The Fast Lane...with The New Cars
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 Carsthe late 70s
post-punk pop sensation featuring singer-songwriter Ric Ocasek and
guitarist Elliott Eastonheld little in the way of surprise for
pop fans back in 1980. I mean, how much cooler does it get then Rundgrens
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 Hawkesand
the rhythm section of Kasim Sultan (bass) and Prairie Prince (drums)on
a live / studio album entitled Its Alive!, the results
are a most welcome surprise for both Rundgren / Nazz fans and original
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 Todds vocals, Eastons 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 Rundgrens
60s power pop blueprint and the post-punk, MTV generation sound
The Cars brought to the world in the late 70s / early 80s,
Its 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. Im trying to record
this on a chintzy recorder.
TR: (laughter) Its a little faint, just speak up. Ill
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? Lets go then.
RS: Okay so howre you doing?
TR: Oh, Im doing pretty good.
RS: Pardon the pun, but I guess you must be pretty revved up about
the upcoming Cars tour? Hows 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,
were ready to get on with it. Weve had of course, a bit
of a rehearsal already. Weve already recorded a live album.
So we know most of the material that well 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.
Whats your take on this holy mess in Iraq we seem to be in?
TR: Well jeez I cant claim to be an authority on the politics
of the Middle East. (laughter) Although I have been there and so I
think I dont make the same assumptions that a lot of people
do. But I mean it seems pretty obvious that the whole approach didnt
result really in any sort of significant achievement of any goals
that we had and I dont understand why it continues. But beyond
that, whats that got to do with guitar playing? (laughter)
RS: Hows life in Hawaii?
TR: Everythings fine. Im not in Hawaii right now. Im
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.
Im 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, its 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 Its 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
wed 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, youd
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 Its Alive! album made?
TR: A facility in Burbank called Center Staging.
RS: Elliot Eastons 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.
Weve 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
Im concentrating on the singing and Im a rhythm guitar
player in a sense. And Im fine with that. It allows me to focus
on what I think is the most difficult part for me and thats
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) Its a good hour and a halfs worth of work for
me, just to sing.
RS: Which guitars do you play in the live show with The New Cars?
TR: Its funny. In the live show theres 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
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) doesnt
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
cant remember the exact model name it was. They have funny model
names. I think it might have been the Modena or something like that.
Theyre 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 wasnt mixed
until the end of January.
RS: I was an early Nazz fan in the late 60s, but for some reason
I just didnt 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 weve 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 its 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, didnt
seem to possess.
RS: To my ears you singing them kind of of validates them in a way.
Youre 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 Its Alive
its 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, dont even
remember that they knew all the words but The Cars were so ubiquitous
on the radio that it just sort of penetrated everybodys brain
and the lyrics are in there somewhere.
RS: I didnt 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 Id 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 dont think I looked at it in that way. Ive 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 its 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 dont 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 its 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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