Tuesday, September 14, 2010

THE QUEEN IS THE KING - An interview with Kaki King

About to embark on a return trip to Australia, KAKI KING talks about her new album Junior, the merits of Ovation guitars, scoring for films and her Weiner dog who is apparently ‘not gay’. ANDY HAZEL harbours doubts.

Despite being one of the most acclaimed guitarists of recent years, a respected songwriter, in-demand film scorer and, according to thousands of men and women, a total babe, Kaki King is unsatisfied with how she’s appeared in the media. “One thing is always going to overshadow another,” she says, while trying to navigate her way from her home in New York to a friend’s place. “I have a lot of great songwriter friends both male and female who are also excellent guitarists but seem to struggle with this way the media can only focus on one thing at a time because of their famously short attention spans,” she says in a distracted, mile-a-minute manner reflective of her work ethic. “So usually my friends who are great guitar players but in the singer-songwriter genre get asked questions like ‘let’s talk about your lyrics. What did you mean when you wrote this?’ or ‘Let’s talk about your guitar playing,’ it’s always difficult to excel at more than one thing, and I think that’s the key to making good music. Even if you’re not the most proficient guitar player in the world, when you combine a gift with the instrument and write with honesty, that’s what makes true beauty.” This straightforward view infuses her beloved songs and gives a clue as to how one woman has overcome the initial tendency for attention to be given as much to her appearance as to her skills on the guitar, with little left over for the songs.

“It’s not hard to come up with a sweet guitar technique,” she says breezily as I suppress the urge to blurt ‘easy for you to say Miss Rolling Stone Guitar God of 2007™’. “I mean it does take a while, but it’s not as hard as it is to write and I don’t mean like: ‘Yeah baby / I’ll love you forever etc.’ that’s not what I’m trying to do. If I’m able to somehow get both jobs done while being a good guitar player then that’s when I know a song works. When I play a gig people aren’t going to stick around just to watch me play guitar.”

Few of those who have seen King perform on one of her frequent visits to these shores would doubt that she’s doing all right by her standards. While earning accolades such as a Golden Globe nomination for her work on the film Into The Wild, awards and praises from every guitar magazine that mentions her and love from her peers (especially Dave Grohl), King has been working with everyone from Timbaland to renown film composer Carter Burwell. Though a very different process, she finds film scoring can be equally rewarding. “It always depends, it can be something where you can listen to it on it’s own as a piece of music or it can be intricately tied to a particular scene. Sometimes I’ll turn in a bunch of tunes and say to myself ‘ooh I hope they don’t use that one because I really like it!’ It can be so fucking painful to go back and forth between director, editor and music editor and get three different opinions,” she says despondently. “After a while really what you’re doing becomes arbitrary and everyone has a different feeling about a certain piece or they fall in love with the temp track etc. Scoring is something I’m interested in, as you have to work quickly, get inspired and create. Even when the people I’ve worked with are great there have still been edits where I’ve had to go back to the roughs of the film and begin again, it becomes something I spend hours working on. And then it gets cut or something else gets added and it’s hard because I’m writing music to very specific pieces of time. It’s a challenge but I’m frustrated because it can become so little about what I want to do.”

Something that comes across in King’s music and style of talking it‘s that she does what she wants, when she wants. Even when it comes to becoming a pioneering guitarist, it never seems anything was sacrificed to get where she is. “Sometimes playing the guitar feels like hard work, but it’s hard work you really enjoy. No one’s making you do it, it’s not painful. I think there are times when you’re young and learning because you really want to be doing it. It’s a challenge in a beautiful way, You should never look at it as work and it never should be.”

Renowned acoustic guitar manufacturer Ovation, whose guitars she often uses, asked King to design the 1581-KK guitar for them in what is surely an ultimate sign of industry respect. “My father had an Ovation but he wouldn’t let me touch it when I was a kid - I’m driving now, this is so not safe…” she says laughing, hopefully talking on her hands free. “When I went to college, he gave me that guitar and I wrote my first album on it. I’d already been playing an Ovation when I met [influential guitarist and Ovation player] Preston Reed. I was already going down that route when I saw him play, which was another serendipity type of thing. Nothing I do is very strummy, and it gives a very tactile sound. I’ve tried to move away from that in recording recently I didn’t use it once on Junior, as I’m sure my sponsors will be happy to hear,” she says laughing. “I use whatever works at the time, when I’m playing in really low tunings, that’s mainly when they get used.”

All we can say we have, are some photographs and a wiener dog / That chews up everything I love and all the things you left behind” sings King in Junior’s closing song Sunnyside of her beloved pet. Despite some insider information I gleaned which suggests otherwise, she professes her dog to be ‘not gay’ Readers, here is the evidence, you decide: “He has no balls," she begins, "but he likes men and he’s really funny because he’s really pretty; he’s a gorgeous dog,” she continues with glowing pride. “He likes guys because he’s always around my sister and me and we’re always coddling him, but he has this little boy inside him so when boys come around, he senses testosterone. He likes to lick men, he likes to lick their hairy legs, he always gives the guys a lot of attention.” Hmmm….

Saturday, September 11, 2010

An analysis of the online community ‘Mess+Noise’ using the theory of Symbolic Interactionism

Although efforts have been made to define community in many disciplines, there is yet to be a clear conceptualization of the construct. This lack of coherence has been evident since 1955 when sociologist George Hillery compiled over 90 definitions of community and found the only commonality across all these sources to be that they dealt with people (p111). 

Early online sociologists also struggled with the term. Jonassen et al. (1998) state that community can be defined as a social organization of people who share knowledge, values and goals. Group members come to depend upon each other for the accomplishment of certain goals or to fulfil certain roles. Social groups become communities when the interaction and consistent communication between group members lasts long enough to form a set of habits and conventions, which allows symbolic interactionism to be used to study them (Wilson and Ryder,  1996).

With the rise of new media, however, online communities have challenged the concept of traditional communities. Communities no longer exist only in the physical world but also in the virtual world that operates through the internet, or, as Fernback states, we can ‘leave behind bodies, prejudices and limitations associated with those bodies, to interact solely as minds in an unfettered environment’ (2007, p51). Community can be prescriptive, descriptive and normalising in a way that is perhaps best usurped by the study of social relations, as a geographic place has been replaced by a sense of collectivity (Janowski 2002, p39).

The term ‘glocalized’ has been invented to describe internet-based communities which can have global and local connections, such as the one I’m studying, where ‘‘worldwide connectivity and domestic matters intersect’’ (Wellman & Gulia, 1999, p. 187). Self-help groups in which users interact with each other, gather information and learn about local treatments and support demonstrates glocalization well (Riper et al 2008, p218; Lieberman and Goldstein 2005, p855). Thus, online communities seem to have many of the characteristics of offline communities. As Fernback (1999) summarizes, ‘‘cybercommunities are characterized by common value systems,  norms, rules, and the sense of identity, commitment, and association that also  characterize various physical communities and other communities of interest’’ (p. 211). 

A pertinent local example of this type of community is Mess and Noise (M+N). M+N is predominantly used to share information and opinions about music, especially local music and current issues. Discussions extend to politics, popular cultural phenomenon, personal issues and irreverent humour. The site is moderated but interaction from the moderator occurs rarely and few users have ever been banned or discussion threads removed even when discussion rules have been broken.

Using the concepts of symbolic interactionism and role theory I chose to analyse the styles of interaction, the reasons people use the site, and the values placed in it.

The Site and Anonymity
In her study of online fandom, Baym states that there is a generation of collective intelligence and affect with the creation of self concepts and self presentations within fan groups prior to the creation of a shared identity (Baym 2007, p2). As with many sites, M+N asks contributors to adopt an identity (usually anonymous) to share the knowledge that is essential to the survival and success of their online communities. Anonymity has been shown to increase antisocial comments in online communities and the popularity of adopting a (usually culturally referential) username has been shown to markedly increase user participation, while peripheral participation has been shown to remain unaffected (Kilner and Hoadley 2005, p272).

The common approach of symbolic interactionism when analyzing communities bypasses two of its main contributing qualities, location and organisation. Through its focus on meaning and identity, interactionism can help to understand the reasons people choose to be part of this community, regularly contribute to it and often find it hard to leave. There is a high level of group cohesion, which is critical to the flourishing of any community, and a high level of ‘lurkers’ or ‘social loafers’; people who follow discussions but contribute little or nothing (Shiue, Chiu and Chang 2010, p768).

Many users on M+N are friends outside of the community given that the majority of users live in Melbourne. Anonymity is not as pronounced here as in other more subject-specific forums. Though gender can be hard to determine, gender split is relatively equal. Typically there are around 20-50 people using the site at any one time during the day, meaning that the interactivity of a community is constantly occurring (Figure 1. p3)

Figure 1. Statsbot Report of user numbers for messandnoise.com (Retrieved 06.09.2010). Taken from <"http://messandnoise.com/discussions/3677441>

Symbolic Interactionism and Online Communities
Symbolic interactionism (SI) was outlined by sociologist Herbert Blumer in 1969, Blumer set out three basic premises of the perspective:
  1. "Humans act toward things on the basis of the meanings they ascribe to those things."
  2. "The meaning of such things is derived from, or arises out of, the social interaction that one has with others and the society."
  3. "These meanings are handled in, and modified through, an interpretative process used by the person in dealing with the things he/she encounters." (Blumer 1969)
To examine the meanings people find in things is to focus on micro-level interactions. Theoretically, these can be used to extrapolate meaning in behaviour and knowledge gained about a community or society from that. In sourcing knowledge of an individual, SI examines the individual’s relationship with their environment, or in this case, the relationship to and within an online community.

As an example in this context, the exchange documented in Appendix I (p9) can be used to examine meaning found in participating in M+N; participant observation is a useful tool for gathering information when using SI making this an ideal method for online community analysis.
In this case we can see that users are discussing the relationship between income and happiness. The perspective adopted indicates that contributors to this discussion appear to be literate, aspirational, of low to median income, relatively articulate, respectful of others comments and use humour as a way to deflect from the seriousness of the issue.

In keeping with the principals of SI, there is a high degree of interpretation of other users’ actions rather than a straight response to them. There are jokes, abbreviations, cultural references, frequent references to local people, places and bands and customization of language and tone in keeping with the known dialogue of the community. This is an example of a community using symbols and signification and meaning can be found within one another’s actions.

Symbolic communication is an important and defining device when using SI to construct a reality. SI states that material and individual realities are constructed through a communicative and dynamic process.  Blumer’s (1969) interpretation of SI posits that humans act toward social stimuli based on meanings they hold about those stimuli. These meanings are generated and developed through social interaction, and people’s interpretations mediate their understandings of their culture (Blumer, 1969; Musolf, 2003). Thus, human agency or our ability to construct meanings and act upon these meanings define and build the SI study of community. Cohen’s (1985) focus on symbolic meaning as defining community reflects this interactionist perspective. The Chicago school in which Mead developed and SI grew conceived the self and social elements combining to result in human action and believed meaning construction occurred through symbolic interpretation as a way to build communities with shared interests (Kreiling and Sims 1981, p15). 

Strauss’s study of interaction focuses on the definition of boundaries of social worlds. He explores Shibutani’s ideas of boundaries as set by the ‘limits of effective communication’ (1978, p119). This theory can be applied to M+N as many may visit the site but few will be informed enough to understand the references to habits of members, or many may be put off by the initial cynical, obscene or negative tone of many threads. This limits the growth of the site to those who have the requisite patience or knowledge of popular and local culture.
This boundary-setting elitism or focus on a user with a certain style of interaction is one way of regulating the size and style of the community.

Online Communities, Boundaries and Social Capital
In Lee and Lee’s article the authors explore the positive relationship between online community use and social capital (2010, p712). They argue a site like M+N supports face-to-face interactions, that its users have a higher level of sociability than non-users and that communication abilities are enhanced through technological advances. SI and social capital are complementary as the value in social capital can be easy to ascertain. A community desires social capital and the information held within a site like M+N can be seen to be capital. The discussion in Appendix II indicates an example of M+N community organising a community rally to protest against the closure of a live music venue, and the lack of support for a similar venue in Sydney. This supports Lee and Lee’s suggestion of the value placed in real world interaction.

This sentiment is also reinforced in Baym’s article. She argues that there may be a shared ethos but disagreements are common and actually desirable as there is a high level of creativity which is promoted and enabled in new ways by the use of the internet (2007, p2). Baym also suggests that a sense of community may be formed by the users on one site meeting again on another site which aims to unite people with a more specific interest, mimicking the ‘bumping into someone’ manner of meeting in geographically place-based communities (Baym 2007, p13). It could also be argued that a community cannot be understood by referring to one site alone, particularly when a specialised interest is shared.

How SI has Influenced My View of M+N
Having been an occasional contributor to M+N for three years I found a forced external view interesting, and questioning why the community exists and reasons for its popularity. Educated people who have access to the internet and opinions about art and music abound in Melbourne and when given an opportunity to argue from a relatively anonymous position, will be attracted to that. As a place for learning about what is currently popular, younger people will go there to find out and older people will dispense what they perceive as wisdom. Both give the site value and user become invested in their identities over time. M+N sees a commitment to the community from many of its members with a suicide and several near suicides of members bringing face-to-face help from others who had not previously met. Symbolic communication can be regarded as purposeful social action in keeping with Blumer’s theory; however people cannot be active in a community without contiguity meaning that a geographical closeness is needed to allow this to happen. Neither can it be regarded as a substitute for offline socialisation. 

There is likely to be a great deal more research on the application of social community theory to online communities. Though symbolic interactionism is a useful way to analyse online communities and the interaction therein, there is likely to be a surge in new sociological approaches which combine current disciplines in order to understand the relationships herein in an academic, legal, political and economic sense. Online communities are increasing in number and in importance as recognised by the amount spent on advertising in online communities and the opportunities they represent for socialisation and targeted marketing (Papworth, 2010). Around ten of the top fifty most popular websites are social networking/online community websites ("http://www.mostpopularwebsites.com"; www.mostpopularwebsites.com; "http://www.alexa.com/topsites"; "http://www.google.com/adplanner/static/top1000/"). One could argue that the term community needs to be modified as there is a convenient togetherness on online communities but no real responsibility is engendered and, in fact the placement of social groups with ‘egocentric networks’ can be found to be true in some places (Boyd 2006, p12). Ultimately it matters more how well we understand it rather than what we call it. SI is a useful, if limited, tool for increasing our information about online interactions.

  • Atkinson, P. Housley, W. (2003) Interactionism Sage Publications, London, UK
  • Baym, N. (2007) The new shape of online community: the example of Swedish independent music fandom First Monday 12:8;1-17
  • Blumer, H. (1962) Human behavior and Social Processes Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, UK, 179-
  • Blumer, H. (1969) Symbolic Interactionism: Perspective and Method University of California Press, Berkley USA
  • Boyd, D. (2006) Friends, Friendsters and Fop 8: Writing community into being on social network sites First Monday 11:12;1-12
  • Clarke, A. (1991) Social Worlds/Arenas theory as organisational theory Social Organisation and Social Process: Essays in honor of Anselm Strauss Aldine de Gruyter Publishers, New York, USA p119-140
  • Cohen, A. (1985) The Symbolic Construction of Community Ellis Horwood Publishers, Chichester, UK
  • Fernback, J. (1999) There is a there there: Notes towards a definition of cybercommunity in Doing Internet research: Critical issues and methods for examining the Net Jones, S. Ed. Sage Publications, Thousand Oaks USA pp203-220
  • Fernback, J. (2007) Beyond the diluted community concept: a symbolic interactionist perspective on online social relations New Media & Society 1:49-69
  • Forte, J. (2001) Theories for Practice: Symbolic Interactionist Translations University Press of America Lanham, USA
  • Jankowski, N. (2002) Creating community with media: History, theories and scientific investigation in The Handbook of New Media Lievrouw, and Livingstone Eds. Sage Publishing, London, UK p34-49
  • Jenkins, H. (2006) Convergence culture: Where new and old media collide New York University Press, New York, USA
  • Jonassen, D. Peck, K. Wilson, B. (1999) Creating Technology-supported Learning Communities in Learning with Technology: A constructivist perspective Prentice Hall, Upper Saddle River, USA
  • Hillery, G. (1955) Definitions of Community: Areas of Agreement Rural Sociology 20:2;111-123
  • Kreiling, A. Simms, N. (1981) Symbolic interactionism, progressive thought and Chicago journalism in Foundations for Communication Studies Soloski, J. Ed. Center for Communication Study, University of Iowa, Iowa City USA pp5-37
  • Lee, J. Lee, H. (2010) The computer-mediated communication network: exploring the linkage between the online community and social capital New Media and Society 12:5;711-727
  • Lieberman, M. Goldstein, B. (2005) Self-help online: An outcome evaluation of breast cancer bulletin boards Journal of Health Psychology 10:855-862
  • MostPopularWebsites  "http://www.mostpopularwebsites.net" Accessed 7th September 2010
  • Musolf, G. (2003) ‘The Chicago School’ in Handbook of Symbolic Interactionism Reynolds, L. And Herman-Kinney, N. Eds. AltaMira Publishers, Walnut Creek, USA pp91-117
  • Papworth, L. (2010) Monetization: Social Network Advertising  "http://laurelpapworth.com/social-media-monetization-social-network-advertising/"Accessed 7th September 2010
  • Reich, S. (2010) Adolescents’ sense of community on Myspace and Facebook: A mixed-methods approach Journal of Community Psychology 38:6;688-705
  • Riper, H. Kramer, J. Smit, F. Bonjin, B. Schippers, G. Cuijpers, P. (2008) Web-based self-help for problem drinkers: A pragmatic randomised trial Addiction 103:218-227
  • Shiue, Y. Chiu, C. Chang, C. (2010) Exploring and mitigating social loafing in online communities Computers in Human Behaviour 264:768-777
  • Strauss, A. (1978) Social Worlds Studies of Interaction 1:119-128
  • The 1000 most-visited sites on the web  "http://www.google.com/adplanner/static/top1000/"  Accessed 7th September 2010
  • Top Sites: The Top 500 Sites on the web "http://www.alexa.com/topsites Accessed 7th September 2010"
  • Wellman, B. Gulia, M. (1999) Virtual communities as communities: net surfers don’t ride alone in Communities in Cyberspace Smith, M. Kollock, P. Eds. Routledge Publishers, New York, USA
  • Wilson, B. Ryder, M. (1996) Dynamic Learning Communities: An Alternative to Designed Instruction Proceedings of Selected Research and Development National Convention of Association for Educational Research and Technology, Indianapolis USA < HYPERLINK "http://carbon.ucdenver.edu/~mryder/dlc.html"http://carbon.ucdenver.edu/~mryder/dlc.html> Accessed 6th September 2010

Appendix 1: Money = Happiness Discussion <http://www.messandnoise.com/discussions/4023136

Appendix II: 1000 Protest Tote Closure <http://www.messandnoise.com/news/3849119

CD Review: BANDE MAGNÉTIQUE – ninetynine

(Patsy Records)

Continuing their seemingly unstoppable mission to musically define an indefinable genre, ninetynine’s seventh album is yet another fine achievement, and one that in any just world would garner thousands of new fans and prodigious airplay. Singer and main songwriter Laura MacFarlane is one of the quiet giants of the Melbourne music scene, having done years ago what most bands are struggling to do now. Build a profile, a name that reeks of integrity, a sizeable fanbase from multiple international tours, and enough clout to play overseas festivals - without grants, airplay or any industry help at all, in a commitment to quiet, constant industry. Even the refusal to capitalise their name reinforces how this is a band whose fanbase discovered rather than was handed them.

Despite a beloved back catalogue and a litany of smart ideas and catchy melodies it’s hard not to feel that Bande Magnétique is the greatest album ninetynine have yet made, one that succeeds richly in what it sets out to do. Lyrics are concise and evocative, all players on top form, the pacing and arrangements inspired and the production perfectly sympathetic to the band’s instrumentation and vision. Musically, ninetynine channel the warm throb of evelatory post-grunge mid-90s-redolent riffs, and sweltering and bubbling keyboards courtesy of Meg Butler, which MacFarlane’s gorgeously warm voice leaps above and Cameron Potts’ busy but never distracting percussion drives.

The opening melodic vitriolic burst of shimmering Casio pop Guest List Girls details the hip inner city gig-going experience from the stage; a breathless and pointed calling card. It’s hard to believe there’ll be a more beautiful song released this year or a more compelling one in their vast back catalogue than the third track Woods with its atypical string arrangements, perfectly judged dynamics and Catholic v. Protestant subject matter. ‘Bus them away this time/ Vandalise the bleakest skies are begging / If you bus them away, humanise their tongue / This is the way these dogs and days have become’. Other songs to find online include Potts’ San Pedro, first single Broken Hands and gorgeous closer Long Way Back.

That Bande Magnétique will likely just become a high point in a lengthy discography discovered years from now and hailed in distant countries as a triumph rather than win new fans is nothing new for MacFarlane and co, and thankfully won’t stop them making more stellar albums like this one.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

BACK TO THE ROOTS - An interview with DC Root aka Damian Cowell aka That Guy From TISM

At the inception of their final show, frontman of irreverent Melbourne country institution Root! and one-time TISM honcho gives his last interview as DC ROOT and his first as DAMIAN COWELL. ANDY HAZEL marks the occasion.
“This is a momentous interview!” prefaces DC Root, singer and songwriter of country and western-influenced, lyrically hilarious social commentary band Root! as he slides into a booth in an inner Melbourne cafe. “This will be like John Lennon’s interview with Molly Meldrum in 1969 when he said ‘the Beatles are dead,’ I mean, it’s clearly on that scale isn’t it?’ he says drily. “This is the end not only of Root! But of DC Root.” he continues. “I’ve adopted a new pseudonym, which is actually my real name, I am henceforth known as Damian Cowell; it’s the end of an era,” says Cowell with a smile. “No one is being fired, which sounds very Gillard-Abbot of me, but it’s true. It was the fact I couldn’t bring myself to fire anybody that was part of the ending of the personae. It’s not all me of course, it’s my fabulous canasta partner Henri. He’s a man who drives over the cliff like Thelma and Louise, he was kicked out of Balwyn Public Swimming Pool once, so he’s clearly a man of action,” says Cowell tucking into his minestrone.

Never one to celebrate his past, Cowell occupies a unique position both as social commentator and artistic terrorist so to find him ensconced in one of the most staid of genres had more than a few fans scratching their heads before buying the albums. Soon enough, Cowell reached a point where it was clear that no style could claim him. “Our new manager asked some hard questions when she took over a year ago,” he says seriously. “She asked ‘Why do you wear the [cowboy] hats?’ I fumbled around for two hours and bored everyone into a coma with my answer, but I didn’t have an answer at all. Pant-wetting fear that was the real reason, and as a result Henri said ‘Lose the hats and let’s not get pigeonholed as a Ryan Adams kind of thing’ - which, if you look at our photos, we could be – ‘let’s break it apart and take the bits you like.”

That the initial idea of Root! was a country punk band with lyrical barbs and songs like I Wish I Was Tex Perkins was no accident. “When you get on the twilight side of thirty and look at yourself in the mirror and say ‘who do you think you are getting up on stage with all these young people’ I figured, erroneously, that I needed a prop or crutch to lever me from the world of lawn-edging and tracksuit pants,’ he says sincerely. ‘I’m not afraid of what I’m doing, but it’s very difficult to disassociate being young and sexy with being intelligent in this incredibly superficial arse-end of showbiz that is rock, everyone loves to hear from an angry young man, but an angry old man is just bitter. I was overly conscious of the fact that I didn’t look right, that I needed a look.” 

No such fears are allaying Cowell now as he pieces together his next move. Recent Root! songs Girls Girls Girls, Henry Wagons and Shut The Fuck Up are all likely to appear on his forthcoming solo album as are some of his more articulate works. Age is clearly not dulling the pen of Cowell who is still full of opinion (‘obviously Sting is a hateful individual who needs a Bic ballpoint pen through his eyeball’), and creativity. “I’ve always managed to not write songs about death, addiction and all those melodramatic things that only happen to people who go to private school,” says Cowell humbly. “I’m fully aware I live a double life because my parents programmed me that if you didn’t have a decent job you’re a loser, and I freely admit to living in a suburban box and it’s great. You can crap on like Pete Doherty but you catch that 7:15 stopping all stations every morning and then tell me about pain.”

A TRUE STAR - An interview with Todd Rundgren

After producing Meat Loaf’s Bat Out of Hell, fronting The Cars, redefining prog-rock and releasing the world’s first interactive CD, TODD RUNDGREN finally finds time to tour Australia. ANDY HAZEL manages to keep it together.

If someone, a reporter from BBC no less, stated that one man was ‘a visionary without whom there would be no Prince, MTV or access to internet music…a master of every style from classic soul to bizarre electronica’ and Mojo Magazine called him ‘a one-man Beatles’ you would think this man would be a household name. “The funny thing is,” says the recipient of this acclaim, tentatively, “when I’m involved in one of those things that gets praise, it often happens at a time when that opinion is yet to meet a critical mass. If I do something good, it always seems to get discovered afterwards or in another place, but at the time, it’s seen as something inadvisable or inappropriate. My attitude is ‘what have you done for me lately?’ I could have used the help five years ago - why don’t you praise this thing I’m working on now?” he says, laughing.

Graduating from 60s garage rockers Nazz via the double-album heavy prog rock years with Utopia to latter-day projects such as fronting a reformed Cars, Todd Rundgren has moved with ease between genres, private obsessions and social fashions all the while working on melding technology with a strong base in musical adventurousness. Despite this impressive canon, he’s best known for his production work with Meat Loaf, Cheap Trick, XTC, New York Dolls and countless other acts. What brings him to Melbourne next month though, is his recent revisiting of some of his 20 plus solo albums in what seems to be a ubiquitous trend of playing an album live track by track, though the Australian shows he says “will be two-plus hours of all sorts of stuff.”

“Essentially, it’s down to the pressure of the listeners and fans that I’m doing these concerts,” he explains. “RundgrenRadio is a radio station that a fan set up a few years ago and he plays my music, he interviews all the artists I‘ve ever worked with and stuff like that. He got it into his head to poll the listeners of the radio station to find out which record they’d most like to see live and definitively the answer was A Wizard A True Star. Coinciding with this he decided he would get into the event production world and he lined up promoters and hired venues. We did that and it was fun, and the next two records they wanted to hear live are Todd and Healing; well that’s a big chunk to bite off. We did a short run of six shows at bigger venues and with equally big production values. This show is equally theatrical in its way but I’m not going through a dozen costume changes again,” he says of the acclaimed enactment of A Wizard A True Star. “By the time we got it down, there was a magical element about it, it was like a play where the actor plays six different parts and it all happens with split second timing; he walks off stage as a guy and comes back as a woman on the opposite side of the stage,” Rundgren says chuckling. “Some costumes were a bear to get into and out of like the fat suit, some nights we might have issues like it just not inflating, oh man it was hard work! Todd/Healing is a whole different kind of thing, it will involve the band a little bit more but I’m not going into any more detail; we kept it completely secret last time and I like having an element of surprise for the audience.” Audiences were certainly surprised to see the next project Rundgren announced he was doing; a cover album of songs by blues grandfather Robert Johnson.

“Yeah, I guess it does seem strange,” he happily intones. “I was never that drawn to Robert Johnson in high school. I was very much into blues artists though, like The Yardbirds and Paul Butterfield. The first gig I had was as a blues guitar player, before I’d ever written a song or fronted a band. When I signed with [current record label] Arena, part of the deal was that they wanted me to do a cover album of Robert Johnson songs, because they owned the back catalogue but they didn’t own the masters of his recordings. They were looking for an artist to cover the material so they’d have masters to licences for movies and TV and stuff. I procrastinated for a year, because I soon realised Eric Clapton had made a career of doing exactly this. This is Eric Clapton circa-1965 though, and I decided that this record is more a tribute to the bands in the mid 60s who were influenced by Robert Johnson and other blues artists, because basically every song is a frame for a guitar solo,” he says with refreshing candour.

One thing Rundgren can never be accused of is laziness, and his breadth of material is a perfect example of how an identity can be spread across decades, genres and in and out of projects without losing any integrity – spandex bodysuits or not. “I don’t think other musicians are lazy by comparison,” he says breezily, “a songwriter like Elvis Costello is amazingly prolific. Nowadays it’s much harder for me to write songs as it seems to me the more you’ve written the more your stuff starts to sound like something else you’ve already written, and the subject matter and style become similar.” Maybe that’s why projects such as playing albums live and covering Robert Johnson has come along? “Perhaps.”

“What constantly comes to mind to me is the anecdote about Something/Anything. By the time I’d got to the end of making that record – and it was only meant to be a single album but I just kept writing and writing - songwriting had become a formula. Every song was about the same high school relationship that went bad and I finally sat back, and listened, when the record was doing well and the label were waiting for the next album. I was reading press and someone had said ‘he’s the male Carole King’ and that’s the one thing I don’t want to be; someone who writes formulaic music that it’s really easy to categorise. At that point I realised I had to do something to distinguish myself and that was going to involve being weird.” A maxim he’s, thankfully, never stopped following. As cyclical productivity has been replaced by one-off projects and a fresh embrace of touring, finally bringing him here, it’s reassuring to know that this age that Rundgren has had such an uncelebrated hand in developing still finds a place for him.