Saturday, December 16, 2017
Tampa Bay Music & Shows

Interview: Todd Rundgren comes to St. Petersburg looking to reach a new generation

They're teaching Todd Rundgren in college now.

Not every college, of course. As far as Rundgren knows, they might only be teaching his legendary songwriting and production techniques at the universities where he's delivered guest lectures, sharing his vast musical knowledge with the children and grandchildren of his typical fans.

"It was kind of a pleasant surprise when I did the first one, at the University of Indiana," Rundgren, 68, said in a recent phone interview. "People, when they get older, seem to think that youth is feckless — and in many ways they are — but to be able to spend time with serious, smart people who also happen to be young and part of their generation can be inspiring."

Connecting with a new generation of studio whiz kids is high on Rundgren's mind these days. The artist, who performs at the Mahaffey Theater on Saturday, recently delivered a commencement address at the prestigious Berklee College of Music, and before that popped up at Coachella, performing with buzzy New York indie group the Lemon Twigs. And he just released White Knight, a collaborative album that features not only old pals like Daryl Hall, Donald Fagen and Joe Walsh, but unlikely younger stars like Robyn, Dam-Funk and Trent Reznor.

Do these kids know what they're getting with all this attention from Rundgren? Even if they can hum a few bars of Hello It's Me, Bang the Drum All Day or I Saw the Light, do they also know he steered the sound of pop music producing singles like Meat Loaf's Paradise By the Dashboard Light, Grand Funk Railroad's We're An American Band, the Psychedelic Furs' Love My Way or Patti Smith's Dancing Barefoot? Do they know he composed music for Pee-Wee's Playhouse, or that he was a personal hero of Prince, or that he was a pioneer of videos and computer graphics and...

Okay, look, here's the thing about Rundgren: When you get rolling on a list of all his credits, it can get difficult to stop. His diehard, decades-long fan base can and will sing his praises at length, which can be intimidating to less-seasoned listeners. Those are the ones it's a challenge to make care.

"Sometimes it turns out that when they discover what you've done, they are truly interested in it," he said of the music students he meets. "At this point, where there are actually grandchildren showing up of my original fans, it's almost like a congenital disease, to be passed down from generation to generation to generation."

For his part, Rundgren has no problem speaking their language. White Knight is a collaborative album through and through, which should feel familiar with young pop fans used to seeing the word "featuring" pop up a half-dozen times an album.

"That's something that's become more and more common nowadays," he said. "A group like Disclosure, they will have the Weeknd guest on their record, so you don't know whether it's the new Disclosure record or the new Weeknd record."

For the most part, White Knight works. Rundgren plays all the instruments and sings background, at least, on every track, giving his guests so much leeway that at times, it's tough to tell it's a Todd Rundgren song. (Of his fans' reaction to lead single That Could Have Been Me, featuring Swedish pop singer Robyn, he said: "Some of them were perplexed.") Despite a few goofy moments, even Rundgren's most unexpected pairings are danceable and loaded with energy. That it feels in places like Gorillaz, the polyglot pop project led by Blur's Damon Albarn, is probably no accident.

"With Disclosure or Gorillaz, the principal role might be taken over by someone who seems really unusual in context, like Bobby Womack or Mos Def," he said. "Those kinds of collaborations are important not simply for musical reasons, but for blurring genres and unifying audiences. I pretty much guarantee that until Bobby Womack appeared with Gorillaz, Blur fans had no idea who he was."

Rundgren tasted a little bit of that love during his surprise appearance with the Lemon Twigs at Coachella.

"I think, possibly, some of the people who were in the audience knew who I was, or at least were familiar with the name," he said. "So that worked out terrifically for both of us. (Critics) declared us the collaboration of the first week of Coachella. We blew up the internet for a second."

Which brings us back to those college classes he finds himself leading. At Indiana, the students he taught were on full music scholarships, "like full-ride athletes. They don't have to go to college, they are so freaking smart. And to be able to hang out with them, spend so much time with them, and to see how otherwise normal they are, was really kind of inspirational."

With White Knight, he's hoping the music he's making in his late 60s can reach and inspire them, too.

"Every time you have a collaboration with somebody, you essentially swap audiences in a way — your audience gets to hear them, and their audience gets to hear you," he said. "That sort of breaks you out of that habit of preaching to the choir. Now I've got new choir members to preach to."

Contact Jay Cridlin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.

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