Todd Rundgren & His Utopia Bandmates Talk Reunion Tour & Penchant for Concept Albums
Todd Rundgren and some friends are on the road to Utopia again.
Rundgren and longtime collaborators Kasim Sulton and John "Willie" Wilcox have just started rehearsals for their first tour as Utopia -- Rundgren's main performance vehicle from 1973-86 -- since 1992. The reunion hit a bit of a bump when keyboardist Ralph Schuckett bowed out during mid-March due to health and personal reasons; Israeli-born Gil Assayas, who was discovered by one of Rundgren's sons, has stepped in, and Rundgren quips that after getting an email update on his progress, Assayas "knows the stuff better than we do at this point."
Just before they dove into rehearsals, Billboard caught up with Rundgren, Sulton and Wilcox to ascertain the state of Utopia and whether this will be the very last time, or if there might be more on the horizon.
What led to this year's reunion?
Rundgren: There'd been talk about the band reforming for quite a while. Any time I would go on the road it'd be inevitable -- some fan would say, "Any chance of Utopia reforming this year? How about this year? How about this year?" (laughs) So it was kind of like the sword of Damocles hanging there, and it had to drop eventually. So we managed to get most of our ducks in a row, and here we are.
Sulton: It wasn't expected. It's always been talked about, joked about, bandied about, threatened, but we never seemed to be able to pull the trigger on it. But there's always been a real concerned interest in it in terms of fans wanting there to be a reunion at some point or another. I think that the amount of time that's elapsed between our last show and now we can be like, "OK, let's put on our big boy pants, get together and do it again" after so many years.
Did anything have to be said or overcome in order put all of you together again?
Wilcox: There wasn't any issues preventing us except for logistics. I'm senior audio director at Scientific Games in Las Vegas, so my biggest issue was to organize a leave of absence for a couple of months. Upper management of the company was kind enough to accommodate me and support it.
Rundgren: We never officially broke up the band. We kind of got to a point where the concept couldn't sustain the economic demands that we were putting on it, so we all sort of decided to go off and take care of our own things, not realizing that it was the effective end of the band. We speculated we could get back together, and we did for various things, but not like this.
Sulton: I think once we decided we were going to do this there were certain things kind of unspoken, that everybody's going to play nice -- not in the music sense, but in the personality sense. There's always been a clash of egos in the band -- you have that with any band, really, any group of musicians that have strong personalities involved. But you get a little older and a little more accepting of other people. Everybody’s going to realize that we've made a commitment and the most important thing is to try to have as good a time as possible doing it. It should be smooth sailing.
Even losing Ralph couldn't capsize it?
Rundgren: I was traveling back from South By Southwest, so I didn't actually find out until that Sunday morning. And at that point I wanted to walk into the ocean and not come back 'cause we were fully committed to this and there was nobody off the top of my head I thought was gonna be able to just walk in and do what Ralph had been working on for months. So we decided we would just open it up to anybody, but in the meantime we found someone that my son had actually met and heard play. We looked at his stuff on the Internet and were all blown away by how talented he was and how confident he seemed.
What made Gil so right for the band?
Sulton: He's fantastic. He's a force to be reckoned with. The position is synthesizer-heavy 'cause that's what we were doing at the time, all analog-synthesizer based music. So we needed to find someone who did that, who had a grasp of how to get that sound and how to play those songs and be true to the original recordings. He sends us little videos here and there with his progress and it sounds exactly like the records. We couldn't have made a better choice.
Rundgren: He's not particularly a fan. It would've been nice to have a fan, but it wasn't required. He's got the chops that will essentially mean that he's not playing up to us, that we're not kind of pulling ahead of him while he's trying to play catch up. We expect he's gonna be right up there the whole time. I think it'll be interesting for the fans to see someone who they've never seen before but who quite obviously is going to be somebody whose name they should remember.
Utopia had 10 studio albums, and additional material on live albums. What are you planning to play on the tour?
Wilcox: We have a set list in place, a two-hour show, and it's going to encompass everything from the early times of Utopia, so early prog rock all the way through to the ending time period. We can't play all the music we have, but there will be a large cross-section of music that represents the very beginning to the very end, the body songs written by this particular group of people.
Rundgren: It's more a question of what aren't we going to play? For instance, we're not going to play "Singring and the Glass Guitar" because that was pretty much an entire album side and we raised the theatrical bar for that particular song with the water fountains and the wind machines and laser beams, and we're not making that kind of investment this time. Also we're not endangering our lives to that extent anymore. (laughs) I didn't have children back then, so I could climb to the top of the pyramid and potentially hurt myself badly.
Are the old props still around?
Rundgren: The pyramid is still around; it’s actually in a friend's field near Providence, R.I. The giant (RA) head is still in Woodstock, somewhere in storage. The motorcycle drum kit was burned in a warehouse fire along with the ankh guitars, the chrome-plated guitars we used to have. We're not bringing that stuff, but we're not bringing nothing, either.
What's your hindsight on Utopia now?
Rundgren: It was always challenging from a commercial side because the label never asked me to form a band. They would have been happy if it'd just continued as a solo career, and the band made things a little more problematic for them because there were two things to sell. It was probably easier to market when it was Todd Rundgren's Utopia, but then we started calling it Utopia and they thought we would lose the audience. But we managed to hold our own and people found the concept interesting.
Sulton: It was a really, really great band and we sounded really good live and we sang really well together. The concern was a lot more about finding a lane and staying in it. Once he had some level of success with Adventures In Utopia, which was our biggest-selling record, a majority of the band felt we should capitalize on that and our next record should be somewhat similar to that record. And of course Todd being the artist he is, he rarely if ever does the same thing twice, and much to the chagrin of the rest of the band we did something different. But looking back on it, with hindsight, that was part of our charm and part of what set us apart from a lot of other bands, NOT making the same record over and over again.
Rundgren: The reason the music seemed to evolve so much was, I think, we came from the era of concept albums and we didn't necessarily want to do the same concept all the time. So once we hit a concept like, say, Oops! Wrong Planet then we had a little bit of guidance and channeling about how we were going to put our ideas together which might be completely different than another record we would do. And a lot of that is holdover; We were into concept albums long after the idea of a concept album started to seem precious. We were habitual conceptualizers. (laughs)
Wilcox: My feelings are we were a talented group of musicians and I think we had chemistry and a sound for sure. I think we made some poor decisions as it relates to the business end of music, but artistically it was interesting that Utopia would go off on writing directions that were different on every record. From a purely artistic perspective that was admirable.
If this goes well, could there possibly be more Utopia in the future?
Rundgren: Well, anything's possible because I didn't think this was possible. But it won't happen immediately; It took so long to get this all prepared and booked and all the myriad relationships that go into it...But it is possible. I can't say absolutely it will happen. I think what everybody on our side fervently wishes is that this goes well, and that's it for now. Thinking about tours after this, I'm not gonna do that. I'm just gonna hope we do this one right.
Sulton: We just need to make it through this one. (laughs) The main focus right now is just getting together and playing these songs that we haven't played as a band in a very, very long time. But if we do it again, there might be new material.
Wilcox: I guess the answer has to be first we'll do this and see how we do and see what the response is from a business perspective and how the band feels being together. And of course I have my career with Scientific Games. So right now this (tour) is the only vision of what I'm going to be able to do for the foreseeable future.
Todd, this is your first year since 2012 you won't also be playing in Ringo Starr's All-Starr Band. How does that feel?
Rundgren: The last time I saw him he hugged me and thanked me for my service; He didn’t' tell me I wasn't going to be in the band anymore, but I got the sense that something was coming down the road. And it's kind of a relief. I enjoyed my time with the band, but it was adding to the amount of time I was on the road to the point I wasn't getting enough time off the road to work on other things. And it was going on the sixth year of playing pretty much the same set every night; Some people can do that, but I can't. At a certain point it just drives me crazy. But it was a great experience. I got to a lot of places in the world I wouldn't have gotten on my own and got to know a bunch of great players who I can call on any time just to say hi, or maybe work on a project together. It was certainly worthwhile for me, but I'm not depressed or anything that I'm no longer doing it.