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conducted by Robert Silverstein for 
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life in the fast lane...



an interview with The New Cars'

TODD RUNDGREN

 

 

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Life In The Fast Lane...with The New Cars
an interview with Todd Rundgren
by Robert Silverstein



Back in the late ‘60s Todd Rundgren always turned up in the most amazing places. First as leader of The Nazz and then as a solo artist and producer / engineer on some of the great early ‘70s albums he made with Badfinger and The Band to name just a few. So lo and behold, here we are in 2006 with Rundgren now taking on the role of lead singer / co-producer of The New Cars. For some pop fans who were raised on Rundgren and the Nazz, the original Cars—the late ‘70s post-punk pop sensation featuring singer-songwriter Ric Ocasek and guitarist Elliott Easton—held little in the way of surprise for pop fans back in 1980. I mean, how much cooler does it get then Rundgren’s first two Nazz albums and then his early ‘70s albums like Something / Anything and Faithful? That said, with Rundgren now joining forces with original Cars members Elliott Easton and Greg Hawkes—and the rhythm section of Kasim Sultan (bass) and Prairie Prince (drums)—on a live / studio album entitled It’s Alive!, the results are a most welcome surprise for both Rundgren / Nazz fans and original Cars fans. Concerning Rundgren joining The New Cars on stage and in the studio, guitarist Easton explains, “Suffice to say, the list for lead singer was a short one and Todd was at the top of it. And we were thrilled that he was interested.” Taking on the lead vocal parts of original Cars front man Ric Ocasek, Todd confirms, “This is a kind of hybrid. (sic) We got together for a brief rehearsal in L.A., just to work up a couple of the songs and see if I felt comfortable singing them. We all felt it sounded pretty good, so we moved on to the next step of recording new material, which will be featured on a forthcoming new album. We want to pay homage to The Cars. People know the material and want to reexperience it in a live context.” Driven along by Todd’s vocals, Easton’s punchy rock guitar style and Hawkes’ period piece synth keyboard sounds, The New Cars prove that the old Cars music still sounds vital live. For the 18 track It's Alive! Rundgren even digs out a couple of Nazz / solo Todd gems for the live cuts. Balanced by a merger of Rundgren’s ‘60s power pop blueprint and the post-punk, MTV generation sound The Cars brought to the world in the late ‘70s / early ‘80s, It’s Alive! is one of the most welcome rock reunion events of the decade.

The following interview was recorded on May 5, 2006 and first appeared in the August 2006 issue of 20th Century Guitar. MWE3.com is happy to present this complete, unedited 'from the archives' interview with Todd Rundgren as written and conducted by Robert Silverstein

RS: Todd, great to speak with you again. I’m trying to record this on a chintzy recorder.

TR: (laughter) It’s a little faint, just speak up. I’ll see if I can crank up the volume on this end.

RS: If you could increase the amperage it would be great.

TR: Let me look at this phone. Volume maximum here! Okay can you hear me? Let’s go then.

RS: Okay so how’re you doing?

TR: Oh, I’m doing pretty good.

RS: Pardon the pun, but I guess you must be pretty revved up about the upcoming Cars tour? How’s the tour rehearsals going?

TR: I like that, revved up. Actually our production rehearsals begin tomorrow in Indianapolis. And then we do a couple of dates of dress rehearsals in our first venue which is in Tunic, Mississippi. So yeah, we’re ready to get on with it. We’ve had of course, a bit of a rehearsal already. We’ve already recorded a live album. So we know most of the material that we’ll be doing in the show.

RS: The first interview I did with you was a few months before the Iraq war started up in December 2002 and I was asking you about your song “Mary And The Holy Ghost”. Seems like a lifetime ago. What’s your take on this holy mess in Iraq we seem to be in?

TR: Well jeez I can’t claim to be an authority on the politics of the Middle East. (laughter) Although I have been there and so I think I don’t make the same assumptions that a lot of people do. But I mean it seems pretty obvious that the whole approach didn’t result really in any sort of significant achievement of any goals that we had and I don’t understand why it continues. But beyond that, what’s that got to do with guitar playing? (laughter)

RS: How’s life in Hawaii?

TR: Everything’s fine. I’m not in Hawaii right now. I’m in Cleveland, as a matter of fact. We had a few things to do in New York and then I went to see my oldest son play baseball in North Carolina. So I just had to find someplace to hang out for a couple of days. I’m with some friends Cleveland and then everything from tomorrow on is all about getting the show on the road.

RS: Congratulations on the New Cars CD, it’s a great live album. You describe it as a kind of hybrid, which I thought was amusing. Can you explain how you approached making the live album and the three studio cuts that I think will be on the It’s Alive album.

TR: Yeah, we did the studio cuts first. They were done back in October. And it was the first chance for me, Greg and Elliot to sort of collaborate a little bit and see how that part would work. And then, we had expected we’d be on tour before now, as a matter of fact, probably last winter we thought would be our first dates. So things have slipped a little bit trying to get everything synchronized. So we did the live album essentially (laughter) before we played any touring gigs. We took about five days and learned an hours worth of material and then we did three performances on a sound stage in front of an invited audience. Essentially took the best of that and made the live album. Not the approach that one would normally take. Normally, you’d learn all the material and then go out on the road and play it for a while and then record one of the dates. But things had gotten so out of whack that we needed to do this in order to have some sort of product to get us on the radio while we were on the road.

RS: So the studio stuff was recorded after the live album?

TR: No, the studio stuff was recorded first. Last October and then the live album was recorded in January.

RS: Where was the It’s Alive! album made?

TR: A facility in Burbank called Center Staging.

RS: Elliot Easton’s guitar playing is great on the New Cars CD, how did you work the guitar parts out with him. Is there any dual lead guitar stuff?

TR: The only lead guitar I play on the album is when we do our version of “I Saw The Light” and I double the lead with Elliot. We’ve actually worked a few more songs into our ultimate set and one of those will be a song that I play on. But for the most part I’m concentrating on the singing and I’m a rhythm guitar player in a sense. And I’m fine with that. It allows me to focus on what I think is the most difficult part for me and that’s covering all the different vocal responsibilities. Songs that Ric Ocasek sang, and songs that Ben Orr sang as well as songs that I sing. (laughter) It’s a good hour and a half’s worth of work for me, just to sing.

RS: Which guitars do you play in the live show with The New Cars?

TR: It’s funny. In the live show there’s only two guitars. One was a Gibson Les Paul Junior. The one that Elliot plays a lot and that you see a lot. The other one was just a strange…I went out looking for a guitar just for a video. I found this guitar by a company called Italia, and went to their site and they had all these crazy looking guitars so I picked up another one that had something of a Stratocaster form factor but the rest of it (laughter) doesn’t look anything like a Stratocaster. And that was pretty much the guitar for most all the rhythm parts that I did. Say, if I broke a string or something I would have switched over to the Gibson Les Paul Junior. But for the most part it was just this Italia, I believe it was…I can’t remember the exact model name it was. They have funny model names. I think it might have been the Modena or something like that. They’re all named after Italian cities.

RS: How about the guitars on the studio tracks?

TR: The studio tracks…let me see now…On one song, I used a Fender Telecaster I believe, going through my Line 6 amp. That was a song called “More” and and on the other two songs, Elliot did all the guitar parts.

RS: Did you do all the engineering and mixing on the live stuff or just the studio stuff?

TR: No, on all of it. I did the mixing all in my house in Hawaii. It was all done in the same place essentially. And as I say, the studio tracks were done several months before the album. So the studio tracks were done and mixed by November and the album itself wasn’t mixed until the end of January.

RS: I was an early Nazz fan in the late ‘60s, but for some reason I just didn’t get The Cars the first time around. Maybe it was in the post punk stuff that was coming around ’79…

TR: Yeah a lot of stuff just got lumped into this New Age or New Wave category. Not New Age, New Wave.

RS: But these New Cars versions of these Cars songs every one seems to know sound better now than they did 25 years ago.

TR: Well from the live context we’ve got a really world class rhythm section in Kaz and Prairie and that has to change the character of everything to a certain extent and probably to a greater extent then a lot of people realize. Some people that just figure if you play the parts it’s all equivalent (laughter) but we do have a sort of dynamic and aggression that I think that I think the original rhythm section, maybe just for simply stylistic reasons, didn’t seem to possess.

RS: To my ears you singing them kind of of validates them in a way. You’re making converts out of us!

TR: (laughter) Well my intention was convert Cars fans into fans of mine! As long as it works both ways everything will be fine.

RS: Listening to It’s Alive…it’s clear the original Cars had some really durable pop tunes.

TR: There are a remarkable number of hit singles for the band and a lot of people have forgotten that. And they were also around at a time when MTV was just starting to happen, so they were one of the first MTV bands. Whatever your reaction to that might have been but… The great thing about doing a show with material like this is you get way deep into the set, your like the eighth number and everybody stills knows all the words to the songs. Sometimes, don’t even remember that they knew all the words but The Cars were so ubiquitous on the radio that it just sort of penetrated everybody’s brain and the lyrics are in there somewhere.

RS: I didn’t realize how much they did penetrate my brain until I heard this live album.

TR: (laughter) I kind of felt the same way when I first started doing it. I worked with The Cars, knew all about The Cars and I liked some of the Cars’ songs but never thought I’d have to know as much about The Cars as I do now.

RS: Is this something you always wanted to do since you left The Nazz? Sort of become the focal point of a power pop band?

TR: I don’t think I looked at it in that way. I’ve done these kinds of things before. One of the things…like going out with Ringo and going out on the Walk Down Abbey Road thing where there are several people, who might under other circumstances qualify as headliners. But it’s the opportunity, first of all to collaborate with others and second of all, to share the liabilities that come with going on tour. And so like, The Cars satisfies both those things in the sense that I don’t have to shoulder the whole, not so much musical, as financial liability of getting out on the road and staying on the road. And at the same time it’s something new and different musically and that inevitably sort of expands your horizons and keeps you from becoming kind of a stale and repetitive musician. You can adapt to new things and that keeps your musical life more colorful.


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