Rock ’n’ roll voyager Todd Rundgren set his course for stardom in 1967 with his first hit, “Open My Eyes,” fronting psychedelic power pop band the Nazz. With the release of 1972’s seminal Something/Anything?, Rolling Stone dubbed him rock’s wunderkind, as hits such as “Hello, It’s Me” and “I Saw the Light” became instant classics.
Besides writing and performing his own material, Rundgren emerged early on as a record-producing powerhouse, notably helming the New York Dolls’ 1973 self-titled debut and Meat Loaf’s 1977 opus Bat Out of Hell. And after amassing a wide variety of impressively experimental releases to match his prodigious production résumé, these days Todd Rundgren is as creative and driven as ever. Recently, he began remixing hits for the likes of Tame Impala and Nine Inch Nails and jamming with the Lemon Twigs at Coachella, and on May 12 he will release his 27th studio album, White Knight, featuring NIN’s Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, Robyn, Dâm-Funk, Daryl Hall, Donald Fagen, Joe Walsh, Bettye LaVette, Joe Satriani, the Pursuit of Happiness’s Moe Berg, and others.
Yahoo Music: You’re a great recording artist, but your production side of things is pretty legendary, too. What’s your first love? Is it production or as a recording artist?
Todd Rundgren: Well, you could say I started out more as a producer. I got into engineering and production first off, and had pretty good success at that, and then I was writing songs on the side. I became a solo artist then in about 1971. Accidentally had a hit record on my first album, so…
Why do you say “accidentally”?
Because I never intended to have hit singles or anything like that, and the song really didn’t have a conventional form to it, either.
Which song was this that you’re referring to?
“We Gotta Get You a Woman” [in 1970]. It was an unlikely hit record.
I don’t know if “cult artist” is the right word to describe you, but I feel like you could have gone down a much more commercial, mainstream path if you’d wanted to. Was that just something you had no interest in? Because you’ve done a lot of avant-garde stuff in your career…
I was in a unique position, because I was producing records for other people, and getting hit singles for other people, and felt it less necessary to do that for myself. In my mind I just figured, “Why do what everyone else is doing?” You focus on doing things that nobody else is doing, and that became my mantra at that point.
Has that always been important to you, to really be at the forefront of technology and new stuff happening?
Important? It’s just where I naturally tend to go. A lot of people take a while to adapt to new things, and I tend to just kind of immediately get my hands in there and figure out what the possibilities are.
Going back to another huge innovation in music, in the ’80s you had one of the first videos on MTV. The first video I ever saw by you was Utopia’s “Feet Don’t Fail Me Now.”
Can we please talk about that video for a second? Because it was pretty awesome.
Well, I owned the video studio at that point. I got very much interested in video in the mid-’70s. Whenever we would have a record out, we would do some weird video to go with it, and that particular one we decided that we would be insects, because it was “Feet Don’t Fail Me Now, “and insects have more feet.
They have the most feet per inch, I guess you could say.
I don’t think a lot of bands that had been around for a while at that time really realized how important music video was going to be, or MTV was going to be. Did you know that MTV and music video were going to be so crucial?
I don’t think anybody realized the amount of money that might get spent by the time Michael Jackson got into making videos. I always felt, or at least I was interested in video from the more experimental standpoint. That gave the music another artistic dimension. But for the most part videos were made to sell records, and so a lot of them just became clichéd.
You’re definitely known for your visuals.
We’ve got a fairly elaborate [tour] setup. As a matter of fact, we’re playing some venues where we can’t get the whole of it into it, because of ceiling heights and mobile instruments that can do a lot of different kinds of looks.
What is on your backstage rider?
The usual — as a matter of fact, some stuff that we should probably take off. At one point I got very fixated about orange juice, and so there was a whole page eventually on our rider about how to prepare fresh orange juice: “Go to the store, buy oranges.”
If you could see any other band on tour right now, who would you go see?
Likely I would go to a festival. Get the best bang for your buck, see a bunch of bands.
What artists are you listening to right now?
I’m not listening to anybody but me right now, because I’m trying to work up a new show, so in all honesty I haven’t had a chance to really listen to much of anything.
Is that kind of your work process? You put the blinders on and just you’re in the zone?
Yeah, especially when I start doing a record, because if I hear something that I like, I’m too able to imitate it. If I hear something I really like I’ll listen to it once, and then I have to just relegate it to memory from that point on, or otherwise I’ll just totally ape it.
What is your audience, would you say, nowadays? Because with all the different types of music you’ve done over the years, that’s a really diverse range.
I have managed to drag a significant chunk of my original audience along with me, so I still see people that I recognize and I still see people of my age group, but we’ve managed to start skewing younger a little bit — even down to teenage kids I see at the shows.
Do you hear your influence in any younger musical artists out right now?
It’s funny, I started studying up on what younger artists were doing, as a product of them asking me to do remixes for them. They believe, I guess, that I can bring some sensibility to their music, some classic sensibility to modern music, or maybe they just want to sound a little more classic.
You’ve done so much. What haven’t you accomplished yet that you do want to?
Maybe I would be in a movie someday. Probably as an evil character. Unfortunately, I don’t really desire to have the lifestyle of an actor. A lot of sitting around and waiting, and then occasionally you get to do some work, unless you’re like a Broadway actor.
Speaking of Broadway, is it true there’s going to be a Bat Out of Hell musical that you’re involved with somehow?
There is at some point, supposed to be at the end of this year, or maybe early next year, they’ll finally get in to rehearsals and previews. [The musical debuts in the U.K. this month.] I’m supposed to be the “choirmaster.” I’m not qualified to direct a Broadway-style musical, but I can teach a bunch of people how to sing.
You’ve done a lot of touring in your day. What’s your craziest backstage story?
May not be the craziest moment, but I remember a gig up in the New England area in Connecticut. I don’t eat before a show — in fact, I can’t eat for like four hours before a show, because I can’t sing with food in my stomach — so as soon as I come offstage, I eat like a pig. Literally, like a pig! So I think I was eating a pork chop or something like that, and I suddenly [choked]… To everybody in the room, I’m like, “I can’t swallow!” — just as all of my guests are coming through the door. [My guitarist] Jesse essentially gets behind me and gives me the Heimlich, and a piece of pork chop just goes flying right at all of my guests. And they all said, “Hi, nice show. Goodbye!”