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Monday, May 24, 2010

For the BoDeans, a Melancholy Album and an Uncertain Future

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When Kurt Neumann was 15, he had two cassette decks with which he “bounced tracks” back and forth, experimenting with musical effects. He played drums and guitar and had written a few songs by the time he paired up with high school friend Sam Llanas in 1983 to form the BoDeans.

Today, Neumann lives in Austin and has a recording studio in a building on his Texas property. He still plays drums and guitar and writes songs with Llanas, with whom he penned the BoDeans’ the popular “Closer to Free.” During the past 27 years, the band made its name among roots-rock fans, opening for U2 on The Joshua Tree tour, working with producers Jerry Harrison and T-Bone Burnett, being voted 1987’s “Best New American Band” by Rolling Stone readers, and seeing “Closer to Free” chosen as the theme song for Fox TV’s Party of Five.

One would think Neumann would be on top of his game. But changes in the music business, the band and Neumann’s own sense of self have mellowed the singer/songwriter’s already tenuous optimism. In fact, one might consider the maturity and melancholia that characterize Mr. Sad Clown (429 Records), the new album the BoDeans released in April, as a reflection of Neumann’s persona in an age of commercial anxiety.

“When we were younger and starting out, it was about energy and craziness and getting laid,” Neumann says. “We’re different people today and we have a different sound that’s more reflective of who we are.”

Then there is the album title itself, which appears as part of a musical bridge in the album’s ballad “Today,” that’s surprisingly personally revealing.

“I was at a party in Milwaukee when I was in high school, sitting next to the speakers by myself listening to Pink Floyd or something, and a very drunk girl came up to me and asked, ‘What’s the matter, Mr. Sad Clown?’” Neumann remembers. “She had me pegged.”

The phrase stuck with Neumann, characterizing the tonality and theme of the album’s 15 tracks, as well as the songwriter’s personal views. The rising tide of public appreciation for roots rock helped the BoDeans early in their career, but a lack of widespread notoriety has kept significant commercial success for the band at bay, creating a future that Neumann says he lives just one year at a time.

“I always thought we were one of the best American bands out there,” he says. “We always said we wanted to keep making records. We’ve gotten to where we want to be, but it would have been nice to have become better known worldwide.”

Issues with management and its record label slowed the band’s progress early in the new century. Along with age, it’s also changed the BoDeans’ current sound, which Neumann describes as “broken down”—not necessarily acoustic, but significantly softer and more lyrical than the band’s past performances.

“Sometimes, doing something new means doing something less,” Neumann says in reference to the band’s May 28 Marcus Center for the Performing Arts show. “We’re playing our songs in a much quieter style that most people haven’t heard before. I just hope people come out and see the show.”

Changing musical styles and a declining fan base, even in its own hometown, has caused Neumann concern about The BoDeans’ future.

“The audiences have gotten smaller and it’s getting harder to reach people,” Neumann says. “We always said if we couldn’t keep it going we would just pack it in. Right now we’re just taking it a year at a time and we’ll see what happens.”

The BoDeans play the Marcus Center on Friday, May 28 at 8 p.m. with opener Paul Cebar.

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