Changing Himself

With a career spanning nearly four decades, Todd Rundgren has done virtually everything. Literally. He's produced best-selling records, composed scores, and released several solo albums, including the first interactive music album ever, No World Record in 1993. He's also an accomplished hacker. According to Rundgren, if he hadn't discovered music, he'd probably be a Linux geek. Read our exclusive interview with Todd, the god.

With a career spanning nearly four decades, Todd Rundgren has done virtually everything. And everything virtually. As an accomplished producer, Rundgren’s masterminded best-selling albums for Meat Loaf (Bat Out of Hell), XTC (Skylarking), and The Tubes (Remote Control), among many others. As an accomplished musician, he’s mastered any number of instruments, including the drums, the guitar, the keyboard, and the progenitor of the synthesizer, the Theremin. And as a songwriter and performer, Rundgren’s composed soundtracks (Pee Wee’s Playhouse and Crime Story) and has released several solo albums, including the aptly-named A Capella, a full-length pop album created solely by overdubbing, sampling, and mixing Rundgren’s own voice.

Not content to tinker only with music, Rundgren’s also tinkered, quite successfully, with technology. Long fascinated with video, Rundgren opened Utopia Video Studios, a multi-million-dollar, state-of-the-art facility in 1979. His first project? SelectaVision‘s Gustav Holst’s “The Planets,” commissioned by RCA as the first demo for their new videodisc format. In 1980, Rundgren directed and produced “Time Heals,” the first music video to composite live action and computer graphics — and the second video ever to be played on MTV (after The Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star”).

Rundgren’s fascination with computers extended to computer graphics as well. In 1981, he programmed the first tablet-based paintbox software for personal computers, which was subsequently licensed to Apple Computer as the Utopia Graphics Tablet System. And in 1991, Rundgren self-produced the world’s first computer-generated music video for his song “Change Myself,” garnering acclaim for the artist, and sparking the success of a $4,000 “television studio-in-a-box” called the Video Toaster. Where other, similarly-complex videos cost around $400,000 (at the time), Rundgren claimed he created his video for one-fifth that cost, using only a handful of (as you’ll hear, very loosely connected) Amiga computers.

Rundgren’s even dabbled with interactive entertainment. Speaking before the 13th Annual Billboard Music Video Conference in late 1991, Rundgren envisioned making interactive music albums in which listeners would have options like repeating a song’s verses as many times as they like, instead of staying with the artist’s traditional arrangement of the song. Not two years later, Rundgren’s 1993 album No World Order was the first interactive album ever recorded — on CD-I. With that album, listeners could play portions of the music in any sequence they liked. (A year later, Rhino Records released No World Order Lite, which captured just one permutation of the former record for fans not inclined to sequence their own music.)

Always restless, Rundgren recently set out on a worldwide tour to promote his new album Liars. Like other endeavors, the tour includes hefty technical innovations, such as a revolutionary LED lighting system and a sound system that eschews traditional guitar amplifiers in favor of digital modeling that emulates their sounds. Linux Magazine publisher Adam Goodman caught up with Rundgren to talk about Rundgren’s twenty years in personal computing, the role of the musician in a digital world, and about Rundgren’s favorite toy of all time, the Amiga.

LINUX MAGAZINE: Most people know you for your music, yet you’re just as adept with technology. Has that always been the case?

TODD RUNDGREN: I was three years old when I first got interested in robotics. In particular, Forbidden Planet and Robbie the Robot, which was just the coolest fuckin’ robot ever invented. To this day, he’s still the coolest looking robot ever. I thought, “Man, I’ve got to have one of those.” When you’re a kid, you don’t think that such a thing is impossible to build, I mean, you’ve just seen it in a movie.

When I was 11 or so, I started drawing out robots, trying to figure out all of the mechanisms required to make them walk. And then I got to the thorny part about, well, how does it know what to do, how does it talk? It’s got a brain, doesn’t it, you know, some kind of electronic brain? And that’s when I got interested in computers, because I realized that if my robot was ever going to have a will of its own, it’s got to have an electronic brain. That’s when I started learning about, what was at the time, the very nascent basics of computers.

In those days, probably just about every computer that existed was analog, using vacuum tubes and things like that, and dials to do all of its flip-flopping. But I did get the gist of binary logic. Ones and zeroes are a number system just like the [base] ten system that we’re all brought up with because we’ve got ten fingers. A computer only has one finger, and that finger is up or not.

Anyway, I studied up when I was very young because I decided I wanted to have a robot pal. By the time I was in my 20s and the cost of a personal computer became affordable, then I just immediately got involved. I would buy any computer that was reasonably priced and see what I could get out of it, long after I’d given up having a robot pal. But the first thing I wanted to do with [computers] was create images, not music.

LM: Coming from you, that’s odd.

RUNDGREN: Well, for one thing, there weren’t a lot of [computer-based] tools to easily create music. It was so much easier to sit down at the piano, which, in a sense, is a music computer. It’s unlike other instruments, in that if it’s tuned, it’s got discrete notes. Every key is connected to a note, and if you hit that key, you get that note each and every time. That’s opposed to, say, the violin, where it’s extremely difficult to get the right note to come out. A piano arranges notes in a very logical manner that the average person can approach and, without too much trouble, create music from.

When the first synthesizers came out, if there was a keyboard, it didn’t behave like a piano. Instead, it was an analog keyboard and it had all these analog circuits that would, for instance, require you to retune the circuits after every song, because as the temperature changed, they would go in and out of tune.

I remember in those days, Utopia [Rundgren's longtime band] used all of the latest equipment. Roger [Powell, Utopia's keyboard player] had a relationship originally with Moog and probably just about every synthesizer company, and invented the first handheld keyboard called the Powell Probe. It was custom-built, and I recall we had to have a dedicated technician sit by the box and tune it all night long. As the temperature changed, the output would drift up and down. Also, you had to have a separate module for every note you wanted to play. If you were playing chords and you wanted to play as much of a six-note chord, you had to have six sound modules and another thing that would distribute the triggering information to each of the modules. Worse, each module had the potential to go out of tune, so you could have five of them in tune and one of them completely out.

So, it was easier early on to make pictures with the computer than it was to make sounds, and I guess that’s why I didn’t really think I needed a machine to create music. It wasn’t until years later that I started using them that way.

And at first, I had some resistance even to the idea of using a computer to compose music. Or to perform music. I had no problem with using a MIDI sequencer to develop basic ideas, but I always thought that human beings should play music to imbue it with original character. If it was just a matter of starting a machine up, how could the listener tell the difference between my performance and anyone else’s performance? In the same way that you didn’t want the old analog synthesizer to go out of tune, you’d get to the point where the digital synthesizer was so relentlessly in tune that you’d sort of have to do things to them to make them sound more life-like. You’d like to feed a little bit of drift into the pitch every once in a while so that every snare drum beat didn’t sound exactly the same as the previous one.

Of course, nowadays, I use sequencers and synthesizers in just about every aspect of my music production.

LM: And your current tour uses amplifier emulation software and LED lights. High-tech stuff, and probably very different from the computer equipment of the early ’80s. And the Amiga.

RUNDGREN: The Amiga. Yes. In a sense, I wasn’t an Amiga user. I was a Light Wave user. It just so happened that Light Wave ran on the Amiga.

In 1990, I was attending SIGGRAPH and happened by the Newtek booth. Newtek was showing convincing shots of tie fighters from “Star Wars,” or something like that, flying through space, all rendered on the Amiga. I thought, “Wow, this is significant.”

At the time, VideoToaster, Light Wave, and the Amiga offered somebody like me, who maybe wants to create a video but doesn’t necessarily want to be in the business of creating video, a chance to achieve something with a reasonable investment of funds.

So, I bought one. I had the idea that I wanted to do a fully computer-animated video for a song.

LM: “Change Myself”?

RUNDGREN: “Change Myself” was the song. I got the machine in late November or early December and started monkeying around with it. After concluding that I could probably pull it off, I bought four more Amigas with the necessary hardware and the Newtek card, set them up in my kitchen, and started rendering.

Now, for rendering, most of the labor is in design, and then the computer does all of the work to make the pictures. But at the time, there was no networking solution for Amigas. There were no common networking solution that allowed you to distribute a job across a number of applications running on separate machines, and there was no way for the machines to do their work and then deliver the results to some central storage.

So, the process started out as a “sneakernet” kind of thing: connecting a drive, filling it up with images, disconnecting the drive, connecting another, and so on. Keep in mind, too, that storage was not as dense as it is today. For instance, at the time, the largest, practical storage I could find was 300 MB drives, which is not even the size of a CD-ROM nowadays.

I had to buy all these drives, constantly hook them up and disconnect them, back up the contents to some slower medium, usually tape drive, and then recycle them.

Eventually, I got to a point with maybe ten machines running this way to finish the project. And all of the machines came with 68020 processors. By today’s standards, really pokey, but at the time, the fastest they had.

LM: Then “Change Myself” came out and people were blown away. Newtek was impressed, too.

RUNDGREN: Yeah. Newtek proposed a joint venture after seeing “Change Myself.” They said, “This is the kind of [pushing the] envelope thing we’re interested in. We’d like you to set up a facility to produce video and give us feedback about how the software should evolve to remain competitive and be more useful.” That was the genesis of NuTopia, the research and development arm of Newtek.

By the time we got into business, we were way up to the 030s, essentially doubling our previous throughput. But we still didn’t have networking, nor significant processing power, nor significant storage. We realized we couldn’t sneakernet everything for the rest of our days. We had to try and figure out a way to link all these machines up. The results of that evolved into Screamer Net, a way to network Newtek machines together. Prior to NuTopia, no one had ever networked Amigas together to do this kind of job.

Of course, working with Amigas was hard because they were just so poorly built. The machines had very nicely designed components, but they were poorly assembled. And not just poorly assembled. The way that the cases and everything were built reflected the cheapest manufacturing possible. So, if ever — and you always had to — take the top of the box off and get in there to move cards around, you’d wind up with your hands bleeding, literally. Today, they’d probably get sued for building a machine like that.

But it was much more fun tinkering back then. It was physical tinkering. It was true that sometimes the box wouldn’t boot up, and you’d smack it on the side, then suddenly it’d behave. The ultimate fix for any Amiga was just to slap it really hard. It was like owning an old car.

LM: Do you ever want to create a new groundbreaking music video with modern technologies?

RUNDGREN: I do, but there’s little demand today for music videos. There used to be a thriving, hungry market for music videos, but now most of the so-called music video outlets like MTV and VH-1 are doing reality programming — they’re not filling up their time with new videos. So the obstacle for me isn’t daunting technology, it’s simply the fact that there’s nobody to play the result.

LM: You’ve done so many different things. Was the inspiration for “Change Myself” your interest in a new outlet or your interest in a new medium?

RUNDGREN: I’ve always had a fascination with computer graphics. I was more fascinated with the application of computer power to graphics than I was with the application of music. All through the ’90s, I attended SIGGRAPH shows and hacker conferences.

Surprisingly, there is an affinity between computer geeks and musicians. While not every computer geek plays an instrument, most are huge consumers of music, and most musicians are comfortable with what’s very new to the average person.

At the hacker conferences, I gained a broader appreciation of what was possible. Beyond just applying [computers] to music or just the sort of work I was doing, I started to realize two things. First, I started to realize that computers were the new rock and roll. Because when I would go to these conferences, everyone had this sort of attitude that I remember we had in the ’60s, when the idea of succeeding in pop music was kind of like the gold rush. Prior to that, most people realized it was a total long shot to succeed in the music business. But then the Beatles came along and showed that just four mop-top lads could become the biggest cultural influence in the entire world, and potentially do that for the rest of their lives. That changed a lot of people’s thinking.

Second, I started to realize that maybe I could become a professional musician. And fortunately for me, I did. Otherwise I’d probably be a computer geek right now. I really would be a Linux geek.

Anyway, it was hugely exciting to be in this group of people. Everyone had this “anything is possible” attitude. Because they were all young, they were all freely excited about what they were doing, the world of possibilities was totally open, there were so many things that had yet to be discovered, so many things that had yet to be capitalized on, and so it reminded me, at that point, in the mid ’80s, exactly like being in the ’60s and getting into the music business and having the attitude that so much was possible, and that with the proper application of effort and astuteness, you could become hugely successful.

I really enjoyed that time. It was revitalizing in a way. And then, of course, the Internet boom, the Philistines just killed it off. I mean you can’t hardly go anywhere and get that kind of attitude anymore.

LM: Does that translate to what’s happening with Linux?

RUNDGREN: Well, I think that kind of revitalization, that kind of rebirth is always possible, although we can’t pretend not to know what we already know. A Linux boom can only be so big. Because you realize that whatever it is you do with Linux, it’s probably been done already. You’re just trying to find an easier way to do it, or a more stable way to do it, or something like that, but it’s not like you’re gonna discover some completely new thing like, oh, what was it, the first spreadsheet program, when it actually became Lotus 1-2-3. You know, when somebody said, “Hey, all the stuff that you’ve been doing with a pencil and paper, we can put that up on the screen.” Now it’s beyond that. Now you’re inventing things that could never go the other way, that could never go back to pencil and paper. They were born to be on the computer, and always will be.

LM: What do you think of the Open Source movement and digital rights management? What do you expect the future of copyright to be?

RUNDGREN: I believe in the free software movement, open source, and all that other stuff, because basically I’d like to live in a world where everyone was rich to the point that they could just give away everything to anyone else: you see someone with a lack, and you have what they need, so you just give it to them, and that’s life.

That’s not real, I understand, because as brilliant as we all are, we’re still dominated by an animal [instinct] that causes us to reflexively protect what’s ours. It’s as if we’re saying, “If you steal my television, I will die, so therefore I have the right to shoot you.” Now, if I catch you stealing my television, my attitude is “I feel a little creeped out that you snuck into my house, but if you need the television so freakin’ badly, take the damn thing. I can get another TV.”

I sort of have the same attitude about the file swapping and things like that. As a matter of fact, it’s different for music than for almost everything else. Most musicians and most people who work in the music business have already forgotten what they felt the first time that music touched them.

And in that sense, I consider music a human sacrament. Music was intended to bring you closer to the mind; it was intended to heal, not only physically, but mentally; it was intended to express things that cannot be expressed in any other medium.

What we’ve done over the past 100 or 150 years is essentially profane this sacrament by saying that you can’t listen to it unless you pay for it. And I have a problem with that.

I think musicians were better off when you first of all proved your skill as a musician by pleasing some people with your output, then by pleasing someone with money, enough so that they’d support you so that you could create music. And yes, there was “commercial pressure” (laughs) to please your patron, you know, to write music to please your patron. But, of course, once you did that, you were free to do write anything else you wanted.

Unfortunately, that’s gone. And now the bollocks at the RIAA — who to me are just a bunch of evil thugs — are trying to intimidate listeners to convince them that music has no sacramental value, that music is simply a product that they own, and that their way is the only way that music can possibly be transferred.

I strongly believe that musicians will always make more money performing their music live for people than they will ever make selling records. Records started out merely as a promotion for a musician’s live performance and, in only a very few exceptional circumstances, that’s still true. Musicians, if they want a healthy income, must face the fact that they have to go out and play. If they play well enough, people will continue to come hear them play.

Record labels make very poor patrons. Audiences make better patrons, because you can deliver a song at the right time and change their lives, something that makes them loyal to you for a lifetime. It’s up to the audience to directly find the musicians they want to support and give them that support directly.

And, essentially, I’ve been setting up the mechanisms for that. Patronet (http://www.patronet.com) is my online subscription service that allows audiences to find the artist that they want to directly support.

In exchange, a patron receives what a patron always receives: a first look at whatever the artist is creating and some sort of interaction that an audience-at-large may not have or may not even desire.

With a system like that, why the hell would an artist care about selling records? Artists would just want people to hear what they do, which has always been the objective.

So the troubles the music business has now, I say, it deserves them. It deserves to just die and disappear. And I hope it does. I hope every single label, one after another, just goes right out of business. I pray for it, nearly (laughs).

Because what’ll happen after that is that the music business will be back in the control of musicians.

Adam Goodman is the publisher of Linux Magazine. Editor-in-Chief Martin Streicher contributed to this article. Todd Rundgren’s web site can be found at http://www.tr-i.com.

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