March 6th, 2013
Meet the BoDeans!
Published in Experience Milwaukee Magazine
Written by Catherine Driscoll
It was a hot, drippy August evening. If given the opportunity, most people were sitting indoors with the air conditioning cranked. Others were lying still, waiting for the rain to finally come and go and take the stickiness with it.
But for a group of more than 20,000 fans, the heat couldn’t stop them from carting their blankets and coolers to Ravinia in Highland Park, Illinois to sing and dance with abandon to the BoDeans.
“The BoDeans are the best live band I’ve ever seen,” says long-time fan Rick Meade, who travels from Cape Cod to the Midwest every summer to see the BoDeans. “They energize the crowd, the crowd energizes them. It’s almost 50/50. Every time I see them, they’re having a blast on stage.”
It’s a little bit strange, almost like a family reunion. As the band enters the stage, people in the audience wave as if they’re waving to good friends. And that feeling of strong friendship – loyalty even – permeates the evening in a multitude of ways. You hear it in the very tight, perfectly-in-tune vocal harmonies of frontmen Sam Llanas and Kurt Neumann. You see it in the eyes of their adoring fans who seem willing to travel anywhere to see them. And you witness it as the band invites the audience to be a part of the show.
“When we started out,” explains rhythm guitarist Llanas, “we went to see a lot of bands locally to see what we could learn. The one thing we saw – the most common denominator – was a big space between the band and the crowd. We knew we needed to gap that, because nobody wants to be the first guy on the dance floor. So we would go out onto the dance floor. We would go off the stage and into that space and lure people to come to us. And we still have the same philosophy. “We throw the energy out, and we want them to throw it back to us. Because it’s a lot more fun to do something when you’re doing it with good friends.”
And good friends are what the BoDeans are all about. You realize upon meeting Neumann and Llanas that they don’t have to actually talk to each other to communicate. “We can just look at each other and know what the other is thinking,” says Llanas. After 20 years together, you can understand why.
Llanas and Neumann met in the 10th grade in Waukesha, Wisconsin, both addicted to music but unsure what to do with it. Neumann was a drummer, playing in several bands and writing his own music. Llanas didn’t play an instrument but loved to sing.
“I was always bringing Sam with me to audition for other bands,” Neumann says, “but he had a weird-sounding voice. One time, I was recording a song in my basement called “How Can I Survive” and I asked him to come over and sing on it because I knew he could sing. Ever since that moment, we’ve worked together.”
Frustrated because he couldn’t find anyone who would play his original songs, Neumann eventually picked up the guitar at 19 and learned to play it. Several years later, after college and his ambitions of law school wore off, Llanas did the same thing.
“It’s frustrating when you can’t play songs right away,” Llanas admits. “You need to give yourself a couple years to lock yourself in your room and do your homework. Because it takes a lot of time to be really good at something. I finally got to that point and Kurt got to that point, and we were ready. In two or three years, we were able to get a lot done.”
Neumann and Llanas eventually tagged fellow Waukesha graduate Bob Griffin to join them on the bass guitar. “I’d go to see Kurt and Sam play live and they were so good,” says Griffin. “But it sounded so different without a bass player. I said ‘Get a bass player,’ and they picked me. I was sick of doing cover songs with other bands, and they were doing original songs. I knew that’s where I wanted to go.”
Just two years later, in 1986, the BoDeans released their debut album, Love & Hope & Sex & Dreams on Slash Records, manufactured and distributed by Warner Bros. The album quickly achieved critical acclaim with hits like Fadeaway, Still the Night and Misery, and their follow-up effort released the next year, Outside Looking In, entered the Top 100 and earned them the title of Best New Band by Rolling Stone Magazine. The BoDeans were soon touring with U2, and playing to huge audiences far, far away from Waukesha, Wisconsin.
The BoDeans signature sound is full of guitars and weeping harmonies that wrap around every song. Supported by Griffin’s strong bass and accented with keyboards and an accordion, their music is full and round with an occasional ethnic quality to it. It’s hard to categorize their music into one genre because it is so diverse. “We definitely have country, blues, rock, and pop within our own thing and we always wanted that,” explains Llanas.
But it is clearly their twanging vocals and astute songwriting skills Llanas and Neumann bring to the band that have fueled the BoDeans success. Interestingly, their writing styles differ dramatically: Llanas leans toward slow ballads. Neumann prefers traditional rock tempos. “It’s really hard for me to write fast rock songs,” says Llanas. “It doesn’t come naturally to me. So I think that’s why I gravitate toward something that’s slow and is telling you a story or taking you somewhere. It’s not energy so much as vibe and words that are important to me.”
How do they marry the two styles to create a BoDeans song? “Sam and I sing on a song, first and foremost, and that really creates the BoDeans sound to us,” says Neumann. “If we can sing that song well together, it has a BoDeans thing to it. It’s not like a formula. I’ve been writing songs for so many years that I know which ones are going to work.”
The BoDeans’ music has been described most often as “indy roots rock” and “midwestern.” When asked what “midwestern” music sounds like, all three unanimously shrug. But one fan, Michael O’Leary, hits the nail on the head: In a time when few bands stay together for 18 years, the three core members of the BoDeans have remained true to each other and their signature sound. Explains Llanas, “We have figured out what we do best. We don’t change for change’s sake. You can try to be something you’re not, and you might have a little success, but it’s better to be yourself. Whatever comes out of you naturally, that’s what you can do and have a shot at being unique about it.”
For this reason alone, the BoDeans took over the reins in recording and producing their new CD, Resolution, in Neumann’s Slamshack Studio in Austin, Texas. Alluding to a legal battle currently being waged against their former management company, Neumann says, “There was a wall built around us that we had to break down and do things ourselves in order to get a record out.”
The experience ended up being very liberating for the band. Says Neumann, “There was no time clock on us so we could experiment a lot more. Once we had laid down the tracks, I’d do a lot of experimenting, and send the stuff up to Sam in Milwaukee. He would tell me what he was looking for.”
“Recording is a blast,” agrees Griffin, the steady, affable influence in the group. “It’s like work and not work. We took one of Sam’s songs, Nobody Loves Me, a slow ballad song, and Kurt started goofing around with it and now it’s a tempo-paced song. We can take an old song and change it completely. Recording is something new and different, and very creative.”
Neumann ended up mixing and producing the entire record, although that was not the original intention. “We were just going to do a few recordings, get them to a place where we felt good about them, and send them out to get a reaction,” he says. “There were four labels in six months that wanted the record as is. That surprised us.”
Resolution, released in June 2004, is the first new release from the BoDeans since 1996. And like all nine of the BoDeans recordings, it is true to their roots – upbeat and optimistic, with passionate harmonies and heartfelt lyrics. The CD begins with the anthemic and chiming If It Makes You, a love ballad that showcases their perfect vocals. The CD also includes the bouncy (We Can) Live and feel-good rocker Wild World. Throughout, it is as true a BoDeans record as ever there was.
The BoDeans have racked up so many hits in the past 18 years that it takes a live album like Joe Dirt Car that pulls from everything but Resolution to fully appreciate their breadth. If you still don’t know the BoDeans music, consider these songs: Fadeaway, Still the Night, Closer to Free (made famous as the theme song for the hit TV show “Party of Five”) Far, Far Away from My Heart, She’s a Runaway, and Misery.
Although the band’s nine recordings have certainly gained them radio airplay and exposure across the country, it’s their live shows and word-of-mouth that keep their fan base growing.
“We attract a very diverse crowd,” says Llanas, “and that’s one of the things I most proud of. People seem to pass the word on to their children and grandchildren about us – they find out about us somehow.”
Unlike some bands that are too mixed in the studio, the BoDeans sound just as good or better live. “Touring is exhausting,” Llanas continues. “But when you walk up there, you can just feel the energy. And if that doesn’t do it for you, you’re in trouble.”
In stark contrast to the lovefest that seems to exist between Llanas, Neumann, Griffin and their fans is a long list of drummers and keyboardists. When asked about this seemingly Spinal Tap quality, Neumann laughs: “I guess I’m very hard on drummers. There are only a dozen good drummers in the world, in my opinion, so it’s hard for anyone to live up to that.”
But the BoDeans finally may have found their equals in drummer Kevin Leahy and keyboardist / accordion player Bukka Allen, who are touring with them to promote Resolution. At one point during their Ravinia shows, Neumann, Llanas, and Griffin simply stopped playing to let Allen jam on an electric piano. The result was phenomenal, as Allan took an old song, Misery, to new heights.
What’s next for the BoDeans? ‘We want to work this record for a long time,” says Llanas, clearly exhausted. “Our goal has been to keep going, get better, and keep having fun.” What would you be doing if you weren’t doing this? “Trying to do this!”