Interview: Todd Rundgren Talks Utopia Tour and The Meaning of Life




Todd Rundgren and Utopia interview - Photo by James Balboni
Todd Rundgren and Utopia interview - Photo by James Balboni

By DONNA BALANCIA

Unless you’ve been living on the wrong planet, you know Todd Rundgren’s Utopia, the beloved new wave band of the 1970s and 1980s, has reunited and is out on tour.

Todd Rundgren’s Utopia plays The Wiltern in Los Angeles this Tuesday.

Utopia was a Rundgren project that took the idea of a band and brought it to a new realm. These guys had a story with a futuristic look and sound that blended the best of prog rock and harmonious pop songs.

Todd Rundgren's Utopia in Ft. Lauderdale - Photo by James Balboni
Todd Rundgren’s Utopia in Ft. Lauderdale – Photo by James Balboni

Utopia with Willie, Kasim, Roger and Todd

With Willie Wilcox on drums, Kasim Sulton on bass, Roger Powell on the keyboards and Todd up front, Utopia produced a unique sound that fused prog rock and pop with a solid catalogue of albums.

The band’s albums including Ra (1977), Oops, Wrong Planet! (1977), Adventures in Utopia (1979) and Utopia (1982), still hold up today.  They produced singles like “Love is The Answer,” “Rock Love,” “The Road to Utopia” and the mystical “Caravan,” a sweeping ballad that over the years people have interpreted to represent a myriad of significant meanings.

Todd Rundgren's Utopia available on Amazon
Todd Rundgren’s Utopia album, ‘Live at The Fox 1973’

The concerts Utopia played to promote those records were highly anticipated events that drew thousands from New York to LA with many fans throughout the U.S. and around the world. When the band broke up in 1986, it left the faithful fans wanting more. To their delight, Rundgren and the guys finally succumbed to the wishes for a big reunion tour this year.

Now, with six West Coast dates remaining on the successful 2018 Utopia reunion tour, CaliforniaRocker.com sat down for an interview with the great, multi-talented Todd Rundgren.

Kasim Sulton in Ft. Lauderdale - Photo by James Balboni
Kasim Sulton in Ft. Lauderdale – Photo by James Balboni

Todd: Utopia was created ‘Out of Need’

Utopia was created out of a musical need, Rundgren said.

“The original motivation, I was writing more and more music on the piano and I needed something that made greater demands in terms of my chops and such, and Utopia served that purpose.”

Utopia had a successful run with several records and consistent tours. But even with a following Utopia the band had only limited support by the record companies, Rundgren said.

Todd Rungren's Utopia and dynamic visual effects - Photo by Michael Bialas
Todd Rungren’s Utopia uses dynamic visual effects – Photo by Michael Bialas

“We did have tour support like a regular band but Utopia was never a concept the label OK’d,” he said. “It was my side project and I forced the label to release the record. They were kind enough when they thought there was potential for success but as the band went on I went on to continue to record for Bearsville but the band did not. The band realized the label didn’t have a sincere interest in it.”

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Todd Rundgren and Utopia - Photo by James Balboni
Todd Rundgren with Utopia in 2018 – Photo by James Balboni

Utopia has always been a physical band, often using big set pieces and going through several major costume changes in a night, How did the guys manage?

“We had the blush of youth on us,” Rundgren laughed. “We had nothing else to expend our energy on.”

“Utopia was part of the prog rock scene,” Rundgren said. “We enjoyed a 5-year run and got replaced by disco and punk and while it was popular but it played past the shelf date. We evolved into a different band. By 1985 we were more of an alt band.”

Rundgren Revives Utopia

The lack of support by the record labels and the bandmembers’ other commitments contributed to the end of Utopia.

“First of all as a musician, you want to play music,”  he said. “And often as a musician you just take the gig. Kasim took gigs with Joan Jett and Meatloaf, he’d be pretty much busy with someone else if he was not with me. There were periods when we didn’t work together — years. We went through a series of bass players and I guess things changed around the early ’90s when we did a brief Utopia reunion – we spent two weeks Japan.”

Todd Rundgren and Utopia: Then - Photo courtesy of band
Todd Rundgren and Utopia: Then – Photo courtesy of band

‘Reevaluation’ after Brief Japan Tour

After that two-week stint in Japan there was a reevaluation of the long term prospects for getting the band back together.

“We realized we weren’t ready to dive back into it,” Rundgren said. “Roger and Willie didn’t join other bands. Willie has been a music supervisor for a gaming company, for instance. You have to find the will to do it and then a window,” Rundgren said.

The band is almost the same as it was in its heyday. It’s Willie, Kasim and new recruit Gil Assayas on keyboards, subbing in for Powell, who couldn’t make the tour. Powell was initially replaced by keyboardist Ralph Schuckett, a long time collaborator of Rundgren. But he also dropped out.

Gil Assayas and Todd Rundgre in Denver - Photo by Michael Bialas
Gil Assayas and Todd Rundgren in Denver – Photo by Michael Bialas

Read ‘Who’s The New Guy in Utopia’ in CaliforniaRocker.com

“A couple of years ago we did a re-creation of ‘A Wizard a True Star,’ and Roger realized he didn’t like the road,” Rundgren said. “Regardless what health issues that have befallen him, he doesn’t like the road. And with Ralph, he learned he wouldn’t be able to tour. One of my conditions is I wouldn’t tour without the real people.

“We were briefly ecstatic Ralph was willing and able, but two weeks before rehearsals Ralph was diagnosed with an exotic condition the treatment of which would leave him wiped out for three days. Reluctantly we came to the agreement it wasn’t gonna happen with Ralph.”

Kasim Sulton, Willie Wilcox and Todd Rundgren in Denver - Photo by Michael Bialas
Kasim Sulton, Willie Wilcox and Todd Rundgren in Denver – Photo by Michael Bialas

Rundgren: Touring Is ‘Not Like Riding a Bike’

Rundgren said there’s no doubt that touring all the time is tough and doesn’t get easier as the years go on. The new and well-received keyboardist, Assayas is reaping the benefits.

“It’s one of those things that as long as you keep doing it it’s not too debilitating,” he said.  “It’s not like riding a bicycle, you can’t just get back on again.  “That’s the kind of thing that’s been a challenge for Roger and for Ralph because Ralph hasn’t toured in decades. For Gil, fortunately for him we’re at an age where we want comfort. He’s on the tour bus and he doesn’t have to tour in a van, like we used to do in the beginning.”

Todd Rundgren Willie Wilcox Roger Powell and Kasim Sulton - Photo courtesy of Utopia
Todd Rundgren Willie Wilcox Roger Powell and Kasim Sulton – Photo courtesy of Utopia

The tour has been successful thus far, with fans plastering the Internet with photos of the guys in costume and cool visual effects on the stage show.  Contributing to the cool visuals is a company Rundgren has worked with for years, NewTek.

Utopia, which amassed a large following by the early 1980s, was created based a vision of a new style of band, Rundgren said.

“It was just kind of about trying to build a band that had an ethos, rather than ‘Here’s the music’ and playing. Utopia was something that went along with the times,” he said. “It was a lot of ‘Us against Them’ mentality then,  The Vietnam War was still going on. There was still the attitude that youth was on one side and establishment and adults were on the other side. We wanted to be youthful.”

Utopia in Las Vegas - Photo by Carol D'Amico
Utopia at the Hard Rock Las Vegas on May 26, 2018 – Photo by Carol D’Amico

Rundgren’s Philosophy and Dreams for ‘One World’

There was a positive message with Utopia.

With songs like “Love Is The Answer,” and “One World,”  Utopia projected the vision that life could be more than the drudgery we all endure. The songs covered everything from dreaming of a future built on love for your neighbor, for caring for your fellow man, and in some cases, mere survival, like “Caravan.”

So what does Caravan really mean?

“It’s allegorical, it’s about life itself,” Rundgren said. “A lot of people seek stasis and routine. They want their lives to be the same every day and when it isn’t they get upset. The arc of life is struggle, confrontation and overcoming and dealing with the vagueries of nature.”

Rundgren said fans should not expect the show to be solely pop. The band throws in some surprises that will delight.

Todd Rundgren’s Utopia California Tour Dates

Todd Rundgren’s Utopia plays The Wiltern on Tuesday, The Masonic in San Francisco on Wednesday, Moore Theater in Seattle on Friday, June 1; Portland’s Revolution Hall on Saturday, June 2; Crest Theater in Sacramento on June 4 and wraps up the tour at the Fox Performing Arts Center in Riverside on June 5.