Todd Rundgren Thrives on Being ‘Unpredictable’

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Singer-guitarist Todd Rundgren has spent the past couple of years playing a series of tour dates billed as An Unpredictable Evening with Todd Rundgren, and as we point out early in our conversation, it’s quite appropriate, because “unpredictable” is a perfect summary of his career in a nutshell.

“Oh, I hope everybody got that by now,” Rundgren says with a chuckle during a recent phone interview. “The whole idea of that was just that this is me at my most relaxed and my most natural in a way, when I do the Unpredictable shows. We know what the first song is; we don’t know anything that’s going to happen after that. I’m just trying to figure out, what’s the mood of the audience? What kind of mood am I in? We have a whole range of stuff that we could do. Let’s just make it a crapshoot and see what happens and at least it’s an event. At least you know you’re seeing something that the person last night didn’t see and the person the next night isn’t necessarily going to see either.”

It’s all part of the “choose your own adventure” feeling that comes with being a Rundgren fan. More than four decades into his career, the veteran artist and producer continues to be driven to explore the new challenges and ideas whenever the inspiration might strike. He’s keenly aware that his musical experiments can test the limits and patience of his fans and yet if there’s a line, it doesn’t seem like he’s afraid of driving over it.

“Part of the special relationship that I have with my fans is that they know every once in a while, I’m going to go out and plumb new territories and try and incorporate other things. Certainly, the first time it happened was [1973’s] A Wizard, a True Star and that culled a whole lot of dilettantes out of the fanbase,” he says with a laugh. “Then again, you know, I’d come back and do an album like Hermit Of Mink Hollow, which everyone would be totally comfortable and yummy with. Then I’ll go off and eventually I’ll incorporate some rap into my records and that will set off a hornets’ nest for a while. Everyone gets used to it, because you know, I’m not doing anything that isn’t eventually going to saturate the sonic milieu anyway.”

He admits that he tries to think outside of the proverbial box. 

“You know, every artist that they know is eventually going to do some kind of a rap at some point. The fact that I tend to adopt these things sometimes early, sometimes late, you know, but usually not in sync with whatever else is happening is probably the justification, you know, the reason why I get away with it,” Rundgren explains. “Because it’s not me trying to get right into the sweet spot of what’s happening now. I realize what a slippery thing that is. If you start trying to do it now, by the time you reach it, everybody’s moved onto something else, you know? And that’s been the history of music — if you devote yourself too much to today’s genre, you’re going to find that genre has mutated by the time you’ve fully taken advantage of it.”

From Rundgren’s point of view, that ever-changing unpredictability has kept his fans on the hook. “I’ve managed to hold onto an audience principally because I don’t deliver them the expected. If I did, they could feel like they could miss one and it wouldn’t make any difference,” he says. “They could miss a change and they’d come back later and everything would still be the same. No, but if you missed the change, you know, you’re going to have to do some catching up.”

The past few years have found Rundgren in an interesting place, spending time taking stock and learning how his work has influenced new generations of artists, an experience which spawned the album State in 2013. He described the album at that time as “one that I would logically make, using a methodology that I had to a certain degree popularized.” It put the veteran artist into a creative headspace that bled into the recording process for his latest album Global, which came out earlier this month.

“I was getting a lot of requests to do remixes and I was getting name-checked by a bunch of younger artists, particularly over the Wizard, a True Star record. So I thought, ‘Geez, they know more about me than I know about them,” he says. “So I’m going to go out and start researching, you know, what the kids are up to nowadays.’ Because I don’t listen to a lot of radio. I used YouTube as my principal research tool and I would start with Skrillex and then go to the sidebar and click on something else and somebody a little different would come up and a few clicks later, I’m in a completely different part of the musical universe, but it’s all connected in some way. Through this research, I kind of cherry-picked the things that I wanted to fool around with and experiment with and State was essentially the result of that, of my reeducation, I guess you would call it,” he says, laughing.

It won't come as a surprise to longtime fans that the new album has a heady concept behind it. 

“This record is me kind of taking what I’ve learned from State and refining it a bit and then applying my sensibility in making records,” he says. “Which is usually to have some sort of theme that ties things together. The theme this time is sort of planetary consciousness and the challenges that face us in that regard. But also, a sense of separation, you know, our politics has made everyone kind of have to pick a side on things. I’m trying to make a cheerleading record that kind of says, ‘Okay, forget about all of that — let’s just all get together and deal with the stuff we have to deal with.’ We don’t have to be miserable or begrudging about it, we can be happy while we’re doing it. So there is this ecological planetary consciousness theme running throughout it, but also, I think a kind of, let’s all get together and have a heal the planet party." 

Rundgren promises that fans will get to hear a good chunk of material from the new album during his appearance at Hard Rock Live, which will be a little bit more planned out than the Unpredictable shows. “If I have a new record out, I’m going to promote it in a way or at least expose it,” he says. “There will be stuff from the last record and then there will be stuff from my longer history, but we’ll bring it a bit up to date in order for it to make sense. But this won’t be as much of a sensory onslaught as the State tour was. It’s going to be a little bit more of a show I guess, an orchestrated show.”

Todd Rundgren, 7:30 p.m. Sunday, April 26, Hard Rock Live, 10777 Northfield Rd., 330-908-7625. Tickets: $29.50-$59.50,
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