By Greg Prato
Todd Rundgren has always marched to the tune of a different drummer. Whether it’s releasing power pop gems (1972’s Something/Anything, 1982’s Utopia), getting all prog-y (1975’s Initiation), fronting the New Cars (which sees Rundgren replace Ric Ocasek), or producing some of rock’s all-time great recordings (Meat Loaf’s Bat Out of Hell, the New York Dolls’ self-titled debut, Grand Funk’s We’re An American Band, etc.), Todd always seems to be a step or two ahead of the pack.
Out of all the albums he’s appeared on over the years, one of the more intriguing releases among Todd-worshippers was unquestionably 1973’s A Wizard, A True Star, which is Todd’s most “out there” album. Largely ignored upon its initial release, the album has picked up quite a few admirers over the years - so much so, that Todd will be performing the album in its entirety for a series of U.S. shows in the fall, and early next year, in Europe. Todd recently took time out to discuss how the forthcoming A Wizard, A True Star revival came to be, and also, how he came to own Eric Clapton’s legendary “psychedelic Gibson SG” from the Cream days.
How did the idea of performing A Wizard, A True Star come up?
I was in England about nine months ago, to do a European leg of the Arena tour. Our promoter in England came up with this idea to me, based on the fact that there were a lot of younger artists- especially techno and turntablist - that were not only name-checking the record, they were actually quoting and using pieces of A Wizard, A True Star in their own work. So he thought it was an ideal time, perhaps to go back and reprise that record - not only would it have some appeal to my longtime fans, but there was this potentially new audience, who was interested in checking out the old man [laughs].
So we started talking about it, and it turns out we’ll be taking it to England in February. When the fan network here got wind of this possibility, then they got all organized and found a venue and approached me with the possibility of premiering it here, instead. Since we were in the planning stage of the European thing, I figured why not - it would be a lot easier to mount it for the first time in the U.S., than to try to do it for the first time in Europe. So that’s how we came to that conclusion.
How did you assemble the band that will be touring with you?
The first inclination was to use the guys that I had played with before, and who had some familiarity with the music. So I started with my basic rhythm section, which is Prairie Prince and Kasim Sulton, and my usual guitar player, Jesse Gress, and that left open the need for at least two keyboard players, because the foundation of the record is actually this trinity of three keyboards. There's piano, and then there’s two of the following - either an organ, clavinet, and an instrument that they don’t make anymore, but that we used to use a lot, called an RMI. Rocky Mountain Industries is the company that made it. It was a very early electronic piano, which made a sound that didn’t sound a lot like a piano, but it was unique sound at the time - it gets used a lot throughout, and I realized I’d have to hire at least two keyboard players, and maybe even a third person to cover some other odd keyboard parts.
Roger Powell was an obvious choice, and I’d been working with Roger on unrelated projects, so I figured this would be an opportunity to play some music again. And then the reason why I selected Greg Hawkes as the other player is because he actually still owns some of the same kinds of very early synthesizers and electronic keyboard instruments that we used on the record. So he would be good to cover a lot of those sounds - not only would he be able to play them, he’d be able to bring the actual equipment. And then at that point, I realized that were a lot of other various kinds of parts - including some very important horn parts, that’s why I asked Bobby Strickland, who was in the Nearly Human and Second Wind bands. So that rounded out the line-up.
Is this the first time you’re playing with Roger Powell since the early ‘90s?
Yeah, we did have that one sort of two-week reunion, where we played one gig in the U.S., toured Japan, and that was it. I think that’s the last time that we played together.
Did you begin rehearsals yet?
No, rehearsals will be the week leading up to the first gig, so I think the 29th is our first rehearsal.
Have you gone back and listened to actual the album again?
Oh yeah. As a matter of fact, I went back and recovered the original multi-track masters, so we could examine exactly what’s in there. Sometimes it’s a little hard to tell, because there’s such a racket going on. We have the original masters for reference, as well as for potential sampling - when there’s some sounds or other things that we would have huge difficulty reproducing nowadays.
What type of drugs were you on when you did A Wizard A True Star?
Well, I couldn’t say exactly what drugs we were on for any particular session, and for the most part, I don’t think we were doing anything psychedelic during the actual musical production. I was getting pretty ‘psychedelic’ when I was putting the studio together - leading up to making that record. Actually, I built Secret Sound with A Wizard A True Star in mind as the first project that would be done there. So the construction of the studio and the construction of the record kind of went on simultaneously.
How does the album hold up now?
It’s always hard to be objective about your own work - particularly something’s that taken on more or less a life of its own. So a lot of the fans and younger musicians have then viewed it with expectations and a mystique, that while I have to have some respect for it and potentially make some accommodation for it, I’m approaching it more from the standpoint as of what would I do if I had the resources back then to mount a show behind this record. The record had never been played in its entirety - pieces of it were incorporated in the shows I was doing at the time, but there are some songs that were never performed live. It was never done with any attempt to try and keep the original running order substantially in tact, either.
More shows possible?
I think that once we’ve done the shows and people realize that it’s not simply a concert - it’s more of a theatrical presentation - that there will be interest in other parts of the country, and potentially, in other parts of the world, to have the show brought there. We’ll definitely be doing a DVD recording, but the timeframe for that is more or less unknown. But we’re also probably doing some live pay-per-view/online offerings, as well. And that will give the promoters and the audience a little clearer idea of what the show is actually like.
Let’s talk about the “theatrical” element of shows.
There’s lots of costume changes and there’s all of the effects and things, that were so “de rigueur” back in the ‘70s. Mirror balls, laser beams, and all that other stuff. And as I said, I do probably more than half dozen costume changes throughout the course of the set. I in my own mind liken it to something you may see in Las Vegas than what you would see normally on the road.
What is your guitar set-up?
What I use nowadays is all pretty much Line 6 - in one configuration or another. I have a couple different amplifiers, a couple of different Line 6 amplifiers. When I’m recording, I use Line 6 software to get the sounds I need - Arena is pretty much all Line 6 sounds. I may go back and haul out one of my older guitars - a guitar that’s more associated with that era than one that I usually play now.
Will you be using any of the actual guitars you recorded the album with on the upcoming tour?
I don’t have any of those actual guitars, but I do have a guitar that resembles a guitar that I probably have used on the record.
You used to own the Gibson SG that Eric Clapton played in Cream.
The original Eric Clapton guitar was auctioned off more than a decade ago. The year after Eric Clapton had his big guitar auction, then that guitar was auctioned off. Who owns it now I have no idea.
Was it one of the best-playing guitars you’ve owned?
It was a great guitar. The actual model of guitar, the great thing about it is it was completely unobstructed all the way to the top of the neck. So you can play the highest notes quite comfortably. But at the same time, it did have its own issues. That clear shot of the neck that you have is also a result of the fact that it’s very flimsily attached to the body of the guitar, so you can almost bend the neck and put the guitar out of tune. Some people kind of use that as a way to get vibrato - by actually bending the neck, rather than bending the strings. Also, the original guitar that Eric Clapton used to own, the pick-ups have been modified on it - some of the windings had been taken off the pick-ups, to give it a more piercing sound. If you compare it with a stock SG from the same period, it sounds kind of thin. It doesn’t have the same amount of body.
How did you get that guitar?
I was in Woodstock - I wasn’t living there yet, but I was working with the Band. Working on Stage Fright or something like that. And Jackie Lomax was living in Woodstock and he had been using the guitar as a lap guitar - it was in terrible shape. They had lost the original bridge, and they had put a wooden bridge on it, and the action was so high that it couldn’t really be played as a regular guitar. He was hard up for money at the time, so he offered me the guitar for like $500! Which I jumped at - just because it was such a sacred artifact in my eyes. I restored it, took care of it, and began to play it. I became as associated with it as Eric was. The guitar was in my possession probably three times longer than he owned it. I owned the guitar from the ‘70s through the ‘90s.
Other projects, future plans?
This is about all I can think of at this point. It’s hugely complicated. Mounting a brand new show from scratch with all of the not just musical issues - and this is fairly challenging chunk of music - but all of the staging issues as well. It’s challenging.
Akron Civic Center, Akron, Ohio – 6th September 2009
Akron Civic Center, Akron, Ohio – 7th September 2009
Palace Theater, Stamford, Connecticut – 9th September 2009
Strathmore Hall, North Bethesda, Maryland – 10th September 2009
Park West, Chicago – 12th September 2009
Park West, Chicago – 13th September 2009
State Theatre, Minneapolis - 15th September 2009
HMV London Hammersmith Apollo – 6th February 2010
The Paradiso, Amsterdam – 8th February 2010
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