While the BoDeans have built a loyal fan base over the course of the 24 years since the release of their T Bone Burnett-produced debut, Love & Hope & Sex & Dreams, the duo—Kurt Neumann (vocals, electric guitar) and Sam Llanas (vocals, acoustic guitar)—is best known as the band whose “Closer To Free” became the theme song to ’90s TV show Party Of Five. But the BoDeans are fine with that and instead focus on making the kind of music they want to, then bringing it to their devoted followers. New album Mr. Sad Clown (429) was recorded in Neumann’s Texas home studio (Llanas still lives in the band’s native Wisconsin), and it features more of the duo’s trademark roots-based rock and intricate vocal harmonies. MAGNET caught up with Neumann while he was on his way to Chicago to promote Mr. Sad Clown. Neumann will be guest editing magnetmagazine.com all week.
“Say Goodbye” (download):
MAGNET: With you in Texas and Sam still in Milwaukee, describe the process of writing and then recording an album.
Neumann: I have a studio off my house in Texas. Typically, Sam will come down for a couple of days, and we will try to make sense out of any ideas he or I will have for songs. I tend to write a lot on the road. Sam doesn’t. So I tend to have my songs more structured. We will put some stuff down, and Sam will go home. I then start throwing all kinds of different colors at the stuff and see if anything happens. After a month or so of me fooling around, Sam will come back down to Austin. I’ll play the stuff. Usually he likes it. Sometimes not. My favorite track of Sam’s didn’t make it on this record because I shot in a direction he couldn’t get his head around. As well as another track of mine that he liked but I thought could be better. It happens. Anyway, we come to a consensus on, say, 18 or 20 songs and try to focus on a group that work together. Then I’ll finish up parts. We will finish up singing. And send it out.
You guys decided to make an album more from the perspective of adults. How did that influence the way you wrote songs this time out? Do you think you will continue in this vein?
Well, speaking for myself, I would say yes. Life seems very different now as an adult. Meaning over 30. Having kids. Living with the perspective of taking care of others, instead of yourself. That’s who I am now, and that’s not gonna change. It’s very different than being 20 and staring at girls’ bodies and thinking, “I’m gonna hit that.” I mean, really, who thinks like that? At my age? Right?
Why is it called Mr. Sad Clown?
It’s one of the lyrics from the bridge of the song “Today.” When Sam and I were in high school, we went to a party one night. I was a social misfit; Sam wasn’t. While he moved from person to person talking about “high school stuff,” I planted myself in the corner by the stereo speakers. Pink Floyd, Jackson Browne. After a few hours, a large, very drunk girl came walking up to me and stood there staring and swaying. Finally she says, “What’s the matter, Mr. Sad Clown?” I laughed. She had me pegged. A social misfit who turns to music to relate. That’s Mr. Sad Clown.
Are you guys gonna tour at all?
Yes. BoDeans tour as much as possible. It’s how we’ve survived for this many years. In fact, I’m on a plane right now. On my way to Chicago for the first promo shows.
Now that you are approaching 25 years in the music biz, what advice would you have given the BoDeans circa 1986? What mistakes are you glad you guys made along the way?
Our advice to younger acts is to do what you do, what makes your sound your sound. Now that’s not great if you wanna be the pop sensation of the moment, but if you wanna hang around a while … Our goal was to keep on making records. But instead of trying to sound like radio-friendly music, we set out to build a loyal fan base by giving them everything we had as performers every night. And in time, our fans came to know that they could count on us for a great time, a great show. Well worth their hard-earned dollars. I think many of the younger acts found they could make great-sounding computer records, but they didn’t know how to really perform. Or they didn’t understand the importance of a great performance.
Who do you consider to be your peers these days?
I don’t know. Anyone who’s been around as long as we have and are still out there going door to door trying reach people. It has been great to be around T Bone. Not sure he’s a peer, but he has given me a wealth of knowledge about music and making records. And it’s always a pleasure to be around him and the stuff he’s working on.
What kind of impact did Party Of Five using “Closer To Free” have on the band, if any?
It taught us that a top-10 audience wasn’t for us. It was nice to experience it, but we want people to know our music. Not just a song. Maybe we’re spoiled that way.
You two broke up in the ’90s for a few years and reunited to record the theme song to (short-lived Party Of Five spinoff) Time Of Your Life. Had you not done that, do you think you two would be back together now?
We never broke up. Sam stopped us from recording for a few years so he could put out a solo record. While it was a bad time for the band, we never stopped doing BoDeans shows. Since 1983, we’ve never had a year or two off. It’s how we survive.
So is there ever a time you play acoustic guitar and Sam plays electric?
Well, actually, I’ve always played 99.9 percent of the acoustic guitars on our records. In fact, throughout our history, I’ve tended to play most of the music. It’s just how Sam and I started doing it in the beginning. As far as Sam on electric, well, early on he tried, but he broke a lot of strings. He’s just not an electric player. He doesn’t like it.
You did the soundtrack to The Godfather Of Green Bay. Is soundtrack work something you would like to do more of?
Well, yeah. I did the soundtrack just for the experience. Since I live in the studio, I’m always recording something. So it’s really nice when you can find somewhere to use it. And, I truly love movies. When the music is just right it can tear your heart out. So you know, I feel like I would love to do more.
—Eric T. Miller