Todd Rundgren on no more Trump songs, his high-tech "spectacle" of a tour, and the new Sparks collab

The music legend talks about writing songs and everything fans can expect from his multiple-city virtual tour

Published February 28, 2021 11:00AM (EST)

Todd Rundgren (Shorefire)
Todd Rundgren (Shorefire)

Todd Rundgren has long been known as a musician that's ahead of the curve. In 1978, he became the first artist to book a live interactive TV concert, while way back in 1992 he started offering up commercial music downloads. A half-decade ago, he also presented the first full-length concert filmed with multiple virtual reality 360º cameras. 

In 2021, the producer, songwriter and musician continues to relish innovation, with a 25-date "Clearly Human" virtual tour that runs through March 22. While Rundgren and his band are using Chicago as a home base for presenting each concert, the dates are arranged as if the group was traveling from city to city; accordingly, each show also features tailored banter and references. 

The "Clearly Human" shows are also quite ambitious. Backed by 10 people, including vocalists and a horn section, Rundgren is focusing on his 1989 solo album "Nearly Human," as well as songs culled from his bands, Nazz and Utopia. The stage is arranged with retro flair, as if it was a 1970s variety show, although a gigantic video screen behind everyone marks it as a truly modern event.

"If we're going to go to all this trouble, we want to do a show that's really worth watching, not just us playing a bunch of songs, but a real spectacle," Rundgren tells Salon with a laugh. 

Rundgren — who teamed up with Weezer's Rivers Cuomo to release a song called "Down With The Ship" last year — has also been in the news recently for being an expert commentator in Edgar Wright's Sparks documentary, "The Sparks Brothers." He produced the band's 1972 debut LP — a studio turn that heralded a decorated production career that also includes blockbusters such as Meat Loaf's 1977 LP "Bat Out of Hell." 

His appearance in the doc led to a new collaboration that's due to see the light of day soon. "I have quite a soft spot for Sparks, almost in the same way that I have a soft spot for Meat Loaf," Rundgren says. "It's one of those acts that nobody saw the potential in, except for me for some reason. And it's probably because I appreciated the weirdness in them while everyone else was looking for normalcy. You know, there was nothing weirder than Sparks at the time."

During rehearsals for his virtual tour, Rundgren spoke to Salon about rekindling his Sparks friendship, as well as getting back into music and doing his first batch of shows since October 2019.

When is the last time you've been off the road this long? That's like a year and a half. 

Yeah — like, never. [Laughs.] Never have I been off road that long. The closest I ever came was in the late '70s or early '80s, when I took about a year off to learn computer programming. And that was a long time. And I probably did one or two little gigs, but I didn't do any major touring.

From talking to musicians in the past year, it seems like there's a common theme of everyone's like, "I am just going stir crazy. I need to do something." Having that hard stop is so strange.

I have in recent years been touring as much as eight to 10 months, with the various projects that I'm involved. When Ringo [Starr] was on the road, that would be two or three months out of the year. [Note: Rundgren has been a part of the Beatles drummer's All-Starr Band.] I do my own touring as well. And there's always some other little residence at a college or something like that. 

When this first happened, I was kind of, "Well, you know, count your blessings. You're at home and wanted to spend more time at home, so here you go." [Laughs.] And after a couple of months, you know, you start to think that you're losing a certain contact with your fans, like musically. And so a lot of people started doing little fireside acoustic presentations. [Laughs.] And I just didn't feel like doing that. I get this level of commitment in me when it's time to start playing, and sitting down with an acoustic strumming, it doesn't do it for me. I don't know how it works for others, but it doesn't do it for me. 

So I avoided doing anything especially musical. During the whole period, I did six episodes of our live streamed TV show ["The Todd's Honest Truth"], but that was mostly lifestyle and I never performed any music on it. So, yeah — a whole year and some months here. Unprecedented.

As you've gotten back into music, is it one of those things where it's like, "It's just like a bike, I'm getting back into it," or was there a ramping-up process that you found yourself needing to do?

Well, the first day [of rehearsals] I guess for everybody was a mystery, especially how good your voice was working or how crisp your playing is, because you haven't been challenged and you haven't been in front of an audience. I think everyone had some trepidation when we first started rehearsing, when we first started making actual real noise. [Laughs.]

As for me, I think the first day that I did any real singing, it was a little rough, but I felt somewhat encouraged that I hadn't lost too much. But then the second day, I had almost nothing left. I had blown it all out on the first day. Today was the third day I did any serious singing, and it seems to be coming back. So I'm confident by the time Sunday rolls around in our first show, I'll be ready to go.

That sounds about right: You'll be warmed up, everything will be good to go. It's like the muscle coming back.

It's not exactly like riding a bicycle. I mean, it's not like, hop on and it all feels right of a sudden. It's like me and my voice are somewhat strangers to each other [Laughs.] because I haven't really tried to sing with it that much. And so it's a whole kind of re-associating, getting to know the different parts of my range, getting my diaphragm back in shape, so that I can sing for two hours. 

[This is] nothing different than what has happened on a normal tour, but for the fact that — aside from all the nerve-racking aspects of rehearsing a new show, there is the nerve-racking aspects of being in a pandemic situation while we're doing it. We all have this [regimen] to keep from getting infected. And then on top of that, since it's a virtual tour, I'm the promoter of the tour; I have to pay for everything. Because we're not literally taking it anywhere; it's all in one place. So no local promoters are going to guarantee me anything, I have to essentially underwrite the entire thing. So it's definitely more nerve-racking than a normal tour, which would be nerve-racking enough. 

You never really settle in until a week or two's worth of shows, and that's one reason why we're doing a virtual tour instead of one big special. Most people do a one-off and put all their eggs in one basket. And I can't see going to all the work of putting together one show, and then not getting the satisfaction of playing it again. [Laughs.] It's one of those things where you go to all the trouble to learn the material and everything, you want to play it so that you can get better and better at it and find new things in it. So just doing one show was never going to be adequate for me anyway. 

As you were approaching the setlist and the song choices for this particular run, what did you want to present? Was there anything in particular?

Well, the show has a certain quality about it. The music that's in the show, it all came from a record that I released like in 1988 or something like that. [Editor's note: 1989's "Nearly Human."] And it was the first time that I really took seriously trying to become an R&B singer, and wrote most of the material to conform to that, and arranged all the material and everything was done live in the studio. 

Everyone involved had such a great experience doing it that way that we took the whole thing out on the road and put together what was then 11 pieces behind me. And I had tour support at the time from Warner Bros. [Laughs.] I was able to tour everywhere, and tour Japan. I can't remember whether we got to Europe at all, but managed to take those 12 pieces all over parts of the planet. So I've always wanted to do it again, but the cost of it was prohibitive, especially after record labels have all collapsed, and they don't provide tour support anyone.

And now being able to be in one place, you can do that again. That's so interesting.

Yeah, because we don't have to do the travel. But also because we are in one place, the whole production level of the show is probably higher than it would be normally. I mean, I've got the most gigantic video wall behind me, something that I never would have been able to take on the road because it probably takes a whole day to put up.

Your long history with technologically advanced endeavors is well documented. Is there anything that you've done in the past that is particularly analogous to what you're doing now? Or is this something completely new?

The technology has advanced a lot in the last several years since I did anything that was particularly technical oriented. Usually whatever lighting and special effects that I'm using — I'm not inventing anything, I'm getting stuff that's already been broken in so we can depend on it surviving the rigors of the road. 

But for this particular situation, there are a couple of things that are different. For instance, our audience is substantially virtual as well. We have video panels set up where audience members would be. And people can essentially buy a ticket to the front rows, and we will see them. We'll actually see their faces and recognize them and wave to them and stuff. [Laughs.] 

And along with that, you know, we space it out, so that we can have actual live bodies. Not a giant bunch of them, but anyone who wants to show up at the gig would have to present a recent negative [COVID-19] test as well. But they'll also be social distancing within the venue. Even for people who are sitting in the audience, we break up the live bodies with video panels. 

The other interesting thing is the so-called meet-and-greets. Under normal circumstances, we would have anyone who wanted to take a picture with the band or something, and get something signed. They would show up a couple hours before the show, gather in the lobby of the venue, and then we would take pictures of everybody and then sign stuff for them. 

So what we've done is set up a room with three video screens in it. And on the video screens is a Zoom session. Everybody dials into the Zoom session, so they're all there together. They're all in the same room together. And then we just highlight them one by one, and add the camera setup so they can take a snapshot or a screen grab with their camera. And I can be standing next to them as they'll be kind of like regular size. We're putting them on big screen so their heads will be normal size. And that should be just to be more fun for everybody. And it'll work just as well for like the green room we'll have a green room session for after the show, so that all our friends who aren't physically here can come visit us and tell us how much they love the show. [Laughs.]

It's sci-fi almost, and a little bit dystopian. Has that spurred on anything songwriting-wise for you? Or is this entire experience making you more or less creative songwriting-wise?

I have been involved in music but I'm continuing my collaborations. So a lot of what I do has to do with what I get from somebody else. And I've been involved in a few little production projects as well, one of [which] is still ongoing. Obviously, those are all in limbo until we get figuratively on the road, and I have the time to invest in that on my days off. But as far as actual anything in particular to the pandemic, I have not come up with a pandemic-specific thing. Yet. [Laughs.] Yet. Maybe it's in the false hope that this thing will all be over soon enough. If I ignore it, maybe that'll help. [Laughs.]

That makes sense — you get hindsight, and then you can process it, because it is very strange in the moment.

It's like writing politically motivated songs. Because politics changes eventually, so the song becomes irrelevant. Of course, it might become re-relevant later. [Laughs.] Like that Buffalo Springfield song, "For What It's Worth."

In the last four years, I was I was horrified at how much political punk music made in the early '80s felt very, very relevant. 

You could've made a whole career writing about Trump, but then who wants to? [Laughs.]

You know, it does get to a certain point where it was outrage burnout. It was all too much. Because it was like, nothing's going to change.

You don't want to give him the attention. [Laughs.] And me and Donald Fagen, you know, we got our licks in really early on. We got our licks in pretty much four or five months after he got into office with [their collaborative song] "Tin Foil Hat." And I ran that video all during the tour. So we made our position clear, and we got our licks in, and somebody else can take a whack at him now. We just wish we'd never heard of him.

I saw the premiere of the Sparks documentary, which you were in. I thought it was wonderful. And I read that you reunited with the band for a song?

We've already got the song. And we've picked out a single cover. It's the next single in a series of singles that I'm releasing. And, yeah, the next one is me and Sparks. A little song called "Fandango." [Laughs.] It'll be out soon.

What was it like working with them again then after all these years?

Well, they sent me something that I guess they had done. What often happens is I'll get something from another artist. And it'll be a demo for a song that they worked on, but then they never finished it. They lost interest in it or something like that. 

So they sent me this song that sounded substantially like a finished product, except for the fact that I think there was some placeholder stuff that was meant to be developed a little further and they just never got around to it. I started just dressing it up and adding some vocal parts, writing some lyrics for it. And, in the end, you know — they sent me the track, I sent back what I did to them. We were both happy with it, and the label's happy with it because they're going to put it out.

That has been the most buoying thing in the last year is getting new music. That's been a great lifeline. So that's very exciting.

Yeah, and the funny thing was — they didn't show it in the film, even though it was filmed — but right after I did my shoot for them, they actually had the brothers in another room and didn't tell me. I hadn't seen them for over 40 years. So we had a personal reunion there. And that's when I asked them if they had anything that we could collaborate on. And that was the inception of "Fandango."

By Annie Zaleski

Annie Zaleski is a Cleveland-based journalist who writes regularly for The A.V. Club, and has also been published by Rolling Stone, Vulture, RBMA, Thrillist and Spin.

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Clearly Human Concert Tour Interview Music Sparks Todd Rundgren