Todd Rundgren on His ‘Space Force,’ Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” the Mythology of Vinyl and the Moral Imperative of Music
photo credit: Hiroki Nishioka
“I wanted to open things up and expand on the nature of the collaborations,” Todd Rundgren says of his latest studio album, Space Force. Like its predecessor, 2017’s White Knight, the new release finds him working with a diverse list of musicians, including The Roots, Adrian Belew, Rivers Cuomo, Sparks, Steve Vai and The Lemon Twigs. However, he explains that, this time, he welcomed these artists earlier in the process.
“On White Knight, the song ideas were mostly my own,” he recalls. “I would come up with the lyrics and then record the basic tracks, along with many of the lead vocals. Then, I would present what I had done to other people, who would sing and add other contributions to what I had given them. With Space Force, they were giving me material that they already had been working on. So rather than having them adapt to what I had done, I was adapting to their ideas of where the music should go.”
Space Force arrives in the midst of a particularly active touring year for Rundgren. He first took to the road in March, celebrating The Beatles’ Rubber Soul and Revolver albums with Christopher Cross, Denny Laine and others. From there, he jumped on a series of dates with Daryl Hall, before resuming The Beatles tribute shows. A month of solo gigs followed, and then after a brief respite, Rundgren began the Celebrating David Bowie tour. He will jump from that run into another stretch with Hall, which will keep him occupied into early December.
The Celebrating David Bowie shows find Rundgren teaming up with former Bowie guitarist Belew, as well as Fishbone’s Angelo Moore, Spacehog’s Royston Langdon, Jeffrey Gaines, Scrote and additional players. Rundgren—who crossed paths with Bowie over the years—acknowledges that the two shared an affinity for musical transformation. He particularly connected with Bowie’s early material, and he sings lead on songs such as “Space Oddity,” “Life On Mars?” and “Changes.”
Rundgren is doing all of this as a newly minted member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Patti Smith, Daryl Hall and Questlove spoke on his behalf at the 2021 ceremony. He didn’t attend, however, expressing ambivalence about the designation. Rundgren does acknowledge, though, that it holds meaning to many of his fans, who had actively lobbied on his behalf: “They always had more of an opinion than I did about it, so I viewed it as something for them. They appreciated it, and I appreciate them.”
Last year, you performed 25 dates in Chicago on your Clearly Human virtual tour. [The streaming shows were geo-fenced and location specific.] What are your takeaways from that experience and how challenging was it to put yourself in the local headspace for each show?
That whole thing came about because we were so desperate to play. I get this sneaking suspicion that if I don’t get out and remind people that I’m still working, then they will forget and not show up the next time. We had a tour that was supposed to be booked prepandemic, and we kept moving it for months at a time. It got to the point where I said, “We’ve got to do something.” It wasn’t the first time that I had thought about a virtual tour, but that’s when I decided that I would actually try and go ahead with it. A lot of artists were sitting in front of their bookcases playing acoustic versions of their songs and at some point, I felt that people wanted something different. So we put on a really big show, something that I couldn’t have toured with because it took so long to set up.
Then, we solicited the fans and asked them to help us trick out our green room depending on which city we were in. We would get boxes of memorabilia, local delicacies and the like that would pertain to a particular city. Our crew would come in early and festoon the green room with all of this stuff so that whenever we would come to the gig, we would be essentially immersed in that city. When we went out onto the stage, rather than being in Chicago, we’d get into this headspace of actually being in the city where we were supposed to be playing.
We had a virtual audience, and the people who purchased VIP tickets were seeing the same thing that everyone else was seeing. The difference was that we could see them through our screens. I think the very first night we saw someone chain-smoke through the entire show. I imagine it had to be that person’s favorite show ever, because any other time, they’d be fidgeting for two hours, waiting to get a cigarette. [Laughs.]
The whole virtual audience thing revealed the possibility that for some people, the show is more fun if you’re participating from your own house. We’d see people dancing with their pets. Some of them were playing along with their own instruments. They could get snacks anytime they wanted and the liquor was a lot cheaper.
I spent over a million dollars trying to mount the thing, but the whole experience convinced me that if you can do it right and figure out the economics, then there are a lot of people who would enjoy going to a virtual show, particularly in places we can’t get to like South America or parts of Asia.
You suggest that people might forget you, which seems surprising to me since you have such fervid fans.
The reason for that is because I go to some lengths to put on a show for them and make it something worth coming to. It’s often different than what they’ve been expecting. That’s all part and parcel of it. So if I’m not out there doing something interesting, surprising or satisfying, I always suspect that people will drift away.
It’s hard to keep an audience as you get older. People don’t spend as much money on music as they do when they’re young. Then there’s the sort of natural attrition that happens because people get older, they get dead . . . [Laughs.]
Your audience is constantly shrinking the older you get. So I’m constantly cultivating my audience and trying to get new audiences. That’s part of the reason why I got involved in the other things that I’ve been doing this year. I’ve only done one month of my own tour, and the rest of the year I’ve been doing the Rubber Soul/Revolver tour and opening for Daryl Hall. Now, I’m about to go out with Celebrating David Bowie. It is imperative to constantly be in front of people so that they will remember you and so that they might buy a ticket in the future.
If I don’t get out there with some regularity, then people are apt to forget. There’s certainly a core of fans who will never forget, but to fill up a venue you need people who are less committed and just looking for an evening of entertainment. They might just want to hear one song.
We are of a generation in which music was the central art form. For me growing up, that was all I ever cared about. So for a lot of people, when you hear a song, it takes you back to a certain time. When I play “Hello It’s Me,” it takes some people back on a time-traveling journey to an era when they were first experiencing the world and everything was bright and new.
Over the past year, your music has appeared in films like Worst Person in the World and Licorice Pizza, as well as TV shows like Ozark. Does it feel like you’ve been reaching a broader audience?
As much as I have great ambivalence over the Rock Hall of Fame thing—I’m just glad it’s over so that people will stop sweating it—that probably had some effect. You are one of a half dozen names that people are talking about for a couple of weeks because whether physically or virtually, you’re part of this ceremony that gets rerun for months after the actual live event. I think that may have helped to remind certain people about my music.
However, a lot of what has happened is sort of underground through fans of mine, who ultimately wound up having jobs in the music business. They see an opportunity where they can kind of express their fandom in a professional sense by getting me involved in something.
When I was doing TV soundtrack work, the first thing that I did was called Crime Story. The music producer was a fan and that’s what got me the gig. Ultimately, though, I came to realize that if you want to do soundtrack work, you have to live in Hollywood because if people don’t see you all the time, they forget you. Again, in a certain sense that’s the same kind of approach that I have applied to touring.
Meanwhile, you continue to create new music. Can you talk about the decision to follow up White Knight with Space Force, which utilizes guest musicians in a different manner?
I was still into the collaboration thing, but I wanted to take a different approach. I wanted to have more participation from a compositional standpoint from the people that I was collaborating with. So rather than send along tracks I had already created, I asked people for demos that had gone moribund.
Often you get an idea for a song and you’re real hot to do it. You’ve got a verse and maybe a chorus, but you can’t figure out how to finish the song. So you move on to other things and it gathers dust. That is what I asked people to send me.
In some cases there was just a tiny fragmentary idea that I would flesh out. In others, it was an idea that didn’t need a whole lot more, but maybe was in a condition where it required special techniques.
With Thomas Dolby’s song “I’m Not Your Dog” it was more akin to an art restoration. He was nearly on the way to having a finished product, but all he had was an MP3 demo. He couldn’t find the original stems or anything. So I had to disassemble the MP3 into its constituent parts, add different things, remix it and then inject myself in there—singing the bridges.
Can you recall what Adrian Belew gave you for what became “Puzzle,” the first track on the album?
That was actually the last song that I did. When I was near the end of the record, I realized that I was going to be doing the David Bowie thing and that I had forgotten to ask Adrian for something. He sent me maybe half a dozen ideas and that was the one that I thought I could finish.
He had a verse, the part that he sings—“People struggle everywhere you look.” I thought it was a good starting place, but it was so depressing that the chorus needed to offer some glimmer of hope or some kind of salve to the misery that people were feeling. Once that occurred to me, it didn’t take me long to finish.
My typical writing process, particularly if I’m writing a song from scratch, is kind of unusual comparatively. I write all the music first. I write it, arrange it and record it. I might have a working title, some idea of what the song is about. However, I refuse to write the lyrics until the very last minute. I turn that over to my subconscious mind and ruminate about what the song could possibly be about in all the various aspects.
Has it been like that throughout your songwriting career?
No, early on, almost all of my writing was imitative of other people and other forms. I was writing songs so much to form that I wasn’t even thinking about them—talk about subconscious. The songs were all about the same relationship I had in high school.
Then at a certain point— this was the transition between Something/Anything? and A Wizard, a True Star—I realized that I was just imitating the typical pop song form that had been passed down to me. At that point, I started drawing more on influences that I hadn’t exploited before. My lyrics became better. The music became more interesting and varied. Everything didn’t sound like a piano ballad anymore. [Laughs.]
That more or less signified what I would be about musically until this day, which is essentially that if someone else is doing it, then there’s no reason for me to do it. I have to be doing something that somebody else wouldn’t or couldn’t do. That’s my purpose.
Questlove made that point during your Rock Hall induction video. I don’t know if you’ve seen it, but he said that getting a hit was not your North Star.
I haven’t watched it. All the way up until the time of the ceremony, we were in contentious talks with them about what my participation might be. I had a show that night, and I was perfectly willing to stop in the middle and acknowledge whatever it was. But we couldn’t work it out.
I think there are camps in the Hall of Fame and one of those camps never really wanted me because of my history and my attitude about it. Going back to the beginning, I was always a little skeptical about the idea. First of all, the term “hall of fame” was always a sports thing to me. After you’re retired and all your numbers are in the record books, then they have the measure of you. That’s how you wind up in the Hall of Fame.
Musicians mostly don’t voluntarily retire, you know? [Laughs.] In my head, I’m still in the middle of it. I have no plans to stop making music. I have no plans to stop playing live, although I will probably do less of it as time goes on.
Can you talk about your approach to “Godiva Girl,” your collaboration with The Roots? Do you have a larger project with them in the works?
I have several more completed songs and a bunch of demos that they’ve sent me, which I could write songs to. At one point, we were going to do a collaborative album, but the problem was that we saw it differently. That doesn’t mean we won’t finish that project at some point, but we have to get on the same page about it.
Questlove wanted to do an R&B record, and it’s not as if I didn’t want to do that. But, I was thinking more about Frank Zappa and how nobody does goofy, weird, funny music like he used to make. So that’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to make a Ruben & the Jets record and “Godiva Girl” is exemplary of the kind of lyrics that I was coming up with. I think Questlove wasn’t comfortable with a whole record of that but maybe, at some point, I can talk him into it and we can finish the project.
How fully fleshed out was Sparks’ contribution when it came to you?
They essentially had “Everybody likes it when you do your fandango.” That was the extent of the lyrics, over and over and over again. It was a shorter song and then I made room for myself to participate in it. So I did a whole rearrangement—not a super major rearrangement, but still a rearrangement.
I’ve always thought that it would be interesting, at some point, to put out a record that has the original demos that people sent me and the actual final product. That way people could compare the demo and the final product.
That would be fascinating, although I wonder if there would be administrative obstacles.
That could happen. With Space Force, I couldn’t get Cleopatra to release the record digitally before they did the vinyl. They insisted on putting out all of the formats at once, even though I felt that some of the material might be more relevant if it had been released earlier.
So we had to wait until a pressing plant was available. That takes me back to the worst of the ‘70s with the vinyl shortages. Another issue back then was that the album art took a lot of time. You had to deliver it three months in advance, even if the actual pressing was much later than that.
I started out in the vinyl era, obviously, and lived through digitization, but I’ve never been all that nostalgic about vinyl.
A lot of people get nostalgic about it for a lot of reasons. There’s the fact that you had a nice square foot of graphics and the print was big enough to be legible. You didn’t need a magnifying glass to read the liner notes. Also, people liked to collect records as much for the covers as they did for the vinyl that was inside. That was the heyday of Hipgnosis—the design company in England who would do all the Pink Floyd covers. Album covers were an art form.
Do you have a favorite one of yours?
I liked the one that Hipgnosis did for Back to the Bars. But I do a lot of the artwork myself. Much of that is out of necessity. But vinyl, for me, is mythological. What people think about it is not based in facts. People go on about how it’s warmer—they’ll use subjective terms like that. However, the plain fact is that the sound is worse on the inside of an LP than on the outside of the LP. That’s because you’re trying to get the same amount of sound on less and less real estate as the record plays.
While people talk about the warmness of it, they can’t seem to hear the sound getting worse for some reason, whereas I can because I’ve mastered so many records and it’s part of the process of checking out your test pressings.
So I have always preferred the digital format because no matter what you think about the so-called sound quality, it’s the same for the entire disc.
It’s true that at the very beginning of digital there were some things that they didn’t get right. They didn’t have dithering, so a record with a long fade-out would get to the end and suddenly stop. But, eventually, they figured out things like that, which solved a lot of the issues.
But I guarantee I could fool anybody into thinking something is vinyl. [Laughs.]
When you mention that some material might have been more relevant if it had been released earlier, I immediately think of the tracks with Rivers Cuomo and Rick Nielsen, which seem more directly political than much of your prior work.
I very rarely write about current events or politics, even though it may seem otherwise. There are definite instances where politics have influenced things, but my inspiration is mostly anthropological. It’s more like, “Why do people do the things they do? Why do they think the things that they think?”
That seems like an almost bottomless mine of ideas because people are much more complicated than they really understand. People think things are simple when there are actually a lot of different factors that go into how the world manifests itself. People also love to ignore the fact that we are founded in the animal kingdom. A lot of our behavior, which we rationalize, we can’t control.
I’m actually already starting to think about the next record. I’m going to get back to writing, and the next record will be a study in human anthropology. Actually that might be redundant because I think anthropology is the study of human beings. [Laughs.]
On Space Force, you go out big with Steve Vai on “Eco Warrior Goddess.” That echoes the final track of White Knight with Joe Satriani, where you also stretched out on the guitar with guest. Was that a conscious parallel?
It wasn’t the fact that it was a guitar song, it was more the fact that it was just such a big song. It was an epic theme and that sort of thing is hard to follow.
Steve had given me more than a dozen ideas. I had some initial concerns about this one, precisely because it was so epic, which is why it appears last.
It would be hard to put it at the beginning of the second side because what the heck would come next? It would be hard to follow it up with something.
Volunteers from your Spirit of Harmony Foundation will be present on the Celebrating David Bowie tour. The Foundation “advocates for the moral imperative of music education for children.” Can you describe the moral component?
The foundation originated when we were doing a fan retreat in New Orleans. This wasn’t too long after the hurricane and the fans wanted to do something to help. So we found a music program in the Lower Ninth Ward that was unique in that it was all strings, from violins up to double basses. We went down to hear the kids play, including a little of “Bang the Drum All Day,” with nothing but fiddles and double basses, which was unexpected. [Laughs.] The fans put their money together in order to give the program a big novelty check for $10,000, and afterward they talked about setting up something permanent.
That experience is what led to the Spirit of Harmony Foundation, which is named after a character in a Utopia song [“Singring and the Glass Guitar”]. The first thing we wanted to do was base this in something scientific, so we partnered up with a professor at Northwestern University named Nina Kraus. She had been doing empirical research on the effects that teaching young kids to play an instrument had on their mental development. Her data showed that it changed how a young brain processes sound in a way that benefited them later in life, even if they didn’t continue to play music.
We’ve always thought that music programs are good because they teach socialization, and they sometimes give kids a reason to go to school. But that was speculative, feel-good stuff. This was actual hard data that music was changing kids’ brains in a way that benefited them. Cutting music programs out of a school may save money, but it is not doing the kids a service. The reason why you should have music in school is because it changes the way that kids process audio information, which affects the way that they learn in any situation, including school. So that became the moral imperative.