Seminal blue-eyed soul and prog-rock artist Todd Rundgren is best known for his enduring singles "I Saw the Light," "Hello It's Me," "Can We Still Be Friends," and "Bang the Drum," as well as his state-of-the-art production on Patti Smith, Cheap Trick, and Hall and Oates albums. Rundgren was also responsible for the first interactive TV concert, color graphics tablet, commercially available music downloads, and direct Internet music-subscription service.
Rundgren credits much of his success to music classes, and today, through his Spirit of Harmony foundation, he works to ensure that music education continues in schools throughout the US. Students can also learn from him directly at annual band camps. His next music lab, Mythic Pacific Retreat, takes place August 18-22 at Cambria Pines Lodge in California. I chatted with the legendary musician and technological innovator about music education, his most difficult production, his lifelong obsession with tech, and the inspiration behind his "Angry Bird" song.
What does the Mythic Pacific Retreat entail?
It's based on an event we did in upstate New York, but this year we decided to do it at the Cambria Pines Lodge, so fans that found it too far to go could participate as well. For a week we'll have the typical summer activities people do in the daytime, like swim or play tennis. This time we're going to have various projects that campers can work on, some of which will be auctioned off for other purposes. In the evening we'll have a couple hours of entertainment, provided by the fans. Everyone's got some special talent or project that means a lot to them, and we often discover these things accidentally or in conversation, and this way everyone can discover what they're doing.
You founded your Spirit of Harmony foundation, along with an attendee of a previous retreat, to ensure the continuation of music education programs. Why is music education so vital?
We have a slew of testimonials from all kinds of artists -- it's so easy to get a story out of a musician as to why music saved their life. But you don't have to be a career musician to gain the benefits of what music does. Having a music program at school has measurable effects on brain activity, so thinking musically helps people organize the way that they think. For some of us it was the only reason we would show up at school. In junior high, the only reason I got on the bus to go to school is because I was going to choir practice. If I didn't have that, I'd have had no desire to get out of bed at all. It's so important for music to enter the general education of the population.
You have recently remixed tracks for artists like Nine Inch Nails and Tame Impala, where you infuse them with a classic warmth that's missing from a lot of EDM today. Why was that important to you?
First of all, EDM is in many ways a music that focuses on the instrumental and a lot less on the lyrics. This is probably something that causes a lot of people not to be able to get into it as much, because a lot of people identify with the lyrics of the song. So, if you're doing music that doesn't have any lyrical ideas, it's often just an exhortation to dance around and not feel anything. When I get involved, it's often to focus on the lyrics or see if there's a lyrical idea. But if you're going to do justice to an EDM song, you have to transcend the limitations of lyrics and build something from it.
I have been a record producer for decades, and I lived through the '70s, before we had sequencers and stuff like that. In some ways that sensibility might be missing for modern musicians today, where their only opportunity to play is on their computer in their bedroom and almost never with other musicians. So there's a sensibility that comes from my experience. When you have that experience, you're going to hear things differently.
Check out Rundgren's remix of Nine Inch Nail's "All Time Low":
You've produced so many amazing artists. Who was the easiest and who was the most difficult?
The easiest was The Pursuit of Happiness. We would do these albums in a week flat. They'd come in, and they had the material all down with great arrangements and good songs. There often wasn't a lot for me to tinker with, so those albums were easy. The one I made with Cheap Trick was an easy and fun album to make, because I got along so well with everyone in the band, because we had history.
The most difficult had to be XTC. That's a well-known experience in terms of me and founding member Andy Partridge -- he didn't want a producer at all, so there was a lot of head-banging to get that finished.
How did the album turn out?
We got through the production part and started mixing it. But after I had mixed three songs, the band announced they were going home to England. This had never happened before, because mixing is usually the most horrible part of making an XTC record, 'cause it goes on forever. But after they'd been working on the album for a couple months, they claimed there was something in the water making them sick, so they went back to England and let me finish it by myself. Even before it was finished, Andy went to the press and said it was the worst record they had ever made. He was cutting his legs out from under him. He was just in such a snit about it. So we never actually compromised, and I have never seen him since. But Andy has since relented and said it was one of the best albums they ever made.
Everyone knows that "Video Killed the Radio Star" was the first video ever aired on MTV, but a lot of people don't know that you had the second, "Time Heals." Do you feel slighted over that?
I didn't have cable TV at the time, so I had no idea what was on MTV. The only time I happened to see it was if I was at a hotel that happened to have MTV. But at the time I was living in upstate New York, and I had to have a 13-foot satellite dish to get any kind of television, so I didn't see MTV until it had been on the air for years.
Did anyone alert you to the video's premiere at the time?
I think someone said it, but it was so new that nobody knew what it meant. There were so few people watching it, primarily 'cause so few people had cable. On top of it, not every cable company was carrying it, so they probably had a really small audience back then.
A decade ago you said in an interview that if you weren't a musician, you would have gone into computers. Is that still true?
Yeah, it's even truer now, because in the 10 years that have passed, the record industry has evolved to where no one goes into the studio anymore. They just buy a laptop and do it all on their laptop with Pro Tools or Logic. So things are evolving toward the way I had always done stuff. So yeah, even more so now.
Why were computers and software so appealing to you?
The original reason that I got into computers was that when I was very young, I was fascinated with the idea. My dad used to take us to the Franklin Institute. They had a section on evolving technology. They actually had a computer there, but it was one of those things that took up an entire room. They had a tic-tac-toe game that was telephone relays, and the idea that the electromechanical things were playing a game with me fascinated me -- that it could actually figure out what was the right move to make. So I was fascinated with robots. I built a robot, and a robot had to have a brain, so I started learning about what computers were about -- logic gates, binary number systems, and that sort of thing. By the time I got to high school, I knew about all this stuff, but it was the first time anyone in my math class had heard of such a thing. So it was the only phase in my education where I did very well. [Laughs]
As such an avid technophile, you have a lot of technological firsts in your career. Can you talk to us about holding the first interactive TV concert using a Warner/Qube operating system back in 1978?
I believe that was in Columbus, Ohio, at a time that cable television was evolving to the point where on-demand services were going to be available. The idea that you could send info back up your cable wire to the source and that would change something was a brand-new concept. This was an experiment just going in the Columbus area. They set up an installation area at the state fairgrounds, and we gave people who had the cable box the option of picking some of the songs we would do. We gave people three options, because there were three buttons on the remote voting box that people had, so we said, "Press the green button" or "Press C" or whatever for a particular song. In 10 to 20 seconds, it tallied up the votes, and we played the song that most fans voted for. That was as interactive as it got.
What's the story behind the Utopia Graphics Tablet, the first color graphics tablet, which you licensed to Apple in 1980?
I got into video in the late '70s, and through that I became associated with a school called the New York Institute of Technology. They had something that was very new that I wanted to make some use of called a paint-box program, which was a device that had a pen. You could use the pen to control a cursor on the screen and put colored pixels on the screen and essentially paint right onto the screen. So I thought that was very cool.
When the first Apple computers came out, I found a tablet made by a third party, and Apple was going to put out a tablet of their own. So I went to Apple Computer, when it was just in one building, and showed them what I was doing. They said they were going to start marketing software and didn't have any software for their tablet, so they'd like to market my software. So I rewrote it for their tablet, and they put it out. But unfortunately their tablet failed FCC emissions tests, and they never marketed it. So I made the software for a device that was no longer available.
You clearly have remained fascinated with tech. What inspired tracks "Ping Me" and "Angry Bird" off your latest album, "State"?
"Ping Me" takes a modern meme, which is "ping me," or "Just let me know when you're ready," so it's just a way to remind somebody that you're there. And "Angry Bird," I had the track and didn't know what it was about. Then one of the biggest games happening was Angry Birds, and I joined it with the so-called Republican war on women -- the whole thing of forced ultrasounds, etc. It was really pissing people off.