Aidin Vaziri | Todd Rundgren is spending the summer on the road as part of a package tour with progressive rock heroes Yes and Carl Palmer of Emerson, Lake & Palmer.
It kind of makes sense, he says.
“You know, I have had a bit of prog-rock experience with Utopia,” Rundgren says, recalling his time as the frontman for the 1970s cosmic-rock outfit that toured arenas wearing capes and battling mechanical dragons. “Of course, this isn’t Utopia.”
The 69-year-old cult hero, who is scheduled to headline a solo concert at the Chapel billed as “An Unpredictable Evening With Todd Rundgren” on Wednesday, Aug. 30, in San Francisco, has hardly stayed on course since he set out with the psychedelic rock group the Nazz in the late 1960s.
A consummate workaholic, Rundgren has dabbled in heavy metal, baroque folk, synthesizer pop, computer funk, the occasional Broadway-style show tune and everything in between.
He once made an album, 1985’s “A Cappella,” using only his voice as an instrument.
“By the time I got to my third record, ‘A Wizard, a True Star’ (in 1973), it got overrefined,” he says, calling from a tour stop in Phoenix. “I could write a song in 20 minutes. It got to be too easy. It didn’t feel like I was expressing much except what everyone else expressed. After that I took a whole different approach.”
Prince and David Bowie were said to be admirers of his adventurous production — and outrageous fashion sensibility.
More recently, indie acts like Daft Punk, Simian Mobile Disco and the Lemon Twigs have taken notes from Rundgren’s playbook. When the British electronic pop group Hot Chip sampled his voice on its song “Shake a Fist,” from its 2008 album “Made in the Dark,” it put Rundgren back on the British charts for the first time since he scored a fluke 1973 hit with “I Saw the Light.”
It would be hard to ignore his influence.
Rundgren, who lives on an estate in Kauai, Hawaii, full time after selling his pied-a-terre in San Francisco’s Mission District two years ago, had a hand in some of the most important albums of the rock era.
In 1977, he produced Meat Loaf’s “Bat Out of Hell,” one of the best-selling albums of all time. While in a relationship with Patti Smith, Rundgren directed the making of her 1979 album “Wave,” a bittersweet project, he says, because they broke up after it was recorded and Smith married someone else.
He also recorded XTC’s breakthrough 1986 album, “Skylarking,” an arduous process that led to an ongoing feud with the singer Andy Partridge. “I can be impatient if I think that time is being wasted in the studio,” Rundgren shrugs.
Most of his own albums during his creative heyday were made under the influence of various substances, from 1971’s marijuana-enhanced “Runt: The Ballad of Todd Rundgren” to the Ritalin-induced 1972 double album, “Something/Anything?,” on which he played all the instruments; through “A Wizard, A True Star,” which he made while using mescaline.
How did he not become a drug casualty?
“Drugs like cocaine and all its derivatives never appealed to me — especially heroin, because I hate needles,” he says, emphasizing that he doesn’t have an addictive personality. “But I’ve taken a whole lot of psychedelics in my life. I do it whenever I feel like I’m at some sort of plateau or my progress seems to have slowed and I need to shake myself up or see things in a different way. It was never about how high I could get. It was about getting to a place where I could open my mind.”
He was an early adapter to the music industry’s shift to technology: In 1993, he changed his name to TR-i, as in Todd Rundgren interactive, and released No World Order as a CD-ROM (back when that meant something); he was one of the first to give his songs away on the Internet, predating today’s streaming services; and Rundgren was also an advocate for mobile recording.
“As much as I hated school, I’ve never been shy of technology,” he says. “My dad was an engineer. I felt like I was always ahead of the public at large. I realized that once something becomes possible, then it’s likely probable.”
Rundgren has spent the past few years touring as part of Ringo Starr’s All-Starr Band and has fronted a reunited version of the Cars called the New Cars. But he continues to look for inspiration, obsessively mining YouTube for clips that will help him keep pushing his music forward, as he plans to demonstrate at the Chapel.
“We have this list of about 50 songs — maybe half of them are mine and half are songs that the audience may have never heard before,” Rundgren says. “I pick the first song in the set and after that I start playing different songs on the list. It’s not like our usual shows. It’s a lot more fun.”