A Conversation with Todd Rundgren (continued)
PM: Is that the way you wrote the songs on Liars?
TR: I started out with sort of an older process that I was trying to adopt, which was, "Write and complete an entire song before you move on to the next one." What that resulted in, at least for me, was a process that was so protracted that it was taking me six months to write a song. I wasn't parking any of those other ideas. I was just saying, "Anything that doesn't apply, I won't do." How many damn things could I freaking go through before I came up with the ideas that I thought were really proper for that song?
What that demonstrated to me was that I really have developed my musicality as an album artist. In other words, I think in terms of, "If this was a hundred and fifty years ago, I wouldn't be writing minuets, I'd be writing symphonies." Or else, "I'd have to be writing a dozen minuets at a time, in order to get all of the ideas properly distributed." So again, it's sort of backwards. Most people are accumulating a body of work which becomes their oeuvre, their egg, that big mass. For me, it's always a mass, and I'm trying to find little chunks of it that make sense.
So I'm always working from the standpoint of, "Okay, I'm about to do some recording, and that recording could be about anything, and I can adopt any musical style that I want to do it in." That leaves me with my first bunch of decisions I have to make, which is "What musical style am I not going to do? What subject matter am I not going to deal with?" That becomes the process. And at some point, it will become clear enough that I'll have something of a direction and that'll help me guide everything to where it's going to be. I had all sorts of musical ideas collected and a few lyrical ideas before I realized what the overarching idea was, and that helped me finish everything else.
PM: What was the overarching idea?
TR: It's about the fact that human beings lie so easily. We are essentially bred to do it. For many people, it's basic survival instinct, and it's not as if we can't change it, but we deny it, and that's the problem. The record is about the denial of what is true in all of its possible facets. There's still a lot of ground in there. You say, this album is about a paucity of truth. You've got a lot of area to cover, from denial to hubris to outright lying to white lies to prevarication to compulsion to lie. There are all kinds of ways of looking at it.
PM: You've written songs about a lot of subjects. To choose three songs at random--"Couldn't I Just Tell You," "Onomatopoeia" and "Communion With The Sun." Over time, which kinds of lyrics tend to be the most meaningful for you in the long run?
TR: Well, certainly not "Onomatopoeia." A song like that isn't meant to be anything more than amusing in a Yanni-like way. [laughs] There are songs that are sometimes written to a purpose. Music has always had a utile aspect to it, and in some cases and in some eras, that's all it is. In other words, there have been eras in which it was sacrilegious to write about anything except God from a musical standpoint. You were to only write liturgical music and no music about profane subjects, and in some cases, you were compelled to write only in certain modes. And if you wrote in certain other modes, that was the devil's mode. [laughs]
Being able to write music for a purpose is one of the things that a well-rounded musician ought to know how to do, and many do have the capability of doing that. Like, for instance, Stewart Copeland reinvents himself. At one point, he's a drummer in a pop band, another point, he's a composer of film scores. So when you're composing film scores, you are not simply writing whatever comes off the top of your head. You have to write to specific notes about what's going on, often with the realization that what you're writing is not the thing that's foremost in people's consciousness when the final product's being experienced.
In the case of "Communion With The Sun," it's something that's supposed to be a big set piece in a live show. That's what the song was written to be. From the lifting of the Bernard Herrmann theme in the beginning of it to the sort of galloping and swelling and all this other stuff. It's all for smoke bombs and lighting cues. It's almost like writing for a Broadway show. And then there are songs that are like "Couldn't I Just Tell You" which are written to almost a classical pop form, in a way. It goes back to songs like "Substitute" and "Pictures of Lily" by The Who, and maybe songs by The Byrds, you know, the jangly sort of way that's done. But the song was written to be an example of that form. I don't know what that form is called. A power pop song. I don't know what the hell that means, but you know one when you hear one.