Wednesday, December 3, 2014

More Than A Sideman: Kasim Sulton Appearing With Todd Rundgren

When musical legend Todd Rundgren took the stage at the Blue Ocean in Salisbury, on Thursday, November 4th, multi-instrumentalist Kasim Sulton was right beside him, on bass, and other instruments. Sulton has been with Rundgren a long time.

“I joined him back when Utopia was first getting together, about 38 years ago. Back then, it was not a pop band- it was entirely different from what it morphed into, which was a great band playing pop music. It was a lot like a jam band. Todd was a fan of Zappa, and that kind of music.  I remember I was really out of my element, a fish out of water. I came from The Beatles, British Pop Rock. When I first joined, Todd was not a big fan of mine; he didn't think I was the right person.  I think he was looking for someone ‘less green’- I was 20 years old, I hadn't been out of NY state, let alone been on a plane. The other guys in the band thought I'd be a great addition, and said ‘we want this guy.’

Although Utopia broke up in 1986, some of the members have continued to tour with Rundgren. For Sulton, the connection with Rundgren has been productive and illuminating.

“Most of what I learned about making records, writing, arranging background vocals and instruments, I learned from Todd.  It was like that book about ‘Everything I Need To Know I Learned in Kindergarten.’ Really, most of what I know about music I learned during the first six and seven years I was with Utopia.”

Sulton has put that knowledge to work.  Over the past 30 years, he has worked with Rundgren and a number of other musicians, including Joan Jett, Jon Bon Govi, Cheap Trick, Hall and Oates, Meatloaf and Blue Oyster Cult, touring, appearing on albums playing anything with strings and a keyboard, or taking a more active role in directing the music.

“I played bass on the first Meatloaf album “Bat Out Of Hell.  Later, when it came time to do the album ‘Bat Out of Hell 2’, I was the music director for the tour. Having been there at the beginning, it was easier for me to shape a band knowing where the original music started from. That album has really become such a part of the soundtrack in the lives of so many people, that I wasn't trying change anything.  I felt there really was no need to change how we did it. We stayed as true as possible to originals, even when ‘Meat’ didn't want to. He’d say ‘let’s add some more power chords, let’s do something new.’  And my feeling was, ‘let's not screw with perfection.’ There are times when you are given freedom to make something your own, and times when you are better off doing what has been done.”

“When I toured with Hall and Oates, they were in an ‘acoustic phase.’ They wanted to do things differently, so I played an upright bass, while they played their songs on acoustic instruments. I had to adapt to doing some of their songs, which had been written in a certain way, to a different style.”

His work with Rundgren has given Sulton the ability to do that successfully, which makes him a sought-after session and touring musician.

 “One of the great things about working with Todd is that he never does the same thing twice.  There is always some little twist, something different.  He’ll switch genres with the set-list for any show; maybe he’ll even add in songs written by other people. So it’s no struggle to keep it fresh.  He’ll do that even with his owns songs, the ones that people knows and love.  On this tour, we’ll still do a song like ‘I Saw The Light’, and ‘Can We Still Be Friends,’ but maybe we’ll do it in a bossa nova style. And it isn’t really a stretch.”

Although Sulton keeps very busy as a working musician- he has also toured with Blue Oyster Cult this year, as well as Rundgren- he has found time to invest some energy in solo work. His third solo album, “3”, is coming out at the end of October.

“The last solo album I did was ten years ago. I started laying down tracks for this one in 2010.  I honestly had no idea this album was going take this long.  I figured maybe a year, year and a half.  What happened was I had a bunch of personal tragedies in my life, and it waylaid me.  And as I got deeper and deeper into the record, I was kind of surprised at how well it was turning out.  So I decided that I didn’t want to rush this to print any sooner than I have to. I had the opportunity to do something that could be extremely proud of this point in career and life. Once I saw that this record was some of best work I've ever done, really wanted to take my time; I wasn't being forced to finish. So I made sure I was happy with every single note, lyric, with the recording.  I think I did a pretty good job.  Hey, I’m the last person to say I’m happy with my work, but I’ve never been more proud of anything I’ve done.”

The CD is a mature work; retaining the pop sensibility that Sulton brings to his other work.  It is also lyrically thoughtful and introspective.

“Honestly, let's not mince words- I'm in my late fifties. When you start getting a little older, you take stock. How have I spent the last fifty years? What were my mistakes, accomplishment, regrets, and triumphs.  Inevitably, that’s going to come out in my songwriting.  I’m not a prolific songwriter- but often, when something has happened to me, I need to express it in music and words.”

Kasim Sulton is in an enviable place.

“When it comes down to it, I really do know that I have the respect of my peers.  To me, that’s priceless.”

He’s been an integral collaborator with one of rock and pop music’s true geniuses, Todd Rundgren, for more than 35 years.  He had a chance to work with some of the legends in rock music- Hall of Famers like Mick Jagger and Hall and Oates, and play on one of the best-selling albums in history. And when he has time, he’s able to put together a CD that he’s as proud of as any of his other work.

You can follow Sulton on Facebook and on Twitter (@ksulton).

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