The BoDeans: A Look Into The Life of Mr. Sad Clown

Nearly 25 years ago, T-Bone Burnett produced the debut album Love & Hope & Sex & Dreams for very young Kurt Neumann and Sam Llanas –also known as the BoDeans.  They were making some noise on Milwaukee’s East Side music scene and by 1987 they not only caught T-Bone’s attention, but Rolling Stone magazine as well – voting them Best New American Band. 

Their 1993 song, “Closer to Free” gave them newfound exposure when it was chosen as the theme song for the TV series, “Party of Five”.  The band would subsequently return in 1999 with the Beatles’ cover, “I’ve Just Seen a Face” as the theme song for the show’s short-lived spinoff, “Time of Your Life”. 

Now with their ninth studio album just released and a quarter of a century under their belt, Neumann (vocals/electric guitar) and Llanas (vocals/acoustic guitar) bring their most exposed, vulnerable voices to the table with Mr. Sad Clown.  The result is the perfect balance of beauty, sadness and raw realism that encompasses the changing realities of their lives.

Recently performing at South By Southwest Festival and soon to be on the road again, the BoDeans are far from losing any steam.  As a matter of fact, they seem to be aging rather gracefully.  Kurt gave Glide a glimpse into his life as a BoDean and all that goes with it…

How was the SXSW festival?

It was great.  We had a beautiful night.  It was Cheap Trick and us and about 10,000 people.  It was much better than the regular SXSW gig because more of the locals came out instead of just industry people so it’s like a regular concert.  Plus, it’s right down by the river and the city skyline is your backdrop so it’s a spectacular location. The rest of SXSW is like a panic.  I try to avoid that stuff as much as possible, but at the same time, you try and do as many interviews as you can when you have a record coming out.

So many people know your music but don’t necessarily know you by band name.  Do you find that a blessing in disguise?

Yes and no. The quicker you go up in success, the quicker you go down.  There’s something nice about being a little more anonymous and doing things the way you want to do them, as opposed to having a record company insisting you do it a certain way.  But at the same time, we still live month to month off our shows as opposed to a band that makes a lot of money off record sales.  That would be nice, too.  I can’t say that would be bad. 

You’re lucky it worked out this way with what’s going on in the industry. 

Yes, that’s the blessing in disguise part.  Because we didn’t sell millions of records when records sales dropped off, our situation was never drastically altered.  We always lived off our shows so we built a fan base that’s still there.  People know we’ll put on a good show, so year round we can keep playing.  I can’t say we haven’t notice a change in the music industry because we have.  Yet, financially it’s been the same for us.

What’s so special about the BoDeans is your ability to create these organic, raw songs that don’t seem to require all the studio hype.  Is that still your philosophy?

Yes, definitely.  We were very lucky to work with T-Bone Burnett on our first record and he really instilled in us a philosophy that recordings and records were really just about the song and the performance. All the rest didn’t matter if you didn’t have the performance.

What was the most important thing you learned from him?

He made this analogy, “You can cover a pile of shit with chocolate, but it’s still a pile of shit.”  He would make us get to the soul or the core of the song.  If you don’t have something there to begin with that makes it special, all the technology won’t help much.  And that’s how we’ve continued to always approach the music.

 Talking about T Bone Burnett…he won an Oscar for his music in the movie, “Crazy Heart” and of course years ago for “Walk the Line” and “Brother, Where Art Thou?” He brings a vast amount of musical knowledge to the industry. Did you miss not being able to work with him on this record?

Absolutely. Unfortunately for us, he’s so busy and in many ways it’s very expensive to work with someone of that caliber.  We found a financial person to help us afford him with the last record, but we can’t afford him every record.  I wish we could.  And it takes a lot more time with him because you’re always trying to schedule around his schedule.  He executive produced our first album, then in the middle of our career he produced Go Slow Down and then the album before this one.  So about every ten years we get to work with him (laughs). 

What’s the story behind Mr. Sad Clown?

Mr. Sad Clown deals with a middle age perspective on life.  It’s about a kid who turns to music to understand life because I was kind of a social misfit. I wasn’t good at connecting to people, so I turned inward towards music.  The record is based more on a man who now has kids and his life has been moving in one direction and he’s basically wondering, “What could have been if I took a different turn in my life?”  There are a couple of songs that deal directly with depression, as well.  We tried to do it in a beautiful, universal way.  Even if I’m singing about depression, I’m singing in a way that everyone can hopefully identify with. 

How did the recording process compare to your other albums?

We had a different approach with this record.  Kind of similar to how Sam and I first started doing our earliest demos.  Originally when we began writing songs, I played drums, guitars and all these instruments, so we would go in the studio and I’d play everything and then Sam and I would sing together and we would make a demo of the song.  So we approached this record that same way; instead of hiring all the other people outside of us to interpret what we do.  We put it down the way we interpreted it, which kept it really pure, straightforward and honest. 

Which songs hit home the most?

From Sam’s songs, “All the Blues” is my favorite and from mine I really like the songs “Today” and “Headed For The End of The World”, which I think deals with what people are talking about a lot today — how ridiculous politics are.  Basically it says, “We’re never gonna change, we’re greedy bastards and politicians aren’t changing, so let’s get it over with.”  I want to make that statement to society because I feel it’s the only way people are gonna wake up. 

Are you happy with Obama?

Yes, I’m happy we have him in office.  But people basically play politics like it’s an NBA basketball game or something.  They don’t care about reality; they only care about having ‘their side’ win.  This country wasn’t set up to be an elitist country – you weren’t supposed to be about “here’s the powerful 1 percenters and here’s the rest of the world just scraping by”… and yet we have the so-called conservatives playing the cards as if we’re supposed to be elitists.  As long as some people have all the power and others don’t, we’re always gonna have problems and we’re always gonna be heading for the end of the world.

You’ve said performing live is like playing a tennis match.  You throw a lob up and you get one in return, etc.  What kind of returns are you getting with Mr. Sad Clown?

I think it’s the same as any record.  When you perform, you walk on stage and you play your stuff and your energy goes out to the audience and either they give it back or they don’t.  A real important part of our career has always been coming out and performing.  That energy you create each night in a different place, different city, different room, different people…that shared energy always felt like such a positive way to live my life compared to if I was just out there trying to make every dollar I could and scurry it away.  People who go out to see a performance get a lot more out of it when they’re involved in it. Singing, dancing, moving…it’s all very therapeutic.  You’re putting something into the world that’s positive.

After 25 years have there been times you and Sam said, “That’s it…. we’re done”

Oh yeah… I think we say that all the time. (laughs) You try to concentrate on the music, though.  The only thing that kept us going this long is that we thought the music was more important than our little egos.  As long as we can keep that in perspective everything runs really well.   We get into trouble only when one of us feels like we’re not getting our needs met.  But when we feel good about what’s going on and we can maintain that, we’re in a good place.

What was the creative distribution on this record?

 We both usually write our own songs, but on this record we contributed a lot to each other’s songs.  I helped Sam with his songs because he said he wasn’t really ready to do another record.  He had a lot of rough ideas so we both hashed those out into songs.  I, on the other hand, tend to write a lot of songs on the road and we had just done a lot of touring.  So I had just a bunch of songs that we weeded through together.

What was it like back in 1987 when you toured with U2?

Great experience.  They’re good guys.  We really got to see the machine of the music industry close up.  I laugh about this ‘too big to fail’ thing with the banks because I watch it in our industry too.  If U2 releases a record and people aren’t that into it, the industry still has to support it.  They’re so entrenched in the success of the bigger, older name bands, that the young bands have trouble getting started.
 
You had some of your own celebrity with “Closer To Free”…

Yeah, it was a fluke thing.  It wasn’t off the latest release or part of the hype of the latest record.  It just happened on its own. 

What did you take away from that experience?

It got our name out there, but it was really the worse year afterwards for performing because we didn’t just have our hardcore fans.  Part of our audience didn’t know anything about our music.  So we’d go play a show and these people would just sit for 70 minutes until they heard “Closer To Free” and then they’d jump up all excited.  Not the kinds of fans Sam or I were looking for. You always hope to reach out and get noticed, but we also wanted to be more meaningful to people than just a pop song.  I think it happened perfectly for the Kings of Leon.  They were just doing what they do and all of the sudden it caught on.

So what’s the secret?

I think in large part it’s really about the performance.  Can you stand in a room and do something that’s interesting and is uniquely you? 

And what about all this computer-generated music?

When everyone found out they could make a record on their laptop, they did.  Yet, they couldn’t all go out there and perform that and it really hurt the industry because they were supporting records of artists that weren’t performers. 

The tools are only getting more and more sophisticated.  Do you see it getting worse or better for the industry?

I sense more and more these days that young artists are going back to the basics. Recordings are great, but the performance is very important…the actual sounds of live voices.  You can’t just rely on recordings and I think musicians are realizing that.  When the industry supports that, then it will be important in peoples’ lives again.  At the end of the day, I think that’s what has more meaning to the fans.  All these years, Sam and I have concentrated on what’s uniquely ours…our two voices together.  But when an industry ignores that and just supports computer music, you’re kinda on the back burner.  Hopefully, your fans will pull you through it. 

And then of course, there’s YouTube …

Yeah, my kids just sit and watch YouTube all day.  They don’t even watch TV.  Whatever the latest link leads them to is “it”…so I think that’s a big part of it going forward.  You used to have to spend a quarter of a million dollars to make a video for it to be seen.  Now people can just spend $100 on a video camera, videotape themselves singing a song and upload it and they might even become a sensation.  It seems like Andy Warhol was right about the 15 minutes of fame.  It lasts a week and then it’s gone.  The hard part is sticking around.  If you love doing something and it’s based on bringing something positive into the listeners’ lives, they’ll be willing to support that.

Who inspires you?

I like Stan Getz a lot.  I love the way he plays the sax.   I listen to jazz music because my head can’t analyze it at all and I enjoy that.  As a musician, my mind tears apart a lot of pop music, so I avoid listening to it.  K.D. Lang amazes me as a singer.  I wish I could sing half as well as she does. 

A memorable moment on stage?

Very often the crowd is singing so loud, you can barely keep the system up above them.  That’s about the best you can hope for in a show.
 
Joanne Schenker lives in New York and is a contributing writer for Glide and AOL Music (Spinner.com) She can be reached at [email protected]

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