Adventurer in Utopia
Adventurer in Utopia
A Q&A with Kasim Sulton
By Geoff Gehman
Kasim Sulton had a host of adventures in Utopia, his 1976-86 band, school and traveling amusement park. Performing live with a prop pyramid. Recording an album of Beatles parody tributes. Writing a hit song about freeing himself from a recording contract. Playing an insect in an MTV video. Surfing the sonic waves of Todd Rundgren, mad musical scientist and tough-love teacher.
Sulton learned valuable lessons about collective craft, creativity and chemistry while adjusting to Rundgren’s chameleon ways. Over four decades the singing bassist has flexed his flexible, reliable chops during long stretches with such chalk-and-cheese acts as Blue Oyster Cult, Hall and Oates and Joan Jett & the Blackhearts. He’s remained in Rundgren’s orbit outside Utopia, joining his mentor on Meat Loaf‘s “Bat Out of Hell” LP and in The New Cars. In 2018 he alternated between his and Rundgren’s versions of Utopia, becoming the exceedingly rare member of two concurrent same-named groups.
On March 20 the Mauch Chunk Opera House will host Sulton and his Utopians. The playful affair will feature pop and rock numbers—“Love with a Thinker,” “Set Me Free,” “Hoi Poloi”—with catchy melodies, springy chords and nifty riffs, all polished by Sulton’s inviting, smiling vocals. In the phone conversation below the 64-year-old Staten Island native discusses his Beatles-aided rebellion; his frustrating, fruitful relationship with Rundgren; his simple standard for getting along for a long time, and the long-delayed revival of “Sunring and the Glass Guitar,” “Winston Smith Takes It on the Jaw” and other only-in-Utopia numbers.
Q: Can you remember the first song you couldn’t forget, the one that turned you upside down and inside out?
A: “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” I remember my dad bringing home the single a couple weeks before the Beatles played “The Ed Sullivan Show” [on Feb. 9, 1964]. I remember sitting on my kitchen floor with a little portable Victrola and thinking: These guys are aliens; they’re not from this planet. I couldn’t for the life of me figure out where they came from, let alone from across the Atlantic Ocean. I just loved their sound, their vibe, their emotion. I can’t even begin to describe the feeling–although I just did.
Q: Over 40 years I’ve had upwards of 60 musicians tell me they decided they had to become musicians after watching the Beatles debut on Ed Sullivan’s show. Why was your life path, and life, changed that night by tunes like “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “She Loves You”?
A: I guess the rote answer is my parents didn’t like what they were hearing, and seeing. I was nine years old in 1964 and as much as I loved my parents I wanted to rebel against them. They were the Establishment and I gravitated to the equivalent of the Anti-Establishment. At that time you were expected to go to school and eat your dinner, walk the dog, mow the lawn, put your laundry into a hamper. I wanted to rebel against all that but I didn’t think that robbing a grocery store was a good idea [laughs]. So I rebelled through music. It was through music and art that the youth of America planted a flag and took claim to a new kind of freedom.
In retrospect it’s a little ridiculous that the Establishment thought the Beatles were so rebellious. They wore suits and they were clean cut but the Establishment thought: Well, that’s it–the world’s at an end. I guess they were correct because that was the beginning of the British Invasion, with the Beatles and the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin taking over America, and the rise of the Jimi Hendrix Experience and a lot of other great bands from this country, too. That was the start of the Love Generation.
Q: You satisfied your Beatles jones in 1979 while recording the Utopia album “Deface the Music,” a satirical homage to the Fab Four, with “Take It Home” referencing “Day Tripper” and “Hoi Poloi” riffing off “Penny Lane.” Did you enjoy the project? What do you think about it now? I know that just last March you played “Hoi Poloi” live for the first time.
A: ‘Hoi Poloi” is a cute song. I like it and these days I get to do whatever I like to do [laughs]. That wasn’t the case in Utopia. As much as it was a democratic band, we followed a lot of Todd’s decisions because his resume was a lot bigger and deeper than ours. [The 1979 LP] “Adventures in Utopia” was huge for us, so naturally we wanted to capitalize on that success with a new album of really strong three-and-a-half-minute pop songs with some cool lyrics and chord changes. We thought we could ride that wave a little longer.
We all [Sulton, drummer John “Willie” Wilcox and keyboardist Roger Powell] showed up at the studio for the first session for the new record at the studio, which was in Todd’s house. We came with bits and pieces and ideas and Todd tells us: “I’ve already written four songs. We’re going to do a Beatles parody record. We’re going to play the Beatles songs we know and love and make them our own.” And we all looked at each other like: Oh, this is not a good idea. I say that with all due respect to Todd, who had such a big hand in my career as a singer, a songwriter, a musician. He never likes to do the same thing twice; that’s just not in his nature.
Unfortunately, [“Deface the Music,” 1980] was not well received. To make it worse, it was released shortly before John Lennon was assassinated; by that time Beatles parodies were the last thing anybody wanted to hear. But I’m glad we did it. It was an honorable thing to do; it spoke to how important that band was to us. And we created some really nice songs—like “Hoi Poloi.”
Q: What was the first Todd Rundgren tune that made you think: Hey, this dude has some crazy topspin on the ball?
A: My younger sister bought an album of his—I think it was “Runt: The Ballad of Todd Rundgren” —and she told me “You should listen to this guy; he’s really good.” I listened to it and I thought: It doesn’t really speak to me; I’m not hearing it.
When I joined Utopia I didn’t really know much about Todd as an artist, and even less about Utopia. It wasn’t until I started working on the first Utopia record [“Ra,” 1977] that I recognized his incredible ability to transform an idea into a musical thought. I have yet to see in any other musician the ability to take a piece of paper, come up with words and melody, and 20 minutes later write something as great as “Love Is the Answer.” I‘ve never met a lyricist as prolific, or as brilliant. And I’ll say that till I go to my grave.
Q: Can you put your finger on three indelible memories from your 1976-86 stint with Utopia: a favorite, a least favorite, and a too-outrageous-to-be-repeated?
A: The answer to your first question would be playing with Led Zeppelin at the Knebworth Festival in 1979. I remember going onstage and seeing Led Zeppelin’s equipment, including John Bonham’s drum kit, and thinking: Man, this is a band I loved growing up and here I’m opening for them in England. I remember looking out at a sea of people and saying to somebody at the side of the stage “How many people do you think are out there?” and he said “300,000.” I had just turned 21 and I’m playing in front of 300,000 people with Led Zeppelin. Talk about an amazing experience.
The answer to question No. 2 involves Bearsville Records. Todd in his wisdom told [label founder] Albert Grossman [also Bob Dylan’s manager] that he would agree to a new record deal for the band only if Grossman signed us all to solo record deals; that was a really kind thing of Todd to do. One of the stipulations of the solo contracts was that we each had 100 hours of free studio time per year to work on demos. So I would finish a bunch of demos and bring them to Albert and he would say “They’re not ready. Try again.” So I’d finish another bunch of demos and bring them to him three months later and he’d say: “They’re still not ready. But you’re doing a good job. Keep at it; you’ll get there eventually.”
Eventually I got tired of Albert’s answers, or non-answers. At that time I didn’t want to work on my craft; I was still a kid, full of piss and vinegar. So I asked him to release me from my contract in a song, “Set Me Free,” that became Utopia’s only Top 40 hit. Through adversity comes triumph.
The last answer is unmentioned because it’s unmentionable [laughs].
Q: I thought your last answer might be resurrecting “Sunring and the Glass Guitar,” the 18-minute “Ra” epic where you, Todd, Roger and Willie make war with the elements.
A: You know, I’ve been thinking about performing an entire Utopia album, top to bottom. I don’t think we’ll be doing that this year but next year we might do “Ra”—“Sunring” and all. In sound checks we’re always playing around with deep cuts.
Q: Does that mean that one day we’ll hear a live rendition of “Love Alone,” which you recorded at the piano, singing lead with Todd, Roger and Willie on barbershop-esue harmonies? Or the immortal “Winston Smith Takes It On the Jaw’ [a Sulton song released as a 1984 B-side of “Crybaby”].
A: We actually did “Winston Smith” in 2018 when we had a bigger band, with two keyboardists. We might do it again. There are still some deep tracks—“There Goes My Inspiration,” “Feet Don’t Fail Me Now”–I haven’t touched on that I might go back to one day. You know, you’re making all these suggestions and my brain is working overtime; now I have to remember this conversation.
Q: You’ve not only played with a very wide range of musicians (Meat Loaf to Joan Jett, Hall and Oates to Blue Oyster Cult), you’ve played extensively with a very wide range of musicians. What’s your secret for fitting into and sticking with an old act that’s new to you?
A: That’s very, very simple: It’s not how well you play, it’s how well you play with others. That lesson goes back to kindergarten, when your mom tells you: “Now, Geoff, remember to play nice with Billy and Joe and Jeanie and Sally.” As a musician you have to be proficient in your craft and have a certain modicum of talent, but you also have to know how to be a good friend, how to be a good hang, how to stay out of the way, how to give your opinion when it’s needed and shut your mouth when it’s not
Q: So, Kasim, what tops your Bucket List? Musicians have told me everything from touring the world to world peace.
A: I want to continue to play for as long as I can. I mentioned this in my show last night that I firmly believe the universe put me on this planet to create and play music. I’m so blessed and so grateful to have had a 44-year career; I’d be even more blessed and grateful if I could play another 20 years. Although I don’t want to die onstage [laughs].
I’m also grateful to be able to play this music. We [Utopia’s original members] weren’t hugely successful; we didn’t break any attendance records or record sales records. But we were a very important band to a lot of people, and I’m willing to tour for a month at a time to take this music to places where a lot of those people live, so they can love the music they loved when they were still in school, before they got married and had kids, before their lives became a chore and they looked forward to two weeks paid vacation. As long as that audience is out there I’ll be out there for that audience. They don’t want this music to go away, and I don’t want it to go away.
Q: And what tops your Fuckit List? Musicians have told me everything from ending oppressive religions to assassinating all snakes.
A: That I never have to worry about what I eat, that I never have to think: Should I eat that piece of cake? Oh fuck it, I’ll have another piece of cake.
Q: And what’s your idea of utopia?
A: A sixth season of “Breaking Bad” and an acting career.
Kasim Sulton: The Scoop
His family tree has Turkish and Greek branches.
He has three children with his late wife, Laurie, his high-school sweetheart.
Before joining Utopia, he played piano in Cherry Vanilla, a namesake showcase for David Bowie’s ex-publicist
He served as music director for Meat Loaf tours.
He played in the Broadway pit orchestra of “Movin’ Out,” the hit musical of Billy Joel songs conceived and choreographed by Twyla Tharp.
He likes the Utopia song “Feet Don’t Fail Me Now” much, much more than its MTV video. “I remember calling up our tour manager prior to the shoot and asking: ‘What time do we have to show up?’ ‘One o’clock.’ ‘Do you know the concept?’ ‘I have no idea –but they’re making bug suits.’ ‘WHAT?’ ’Yeah, they’re making bug suits.’ ‘Noooooo … NOOOOOO!!!’”
Geoff Gehman is a former arts writer for The Morning Call in Allentown. He also likes “Feet Don’t Fail Me Now” much, much better as a song than a video. He can be reached at email@example.com.