Todd Rundgren: Campus rockstar
Erin McAuliffe | Friday, September 30, 2016
Todd Rundgren sits legs crossed. His gray socks printed with black triangles peek out from above his black sneakers and below his black pants. His black glasses hold yellow-tinted lenses. Rundgren’s whole ensemble is black, as is most of his hair — though blonde streaks down from the crown. A sight amongst Notre Dame’s issue gear and polos, Todd Rundgren is a rockstar and dressed accordingly.
“Change your hair color — it’s the cheapest thing you can do to set you apart. Then dress like you don’t care. At one point my band spent half our time writing songs and the other half shopping for clothes,” he tells the members of Exploring the Creative Muse: Art, Business, Technology and Rock n’Roll, a one-credit class he is teaching this week with FTT professor Ted Mandell.
A legendary producer, innovator, songwriter and musician, Rundgren has been on Notre Dame’s campus this week as an artist-in-residence, an endeavor he previously completed at Indiana University.
Rundgren founded the Spirit of Harmony Foundation to support musical education for young people. While in South Bend, Rundgren and his foundation will establish an ongoing music program for the children at South Bend’s Center for the Homeless.
The foundation also collected used musical instruments at last Friday’s pep-rally, in collaboration with Hungry for Music, to be repaired and auctioned off.
Sports and music further collided at last week’s pep-rally when Rundgren performed with student body president Corey Robinson while men’s basketball coach Mike Brey played drums.
“As was made clear to me [this weekend], football and sports in general are huge parts of campus life [at Notre Dame]. It probably takes the place of music,” Rundgren said when we spoke amongst WVFI Radio’s archives in LaFortune on Sunday — a fitting setting, as the shelves hold tangible versions of many songs in his 541-strong repertoire.
Rundgren attended his first Notre Dame football game day last weekend. His experience was filmed for the university’s “First Time Fans” documentary series. As his song “Bang The Drum All Day” is a sports anthem, I asked for his thoughts on Notre Dame stadium’s choice of music — a contentious topic amongst Scene’s staff.
“It was kind of interesting,” he said. “You have the band and you have amplified music — mostly electronica and heavy metal. So the musical atmosphere goes back and forth between these two things. It’s funny, the band is playing traditional sorts of game songs peppered with what, to me, are some odd selections, like Aha’s ‘Take on Me.’ The band is there as a unifying source of entertainment, and there’s the aspect of spectacle with a band that size and all the choreography.”
Rundgren is an expert in the realm of performance spectacle: He climbed all over and flipped off a 25-foot pyramid during his 1977 “Oops Wrong Planet Tour,” and was known to travel with an unwieldy quadrophonic sound system, to the chagrin of many concert venues. I couldn’t help but bring up my own experience of an extensive concert spectacle: the opening night of Kanye West’s Saint Pablo Tour this August.
“I used to do that physical thing of climbing up and down a pyramid, and there’s still a physical element to my shows, but what [West] is doing — there’s a pole stuck down his jacket so he won’t fall off the platform — is a little more conceptual and further-on then I would be willing to do at this point,” he responded without missing a pop-culture beat. (Rundgren later added that he’s been listening to a lot of Tyler, The Creator and Frank Ocean lately. Scene approves.)
Rundgren mentioned that, depending on how things go, he might look to tour next year. And if he does, he’s bringing new technology along with him.
“The technology I’m most fascinated with is lighting technology: LED walls and ways to completely change the environment. The video wall technology is pretty flexible and if you can fill a stage with it, you can create any environment you want … You can spray an entire arena with light. It’s like how [music] festivals have evolved, especially with EDM. The whole idea is that you’re removing the line between audience and stage — moving the whole presentation out into the crowd.”
Rundgren has experimented in electronic dance music. Last year he collaborated with Norwegian DJs Hans-Peter Lindstrøm and Emil Nikolaisen on the bass-heavy “Ruddans.” Rundgren has a notably history of, advantageously, embracing change early. He has always been on the forefront of connecting visual and performance art: By the time MTV debuted in 1981, Rundgren already had his own video equipment, software and studio. His music video for “Time Heals” was aired on MTV’s August 1, 1981 debut broadcast.
“Utopia [Rundgren’s band] and myself would do a lot of video even before MTV. That’s how you got exposed in a foreign market, you sent a video over to TV shows before touring … For instance, there was Dick Clark’s ‘Bandstand.’ It used to be that anybody who went on the show would lip synch their song, but then videos started appearing and they’d show those instead … Lip synching seemed bogus to [Utopia], so that’s another reason we got into videos: It was a way for us to present ourselves in the way we wanted to.”
When Rundgren spoke on the importance of timing and tight association amongst radio, MTV and record labels, I couldn’t help but contrast the process to release tactics used today. He spoke to the cooperative effort between artists and entities to time everything correctly so that the band was on the road while their songs were on the radio and their videos were on MTV. Compared with the recent events surrounding Frank Ocean’s yearlong album delay and in the context of Ocean’s full visual album being restricted to Apple Music listeners, it’s clear to see that the industry has a new set of standards.
Rundgren will speak on these new music industry standards Friday night in the Patricia George Decio theatre at the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center. The currently sold-out talk is titled “Todd Rundgren: Giving You The Business of Rock ‘n Roll” and will incorporate his fifty years of music industry experience.
Rundgren will perform with student artists this Saturday at 7 p.m. in the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center as part of the “Play Like A Champion Today” concert series. Tickets range from $12 to $18.