FMQB Retro-Active: Ken Sharp Talks to Todd Rundgren About The Unpredictable Tour, Breaking Bad and More
November 10, 2014
A WIZARD, A TRUESTARÖ Currently traversing the States on a trek dubbed The Unpredictable Tour, itís safe to say that Todd Rundgren has always followed his own career path, eschewing commercial trends and fads, forging a trail that is uniquely his. After hitting Columbus, Ohio on Monday, November 10, the tour concludes on November 26at the Saban Theater in Los Angeles, and fans attending should expect the unexpected. With an artist as talented and gifted as Rundgren, a good time is guaranteed for all. Retro-Active'sKen Sharp recently caught up with the wunderkind in a rare day off.
The new solo tour is dubbed the Unpredictable Tour and that moniker fits as there's been nothing predictable about what you've done. What's the mindset toward this series of shows?
Todd Rundgren: Well, the tour is predictable but the show is unpredictable. In other words, we know where weíre going; we just donít know what weíre doing when we get there. A long time ago, actually not that long ago, maybe a couple of years ago I had a small gap in my schedule and within that gap was four nights at a venue in New York City over the course of 10 days. There was a show and then two days off and then another show and then a couple of more days off. So I didnít really have a record to promote and there was no other show that we had rehearsed so I just got a couple of guys together and said, "I'll make a big list of songs and some of then will be my songs and some of them will be songs that we listen to and some of them may be songs that pop into my head or theyíre current Internet memes or something like that and Iíll just call them out and weíll play them." As it turned out, the audience seemed to get a lot of enjoyment and entertainment out of that and when the broader audience heard about the shows, there was a lot of demand outside of New York City. So weíd done this tour a couple of times before but demand still remains high for it, and I still donít have a record to promote right now (laughs), so thatís kind of why weíre doing it.
Not having to adhere to a rigid set list might make playing live much more fun for you.
It makes it more fun for me. Iím trying to read the mood of the audience and figure out how my voice feels and things like that. If you have a strict set that you play every night you canít pace yourself the same way. The other advantage is that thereís the possibility that we will play a song that we donít or havenít usually played in my other shows that someone in the audience might want to hear. Now thereís no guarantee that theyíll hear it, but because itís unpredictable, thereís maybe a greater likelihood that theyíll hear it.
I've seen a clip where you're performing "Muskrat Love," a song many baby boomers my age associate with The Captain & Tennille. Hearing it reinvented and stripped down via your interpretation really works and the chord changes are beautiful.
You donít know beforehand what affect a song like that is gonna have on the audience. But sometimes Iím choosing a song like that because yes, it is unexpected and an unpredictable thing to do. Often when Iím watching TV or hearing the oldies on the radio and a song will pop out and Iíll say to myself, "nobody has ever thought of redoing that song." When you get down and examine the lyrics of ďMuskrat LoveĒ they are so inane. Itís actually talking about rodents making whoopee. The guy who wrote the song didnít even know what he was talking about. He was probably thinking about some sort of a weasel character or a ferret. A muskrat is this fat little smaller version of a beaver!
Are there any songs your fans frequently request which you will never play?
Well, fans have yelled out "Onomatopoeia," like we could do that in any sort of normal context. I have done it once but I had to do it with a symphony orchestra to get all the sounds in. Iíve had people yell out that song in the wrong context in some place where we couldnít possibly reproduce it. People know that I donít take requests anyway so if they start yelling out stuff, it just becomes part of a running gag. And as I say to the audience, the more times they yell out a particular song the less likely it is that weíll play it because then it would just be predictable, wouldnít it?
In terms of predictability, as an artist you've always followed the road less traveled. Following up a huge success of "Something/Anything" with "A Wizard ,a True Star" or Utopia's "Adventures in Utopia" with "Deface the Music"... is this just the contrarian in you or simply the way you keep things creative and fresh?
For me personally itís not just kind of ingrained in the way that I work. I started out in a band (The Nazz), and that didnít work out so well so shortly after that I started working as a record producer and engineer and that went quite well for me. That became kind of lucrative. So when it came to making my own records, I never thought I had to continue to satisfy a certain audience or do the same thing over and over again in order to build up an audience. I was perfectly satisfied to produce other peopleís records and worry about those concerns for them. Then when I made my own records I didnít have to think about any of that. I could just think about what musical things Iíd like to accomplish. So whether as a solo artist or working with Utopia, thatís been the way Iíve worked. I suppose that I could enact the same discipline on myself that I would on another act if they came to me and said, ďHelp us make a coherent and commercial record.Ē But thereís a world full of people doing that, and as for me, half the time Iím trying to educate myself by learning new things and learning new techniques or refine the techniques that I have. So thatís why I continue to produce records for other people and do remixes for other people, which leaves me free to choose my own direction.
Do you have a lot of unreleased material in the can?
I donít have a lot of unfinished songs laying around. If I donít get past the first kind of couple of instrumental passes at itóif it doesnít turn me on or I canít visualize where itís goingóI just kind of drop it. I have little fragments of ideas that never turned into songs. When you release legacy material people always want bonus material and there really isnít any. Everything that you hear on the record of mine is pretty much everything that I recorded.
This incarnation of the All-Starr Band has stayed together for a much longer time than all the other versions. It seemed like you are not just aligned musically but also personally as well.
We all sort of felt that way in the beginning. When Ringo Starr puts these acts together he doesnít really require that you undergo a psychological evaluation; you just have to have three hits. So there certainly have been instances where there were issues with people in the band. I think it also affected how Ringo would feel about the bands. Personality wise we all clicked since day one and I think thatís one of the reasons why Ringo has kept the band together. Itís not only a superlative group of musicians but also itís just a fun bunch of guys to be with.
You produced Badfinger's "Baby Blue." Thanks to its use in the last scene of theBreaking Badfinale, the song captured the zeitgeist becoming # 1 on iTunes around the world, with the band and your work receiving its just due decades later.
I donít know what the actual demographic breakdown is for Breaking Bad viewers but I imagine that it probably skews a bit younger than me. People my age were listening to the radio when ďBaby BlueĒ was originally a hit. So itís some other thing that is mysterious to me at this point. But it has had the same effect as the use of ďDonít Stop BelieviníĒ by Journey at the end of The Sopranos. It somehow ties that epic saga with an unlikely pop song and suddenly it creates something for people. Not really working much in television anymore, I couldnít tell you what that was.
Maybe it all comes down to the fact that a great song will always be a great song.
Well yeah thereís that, but thereís lots of great songs. Why did the musical director of Breaking Bad choose ďBaby Blue?" Thatís a mystery to me. I wasnít a faithful viewer of the program so I heard about it the next day. Everyone was saying, ďWhat does it feel like to have produced the last song used on Breaking Bad?Ē I didnít even realize it. The next thing I did was call my manager and we were able to get loose about $16,000 of backed up royalties that had never been paid to me. Everyone had sort of forgotten about it so nobody was checking to see if the record sold and then of course the record sold much more when it wound up in the iTunes store.
What makes "Baby Blue" a great song and one that could capture the zeitgeist again in 2014?
Iím not sure. Part of the reason why they would use the song is some sort of nostalgia for that Ď60s style of pop songwriting, arranging and production. ďBaby BlueĒ was a hit; it was the follow-up to ďDay After Day.Ē It was a hit record at one point so thatís probably why most people remember it.
Rundgren's tour dates:
Nov 10 - Columbus, OH Nov 12 - Kent, OH Nov 13 - Chicago, IL Nov 15 - Peoria, IL Nov 16 - Minneapolis, MN Nov 18 - Denver, CO Nov 19 - Salt Lake City, UT Nov 22 - Scottsdale, AZ Nov 24 - San Francisco, CA Nov 25 - San Juan Capistrano, CA Nov 26 - Beverly Hills, CA