Kurt Neumann Talks BoDeans

BoDeans’ Kurt Neumann talks with Pollstar about the group, its fans and what keeps him going after 30-plus years of making music.

Hailing from Wisconsin, Neumann and fellow high school classmate Sam Llanas began gigging around Milwaukee during the early 1980s. Working first as a duo under the name “Da BoDeans,” the pair eventually were joined by a drummer and bassist and signed with Slash/Warner Bros. in 1985.

Like many bands, the BoDeans have experienced a few changes over the years. Llanas left the group in 2011. Today’s BoDeans features Neumann, along with Michael Ramos on keyboards and accordion, bassist Ryan Bowman, drummer Noah Levy, guitarist Jake Owen and Warren Hood on fiddle.

Neumann recently talked with Pollstar about the BoDeans’ new album, American Made as well as everything in today’s BoDeans universe.

Photo: Traci Goudie

What’s different about the American Made album compared to past BoDeans albums?

A couple of big differences. One of them, a singer/songwriter I had worked with for many years [Sam Llanas] quit the band last year, so we carried on with just me being the sole singer/songwriter in the band. Luckily, I had been kind of making the records myself for the last 10 years; he had been off doing other things. So it wasn’t too different from my perspective.

And the other thing was I really wanted to embrace American / roots-rock sound of music. When we were on Warner Bros. Records, we really had to play, they kind of nudged you in the direction of what was on the radio.

This record and the place I am now in my life, I don’t have to think about those things. I set off to work in that frame of more American music – folk, country, rock, blues – all those kind of things coming together in one sound. The BoDeans were always an American band. We were voted “Best American Band” years ago. Instead of just trying to deal with what is being played and selling records, I could just think about making a record that was based on something I wanted to do for a long time, which was more traditional based roots-rock. We did that with the instrumentation a little bit in adding a fiddle player. We already had an accordion player so it worked really well on this record.

You recorded a solo album, Shy Dog, in 2000. When Llanas left the band, did you ever consider ending the BoDeans and continuing strictly as a solo act?

The solo record, I made because Llanas had shut the band down in ’98 to do a solo record. I had nothing to do, so I experimented. It was really the beginning of my process of learning how to make records. Of course, I had been in the studio a lot during the early years, but I hadn’t spent a lot of time putting up microphones, engineering and things like that, so it was a way for me to start digging into that stuff. I had to start putting together my own studio, doing it my own way.

Since then, I was the guy who was putting together the BoDeans records, too, which is why I wanted to keep going with BoDeans. I had felt I had kind of been alone in that process since the ’90s, really, of making BoDeans records, whether I played everything on the record or most everything on the record. The ’90s had become my thing, anyway. So I couldn’t see much difference between coming out with a record as just Kurt, [or] if I come out with a record [as the] BoDeans, because I had been the architect of the BoDeans for so long that I felt like it wasn’t any different. I had worked on building up this name “BoDeans” for so many years, and put so much of my life in that, I didn’t want to see it die. If I were to go out and try to reach people under my own name in any town, they might not even know I was there. At least they recognize the BoDeans name. They know I’m coming and playing these songs they have their own attachments to.

What’s the story behind the “Jay Leno” track on the new album?

When I was eight-years-old, they found a young girl’s body in the garage next door who had been murdered. It was a catalyst for me and my family moving out of the city, out of Milwaukee and out to the country in Waukesha. [Over] all the years I would tell people about this dramatic thing, but I never knew much about the details and what happened. Nobody really talked about it. Way back when we didn’t have the Internet to just go on and Google something.

For some reason last year right, before we went to record the record, it just came pouring out of me in a song. Because I didn’t know the details, I imagined this young girl trusted the wrong person at the wrong time. Because it wasn’t an affluent [area], it was kind of a neighborhood where people tend to reach for the stars a little bit. And I thought about how people come on “Jay Leno” and how life seems so perfect when you’re watching it on TV. You never see people come on mad, angry or in trouble. It’s always people smiling and happy, everything is going great. From that perspective of the inner city it can look like a beautiful thing to aspire to. Then you try desperate things or trust the wrong person.

I grew up thinking all these thoughts [and] wrote the song about that kind of mentality. We all want to feel that beautiful feeling at one point. It appears on “Jay Leno,” I know things aren’t perfect for those people, but it appears that way when you’re young.

Do songs tend to, to use your words, “pour” out of you, or is it a more painstaking process?

Stuff tends to come out like that. When it does, it’s the best. It’s not a predictable thing, when it happens it happens. Those are my favorite songs because they’re so natural to play and sing. I find I tend not to work on stuff if it’s not falling together real well and natural. I shy away from it. It’s a weird dynamic that happens in songwriting. It almost feels like a magical thing to me. I’ve always felt that way.

So I have to be patient. I think it takes going into the studio and playing, singing, working and writing. I look for those moments when everything is coming together naturally. Even when you get together with a band and “Here’s the song,” it all falls together naturally that way, too.

When writing a new song, what comes first for you, lyrics or melody?

Probably the structure of the song. A lot of times I find something that strikes a mood in me, some chords I’m playing or it’s a melody I’m playing. I’ll come up with a basic structure of a song, where the chords are going to go or what the “B”sections will be like.

If I’m lucky whatever emotion it strikes with me, I can attach some words to that, or a situation in my life to that, that matters to me, that I want to sing about. From there, that’s the moment when things will either fall together really simply or not.

From there sometimes, even if I don’t have every verse, I’ll put enough down that I have a working kind of song. As I go through the process of recording a song, I start to change lines here and there [as] I find better lines that make more sense.

Regarding the live shows. Are the BoDeans following a set list these days or are you switching songs on the spur of the moment?

We have a get-going at the ending of the set that’s structured, but in the middle and on the encore, I’ll tend to write several songs listed in one slot as an option that might fit the mood, and we’ll just call out different things to play. I love doing that. No crowd is exactly the same and the mood each night is a little different. Plus, we have 30 years of songs to deal with and play, so it’s nice to change it up.

What keeps you going after 30 years?

I think, eventually at my age, you reach this point, where I realized this is what I do in my life. That sounds a little bland, I understand, but I don’t mean it to feel that way. It doesn’t feel bland, I’m not just punching a clock. What is the biggest paycheck for me in my life right now and in my music, is like the whole “Jay Leno” situation. We found a Web site [about the murdered girl] that her sister had set up and we were able to contact her and speak to her about all this. In doing so, she realized her sister’s death had reached all these other people. In essence, it was a catalyst getting me to a situation where I started a band and playing music that reached out to other people and touched them in their lives. All of a sudden she realized her sister’s death had not just been a negative thing, but it had also been a positive thing in all these other directions.

I get letters and stories from people all the time who went through terrible illness and they say it [the music] got them through. Or they got married to my music, or on family vacations will send little clips of their kids singing my songs. People who had brain tumor surgery or their children had died and all of it, somehow, they were relating to my music. And I’m thinking this is the purpose for me. Why I feel I’m supposed to be doing this. My music somehow touched somebody in some way that helped them in some moment. If I lived my life and that was the good I did, then I can die with a smile on my face. It’s really bigger than any paycheck.

Photo: Photo: Tessa Torrence
“And the other thing was I really wanted to embrace American / roots-rock sound of music.”

Having been a professional musician for three decades, when not writing, recording, rehearsing or performing live, do you still play music just to amuse yourself?

I do it every day. Every day I work around the house with my guitar strapped on, playing music. Just because I love it.

Do you ever play something you’ve heard on the radio, just for fun?

Absolutely. My kids will be listening to some YouTube clip when I walk into the room and I’ll figure out what the Justin Bieber or Lady Gaga song is. Once you figure out the chord structure, you see it’s just like any other song that was ever written, it was just presented different. Music appears to change on the surface but it doesn’t. It’s just the chord structure, the melody and somebody singing about something that matters to them.

Many songwriters talk about what they’re reading. What’s on your nightstand these days?

I just finished “The Fountainhead” by Ayn Rand. I had seen the movie a long, long time ago and there are certain pictures, parts of that movie, that stuck in my head about the Howard Roark character and his personality, so I really wanted to read the book. That was kind of cool. Now I’m reading the Steve Jobs book. A lot of reading about religions as well in early years just because, to me, it always seemed all religions were talking about the same thing. I’d read books by Joseph Campbell and people like that, people who really know what they’re talking about.

In 2012, who do you consider to be contemporaries of the BoDeans?

I think American pop music has always been a part of that. We’ve been a country that loves pop music. I couldn’t tell you much about the music today that’s all dance music, dance-driven, because I haven’t really listened to a lot of it. I’m more of a person who likes listening to stuff that’s more acoustic guitar or band-driven. I like the John Mayers and stuff like that. I think he’s really creative at carrying on with that very American style of music where he incorporates a lot of blues and pop and folk into his music.

The BoDeans have inspired other bands throughout the years. Do you have any favorites?

We met The Wallflowers years and years ago before they really did it big, and they mentioned what big fans they were. And I always thought they did a great job with the sound as well. I like those guys a lot.

The BoDeans worked with T Bone Burnett in the past. Any future plans with him?

I’d love to work with him more, but I think he’s gotten so popular and has so many people with a lot more money then me wanting to work with him, that it might be really hard to get on his radar. But if the chance came to me, I’d work with him in a second.

He was kind of responsible for the sound of this latest record. When we were together last, working on the Still record, he loaned me an anthology of folk music. I spent days listening to it and I found out that folk music, the real tradition of it, was a lot different than what I really knew about. The early folk music was really driven and had a lot energy to it, a lot of message to it.

And that’s what I was trying to do with the American Made record. Write songs that were like that, that had real messages to them, very simple, very immediate and very American sounding.

What would you tell a teenager picking up a guitar who wants to have a career playing music?

I think early on you have to make up your mind [about] what exactly you’re after. Like I said about getting a paycheck from doing something really positive in this world. Is that a goal you can live with, and maybe spending your whole life paying bills month-to-month and scraping by? Or do you want to be famous? Do you want to be a pop star?

I don’t think you can be judgmental about either, but I think young artists have to make up their minds about what exactly they’re shooting for and what exactly they’re going to be happy with. They really have to understand the business of this industry. There are a lot of people who will try to make money off of what you do and you really need to decide early on what direction it is, what path you want to follow and what you’re going to be OK with.

Photo: Photo: Nate Iverson
“No crowd is exactly the same and the mood each night is a little different.”

Touring in support of American Made, upcoming BoDeans shows include Lexington, Ky., at Buster’s June 22; Cincinnati at Bogart’s June 23; Cleveland’s House Of Blues June 24 and Columbus, Ohio, at Lincoln Theatre June 27. Visit BoDeans.com for more information.