A warning to all the aspiring musicians out there: Whatever you might be planning to do with your career, Todd Rundgren probably got there first. Melodic pop-radio hit-maker? Check, thanks to singles like “I Saw The Light,” “Hello It’s Me,” and the deathless ’80s earwig, “Bang the Drum All Day.” Recording studio wizard? Yep — Todd produced and played every instrument on his 1972 double-album, Something/Anything? Creator of intricate prog-rock epics? Done and done — courtesy of his cult favorite side-project, Utopia. And the list goes on — from his eclectic resume as a producer (he helmed both the New York Dolls’ debut album and Meat Loaf’s Bat Out of Hell) to performing the first ever interactive concert in 1978, which allowed a television audience to choose his setlist through a two-way broadcasting system, to his being one of the first artists to understand the potential of the internet (more on that later).
Rundgren first came to prominence in the late 1960s with a Beatles-esque pop-rock band called the Nazz, but all along he’s nursed another passion. “I have always had a, not a love affair, really, but a comfort level with technology,” he says. “My dad was an engineer at a DuPont factory in Philadelphia, and he knew electronics and mechanics and all kinds of things. He had a big workbench full of tools, and he was always bringing home these innovations from DuPont. They’d come up with some new, interesting side effect from trying to design paint, I guess. I grew up with an interest in and a lack of intimidation by technology. So I’ve always been a little bit ahead of everyone else from a technological standpoint, just because I cared to know.”
Thanks to that comfort level, Rundgren has been able to take his music in directions that occasionally surprised even him. “I don’t always have a purpose in or an application for the technology,” he says. “Sometimes that doesn’t come until later. For instance, when I first got involved with computers, it wasn’t computers and music — it was computers and graphics that I was interested in. And much later, the computers evolved to the point that they supplanted a lot of the other hardware that we used to make records, and so I didn’t shy away from that. But things have to get to a certain level of accessibility, I suppose. In other words, I wasn’t the first to start recording digitally, because it was so expensive [laughs]. But once the technology came down to where I could afford it, then I went digital. That’s my modus operandi — a combination of the technology and the accessibility, how easily I could get my hands on it.”
In fact, that merging of interests led Rundgren to realize long before anyone else did that the future of the music business would be heavily influenced by the internet. “I was involved in a project in the early ’90s under the aegis of Time Warner Cable,” he says. “They wanted to have on-demand music services in people’s homes. And essentially I designed the system to deliver that, and then we had to go and find music to put on the servers. It seemed so obvious, but the meetings that we had with the record labels, the reactions ranged from horror to some of them raising possibly legitimate concerns that they weren’t ready to confront yet. They didn’t see how quickly the train was coming. They said, ‘We’ll deal with this eventually, but right now we don’t know how to divide up the royalties, we don’t know what to do about artists and management and their attitudes about this.’ They had some real issues but no solutions, and since they refused to come up with any, they essentially failed.”
So given Rundgren’s knowledge of and ability with technology of all stripes, one would assume that when he talks about incorporating electronic dance music into his new album, Global (out in April), he was attracted to the machinery involved in EDM. But it’s actually just the opposite. “It’s an interesting phenomenon,” he says. “A DJ, somebody who’s not really playing anything, is standing up on a platform surrounded by a million LEDs, and that doesn’t seem to make a difference to anyone. The audience, because of the nature of the music, suddenly becomes unified. Fifty-thousand people are jumping up and down to the same rhythm, which is something fundamental about music and something we tend to forget about the tribal roots of music. It was originally something sacramental instead of just a form of entertainment. And I’m fascinated with that aspect of it — taking simple sonic elements and using them a certain way within a certain setting to essentially transform an unruly mob into a single organism.”
So as we consider Rundgren’s ever-adventurous musical output, his 50-year career, his hit singles, the millions of albums sold, and scores of musicians influenced, one final question comes to mind: How the hell is this guy not in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame yet?
Don’t ask Rundgren, because he doesn’t give a damn. “I really don’t care,” he says with a laugh. “This is an institution that arose within my lifetime. It doesn’t have the same cache as a Nobel Peace Prize or some historical foundation. If I told you about how they actually determine who gets into the Hall of Fame, you’d think that I was bullshitting you, because I’ve been told what’s involved. It has to do with who’s in already. Who’s in already carries a lot of weight when it comes to who gets in. It’s very weird. All it takes is one veto from one person who’s got a bug up their ass about a certain artist, so that artist is never getting in as long as that person is a voting board member. It’s just as corrupt as anything else, and that’s why I don’t care.”
Rundgren doesn’t hold back on his feelings on the Academy either, “When Marisa Tomei won the Oscar for that Joe Pesci movie, everyone’s jaw was on the floor, because they could see the value of the award,” he says. “It has no value at all.”