Rock veteran talks about this spring’s reunion of his ‘70s and ‘80s band
By Gary Graff
April 25, 2018
Todd Rundgren and Utopia sang about the “The Very Last Time” some 38 years ago, but now the group has a second chance. Formed by Rundgren during 1973, in the wake of his celebrated solo album A Wizard, A True Star, Utopia was a prog-minded collective with three keyboardists that ultimately morphed into a tight quartet whose hits — “Love Is The Answer,” “The Road to Utopia,” “One World,” “Set Me Free” and more — were as catchy as they were melodically sophisticated. The group disbanded during 1986, with periodic one-off or short-term reunions since, but this spring finds Rundgren and Utopia veterans Kasim Sulton and John “Willie” Wilcox, along with new keyboardist Gil Assayas, back on the road (again, as the song says), playing a long-awaited series of reunion shows. It’s a utopian situation for fans, particularly those of Rundgren’s guitar virtuosity, and it gave us a chance to talk to the man about Utopia’s past, present — and, maybe, future…
FGPO: You were kind of cooking along as Todd Rundgren, solo artist, when you started Utopia in 1973. What led you to create the band?
Rundgren: My goal was to develop as a guitar player. By the time I got to A Wizard, A True Star, which was done in the studio that we built in New York called Secret Sound, I had been writing most of my material on the piano and I got the feeling that I had lost to a certain degree my chops or whatever on the guitar because I wasn’t featuring it as much. So I wanted a context, a situation where I would play more guitar and I wouldn’t be doing all the writing so I could apply what I knew about the guitar to somebody else’s ideas.
FGPO: And you didn’t have to look far for band members.
Rundgren: No, the lineup of the band essentially was all people who had been working on A Wizard, A True Star and other projects in the studio, so it was sort of an organic thing. It all came together without me having to do something like hold formal auditions or anything like that around the concept. We didn’t have to go through that process. Everybody was already there.
FGPO: It was a very different band in the beginning than what it became in pretty short order.
Rundgren: Well, especially in the early days my goals were well met because we had these long, jammy songs where I could noodle around and develop my skills and keep myself viable as an instrumentalist. As time went on, our ideas changed because the personnel changed. We got down to more digestible-sized songs. There was a transition to something that was much more vocally oriented and much more strictly arranged, so our whole style started to pare down. And then we were just seeking the sort of ultimate combination of a sort of prog rock and pop song; our ideal would have been (Yes’) “Owner Of A Lonely Heart” — that’s, like, progressive pop, and that’s what we were always trying to do.
FGPO: But even then Utopia didn’t stay in one place. There was always some sort of conceptual or sonic change from album to album.
Rundgren: The reason the music seemed to evolve so much was, I think, we came from the era of concept albums and we didn’t necessarily want to do the same concept all the time. So once we hit a concept like, say, Oops! Wrong Planet then we had a little bit of guidance and channeling about how we were going to put our ideas together, which might be completely different than another record we would do. And a lot of that is holdover; we were into concept albums long after the idea of a concept album started to seem precious. We were habitual conceptualizers. (laughs)
FGPO: What’s your hindsight on Utopia now?
Rundgren: It was always challenging from a commercial side because the label never asked me to form a band. They would have been happy if it’d just continued as a solo career, and the band made things a little more problematic for them because there were two things to sell. It was probably easier to market when it was Todd Rundgren’s Utopia, but then we started calling it Utopia and they thought we would lose the audience. But we managed to hold our own and people found the concept interesting.
FGPO: You were actively releasing solo albums throughout Utopia’s existence. How did you separate the two for yourself?
Rundgren: Well, Utopia always had a band identity; it was four of us writing and arranging, so it didn’t sound just like a Todd record, even though I did most of the singing. And there were instances where there were songs that were on my records that became more associated with Utopia than me — like “Just One Victory,” for instance. We so often ended our shows with that song that people tended to think it was on a Utopia album, but it was on A Wizard, A True Star. There weren’t many of those, but a couple.
FGPO: Are any of the old stage props still around?
Rundgren: The pyramid is still around. It’s actually in a friend’s field near Providence, R.I. The giant (Ra) head is still in Woodstock, somewhere in storage. The motorcycle drum kit was burned in a warehouse fire along with the ahnk guitars, the chrome-plated guitars we used to have. We’re not bringing that stuff, but we’re not bringing nothing, either.
FGPO: What led to this year’s reunion?
Rundgren: There’d been talk about the band reforming for quite awhile. Any time I would go on the road it’d be inevitable — some fan would say, “Any chance of Utopia reforming this year? How about this year? How about this year?” (laughs) So it was kind of like the sword of Damocles hanging there, and it had to drop eventually. So we managed to get most of our ducks in a row, and here we are.
FGPO: Did anything have to be said or overcome in order put all of you together again?
Rundgren: We never officially broke up the band. We kind of got to a point where the concept couldn’t sustain the economic demands that we were putting on it, so we all sort of decided to go off and take care of our own things, not realizing that it was the effective end of the band. We speculated we could get back together, and we did for various things, but not like this.
FGPO: And even having to replace (keyboardist) Ralph Schuckett at nearly zero hour didn’t sink the ship.
Rundgren: I was traveling back from South By Southwest, so I didn’t actually find out until that Sunday morning. And at that point I wanted to walk into the ocean and not come back ’cause we were fully committed to this and there was nobody off the top of my head I thought was gonna be able to just walk in and do what Ralph had been working on for months. So we decided we would just open it up to anybody, but in the meantime we found someone that my son had actually met and heard play (Gil Assayas). We looked at his stuff on the Internet and were all blown away by how talented he was and how confident he seemed.
FGPO: If this goes well, could there possibly be more Utopia in the future?
Rundgren: Well, anything’s possible because I didn’t think this was possible. But it won’t happen immediately. It took so long to get this all prepared and booked and all the myriad relationships that go into it…But it is possible. I can’t say absolutely it will happen. I think what everybody on our side fervently wishes is that this goes well, and that’s it for now. Thinking about tours after this, I’m not gonns do that. I’m just gonna hope we do this one right.
FGPO: This is also your first year since 2012 you won’t also be playing in Ringo Starr’s All-Starr Band. How does that feel?
Rundgren: The last time I saw him he hugged me and thanked me for my service. He didn’t tell me I wasn’t going to be in the band anymore, but I got the sense that something was coming down the road. And it’s kind of a relief. I enjoyed my time with the band, but it was adding to the amount of time I was on the road to the point I wasn’t getting enough time off the road to work on other things. And it was going on the sixth year of playing pretty much the same set every night. Some people can do that, but I can’t. At a certain point it just drives me crazy. But it was a great experience. I got to a lot of places in the world I wouldn’t have gotten on my own and got to know a bunch of great players who I can call on any time just to say hi, or maybe work on a project together. It was certainly worthwhile for me, but I’m not depressed or anything that I’m no longer doing it.