Todd Rundgren's Utopia

Utopia trio Photo by Danny O'Connor 2.5MB.jpg

April 25th | Broward Center | Tickets

SFL Music:  We are really excited about this upcoming Utopia tour.  You got to be excited about this tour after a 32-year sabbatical. 

Todd Rundgren:  Well, excited and challenged. It’s a lot of musical territory to recover. Doing everything from the first to the last record.  We’re sure that we’ve given ourselves enough time to develop some new mastery with it, but not having done it in such a long time yeah, there’s a bit of apprehension.


SFL Music:  Those seven albums are such a diverse, they span such a wide musical variety, it’s got to be a challenge but such wonderful material. And that also leads to another question I have a video that I watched of you, you said you had it down to a list of songs, that’s got to be another challenge just to not only come up with fan favorites but maybe a personal favorite of members of the band?

Todd: Yes, well we have, we can say we have personal favorites, but we haven’t played them in such a long time, you know, there’s a requirement that we also be able to give the proper treatment that they deserve. It was culling the list was a combination of things that we knew that we would have to play, things that we would like to play and things that we might be expected to play, there are things that if we didn’t play than we would certainly get away with it but there would be a lot of questions, why didn’t you do this and why didn’t you do that, more so than we would probably would be expecting otherwise.  


SFL Music: Does that lead to possibly varying, having a base set list and then doing some variance night after night?

Todd: Well, it’s not necessarily out of the realm of possibility but we’ve got a pretty big theatrical presentation that goes with it and modifying that does take a lot of elements in there you got lights set that are composed of lights and video that are composed particularly for certain songs. And it’s usually easier for the crew if the set doesn’t change that much. To say that we wouldn’t ever do that but right now we’re trying to cover our chops from such a long time ago, that’s the principal concern.  With the Utopia theme and communion with a song are big epic things that we have to play properly once in a while a certain song might work better than another song and we can make a substitution.


SFL Music: Well, I was fortunate enough that, I was going to Florida State and you came through there according to the internet it was April 24 of 1977 and played Doak Campbell stadium and I remember the concert vividly because you had the whole pyramid stage set. It was one of the most amazing shows that I had seen to that time because of the stage set, lighting, the effects and of course the music, so I can only imagine that this tour will probably incorporate some of that with modern technology.

Todd: Yeah well the pyramid will make an appearance but probably in video form since we’re not concentrating specifically on that show, it blends to much of a overbearing theme to the stuff that doesn’t really have anything to do with that concept so it will be a lot of sorta more common imagery like the pyramid, like certain album cover images and stuff like that, that we are going to have available on our projection screens. Video is a significant part of it and so we will change the environment using video rather than try to put up that whole pyramid thing, it takes a day to put up.


SFL Music: And you probably don’t have much of a desire to fly up and play from the top of that thing, do you?

Todd: Well when I was doing that back then I didn’t have children to worry about. Nowadays I’m a little bit more self-conscious about you know that fact that I’m still to some degree the bread winner.


SFL Music: After that initial announcement you guys made that Ralph Schuckett was going to be with you all I was sorry to hear that he is unable to tour are you guys getting any closer to finding someone to replace him, if he could be replaced.

Todd: We have replaced him. We actually did it fairly quickly because our rehearsals start in less than two weeks and then soon after we are out on the roads. Rather than being in every nook and cranny looking for a player so we kinda made it an open audition and within about 24 hours we had hundreds of submissions more than we could go through, but fortunately within that we managed to locate somebody that knew the whole range of what we are playing and he is a strong singer and good performer and hopefully we’ll bring a certain amount of new electricity to the whole thing.


SFL Music: Awesome, so is there any breaking news you would like to share on that with our readers or you going to have a release soon?

Todd: It’s not a secret Gill Assayas is his name and you can google him he has lots of examples on YouTube and stuff like that of his playing.


SFL Music: That’s awesome. Where you guys doing your rehearsals, near Philly?

Todd: Actually, in upstate New York. Our first gig is Jim Thorp, PA.   which is actually up on a mountain top somewhere and we’ve got another gig in Englewood, New Jersey. Those are kind of our warm up dates. Then the tour officially starts in Houston, we fly down to Texas do Houston, Dallas and then over to Florida then we start moving north.


SFL Music: Ya you’re like the fifth date from what I saw online. At the Broward Center down here in Fort Lauderdale, that’s the one in our area. The first date in Philly, that’s kinda a warm up date? That’s gotta hold something special for you since that’s your old home town?

Todd: We are doing that date in Philadelphia eventually, Jim Thorp is about several hours north almost in the Pocono mountains. We had a terrific show there the last time that I played, we actually went into double guaranties it was one of the biggest audiences we had. So we are looking for a good response when we get there. House of Blues I believe is where we are playing in Huston those places can always be a challenge sometimes, there stages are odd shapes and sound sometimes is medium to dreadful. We feel we’ll be able to put on a better show after we’ve done a couple of shows outside of Huston.


SFL Music: Well I know you’ve been at Parker Playhouse before with Ringo, but I thought you played Broward Center once but the acoustics there I think are great, so you should enjoy that.

Todd: If I haven’t done it by myself, I’ve probably done it with Ringo or maybe with Ethyl String Quartet and Joe Jackson. Florida is a pretty regular stop for us. We’ve done all different combinations of things there.


SFL Music:  When I was going back through your tour history, going back to the early 70’s you’ve played Florida quite often. Of those gigs is there a funny story or fond memory you have of any Florida show that you’ve done?

Todd: Well, I have a nightmare story from a show I did in Florida. It was when I was out with Joe Jackson and Ethyl String Quartet. It was our first show and I was so concerned about the overall production, ya know getting everybody on and off stage on time and that sorta stuff, I completely forgot to run over my own material and it came time to play “Hello It’s Me” and I blanked, I couldn’t play the song, I was getting booed at and that stuff. My jokes where falling flat, it was not a particularly great show for me, things improved later but for our first show I was thinking well have I made a mistake here.


SFL Music: Wow, do you remember where it was at?

Todd: I think it was at Ruth Eckerd Hall in St. Petersburg. 

SFL Music: Great venue, I’ve been there before.


SFL Music: Well another question I have about Florida is besides the artists that you are, you’ve produced some amazing albums, of those that you have produced, what would you say was your most challenging?

Todd: Most challenging, Hmmm, well, Skylarking with XTC was certainly a challenging record to make. It was like pulling teeth and there were issues constantly with Andy and me butting heads, when the record was finished Andy went back to England he told everyone it was the worst record they ever made, but they put it out anyway and it turned out to have a hit record on it, and it became maybe there most successful record.


SFL Music: I think it’s one of their best.

Todd: So, it was difficult but worth it. There are some instances in which difficult in the end is not worth it.


SFL Music: Of the one’s you’ve produced, which one was your favorite?

Todd: Favorite, favorite records. Ya know some of my favorite, are my favorite cause of the experience. Like making a record with Cheap Trick is so easy, because they are just natural at what they do, and they come in the studio they’ve already rehearsed everything and it’s just a question of nailing down one or two takes. I’ll make a few maybe arrangements, suggestions, something like that but mostly I don’t have to do that much work, on a record like that. As opposed to something like Skylarking where you’re pulling your hair out every day.


SFL Music: Have you ever recorded or produced anybody at Criteria Studios or at any studio in Florida?

Todd: The first Grand Funk Railroad record that I worked on, “We’re an American Band” was recorded at Criteria. The second album that I did with them was recorded in Michigan in a studio that they had built for themselves.


SFL Music: Is there anybody that you would like to produce?

Todd: Well I had opportunities that didn’t work out, because of logistic reasons, that I thought would be really satisfying records to make. At one point, I was under consideration to do Elvis Costello and the Attractions, one of their reunion records. At one point, I was asked if I could do a Talking Heads record but at the time I was already working on a different record, I couldn’t do both so I unfortunately had to give that up. I’m trying to think if there are any others that didn’t work out because of those sorts of conflicts. I had an opportunity one night to play at Albert Hall with Spinal Tap, but unfortunately, I was doing a show with Ringo, so.


SFL Music: That would have been interesting.

Todd: That would have been fun, yeah.


SFL Music: You have been on the forefront of so many things technology wise, from the visuals back when I saw you in Tallahassee, and the stage sets, and I read somewhere that you designed one of the first color graphics tablets.

Todd: I designed software for it. It was a hardware device that Apple was going to manufacture but they didn’t have any software, so I wrote, essentially the operating system for it, and when it came time for them to sell the device, it failed its FCC emissions test so they never marketed the device.


SFL Music: Oh no, wow.

Todd: Yeah it was pretty weird. They sold maybe half a dozen of them, before they stopped selling them.


SFL Music: Do you still have one?

Todd: I might have one buried around somewhere. I never did throw out any of my computer stuff but quite obviously, all my Apple 2 plus stuff is just a bit obsolete now.

SFL Music: Just a little yeah.


SFL Music: You were also one of the first ones that worked on music on the internet back in the mid 90’s, given that we are 20 years down the road, what do you see as the positives and negatives of music on the internet now?

Todd: Well I got a lot of experience in you know what social media was going to be like and its one of the reasons why I shut it down. You have to become a cop within terms interactions that people have with each other. The fans are out there, and they are focused on you, but once you create one of these social media environments they start turning on each other. You know, who’s the biggest fan, you don’t understand the music, I understand the music, it’s pointless flaming arguments and stuff. Worst thing people somehow convincing someone that they were me. Some people would be thinking that they were having interactions with me, when it was with this total strange person. We did deal with issues of personal data security and stuff like that but the social interactions we didn’t have a formula and obviously neither does Facebook nowadays.  So, until that’s settled I’ve sort of remained on the side lines of that, you know that social media stuff. We certainly have a Facebook account but never on it.


SFL Music: Speaking of the music, the music business seems to be way different than we grew up with but it seems to be way different now than it was, streaming has affected it. Do you think the music business has not done its self a lot of favors?

Todd: Well there used to be when labels ran everything, the one things that they were able to do right was take the income that they would make on really successful artists and do artist development. So if they found an artist that they thought was worth while they would bank role them until they found there success and that sometimes would let you take 2 or 3 records. So, bands don’t have that advantage anymore you know of going to a label and being deficit financed until they gain the experience to go out and start actually turning a profit. And I think as a result the music has become less important to the personality aspects. I get regular music articles in my Apple news feed and half the time I don’t recognize the names of any of the artists, I couldn’t hum their songs to you. They don’t get as well known, all though they do have their audiences, but the audience is not that you know larger audiences, a little smaller cult audiences and the music is essentially meant for them and purposed in a way that the music itself isn’t particularly important, it’s just an aspect of marketing the personality so entertainers today, yeah they do music but they not serious about it and just do it because hey it’s like doing the Mickey Mouse Club, we sang songs, so the level of musicianship at this point is pretty disappointing. There’s this whole tendency to want to internationalize your songs now so chorus have no words. There just like whoa whoa whoa, yah yah yah yah. That kinda thing you know. I don’t think it will survive, from my standpoint it’s not a great time for music.


SFL Music: What do you see as being the turnaround for it?

Todd: There will eventually become an appreciation of musical skill and the personality of the artist will become less important. And a lot of that is up to the artist as well as how the artists want to’ pitch themselves. I don’t know that it will be, what stylistically it will resemble, it’s not gonna be like Star Wars Cantina music I don’t think but, it could get back to issues that are a little bit more common and perhaps spiritual, music has gotten very materialistic nowadays, especially hip hop music and stuff like that is all about the stuff you have. It’s about how bad you are and how much stuff you have. And that’s just, that’s a competition that can’t go on continually, at some point it just won’t matter, how much stuff you have. So things will get back to something a little more spiritual or truly political something like that. I mean it’s been a long time since Fear Of A Black planet and hip hop hasn’t done its self a whole lot of service then.


SFL Music: So do you think there will ever be another Todd Rundgren or another Rolling Stones or another Crosby Stills Nash and Young?  It seems like Rock and Roll has taken a back seat to more urban music or hip hop, at the Grammys for many years now

Todd: It’s just kinda, it’s what sells, the Grammys, all of those awards shows, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, stuff like that, they come off as a celebration of whats supposed to be the best in music, but it’s really about selling more music, its whoever gets the awards will go out and get a big bump in sales. I mean they try and make it entertaining but on a year to year basis you never know what the quality of the music is going to be like. And as I understand it this year everyone thought rap music, had finally become impotent enough, that is was going to win a Grammy. And when it didn’t there was complaints about the entire process of course. When Despacito didnt become the giant record release there was a whole other back lash now. And these people see it as way more important than I do. The Grammys can certainly help, give your sales a little bit of a bump a boost a spin or something like that. But rarely has an artist broken through the Grammys, they would to have already made it.


SFL Music: you bring up a very good point about the lack of soul in the music and its really kinda sad cause I think we grew up in a time where it was all about that and it was about the musicianship.

Todd: Well people used to sing, well prog rock used to sing about fairy’s and trolls and stuff like that, but music used to be more about the feelings of the performer as opposed to simply bragging session about how bad you are and you got a yacht you know, something like that. The first thing you do is go out and buy something and show it off and that is the measure of success it has nothing to do with music, but I’ve always said if people want to be rich they can easily do that they just have to focus on being rich and not care about anything else, make everything else in your world second class and that includes the music.


Todd Rundgren’s Utopia will be performing at the Broward Center on April 25th. - Tom Craig