The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website

Dr Rock

Todd Rundgren Interview: Talking With The Wizard & True Star
The Quietus , September 14th, 2009 09:55

'Hello, it's me' booms the voice from dreamy Hawaii 7000 miles via a flimsy phoneline to the damp and rainy Hackney. I'm speaking to the wizard, the true star himself, Mr Todd Rundgren; a John Cassavetes of music, if you will, tirelessly doing whatever it takes to finance the next leap of musical ingenuity, be it through producing Meat Loaf, XTC or The Band, collaborating with The Residents or simply adding a twist of happiness to PeeWee's Playhouse.

It's been a busy few years that's seen Todd join up for a tour with The Cars, write a stadium rock long-player called Arena and produce old sparring partners The New York Dolls in recording sessions he compares to 'herding cats'. Mr Rundgren now looks back and ponders over the making of A Wizard, A True Star, which he is taking on the road in the forthcoming months. Wizard, his fourth solo effort, made headlines, and divided opinions on the man they used to call Runt. Todd tells us why.

You're not known for your love of nostalgia, so what makes you want to play A Wizard, A True Star in its entirety, live

I'm not a big fan of nostalgia but I'm something of a fan of challenges. I've played bits of A Wizard, A True Star in other contexts but never really made an attempt to do the whole thing. I look at it as not so much of a musical challenge as a theatrical one. Once you get around to doing it everyone's completely familiar with the music anyway. With an album like this I believe that people have lots of images in their head that go along with the music. It would be a more interesting presentation if we focused on that aspect as opposed to simply trying to be musically accurate with it.

The recordings of A Wizard, A True Star were fuelled by a new found love of psychedelic drugs. Please tell me how much of an impact the drugs had on your music and on your life in general back then?

They didn't have a principle effect on the music. It wasn't like I suddenly threw away everything that I was doing before and decided that I was going to play the music of my mind. I'd actually been through an experience like that. I had been in a band in the 60s and they all discovered drugs and decided to completely change the music they were playing, so I'd realized that such is possible but it didn't affect me in that way. But it did allow me to objectivise a little bit more the way that I wrote music, the subject matter that I was dwelling on and I realised to actively put some of that away and to absorb new ideas and to also hear the final product in a different way. Getting away from those kind of formulaic song-writing methodologies. A lot of it was a result of Something Anything?, me listening to the record afterwards and going 'well, that was pretty much the same chorus just transposed around and you're still singing about that girl who screwed you over in high school' and realising that I was way beyond that by then and probably onto some other girl breaking my heart. I thought I'm not investing myself as an artist and I'm doing this more out of craftsmanship than anything else and that would be fine, it's just not why I got into music.

Around the time of A Wizard, A True Star Todd the loner turned into a full-on scenester. You started dating supermodel Bebe Buell and frequented fashionable hang-outs like Max' Kansas City. What made this shift occur?

It wasn't anything unusual. I'd been a 'hangarounder' for quite a while, it was just that Max's became the place. Previous to that it was Steve Paul's The Scene which was probably the equivalent to the Speak Easy in London. Whenever a new act came over from anywhere they had to play at The Scene. I essentially almost lived there; I would go there every night because of the musical associations that it created. It was a whole different kind of milieu in those days - the only important thing was music. Nobody gave a shit about movie stars, nobody gave a shit about TV stars. The only stars were musicians.

Eventually Max's Kansas City started having live music, on the second floor. Steve Paul's The Scene closed down so Max's Kansas City became the place to see people. I saw the Wailers first gig there, in a tiny little room that held maybe a hundred odd people. I saw Iggy Pop in there and just about everybody. It was just a hip place to play, it didn't matter how small it was. And this evolved essentially into the New York Scene, it didn't have its own musical scene until around the era of just around A Wizard, A True Star and Utopia and that sort of stuff which was moving in one direction. And then the New York Dolls and The Ramones and all the other bands of that ilk appeared, moving in the other direction.

One of your early supporters, Patti Smith, who wrote the sleeve notes for A Wizard, A True Star, probably wasn't all that well known yet at that point

That's right, Patti had just moved into the city from New Jersey. We were both about the same age and I met her actually at a coming-up party for Johnny Winter who'd just been discovered. Patti was there and I was there and neither of us was with anybody and we were both incredibly bored but it must've been something about the New Jersey and Philadelphia vibe, we just kind of started talking and hit it off and started hanging around a lot together. At the time she was living with Robert Mapplethorpe who also had yet to become really famous, he was photographing more conventional things at the time. She was writing with Sam Shepherd then and she was a poet, principally. She would also do one woman shows that would be combinations of poetry readings and other little performances, she would sing songs, she might sing along to a 45 and then she would just go off freeform. Patti was really electric and I was kind of surprised when she went into music. I understood it but in a way it sort of obliterated and obfuscated a whole lot of other stuff that she did, in my mind.

Another of your fans, rather tragically, was John Lennon's killer Mark Chapman. He claimed to have received secret messages through the Wizard artwork, to kill. What do you know about that?

Well, there actually were secret messages on the artwork but I don't know what they mean because the artist who painted it put them in there. He had this little language that he invented and there are these sort of rhythm like things coursing through the artwork, there's this runic sort of stuff in there. I think it was secret love messages to his girlfriend or something like that, nothing really earth-shattering. He never explained to me what they really meant so I wouldn't know. I just pretty much saw a painting of his in a gallery window and I liked the combination of this sort of old classical style with a bizarro symbolically almost Dali-esque symbology. I also liked the way he drew two perspectives at once, the front perspective and the profile at the same time. The whole thing to me just represented graphically what I was going for musically and I sat for him for a couple of sessions and he essentially just painted it and I didn't instruct him at all what it was supposed to resemble. So whatever Mark Chapman was reading wasn't coming from me, it was coming from the artist, Arthur Wood. And, quite obviously, it's in the eye of the beholder, it isn't any real thing.

Talking about production, you recently produced the New York Dolls' new album. What was it like, after 30 odd years since you produced their debut album, to work with those guys again?

Well obviously it was a lot more mellow but beyond that I was only working with two of the guys, the other three are different people. Generally it was a much more musical experience for me than the original one - that was like herding cats, trying to get everyone onto the same page long enough to get a take. I suppose that was the appeal of it, the barely in control aspect of it, but capturing that isn't an easy task and doesn't have a whole lot to do with music, it has to do with crowd management and other sorts of things like pushing the button at the right time. There weren't a whole lot of suggestions to be made except 'the band fell apart in the chorus', or whatever, which should have been obvious to everyone, really. This time around it was much more about the music, even about trying to get a proper performance that captures the essence of the band. And we were able to, in New York Dolls terms, do more unusual music because there was no attitude, we only had the new material to worry about. And because of their enhanced experience is was really pretty interesting, the fact they'd been around and done so much, particularly David Johannson, he'd gone through several incarnations, he actually has some interesting things to say and to write about, that a twenty year old may not have.

Current bands like Simian Mobile Disco, Daft Punk and Hot Chip, to name a few, are all outspoken fans of A Wizard, A True Star. What, in your opinion, gives the album it's lasting appeal?

It's really hard to say. When it first came out it was roundly considered an overt act of career suicide. It may be that, in its own way, it's as different still as it was then from a more conventional approach to making records. The idea that a musical fragment is as valid outside of a conventional setting as it would be within. When it came out, singles were very important and they still are, a song that is essentially three to four minutes long has a certain form to it. But if that's all that music was, it wouldn't be a very interesting format to work in and I suppose anything that's a testament to other ways of approaching music plays part in what keeps the form vital, what keeps it from becoming stagnant.

Todd Rundgren performs the British Premiere of A Wizard, A True Star at the HMV London Hammersmith Apollo on Saturday 6th February 2010. Box Office: 08700 603 777. Book Online at Seetickets

If you love our features, news and reviews, please support what we do with a one-off or regular donation. Year-on-year, our corporate advertising is down by around 90% - a figure that threatens to sink The Quietus. Hit this link to find out more and keep on Black Sky Thinking.