Pop/Rock Legend Todd Rundgren Discusses His New Autobiography, The Individualist, And Some Of His Classic Albums And Songs

Todd Rundgren
Todd Rundgren
(photo credit: © 2018 Lynn Goldsmith/LGL)

This year (2019) will be a busy one for acclaimed artist, songwriter & producer, Todd Rundgren. He has just released his autobiographical book, The Individualist, where he recalls many key events during his first 50 years. He has also launched a new concert tour, where he’ll be performing songs from his wide-ranging catalog, and he’ll be discussing his book and telling stories during the shows.

The title of Rundgren’s book comes from his album The Individualist, which he released in 1995. The book is uniquely structured, consisting of many chapters that are just one-page each. As a result, each page focuses on a specific event in Rundgren’s life, and his reflections on that moment.

We are pleased to do this new Q&A interview with Rundgren, which is our second article with him. In our 2018 article, he discussed his reunion tour with his band Utopia, and how he wrote his classic pop songs “Hello It’s Me,” “I Saw The Light” and “Love Is The Answer.” He also talked about his impressive career as a record producer, producing the multi-platinum album Bat Out of Hell for Meat Loaf, plus albums for Patti Smith, Hall & Oates, Cheap Trick, the New York Dolls, Grand Funk Railroad, Bad Religion and the Psychedelic Furs.

In this new article, Rundgren discusses his new book, plus some key highlights from his artist career. He recalls the making of his classic album Something/Anything?, which has been named by Rolling Stone magazine as one of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. He also discusses his other favorite albums such as Hermit of Mink Hollow and A Cappella.

Notably, last year Rundgren was nominated for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Although he wasn’t selected this year, it seems likely that Rundgren will be inducted into the Hall of Fame in the coming years.

For his new concert tour (called The Individualist Tour), Rundgren will be playing shows in Europe in early April, and then he’ll be playing many cities in the U.S. in April and May, followed by shows in Japan.

Here’s our new interview with Todd Rundgren:

DK: You’ve just released your book, The Individualist, where you recall many events in your life and career. Would you call this book your memoir?

Todd Rundgren: That’s a technicality (laughs). I couldn’t quite figure out the difference between an autobiography and a memoir. It’s just basically the story of my first 50 years. It’s not every single thing that happened to me, but the things that essentially contributed to making me what I am.

DK: Did it take you a few years to put together this book?

The cover of Todd Rundgren's new book, The Individualist.
The cover of Todd Rundgren’s new book, The Individualist.

Rundgren: Yeah…about 20 (laughs). I started writing it in the ‘90s, and I got a pretty good leg up on it, but it was harder for me to finish in the long run.

DK: The book structure consists of many brief chapters, with each page devoted to events that happened in your life. How did you decide that this would be the structure for the book?[/caption]

Rundgren: There were a couple of reasons. One, is that I wanted to write a book that I would want to read. I wanted you to be able to open the book anywhere, and read as much of it as you are inclined. That’s kind of the way that I like to read…I wouldn’t like to open the book somewhere in the middle, and then realize it was citing all this stuff that I haven’t read yet, and have to go back to the beginning and read the whole thing linearly. In other words, it’s kind of anti-linear. Even though it’s chronological, it reads in an anti-linear way, because you don’t have to start from the beginning.

The other thing was, I wanted a way to sort of organize my thoughts. A lot of people, when they write, there are a lot of different ways to tell your story. Some people will just try and turn on some sort of playback in their head, and just write down everything they remember. I wanted to separate things out, so for instance, if you only read the top paragraph, you’d be getting essentially the history…the stuff that actually happened as I remember it. If you read the second paragraph, it would be all of my subjective reactions to that (laughs). And if you only read the third paragraph, it would be what I deduced out of the episode, why it’s important. So I separated things into paragraphs, just so that if you didn’t care about my subjective ideas (laughs), you could just read the top paragraph and you would get the history.

DK: When people read your book, what are some of the things they will learn about you, that they might not know?

Rundgren: Well, I’ve never written a book about myself before (laughs), so it’s the look into how I think. It’s a way for people to understand how I think, what’s important to me…the seminal events in my life that made me the way that I am now.

DK: You’re about to launch a concert tour called The Individualist Tour. I read that it will be a hybrid concert & book tour. How will it be a hybrid?

Rundgren: Usually, you do a concert tour or a book tour. You go out on tour and play, or you do a publicity tour for your book. But it was time for me to play anyway; that’s how I make my living (laughs). So I was going to be touring, and that takes me to a lot of cities where I would also be going for a book tour. So what we’ll do is combine the various elements. The show itself will have elements of the book in it, in that it will only have material from the time period that the book covers. Then we’ll also have an intermission and we’ll have a bit of Q&A with the audience, which is not something we usually do during a concert. And then we’ll do another set of material, but that will be a different set every night, especially for our U.S. tour; we play two nights in every city. So in order to avoid playing the same show, the second set will be different every night.

The cover of Todd Rundgren's classic album, Something/Anything?
The cover of Todd Rundgren’s classic album, Something/Anything?

At the same time, since I am in those cities, I will likely be doing the more conventional book promotion things, like in-store signings and appearances, and radio shows and perhaps morning TV.

DK: You say you’ll be mixing it up and performing different songs for your shows. What are some of the key songs that you’ll be playing in your shows?

Rundgren: The first set is always the more familiar stuff—the so-called “hits.” So anyone who wants to hear the familiar material, hopefully they’ll be satisfied with that. And then the second set is for the more astute and devoted fan…what you would call the deep cuts, with people familiar with the songs on every album.

DK: I want to ask you about some of your classic albums and songs. Something/Anything? is regarded as a classic album. Can you talk about the making of this album, and did you think at the time it would be considered one of your best albums?

Rundgren: No, I certainly wasn’t thinking that at the time. I was just in a process…I wasn’t planning for the record to be a double album. I just started recording, and before I knew it I was already an album-and-a-half in. Then I decided I would finish it up with a live side. But it was essentially four sides of substantially original material, and I just got into a songwriting groove.

DK: For the first three sides of this album, did you play all of the instruments and do all the vocals? And for the fourth side, you brought in musicians to play live?

Rundgren: Yes, that’s correct.

DK: Besides Something/Anything?, what are some of your favorite albums that you’ve done?

Rundgren: Some of my favorites are also the fans’ favorites. I liked Hermit of Mink Hollow (released in 1978) because of the succinct songwriting. I liked the album A Cappella (1985) because it was an experimental record that I thought was successful on its own terms.

Some of the records fall outside of the purview of my book, since the book ends on my 50th birthday. But I have more recent albums that I’m probably as proud of as any of my older albums. The album Liars was a pretty big hit, and a lot of musicians contacted me after the record came out.

DK: As an artist, you’re known for your classic pop songs and melodies, but you’re also known for your experimental music side. Do you have a preference between these two sides, and how do you balance the melodic pop side with the experimental?

Here’s a video of Todd Rundgren performing his popular song,
“Bang the Drum All Day.”

Rundgren: In some cases I just get tired of doing one thing, and want to do something different. I had a realization early on that I could develop a songwriting formula, and plow that into the ground (laughs), and have a handsome career. But I never saw the point of just simply repeating what someone else had already done. I needed to do something that other people would be unlikely to do. And that’s my value in the overall scheme of music, is that unpredictable element. The fact that I’m not looking for a formula, that I’m looking for new influences all the time…hybridizing new and different kinds of music. And more recently, I’ve been getting into collaborations with other people, and in which case they give me ideas that would never occur to me, and I have a chance to expand on them.

DK: When we talked last year, you discussed how you wrote your hits “I Saw The Light” and “Hello It’s Me.” Another song that I really like is “Bang the Drum All Day.” It’s a fun, catchy song, and I read that it’s played at Green Bay Packers football games after they score a touchdown. Can you talk about how you wrote that song?

Rundgren: That was maybe the easiest song I ever wrote, because I just dreamed it. I was asleep, and this thing popped into my head. Fortunately, I was near the studio. I got up around 3 in the morning and went down to the studio and recorded what I could remember of it. And then I gave it an instrumental break and stuff like that, and I wrote some more lyrics. But essentially, it just popped into my head while I was asleep, and so I didn’t have to invest hardly any work in it.

At first, it was not a hit record; it was never released as a single. But it started getting a lot of Friday drive time play on the radio. And from there, it started to get played at sporting events like football games and hockey matches. It just gained a life of its own, and in the long run it became the most lucrative song that I ever wrote, because of the companies that wanted to use it in their commercials. So I’m really glad that song has done well.

Dale Kawashima is the Head of SongwriterUniverse and a music journalist. He’s also a music publishing exec who has represented the song catalogs of Michael Jackson, Prince, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan and Motown Records.
Dale Kawashima