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Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Sammy Goes Solo

Sam Llanas reflects on life after The BoDeans

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An affinity for night is a large part of both the public and private persona of musician Sam Llanas, until last summer considered the more soulful half of The BoDeans. But the origin of his preference may not be truly known even among friends who have nicknamed him "Sam-pire."

"I grew up in a small house with a lot of people, and at night when everyone was sleeping was the only time I had the place to myself," says Llanas, 50, a Waukesha native. "Night also is a time of just you and your thoughts, and you can't escape from that."


These days Llanas' thoughts are occupied with ways to reignite his solo career, a role he hadn't planned on filling, but one he said he no longer could avoid. As a co-founder with Kurt Neumann of The BoDeans in 1983, Llanas enjoyed a nearly 30-year career with one of the Midwest's most influential roots-rock bands. The BoDeans worked with legendary producer T-Bone Burnett and, in 1993, scored a major hit with "Closer to Free," which went on to become the theme song of the FOX TV series "Party of Five."


But in recent years, Llanas says, the road had become rocky for the Milwaukee-area group. Differences of opinion between the founders, Neumann's relocation to Austin, Texas, and opposition to Llanas' budding solo career strained the relationship. On Aug. 11, 2011, Llanas texted Neumann that he would not show up for a BoDeans concert in Winter Park, Colo. A week later, he officially resigned from the band.


"It's arguable which of us initiated the split," Llanas says. "I hear that I left the band to pursue a solo career, but I didn't want to do that at all. Members of other bands have side projects—why couldn't we?"


In 1998, both Llanas and Neumann put the band on hold to pursue solo projects. With Jim Eannelli on guitars and Guy Hoffman on drums, Llanas formed Absinthe and recorded A Good Day to Die, named for the American-Indian war cry. The work, a eulogy for Llanas' brother who committed suicide when the singer was just 14, was very dark, even for someone who thrives at night.


"The record was very noncommercial on purpose, taking listeners to dark places they don't normally go," he says. "My brother had killed himself and I knew it was time to exorcize those demons."


Last October, Llanas released 4 a.m., an acoustic work that spun a gentler web than his previous recording, even though it featured songs once again about the night. Announcement of the solo album's release date came days after The BoDeans released Indigo Dreams, which further strained the musician's relationship with his now-former partner.


Llanas is now content to patch together a solo career. With bassist Matt Turner and drummer Ryan Schiedermayer, he will appear April 21 at The Exclusive Company's Greenfield store at noon. That same night the group will share the Shank Hall stage with Semi-Twang and Nineteen Thirteen, a chamber-rock ensemble led by former Violent Femmes member Victor DeLorenzo.


"I just want people to know I am still around," Llanas says. "And I certainly hope that once in a while I will miss something Kurt would have contributed to the band. I am quite sure he will miss my contributions."


Sam Llanas' show Saturday, April 21, at Shank Hall with Semi-Twang and Nineteen Thirteen begins at 8 p.m.
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