Todd Rundgren is 68, but he packs more activity into a month than most 20-year-olds dare to tackle in a year.
So far this year, Rundgren has performed as part of an Aretha Franklin tribute at Carnegie Hall; crafted a new album, "White Knight," due May 12; appeared at Coachella Festival with rising teen power-pop band the Lemon Twigs; spoke and performed as an Artist in Residence at Notre Dame University; oversaw various activities for his music education nonprofit, the Spirit of Harmony Foundation. He also launched a tour of mostly new material with his own band that includes a stop at the Riviera Theatre in North Tonawanda on May 10.
The impetus for the tour is "White Knight," an album of new songs composed and recorded with an incredibly diverse range of collaborators, among them Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails, Swedish dance-pop singer Robyn, hip-hop DJ Dam Funk, Moe Berg of the Pursuit of Happiness, and veteran R&B singer Bettye Lavette. The album spans musical generations and idioms, among them classic blue-eyed soul, '90s techno, contemporary EDM, power-pop and hip-hop. Somehow, all of this ends up sounding like yet another strong and stylistically variegated Rundgren album in a nearly 50-year career. I caught up with Rundgren on the eve of the tour's launch.
Question: Collaborating means something different today than it once did. How does collaborating via file transfer differ from working face to face with another artist? Is there a tangible effect on the music?
Answer: One tangible effect is that working this way would make it harder to create things from scratch, like, say, Lennon and McCartney sitting down in a room together and creating something from nothing. For this to work, one or the other of us – myself or one of the collaborators – had to have something together as a starting point. They'd send what they had to me, or vice-versa. What they'd send me was not exactly sacred. I would do with it what I wanted to do.
When you are working alone, you generally get an idea, you start hot, and then as you work, it cools down. Collaboration is the point where you help to heat it up again, through the input of another. A positive product of the file-sharing approach is that it just would not have been possible to get everyone in a room together at once.
Q: What's immediately striking about "White Knight" is how you've managed to work with artists who are very distinctive and recognizable, and yet these songs still sound like Todd songs. How tricky was this?
A: I need quiet and solitude when I write. In some ways, it was better that I wasn't in the room with everyone when all of this was coming together. I can be a bit opinionated. (laughs) This is not a duets album, you know? When I use someone else on a recording, I want the focus to be on them. It still sounds like Todd, if you will, because much of it has my sensibility. When I write, I write for my vocal strengths, and my tendency is to do everything possible to avoid clichés.
Q: Going back to 1993's "No World Order," you seemed eager at the time to re-imagine the roles of composer and listener, by suggesting that the listener could reassemble the songs in their own way, and that this would be as valid as your own mix. What did you learn from the experience?
A: That album was made during a phase where I started to realize some things about music. (MC Hammer's) 'U Can't Touch This' was a huge hit, and it was basically a Rick James song, right? This suggested to me that we were running out of ideas and starting to recycle. Recycling, sampling, re-contextualizing – and you could random access the music. What I was trying to do was conform to evolving listener habits. I learned over time that my suspicions were correct. Today, things are more fragmentary than ever.
Q: When you made (1991's) "2nd Wind," you essentially were making a live album, where all the parts were written, rehearsed, performed live and then recorded. Are you tempted to work that way again, as opposed to working alone and using the recording equipment as a sort of co-composer?
A: It really is truly down to a matter of budget. "2nd Wind" is the last album I made for a major record label, where they give you a chunk of money to go in, assemble a band, and make a record.Now I'm self-financed, and putting together a huge band, renting a studio, rehearsing the band, all that goes into it – the money's not there. It's that simple.
Q: You've played the Buffalo area consistently over the past decade, and even going back to the '70s. What will be different about this "White Knight" show, compared to your recent "An Evening with Todd Rundgren" tour?
A: This show is radically different. There is video galore, there are lights galore. There's as much of the new music as we could work into it, because obviously, I couldn’t bring all of these collaborators out on the road with me. We've got the "Global Girls" on harmony vocals and dancing, we've got Greg Hawkes of the Cars on keyboards, and we've got the core of my touring band – Kasim Sulton, Prairie Prince and Jesse Gress. It promises to be very interesting.