Todd Rundgren has worked with a lot of musicians…for an exceptionally long time. The soon-to-be inductee to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has a massive, substantial musical catalog that ranges from his time with garage rockers The Nazz, his array of solo recordings and his many records with Utopia, the band which morphed from prog rocker kingpin to full-on power pop pioneer. Longtime Utopia bassist, songwriter, and co-vocalist Kasim Sulton is one of Todd’s most enduring musical collaborators.
Todd Rundgren: The Individualist. A True Star
Sunday-Monday, Oct. 24-25. 8 p.m. $39 & up.
Bilheimer Capitol Theatre. 405 Cleveland St., Clearwater
The multi-talented artist was only in his 20s when recruited for membership in Utopia in the mid-’70s and has continued to often work alongside Rundgren ever since. Not one to sit idly, Sulton has also worked extensively with artists like Meat Loaf, Blue Öyster Cult, Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, and Scandal throughout his career. Yet, amid his busy schedule, he’s found time to release a brand-new solo album, Kasim 2021, that might just be the finest and most cohesive of his own catalog. Busy touring in support of that album as well as part of Rundgren’s band on his current, ambitious tour that finds him setting up two-night residencies in each of the scheduled cities, somehow, Sulton found the time to chat with me about his newest release, his work with Rundgren and about life on the road.
You’re coming to town to play with Todd Rundgren, but I wanted to first talk to you about your new solo record, Kasim 2021, that you’ve just put out because I think it's fantastic.
Well, thank you so much.
It had been a while since you’d put out a record of your own. Can you tell me a little bit about how this one came about and the inspiration for it?
Well, first of all, I, for whatever reason, and I'm not entirely sure why nor do I particularly care to know why, I don't put out solo albums out every year-and-a-half or two years. It's usually very far and few between. So, my first album came out in 1980-1981. I didn't do another record after that until I put a little cassette out in the early-‘90s with a friend of mine, [guitarist] Earl Slick, who was trying to start a record label at the time. And then I didn't do another solo record until 2004. I was completely inundated with work between Todd Rundgren, and mostly with Meat Loaf, actually, at that time, so I didn't have a whole lot of free time to work on my own material, which didn't mean that that I stopped writing or stopped creating my own music. I just didn't have the bandwidth to sit down and take a few months out of my schedule to put out a proper solo CD together. And then something happened in 2004 where I kind of got a little bit more of a bug to work on more on my solo material and I put out a record in 2004 and I did some shows behind it.
I was having a wonderful time doing that even though I didn't really have a band; I did it all by myself. And then I put another record out around 2008. I did a compilation record with some new tracks on it, but it didn't take a whole lot of time and energy to do that because it was a double-CD and most of it was stuff that had already been on a record in some form or another and it was like some demo tapes and stuff like that.
So, then it was in 2010 and I was like “I’m really enjoying the solo world and the solo work.” So, I sat down to write another solo record and that one came out in June 2014. That was III and it was titled III because it was my third proper solo record. And then I toured behind that with a little band.
I was thoroughly enjoying myself. I'd finished all my Meat Loaf duties and I wasn't playing with Meat Loaf anymore, so I had a lot more free time actually. And then in 2019, I have a guy that I write with frequently, Phil Thornalley in London. I was on a trip to London, and I went to Phil's place, and he said, “So are you working on any new material?” And I said well, you know, I have some ideas here and there and he said well, “Why don't you do another solo record?” I said, eh, I don't know. I don't know if I want to do another record. I'm not sure. So, he kind of lit a fire under my behind and, somehow, I'm not entirely sure how he did it, but he made it a little urgent. He was like “You gotta do this! This is what we do, this is what you have to do. Let's just start writing.” We started with about three or four tracks that I had done while I was over in London. And then those three tracks just turned into 12 over the course of the next two years.
Well, I'm glad he lit that fire under you because the record is outstanding.
Thank you! This was the first record since my first solo record that is entirely produced by someone else, like Phil. Phil produced this whole record and I think that's another reason why it kind of resonates with a lot of people because, you know, whenever we get out of our comfort zone, the end result is usually surprising to both the artist and the fans. And I'm not saying that my fans were surprised at this record, but they certainly enjoyed it. I've gotten a lot of positive feedback from this record. Well, that's the long answer, so there you go. (laughs) You got the book instead of the CliffsNotes.
I'll take it! It's fascinating stuff. And I know that name, Phil Thornalley. He's worked on a lot of stuff. He's written with Bryan Adams, and he's produced for The Cure, so I recognize his name from my record collection.
Yes! He has.
One thing I noticed about the new record is that it opens with a really positive message with the track “More Love” and then it closes with your cover of Nick Lowe’s “(What’s So Funny ‘bout) Peace, Love and Understanding” which also contains another really positive uplifting message. Was that intentional to open the album on that note and close it that way, too?
Yes, and no. We always wanted to end the record with “Peace, Love and Understanding.” It seemed like a good closer for the record as opposed to something that was maybe a little bit more downtempo or a little bit more subdued. Both Phil and I agreed that it would be really good to kind of go out with a real bang, I guess for lack of a better term. So that's where “Peace, Love and Understanding” came in. And I think what happened was “More Love” was the last song that was written for the record. So, we had 11 tracks done and Phil said, you know, we kind of need one more. I think we need one more song on this just to button everything up. Something a little bit, uh, not necessarily uptempo, but not downtempo. We don't want another ballad; we don't want another midtempo song. We want something that's like kind of right in between and a positive message and so, “More Love” was, like I said, the last song written for the record, and that's why it was my choice for the first single, because I thought that as songs go, it was indicative of what, the rest of the record was like. It didn't lean in any particular direction. And I felt that was the best thing for the record; to have that as the song that people might gravitate towards, you know.
It's perfect for the opener of the album. It just pops from the beginning. It just opens the record on a really high note, so I love the placement of it.
Yeah, and it's also got John Siegler on bass. I mean what more could you ask for? And Prairie Prince on drums!
I heard a lot of different influences on the record and, I know that’s probably based on all the people you've played with and all the stuff that you're familiar with. I hear some R&B on the record, some power-pop. I imagine that’s kind of an extension of your range of taste. It touches on a lot of different genres.
You know, I don't particularly categorize myself or pigeonhole myself as one specific type of artist. I really like to kind of just, you know, put my footprint all over the place. So, I am always kind of experimenting. I like everything from Dvorak to Nina Hagen and everything in between. And I think that for me personally, that's what makes a Kasim Sulton album. I don't really spend a lot of time doing one particular thing.
And that comes through very naturally. It doesn’t feel forced, or anything. It feels like you’re in your comfort zone in all those different areas. I know you're touring, obviously with Todd, but you're also doing your own solo shows too. Is that a challenge for you to kind of switch gears from your own stuff to play with Todd from one night to the next or one week to the next is that kind of an adjustment for you?
I don't know. I think that might have been a time when that was a consideration. I think there might have been a time where it was like I really needed to concentrate on one thing and one thing only, but, as I get older, it becomes a little less important to stop doing one thing and, and completely focus on something else. I always like to just make things as muddy as I possibly can in my world.
Speaking of touring, you’ve played with so many people: you mentioned Meat Loaf earlier and I know you did some time with Blue Öyster Cult, and you’ve played with Joan Jett, and of course with Todd and Utopia. Do you ever get to the point where you have to get yourself into the zone and think “Where am I? What song am I playing?” It's got to be so much to remember for you all the time when you play with so many different artists like that.
You know, it's funny that you should mention that because I just started a Todd tour just about two weeks ago. And I was pulling my hair out going into it because I had been working on my record and I have a couple of livestreams that I had, and my time was completely taken up doing my solo stuff and working on my record. And so, I was like, biting my nails at the last minute was like “Ah, geez, I gotta go over all this Todd stuff! I gotta, you know, I have to learn like, 30 songs. I mean, some of them I know, some of them I don't, some of them I can remember, but some of them, I was thinking, “I've completely forgotten how that one goes.” Anyway, long story short, I sat down to play some of the stuff, and I was pleasantly surprised that I knew everything. I remembered everything like it was yesterday.
Wow, so it was all kind of embedded in you. It all kind of came back naturally
That's admirable. I can't imagine the wealth of stuff that must come to you naturally for as long as you've been playing with so many different artists. That's a true gift right there
Yeah. I'm very lucky
You add so much to Todd's sound, music, and presentation through your work with Utopia and through his solo stuff. You're a huge part of that and I know that you sing lead vocals on a lot of Utopia songs throughout all those albums. While you’re on this current tour with Todd, will you be singing lead vocals on any of the songs that will be played?
It depends on what night you come. If you come on a night where we are playing the second side of A Wizard, A True Star, because this particular tour is in two parts, So the first part is The Individualist, it’s more or less Todd's solo material, all the popular stuff. Everything that people expect him to play and want him to play. So, we do the first half of the show like that. Second half of the show is one side of A Wizard, A True Star or the other side of A Wizard, a True Star. And I sing one song because Todd has a costume change, so I was delegated a song to sing and that's the song that I sing.
A lot of local fans are really looking forward to these shows. There are a lot of hardcore Todd fans in the area! Do you have any plans to extend your solo tour? I know you said it's kind of sporadic. But any chance that we might get to see you here in Florida playing your own stuff?
I would probably not be in Tampa any time soon. However, I will be in Atlanta in February 2022 doing a makeup show that I was supposed to have done way back home in 2020 that got canceled. So, I will be at the City Winery in Atlanta and also in Nashville in February 2022.
I'd love to hear the stuff from the new album played live. I'm sure it translates really well in a live setting .
I think what you really want to see is Kasim Sulton’s Utopia. And that is something that I’ll be doing some time in March of next year.
Man… you're a busy guy!
Well, you know, there's a lot less than there was so I might as well make hay while the sun shines.
One last question: I know fans have been waiting for this for a long time, but any thoughts regarding Todd finally getting inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? Do you think that it's long overdue? Do you think it's insignificant? Any thoughts on that?
You know, I don't think it's insignificant. I think it's really cool, whether or not Todd subscribes to that particular organization has nothing to do with me or my thoughts about it. I think that it's great when you are recognized by a group of your peers and it’s a little pat on the back for the work that you've done and the lives that you've touched with your music. And so, I think it's great. I really do. And I think that as much as Todd might kind of say “eh” about it, the only reason why he's happy about it is for the fans. I can't help but think that on some level, he's like, you know, it's not so much vindication as it is acknowledgment, and it's always nice to be acknowledged.
I agree. I think most people’s mindset, when they heard he was getting inducted was, to think “I can't believe he wasn't in there already!,” right? What a total oversight.
Yeah, and you're not the first one that, you know, there are people that have, you know, like John Mellencamp when he was on David Letterman years back when he was saying “Why isn't Todd Rundgren inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?” And then there was Hall & Oates, who, when they were inducted, during their speech, they said, “Todd Rundgren should be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame” so, like I said, it's always nice to be acknowledged and recognized. It's really a good thing.
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