyed with me because I don’t always play the old songs from the ‘70s, and fortunately I have something of a core audience who is used to that now, so it gives me the freedom to explore new musical areas.

* Todd Rundgren performs at the Powerstation, Auckland on Friday September 24, and the San Francisco Bath House on Sunday September 26.

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