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Rundgren catches the bossa nova beat

Rundgren February 2, 1998
Web posted at: 12:10 p.m. EDT (1210 GMT)

By Paul Freeman

SAN FRANCISCO -- Todd Rundgren has never hesitated to bend his music in unexpected directions. So it should come as no surprise that his latest album, "With a Twist" (Guardian Records), takes his most recognizable songs, sets them to bossa nova beats and allows them to shimmer over lounge-music backdrops.

"Guardian approached me about doing an album of personal standards," Rundgren says. "They were offering a real budget. I figured, 'It's around tax time. Must be time to do a record.'"

The record company hadn't specified any particular approach. "They didn't want it to be a literal retelling," he says. "They also didn't want it to be nothing more than unplugged versions. I warned them that I was considering doing this (bossa nova). They didn't take me completely seriously at first," Rundgren says with a laugh.

"Nobody at the label said, 'Oh wow! That's exactly what we were thinking of, your bossa nova record!' So it was a little bit of a surprise for them, but also gave them an interesting lever to promote it with."

Rundgren had been contemplating opportunities to gain greater exposure in the South American music market. "I was thinking, I'm not credible with or even crazy about a lot of Latin music. But I've always really been into the bossa nova thing, because of the jazz-oriented aspects of it. So when I got the offer from Guardian, everything came together."

When Rundgren places such tunes as "Hello, It's Me" and "I Saw the Light" into the lounge realm, the results aren't cheesy or camp. He tries to make the exotic excursions magical. His fascination with lounge artists of the '50s and '60s, like Esquivel, Arthur Lyman, Martin Denny and Les Baxter, began about 15 years ago, during his frequent tours of Japan, where Rundgren has a huge following.

"The Japanese are such audiophiles," he explains. "They seem to have re-pressed everything onto CD. They discovered the lounge artists long ago. It's only recently that it's become a phenomenon in America.

"There's an element of musical daring in the original lounge albums that contemporary music could be considered, in many ways, lacking. In the '90s, with the heavily sampled records being made, the ear has been returned to these sorts of sonic non sequiturs, sounds taken out of context and placed in new contexts. Like many of those albums of the past, my album offers emotionally concise music that essentially sets and sustains a mood."

Rundgren isn't expecting "With a Twist" to set sales records. "The biggest problem artists have is that their audience flattens out. They get older. Instead of spending their money on records, all of that disposable income is now their kids' allowance. So the record industry is skewed toward the kids.

"As time goes on," he continues, "an artist loses the attention of the industry in general. Most of them go limping along, picking up a day job to supplement whatever they can still manage to squeeze out of the recording industry, or they just quit and wind up being a (a company rep) with some label. I don't see myself doing any of those things. I see myself continuing to make music. So I have to maximize my audience by connecting directly with them."

Rundgren, a pioneer among multimedia artists, is working on ways to allow consumers to subscribe online to a musician's compositions. People can then download the material at their convenience. You can check out his Web site at http:www.tr-i.com

"The actual physical distribution of records is one reason why many artists can't afford to remain in the business. There's all of these middle men who want to get a piece out of it, and if they don't see a big enough piece in it, they don't get enthusiastic about the process."

Though the music can be transferred perfectly via computer, Rundgren acknowledges that people still crave tangible merchandise. So you'll be able to order these items through the Web site too.

"People's habits are fairly ingrained, in terms of how they relate to the product of music. There's always been that question regarding electronic delivery, as to whether it's as sexy and satisfying as holding a package in your hand. That's why the hard-copy follow-through is, in some sense, essential."

Rundgren is perpetually found at the forefront of technological advances. "I'm always wary of technology, but I'm not afraid to deal head-on with the problems that it embodies," he says.

Right now, he's embarking on the second leg of touring in support of the new album. "If there's an adequate response, then I'll consider extending the performances. But I don't plan to wind up in the bossa nova bin for the rest of my career.

"My feeling is that the success of it has got to be limited to a certain degree. It's not the kind of record that is easily put into a contemporary radio format. The hook is really the familiarity of the material. The problem is that a lot of this material hasn't been on the radio for 20 years and there's a whole new generation of deejays and listeners."

Rundgren takes pride in the fact that he doesn't easily melt into the mainstream. "I've always incorporated diverse and bizarre musical influences. That's not unusual for me. It's peculiar when the things I'm interested in are also something that the public at large may have some interest in.

"Now that would be the oddball element -- if the audience and I would be in sync for once," he says with a chuckle.

Copyright © 1998, Paul Freeman
Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate

 
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