Todd Rundgren's eclectic and critically lauded albums, which range from pop and rock to soul, acapella and zany experiments (often all at the same time) have left an indelible mark on music. He's always been a bit of an outsider, choosing at the height of his success to explore a more experimental sound rather than pander to the public. But he's also fronted the re-incarnation of The Cars and produced such classic albums as Meatloaf's Bat out of Hell and XTC's Skylarking.
His immense skills as a pop craftsman are evidenced by "Bang the Drum All Day" and "I Saw the Light," classic songs whose very mention causes them to start playing in one's head. You'll have the opportunity to have plenty more of his songs get stuck in your head when Rundgren performs at the Rex Theatre on Fri., Dec. 7.
How has the record industry changed since you started your career?
Until recently, artists thought that, from an economic standpoint, music was all about making hit records, as opposed to going on tour. That's always been a fallacious way of looking at it. Artists are starting to realize that the goal is to sell concert tickets and that record companies are now an obstacle in the way of people listening to music, and if people can't listen to the music they're not going to buy any tickets. The all-too-cozy relationship between record labels and syndicated radio, which for years was simply designed to make certain artists successful and not give other artists hope, is luckily starting to break down. You don't want a spot on the charts anymore; you want warm bodies coming to your show because that's what butters your bread.
Are labels even as important as they once were?
The things that labels have traditionally provided for artists have disintegrated. You can make your own record with all the fabulous, cheap technology that personal computers have made available and then market it with the Internet, which has really become a major player in the last five to ten years.
What artists do you think are putting out exciting music?
Bands like Radiohead, who put out a successful album and never think to put out one just like it. Even a band as hugely successful as U2 has striven to make changes to their music. They have an audience that loves what they're doing and would be fine with getting more of the same, but U2 takes their success and leverages it with trying to do something different. That, to me, is what matters -- leveraging your success, however great or small it may be, to make musical advances.
Is there a particular artist that captures the current zeitgeist?
First of all, you have to define what the milieu is. If you ask the average person, they'll say that the entire decade is 9/11, and in that sense, it has nothing to do with music. It has to do with politics. So it might be whoever is making the most political music, which may be hip hop. But the problem with hip hop it that is has such incredibly low standards and justifications for people being in the business. Maybe, for that reason, hip-hop music does represent the zeitgeist in that it's often driven by things that are trumped up and not real or meaningful, like how bad you are when you're not really bad at all. Or maybe it's somebody like Toby Keith. [Laughs.] He's somebody who's built an entire career around 9/11.
What are you working on right now?
The biggest project I'm involved in, the biggest one of my life, as it turns out -- even bigger than Meatloaf or any other record production -- is this house I've been building. The expense, the number of people involved, and the detail that goes into it is just astounding. It's like making a record, in a sense, in that it comes in two parts: the first 95 percent, where you spend half your energy, and the last 5 percent, where you spend whatever energy you have left, which is where we are right now.
How about musically?
There was a long stretch of time, almost ten years, between this album and my last album of all new material, so I'm working on shortening that considerably, and my next solo release will probably be out by next spring. It'll be something of a concept album, but I don't want to reveal what the theme is until I have more of it under my belt.
Todd Rundgren 8 p.m. Fri. Dec. 7. Rex Theatre, 1602 E. Carson St., South Side. $40. 21 and over. 412-381-6811 or www.rextheatre.com