By Jeremy Hallock
By James Khubiar
By Observer Staff
By Kelly Dearmore
By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
Having just turned 60, legendary singer/songwriter/producer/video director/computer programmer Todd Rundgren might want to slow things down, perhaps even think about retirement. Yet the mercurial artist doesn't want to hear anything of the sort, preferring instead to confound expectations as he has done consistently over his four decades as a performer.
"You can add architect to the list of things I've done," Rundgren says over the phone from Los Angeles, the first stop on his tour to support the recently issued Arena. "I just finished building a new house, which I designed myself."
Rundgren's chameleon-like career has taken him from the garage rock group Nazz (formed in 1967) and through a highly successful singer-songwriter phase (his 1972 album Something/Anything? is considered a power pop high-water mark) that ran concurrently with his membership in the progressive rock outfit Utopia. And since the last Utopia effort (1986's Trivia), Rundgren has continued his solo career while producing albums by XTC, The Psychedelic Furs, Cheap Trick, Badfinger, Bad Religion and many others. Indeed, Rundgren views his production work as just another part of his artistry.
"Producing has allowed me to expand my own horizons as a musician," says Rundgren. "I haven't loved every band I've produced, but I have learned from all of them."
The sessions with XTC for the Skylarking album were especially contentious (Rundgren describes those recordings as "a lot of pushing and shoving"), but Rundgren seems to relish the artistic gold that animosity can unearth. In late 2005, Rundgren raised eyebrows (and the ire of original vocalist Ric Ocasek) when he decided to join Elliot Easton and Greg Hawkes in a re-formed version of The Cars. Stepping in for Ocasek, Rundgren fronted The New Cars with his typical professionalism, and the performances and resulting live album were well-received.
"The fans of The Cars have a lot of loyalty to that band," says Rundgren. "They were very open to me, and I think they got more than they expected in that the old Cars were notoriously stoic, and we certainly moved around and smiled more."
Rundgren's participation in The New Cars seems to have revitalized him too. His most recent solo recordings bristle with a focus and spirit not seen since the halcyon days of Hermit of Mink Hollow (and hits such as "Hello, It's Me" and "Can We Still Be Friends?").
Arena, much like his 2004 effort, Liars, is punchy, well-constructed power pop, full of hooks, riffs and sing-along choruses. Plus, it boasts lyrics that touch on the political, as well as the personal.
"The most challenging part is always the writing," Rundgren admits. "[But] as long as I write good material, the mixing and producing is second nature."
You'd imagine it has to be at this point.