Like most of my favorite rock bands, I soon discovered that all four members of what is considered by many to be the definitive Utopia line-up - guitarist Todd Rundgren, bassist Kasim Sulton, keyboardist Roger Powell, and drummer Willie Wilcox - all contributed in the songwriting department and took turns supplying lead vocals. And on just about every Utopia release spanning 1977-1985, there are at least two (sometimes more) tracks that shoulda/coulda been smash hits.
In addition to playing with Utopia, Sulton has played with countless other renowned artists over the years (Meat Loaf, Joan Jett, Blue Öyster Cult, etc.) and has also issued several solo albums, including his latest, 3. Sulton talked to us about playing on on one the best-selling rock albums of all time (Bat Out of Hell), joining forces with Todd and company, and the early days of music video.
Kasim Sulton: My best songs? Well, it's a combination. My best material is written from personal experience, like everybody. I'm not necessarily a very good storyteller, so when I sit down to try to get some imagery and try and create a story from scratch, it's more difficult for me than to draw on my personal experience. I'm not a kid anymore, so I've had a lot of experience in life, and that's where I get my inspiration from; when something affects me deeply or I find something ironic or funny or interesting, I usually sit down and try and come up with a song or a lyric that relates my feeling about that particular subject or that particular emotion.
I vary between guitar and piano. I go through stages, there are points where I'll spend a couple or three months only writing on guitar and then there's points where I'll spend a couple or three months only writing on piano. So it really depends on what mood strikes me at any given point.
Songfacts: And who would you say are some of your favorite songwriters?
Kasim: Well, I have to give props to Todd [Rundgren]. I think Todd is a highly underrated American pop songwriter. I'm not saying this because I've worked with him for 37 years or 38 years or whatever it is, but I think Todd is one of the most underrated, unappreciated songwriters in the last 50 years. His sense of musicality and lyricism is nonplussed. It's so difficult to write a good lyric, a lyric that people turn their heads and say, "I know what you're talking about, I know how you feel, I know what you mean. I know what he's saying there." And then to put it in the context of a melody in a song is equally as hard. But Todd does that better than anybody I'd ever worked with, and I've worked with some great people over the years.
Another one of my favorite songwriters is John Lennon. I used to be a huge Paul McCartney fan, but over the years I've discovered that Lennon's writing is so much more personal and so much deeper and so much more introspective that I became more of a John Lennon fan than a Paul McCartney fan. That's not to say that I'm not a Paul McCartney fan, I certainly am. And I think he writes beautiful music. But John Lennon's music touches me and speaks to me a little bit more deeply than Paul McCartney.
Billy Joel is a huge influence on me. I love Billy. I love his songwriting, I love his lyricism. He's just a great American pop songwriter. Daryl Hall is another great writer. Eric Bazilian from the Hooters is a great songwriter. And then one of my favorite songwriters is one of my partners, a guy by the name of Phil Thornalley in England, who wrote "Torn" for Natalie Imbruglia, a bunch of other stuff for people that we may or may not know. But he's just a brilliant songwriter. We've collaborated on three songs on my new record.
Songfacts: Looking back, what would you say is your favorite Utopia studio album?
But personally, I am a bigger fan of the album Oblivion. One of my favorite Utopia songs is a song called "I Will Wait," that's on Oblivion, and "Maybe I Could Change" is on Oblivion. If I had to name one record that was my favorite Utopia record, it would probably be Oblivion.
Songfacts: Personally, I would say the 1982 album is one of the most underrated rock albums of all time.
Kasim: Oh, the Network record?
Kasim: Yeah. That's a great record. That's got some great songs on it.
Songfacts: How that record didn't become a huge hit I'll probably never understand.
Kasim: That record didn't become a huge hit the same way every other Utopia record didn't become a huge hit: because there were forces afoot that did not want Utopia to become successful. There were players behind the scenes that went out of their way to kind of sabotage Utopia, because they were more interested in Todd's solo career than in Todd's band career. They wanted Todd's solo records, they didn't want Utopia records.
Songfacts: Would you want to spill the beans and actually say who those people are, or you just want to let sleeping dogs lie with that?
Kasim: Well, I don't think it's really fair to disparage individual people. Suffice it to say I'll just put it under the guise of "the record label." The record label did not want Utopia to be any more successful than Todd was because it would take Todd away from his solo career. I don't have a solo career, so the record label made it a point not to go overboard promotion-wise spending radio dollars advertising Utopia, because they just felt it was a distraction for Todd, that the band was a distraction.
Songfacts: You just mentioned the song "Set Me Free," what do you remember about the writing and also recording of that song?
Kasim: Well, I was under contract at the time to Bearsville Records when Utopia became an equal four man band. Everybody signed collectively to Bearsville Records, and individually, as well. So Bearsville had the rights to my first solo record, and at that stage in my career, I was a kid, I was like 22 years old and I wanted nothing more than to do a solo record - that was my goal in life. It was well enough that I was in a national touring band and going all over the world and making records and playing in front of 150,000 people with Led Zeppelin and 10CC and the Rolling Stones, but I wanted my solo career.
I made demos and I submitted them to the record company, and the record company said, "You're not ready yet. It's not right, it's not good enough. Just keep writing, keep writing." And at a certain point I got so frustrated that I said, "You guys, you've got to let me go." Because I have interest from other labels and if I can put a solo record together with, say Warner Brothers or Capitol or Elektra or a number of other record labels at the time, then that's what I want to do.
Albert Grossman actually said to me, "That's fine. You're more than welcome to go. That'll be $50,000 and 15 percent of all the royalties that you'll ever make for the rest of your life." And I freaked out and I wrote "Set Me Free." A lot of people over the years have thought that "Set Me Free" was boy/girl: boy loses girl, boy wants out of relationship, like it's just a boy/girl pop song. But it's not. It's about me wanting to get out of a record contract.
What I remember about recording it is I brought it into the band, and it was a completed song at that point. The only other person who brought completed songs in was Todd, really. I came into the recording of Adventures in Utopia, and I said, "Look, I got this song, what do you think?" And presented it to the band, and they ran with it.
If it wasn't for Todd's production on that and the contribution of Willie and Roger, I don't know that the song would have been the same. It was pretty true to the demo that I had, but Todd put his little stamp on it, as did Roger and Willie. I think that's what made it successful. It was the biggest song that Utopia ever had; it was a Top 30 single for a week in 1980 [#27 the week of April 19]. It was a thrill for me to hear it on AM radio.
Songfacts: Did you write the song "Libertine"?
Kasim: No, I didn't. That's a Todd and Roger collaboration, I think.
Songfacts: You did a great job singing that song.
Songfacts: What about the song "Bad Little Actress"?
Kasim: That's mostly Todd. Mostly Todd with input from the rest of the band.
Songfacts: What is your favorite song that you wrote for Utopia?
Kasim: Well, aside from "Set Me Free," there's another song on Adventures in Utopia called "Shot in the Dark" that I wrote, which is a good song. "Love Alone" is on Adventures, and I wrote that. Rarely did anybody come to the table with a completed song. It was more about, "Oh, I've got this idea. Let's see if we can complete it."
Songfacts: What are some memories of the Bat Out of Hell sessions?
Kasim: At the time Roger and I were sharing a house about 10 miles outside of Woodstock, a place called West Hurley. I was just up there between tours, between records, kind of hanging out. The phone rang and it was Todd, and Todd said, "Hey, you want to come and play bass on a record I'm producing?" I said, "Yeah, sure, I'm not doing anything. By the way, who's the artist?" He said, "Oh, it's a guy named Meat Loaf." I said, "Alright. All kidding aside, what's the artist's name?" And he got pissed at me and he said, "Just show up for the session."
I went in and we did about three weeks of rehearsing before we even went into the studio. The rehearsals consisted of Jim Steinman playing piano, playing us the songs, Meat Loaf singing live, and Ellen Foley and Rory Dodd [backup singers] in the room performing the songs for us so that we could rehearse them.
Then Max Weinberg, myself, Roy Bittan, and Todd would take the song and we'd run it down, and through the whole process I remember distinctly saying to myself, "This is just the biggest joke that I've ever been involved in. I cannot believe that these people got a record deal! This is just crazy. I'll never hear this record. It's just a joke. It's a comedy record."
We went through the whole recording process like that. It was ridiculous, but it was good. Everybody certainly took it seriously, even though I'm sure that Roy and Max felt the same that I did: "Okay, I'm just getting paid, it's a record. What am I going to have for dinner tonight?"
Anyway, about a year and a half later I'm in my car and I'm driving up to Woodstock to record a Utopia record, and I'm listening to what at the time was WNEW, which was the popular FM radio station in New York. I hear this track, and I said to myself, "That sounds vaguely familiar. Where have I heard that song before?" And then it hit me: "I played on that!" It was "Bat Out of Hell," that track. And then after hearing it on WNEW, the record exploded.
It is still the third largest-selling record of all time, and it's still in the catalogue charts every month in Billboard, so it still sells records. I spent about 15 years playing with Meat Loaf live and in his live band, so Bat Out of Hell has been good to me.
The plan never came to fruition. Shortly thereafter, on August 1, 1981, MTV was officially launched. However, Todd's presence on MTV was certainly felt early on, as his solo video, "Time Heals," was the eighth music video ever played on the network. Utopia also scored an early MTV hit with their video for "Feet Don't Fail Me Now," which saw all four members dressed up like bugs.
But the importance of a video channel wasn't really taken seriously, and Todd saw the potential in it and said, "We're going to have our own TV show, our own TV channel." We never really came up with a synopsis, but that was the idea: once we got the channel, we'd worry about the programming afterwards.
But it just never, for whatever reason, took off, and then other people who were in more of a position of power saw the potential of it, started MTV, and Utopia was one of the first videos that were played on MTV. I think it was the Buggles ["Video Killed the Radio Star"] that were the first ones. We were right up there. We were in the initial foray of MTV into the world, and it just grew exponentially from there.
Todd was just slightly ahead of the curve and it wound up hurting him more than it helped him.
Songfacts: Out of all the bands that you've played with over the years, which one would you say has been the most challenging?
Kasim: The most challenging? Oh, definitely Utopia. Before I joined Utopia I was in garage bands that played in my basement and local high school dances and frat parties. I hadn't done any kind of real prog rock; it just wasn't my forte, it wasn't what I did well, it wasn't what I liked.
When I joined Utopia it became apparent that I was going to be learning songs in odd time signatures and key changes all over the place. I went at it with an open mind and said to myself, "This is an opportunity of a lifetime and I'm not going to blow it." And I dug down deep and I wound up doing okay.
But it was a challenge. It was a real challenge for me at the beginning. But somehow I pulled it out.
Songfacts: I remember when I spoke once with Roger I said I always thought that Utopia sounded like the cross between Queen and the Cars, and he agreed with that, but said also with Zappa thrown in. Do you agree?
Kasim: With a little Frank Zappa thrown in? Yeah, I guess. I was never a big Zappa fan, but I can see the correlation there. I'm sure we could probably come up with another half a dozen bands that Utopia might have sounded like. We were always doing something different. We were always changing. So one record we might sound like Zappa and the next record we might sound like Boston. Or it might be that much of a leap on the same record.
Songfacts: What projects are you currently working on?
Kasim: Currently, I'm doing a bunch of stuff, as I always do. Not only am I working with the band Blue Öyster Cult, but I also have my Todd work, too. And I started touring this year with Todd; in mid-July we went to Australia for a couple of weeks, came back, and we've been in the States ever since. So this weekend I do two Blue Öyster Cult shows in Minneapolis, and then I fly to Milwaukee, do a Todd show, two shows just outside of Chicago, and then the Akron Symphony show. One more date after that and then I'm done with Todd for the rest of the year. I still have some Blue Öyster Cult dates, probably about 8 or 9 between now and the end of the year.
But the most important thing and the thing that I'm most excited about, is I'm releasing a new record. It's all new material. It's my first solo album of all new material since Quid Pro Quo, that was my last true solo record, that was in 2001, I believe. So it takes me a while, because I do so many other things. But I've been working on this album for the last three years. I had a bit of a hiccup when I had a death in the family - my wife passed away in May of 2011. I lost a bunch of time dealing with her illness and then her subsequent passing. But I've been working on the record diligently for about a year now, and I'm almost done. I have one more song to complete, and then I'm done with the record.
The most exciting thing about the record is the other people that appear on it. I have Mark Rivera on saxophone on a couple of tracks. A guy by the name of Johnny A, a blues guitar player up from Boston who's pretty popular up there, he's playing on a track. And Roger, Todd, and Willie will be on the record, as well.
Songfacts: Is that the first time that all of Utopia has appeared on a recording? It would have been since the '80s, right?
Kasim: Since the '90s. We did a live record in 1992.
Songfacts: But it would be the first studio album since the '80s.
Songfacts: Very cool. What is the album title and when you think the album is coming out.
Kasim: The album title is 3. The significance of the number 3, not only in my life, but in the world, is pretty intense. There's a lot of threes floating around; a lot of things come in threes, like the holy trinity. It is my third proper solo record. I had one in 1980, then again in 2000, and now 2013.
I was supposed to be done with this record a year and a half ago, but it takes me a long time to finish anything. I was hoping to be done with it over the next three months, but the problem is that if I am done with it, then I can't in any good conscience release it around Christmastime, because I'll get buried. There's just too much other stuff going on in the world, or in the world of music. Too many other records being released at that point for the holidays. I won't get any review space, I won't get any airplay... not like I'm going to get any airplay, anyway, but it just makes it harder for me to make a little bit of noise because there's so many other people releasing records around then.
The most fun thing about this record is the way that I'm doing the cover. I've solicited the fans to send in pictures and I've collected about 300 pictures from the fans, and we're going to put them on the cover of the record. The pictures will make a mosaic of a portrait of me, so I'm pretty excited about that.
Songfacts: Do all the Utopia members play together on any of the songs on the album?
Kasim: No. They're not on the same song.
Songfacts: Is there any chance of Utopia ever getting back together again and playing shows?
Kasim: You never say never. But I think it's slim. I think it's extremely slim and chances are it's not going to happen. But I would like to think there's a small possibility that one day we might get together for a show.
November 27, 2013. Visit Kasim on Facebook.
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