Todd Rundgren: Returns To The Arena

October 1, 2008

In fact, Rundgren has pretty much done it all, from the power pop of Nazz and the progressive rock of Utopia, to an insanely diverse catalog of solo albums, many of which were performed entirely by TR, not to mention a string of critically acclaimed productions ranging from Grand Funk Railroad, Meat Loaf, and Cheap Trick to Patti Smith, the Psychedelic Furs, and XTC. Add to the list music-video pioneer, premiere interactive artist, and first musician to embrace webonly music patronage and distribution and you’ll understand why Rundgren is regarded as one of the most admired, influential, and innovative musicians of his era.

At 60, Rundgren’s creative juices are still flowing strong, and, of course, he’s still doing the unexpected. His latest one-man tour-de-force, simply entitled Arena [HiFi Records], sidesteps expectations once again as Rundgren makes a surprisingly conscious, and some might say welcome, effort to leave his mark on the mainstream. If TR’s vision realizes its self-fulfilling prophecy, he has built it and they will come.

So, guitar lovers rejoice—this is the Todd Rundgren album you’ve been waiting for. Arguably his most guitar-centric record to date, Arena simply kicks ass. The wizard’s always-impressive guitar chops are in top form throughout the album, to say nothing of his meaty bass lines, fiendishly inventive drum programming, spectacular psychoacoustic production values, and, of course, his exquisite vocalizations and lyrics. True to form, Rundgren manages to keep the mayhem intelligent and melodic as he assimilates and recontextualizes the grandiose spirit of ’70s and ’80s stadium rock without directly pilfering the genre, much as he and his bandmates did with the Beatles’ body of work on Utopia’s Deface the Music. So make no mistake— this is new music that sits squarely between the past and the future, and each tune bears Rundgren’s signature sonic stamp. In this exclusive preview, Todd gives us the rundown on how the album came to be, and reveals a slew of guitar-friendly details about the tracks.

What prompted you to record such a heavily guitar-oriented album?
When we were doing the New Cars thing and Elliot [Easton] unexpectedly broke his collarbone, I had nothing to do for the rest of that summer. You made the suggestion to bring in Tony Levin and Jerry Marotta, and then we quickly booked a Canadian tour as essentially a guitar quartet, no keyboards, for once. I didn’t touch a keyboard through the entire show and the Canadian kids really ate it up. So, while the Cars were trying to recover from Elliot’s accident, or whenever they weren’t working, I would go out as a guitar quartet, and that was the demise of the keyboards in general. When I got around to recording the new album, I thought, “Let’s just continue in this vein.” We seemed to have the approval of the audience.

How did you conceive and record Arena?
Same as any other record. I get an idea of the general milieu that I want to investigate, and then I think about it for a long time—a year or two, at least. I start slowly assembling the music, then once the music is pretty much all assembled, I write the lyrics and sing the principal parts of a song, usually within less than an hour. I may not get it all done in one sitting—I may get a chorus written and come back and write the verses later—but the actual process takes almost no time compared to the kind of time that some people invest in the lyrical aspect of a song.

I did eliminate what has kind of been one big millstone in the recording process, and that was the actual studio itself. No matter how much I would depend on software and compact systems like laptops and small audio interfaces, I’d eventually always have to come back to my Pro Tools system to put the final product together. Because I live in Hawaii and this system sits idle for months at a time while I’m out on the road, almost every time I turn it on, something’s wrong, either with the computer or the Digidesign hardware, and this time was no exception. It turned out to be a problem with my audio hardware interface, so I just said “F*** this! I’m gonna figure out a way to do it without Pro Tools,” and it turned out to be hugely convenient in a number of ways. I wound up doing a lot of monitoring and all of the final tweaking on headphones alone. I hardly ever depended on the speakers because they were one of the immovable parts of the system. All I needed aside from the tools I was used to using—Propeller Head’s Reason Version 4, Line 6 Gearbox, and other associated programs for the Line 6 Tone Port, which was my audio interface for guitar and voice— was something that would allow me to record samples, and then I could turn them into a sampler instrument inside Reason. I used this program called Riffworks, which allows you to specify a loop in Reason that’ll play over and over, and essentially just keep recording takes using the Reason file as background. I would loop a part and sing take after take and throw away the ones that weren’t any good. Then I would clean them up with Audacity, which is a free audio program, and then bring them all into a sampler and just play the vocal parts as if using a keyboard.

I could do the same thing with guitars. I used Gearbox a lot, and when I didn’t quite get the sound I wanted, I used my old Line 6 AX2 2x12 amp and took the line output into the Tone Port. When I would record the guitars, I would double everything by picking the two best takes and making a full, wide stereo split. So, it’s this kind of weird, in-between world where I’m playing the actual parts, but when it’s put into context, it’s actually triggered, and it could be various combinations of stereo guitars. I might make an instrument with eight versions of me playing the verse, then use v.1 on the left and v.3 on the right on the first verse and when the next verse comes around, it’ll be v.5 on the left and v.2 on the right, and it’s never the same so it doesn’t sound like it’s sampled, it sounds constantly spontaneous. I only used two electric guitars on the whole thing. I would say it was 80 to 85 percent Foamy [TR’s foam-green Strat-style P-Project from Fernandes’ Japan custom shop ca. 1991.] and 15 to 20 percent my faux-Fool SG [a Japanese copy of Eric Clapton’s famous painted Fool guitar.] The only time I actually touched an acoustic was on the intro parts to “Mad,” which were given various treatments to make it sound more like a 12-string. The other acoustic-type sounds were all fauxed-up combinations of electric and samples.

Let’s look at some guitar highlights. The Em11-based intro and verse guitar figure in “Mad” is built around a variation of your somewhat unorthodox D-chord fingering. I play a D like this [Ex.1], with my 1st finger on the E string, because I never paid attention to the way the chords were written in a chord books. If you play an E chord like that, with your 1st finger on the top, then it’s a more logical extension to play a D chord like that. I finger the “Mad” figure like this [Ex.2] and I don’t move my 2nd finger until the fourth beat because I want that fourth string to ring out until I need the string. There are four guitar sounds on the song: the acoustic, the dirty electric that plays in the verses and choruses, the very clean electric guitar sound that comes in strong in the second verse, and the big, zoom-y, distorted solo sound. I gave it that singing sound by putting a notch into it that makes it sound almost vocal, like a cocked wah kind of a thing, but without actually cocking the wah.

“Afraid” is a beautiful power ballad that was partially inspired by Sade. That was, in some ways, the easiest one to do. It was the first song I actually captured the guitar sample for, and all it was was the three chords that are in the chorus [Csus2-D-Esus2]. It’s like on 11, with everything as compressed and distorted as it could possibly be and still sound like a guitar. The super-clean electric in the verses is supposed to be bell-like, and the Sade vibe was not just the vocal part, but the whole atmosphere. It’s very spacious, then it gets all funky for the bridge. There’s a clean, phased, muted Stratocaster, and then there are the big semi-acoustic-sounding chords [C/Bb-Cadd9]. I layered a couple of guitars to get that sound. Part of what I’m trying to do is find as many open voicings as possible without using open tunings.

How about “Mercenary”? It’s sort of like Dethklok at 16 rpm. I was just goofing around and I found this sound that seemed to go on forever. I think I might have started with the sound from “Afraid,” where everything’s on 11. The guitar is so thick with harmonics that all kinds of things are popping out randomly when you’re playing the licks [See Ex. 3]. That’s one of the formulas of the arena-rock thing. You want to make the riffs interesting, but not too technically challenging. You’ve gotta have kids in their bedrooms aping the riffs, y’know?

“Gun” is an explosive, up-tempo shuffle that pays homage to more than one stadium rocker. It’s a whole collision of things. The wahwah thing is straight off of the Jeff Beck Group’s “I Ain’t Superstitious,” in combi- nation with ZZ Top’s “Tush” [Ex. 4]. Playing the chorus chords here [plays alternate voicings shown in grids in bars 6-8] puts you directly next to the sixth string, so you can bang that open E string. It allows you to play full, open chords across all six strings.

“Courage” sounds like it could have come from Liars. The musical germ of that was “Are You There (with Another Girl),” a Burt Bacharach song recorded by Dionne Warwick. The lyric was “I hear the music comin’ out of your radio,” and the first chords in “Courage” are the same chords [Dmaj9- Fmaj9], and then I went from there to other harmonic places [Gmaj9-G/A]. Everything was composed on the guitar, but this probably would have been a keyboard song under different circumstances because of the unusual voicings. The thing that intrigued me about the changes was the way they had this quality that’s almost like what they call “Shepard tones,” where the changes sound as if they’re constantly modulating upward. When it goes to the solo [Emaj9-Gmaj9-Amaj9-A/B] and then back to the verse again, you think it’s another modulation, but it has actually returned to the original key.

“Weakness” is probably the strangest blues tune you’ve ever recorded. It’s the blues as I hear it. Sometimes these songs just start out with a feel and a tempo and no other idea of what it’s gonna be like, but thinking in the greater context, you have to have something that has that particular groove to it. A lot of what the song was about was having the opportunity to play with the rhythm of it. It’s in waltz time, and the thing I was determined not to do was to have it turn into some typical kind of blues waltz. I’ve done this in the past. It’s just something that I personally enjoy injecting into the music, which is taking the waltz time and turning it from a 3/4 waltz [notated in Ex. 5 in 6/4] to a 6/8 waltz. Instead of being long and languid, it suddenly gets all sped-up sounding. There’s always a couple of ways to hear it if you keep the underlying rhythms fairly rich. You could look at it as short measures or long measures. Otherwise, it was just the collision of two different musical ideas: the intro [bars 1 and 2], which has this quasi-industrial, over-the-top sound that’s probably the most distorted, overblown guitar sound on the record, and the Philly-soul chorus [bars 3-5]. At the same time, I was trying to use a sound that could simultaneously be dialed down and become the basic sound of the verses as well, as if you were using a really small amp, so there was a bit of fine tuning in the guitar sound to get that extremely large dynamic range.

“Strike” is built around a fist-pumping chorus that recalls everybody’s favorite Aussie rockers It’s already been described as a cross between AC/DC and Queen, and we didn’t even have to tell anybody. The influences are so obvious that it sounds almost plagiaristic, I suppose, and that is probably why people have such an immediate response to it. I was sure when the title occurred to me, “Strike while the iron is hot,” that AC/DC had already written a song called that. I researched it and, lo and behold, that was the one they missed, so I snapped it up immediately. From a guitar standpoint, it’s straight ahead—just dial in a big Marshall sound for the intro, verses [Ex. 6], and choruses. For the solo, I wasn’t necessarily aping Angus Young, but I wanted to create that kind of dry, upfront, unembellished sound from the pre-pedal days and get the effect of being plugged directly into the amp.

The main rhythm figure in “Bardo” [Ex. 7] is one of those “Why didn’t I think of that?” forehead smackers. Was it written as an intentional tribute or was it just something you stumbled across while tuning up? [Laughs.] Yeah, all I’m doing is essentially tuning! But as much as this has its antecedent in Robin Trower, Trower has his antecedent in Jimi Hendrix, so it’s actually like a Hendrix song in a way. The effect I’m trying to get is this gigantic, thick, neckpickup, flange-y Stratocaster sound that Jimi Hendrix first created and Trower’s “Bridge of Sighs” kind of refined. The whole idea is the way you mix the song and the way you record the guitar is supposed to make the lead guitar so big and fat that it sounds like it’s coming from inside your head. I wasn’t trying to prove anything as a guitar player, I was just trying to capture some kind of era, or some feeling in the guitar. When I first listened to the guitar, it wasn’t that complicated. It didn’t have all that Eddie Van Halen hammer-on allover- the-place stuff. It had more to do with the sound of the guitar, like if you play slower, you could coax some of these other sounds out of the guitar. If you’re always playing notes all the time, you don’t hear the way a long note will evolve, and the way that scratching it with your vibrato brings out other harmonics.

Was “Mountaintop” a conscious effort to write a sports anthem?
I already wrote one by accident [Rundgren’s “Bang the Drum All Day,” which came to him in a dream, is played after every Green Bay Packers touchdown and at sporting events nationwide], so I thought, “What if I did it on purpose?” “Mountaintop” is the Yardbirds, ZZ Top, Queen, and Gary Glitter’s “Rock and Roll Pt. 2.” I was trying to get every sports anthem in the world into one song. Part of it was all about getting to the “One step, higher, higher, another step, higher, higher” call-and-answer stuff in the middle [Ex. 8] and just trying to figure out a way to get there. Oh yeah, there’s also Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit in the Sky” in there.

The mélange of modular, almost punk-ish riffs and vocal parts in “Panic” requires great stamina from both performer and audience. The original title of the song was “Stamina.” I wanted that fast tempo, otherwise it wouldn’t qualify as arena rock, where everyone has their crowd-rousing, locomotive- tempo thing going, so I worked backwards from the drum beat. It was problematic to me because it’s the kind of thing where so many boneheaded kinds of musical structures could be put behind it. I think it started out as a fast shuffle, and the song I had in my mind was Spinal Tap’s “Tonight I’m Gonna Rock You Tonight!” You know, one of those typical up-tempo audiencebaiting things. It’s artificial excitement! Eventually the shuffle part bothered me, like “Smokin’ in the Boys Room,” or whatever, and I just couldn’t find something that worked right with it. As far as the riffage goes, sometimes all I have is a riff. I’ll catalog a bunch of riffs and start moving them around and see how they fit in. [Ex. 9 shows the final results, beginning with the mid-song re-intro.] I think part of my quest also during the course of this record was not to have it sound childish. I started to pay attention to these very hit-oriented bands of the ’70s, and they’re all like, “Hey baby, meet me after the show,” “I’m horny,” “I’m hot blooded,” just the dumbest freakin’ obvious stuff, and I was determined to avoid that. But that’s the problem with writing these really up-tempo songs—they need a lot of syllables to fill ’em out.

“Manup” seems to sum up the message of the album.
There are a couple of things in there. The Cult is in there somewhere. I was throwing in a little Ian Astbury by slightly exaggerating the vibrato on the voice as compared to some of the other songs. The guitars are rel- atively open and clean sounding, a bit overdriven with that plugged-straight-into-the-amp sound. It was especially challenging to get that in the intro part [Ex. 10]. I was going for an almost Ted Nugent sound, like a semi-solidbody guitar through a big amp. The solo was supposed to be that ersatz updated Chuck Berry stuff for guys who don’t really like to play a lot with their fingers, they like to play with their hands, so the fingers are almost always flat against the fingerboard. It’s more about rhythm and syncopation. In a sense, the song is more a message to men than it is a message to women, and that’s arena rock—the whole mancry thing. When you get the men crying, you know you’ve got your arena rock down!

Former GP music editor Jesse Gress has played with Todd Rundgren since 1991. For current TR tours and additional info, visit,, and

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