Todd Rundgren’s new album, “White Knight,” is a grab-bag of collaborations with fellow artists — among them, Trent Reznor, Daryl Hall, Bettye LaVette, Robyn, Donald Fagen, and Joes Walsh and Satriani, along with a lesser-known jazz singer and rapper or two. You could call them strange bedfellows if not for the uniting factor of somehow fitting in with Rundgren’s already eclectic career. For someone who’s spent most of a 50-year career crafting records alone in the studio, or giving marching orders as a producer, the sheer amount of co-writes, if not costarring roles, was an admittedly stretching experience.
But, at 68, Rundgren is suddenly pushing himself in other ways, like the sheer amount of touring he’s doing. Besides yet another stint in Ringo Starr’s All-Starr Band this summer, he’s doing an inordinate amount of shows under his own banner, as a headliner or as part of the “Yes-tival” touring collective headlined by Yes. He recently flew out to Coachella just to guest on his classic “Couldn’t I Just Tell You” with teen upstarts the Lemon Twigs. All of this, he acknowledges, is part of a deliberate move to get back in people’s faces in a way he hasn’t always cared about — driven, he reveals, by reflection upon the sudden passings of fellow unpredictable wizard/true stars David Bowie and Prince.
On the eve of the album’s release, Variety talked with Rundgren about this eagerness to get back in front of audiences… but why he doesn’t value that so much that he cares if his running commentary on President Trump makes a few fans cranky enough to head for the exits.
Some might think that a “collaborations album” means “duets album.” But there aren’t many duets on it. Sometimes it’s the other artist singing something you wrote, and sometimes it’s you singing something the other person co-wrote.
Daryl Hall is the only [duet], and that’s because me and Daryl have done that before, on his TV show (“Live from Daryl’s House”). We had worked together well in that context. But I specifically did not want to do a duets album. I didn’t want me and my guests stepping all over each other. I wanted them to do what they do and give them the space to do it without me showing up going, “Oh, here I am, don’t forget about me!” [Laughs.] It’s not really that unusual anymore to write a song and then have somebody else sing it. Disclosure will sing their own songs and then they’ll also have a guest vocalist like the Weeknd, and you sometimes don’t know whether it’s the new Weeknd song or the new Disclosure song. It gives me maybe a little bit more freedom in terms of the writing part, because I can write for other voices that don’t have the limitations of my own. If I wanted to have a song that had the sound of a female voice and maybe had something of a female perspective, it’s going to sound silly for me to do it.
It sounds like most of these were DropBox collaborations. With the Trent Reznor/Atticus Ross song, they sent you some tracks to work on, but it must have worked the other way around as well.
Yeah, both ways. With the Robyn song, I more or less wrote the whole thing and recorded all of the backing and stuff like that, and there was nothing for her to do but sing it. In the case of Joe Satriani and Joe Walsh, oddly enough, a lot of the guitar players had very well-developed ideas that they sent me, actual whole tracks. When Trent sent me the raw materials that went into ”Dear Ears,” he sent me 11 other tracks — a whole album’s worth of stuff to choose from. [Reznor and Ross have released their own remix of Rundgren’s track], and that’s kind of a cool byproduct. The greatest thing about this era of electronic delivery of music is that even after you’ve come out with a big kind of opus thing, you can still add to it. Not every artist has the interest or the urge to do something like that, but when it happens, I think it’s completely in line with the whole idea of collaboration.
Did Reznor ever have a chance to gush about being a fan of yours, or is it all business?
No, it’s not all business. You would think that Trent would kind of be like his musical persona, but he’s completely not like that. He’s a very humble, accessible guy, and the first time I had any communication with him was when he asked me to do a remix a couple years ago for a project that he was doing. And he told me at the time, “I listen to ‘A Wizard, A True Star’ at least once a month.” He totally was completely open about it from the beginning. And I had the same kind of admiration for him. Because when I did Woodstock II (in 1994) and I had my own little pavilion in the high tech village there, the only act I bothered to go see was Nine Inch Nails. Everybody else, I knew what they were going to do, but I had no idea what Nine Inch Nails was going to do. And the first thing they did was wallow in a bog behind the stage before they went on, and that was fascinating. How can you play with all that mud all over you? But they did it!
Donald Fagen sings lead on the anti-Trump song “Man in the Tin Foil Hat,” but it’s hard to tell who wrote what in the tune, because the chord progressions and biting humor both sound like both of you.
That was one of the more interesting collaborations on the record, because it’s the only one in which me and my collaborator were in the same physical place at the same time. I’ve known Donald since he spent some time living out at Kauai, where I still live, and he just happened to be on vacation on the island in January. We went out to dinner, and I thought, well, geez, why don’t I just spring it on him? The song was primarily driven by our common frustration with what happened in the recent election. It was still pretty fresh, and we were still pretty mad about it, so it happened pretty organically. So who knows? If I’m actually in the room with a collaborator, a lot of things can happen. But I think the process of doing it remotely, where you sent the files to somebody else and give them the time they need to get comfortable and into the project, is actually an advantage. Because often if I’m in the same room with someone, I might be expressing an opinion that potentially could be useful, but it could also potentially stop any sort of creativity from happening. Because you start micromanaging things. As a producer, you kind of can’t help it.
The anti-Trump song you did with Fagen reminded me of when I saw you perform in Los Angeles last year, and right after you made some remarks about your feelings about Trump, the couple next to me angrily walked out. You left the impression that doesn’t bother you.
No. If I had the power, I’d say: If you’re a Trump supporter, don’t come to my show, because you won’t have a good time. And also, I don’t understand your frickin’ values. Because I’m not singing about that. If you don’t understand that basic thing, you’re just fooling yourself. I guarantee that in this show, if you’re a Trump supporter, you will likely be offended. Let the buyer beware! I mean, if you can’t take a joke, or you can’t admit that you’ve made a mistake, you don’t belong with the rest of us. [Laughs]
Moe Berg of the Pursuit of Happiness collaborates here on the one track that really sounds like your “Couldn’t I Just Tell You” era of power pop, or maybe mid-period “Utopia, when it was really guitar-focused, upbeat stuff. But that’s to be expected, because the Pursuit of Happiness always sounded almost like a Todd Rundgren tribute band. Are you able to appreciate it, when people wear your influence right out there on their sleeve?
All of the musical aspects on that song are Moe, and I was so chuffed when I got it because it was so him.
But it’s so him being so you.
It was this whole kind of mutual fanboy loop thing going, where he got inspired by me and then he inspired me. As a musician, nobody but you really knows how much you draw on your influences. Especially when you start out, you’ve got a few principal influences and you tend to sound like them. But as you broaden your musical horizons, you have others, and ideally they blur into something that people assume is you. But only you know how much you’ve stolen directly from your influences. And the art of music is somehow obscuring that. Music is the most plagiaristic artform there is, because you have such a small range of resources available to you. You’ve got the western 12-tone scale. That’s essentially 11 notes. So you’re eventually going to run out of melodies, just by the pure mathematics of it. So the whole art of making music is trying to obscure the fact that this is a melody from another song and has just been changed in subtle enough ways that you don’t recognize it. It’s when somebody like George Harrison just completely lifts “He’s So Fine” and calls it “My Sweet Lord” that you get in trouble.
The song “Buy My T” includes the lines: “We got your cotton goodies / I know my limits / I give until I hurt / You can bootleg the music / But you have to buy a shirt.” We are in the age where, in music, ancillary product seems like the only product. You have a very robust merch stand at your shows, is there an element of non-satire amid the satire?
No, it’s actual reality! The guy who does our merch, his son is an artist called Bones — he’s a white rapper — and they have never sold their music. They have hundreds of videos on YouTube that get millions of hits each, and the only thing they sell is concert tickets and merch. And this to me is so reality-based. Because people forget that it’s only been about 120 years since we figured out how to market recorded music. Before that, the only way that musicians ever made any money was to perform music. And the thing that got obscured by making music a product instead of a service was the fact that you still would make way more money looking at music as a service than looking at it as a product. In other words, if you had a million-selling album, under the old record company model, if you were lucky, maybe you would make a half-million dollars on a million-selling album, after all of the advances and other stuff was taken out. But if you had a million-selling album and you went out on the road, you could a half-million a month, or week. And so the whole point really in the end is, as Radiohead finally realized, give the music away. “Pay whatever you want for it, including nothing — but please come out to the show, buy a concert ticket, and buy our merchandise.”
Your last major-label album for Warner Bros. was 26 years ago, so you’ve had time to think about this.
That’s when I stopped signing long-term record deals. We later discovered how sort of important that was when we were deputized by the Time Warner Cable experiment they were doing in Orlando, Florida to figure out interactive music services. We went to the special products divisions of every single label, and they all said, “No way we’re putting any music on a server.” [Laughs.] This was about three years before Napster. So I did not regret the decision, because they really did not know what to do with what was happening. Fast forward to more recently: A lot of smaller labels have sort of gotten their footing and gone back to the model of finding artists and giving them advances to make records, and that’s the situation I’ve been in my past couple of records. But it’s not like it used to be. You don’t sign a seven-record deal for seven figures. It’s all one record at a time. But it’s not like you’re insecure about it. There’s always an opportunity, especially nowadays, to be able to promote yourself. You look at an artist like Jimmy Buffett, who I believe still releases records, but he probably sells all of them at his shows. So there’s something to be said for your own brand as separate from whatever the label can do for you. You service your fans in a way that keeps them interested in what you’re doing, and then the records become promotional, or artifacts, I guess. But you don’t release them with the same kind of live-or-die philosophy behind it. Your career’s not over if you don’t have what was traditionally called a hit record.
It seems like you’re in a phase of your career where you’re doing less of the production work that was your bread and butter for a long time and more of your own recordings and, especially, touring.
I’m doing something that I rarely do. I had not been paying much attention to the effect of what I’m doing. I’d make the music, put it out, and promote it as hard as I’m capable of, but usually not thinking much about the response that it’ll get. When I was asked a year or more ago by Cleopatra to do a record, I took the lay of the land. One thing that crossed my mind was David Bowie and Prince passed in rapid succession, and unexpectedly to most people. And I’m more or less of that ilk—the auteur, “quirky,” the whole deal where you have tried to carve out a space for yourself that’s exclusive to you. And to have two of them disappear, I suddenly felt like I didn’t have all the time in the world anymore to just do what I do and wait to see what the response is. I had to be more proactive. That factored into the idea of collaborating, because it’s a way to expand the audience.
It also factored into the investment I’ve made in this tour, which is the biggest tour that I’ve done since I was in Utopia and we were getting advances from labels for tour support — going deep in the hole in order to do that now. Essentially, I’m in Las Vegas and putting all my chips on the table. If this doesn’t work, I probably cannot muster the resources to do anything like this again. So, for the foreseeable future, I’m going to be every place that I can get to. I’ll be on stage at Coachella with the Lemon Twigs! I will go on tour with Yes, even though it’s not my show and I have to make compromises in my set to get in front of a larger audience. All that stuff would have bothered me hugely in the past, but I realized, if you’re all in, you’re all in. And at this point, I’m all in.