How Todd Rundgren Helped Make One of 2015's Most Exciting LPs

Collaborators Lindstrøm and Emil Nikolaisen join the legendary rocker to talk experimental 'Runddans'

When the Smalltown Supersound label asked Todd Rundgren to remix space-disco pioneer Hans-Peter Lindstrøm's "Quiet Place to Live" in 2012, no one could have guessed that the rock singer and producer's first-ever remix would lead to Runddans, a time-warping return to his most progressively synthedelic heyday. "What started out as a whim turned into a multi-year collaboration," Rundgren says of the album, which was created by volleying files between his Hawaii home and the Oslo work stations of Lindstrøm and Emil Nikolaisen of Serena-Maneesh. The result reaches for the exhilarating sonic extremes heard in A Wizard/A True Star, Todd and Initiation without sounding a day older than tomorrow. The trio recently got together to talk about logistics, food, backup dancers and what makes their music similar to Groundhog Day.

How did you first convince Todd to collaborate on Runddans? Wasn't a little like asking Paul McCartney to remake Magical Mystery Tour or Brian Wilson to redo Smile?
Todd Rundgren: I was over in Oslo to speak at a music convention and figured I might as well do something in Norway beside speak. Lindstrøm happened to be in the studio working on a new project, and that's where I met Emil. At first we all thought I was just going to visit, make my little contributions, and they would finish the project. But we realized they needed a vocal component, and I took on the responsibility of providing that.

Do you think a lot of your fans would like you to produce more of the dense psychedelic music you were making in the Seventies?
Rundgren: These boys certainly did. One of the first things we did was try to recapture a weird synthetic guitar sound. They had an old pitch-to-voltage converter and a lot of vintage equipment in the studio we were using.

What do you think that the three of you have in common?
Emil Nikolaisen: We love great melodies and things colliding with each other, biting each other's tails. It took a long time to marinate. It's not an alienating record, but you can't eat the whole cake at once. You have to be patient with yourself and really enjoy the bites because it's so rich.

Rundgren: And full of calories [laughs].

What did each of you bring to the table, then?
Hans-Peter Lindstrøm: Todd added a lot of stuff from his Hawaii studio, and Emil and I worked in our Oslo studio. But to be honest, sometimes I don't remember who did what because everything is like a big eclectic soup.

Runddans means "rondel" in Danish, "circular object," and the title of one track is "Rundt Rundt Rundt" – around, around, around.
Rundgren: That's the central theme. The chords keep repeating, and it's hard to tell where the beginning of the sequence is. It's like an aural illusion where the sound sounds like its continually ascending when it's really repeating a cycle of harmonics. It's like you're tuning in a cosmic radio that keeps playing the same song over and over again  but it comes out different every time. It's like Groundhog Day. We refer to it as "the beginning and end of all music."

Runddans and your recently released solo album Global represent two different kinds of electronic rock. How do you compare the two projects, Todd?
Rundgren: About a year ago I started to rebel against the idea that we had no real song forms in Runddans. Then out of the blue I had a song called "Global Nation Come to Me." It was at the same tempo, and it rebelled against the tyranny of the eight chords we were using by only using two. I sent it to the guys knowing it probably didn't sit anywhere on the record, but with a project like this you never know. We realized it wasn't right for Runddans, even though it was rooted in it, and the song became the foundational element of Global, which I started around last Thanksgiving and finished by New Year's.

Nikolaisen: The dog has been biting its own tail in that sense as well. Hans-Peter and I are working on our response to Todd's "Global Nation" song, which we'll distribute soon.

Tell me about the Global tour. It's just you, a DJ and two dancers?
Rundgren: I did a fairly extreme techno-oriented presentation for State. I tried to DJ it myself and discovered I couldn't adequately DJ or MC because I was so worried about whatever song was coming next. I had to hand that over to somebody else, so I could come upfront and do what I'm supposed to do, which is sing, mostly. But a DJ and I aren't that much fun to watch, so I added background singer-dancers to make more of a show of it. One State song ran into another, like Runddans, but I wanted a more traditional presentation for Global, with breaks between songs and more stage lighting than venue lighting. The question is always, "Do you pay salaries for a lot of musicians or do you pay a lot of money to a lighting company" [laughs]? And sometimes it makes more sense to pay more money to the lighting company because there are fewer bodies to transport around, which is very expensive.

Is there anything specifically Scandinavian about Runddans?
Rundgren: The title, for one [laughs].

Nikolaisen: When you take the overnight bus north from Oslo to Trondheim, there's a slow route where you get to the mountain highlands and see this wonderful barren landscape, so sections of Runddans remind me of Norway's romantic heritage. And when we visited Todd's place in Hawaii, we saw things you can hear reflected in the music. But what comes first, music or place? I don't know.