I Know I Know: Talking With Jules Shear about Todd Rundgren
I conducted about 100 interviews for my book about Todd Rundgren’s record production career, including practically everyone he’d ever worked with. Some folks, like Splender and 12 Rods, I didn’t find info on until after the book was being published, and others, like Jill Sobule, Levon Helm and Max Weinberg, wouldn’t return my calls. And there were other favourites, like Jules Shear, who only received the briefest of coverage in the final word count, owing to the embarrassment of riches in terms of artists who DID talk to me.
More’s the pity, as I am a huge Jules Shear fan. If you’re not initiated – and frankly it seems only fellow songwriters seem to really know him – Jules Shear is a songwriter’s songwriter.
He came to prominence in a band called Jules And The Polar Bears, along with Stephen Hague (who later became a star producer in his own right) who made a string of albums from 1978 to 1980, including my favourite: Got No Breeding, which featured the single “You Just Don’t Wanna Know”.
You may also know Jules from his own amazing solo albums, and for the songs he wrote which became hits for…
The Bangles “If She Knew What She Wants”:
And Cyndi Lauper’s “All Through The Night”:
He also worked with my good friend Blair Packham and his band The Jitters, on a really great record called Louder Than Words. Jules produced the record with the band and co-wrote material on it, including “The Bridge Is Burning”:
And Jules also worked with Aimee Mann on the Til Tuesday album Everything’s Different Now
Which featured the single “(Believed You Were) Lucky” co-written by Aimee and Jules:
Blair helped me track down Jules, who was willing to talk about the album. (if a little hesitant to really elaborate on anything). Here are some highlights from my chat with Jules.
PM: The Polar Bears had broken up but you still had Stephen Hague with you on Watch Dog. Did he sort of co-produce the album then?
JULES: “Stephen had been in the Polar Bears with me, but we’d broken up the band by then. Since Stephen and I had actually produced the last couple of Polar Bears records, we just did the demos for Watch Dog at his place just outside Boston, and I wanted Stephen to come along and play on the sessions and Todd agreed. Stephen was also a huge Todd fan.”
PM: Were you a Todd fan before this? How did you end up working with him?
JULES: “Apparently Todd was getting a lot of offers to produce stuff, but he didn’t like any of the stuff he’d heard. But he like my demos and said that he wanted to do it. I came up to Woodstock and met with him before hand. At that point, I wasn’t used to working with producers but I thought, ‘It’s Todd Rundgren, so we’ll give it a try.’ “I really liked Todd, as a guy,” “and he obviously knows a lot about making records, but should he be MY producer? He didn’t seem like a natural choice, to me, but Gary Gersh at Capitol really thought so.”
PM: What did the process teach you about Todd or about record making?
JULES: “I didn’t really get to know him that well, because it was such a brief recording period. I did notice that he wore the same clothes every day, this blue and white striped sweatshirt thing.”
PM: I’ve read in various places that you weren’t sure if Todd was so “into it” when he did the album, what was the deal there?
JULES: “Sometimes I think that he should have been a producer on certain things, because the parts of the process that he wasn’t interested in, he just didn’t do. That was fine with me, but I wonder if record companies knew that when they gave him these gigs. There were many times when you could tell Todd just wanted to get the thing done, it seemed to me. It was like, ‘Here’s some work I gotta get done.’”
PM: Elaborate on that, are you saying he was an “absent producer”?
JULES: “Like when I was singing a vocal, I might feel that I needed to try it one more time. He’d just say, ‘Really, why?’ Most producers would want to work on it more than me, but Todd was more interested in getting it done with, and didn’t really want to do more takes unless I could come up with a compelling reason why.”
PM: The Watch Dog album still sounds great to me, despite what sounds like a mundane time making it.
JULES: “The aspects that he was interested in were fun for him, I should think, like mixing it and stuff. He probably had a lot of fun producing himself, though, but no so much producing other people. We didn’t really have any run-ins with him, or anything, and because me and Stephen had produced those Polar Bears albums before that, I knew that it was Todd’s production. That was the decision I’d made, so at that point, I was gonna let Todd do it his way. I was trying to be strictly ‘the artist’ and let Todd do his thing.” Elliot Easton was on it too. And Todd played acoustic guitar on it and he played a lot of stuff on it. He played the solo on “I Need It” and lots of sounds and keyboards on it.”
PM: Cyndi had a big hit for herself, and for you I suppose (!!) with “All Through The Night”, which began on Watch Dog. And Alison Moyet covered “Whispering Your Name” to great effect. Are there any other songs on there that were highlights for you personally?
JULES: “The Longest Drink,” was pretty close to the vibe that Stephen and I had done on the demo and Todd was pretty amenable to that. Todd added the sound of water going into a glass that he’d miked up; that was purely a Todd idea.”
PM: You moved to Woodstock eventually, so working with Todd must have had a lasting impact on you in that way.
JULES: “I actually first discovered Woodstock when I came here to work with Todd. I was living in Boston at the time and I wasn’t really digging it all that much, so I thought maybe I could try living here, being close to New York. I’ve lived here, on and off, ever since.
Finishing up our look at Jules Shear, let’s go out with a song he recorded years after the Todd sessions, from The Great Puzzle, “The Sad Sound Of The Wind”:
Almost forgot Jules’ band The Reckless Sleepers (with Jimmy Vivino), and this great song “If We Never Meet Again” from Big Boss Sounds:
Click here to order A Wizard A True Star: Todd Rundgren In The Studio from Amazon.