“He’s a great cat, truly a legendary figure,” proclaims Dam-Funk about his current touring partner and longtime hero Todd Rundgren, who is enjoying the biggest resurgence of his career in 30 years thanks to collaborating with not only Mr. Funk but the likes of Norwegian production wizard Hans-Peter Lindstrøm and Emil Nikolaisen of Oslo shoegazers Serena-Maneesh as well for the album Runddans, out now on Smalltown Supersound. The two keyboard masters have been on the road together since early April in support of Rundgren’s excellent new album, Global, presenting a show unlike anything the former Nazz frontman has ever done on stage as he approaches his 50th year making music, featuring Rundgren playing an amazing see-through electric guitar backed only by Dam above him on an old-school discotechque DJ high rise and two backup singers, a setup that’s more He’s the DJ, I’m the Rapper than Hermit of Mink Hollow.
Both Rundgren and Dam-Funk, who has a new LP himself coming out later this summer on Stones Throw called Invite the Light, took time out of their hectic road-running across the continental United States to talk with Paste about how everything’s going down between this most unlikely and exciting musical duo.
The “Global” Tour wraps on Sept. 2 in Louisville, Kentucky.
: I saw a couple of YouTube clips from the tour. The stage set-up is incredible, with just you and Todd and a couple of girls singing backup.
Dam-Funk: Thanks, man. There’s also a light show, too. It’s a new way he had wanted to present this new material to people, so that’s what the whole vibe is.
: Who reached out to whom in terms of getting together?
Dam-Funk: It was kind of like a situation where he had found out I was a fan of his stuff and I was interested in having him check out the club night called Funkmosphere and maybe see what’s up. So I mentioned it to the mutual acquaintances, who had told me that Todd’s camp was checking out some of the stuff I do as well, and it just came to fruition that I may be a good candidate to take part in the way that Todd was presenting the Global album to people. Almost like a DJ vibe, but really not. It’s more aesthetically influenced by that kind of presentation, because Todd was into doing something like this before but he didn’t want to have to do it himself. What I have in my show is keyboard components and a DJ vibe as well and mix that all up, and he thought it would be cool to do that as well with somebody who knew what was going on instead of just him doing it.
: How far do you go back with Todd as a fan?
Dam-Funk: Oh man, I got some of the Runt-era stuff, which I had only recently discovered. But when I first got into his solo output, of course I went right to Something?/Anything? and also A Wizard, A True Star as well as the Todd record. I also began getting into albums like Initiation as well. I loved the production techniques he used on that record. But I really love the ‘80s stuff, The Ever Popular Tortured Artist Effect and what he was doing on that album.
: I can definitely hear Todd’s influence on the way you play keyboards going back to your Toeachizown album. Was that just coincidence or was he always on your mind like that?
Dam-Funk: I think that might be more of a coincidence. I am a big proponent of people who come up with their own ideas, but the thing is the influence does probably seep in as I have been into cats like Todd Rundgren for quite a while now. I just always liked Todd’s delivery and the way he would experiment with different synthesizers and drum machines and things like that.
: What do you think of the Global album?
Dam-Funk: Aw yeah, it’s pretty good. I really enjoy sitting back and checking out some of the things he’s coming up with, especially the fact that’s he’s composed all of this stuff on his own. Its just very interesting to see that he’s still being innovative, and the album has some nice chords and fills and very interesting lyrics. I think it’s a natural progression for people who are into Todd if they just sat with Global and listened to it for what it is. It’s just like when you have people who are into cats like Prince, I mean he just continues onward through the years, and Todd’s doing the same thing. It’s almost like an art exhibit, a well-curated art show with each record he does.
: In addition to performing the entirety of Global, you guys played some pretty deep cuts from Rundgren’s catalog on this tour. “International Feel” and “Secret Society” from Wizard. You guys do a couple of Utopia songs. “World Wide Epiphany” from No World Order. Did you have a hand in helping Todd pick his set list?
Dam-Funk: At one point when we were waiting to see what he was going to come up with when the tour started, you could tell he was open to something like that. But I’m the type of guy who doesn’t like to step on people’s toes, you know what I mean? And I definitely wanted to keep that relationship between him and his audience intact, so me being some overbearing “you should try this, you should try that” type of dude was not in the cards. I just wanted to make sure he maintains his connection with his audience, be a backbone to what’s going on and help them enjoy the show.
: Are you a fan of Todd’s more traditional piano pop as well?
Dam-Funk: Oh yes, definitely. I love that side of him. It’s great, because he’s always had that soulful edge to him. I’ve seen in a lot of the shows we did that it’s so interesting to see Todd’s audience and see how soulful they are but still like to rock and pop at the same time. It’s a very unique thing that he has out there with the people. Hermit of Mink Hollow is one of my favorites. Even The Ever Popular Tortured Artist Effect, I love some of the more lyrical and beautiful songs on that record beyond “Bang On The Drum,” like “Influenza.” Even that Disco Jets album from Utopia that remained lost for a long time is incredible.
: As a longtime keyboardist yourself, do you ever take a break from the synths to play acoustic piano every now and again?
Dam-Funk: I love piano. The keyboards and drums are my main instruments when I’m doing the DJ thing. But that’s second—I’m a musician first, and that’s why I think it is cool to be a part of Todd’s project and why I think it’s been working so well. I didn’t come into this tour just messing around, not knowing what his catalog was; I’m an actual fan of his music. So if something had broke down on stage, I was able to fall in and continue onward with it, which I think was something that Todd appreciated as well.
: What are some of your favorite albums produced by Todd Rundgren?
Dam-Funk: Production-wise, I don’t know about whole albums, but some of the singles that he’s done I really dig. Like some of the later stuff with The Tubes is good. I like some of the XTC stuff. I’m familiar with some of the Grand Funk Railroad stuff that he did, but that’s going way back. But my main thing has always been his own material, especially the side ventures like that “Video Synchrony” thing and that kind of stuff which he would experiment with; I just love getting into the more personal stuff of Todd’s as well.
: Once the tour wraps, have you and Todd spoken about getting together in the studio at some point, perhaps?
Dam-Funk: Not yet, but that was one of the reasons my guy reached out to Todd’s camp. He told them, “Hey, next time you are out in L.A., you might want to check out Dam’s club night, Funkmosphere. But now that we were on this tour, there was really no time to discuss something because we’ve just been ripping through these towns. But I’m sure as time goes by, we will discuss something. Yeah, it would be great if we can make something happen.
: How did the collaboration between you and Dam-Funk transpire on your end?
Todd Rundgren: I was contacted by one of his reps back in December when I was in
the middle of finishing Global and he just wanted to make an introduction, because Dam was a fan and wanted to let me know if ever there was an opportunity to collaborate, don’t hesitate to call. So I had thought about it for a little while and figured I wanted to do something unusual and appropriate for this new record. A couple of years ago, I did an album called State in where I tried to sort of emcee myself, but I had too much singing to do [laughs]. I couldn’t really manage the music and the other responsibilities well enough and then focus on the directing. So I figured I’d let Dam take care of the music and I can concentrate on what I do.
: Did you jump on the Internet to listen to him after his camp reached out?
Rundgren: That was the first thing I did was go online and check him out. I thought that this was definitely the kind of music my audience could get into. It’s old-school in a way, it’s not real aggressive and very melodic, so I thought Dam would be much better than having like Skrillex open the show [laughs].
: And Dam comes with his own audience as well, not to mention this tour opens up a whole new crowd for him as well, I’m sure…
Rundgren: What we’re trying to create is a little bi-directional awareness for my audience, some of whom are maybe not aware of what’s happening recently in music and get a chance to hear somebody who is still creating new music. Then, at the same time, there’s his audience, who’s generationally younger than my typical audience.
: Actually, there’s been a big resurgence of interest in your music amongst the youngsters lately.
Rundgren: That’s how I got into this Runddans thing and the remixes that I
did for Lindstrøm, Au Revoir Simone and Tame Impala.
: You seem like the type of guy who is always up on things, who never stops listening to new music. Is that the case?
Rundgren: Well, for the most part, but I’ve actually fallen behind a little bit. It’s easy sometimes to be cynical about music that may be of a different generation. It’s always that old case of “You kids today! I don’t get your music, you kids!” [laughs].
: Truth be told, I’ve been like that the last couple of years myself, but there is something about what’s happening today, especially in the Top 40, with producers taking chances on new sounds and rhythm patterns similar to what Dam is doing, that’s really exciting.
Rundgren: It’s kind of like there are two overlapping worlds of music. If you watched the Grammys, you’d think that music today is just horrible. But if you go on YouTube and start poking around, you’ll discover all of this really interesting, challenging, personal music being made out there that’s being promoted under the radar. If you think of music strictly in terms of mainstream, you’d be led to believe Imagine Dragons is this music revolution [laughs]. But the stuff that’s really happening is in that sidebar when you go on YouTube.
: You mention Miley Cyrus on the song “Evr’ybody” that kicks off Global. But in all honesty, as polarizing as she is, she does seem like she’s the real deal. I mean, there’s a picture of her online hanging out with Patti Smith and Debbie Harry. But is it genuine, or is it a pose?
Rundgren: That is a legitimate question, whether or not it’s just reflective glory as opposed to real music being made. There’s always been that idea that music comes naturally with celebrity. And in some cases, that’s the reason people make the music, not because they cared that much about the music. For instance, Lady Gaga, who is an award-winning instrumentalist, came to the conclusion for her to be famous over being known for her music, she had to become a household name and therefore I will wear dresses made out of meat. Something like that, which has nothing to do with music. There’s always been that, and the same can be said for Miley Cyrus. She didn’t have to make any significant musical statement to become famous. But if she can hold an audience with Patti Smith, good for her.
: Going back to YouTube, did getting into Dam-Funk on there send you down the rabbit hole of all the great instrumental hip hop going on in California these days?
Rundgren: I have to admit that for a while, like in the mid-2000s or something like that, I kind of got a little disenchanted, let’s say, with music in general because it seemed to be driven by American Idol at that point. We kind of lose track of the fact that technology has been on this sort of accelerated track where 10 years ago you’d still have to spend thousands and thousands of dollars if you wanted your own personal recording environment. But the exponential increase in the power of laptops, the amount of speed and storage that we have now and how the price of all that has come down, the existence of high-speed internet that’s permeated literally everything—there’s literally nowhere you can go without some sort of wifi—it’s made it possible for any individual with enough enterprise and enough interest in making music to go ahead and make that music. Ten years ago, an artist like Skrillex couldn’t have existed, because he wouldn’t be able to afford or have the resources that are now at everyone’s fingertips. For $40, you can get a full digital work station on your iPad; it’s called Aurea. It works just like ProTools—it’s got a whole mixing console on one page of it and a whole piano roll audio wave form thing with all the editing stuff that I had to pay $25,000 for in the ‘90s.
: I can’t imagine how expensive No World Order was to create back in ‘93.
Rundgren: Um, yeah [laughs]. It was a lot of junk. Everything was still hardware pretty much. All the sounds came out of hardware devices, so I had to purchase each one of those.
: Given your recent work with Lindstrom and the great beats you’ve constructed for Global in addition to touring with Dam-Funk, has all of this pushed your interest further into the realms of digital composition?
Rundgren: It always has. Musicians ideally are always some sort of synthesis of their influences. And the quality of the music that you make usually has a lot to do with quality of your influences. That’s kind of the great thing for me, this sort of revival of my older records among the younger generation in that I also inevitably get drawn into what modern musicians are doing, what they’re thinking about. Sometimes it gives me new ideas and sometimes it refreshes old ideas, things that I used to do that I’ve gotten out of the habit of doing or that I had even forgotten about [laughs], these approaches or ways of music I had let pass me by. That’s the great part of these collaborations for me is that it’s a constant reminder, especially to people who are in their most gut developmental phases of their careers, they’re starting to grasp the essence of their style, the refining of their sound, the building of their audience, of the stuff I was dealing with decades ago. And I get to relive that in a way by working with these artists who are moving through all of these phases.
: Was this feeling similar when you were working with, say, The Tubes for Remote Control or XTC on Skylarking or even the first Dolls record?
Rundgren: Well, the hardest part I guess is learning to submit to somebody else’s idea of what music is supposed to be like. Sometimes a lot of producers have some sort of template and an act has to fit into this template somehow, even if it isn’t a natural adjustment for them. And I always felt that bands…it’s in there somewhere [laughs]. Whatever you are working with, the end result is already there, and often you would just have to get out of the way. For a lot of records, my job was removing obstacles for the final product. I can’t say that necessarily about Skylarking. Skylarking was a record where if I hadn’t taken a firm hand, the band would have lost their label deal and would have likely broken up. Well, they did break up eventually [laughs].
: How did you come up with the set list for this tour and specifically the deep cuts you pull out in concert?
Rundgren: What we did is I had a list of songs that I wanted everyone to learn. We had about six days of rehearsal before the first gig. All of it, fortunately, was pretty much the whole production. So obviously we got used to the setup and things like that. But we rehearsed the songs without having any running order first, just to see how everything sounded. And then we sat down the day before the last day of rehearsals and everybody looked at the list and tried to figure out a running order, so we knew what we were gonna start with and we knew what we were gonna end with. But everything in the middle, people made suggestions. We did a couple of dress rehearsals with it, and it sounded pretty good. Then we realized there were some improvements to be made in the running order, so we changed it. And after two or three gigs, altered the running order slightly. But the thing we came up with was the best running order we could imagine, and it does include a lot of older material that we’ve reworked to sound like the rest of the material that we’re doing. But also it’s the idea that we’re giving people so much new stuff that we have to base it with some stuff that they’re familiar with, so it’s a combination of the new stuff and older stuff that has in a way the same musical and lyrical thrust to it.
: With all the renewed interest in your catalog, have you thought about finally doing a massive overhaul of the Bearsville stuff?
Rundgren: I tell ya, it’s a challenge sometimes, because I don’t have access to the original masters and usually I would base it on the original tracks. But a couple of things, for one I had to rebuild everything from scratch because I don’t have access to these original tapes. I have a lot of that stuff available to me, but it’s in an intermediate format. In other words, it hasn’t all been turned into what we call stems, which are the individual tracks. And a lot of it is in an old version of ProTools, so it would have to go through an elaborate process to transfer. It’s something that I’d like to do, but it’s a bit of a no-brainer that the logistics of the project is pretty heavy. I could put my whole catalog on a little thumb drive these days, but I’d be spending the rest of my life trying to do it.