Todd Rundgren: “It’s hard to find genuinely musical artists these days. The music is just mediocre’ | pop and rock

It’s morning in Hawaii and on the island of Kauai, Todd Rundgren is starting his day. “The sun has risen. It’s sweet,” he said. “Probably somewhere in the 70s and rise in the 80s today.” Earlier he went out, picked some oranges on one of his trees and extracted them himself. “Filter wide open, by the way,” he said. “You need your fiber!” Then he made a perfectly scrambled egg. “One day,” he promises, “I’ll show you how to do that.”

Rundgren has lived in Kauai since 1995. Besides the climate and the orange trees, one draw is its time zone. In the Pacific Ocean, three hours behind the west coast of the United States, Hawaii is quite far from the rest of the world. “So,” he says, “one of the unique benefits is that by the time I get up and start moving, everything has already happened.” Throughout, his voice is warm and quiet. “The stock market is already closed. I have nothing to fear. It’s already arrived.

It suits Rundgren to be so quirky. For more than 50 years, the singer, producer and multi-instrumentalist has occupied his space and his time in the musical cosmos: a provocative and confusing genius, capable of stringing together big hits like Hello It’s Me, Bang the Drum All Day and J saw the light, while producing artists like New York Dolls, Meat Loaf and Hall & Oates, while paving the way for bedroom writers via his 1973 album A Wizard, a True Star.

Rundgren (far left), with his Nazz bandmates, circa 1967. Photo: Michael Ochs Archive/Getty Images

Space Force, Rundgren’s latest album, is another example of creative contradiction: a cross-genre and cross-generation collaborative record that sees the 74-year-old tackle long-abandoned tracks from the careers of artists such as Sparks, Roots and Lemon Twigs. Its release coincides with something of a rising moment in Rundgren’s career. In recent times, his music has been reconsidered and re-celebrated by a new generation, with his songs appearing on the soundtracks of Licorice Pizza, Ozark, the Sex and the City reboot, and The Worst Person in the World. Not so long ago, Chris Martin even asked if he could sample his track Healing, Pt 1.

He seems stunned by this surge of interest. “I think it’s great if it ultimately translates to people discovering music they’ve never heard,” he laughs. “If you’re around long enough, you have to keep replenishing your audience. But that does not necessarily change my personal trajectory.

Growing up in Pennsylvania, Rundgren struggled in school. “At the time, ADHD didn’t exist,” he says, “but that’s what I had.” Unable to pay attention for more than three minutes, he hid in the back of the classroom. “But eventually I found the thing in music that ordered what was in my head.”

Back cover of Lundgren's 1973 LP, A Wizard, a True Star.
Fueled by DMT, psilocybin, mescaline… Lundgren’s 1973 album, A Wizard, a True Star. Photography: Rajko Simunovic/Alamy

He played in local blues bands before finding some success with the rock band Nazz. But new musical influences and a growing fascination with production led him in another direction. He reappeared in 1970 with a Laura Nyro-inspired solo album, Runt, and over the next five decades of production work, 25 solo albums and other projects such as Utopia allowed him to explore varieties of sound, of styles and writings.

The way Rundgren talks about songwriting today shows some acceptance of his own method. “I have musical ideas all the time, and they’re easy to articulate, arrange, and map out. The hardest thing, especially if you’ve written some 300 or so songs, is coming up with a new idea. So I don’t rush never the lyrics. Instead, he spends a lot of time contemplating what a song is about. “And then it reaches a certain – I don’t know – critical mass. Then I sit down and in 20 minutes, I write the whole song almost like automatic writing.

Alongside his songwriting adventures, Rundgren pursued an exploration of his own mind that encompassed experimentation with drugs such as marijuana, Ritalin, and a host of psychedelics. On occasion this has led to questionable choices – for example, the tour set for Ra, Utopia’s 1977 album, cost $250,000 and included a 6.7m high pyramid and a golden sphinx. But at other times it resulted in some of his most profound musical works: A Wizard, a True Star, fueled by DMT, psilocybin, mescaline and perhaps – the details are sketchy – LSD, was intended as a kind of psychedelic “flight plan”. », and could be considered as a precursor of the recent Music for Psychedelic Therapy by Jon Hopkins.

It followed Something/Anything?, his most direct pop album. “I realized – and it wasn’t just the drugs – that I was writing about the form of pop music that existed before I even started writing,” says Rundgren. “I realized that it was me doing a really good job of mimicking something else, but it’s not necessarily me.” He realized there were “all these other musical ideas in my head that had never been expressed or maybe couldn’t be expressed in a typical pop song format,” he says. “So I thought: what if I made a record and didn’t filter everything? Don’t necessarily think of things as songs, they could just be a little musical passage that goes back and forth, and then you switch to another – just like when you’re on psychedelic drugs, it’s hard to maintain a long, linear thoughts.”

Rundgren (center) with Daryl Hall (left) and John Oates (right) in 1978, while recording his live album Back to the Bars, to which the duo contributed.
Rundgren (center) with Daryl Hall (left) and John Oates (right) in 1978, while recording his live album Back to the Bars, to which the duo contributed. Photo: Michael Ochs Archive/Getty Images

The album sold poorly, but today Wizard is widely considered his masterpiece, cited as an influence by everyone from Prince to Frank Ocean, Trent Reznor to Tame Impala, and even met a wide critical acclaim at the time. “Understanding by musical sensation,” wrote Patti Smith in Creem, “Todd Rundgren sets us up for a generation of frenetic kids who will dream in animation.”

It’s easy to see Rundgren as a visionary. Throughout his career, he has been an early and enthusiastic adopter of technological advancements, from the creation of pioneering computer graphics software to the virtual tour. When we speak today, he is quick to cite the benefits of the laptop as a recording studio. He is a fan of digital and disdainful of those who fetishize analog. Space Force, he points out, was supposed to be released over a year ago, but due to the big vinyl delay, it had to be pushed back. “Freaking Adele has decided she’s going to put out a vinyl record,” he moaned. It took him back to the last great vinyl shortage of the early 1970s. “I was totally happy when vinyl was taken out of the picture,” he says. “The shortages, the quality control, the limits on how much music you could put in and all the things you had to do to make the music fit there. You would often have had to lower the bottom of the disc so it wouldn’t jump out. Now, with digital formats, you can restore all of that; you can put as much bass as you want.

Space Force was born from the 2017 duet album White Knight. This time, he approached the tracks more as a producer than a songwriter, asking his collaborators if they had “a song or an idea that basically became an orphan, that started a really good idea but they didn’t know how to finish it, or they got distracted and moved on, and then the song just sat there.” Rundgren then took the orphan demos and, with the co-operation of the writers, turned them into songs to full-fledged with new arrangements, re-recordings and performances from him.

It turned out to be an enriching creative experience. “One of the main reasons I got into collaborative work was that I spent so much time working alone on my own stuff that I’m kind of in an echo chamber,” says he. “And you never know if what you’re doing is still new or interesting or challenging because you don’t have any outside input.” Now replenished, he can’t wait for the album to be released globally so he can move on to new projects. “I’ve gotten to the point where I think I’ve collaborated enough and it’s time for me to reprocess all of that into my own new music,” he says. “But you can say that I broadened my language a bit through collaborations.”

Rundgren is always trying to broaden his influences, researching new music, consulting his kids on what he should listen to – but even then it can be difficult. “It’s very hard to find artists who are genuinely musical these days, who haven’t just leveraged their internet stardom into a music career,” he says. “The music is just mediocre.” He wonders if people still form the same intimate attachment to songs as he grew up. “Then most of the music you were exposed to was Top 40 on the radio,” he says. “Today I open my newsreader and there are 20 artists whose names look like internet passwords and you’ve never heard their music.”

Yet he continues to search. “I constantly have to absorb new ideas or at least seriously think about new ideas. I have this obsession of not repeating what has already been done. Not only what I have already done, but everything others have done. He insists that commercial success does not motivate him; rather, the promise of maybe creating something he believes is truly unique.

“I have a reputation, to put it that way, for not doing the same thing all the time,” he says in a voice full of understatement. “It’s not the same as having carved out something special. And so at some point – and that time may be sooner rather than later since I’m 74 – I’m going to recommit to trying to find something that’s a derived minimum and a unique maximum. One day, just maybe, the world might catch up.

Space Force is out October 14 via Cleopatra Records.

William N. Fernandez