Experimental musician Todd Rundgren brings a healthy dose of atmosphere to Las Vegas
Ever-restless sonic explorer Todd Rundgren released two albums this year: Global, an electronic message-music excursion, and Runddans, an experimental collaboration with Norwegian DJs Emil Nikolaisen and Hans-Peter Lindstrom. His tour in support of Global is a veritable dance party, with producer-musician Dâm-Funk and two backup singers re-creating the new tracks while reimagining earlier material. Rundgren, who performs at the Hard Rock Hotel on May 30, talked to Las Vegas Magazine’s Matt Kelemen about the specifics of his show.
I got to see some video of your Global tour and it was pretty eyebrow-raising, both the way you were performing and how natural it was. Was the recording and live set one vision, or did the music come before the method of delivering it?
Well, it came together rather quickly and I almost didn’t have time to think about it. It was about a year ago that the label [Esoteric Antenna] approached me and asked if I wanted to do another record for them. I agreed to do it but at the time I had no concept prepared (laughs). I was actually working on another project with a couple of Norwegian DJs. I had a tune left over from that project. I had written a tune I though we might disassemble and use bits of in that project, because its not a song oriented record. It’s kind of all continuous music.
Are you talking about Runddans?
I’ve heard some of it. It’s very interesting and very out there.
It’s pretty out there, yeah. So we were in the midst of wrapping that record up when the label contacted me, and at that point there was the matter of developing the concept. There was also scheduling because I was out on the road pretty much continuously last year in various forms and it wasn’t until I finished up with a tour in November that I got down to working on the record.
The first song I had was called “Global Nation,” and I thought maybe the key to the rest of the record is there, and perhaps maybe had a lot to do with the time of year, all the things that were happening around the world regarding really bad weather and stuff, and bad human behavior, that sort of thing. Keystone pipelines and fracking. It all came together in my head as sort of a manifesto, and it was meant to do two things: the record was meant to kind of get people to think of the world as one whole thing as opposed to a bunch of battling sectors, and to also recognize that some problems require collective action. Individual action is great, but some things are of a scope that it requires collective action. The other thing I was trying to do with the record was unify people behind certain musical ideas. In some cases it’s just simply the idea of everybody being on the same page. In some cases it’s the idea that we have to act in a certain way, we have to act regarding certain issues and not simply talk about it all the time.
After I finished the record I realized we had to find a way to present it. I had done something similar in terms of the production of the show when I put out the State album a couple of years ago. I took out a lot of solid-state lighting, stripped the band down and essentially tried to emcee the show myself. The problem was I do more singing than a typical emcee, so I couldn’t do a really good job at that. Coincidentally, in the month of December when I was wrapping up the record I was contacted by Dâm-Funk’s booking agent, just to say that Dâm was a fan and if I could think of any collaboration that we could do I should contact him. It was after that that I thought Dâm-Funk could be the emcee and I’ll move back up front, and then to fill it out we’re going to take a slightly different approach to the production. We’re going to make a big commitment to the video, and in order for it to be more of a show and give people something else to look at. That’s when I got the idea to cast two singer-dancers, so there’s really only four people on stage, the emcee, me and two singer-dancers. And then a whole lot of video and lights.
And Dâm-Funk is with you on the road, right?
How would you characterize his contribution? Is he DJ/producing, or delivering a mix of live mixing and backing tracks?
Well, the mixing is, sound-wise, going on in the house. He’s there principally to control the sequencing of the sound, but also to interact directly with the audience to get them in the mood in the beginning of the show, and then to keep them up during the entire show. And he has singing parts as well. So his responsibilities go beyond trying to keep the music going. It’s to keep the audience going.
That’s kind of tricky, when you strip it down that far, to engage the audience. In the footage from the show in Utah you almost seem musically naked up there, but comfortable in your nakedness.
Well, you know, I’ve been in that position in a number of contexts, so I’m not necessarily apprehensive about doing that. Like for instance, I’ve done a couple of shows in Holland with a full orchestra. Just me and a full orchestra. That’s kind of a big responsibility as well—you’re the only vocal instruments amongst all those other instruments. I guess it has principally to do with how comfortable you are with your singing. And we did a lot of rehearsal. My voice has been holding up really well lately, so I made that commitment, and that’s really what I mostly have to do is sing.
How have audiences responded? They appear to be very enthusiastic and willing to be taken on a ride in a new direction.
Yeah, the audiences have been great. I mean, there’s always an instance where somebody might come expecting something else. If they don’t get it then they essentially leave, I guess (laughs). Sometimes we have people come in unawares of what the show is gonna be about, how much energy there is, and sometimes how loud it is. It’s usually going to be the oldest people. But fortunately for me we seem to be attracting a younger audience now, so those people are replaced by a younger, and sometimes hipper, more open audience.
Was the message behind the music something you had been storing up until it came out in a creative way?
Yeah, also when I set to fill out the show … if I only played everything on the record it would only be a 50-minute show. To get that extra hour in there we had to go back and look for material that kind of dovetails, and I was surprised that there was quite a bit of it. And essentially I just filled out the rest with stuff that I knew people would respond to—some of the fan favorites, but readapted to go with this presentation.
“Today” from [2008 album Arena] worked really well. Do you have deeper cuts than that you’re referring to?
There was like “Future” from [2004’s] Liars. Even songs like “One World” and “Just One Victory” fit along with the overall message. I guess every once in a while there’s a tune in there that may not have anything do to with it, like our version of “I Saw the Light.” Either the message goes along with the overarching message or the songs have been readapted to fit into this electrified presentation.
So “I Saw the Light” is part of your set?
Yeah, it’s actually near the end of the show. We do a little medley of more familiar songs, but they are in that EDM style, so they don’t sound like we suddenly dropped something from another era into the middle of this particular show. It all kind of sounds the same.
What determines your creative directions? What makes you go from Arena to covering Robert Johnson to Global and everywhere in between, for example? Do you always have a couple of concepts on the burner and one just moves ahead when there’s space to do it?
There have been those instances. Like, for instance, a long time ago I thought it would be cool to do an a cappella record. It took me a few records to get around to it, but eventually I did that [A Cappella, 1985]. But it seems like lately a lot of it is the result of circumstance and timing, and, kind of, these things happen because I have the time to do them. Not because I’m sitting around bored (laughs) and suddenly get it into my head that I’m going to make a record. My last several records have been at the behest of a label, and I have to do them when I can find the time to do them because I’ve been touring so much. Some of that’s had to do with [touring with] Ringo [Starr] and how much that’s added to my touring schedule. Some of that has to do with the fact that things are … my live presentations are holding up pretty well. We continue to have audiences, so I can go out at least twice a year for a couple of months each time. The end result if I’m out anywhere from at least eight to 10 months per year, and have to do my recording when I can fit it in. So yeah, some of it is purposeful, but some of it is me taking advantage of the time I have to do the record and then trying to figure out … trying to develop a concept that can be fitted into that time frame (laughs).
You have breaks from June to July and in September. Do you have any production gigs lined up?
I have about a three- or four-week break at the end of this leg of the tour, and I’ve been working on a project with The Roots, and I’ll probably do a few more tunes for that.
What kind of project? Is it a full-length?
Potentially, yeah, it’ll be a full album. They have a studio where they rehearse, and whenever they’re not doing anything else they just kind of write these tracks and record them. Most of the time they don’t have words to them. They just have instrumentals. So they send them to me, and if I like one I will write a song over it, sing it and send it back. So far we have four of those done. If I get enough time this year we may get enough of them done to have a release next year. Then we take this back out on the road again. We go to Japan quickly to do Fuji Rock Festival, and then come back and start another approximately two months of touring. And as soon as that’s done I go out with Ringo again. That’ll be the month of October and early November. Ideally the rest of the year’s free, but you never know. Something may come up. Usually toward the end of the year during the holidays people will go out, so that may happen (laughs). Yeah, the year’s pretty full.
How does it affect you when someone makes you aware of yourself as a cultural reference? Like for example, “Hello It’s Me” is used for the closing scene of the pilot for That ’70s Show for nostalgic affect, then 10 years later you find out it’s used again to close the final episode. Do you ever step out of your day-to-day and see yourself in the larger context of the culture?
It’s just great to survive that long (laughs). A lot of people will have a peak to their career, and then for whatever reason they move on. They may have found another form of work to fill in the time and then every once in a while reunite with their old band and play their old hits. But I never got out of the music business. I just adapt it to whatever’s happening. If I had to produce records for a while, that’s what I’d do. If I have an opportunity to play, that’s what I’ll do. If I have a chance to sit in with the band on the David Letterman show, then that’s what I’ll do. Ultimately you get around in enough places, if not as a so-called “rock star” but as somebody whose name pops up every once in a while. So you figure that’s inevitable, and as long as there’s enough of that going on to keep me busy, then I’m completely fine with it. I’m in some ways apprehensive of too much success because it suddenly takes over your life and defines everything that you do. You can’t go out in public anymore, that sort of thing. So I’m just famous enough at this point that I can survive as a musician, and yet still go out in public and have a little bit of privacy.
As an extension of that, do you look at yourself and go: “I kind of did everything right”?
People tend to ask the negative side of that question: Do I regret anything? Because the assumption is I could have been Elton John or something like that if I continued to write the same kind of songs. And I don’t regret that. I did have two careers. The production career was very lucrative for me, and I can still do that any time I want and occasionally do. Having those two careers has allowed me to build some solid legs under my own solo career, and allow me to make the presumption that I’ll be able to tour until I physically can’t any more.
Vinyl at the Hard Rock Hotel, 8 p.m. May 30, $30 plus tax and fee. 888.929.7849