A Conversation with BoDeans' Kurt Neumann
Mike Ragogna: So, you have a new album, Mr. Sad Clown, that just came out of 429 Records, right?
Kurt Neumann: Yeah, we had about twenty-three songs and we narrowed it down to about the fourteen that got on there, and I think there's a bonus track somewhere on Amazon or iTunes or something like that.
MR: What went into the process of selecting the final songs for the album?
KN: I think BoDeans kind of have a sound, and between Sam, the other singer-songwriter, and myself, we try to come up with songs that flow really naturally for us that we can sing together because our harmonies are kind of a definitive sound for our band. We tend to gravitate toward songs that either do that or work naturally in some other way--that feel real good, natural, and we're not trying to force anything along. In the process, the songs kind of reveal themselves that way usually.
MR: And all these tracks could have been fleshed out as a double album.
KN: Yeah, I kind of wish those days were still around where you can put that stuff out. I think you get more reluctance from the labels than you do anything else. I think the musicians and artists would be glad to put everything out, but labels tend to be overwhelmed by it all, and then it really gets narrowed down to one track or so that gets played on the radio and kind of becomes a favorite. The days of getting your crowds to know all of your songs, especially a double album, are kind of long since passed.
MR: Ah, the day of the double album. Well, these days, it just seems like when an artist releases a double disc, it's mainly remixes or something with previous songs, and I think part of the philosophy on that is it cuts down on the mechanical licensing fees.
KN: For the record company, yeah. Absolutely, they don't want to pay for all those songs that they're going to be profiting off of. For a record, they'll only pay you for twelve songs typically. You're kind of restricted that way, and it's really kind of up to you, but then I think the labels don't like marketing double albums either. It just kind of goes all down the line through the industry, that people kind of frown upon it, which is too bad because I think the fans, probably, in the end, would like it, but that's kind of typical. Anybody who makes money off art types of things, it's a big struggle that way between the business of it and the art of it.
MR: Art and commerce.
KN: Yeah, it's a struggle, but I don't think it needs to be. I think a lot of companies are trying to come up with ways to rectify that, but as long as I've been making music, it's been there.
MR: Also, with how music sites function and with everyone downloading one song at a time, it's changed the concept even of albums. A double album? Heck, what about a single album? People don't even know what that is anymore.
KN: Yeah, that's true as far as pop music, it's definitely gone to just a single track here and there.
MR: You guys, though, are one of those groups that are in the tradition of singer-songwriters. I guess it's fair to say that, right?
KN: I think Sam and I are both singer-songwriters together and in our own respect.
MR: So, when you're writing, I imagine that you don't care so much about the commerce. You're focusing on the art, and you're allowing the next step to be whatever the next step is.
KN: Almost always. This record, certainly, we were just thinking about the art of it and not the commerce. We're kind of lucky that way in that we've been around a long time, people know us, and we have a so-called "brand," as opposed to a new band right now who would have to really be thinking about, "How am I going to get on the radio? How am I going to reach people with my music?"
MR: That is such a challenge unless you have a lot of marketing money. I feel bad for a lot of younger acts that would have less access to radio. Although, you have stations like us, solar-powered KRUU-FM, who are an open station. We play a lot of different kinds of music, and I think maybe there's a shot that another wave of stations like this will pop back up and help younger artists and those artists that aren't exactly the pop mainstream anymore, you know?
KN: Yeah, I think the hard part is that the big labels figured out long ago that you can't really sell everybody's music. So, they try to narrow it down to a few records a year, and they put all their money into selling that and get it really focused so that everybody buys that one record. If we get to a place where there are a lot of stations playing all kinds of music again, I think there won't be all that money there and it will be more about the art of it. But I think artists need to learn to be comfortable with not making a lot of money either. Everybody has to get happy with that equation, and learn how to live that way again.
MR: Most new artists are forced into a DIY situation as opposed to a "Gee, I hope a record company signs me" delusion. Then again, many giant entities beyond major labels exist to sign young artists.
KN: The Disney channel kind of became its own selling machine that way, and if you're lucky enough to be a young band and be picked up into the Disney machine that way, then you're going to make millions and millions of dollars off your music, and everybody is. It kind of becomes the "too big to fail" thing. I've watched that with a lot of bands now, even like U2, who are great guys, but they're a machine that so many people depend on making money off of that it doesn't matter if they're good or not, we have to shove it down people's throats because we're all dependent on making a living off it. That's not ever good, when you're functioning that way, it's not good for the art of the music at all, and it's certainly not good for new artists trying to get a foot in the door because the percentage of acts that are ever going to get heard that way is miniscule compared to the amount of people who are trying to get heard.
MR: You're speaking my language. I call it "the American Idolization and the Disneyfication of pop." It's like they conspired and made one song that's allowed in the pop Top Ten, you know?
KN: Yeah, and what's weird is that they pour all the money into one act, like a Lady Gaga, and then everyone decides, "Well, I have to imitate that act now if I want to get heard." So, they're all trying to do the same thing instead of being who they are.
MR: I think you've got a lot of acts out there that are so talented and that don't follow that paradigm, and they're proud of it. A group like BoDeans -- who could now be considered a classic act -- well, everybody's heard of you and know some of your songs, for instance, "Closer To Free."
MR: But it was a different era when that hit broke, and it was also in the movie Heavyweights.
KN: Yeah, it was in several movies, and had been around for three or four years before it even became a single. So, it had been in a few places, and I think that's kind of how it got to where it did--people heard it somewhere and picked it up. We were lucky, you're right. In the late '80s and early '90s, there was still that big Warner Brothers machine that was pushing us along, and we became a brand that people knew. I think, on the other side, because we were sincere about what we were doing and we were just playing what was real for us because we couldn't imitate the big radio acts out there, we developed a following that just stayed with us for all these years. I think that's kind of the recipe you have to follow if you're an act like us--go and do what you do long enough that you build a following of people that can trust that you're something that is a quality thing that they're willing to lay down their hard earned money to go see or buy a record by because they can trust that they will get something back from it, you know?
MR: You also have a lot of musical credibility. How many albums do you have out now, nine is it?
KN: Yeah, I think nine studio records and five or six live releases and DVD's and stuff. We have quite a bit of material out there.
MR: Well, you guys do a lot of original music, but you also do the occasional cover. I remember "I've Just Seen A Face" had a little bit of life on Time Of Your Life.
KN: They were trying to follow up with the whole "Closer To Free" formula, but I don't think you can necessarily do that. We did record that cover for them, and that show lived for a little while, not too long.
MR: That spun out of Party Of Five, right?
KN: I think so, I think that was the whole idea.
MR: Kind of like All In The Family begetting The Jeffersons. (laughs)
KN: Yeah, all that stuff. (laughs)
MR: Are you touring right now?
KN: Yeah. All summer long, we've been doing shows, and I'm home now for a couple of weeks, but we have just been out for about six weeks of shows. We play as much as we can in the Summers and tend to write more in the Winters.
MR: Where is your tour taking you, do you know some of your destinations?
KN: Not right off hand. Certainly everything is up on BoDeans.com because we try to keep that pretty much up to date on where we're going and when. I'm always looking at the next date, and that's about as far as I look.
MR: You had like a seventeen track "best of." Did you pick those tracks?
KN: I think Sam had originally picked them out, and I okay'd them. For us, it's not the kind of thing you can really do well because, like I say, we're not a band that really had a bunch of hit singles. Everyone has a different favorite song, so it's not a thing we can do easily. But they asked us to pick some songs that we thought were favorites, and I think we grabbed a bunch of them and said, "Here's a bunch of songs."
MR: (laughs) There always will be people who will say, "Oh, I wish that was on there." It's hard to win.
KN: Yeah, it's the same with us live -- everyone's looking to hear a different track. Our shows tend to go about two hours now, but it's just so hard to try and fit everything in there because you have a new record that you're touring behind. You want to play a bunch of that, then you have two new records behind that you're trying to touch on along with all the old favorites you're trying to play. You can never get to everything for everyone, or yourself, so you just try to hit as many as you can, you know?
MR: Yeah. Looking at the songs on your new album, Mr. Sad Clown, what do you feel the growth has been from the older catalog to now?
KN: Well, I think the biggest difference in the newer stuff is that, for the first time, I think I was writing songs more from a middle-aged perspective. In BoDeans, we try to keep songwriting really simple -- simple melodies, simple hooks, simple singing, stuff like that. We try to find songs that really work naturally that way. I think, for the first time ever, I really looked at it and said, "I want to speak more about standing here in the middle age of your life looking around, looking back, looking forward," and things like that. I had never really done that. Certainly, I write songs about looking around more, but not from that different place I was standing in for this record. Because it is a different place to be in and look back (from) at choices you've made, and look forward to where you go from here because once you get more in that middle age place, you start to wonder how much longer you even have to be doing that. It becomes a lot more precious than when you're twenty when you're writing your first songs and you're just trying to impress some girls.
MR: Yeah, that's right. Looking at the tracks, "Today" is such classic BoDeans as well as being one of the most personal songs on Mr. Sad Clown.
KN: Yeah, very personal. I think a lot of people probably can relate to it. Some wouldn't expect it from BoDeans because we're usually up-tempo, positive stuff. But that song, "Today," is all about depression and those days when you just can't get yourself out of bed and you don't have the energy to go forward. You think, "I should do this, I should get this done, but not today." Again, I think that's really different for BoDeans. I don't think I've written that much about that. I think Sam has touched on depression before in his songs. But for me, it was kind of a new thing to write about, and I think different for people to hear from us.
MR: You mentioned that you're in a certain point in your life, and I think that sentiment came out in the lyrics: "... almost ready to forget you, almost ready to let go."
KN: And "ready to move on." I think that's what the whole middle age thing is about. You start to look back your childhood, growing up, rules that you grew up with in life, and the reasons you did what you did. At some point, they're destructive, and you feel like you need to move on from this, you need to change how you function. Those songs, yeah, they're all about that, "I'm almost ready to do that." Because they're big steps, they're big deals, I wondered if younger people would be able to relate to those subjects at all. There's a strong chance that they just don't, but that's where I was in my songwriting for this record, and in my perspective, you can't challenge that. You can't say, "Oh, that's too dark. I'm not going to write about that." I just had to write where I was at, so those songs came out that way, and I think they're really important steps. I was hoping a lot of people, at least my age or around it, were going to be able to relate to them.
MR: Speaking of young people, what kind of advice do you have for new artists?
KN: Get smart, learn math, go into the finance, (laughs) because they're too big to fail and they get to take home all the money. I'm just kidding. The same thing we've always said to younger acts is just be true to who you are and what you do. It may seem like your music is so different from everybody else's, but in the end, that's probably a good thing. Just try to really stay true to who you are, what you feel, and do what feels natural inside. As far as the business of it, there's no rhyme or reason. I've seen a lot of songs that you would never think should be on radio go on radio and do really great things somehow. There were times when nobody thought Metallica was going to be a radio-arena band on their earliest records. R.E.M. and bands like that were so underground, and then, all of a sudden, they're the biggest things. That's the way the music is -- don't try to figure it out or guess it.
MR: Just do it.
MR: What's interesting you in the news these days? What's concerning you?
KN: Well, I'm really concerned about patriotism in this country, and how a lot of so-called conservative republicans have taken on the idea that they were somehow patriotic because they were being conservative. I really think the strength of a country is based in its people and citizens of that country. The disparity of wealth in this country has gotten so ridiculous and extreme, and people are too uptight about money to help everybody get a leg up because they're so concerned that someone's going to take advantage of them. I understand that argument too, but I get concerned about the idea of patriotism and kind of relabeling it as something else, as if a liberal couldn't have all the best interests for this country and be patriotic somehow. I didn't used to think that, but I read that John Adams book and it kind of made me learn a lot more about how this country started and the idea behind it. I think that politicians need to rethink how they do things and start acting in the best interest of people in this country instead of just the lobbyists who can pay them. We, as citizens, have to correct that too.
MR: Yeah, it's a very scary period. When somebody like Glenn Beck goes on the air and starts screaming, "fascism" or "socialism" regarding Obama, where are these people coming from? Do they even know what fascism or socialism is? If you're going to incite people with a buzzword, at least have the right one, you know?
KN: Right, and we're supposed to have freedom of beliefs here -- that's supposed to be our American strength. If you start getting on these shows and saying, "This person is this" and "this person is that," just because you have a format, then you're the one who's not the patriot. It's anti-patriotic to say that other people can't have their say or their beliefs as long as it's not destructive to other people. I think getting on a show and saying that kind of stuff is the destructive stuff. I refuse to watch the CNNs and the Foxs because they try to tell you what to think, and people need to think for themselves. We do best when we think for ourselves instead of listening to people on those shows. I just shook my head time and time again, even in elections, at how these news stations would come on and tell people what to think when they had no base in reality whatsoever.
MR: A friend of mine said that in his area, they were advertising a new local news show, and the announcer said, "We're news and opinion, because that's what the news is." No, that's not what the news is.
KN: It wasn't supposed to be, yeah. I think there should be better disclaimers about that, "What we're saying is not actually truthful in any way, but we're going to say it anyway to you."
MR: People forget because they admire some of the talking heads, whether it be a Keith Olbermann or a Glenn Beck, although those aren't exactly equal extremes to me because I look at Keith Olbermann as being much more level-headed and just goofy and a fun guy while Beck is about empowering insanity. The problem now is how to find real "news," not infotainment. Where does one go to for the truth in the U.S., to the BBC?
KN: I don't know, I'm not exactly sure either. I think you have to be really diligent and look all over. I think if you just side yourself blindly as a republican or blindly as a democrat, then you are blind and you're going to lead this country in the wrong direction and you're not patriotic because you're not taking the time to find out the truth and you're not questioning what people are saying. I love the way that Jon Stewart does it because it's so intelligent. He just makes you think about it, he doesn't tell you what to think. He'll bring up something and do a comedy skit that will make you think about it. That's what we should be doing as Americans, we should be thinking about it, but we're so tired and we're so beaten half the time just getting through our jobs that we want somebody to just take care of it for us. That's the problem. I think the people on these formats very often know that, and politicians in Washington very often know that people are tired and they don't want to think about it, so we'll just take care of it. When they set up this country, one of the reasons they were setting up all these systems was to protect against these politicians being able to take too much power. But time and time again, there they are trying to take it, you know?
MR: It's such a land grab, isn't it.
KN: Absolutely, and it's such a game to them. I just shake my head because, sometimes, you see a politician talking about something, and you know when he goes home at the end of the day to his family and his kids, he doesn't really believe the rhetoric of what he's doing. Yet he's on this team, he's playing this game, and he's got to do it. It's just such a ridiculous notion that we're going to live our lives that way.
MR: Yeah, I have no idea where we're headed as a nation.
KN: I don't get it either. The one thing I will say for Obama is that he's a smart person, and I think it's important to have some really intelligent people in that job. When people start talking about someone like Sarah Palin who was a newscaster a few years ago, I'm just like, "You have to be kidding me." There's got to be some basic level of intelligence that you have to get to in order to be able to be in a position like that where you really have to be a critical thinker. You can't just be some stupid idiot that's good at spitting rhetoric. Look what happened. George Bush really ran this country into the ground, and I feel sorry for him because I feel like he was kind of shoved into it all, you know? At the same time, that's what happens if you don't find anyone who has some real brainpower, who can really think on their own about stuff like that.
MR: Not another boob that was installed in order for corporations to run the country.
KN: Well, absolutely. That is going to lead to the destruction of America. When I wrote a song like "Headed For The End Of The World," that's exactly what I was thinking about. If we're going to run it all into the ground, if America is going to be another Rome and we're going to run it into the ground and die like the Roman Empire, then let's get it over with because what are we waiting for at that point, you know?
MR: There was someone who came to Fairfield, Iowa, recently. She was a state senator, and she was representing the reelection of a former republican governor. Everything was fine, and they were talking about all sorts of things, but all of a sudden they started hitting statistics that didn't sound right to me. I talked myself out of getting involved, and then somebody had asked something like, "Well, where do we get real information because the democrats are throwing out so much misinformation?" This woman responded with, "Well, you can visit our website," so everything is still pretty normal and it's what you would expect out of one of these kinds of rallies. But she then basically said, "Because the democrat party..." Whatever she said after that, I was in for the fight. We are not the "democrat" party, we are the democratic party. That's something that happened during the Bush years, and it's probably a Luntz invention. I don't know where it came from, but it's really derogatory and not meant as a compliment. It's stuff like that that really annoys me because it seems like this country needs a lot less of that.
KN: That was my point with "Headed For The End Of The World." I don't have an affiliation with the democrats or republicans or anything, and I don't want it. I want to think for myself and find people I believe could hold the job of running the country because it's got to be a big, big job. I think there are a few individuals who could really be in politics compared to the amount of people who do get into it, and I think that's all I want from this world, for people to think for themselves, and not just, "I'm affiliated over here on the right, so everything I do is on the right." Or, "I'm affiliated on the left, so everything I do and say is on the left." We've got to find a middle ground, and my perspective, especially in the Midwest of this country, is that people do reside more in the middle. People do have common sense about things, they do want to help people, they do want to save money, and they do want to not be in debt and all that kind of basic stuff that we all agree on. But when the politicians start pointing like, "Oh no, they're way over there and we're way over here. Let's beat them." Then, we're in trouble.
MR: Divide and conquer.
MR: Right, both parties are definitely guilty of that, but I'm looking at the misinformation factor, and I see much more misinformation on one side as opposed to the other.
KN: Well, it depends on who is the most desperate to win at the moment.
A Conversation with BoDeans' Sam Llanas
Mike Ragogna: Sam, let's talk about Mr. Sad Clown. This is an introspective album, is it meant to be thematic?
Sam Llanas: I don't really look at albums like that, I just write the songs and however they come out, that's what it is. There was no big idea behind it -- let's try to do this or let's try to do that. We write a lot of songs, and we try to encompass a lot of styles, and that's what we've always done and what we'll continue to do, I guess.
MR: There are so many songs on this album that sound like classic BoDeans, and there is sort of a stripped-down sound on this album as compared to some of your other albums. Was that intentional?
SL: Yeah, that was an intention. Me and Kurt pretty much made this record just us. In fact, it's mostly him playing the stuff, but we wanted to see what we could do when it was just the two of us because that's the way we started out, and we had financial concerns as well. We figured, "Well, we don't have a lot of money to spend on this record, so let's just take it as far as we can go, and then see if we need anything." We're pretty satisfied with what we could do with just the two of us. We added a few horns here and there, which was kind of a new adventure for us, but I think it was fairly successful. So, that's kind of what the thinking was.
MR: Yeah, they light up the tracks when they appear, that was a cool effect. Where did the title, Mr. Sad Clown, come from?
SL: Well, didn't Kurt tell you about that?
MR: Perhaps Kurt may not have told me about that.
SL: (laughs) Well, that's a title that he came up with, and I wasn't crazy about it. But the record company seemed to like it. The story behind that is he says we were at a party in high school, and he was off in a corner, just into the music, and some drunk chick walked by and said, "Well, what's the matter, Mr. Sad Clown." Or something like that. For some reason, that stuck with him all these years.
MR: Although you may not have come at this wanting to write a concept album, this album at least seems to be from a more maturing perspective.
SL: You know, I don't know. I'm too close to it to make those kinds of observations, but I'll take your word for it. (laughs)
MR: Do you see a difference between this album and your other albums?
SL: It's only a natural progression, perhaps, to mature as a songwriter. You want to start writing about different things because you're thinking about different things. Your life is different, and you have different experiences. I think that's pretty much what it is. For instance, there's a song called "Feel A Little Love," and that's just kind of a "I met a girl" kind of song -- now I'm thinking about her, and I want to be with her right now. That's kind of still like the songs we were writing when we were young. But I don't want them to all be like that, so there is maybe sort of a conscious effort, in a way, to stay away from that a bit.
MR: Well, it seems like a nice balance of rocking out and mid-tempo songs. What was the procedure between you and Kurt for getting this album ready?
SL: Well, it's kind of weird because Kurt's been living in Texas for quite a while now, and I'm in Wisconsin. So, I'll go down there to his studio and present the songs that I have. Then, we'll take a song, pick a key, pick a tempo, and we'll find a beat. Then, I'll put a demo version down with singing, my guitar, and the beat going. Then, he'll take that and start adding real instruments on top of it, and take it to a certain place. The next time I'm down there, I'll listen to what he's done and I'll either say, "That's good," or "That's not exactly what I was thinking of," or "Maybe let's try this." That's kind of how we work. His songs, he just kind of puts together, and when he's happy with them, I'll sing on it. I might make suggestions here or there, and that's kind of how it works.
MR: And the songwriting?
SL: Well, you're always trying to write more songs -- that's pretty much the number one goal. You can have a lot of songs, but you can never have too many and they can always be better. You never know when you're going to come upon that magic moment of finding something that's really good. That's pretty much my job every day -- to sit down with a guitar and fool around until you come upon something that strikes you. Between that and just regular living, that's pretty much... I'm not the type of person that needs to be doing something all the time. In fact, I'm really good at doing nothing and I prefer that quite a bit.
MR: Nice. How did BoDeans get together initially?
SL: Well, Kurt and I met in high school -- we met in eleventh grade -- and we just really gravitated towards each other because we both really loved music more than anything. We just went from there, you know? I went off to school for a while, and he stayed home, bought a guitar and learned how to play it. School didn't work out for me, so I bought a guitar and we got together and decided that we wanted to do this. So, we kind of separated again for a couple of years and just worked on trying to write songs and stuff. Then, when we came back together, it was pretty much ready to go -- we found a drummer and we were off and running. Within a year of that time, I believe we were signed to Warner Brothers, and then, we just kind of kept going from there. We've lost players along the way, especially drummers, but Kurt and I have stuck together because there's something in the chemistry between the two of us that's very special, and we recognized it early on. We've decided to stick with that, even though in any twenty-five year relationship, there have been ups and downs. We decided that what we do together is special enough that we want to work out any problems that we might encounter.
MR: Who were your influences back then?
SL: Well, we were both mostly influenced by anything that we heard that was good. Back then, the radio would play everything. It was AM radio when we were growing up, so you would hear The Beatles, The Stones, and all the British bands mixed in with Motown, Philly soul, and stack soul. You would also hear things like Glen Campbell, Tom Jones, The Mamas And The Papas, and all these one-hit wonder kind of bands. All the stuff was meshed together, so it was really a wonderful palette, if you will, to choose from. We've always just been inspired by good songwriting, whether it's Def Leppard, Hank Williams, or whoever, you know? If it's good it's good, and if it's good I think there's room for it.
MR: Though you have a "BoDeans" style, it doesn't stay to one particular genre. You guys could be swing rocking on one song and doing a ballad on another, and your albums almost always capture the diversity that old classic albums had.
SL: Well, that's one thing we've tried to stick true to, and we've been criticized for that, which I don't understand because sometimes, a band can do one thing really well, but they can only do one thing really well, and after a while, it kind of gets boring to your ear. So, I think that's a strength that we have, especially where Kurt can take a lead vocal, I can take a lead vocal, or we can sing together. That's kind of like three different sounds, and I think that's a real strength to have.
MR: Were there any songs on this record, that when you finished it, you went, "Wow, that's intense"?
SL: Well, I'm particularly fond of a song that I wrote called "All The Blues." I knew that it would never be a radio song, but there's something about it that really speaks to me and moves me. I really tend to gravitate towards sad songs, and they would all be that way if I had my way, but I know that's really not what people want to hear necessarily. So, I have to limit my output in that category, but "All The Blues" is one of them that I'm proud of.
MR: Now, BoDeans has put out records and taken breaks, but there was a particularly long break of about six years or so. What goes on during those kind of gaps?
SL: Well, that particular gap was sort of a bad period for us, in the sense that we had to fire our long time bass player, and we also had to fire our manager. That really put us in a bad way because we were in court for two years over this management thing, it prevented us from recording, and it was just a really dark period in our time. So, that kind of really put us in a place where we weren't able to release anything, and I think it really had a bad effect in that it made a lot of people think that we broke up or went away for whatever reason, and maybe forgot about us a bit. We're just trying to remind people that we're still around, and we're trying to make up for the output. We released the album Still a year and a half ago, and now this one is out, and we've released a couple of live things on our website because we're just trying to make up for lost time.
MR: Plus you had a classic "Best Of" that came out in '01?
SL: There were a few of them that came out, so I'm not quite sure which one you mean.
MR: This one was called The Best Of BoDeans and it was a seventeen-track album.
SL: Okay. (laughs)
MR: Slash And Burn -- does that sound right?
SL: Okay, that sounds familiar.
MR: I heard that you were the brain trust on that one.
SL: I just picked a lot of songs that people had requested over the years. It's tough to do that because you're always going to leave something out, and somebody's going to say, "Well, what about that song?" and "Why did they put that one on there?" It's really hard to please everybody, so it's kind of a tough thing to do. But I just did the best I could with what I thought would please people.
MR: Yeah, It's hard. You're always going to leave somebody's favorite song off of one of those.
SL: That's right. It's a lot like when you play live -- you can't play every song, so someone's going to go away a little bit disappointed. You've got to just get by that, you know?
MR: Eventually, you'll be back on tour for this record, right?
SL: I hope so. It's really tough out there right now. We've been hearing horror stories from everybody, even groups that you'd think would be a no-brainer and sell out fast, but they don't. It's really a tough time out there for everybody, so we're going to do the best we can to make it around. But like I said, it's not easy right now.
MR: Sam, what do you think that's from? Is it ticket prices, or is it people's lack of interest in going to see non-spectacle events?
SL: Well, I think it's a combination of things. I think the economy certainly has played a role, and we're not a young band anymore -- we're fifty years old now -- and people our age have families, responsibilities, and they can't go out to a club in the city where the band doesn't start to play until nine o'clock at night. Even if they can, it's kind of an expensive expenditure for them -- parking, ticket, babysitter, food, drinks. It adds up, and now's not the time when people are spending money foolishly.
MR: Yeah, and yet there are obviously a lot of bands going out there on the road, starting out for the first time. Do we want to warn them before they start this? (laughs)
SL: Well, I don't think you can warn young bands. I think young bands are fearless, and they're going to do it no matter what because that's a great part of youth. They're going to get out there and do it, but they're going to learn a few things quickly. Maybe they have different inroads because it's a whole different world, and I'm not a part of that world really. Everyone has their websites of course, Facebook, Twitter, and they're really in touch with a lot of people. So, maybe they're finding house parties and stuff like that to play. I hope so because I don't want it to die out, and I don't think it will, but I think it's in a weird spot right now.
MR: Considering that you have been doing this for a while and have a certain amount of wisdom, is there anything you want to pass on to new acts that are just starting out?
SL: Well, I would say the most important thing about presenting a live performance is to try to please the people. I know you want to do what you want to do, and the artistic side and your vision is important to you, but if you don't entertain the people they're not going to come back. You can fool somebody once, but they're not going to come back and pay a cover charge if they didn't have a good time initially. So, it's really important, I think, for bands to learn how to be entertainers, and not just stand up there and play the music. That's fine and all that, but it's not exciting. You need to move around and you need to engage the people, invite them into the music, and let them become part of it. You need to make eye contact with people and smile because it works, it's very effective.
MR: Isn't it amazing how few bands care about things like eye contact.
SL: Yeah, I've always felt that, and I've always been mystified by that because, like I say, you really want to engage people -- that's really what you're trying to do. A lot of bands get up there and are just looking down at their shoes and stuff, not looking around, and I never saw the point in that.
MR: Do you have any advice for new acts as far as the music business and maybe their art?
SL: Well, I always just tell people to just be yourself, stick to your guns, and don't try to let somebody else tell you what you should be doing because it's coming from inside of you, and that makes it unique. The most important thing you can have in this business is a unique sound. No matter how much you like Led Zeppelin, you're never going to sound like Led Zeppelin, so don't try. Try to sound like you, and try to find your own voice.
MR: What does the future hold for BoDeans with Mr. Sad Clown and beyond?
SL: We're just trying to survive you know? All we ever wanted to do was have a career in this business, and we've succeeded at that, but there are no guarantees. It gets tougher and tougher because we're getting older, and every year, there's a whole new crop of youngsters coming on the scene that is your competition. We're just trying to keep our place, survive, and get better of course.
MR: Nice. Well, I think we've gotten a lot of dirt on BoDeans from both you and Kurt.
SL: This is going to be edited down to like a three-minute thing, right? (laughs)
MR: (laughs) You wish.
SL: Well, good. That's just responsible on your part.
MR: You guys are great. I really appreciate it, and best of luck on everything in the future.
SL: Give a shout to Arianna and tell her I'm a big fan. I think she's a really smart lady and is doing a good thing.
MR: Consider it passed along. Thanks again for the interview.
SL: Thank you.
4. Say Goodbye
5. Don't Fall Down
6. Cheesecake Pan
7. Easy Love
9. Headed For The End Of The World
10. Let It Ride
11. All The Blues
12. Feel 'Lil Love
13. Almost Ready
14. Back Then
15. Gone X 3
(transcribed by Ryan Gaffney)
A Conversation with Bleu
Mike Ragogna: Hello, Bleu. So, your new album Four was fan-funded using a kick-starter campaign. You were looking for a few thousand dollars but had a surprising response. Would you go into story?
Bleu: Well, it's really just incredible, and I'm still flabbergasted by the thing. We set out to raise eight thousand dollars to do a small publicity campaign for the record, so we set a forty-five day goal, to raise our eight thousand dollars, and to be perfectly honest, I was really nervous that we weren't going to raise the eight thousand dollars in forty-five days. The way that kick-starter campaigns work is, if you don't raise your goal in the set period of time, then you just don't get any money and nobody gets charged. But at the end of twelve hours, we had raised ten thousand dollars, and I should mention again that this is all coming through fans. By the end of twenty-four hours, we had raised twenty thousand dollars, and with our campaign, we had raised forty thousand dollars. It's just completely changed my whole outlook on making records, my career as an artist, and all that kind of stuff because it's shown me the power of independent music and independent minded fans. It's incredible stuff.
MR: So, you were looking for eight thousand, got forty thousand, which, in the DIY world is amazing. This money is so needed, and it levels the playing field a bit, at least with some labels.
B: Although, obviously, the labels are working on smaller and smaller budgets, and especially small independent labels don't even have this kind of money to put behind a record. So, in comparison to some of the small independent situations that I've been involved with over the last few years, the funding on this project is actually more expensive than some of the indie deals that are out there right now. I don't know, it's a really exciting time, I think, and I've seen other fantastic artists meet, and/or smash their goals with fan funding as well. It's also a way for fans to get directly involved in the people that they like, become more involved in the music making process, and the general output and attitude of the people they are supporting. In our case, because we raised so much extra money, we're actually taking a small portion of this extra money and letting the fans decide what we're going to do with it. So, that's kind of an unheard of situation, you know? Not only are the fans putting in the money, but they're also deciding how it's going to get spent.
MR: You might say it's another interactive element between the artist and the fan.
B: It's great, it's a great situation. On the other side of the equation, I've been funding some other people's campaigns, different artists that I love, and it's exciting for me, as a fan, as well. It's really incredible, and I hope this sort of model will continue and sustain, because I think it's a great way for music makers and fans of music to have a sort of participatory approach to art.
MR: Now, one of your first claims to fame was "Somebody Else" that ended up on a Spider-Man soundtrack.
B: Yeah, that was a long time ago, but that was sort of my first major label thing that came out. I got some good attention for it...I think it was track three on the record, so a lot of people heard that one.
MR: Would you say that your loyal fan base has been building the most since that was released in '03?
B: I think, obviously, I garnered a big part of my fan base with my major label debut, but I had already released two records before that. So, the fan base, really, has been building since '99, when I released my first weird, little, holiday Christmas record in Boston. Some of the people who donated on the kick-starter campaign have been involved, in some degree, even since back then, you know?
MR: Nice. Four features one of the best anthems I've heard in a while, "B.O.S.T.O.N."
B: Well, thanks.
MR: Now, we spoke about the fan funding being a part of the publicity campaign, but was there any fan funding involved in the recording of the record?
B: No, I sort of have a longtime recording partner, my best friend Ducky Carlisle, who lives in Medford, Mass., just outside of Boston, and we made most of the record together, me and him. I did a lot of the recording on my own, I worked with a couple of other people, I worked out of my home studio, and this other good friend of mine, Dorian Crozier or "Wook" did one song over at his place. But the majority of it was me, and Ducky holed up in his studio putting it together.
MR: "How Blue" is a beautiful song, and is that a genuine string quartet at the end?
B: Yeah, I worked a bunch on this record with a great group out here in Los Angeles, called The Section Quartet, and they play on all the big pop records. I actually worked with them on my third record, which is the last record I released, and they did a bunch of great playing on that thing, which made me really want to work with them again. My buddy Stephen Lu -- who is a string arranger out here that I think I've known since I was eighteen years old -- did the string arrangements on everything except "How Blue," which I did with another buddy of mine, Scott Simons. I love doing strings, especially with The Section Quartet, because with those guys, it's a good time.
MR: Who are the members of that group?
B: At the time, they had a couple of different members, so I'm going to pass on saying their names in case I get them all wrong (laughs).
MR: By the way, I have to tell you, I've never heard the words "ass" or "You're (blank) don't stink" sung so tenderly.
B: (laughs) Thank you. I don't know, I guess I have a history of throwing curse words into power ballads. I think pretty much every record now has some sort of song with a prominent curse. It's the twelve year old inside of me that just won't go away.
MR: And the name of that song, for our readers, is "When The (blank) Hits The Fan." Gee, I wonder what that word is.
B: We got a little independent deal in the U.K., and the record is actually coming out there before it comes out in the United States. I'm going over in October to do a little support for it. We've run into issues before with, "Do we bleep out the word?" or, "Does it appear in the name of the song on the back of the record?" So, we approached the label over there about all of these issues, and they were like, "What are you crazy? You can't bleep it out, it makes you look like a wuss." It was really funny to me, how different their attitude to that whole thing was. They were like, "No, you can't bleep it, it has to stay it." Like that was the whole thing.
MR: And good for them. The whole censorship thing in this country is sort of like the Mayflower just landed, come on.
MR: I just don't get it. How many hundreds of years have to pass before we lose that stick up our, well, that word that you sing so tenderly in that song.
MR: Let me ask you one other thing about your career as a whole. You were on Aware Records, which a lot of people would give anything for; it has John Mayer as its flagship act, right?
B: Yeah, Train also started out on that label, as well as Five For Fighting.
MR: Right, and The Thorns. It's been a really cool little label. On the other hand, you did have a dispute with them, right?
B: Well, not really. In all fairness, it really didn't have anything to do with Aware. They were always very supportive, but as the larger parent company, Sony, started going through it's ongoing downsizing that has been happening for the last six years, it trickled down through Columbia, and, basically, Aware got the news that they had to let some acts go. They were really cool about the whole thing. I can't really fault them because it was, if anything, more about the diminishing record industry as a whole.
MR: Right. Well, the diminishing record industry, as a whole, is where we are right now. It's great you've taken your business into your own hands.
B: Exactly, and if all of that hadn't happened the way it did, I wouldn't be where I am today, which I think is an exciting place to be.
MR: So, to me, this album has a Springsteen feel with Brill Building aesthetics, you know?
B: Yeah, in the writing for my last record, I started really getting into Stax and Motown and what I would call classic songwriting. There's still a lot of modern pop and nods to all of my favorite artists and songwriters from over the years. But I've enjoyed putting some of that, for lack of a better term, soulful, classic stuff on these last couple of records. I hope that, as a songwriter, I'm growing and moving forward.
MR: So, obviously, this is album number four, but you've made other recordings.
B: Well, I've put out more than four records, but it's my fourth record under the name Bleu.
MR: Yeah, that's where I'm going with this.
B: It's my fourth, sort of, proper Bleu record. I have a band with Mike Viola and Ducky Carlisle, who I was mentioning before, called, The Major Labels, and we're sort of a very McCartney-esqe kind of a rock power-pop band. And of course, I did the L.E.O. Record, which is sort of my homage to Jeff Lynne and The Electric Light Orchestra, and I'm working on this LoudLion record now, as well, which is a band I have with a bunch of people including Taylor Locke of Rooney. That's sort of a Def Leppard/Mutt Lange homage. This is my fourth real Bleu record. I'm definitely going to continue to engage in all the side projects, and things like that.
MR: Yeah, the tally is hard because you have all these side projects, along with your own history pre-Bleu.
MR: So, the way "My Own Personal Jesus" is ID'd on the CD, the "bonus track" space in front of it was interesting with regards to the title. While listening, I got a kick out of the silence because I thought the "nothingness" was some sort of wise-assery, like a silent reflection, and combined with that title, I thought it was brilliant.
B: Oh, that's interesting. You're the first person to say that, and I wonder if other people will have that take on that. I try to do a hidden track on pretty much everything that I do, and that was a great song that I kind of wanted to put on the record. But I couldn't find a spot for it, so it just seemed the perfect thing, to put it at the end. In terms of the title, it doesn't really have anything to do with the song, obviously. The chorus goes, "I want to believe in something bigger than me, I want to believe in some big mystery. I want to believe in something I can't see. I want to believe in the Son and the Holy Ghost, but I only believe in my baby... " is sort of the punch line to that chorus. So, it's a song about the woman in my life, sort of being my own personal religion, and that's the idea behind that title. I was just looking for something as blasphemous as possible.
MR: And what beautiful blasphemy it is.
B: I'm not a big Depeche Mode fan or anything like that, in case you were wondering. My old roommate from college, who I'm still really good friends with, is like the biggest Depeche Mode fan ever. So, it's sort of for him, too. I just think it's funny.
MR: (laughs) Do you have any advice for up and coming artists?
B: You know, I think, more than ever, people need to be making music for themselves and for their fans. In my professional life as a producer and a songwriter, I still see people making music for, what I would call, the great masses. You know, making music for the radio or for MTV, however you want to put that. I think that those days need to be kind of put behind us. We, as musicians, have a really good opportunity to make music for ourselves and for the people who care about us. So, that's my advice -- do what really speaks to you, and what you think is great, and what your small but loyal fan base believes in and cares about.
1. Singin' In Tongues
3. How Blue
4. Dead In The Mornin'
5. In Love With My Lover
6. When The Shit Hits The Fan
7. I'll Know It When I See It
8. Evil Twin
9. You Catch More Flies With Honey Than Vinegar
10. Everything Is Fine
11. MY Own Personal Jesus -- bonus track
(transcribed by Ryan Gaffney)
A Conversation with The Chapin Sisters' Abigail Chapin
Mike Ragogna: Hello Abigail.
Abigail Chapin: Hello, how's it going?
MR: It's going pretty well. There is almost a spiritual vibe on your new album, Two. What went into its creation?
AC: Well, I think each of the songs had a really specific process behind it, but I think maybe the vibe you're getting from the record is from the process of how we recorded it. Lily, myself, and our friends Jesse Lee and Louie Stephens spent about three weeks holed-up in a farm in New Jersey, spending all of our time writing and recording, and playing tennis and swimming. (laughs)
MR: Where in New Jersey?
AC: Northern New Jersey, almost by Delaware Water Gap.
MR: Let's just start off with the first song, "Sweet Light." That vibe that I was talking reminds me of Simon & Garfunkel on their Wednesday Morning 3AM album. Obviously, you're an alternative singer-songwriter sort of group, though I hate genre-fying everything, which everybody tends to do.
AC: It's hard for us to genrefy ourselves.
MR: Yeah, I bet it's because you have elements of country, folk, pop, and you have songs like "Palm Tree" that you can't categorize. That song has a blend of a lot of things, though its arrangement reminds me of the Linda Ronstadt, Emmylou Harris, Dolly Parton recordings.
AC: Yeah, the Trio recordings, we love them. We're flattered.
MR: It's a very sweet song, and that's the emphasis track, right?
AC: That is, yeah.
MR: So, you guys record in such a way that emphasizes a group vocal sound, but it's the two of you mainly, right?
AC: It is the two of us. Originally, it was our sister Jessica also, but for this record, she wasn't there initially when we were recording it, and she did some overdubs later. So, we did some live vocals, just the two of us, then we did some overdubs with third and fourth parts. We did a lot of live vocal tracks that were both of us at once, then we sort of played around with a lot of different experiments in terms of vocal recording.
MR: And I can't name another act that is doing what you're doing vocally.
AC: Well, thanks.
MR: Seriously, you have these big block vocal sections where you experiment with pushing fourths and sixths, some don't resolve, and it adds to the emotion expressed throughout the record.
AC: Thank you. It's easy for us, especially when it was a trio, to break into three-part harmony and just do the first, third, and fifth parts that are sort of just normal chords. That is something we've been doing since we were kids and we just really fall into that naturally. Experimenting with the different emotional quality that different intervals and different sounds have, because of the harmony choices, is something that we're really interested in. It's something we struggle to keep fresh for ourselves.
MR: Now, one of the songs that sort of breaks the pattern is "Digging A Hole." The songs before are more acoustic, straight-ahead, mid-tempo songs, and then you hit "Digging A Hole" which breaks into this real rhythmic arrangement. Normally, when an artist does that on a project, it feels a little awkward. When you sequenced this record what was the game plan?
AC: Well, the sequence was really a challenge of trying to figure out how everything fit because it was kind of an eclectic -- for us at least -- an eclectic mix of songs. Like you said, there are a lot of slower songs, then "Digging" and a couple other ones that are more up tempo and drum heavy. So, it was challenging, but we went through a bunch of different sequences, and "Digging" was actually the song we recorded first for this record. We had written it as just sort of an a cappella round actually. Then, when we started recording it, I think Jesse came up with a drumbeat, so it kind of came about in a natural progression.
MR: I don't imagine you let someone else sequence Two, since I imagine you're very hands on as an act.
AC: We're very hands on, yeah, and we bounced it around a lot of different ways. But this is the way it stuck the longest.
MR: Then, you've got "Palm Tree" plus the playful "Boo Hoo," which is one of my favorites, again, featuring those vocalese intervals that are pretty impressive.
AC: Thanks. That's one of my favorites too. We forgot about it for a little while, and it kind of seemed stuck in the middle of the record, but I'm excited to start playing it live. We've been touring with just guitars, and that's a piano based song, so hopefully in the Fall we're going to start bringing keyboards along with us and getting more into playing some of those on the road.
MR: The keyboard will have to appear on "Paradise" too, right?
AC: Yeah, "Paradise" also.
MR: "Paradise" being your -- if we're going to label things -- piano ballad.
AC: That's the piano ballad, it's true.
MR: Let me ask you a little bit about your heritage. I was a huge Harry Chapin fan. I know you are a member of the Tom Chapin family tree who I also was a fan of, and I got to work with a little when the Harry Chapin box set came out on Rhino.
AC: Oh wow, cool.
MR: I wrote the liners, and I worked with Sandy, Jen, and everybody from the family basically. I really loved Harry's music, I've always been a fan of the brothers, and when Jen came out with her solo material, I was a fan of that as well. Then, when the Chapin sisters came along it was like, "Yeah, I like the way that this is all proliferating."
AC: (laughs) Well great, I'm glad. It's really amazing to be part of such a musical group. We have a lot of musicians in our family, and I think we get worried that we're pigeon-holed by it a little bit. But I think at this point, the way that Jen's music has progressed and our music has progressed, everyone has sort of gone off and really proven we're not just riding on the Chapin family name and we're doing a lot of different kinds of music. I think the thing that ties us together is mostly that we're family, and our families are close. Everyone lives in New York except for us, but we are in New York a lot, and I think we're lucky that our family remains as close as we are.
MR: Where do you live?
AC: We live in L.A. We're in Nashville, on tour.
MR: So, living in L.A., there must be a couple of places that you normally play a lot, like Hotel Café maybe?
AC: We do Hotel Café from time to time. But we're more East side -- we end up playing at The Echo and Spaceland a lot. We definitely have done a lot of Hotel Café shows. There's a lot of great music in L.A. and a lot of great venues, so we're lucky that way.
MR: The East Side vibe is really wonderful. Harper Simon, Paul Simon's son, decided he was going to play his sort of debut gig for his solo album at The Echo, and I'm really glad he did it there.
AC: Yeah, Harper is actually a good friend of ours, and we've toured with him and played with him a bunch.
MR: Nice. There are so many second generation musical families, like the Lennons and the Taylors -- Ben Taylor, Sally Taylor. We could go on and on. What's great is that everybody that I'm talking about is musically different from their parents' styles. People are often tempted to say, "Oh, he sounds like," or "she sounds like." Well, they don't.
AC: No, they don't, it's true. I think, to me, what we learned from our parents is just that music can be a way of life and is a part of life, and I think that is more importantly what these musical dynasties are passing on -- the love of music -- more than a specific sound or specific genre.
MR: Now, who is the main songwriter, you or Lily?
AC: We're actually split pretty evenly on this record. We each wrote, I think, half the songs exactly. We'd work on things alone, and then we'd bring things together and sort of workshop them with each other.
MR: How far back does your collaboration go?
AC: Well, we started performing as Chapin Sisters about five years ago, maybe a little more. So, that's kind of when we started writing songs together. We've done musical projects on our own before that, but we were just getting out of college and started playing together with Jessica, and then we moved to L.A. from New York and just started striking out on our own.
MR: And Jessica is Jessica Craven, daughter of Wes Craven, right?
AC: Yeah, we have the same mom. She is our half-sister.
MR: Now, you all have performed together with the brothers, right?
AC: Yeah, we have. At this point, it's usually one or two concerts a year as The Chapin Family, and a lot of them are benefit concerts for World Hunger Year, which is now called WHY Hunger, an organization that Harry started and is still going strong thirty years later. It hooks people up who need food with organizations that can help them. So, a lot of them are benefit concerts for WHY Hunger, but then some of them are just at colleges or wherever.
MR: I remember when I used to go to Harry's concerts, fans were asked to bring food.
MR: You've got a beautiful family, a wonderful heritage, and a beautiful new record, Two. Let's wrap it up with a question about it. It's "Two" because there are two of you? B