Gary James' Interview With
Singer / Songwriter / Record Producer
He's a singer, songwriter and record producer. He's probably best known for his songs "Hello It's Me" and "I Saw The Light". He's worked with some of the biggest names in the music business, including Grand Funk Railroad, Meatloaf, The Band, Hall And Oates and Ringo Starr. We are, of course, talking about Mr. Todd Rundgren.
Q - You recently performed at the Syracuse Jazz Fest. You mentioned in one interview that you didn't bring your full production with you. Does that mean you have a big light show and props in your full stage production?
A - We had actually two video walls that cover the entire state area. One all the way upstage back where there would be the band and there'd be another video wall in front of them. When the video wasn't on that wall you could actually see through it and see the band. So essentially it was two video walls that cover the entire stage area and when they both start working it gets this 3D effect of how deep the stage is. It looks like it goes back for a really long way.
Q - Do you have props too?
A - No. Not much in the way of props. We did costume changes and we fudged them a little bit in Syracuse a little bit. We usually have a couple of video breaks in the show. We didn't play those.
Q - I saw the speech you gave the Berklee School Of Music. You went through your life story in music. What kind of feedback did you get from the graduates after your speech? Did you get a chance to talk to any of them?
A - As a matter of fact I did not get to hang around and talk to any of them because I had a gig that evening. As soon as the commencement was over I had to get into a car and drive across Massachusetts and into New York to essentially get there just before sound check. So, it would've been nice to hang around and talk to the kids, but I was still working at the time and had to take off.
Q - I'm guessing that many of the school's graduates will go on to become music teachers. But there is no school you can go to to have a career like yours. What you have is a God-given gift. Would you agree with that?
A - Well, part of what I did relate to the students is that even though I didn't go to college and certainly never went to music school, that I had a servitude of what my purpose might be when I was very young and it had to do with music. I wasn't good at much else. But the thing that I was remarkably good at was picking out songs on whatever instrument that was given to me. I could do it by ear. It's the first thing I remember, listening to music on a little 45 player that my parents gave me and I would just do that for hours. So, it was apparent fairly early on that music was something that I had a great aptitude for.
Q - Yeah, I guess so!
A - And the difference at the time was, you weren't expected to plan to be a musician because your chances of success were much slimmer I guess in those days. I mean, you could study to be a concert musician, but even those jobs are relatively rare, so you weren't necessarily encouraged to make a full commitment to music early on in life. It wasn't until like The Beatles came out that it became obvious that there was a way to make a living off of music, (laughs) that no one had thought of before, which is simply to go find a couple of your friends in the neighborhood and start writing your own songs. I think before that, for the most part, music was like a compartmentalized thing. The American model was sort of based around Elvis and Frank Sinatra. You found like the lead guy who was handsome and the girls would swoon over and then everyone else was sort of in the background.
Q - And someone else wrote the songs.
A - And someone else wrote the songs and maybe someone else arranged the songs. It required a whole bunch of people to kind of get your music up there onstage. The Beatles figured out how to do it all themselves.
Q - And they made it look so easy, didn't they? Learning how to play the instruments was tough enough. But then everything else they brought along with that? The Beatles were a hard act to follow.
A - Well, the thing that a lot of people didn't realize was that The Beatles went through kind of like a musician's boot camp in a way because they spent years playing in clubs in Germany where they would do like eight sets a night or something like that. That's how you develop that ease of playing. You just do it constantly all the time until it doesn't seem that remarkable to you anymore. But that wasn't what made The Beatles great. What made The Beatles great is they didn't stay in one place. They eventually started incorporating other musical influences and inventing new genres and then abandoning them and moving on to something else.
Q - Something musicians don't seem to be able to do anymore. Once you're locked into a certain style of music, that's it.
A - Well, yeah. It's hard to be an eclectic musician anymore. The Beatles kind of led on this and a lot of it had to do with things they discovered socially while they were getting out into the world. The Beatles started out in a relatively small world where it was England and the places they played in Germany. When they started to come to the United States and other countries around the world I think their whole horizons expanded and they absorbed everything that was reflected in their music.
Q - Had you heard of or about The Beatles in the Fall of 1963?
A - I had. I'd heard of them before I heard them. I was reading a Time magazine one time in the school library and there was a little article about half way through the magazine, about half a column, that was about this phenomenon that was happening in England, this band called The Beatles. The thing they seemed to find most remarkable was the fact that The Beatles had long hair.
Q - Did they show a picture of The Beatles in that article?
A - They had a picture of The Beatles, yeah, an early picture of The Beatles. They had their collarless jackets on. Everything was about they dressed a certain way and they had their hair long, because the music wasn't easy to describe I guess. So I already had my antenna out for them 'cause I hated getting my hair cut. I thought, this is great. If this is what's going to happen, I'll be able to grow my hair. (laughs) As I said, I had my antenna out and the first time they were on the radio I just knew it was them before the DJ said who it was. It was just such a completely different sound from American music at the time.
Q - Fast forward to today when you're playing with Ringo Starr And His All-Starr Band. Do you ever look back at Ringo and say to yourself, "I'm playing with one of The Beatles here." How did I get here?!"
A - Well, it certainly happens early on, but I met Ringo a long time ago. I met him in the '70s. We actually played a little gig together for the Jerry Lewis Telethon. It was one of the reasons he asked me to be in the All-Starr Band, because he remembered what fun we had in this little gig. I've always gotten along with Ringo, even when we were in situations where things might get a little tense between band members. I don't think I ever got on Ringo's bad side that way. After you've done it for awhile you certainly do remind yourself at first, especially since you're playing Beatles songs with a Beatle, but we've been in this current unit for like six years. He's now like friends with everyone in the band. We can't forget that he's a Beatle because it's one of the reasons we all play music. We all come to that same realization that, hey! Here's a different way to do it. We just find some of our friends and learn how to play. (laughs)
Q - Did you ever meet the other Beatles?
A - I met all of The Beatles under one circumstance or another. Never as The Beatles of course, but I have met all of them. Ringo is the most fun. (laughs)
Q - You kind of dismiss "I Saw The Light" because it only took you twenty minutes to write it. Had that song taken, I don't know, two months or two years to write, would you think differently about it?
A - Yeah, I'd think what the hell took me so long? (laughs) I don't think any song took me that long to write. The very first I ever wrote was "Hello, It's Me", and that I probably spent a day or two on, on the principle part of it. I write differently now than I used to. I used to write I guess the way people assume the way most song writers write, which is just sit down at the piano and you start picking out chords and melodies, but I found that that approach became formulae for me. I broadened the way I write and now it turns out I write completely backwards from the way most people do. Most people will come up with some lyric ideas and maybe start putting them to melodies and figuring out changes and an arrangement. I figure out the changes and arrangement before I do anything else. Then I record all of that. So, what I have before I sing is essentially a Karaoke version of the song. Then I write the lyrics and the melodies just before I sing them, which is the last phase before I mix the record. So, because I spent so many years using the studio as a songwriting tool, it's completely inverted the way I do things. It has a lot to do with the fact that in the old days studio time was expensive. You didn't waste it, so you spent a lot of time outside the studio, writing, rehearsing, whatever they did that you were getting to do. Then, right after "Something Anything", I built my own studio because I realized that I could use the studio as a writing tool if I didn't have any of those kind of usual limitations of time and expense. That changed the way that I wrote. It's been that way ever since because I've had a personal studio ever since.
Q - You now call Hawaii home. Can you get up every day and feel inspired enough to write in such a perfect environment?
A - Well, it inspires certain things, but it doesn't inspire all things. The thing you have to realize is that each place; the grass is always greener sort of thing. A lot of people come here thinking they could live here and within a year they move away because they get island fever. Nothing happens. (laughs) So, you're right, every day could get to seem the same and that creates despair in some people. There's a very high rate of suicide of people who were actually born and raised in the Islands because of things that can affect anyone, anywhere, depression and poverty. That sort of stuff. From afar it looks like it's the land of Milk and Honey, but it's real life just like it is anywhere else.
Q - Kristina McKenna, a writer for the L.A. Times, said of you, "His singing is usually overshadowed by his reputation as an eccentric Pop genius." What do you think about that?
A - Well, the funny thing is, people who keep referring to the so-called reputation don't listen to very much of the music. The reputation I have with my fans is different than the reputation I have for instance with Rock writers who have to listen to all kinds of music all the time and don't have the time to focus on one artist and figure out how any particular thing fits into the larger picture, at least on an artist of my stature. Any respectable Rock writer is expected to know the entire Bob Dylan libretto. But for me it seems like, and it's a little bit depressing for me, every time I get a review for a record, the reviewer makes the assumption that nobody knows who I am, and re-tells my entire history again. The point is, it's not like I keep going away. It's not like I've ever retired. I've been making music continuously since my first record. The fact that some people haven't kept up with that fact, that's the issue that makes it seem like every time I put something out it's like the first time I've done anything in years. I've had a record out on average probably every eighteen months for the past I don't know how many years. In that particular sense I've never stopped writing. I've never stopped recording. Each album is either a continuation on, or a reaction to the previous record. (laughs)
Q - If AM radio was still the rage, most likely you'd get air play from every album you'd release.
A - Yeah, but it used to be also that radio was a much more organic thing. The local DJs and program directors had more control over what got played and a much more accurate pulse on what their audience really wanted to listen to, but then radio became syndicated and most every station now is playing from the same list of songs, the same list of thirty of forty songs. And so the audience doesn't get exposed to maybe like the broader range of music. But what he have as a substitute is the Internet. We've got YouTube and all kinds of services that essentially flatten out the world of music and give you access to almost all of it. I haven't actually bought a record in a long time. I get all my music from what used to be Rhapsody and is now Napster. All very confusing because of re-branding. I have a subscription service and that's how I discover music and that allows me to get very, very old stuff as well as the latest stuff. So, radio can never keep up with that. There's not enough hours in the day for radio to play everything that's out there. So yeah, radio doesn't play the role it used to just as record labels rarely play the role they used to in an artist's life. But, we do have these other things to sort of balance it out.
Q - There are musicians who believe if they had a top-flight record producer like Todd Rundgren, you could take one of their songs, even if it wasn't that good, turn some dials in the studio and you turn it into a hit record. Can you really do something like that? Can you take a bad song and make it into a hit?
A - Well, there are hits that are bad songs. So that's always a possibility, but I've discovered for the most part people want to hear a good song. They'll overlook a lot of other aspects of it if they like the song enough. The singer can be out of tune. They don't care, but they like the song. So, when I'm producing, the first thing I do is vet the material. I want to hear everything we intend to record and make sure we've got a whole record's worth of stuff. So often that's my first interactions with an act is going over the material. If they say, "Okay, this is the song and warts and all we're going to record this song," then I'll say, "Fine, find somebody else who wants to do that for you." There has to be some value in me. You're paying me. You need to get something back for what you're paying me, and the best thing I can do is advise you on the material because the rest of it is going to be relatively much easier. Once you know the song is good, you can throw yourself into the performance. If the song is bad, you're gonna know it while you're doing it. (laughs) That's going to make it more difficult to perform it.
Q - You were teaching a class a Indiana University called The Ballad Of Todd Rundgren. Were you talking about your life in music? Tips on how to survive the music business?
A - Well, I never taught that course. I was brought there by a professor named Glenn Gass. I did one lecture there and that was about the non-musical effects The Beatles had, 'cause he teaches a credit class on The Beatles. As a matter of fact, I was brought there not specifically as part of the music program. They have a terrific music program there, but I was brought in as an endowed professorship, a guest professorship for Wells scholars, which are like the full ride athletes of the brain. They got their college tuition all paid for because they're so freakin' smart. So, I got to hang out with them a lot and that was pretty exhilarating. Then I essentially did a whole variety of things as well as doing a showcase performance at the end of the week there, but the most significant thing that I supposedly taught was the story on The Beatles. Now, they may have titled one of my other presentations Todd Rundgren, but I don't think at any point I went and told my entire musical life story. That would take a considerable amount of time.
Q - That would be more than one lecture for sure.
A - Yeah. (laughs)
Q - You told The Guardian newspaper way back in 1970, "It's hard for me to say that what I'm doing isn't even really music because deep inside of me what I want to do is much greater than music." What does that mean? What is it that you want to do?
A - Well, you want to have an effect. You want what you do to stick with people. That requires first of all that you have some sort of somewhat refined idea of what you're trying to accomplish, the end effect. And the music flows from that as opposed to I'm going to write this song. I'm not sure what it means, but hopefully people will like it. (laughs) Sometimes you introduce challenge into the music which threatens people's ability to listen to it objectively. And sometimes that's the point. To get people to change the way they hear things. I started to do that pretty aggressively after "Something Anything" because as I say, when it takes you twenty minutes to write a song maybe you're not personally invested in it.
Q - Todd, a good song is a good song, isn't it? John Cougar Mellencamp wrote "Hurts So Good" in five minutes in the shower.
A - Okay. (laughs) I have dreamed songs. So in a sense, I didn't write them at all. I dreamt "Bang The Drum All Day" and all I had to do was remember it long enough to record it. The point is that song doesn't mean a lot to me. It's not possible to go through the lyrics and find any more meaning than there is actually being stated right there. It's a story I guess. A story that isn't real. In any case it represents something that is very common in people. The thing that sells the song, the reason why it is where it is in popular culture is pretty much because of one line in the song and that's the line about "Pounding the drum like it was a boss's head." That turned the song into a drive time phenomenon. It was never a hit single. Fact, it was never released as a single. (laughs) It was kind of post released after it became really popular on the radio and it became popular at sporting events just because of the abandon it represents. We get inquiries all the time about using it in film trailers and commercials 'cause it just represents to people having a party or something like that or complete abandon. Music is good for those things. It's just that I couldn't consciously do that. I couldn't consciously write a song like "Bang The Drum All Day". It never would have occurred to me.