In recent times Todd Rundgren has just wanted to hang on the phone all day — or at least call people intermittently, over a period of a few years — asking well-regarded friends in music or even famous strangers and ask them to take part in a musical experiment. The results of this reaching-out, long spoken-of but only officially announced today, arrive in the form of “Space Force,” which has the legendary artist-producer teaming up for collabs with Sparks, Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo, Neil Finn, the Lemon Twigs, the Roots, Rick Nielsen and more.
In a conversation to unveil details about the album, Rundgren spoke about the unusual way the collaborative writing for the album took place, along with his feelings about the recent accolades that have been being showered his way 55 years or so into his professional career, from his induction into a certain hall to his sudden status as the king of the classic-rock syncs. Read our Q&A with him below, after the new album’s track list and first video.
The “Space Force” track list:
PUZZLE (with Adrian Belew)
DOWN WITH THE SHIP (with Rivers Cuomo)
ARTIST IN RESIDENCE (with Neil Finn)
GODIVA GIRL (with The Roots)
YOUR FANDANGO (with Sparks)
SOMEDAY (with Davey Lane)
I’M NOT YOUR DOG (with Thomas Dolby)
ESPIONAGE (with Narcy)
STFU (with Rick Nielsen)
HEAD IN THE OCEAN (with Alfie)
I’M LEAVING (with The Lemon Twigs)
ECO WARRIOR GODDESS (with Steve Vai)
This is your second album in a row of collaborations. With that in common, though, this is a different concept than “White Knight,” which came before it. You solicited other artists for ideas they had started and not finished, right?
“White Knight” was my song concepts for the most part. I wrote pretty much most of the lyrics, and most of it was me recording all of the basics and most of the lead vocals and then inviting other people to sing and perform on the song. In rare occasions, I collaborated on the songwriting. But this new one, “Space Force,” is more oriented toward the material of other people, and my role is less of like a grand conceptualist and more like an art restorer, in some cases. There are certainly conventional collaborations, where someone would give me an idea and I would have as much to contribute as was in the original idea, but then there are other extremes in which, for instance, someone had a demo that might have been three-quarters of the way toward completion and then something happened to cause it to never be finished. And that was what I solicited from other people. So essentially the concept is more finding orphan material and rehabilitating it.
Why did that method of collaborating appeal to you this time?
Well, after I finished “White Knight,” I realized that everything was my ideas, and other people had to adapt to them, for the most part, and I was not really adapting to anyone else. And one of the reasons why I’d decided that I wanted to do more collaborating was because all of my previous records were just all me. The subject matter was whatever I thought up, and the singing was all me, and the overarching concept would be mine. And I started to think that I was in an echo chamber, essentially — that I’m not getting enough external input, which causes you to potentially stagnate. One of the reasons why I did “White Knight” was to force myself into opening up the process to others, but I had only done it halfway because I was still coming up with almost all of the material. So I thought, let’s go the next step. Let’s start using other people’s song ideas as the basis of of where the music should go.
The song with Adrian Belew is coming out this week. Does that have any relation to the fact that you will be going out with him on on a David Bowie tribute tour this fall?
They weren’t directly related, because we had not nailed down this latest “Celebrating David Bowie” tour that we’re doing. And we’d never collaborated on anything or appeared on the same stage. That was kind of like a happy little coincidence, that we’re getting to work together on the Bowie thing. As with most of the collaborations, I would get more than one idea from him, and it would be my option which one to work on. Adrian had essentially an idea which became like the verses of the song, but we agreed that that that idea wasn’t enough. Because it was just talking about how sad people are, and I thought there has to be a little sweet with the sour. So I essentially came up with the chorus to balance out the message of the song and make it a little less depressing.
Rivers Cuomo, you had met at “The Tonight Show.”
I was always fascinated with Weezer’s approach to things. They were, in some ways, founders of the whole emo thing. I was sitting in with the Roots on “The Tonight Show” and the musical guest was Weezer, and I thought, I’ve got nothing to lose, so I saw Rivers in the hall and I said, “You want to collaborate?” And he said okay, then sent me 20 things — the guy’s got so many ideas. I got it down to two songs and couldn’t quite decide which one until somebody else was listening to me reviewing this stuff and said that they really enjoyed that particular riff, which is a famous sample called “Dick Tracy.” A few people have written completely other songs on top of that riff. So he had the “down with the ship” part; I had to come up with the rest of it, and it turned out to be a fun little romp.
You also had no prior connection with Neil Finn, right?
Yeah. At one point I heard that Neil had joined Fleetwood Mac and suddenly I remembered the Crowded House and Split Enz stuff. I met his son there, but I had never met Neil, and to this day, I never met Neil. We have only spoken briefly on the phone. A lot of these collaborations don’t necessarily equate to a lasting friendship or anything like that. With at least a few of the people, especially the ones that I hadn’t known before, I would have some little interaction with them at the beginning of the process and then a little back and forth while we’re finishing everything up. And then we’re not lifelong friends after that. But that doesn’t mean we won’t ever at some point find ourselves in the same place and go hang out for a little bit.
Somebody you clearly had met before was Sparks, since you produced their debut more than 50 years ago, and then Edgar Wright brought you back togeher for his Sparks documentary. That’s the kind of thing that delights fans of both artists, that they lived long enough to see something like that happen.
I wasn’t thinking I have to do something with Sparks until they were just standing there in front of me. And then I realized, this is a match made in heaven in the sense that I produced their first album. It can be said that I discovered the band when they were called Half Nelson. And now all these years later, as we have both managed to survive in the music business to reconnect and actually make some new music, it was a happy coincidence. Yeah, that’s probably something I should have thought of instead of just having it be an accident. But I hadn’t heard much from Sparks for a while, and then suddenly, it puts a bee in your bonnet.
You produced a Cheap Trick album in the ‘80s, so it’s another coming-back-around to have Rick Nielsen on this new album, for the song “STFU.”
I had been texting Rick for a long time about doing something, either with the band or a musical idea from him, and we kept talking about it and never doing it. And I would run into them on various occasions, the last of which was a band cruise thing that took place right before the pandemic. And so we got together and I whined at him a lot. And then finally he sent me a few ideas. He sent me one idea that had a somewhat even more obscene title than the one that it has now, which I think we both knew wasn’t going to be the final title. What sort of inspired me was that Rick has always in my mind been something of a jester, with his image and even his personality. He’s always joking and wisecracking about stuff. And when I saw him, it was still in the midst of the last presidency, and he said that he was having trouble writing those happy-go-lucky kind of tunes, because he was so angry about stuff — maybe even more angry than I was! And so when he sent it to me, all I could think of was, let’s use this as a way to channel anger.
Can you say what the originally more obscene title was?
I’d rather not. [Laughs.] If Rick wants to say it, he can.
You have the “Celebrating Bowie” multi-artist tour coming up. Are there any particular songs of his you were drawn to perform?
This new association started when I did “Life on Mars” for a tribute album to David Bowie after he died. So that was a tell there, that I was something of a Bowie fan. I tend to lean toward the earlier stuff, kind of the pre-Eno stuff. The highly artsy, pulling-lyrics-out-of-a hat thing that happened later didn’t appeal to me as much. So the material that I’m doing leans mostly towards the early part of his career, (like) “Life on Mars” and “Space Oddity,” and a few later ones. I think I’m doing “Young Americans,” and I did do “TVC 15,” but I don’t know if it’s on the current list — I have to recheck it.
I’m so immersed in the day-to-day of touring and traveling that the only way I can really survive it is is by staying focused on the short-term, on what I have to do for the next couple of days. If I start thinking about all the things that I have to do, it gets to be a bit overwhelming. The thing that I’m most looking forward to now is I’ve been on the road for three and a half months, and in three days I get to go home for about seven weeks before it all starts up again. So that’s where my head is at now: my head is all about getting my head clear. That’s as soon as I finish these last two gigs here with Daryl Hall — on this leg, that is, because I’m going out with Daryl again later in the year after the Bowie thing.
Do you feel the tour with Daryl has turned out to be a pretty good match?
Well, it’s great for me. I get to play with his band, and the band is great and they’re very conscientious about the material. And I get to sit in with Daryl for a little bit during the show. I don’t see him at all, except on stage. He doesn’t do sound check, and he’s got his own travel arrangements, so it’s not like we’re hanging out together. But I do enjoy the concept of the show, andf I think the audience really enjoys it. And I get kind of the best of it because I do the first hour when the audience is fresh and wear them out a little bit before Daryl comes up.
You’ve been unusually visible, or audible, lately, but not always for stuff you planned out yourself, between the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction (which Rundgren declined to show up for) and a flurry of prominently used syncs, in shows including “And Just Like That…” and “Ozark.” Whether or not you set up or ask for or in some cases even want these things, they must turn out to be good for you.
Well, that’s kind of the way things are nowadays. With the music directors of some of these films, it’s become a thing now to make a surprising selection and don’t let any of the audience know about it before they hear it for the first time. Kind of a model for that was the end of “The Sopranos,” and then the next time that happened, it was “Baby Blue” at the end of “Breaking Bad” (a Badfinger song Rundgren produced). They don’t call you up beforehand because they’re afraid you’ll blab it, so we often find out about these things after they’ve happened. I don’t know what the actual benefit of it is beyond the fact that it makes other music directors possibly consider your material for other things, because it does seem like a lot of it’s been happening lately. And I always wondered why it didn’t happen before! But they don’t call you up for a master license anymore. They take their chance.
Do you know whether technically you’re supposed to be able to sign off on that or whether that is somebody else’s choice to make?
Maybe they called somebody at Warners or Rhino or whoever’s controlling the masters at this point and say, “Don’t tell anybody. Don’t even tell the artist.” I know that traditionally we have (signed off). But most of the time when someone has been looking for a sync license from me, it was for “Bang the Drum All Day,” Carnival Cruise Lines or anybody who wants to have their movie trailer have that sort of party atmosphere. And we always wondered why, for instance, the telephone company doesn’t want to use “Hello, It’s Me”?
As much as you didn’t care about the Rock Hall thing, do you feel like you still get some side benefit from that, even if it’s just some promoters being a little more impressed by seeing that news or that title associated with your name?
Well, it’s like I say, it’s always meant more to other people than it has to me. But now, for instance, my tour manager has a new power that he didn’t have before. Like, you go to the front desk and say, “This man is in the Rock Hall of Fame. Now get his room ready!”
But as I say, I’m sort of relieved that it’s over. Because it was driving my fans crazy. And it was driving people who weren’t my fans crazy, at some point. So now we can get along with our lives.
With the syncs, the most gratifying thing out of all of it is maybe that people get reminded of my name and then sometimes… A couple months ago, I was getting cold calls myself out of the blue from, like, Chris Martin. Because he was watching a movie, I think “The Worst Person in the World,” a Norwegian film that got nominated for an Oscar, and they used one of my more obscure pieces of music in it (from the “Healing” album). But he recognized it and then decided that he thought he might want to sample it for a Coldplay record. So he called me up to ask permission, and I had never met him before. So that was just a great way to expand your contacts, in a way.
And other fortunate things— like I got a call from Donald Glover, who sometimes vacations out in Kauai, where I live. One of my boys saw him at the supermarket and gave him my email address, and then months later I get an email from Donald Glover, saying he might want to do something together. It’s the best of all possible worlds, when the processes starting to become complete. I cold-call somebody to be on my record. And I might get a cold call from somebody else because now that I’m no longer just a quirky artist making my impressionistic paintings or something like that, the word is out that I’m a collaborator.
TODD RUNDGREN TOUR DATES
with Daryl Hall:
Oct 1, 2022 – Tilles Center – Brookville, NY
“Celebrating David Bowie”:
Oct 6, 2022 – Balboa Theatre – San Diego, CA
Oct 7, 2022 – Saban Theatre – Beverly Hills, CA
Oct 8, 2022 – San Jose Civic – San Jose, CA
Oct 9, 2022 – City National Grove of Anaheim – Anaheim, CA
Oct 13, 2022 – Mystic Lake Casino – Prior Lake, MN
Oct 14, 2022 – Copernicus Center – Chicago, IL
Oct 15, 2022 – The Goodyear Theater & Hall – Akron, OH
Oct 17, 2022 – Theatre Capitole – Quebec City, Quebec Canada
Oct 18, 2022 – L’Olympia (Montreal) – Montreal, Quebec Canada
Oct 20, 2022 – The Cabot Theater – Beverly, MA
Oct 21, 2022 – College Street Music Hall – New Haven, CT
Oct 22, 2022 – American Music Theatre – Lancaster, PA
Oct 23, 2022 – The Tarrytown Music Hall – Tarrytown, NY
Oct 24, 2022 – Sony Hall – New York, NY
Oct 25, 2022 – Sony Hall – New York, NY
Oct 27, 2022 – Union County Performing Arts Center – Rahway, NJ
Oct 28, 2022 – Penn’s Peak – Jim Thorpe, PA
Oct 29, 2022 – The Concert Venue at Harrah’s Resort Atlantic City – Atlantic City, NJ
Oct 30, 2022 – Keswick Theatre – Glenside, PA
Oct 31, 2022 – Rams Head On Stage – Annapolis, MD
Nov 1, 2022 – Rams Head On Stage – Annapolis, MD
Nov 3, 2022 – The Eastern – Atlanta, GA
Nov 4, 2022 – Taft Theatre – Cincinnati, OH
Nov 5, 2022 – Town Ballroom – Buffalo, NY
Nov 7, 2022 – Schermerhorn Symphony Center – Nashville, TN
Nov 9, 2022 – Orpheum Theatre (Wichita) – Wichita, KS
Nov 10, 2022 – Paramount Theatre – Denver, CO
Nov 11, 2022 – Kiva Auditorium – Albuquerque, NM
Nov 12, 2022 – Tucson Convention Center – Tucson, AZ
Nov 13, 2022 – Celebrity Theatre – Phoenix, AZ