Todd Rundgren interview: in Todd we trust
IT'S 10am, Hawaiian time, and Todd Rundgren has checked his mail, fed the fish, poured himself a coffee, and now he's telling me why he's chosen the most feted period in his long and fascinating career to release an album of heads-down, no-nonsense, mindless boogie.
"I guess I've never been afraid of change," he says. "It's the fear of the next step, and of that potentially painful transition, which stops many people doing anything new. I'm 60 now but my attitude is the same as when I started in this business exactly 40 years ago: there's always more to know, more to learn and more to create."
Contrary, wilful, maddening, downright perverse – Rundgren has delighted in being all those things, often on the same record, sometimes in the space of one song. Just when it seemed like he'd settled back into the blue-eyed soul of his Philly roots – the Todd most of us love – he promptly turned himself into a computer, changed his name to TR-i and went all techno on us. Then he reverted back to Todd Rundgren for a re-recording of all his old classics – in a dreadful bossa nova style. But for wrong-footing moves, he's really excelled himself with the new album Arena.
This is Todd the mad axeman, the heavy metal clodhopper. It's not a new Todd – way back in 1974 he sang of how "everyone inside is a heavy metal kid" – but neither is it the Todd that over the past year has won him the admiration of the hottest electronic acts.
Rundgren songs have popped up as theme music for Daft Punk films, on mix albums by Klaxons and in DJ sets by Simian Mobile Disco. Lindstrom, the Norwegian pioneer of prog-disco, can probably claim to have begun the trend when he featured Todd on his Late Night Tales compilation, though it was Hot Chip who took him back into the charts via a sample on their single 'Shake A Fist'. These acts were inspired by studio-whizz Todd, LSD-indulging Todd, or the Todd who, back in the day, could knock out three sweet pop ditties before fish-feeding time, and anyone buying Arena off the back of their lionising of the man will be mightily confused.
"I was kicking my heels recently so I took a guitar band out on the road and the audiences seem to enjoy it so this album comes from that," he says.
"The heavy guitar sound isn't a reaction against something I don't like in music, but it does seem to be an unworked part of the field that's grown fallow."
Rundgren is one of the few in his profession who'll permit his publicity department use of the word "bombastic". "That's cool," he confirms.
The album is loud and also angry. So, living in paradise, and having recently invited 200 fans to Hawaii to help him celebrate his 60th, what's he got to be angry about? "Well, we Americans have been living under a government which has been cowardly and hypocritical and lied with impunity; there's a danger that men will believe this is the correct way to resolve issues in their own lives." Women, he adds, wouldn't be so dumb.
Rundgren is flattered to find himself a hero to so many. "It's recognition of the fact I'm still around, that's the most important thing. I'm very fortunate to have had a 40-year career because some people don't get 10."
Always a nerd about new technology, does he share in the gloomy prognosis about pop music's future? "No, I don't. The digital age has made it easier for acts on the fringes to gain some parity with those whom the record companies decide we're going to like, and I actually think we're about to enter another golden age. People were making music for years before Thomas Edison discovered how to record it and they'll still be making it long after we're forgotten."
If we go back to Rundgren's beginnings, Arena makes some sense. "Aged 20, I wanted to become the world's best guitar player and I'd get suicidal when I wasn't making any progress." He became a pop star "by accident and with reluctance" and from that moment on, was damned if he was going to perform to type.
In the prog era, with Utopia, Rundgren jousted with fire-breathing dragons in the shadow of papier-mch pyramids – the last time he played arenas. "Imagine if this record became a self-fulfilling prophesy and I got back into the big halls," he laughs. It would be predictably unpredictable and typically Todd if it did. v
• Todd Rundgren plays Edinburgh's Picture House, November 7. Arena (Cooking Vinyl) is out now www.tr-i.com
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