From his albums, listeners might guess that Rundgren is many things: a wizard, a true star, a runt, a hermit… But the artist would advise against it. While he does pluck songs from personal experiences, the restless innovator warns that reducing him to any one of the images he’s painted over the years would be a mistake.
Myers: How did playing with The New Cars affect your most recent album, “Arena?”
Rundgren: Well, it always affected it inasmuch as the unexpected demise of The Cars put me in a position where I had to sort of hastily put together a band. That was a couple of years ago, I guess. We were supposed to be doing some rather extensive touring. Then when Elliot Easton–the lead guitar player–broke his collarbone, all of that came to an end. I had nothing to do with the rest of the summer and decided to just go out with a guitar quartet. I put together two guitars, bass and drums and started playing more guitar-oriented music. The audience began to respond quite enthusiastically to it. So that kind of set me on a path to eventually make a record like “Arena.” I figured since I was getting the response I should probably stick with the guitar playing for a little while and not go back to the piano tinkling or R&B posturing and posing.
Myers: Speaking of R&B, I did want to talk a little bit about The Sound of Philadelphia.
Rundgren: Well, I grew up in Upper Darby, which is the western suburbs of Philadelphia and only spent maybe about a year and a half at most in Philadelphia after I graduated from high school playing in local bands and stuff. Then this group that I put together that we called The Nazz got signed and we immediately moved to the New York area so that we could be more in the public eye. While I’ve come back to visit Philadelphia with some regularity I guess I was never part of the scene. I was gone too early. There was the whole scene that came afterwards and a couple of other phases in which Philadelphia was in the limelight. But I was not in Philadelphia in that time, I was somewhere else.
Myers: But it sounds like it seeped into your music, both in your singing style and the kind of music you write.
Rundgren: Yeah, well, a lot of that came from the radio. Philadelphia had a somewhat unique radio scene because we had a lot of R&B on the radio, Jerry Blavat, the Geator with the Heater he was known as. But we did have a DJ who was hugely popular and played a lot of R&B, as did some of the other stations. But the difference I think in Philadelphia radio is that we were right there on the Mason-Dixon line and there was enough liberalness that we could hear what were called race records growing up. Whereas if you got too much further south you wouldn’t hear much of that, at least not on the mainstream radio stations.
Myers: Do you see progressive rock and R&B as pulling you in different directions? Are traditional R&B and progressive rock polar opposites?
Rundgren: Not particularly. It’s interesting when I first got out of high school and got into a real band and started working, the eclectic nature of all the bands was probably pretty remarkable. Philadelphia had a high concentration of folk acts. They had a high concentration of blues bands and such, and what eventually became progressive music. A lot of it came out of what was originally a migration of blues into the consciousness of white musicians and everyone was starting to change the way they played guitar. At the same time, Philadelphia has always been a musical center. The Philadelphia Orchestra is, and has always been, world renown. There was a thriving jazz scene as well. So all of these eclectic musical elements are compatible with the so-called Philly Sound. It’s just that what Philadelphia is most known for is certain forms of R&B, starting first with Cameo Parkway and all the dance records that they made and then later on Gamble and Huff, when they started doing The O’Jays and Spinners and other R&B bands in a style that became recognizable worldwide.
Myers: I ask because you’re the only artist that I know of who will have a flange on a drum over a do-wop progression.
Rundgren: [Laughing] Yeah, I guess. There are no rules. I suppose it’s because I do have a certain experimental element, that’s a proactive way of continuing to move, but then there’s also sort of reactive ways that cause you to move. That’s me not wanting to repeat myself and also not wanting to be mistaken for somebody else or something else. I’m not trying to be accurate to the letter to some previous style. I’m trying to retain the kind of preferences and musical predilections that I have picked up over the years. When I think back to my musical roots that kind of stuff always co-existed. When I first put together The Nazz we didn’t have a lot of original material, so we would be doing stuff like “Ooh Baby Baby” by the Miracles with the full harmonies and things like that. Then some song from a Who record or “Train Kept A-Rollin'” from the Yardbirds record or something like that. All of that co-existed for us, and there was a time in music when there was a lot of hybridization. Cross-breeding genres were popping up all the time: jazz rock, classical rock, folk rock, something rock, you know? As long as there was a loud guitar in it, you could be playing in any style. So it’s not a huge gap to straddle to get from any sort of rock music to R&B. They all came from the blues.
Myers: Over the years you’ve definitely taken your fans on a wild adventure. Was the urge not to repeat yourself always focused on how you saw the music, or were you also thinking about how you were going to be perceived?
Rundgren: I don’t think it’s about my perception so much. I am conscious of the fact that to be redundant or to be constantly doing what somebody else or a whole bunch of other people are doing, is to leave yourself exposed to the possibility of somebody else doing the same thing you are. A way of getting around the idea of whether or not you’re the best at something is, you try and be the only one of something, regardless of how good you are at it. My constant need to change is really just my short attention span. Once I finish a record I listen to it copiously so that I can figure out exactly what I’ve done right and what I’ve done wrong. Then I move on.
Myers: Some readers may not know that you also produce albums for other acts. What was it like producing Meatloaf’s album, “Bat Out of Hell?”
Rundgren: It was actually not as big as an ordeal as it sounded. It sounds like it would have taken forever to make, but it wasn’t that bad. At the time none of us knew what kind of success the record would eventually meet with. We were doing it just purely on musical grounds and while it was important to everyone who was making the record at the time, it was just another record. Nobody thought it would become the icon that it eventually became.
Myers: What’s better for a bank account — having a hit song or producing a hit record like that?
Rundgren: Well, you’d be surprised the mileage you can get out of a single hit. I’m kind of unusual in that I have a dual career, although I do a lot less producing now. The record industry has changed so much that there aren’t the kind of recording budgets that there used to be anymore. So my productions are more rare and spaced out. I tend to do a lot more live performance, so I don’t focus as much on records as I used to.
Myers: That’s probably because technology has made it so that more people can do what you do–produce themselves.
Rundgren: Exactly, that was one aspect of it. You rarely get an act who hasn’t already produced their record once on their own equipment. Now their label just wants a little more sophisticated musical sensibility involved or something. But yeah, the actual process of making records is accessible to anyone nowadays.
Myers: How hard are you on yourself as a producer?
Rundgren: I’m fairly hard on myself. It’s hard to say whether the dynamic of producing your own records really resembles producing someone else. I don’t have to explain anything to myself. I can have confidence that they will come together at a certain point and they can sound ridiculously disorganized up until that point. Producing somebody else… the constant challenge is trying to figure out what’s in their head. Musicians aren’t always great at explaining what they’re going for. The skill that you have to bring to the process is how to deduce that, how to draw it out, how to figure it out. When I’m making my own records I don’t even think like a producer. I think only like a musician. When I’m working with others then all of these aspects of psychology and diplomacy come into play, which are ironically enough some of the things that really make or break a producer.
Myers: Sometimes on your records when you’re singing, it sounds like the call and response of multiple personalities.
Rundgren: [Laughing] It could be. Always in my songwriting I’m trying to find some place in myself to personalize and objectivize and turn into something that is not literally me trying to explain myself to people, but more me representing the things that I think and the things that I believe in. That often involves becoming a character, somebody who is simpler than any one individual actually is, so that you can be more focused about what you’re singing about and you can more easily convey the points of what you’re singing about. I think that the problem that could come into play is, someone thinking that somebody they hear me representing in musical terms is actually me. That that is literally me or that that simple cipher that I’ve distilled for the sake of a particular song actually represents all of me. That’s not what I’m trying to do. I’m trying to make it simple enough so that somebody else can put themselves into the song and make it their own.
Myers: There are such a wide variety of characters in your songs, I would think if you were every one of those characters, you would be crazy.
Rundgren: Oh yeah, you would be totally schizophrenic. But the point is, no one is purely one thing. People can obsess about it, but we are a product of our experience, of our interactions with other people, in particular with those that we grew up with, our parents and siblings, and we have aspects and habits and things that we perhaps never can objectivize in ourselves but are completely obvious to everybody else. In musical terms you become something very simple, but in real life you are something that is much more complicated and has elements of many personalities. I guess that’s been something of interest to me my entire life, the difference between people as they represent themselves and as they actually are.
Myers: A song like “Happy Anniversary” from your 2004 album, “Liars” has more than a couple of personalities in it and that is just one song.
Rundgren: Yeah, well that’s a good example. I am in one sense taking on the role of a woman. In another sense, I’m a man talking to his boy offspring, or older brother talking to a younger brother or something like that. In order to convey the overall meaning of a song, I had to adapt to a couple of oversimplified personalities. But you do what you gotta do.
Myers: Are there singers out there now that you like?
Rundgren: There’s always singers that I like, whose approach I can appreciate, but I can’t say that I’m completely up to date on who’s who now. I live in a fairly remote part of the world where we don’t have great college radio or anything like that. I don’t watch MTV anymore. I don’t know who’s really happening nowadays.
Myers: In your song “Soul Brother” you sound like you’re very upset about some of the singers that are popular these days.
Rundgren: The problem is the way that singers have fallen into certain kind of categories in which almost nobody is recognizably and obviously themselves. They’re always imitating somebody else. Almost every girl R&B singer that you hear has followed this bloodline back to Whitney Houston who was the first one to kind of go nuts and not just sing a song but kind of show you every note she possibly could sing within every song. Then it became Mariah Carey and every girl singer after that. That is the reason why somebody like Amy Winehouse can stick out because she’s not trying to sing like that. It gets to the point where every singer is so industry standard in a way that somebody who just simply sings is able to call attention to them self.