Todd Rundgren and Utopia Talk Reunion Tour, Healing Old Rifts as Hell Freezes Over

The rules of the road? "Even though we are paying tribute to the past, we're not going to talk about the past."

Danny O'Connor

Any major fan of Todd Rundgren’s Utopia has pretty much been living in a constant state of dystopia for the last 25 years. It’s been more than three decades since the band went on seemingly eternal hiatus and a quarter-century since they did their seemingly one and only reunion tour in Japan. But now Rundgren’s not-really-a-side-project group — which, in its late ’70s/early ’80s heyday, occasionally eclipsed his solo career — has finally collectively acceded to fan demands and kicked off a six-week tour of mid-sized theaters this week.

Even bassist and fellow lead vocalist Kasim Sulton, the one member who’s continued to play regularly with Rundgren in the years since Utopia drifted apart, seems surprised by this hell-freezes-over resumption. “Where would I have placed the odds?” says Sultan. “That’s a really good question. I would have said less than a 25 percent chance of it happening again.”

But it’s “Just One Victory” for the fan base after all, with the tour slated for dates like L.A.’s June 5 Wiltern show. Rundgren, Sulton and Wilcox spoke individually with Variety about the difficulty and rewards in picking up where they left off.

Utopia had at least two distinct eras. In the mid-’70s you were doing the concept album “Ra” and wearing Egyptian-themed costumes under a sphinx. By the early ’80s it was short power-pop and matching Beatles-style suits. How do you decide what to wear for a reunion tour?
Sulton: The way that the show has come together is that there’ll be two sets with an intermission, and one set will be more proggy and the next set will be more poppy — and we plan on dressing appropriately for both sets. [Laughs.]

Rundgren: We’ve broken the show up into two acts. The first focuses more on the original material from when the band was more of a prog-rock fusion outfit, and the songs were sometimes just excuses for us to play a lot. People enjoyed the spectacle that used to go along with those particular tours.  In later years, when we got down to a quartet, we started focusing more on songwriting and less on long soloing. So that’s pretty much how things are divided up between the first and second acts. Ironically enough, because the original Utopia concept involves so much playing, the first set is slightly longer but it has fewer songs in it. [Laughs.] The second set is like bang bang bang.

What’s it like doing the part of the set where you revive the era of 20-minute, LP-side-length songs, after having pretty much abandoned that after the mid-‘70s?
Sulton: I was just playing “Communion with the Sun” earlier today and I’m like, oh man, why did I play so many notes? It is a little daunting, because the way music is played has changed. And there are still great bands that do that kind of stuff, like Dream Theater and Brand X and stuff like that. But that’s not what I’ve been doing for the past 25 years. … The thing that really scares the bejesus out of me is the tempos that we played these songs at when we were in our 20s and 30s. These days, it takes me a minute to get out of bed in the morning. It took me a minute to get out of bed in the morning back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, too, but for different reasons.

You had an unusual occurrence where Ralph Schuckett, one of Utopia’s earliest keyboard players, was announced and then had to drop out of the band after you’d already put the tour on sale. Did you see that coming at all?
Sulton: There was some indication early on that Ralph wasn’t in tip-top shape health-wise, but we thought that he would be able to join us. And we thought it was important to be true to the history and have four of us who had been in one version of Utopia or another. When it turned out that Ralph wasn’t going to be able to tour… we were nervous. We weren’t happy about it. But at that point we’re in for a penny, in for a pound. There was no turning back.

For a few days we were all biting fingernails, wondering if we were going to be able to find someone that could at least at least play the material halfway decent. Then Rebop, Todd’s son, said “Hey, you might want to check this guy Gil Assayas out” [an Israeli musician now living in Oregon]. The more that we found out about him, the more we felt that he might be better than just a good fit. There’s not a big call for analog synth these days, except in the prog-rock community, so a big selling point to the band was his ability to play the analog as well as he does. He’s such a great musician that he learned everything within eight to ten days. We gave him the setlist, he sat down and woodshedded, and came in knowing everything probably better than we did.

Todd, you are famous for doing solo tours where you only play two or three of your old songs. You’re not exactly Mr. Nostalgia.
Rundgren: Nope. [Laughs.] …  [A reunion] is a topic that has come up over the years… Kasim stayed in touch with Willie the whole time, because they were carrying the torch for a Utopia reunion, essentially. And it’s not really something that I personally ever needed to do. I didn’t feel like we had unfinished business or something. I knew if we ever did get back together, it would be just to play the old material, not to make a new record… But just through pulling teeth and tweaking this and resolving that, we finally got to the point where we could actually go to promoters and find out what they thought about the idea, and the response was fairly positive.

Kasim, what do you think got Todd to give in after resisting for so long?
Sulton: I can’t speak for Todd, but you know, it might be something as simple as he just got tired of people asking about it, and [relented]. The band was a very important part of a lot of [fans’] lives, and they constantly asked if we would get together even if just for a few shows. This is a big thank you to everyone who’s been so loyal.

Wilcox: I was surprised. I first heard about this through [manager] Eric Gardner. Todd was playing with Ringo [on the All Starr Tour] and I went to see the show. Eric and I had breakfast and he said, “Hey, there’s some serious interest from Live Nation for a Utopia tour. I mean, really serious.” With Live Nation being one of the largest promoters in the world, and having them know what the marketplace was, it was pretty interesting that they thought that there was that demand. And recent ticket sales seem [indicate] that it was.

Was Live Nation’s interest a deciding factor?
Rundgren: There were several promoters who were interested in taking on the entire tour, but Live Nation had either the most enthusiasm or the most complete package of services. Much of it has to do with their promotion, their ability to promote, since they’re aligned with Sirius XM, which is partnering in the tour from a promotional standpoint.

In Paul Myers’ biography of Todd and Utopia, it’s clear there was tension at the end between Todd and Willie, and fans who knew that wondered if that would be the big hurdle. So some people were surprised when the reunion lineup was announced and Willie was in the band, and it was Roger Powell who wasn’t. [Powell has had to retire from touring since sitting in on a Rundgren solo tour in 2009, due to arthritis issues.]
Sulton: With age comes a certain amount of acceptance, and I think Willie and Todd’s differences were always artistic. If anything, that helps to create an atmosphere where you’re trying new things all the time, as a compromise, to make everybody feel like their input is being heard and being respected. For this six-week run, everybody can just enjoy being together again, and play the music that everybody put their heart and soul into for such a long time, at such an important period in all of our lives..

Wilcox: We had a lot of ups and downs in our career, financially and logistically, and at the end it was very frustrating, because we put a lot of effort into trying to make a good career of it. That is not easy, as everybody knows. So it wasn’t that there was bad blood. It’s that we were exhausted at trying to do what we tried to do.

Rundgren: How do I put this? I didn’t want to do anything that could turn out to be a political situation. But I think everyone came around to understanding that even though we are paying tribute to the past, we’re not going to talk about the past. We’re going to stay focused on trying to be a band, again, and trying to reproduce the music as best we can. And the hardest part about it is going to be answering questions like this. [Laughs.]

There were those who thought of Utopia as a vanity project of Todd’s, like Wings was to Paul McCartney, and were surprised when it turned out to be a real band featuring lead singing and writing contributions from all the members.
Sulton: There was a conscious attempt to make it a band and not one guy and then three guys behind him, like a Wings. Yet Todd is in my opinion one of the foremost pop songwriters of the second half of the 20th century. So it’s kind of like George Harrison next to Paul McCartney and John Lennon — you have these two kings sitting on a throne and then you’re expected to come up with stuff too, because it’s your band as well, so you sometimes sheepishly, sometimes not, bring in material. Whenever we got together for the start of a new record, everybody was expected to submit material. You couldn’t come in and sit on your laurels – I mean, if we had any laurels.

Rundgren: Being a record producer makes it easier for me to do that, because I’m sort of used to that – trying to simply be the facilitator as opposed to always the principal creator. I’m perfectly happy if somebody comes in with a song and it’s a good song… I always tended to be a bit more prolific… [but] we made maybe an effort that a lot of other bands didn’t to try and maintain some kind of democratic ideal — even if it wasn’t always what you think of as democracy.

It seemed like you were hampered because your record label, Bearsville, wasn’t happy about Todd dividing his duties and exercising his more experimental side with a band when they were just hoping for another “Hello, It’s Me.”
Rundgren: Yeah, we did have something of a contentious relationship with the label. It’s not as if my records were any more consistent, you know, in that sense. [Laughs] I was putting out stuff like “Initiation” with crazy synthesizer instrumentals all across the second side. So I wasn’t always making it easier for the label. But I seemed easier to market because I had a history, and because I had constant visibility through the records that I was producing.

Sulton: [Bearsville president] Albert Grossman always felt that Utopia was distracting Todd from his more successful solo career … until “Adventures in Utopia” sold close to half a million records, which was unheard of for the band at that point. That was a conscious effort on the band’s part to be a little bit more accessible and expand our audience, so we were writing pop songs. But I’m sure on some level it irked Bearsville that the record was successful, because all it meant was that it was going to take Todd further away from his solo work!

What’s the biggest challenge with this tour — apart from replacing a keyboard player yet again at the last minute?
Rundgren: Some of the biggest problems revolve around the vocals, because singing together is something that takes a lot of time on the road for a unit to get that blend. Playing you can get away with flubbing around, but singing, if you don’t do it right, that becomes obvious pretty quick. … There’s stuff we’re a little bit frightened to play. All of us were certainly apprehensive and nervous about the amount of work we had to do and music we had to relearn. Because I think that was one thing that we were capable of when everything was going well: We made it look fun. And it won’t be fun for the audience unless we seem like we’re having fun. That’s the ideal for all of us.