Living the Blues: An Interview with Todd Rundgren

Todd Rundgren
Todd Rundgren's Johnson

After four decades-plus in the music business, you’d think you’d have seen it all from the “God named Todd”. But, in his usual Rundgren-esque manner, he’s thrown the listening audience yet another curveball — this time in the form of a collection of Robert Johnson covers (appropriately titled Todd Rundgren’s Johnson). Long a hidden gem amongst rock guitarists, Rundgren uses his considerable chops to turn Johnson’s acoustic sketches into pure balls-to-the-wall blues-rock, in the raw style of classic 60s records by John Mayall and Paul Butterfield. PopMatters talks with one of pop’s foremost iconoclasts about his Johnson, the legendary bluesman’s influence on his music, and his new project that’s sure to blow even more minds …

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Todd Rundgren’s Johnson. That seems like an appropriate title…

(laughs) Well — it is for the music it contains, certainly. That was probably the simplest part to come up with.

Correct me if I’m wrong — but I believe this is the first time since 1976’s Faithful that you’ve done any sort of covers record. Why Robert Johnson? And why now for this particular record?

A couple of years ago I was finishing up a solo record called Arena. And after its completion, we were looking for someone to distribute the record — that’s just kind of the way it works nowadays. You don’t really have a record label that fronts you the money anymore. (laughs) You usually have to — somehow — get the record made and then find someone to put it out. And we found a label willing to put it out, but they had a condition, and that was: that I do a record of Robert Johnson covers.

Ah, I see.

And the reason they had me do that was they had recently acquired the rights to the publishing of the songs, but they actually had no recorded versions. So it was a way to make sure there was some publishing revenue, I guess, behind their new acquisition. But also, they suggested the possibility that if they had some recordings, they might be able to license them for TV or movies, or something like that. So that was the rationale at the time.

Then I did the record, and delivered it something like three years ago, and it took them about two-and-a half of those years to finally put the record out. A lot of this involved them looking for a worldwide distribution deal as well, so they kept putting it off and putting it off until that deal got resolved. And it took until this last Spring for that to happen, and that’s when they released the record.

The irony being, that I had been touring behind the record with the expectation that it was going to be released at some point. So, for two years I played the greatest hits of Robert Johnson to the consternation and confusion of my audience. And then finally, when I said, “I’ve done this enough,” the record finally comes out. So, I don’t really play much of that music anymore. I’ve moved on to other things.

I can only imagine the collective expression of puzzlement strewn across [your fans’] faces.

Well, they’ve been conditioned not to expect the expected. But this was pretty confusing for them. I had to explain every night exactly why I was doing it and why they weren’t hearing the greatest hits of Todd Rundgren.

So does Robert Johnson have any type of influence on either your songwriting or guitar playing, then? You’re not exactly the first person I expected to come out with a record like this …

Well, it’s not that unusual. When I got out of high school I was in a blues band. It was the kind of music I was interested in, and listening to, mostly because it was becoming a vehicle for a generation of guitarists — like Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton. Mike Bloomfield. And that’s what I wanted to be, principally, a guitar player. So, my first gig out of high school was in a blues band.

But Robert Johnson didn’t really have a direct influence on me — I was listening to the guitar players who were listening to him. And many of them had multiple influences, they weren’t influenced by Robert Johnson alone. There was some B.B. King influence in there, or, in the case of Jeff Beck, maybe some Les Paul, which is pretty much as far away from the blues as possible.

So it was great music to play, because it featured the instrument so much. But, I never attempted in the old days to sing any of it. That’s probably the significant difference, that I’m actually singing some blues at this point.

There’s a very down-home, juke joint type vibe to this album. It almost sounds like it was recorded live in the studio (yet there are only two credited musicians). I’m assuming this was intentional?

The sound, yeah. It’s kind of supposed to be this fairly raw, fairly live kind of sound that a lot of the seminal records that influenced me had about them. Particularly, there was a record by John Mayall called Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton, and that was a great influence on every guitar player I knew. But one of the great things about it was kind of the liveness of it, it had a crackling quality to it. You could hear a lot of the subtleties of what the players were doing.

So I tried to keep it fairly simple, not loading up on a lot of background vocals or additional instrumentation, just keep the guitar in the foreground and just deal with the bigger challenges of trying to craft melodies out of what essentially are a lot of improvisations.

Robert Johnson, like a lot of blues players, never sang the exact same thing twice, mostly because they were so drunk most of the time they couldn’t remember what they had sang the last time. (laughs) So, it was something of a challenge to go back and listen to the songs and pick out significant melody lines and themes to build these new arrangements around.

How do you feel about covers in general? It seems to me, with newer bands at least, that there are negative vibes associated with doing covers. Is this fair?

I think there’s ways to do it, and then there’s ways to screw it (laughs). On occasion I hear a rearrangement of a song that really makes me reevaluate it, in a way. So, I think there’s nothing wrong with that. At the same time, I saw Sisters of Mercy at a festival recently, and for some reason in the middle of the show they decided to play the Peter Gunn theme. You know, what’s that got to do with anything?

So I think there’s a time and a place for that sort of stuff. I just finished an album that’s coming out, in a month or two, that essentially is new versions of songs that I produced for other people, and they’re mostly all dance versions. So I had to do arrangements that were completely unlike the originals; there was simply no point in me aping what I had done already. So all of the songs have some twist, or unique approach to them that makes them not necessarily recognizable at first.

What are some of the songs you’re covering?

Oh, a lot of the bigger hits, like “Love My Way” and “Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad”… “Dancing Barefoot”. I tried to hit most of the high points.

In some cases, it was a bit of challenge to find a song that was apropos for this kind of arrangement. And in other cases, there were artists that I wanted to cover but just couldn’t figure out a way to reframe their material.

I did two albums, for instance, with Pursuit of Happiness, but for some reason I couldn’t find a song to turn into a dance song, mostly because the themes in the lyrics were all so furtive that it sounded burlesque trying to turn them into dance songs (laughs).

Now when you say “dance”, do you mean like modern club music, or more classic rock ‘n’ roll dance music.

I’m thinking more like how records kind of sound like nowadays. I didn’t decide that I wanted to do a “dance record” — what I decided was I wanted to make a contemporary record.

I then did a study-up on what was on the charts and things like that, and it turns out that everything is dance now. And it has to do with the fact that there is no prevailing alternative style. Every once in a while we have some sort of movement in music that everyone suddenly wants to work in, like grunge, or rap, or disco, or some other musical phase and then suddenly that’ll be the thing to do.

But we don’t really have one right now. What happens is when the waters recede, the thing that was always there suddenly becomes apparent again, and that was dance music. There are parts of the world where it never goes away, particularly in Europe.

So I just thought it would be an interesting challenge, never having done a dance record. Or, for that matter, never doing a record that was supposed to be in the pocket of what everyone was listening to. So it’ll be interesting to see how people respond to all that.

Personally, I’m looking forward to the dubstep version of XTC.

(laughs) Well, I don’t know if it’s exactly that, but “Dear God”… it’ll take you a little while to recognize it.

Speaking of contemporary music, many groups nowadays are armed with laptops and very little else (and this has been going on for some time now). What are your feelings regarding the way music is being created in 2011 from a production standpoint, performance standpoint, etc.?

Well, the more hands-on artists are, the less work I have. (laughs) So, I guess there is a downfall for me in the sense that the whole DIY movement in music doesn’t often need the kind of expertise I would bring to a production.

At the same time, there are bands that care about their playing. Like Coheed and Cambria, or someone like that … bands that obviously spend hours upon hours upon hours honing their craft, and being able to reproduce it live. So, it’s not as if the idea of musicianship is entirely gone, it just isn’t necessarily de rigueur at the moment.

But I think there are always people, who when they get the bug to play an instrument, they want to get as good as they can with it, rather than just be simply adequate at it. You run into them every once in a while — some kid who wants to be the next Stevie Ray Vaughan, for whatever reason, and plays exactly like him. And that’s something that everyone can aspire to. The desire to be able to command an instrument is still there in a lot of musicians, I think, so I don’t really despair.

You’ve recently taken some of your classic albums — including A Wizard, A True Star, Healing, and Todd — on the road. First, how has your experience been doing that? And second, is it safe to say we’ll have some sort of Something/Anything? performance for that album’s 40th anniversary next year?

Well it’s never safe to say what I’m going to do. (laughs) I think that is potentially in the future … I decided this year to kind of take a year off from these reproductions, these theatricalizations of whole records, because they take so long to put together, and yet they only seem to last, like, a week or two. (laughs)

Months of work goes into presenting something that only gets presented for a week or two, and I decided I just didn’t want to invest that much time on working on another theatricalization. It doesn’t mean that I won’t do it again, it’s just that I decided to take a year off and have a labor day to myself, to put it that way.

God knows you’ve toured enough —

That doesn’t mean I’m not on the road, it’s just that these things … the nature of them is that they have this theatrical aspect about them, so there’s a whole lot of other production and expense that goes into them. They’re not giant moneymakers, but they do please the fans, and that’s why I continue to do them. But I have to do a more stripped-down presentation when I’m actually playing for a living. Gotta keep the expenses more in line. (laughs).

You’ve obviously had a long, varied career. But if you can, looking back, is there a particular record you made, or a band you worked with, that you wish had been more successful? Or you feel has been overlooked?

Oh, that kinda happens a lot. I’ve worked with a lot of acts that weren’t able to survive the long haul of the music business. I suppose one of the most disappointing was the Pursuit of Happiness, the band that I mentioned a little earlier.

They were everything that you kind of looked for — they had a sound of their own, they had great songs, they were really exciting live. And they made great records, but for some reason, even in Canada, they never achieved the success that everybody expected. And often, it’s just because you get involved with the wrong kind of label … a label who puts their priorities elsewhere when it’s time to promote your record, and squanders the opportunity. Then you wind up, years and years later, on some critic’s Top Ten list, long after it could have done any good.

And I can say, from that standpoint, while there’s not as many opportunities to get signed to labels, artists have many more tools at their disposal to make up for the fact that no label is spending a lot of money to promote them. Unfortunately for the Pursuit of Happiness, when they were making their records, there was no YouTube or internet or anything like that, so they would be able to just promote themselves.

So that’s always disappointing, when a band can’t really reach their full potential, even though they have everything necessary to do it. There are a lot of great artists who kind of get overlooked when some really big, bright commercial light is shining and everyone’s got their eyes on that. But that’s kind of the nature of this business — and I don’t know if there’s any solution to that.