Wherever you are when you’re reading this, chances are pretty good that at some point in the next 30 days, a concert venue within driving distance of where you’re sitting will play host to an act clinging to the lowest creative rungs of the nostalgia circuit. Whether it’s an aging AOR legend schlepping its platinum catalog with a package tour and a set list that hasn’t changed in 20 years or a one-hit wonder playing the reunion card a little too soon, it seems like there’s always more room on theater marquees and casino billboards for one more band with little more than a name brand and a few fading memories to offer.
Also on the list of things that will happen in the next 30 days: The BoDeans will release American Made, their 11th studio LP and strongest batch of songs since Go Slow Down nearly two decades ago. This year’s lineup looks a little different than last year’s (more on that in a minute), but the band is leagues removed from that nostalgia circuit. Not only in terms of creative output—American is their fifth new album in a decade—but also, somewhat perplexingly, in terms of commercial clout: They’re self-releasing this record, and while they sweat through summer gigs at places like Knuckleheads Saloon and the Minnesota Zoo Amphitheatre, someone else will be tooling around in the truck that singer/guitarist Kurt Neumann sold to pay for the sessions.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way for the BoDeans—but then, that’s pretty much the story for the band in general, from its unlikely early success as mid-‘80s roots-rock purveyors at a time when, as Neumann recalls, “Poison and Bon Jovi were all over the radio, and people looked at us like, ‘Who are you and what the hell are you playing?’” But even when they tried to move along with trends, they just ended up zigging where the market zagged—whether they were cribbing notes from former tourmates U2 (1989’s Home) or adopting a more synth-heavy sound (1991’s Black and White), it didn’t improve their commercial fortunes, and it didn’t work as well as the four-guys-in-a-room approach they took with producer T Bone Burnett for their debut record, Love & Hope & Sex & Dreams, in 1986.
“The record company kind of pushed us towards having a radio-friendly sound, and I think we tried to dabble in that,” admits Neumann, and maybe it should have worked— there are some damn fine songs on those records, after all—but it didn’t, and in 1993, the band went back to the drawing board and reunited with Burnett for Go Slow Down, its rootsiest and least overtly commercial set since the BoDeans’ debut. It was a classic “fuck it” record, an album made by artists tired of trying to guess what their audience wanted and simply making music for themselves—and of course it tanked, because that’s what tends to happen when something doesn’t sound like anything on the radio and it’s being released by a label five records in with a band that’s never cracked the Top 75 on Billboard’s album chart.
The record stiffed, but that wasn’t the end of its story, because then another strange twist of fate came along in the form of a little show called Party of Five, where some bright music director realized that Go Slow Down’s ebullient opening track, “Closer to Free,” would make a pretty terrific theme song, and the next thing anyone knew, the BoDeans had a Top 20 single with a song from a three-year-old record. It was a long-awaited commercial triumph for a band that had certainly paid enough dues to earn one, and a sweet vindication for the label that had patiently underwritten their career for a decade, and it should have kicked off a string of solidly performing tours and albums for all concerned.
But again, things didn’t work out the way they were supposed to. The BoDeans’ next album, 1996’s Blend, was yet another chart disappointment, and it presaged an eight-year studio hiatus marked by barely heard solo releases, followed by a series of new BoDeans records that barely scraped the lower reaches of the charts. Never the biggest or coolest band, but popular enough to make a living, they just sort of fell between the cracks, even while the reissue market saturated and the nostalgia circuit boomed. And then last August, Sam Llanas—Neumann’s longtime partner in the band, the guy he’d known since their high school days in Wisconsin, the guy he’d been harmonizing with on stages big and small since they founded the BoDeans together in 1983—tendered his resignation. Via text message.
It’s all the kind of stuff that can send an artist spinning off in any number of directions, from a solo career to a 9-to-5 gig, but for Neumann, it only ended up reaffirming his belief in the band he’d helped lead for nearly 30 years. “It’s hard because I know people have a preconceived notion in their minds,” he admits, “but it was also easy, because I had been rehearsing and working on songs for a long time with [keyboard player] Michael Ramos. The day after Sam quit, I told Michael I didn’t know what to do—the BoDeans had been such a huge chunk of my life, and I wasn’t sure what to do next. He said, ‘Don’t worry about it. We’ve got your back now.’ It was such a great feeling for someone to say that, because I didn’t feel that coming from the other side for so many years.”
That dichotomy—the hard and the easy, the shadow and the light, the storm cloud and the silver lining—has been at the heart of Neumann’s best songs from the beginning, and whatever the band may have lost with Llanas’ departure, that kernel of truth is still there in American Made, down to the willfully, cheerfully patriotic “American,” which does something nobody seems to be able to do these days: It celebrates America without standing on a soapbox and pushing even the merest hint of politics or fist-pumping patriotism.
“‘American’ was kind of based on what I was seeing around me,” explains Neumann. “There was this old guy who lived near me—he was living in basically a shack, and the big supermarket conglomerate around here came and bought up his land for a whole bunch of money. So he went from having basically nothing to being totally set, and his only condition was that he wanted to be able to move his shack to his new property. I thought that was a beautiful American story—these things happen every day in this great country of ours, but people forget about that kind of beautiful opportunity.
“More and more, it feels like the country is pulling apart,” he continues. “I just get really frustrated by it all, you know? It’s all this spin on TV that has nothing to do with reality, and when I talk to people, they seem to have more common sense than that. That’s what I wanted to sing about. I wanted something that was entertaining—something that felt good.”
It’s that kind of fiery-yet-unassuming populism that’s always driven the BoDeans at their best, and it thrums through American Made, offering an unlikely return to form after a series of overly mannered records and the loss of half the band’s creative engine. “The difference with this record is that I got to make it in a way I’ve wanted to since probably the late ‘90s,” Neumann says now. “It’s really a representation of just what we do.”
The songs were tracked with producer John Alagia (Ben Folds Five, Dave Matthews Band, John Mayer) over a mercilessly brief three-day block at the Village in L.A. Funding doubtless had a lot to do with the speed of the sessions, but they also came together quickly because the material had already been road-tested. “Every Tuesday night, Michael Ramos and I took these songs to the Saxon Pub in Austin—late, late at night, unadvertised—to get a feel for what worked,” says Neumann. “The best songs were the ones we went in and tracked. This is what we do, this is what we do well. This is what we sound like live. This is what it is.
“For better or worse,” he adds, “I’ve been wanting to make a record like this for a long time. I think a lot of my favorite albums were cut that way. For the last few records, I was just kind of stuck in my box at my studio here, putting the songs together myself, and it didn’t sound like a band. This record was a relief for me.”
That relief carried a series of unfortunate price tags, including Llanas’ departure and the loss of some prized possessions, but for Neumann, the end result has made the sacrifices worthwhile. “My family and I have been stressed and happy at the same time,” he admits when asked about the way the album was financed and released. “Probably not more than anyone else these days, but I had to sell my truck, and a lot of studio gear, and I’m still trying to sell some guitars. It costs a lot of money to make an album this way, but this is the record I wanted to make. I’m laughing a lot again and smiling a lot, where I wasn’t for a lot of years.”
And ultimately, he thinks it’s an album the band’s fans will want to hear, even those who have pre-emptively decided that it isn’t the BoDeans without Sammy: “I understand if you don’t get it, but if you give it a chance, you might like it. You might hear what you always loved.”
For Neumann, the band is about an ideal—the pursuit of a dream that has endured through the wildness of youth and advancing middle age, across pastures of plenty and shadows of poverty, over countless highway miles. It’s a dream that’s been battered, deferred, and occasionally denied, and along the way it’s bled into dozens of songs about characters who try, and fail, and try again—who never stop hoping. They are—to crib a phrase from Neumann—beautiful American stories, and they still inspire him.
Toward the end of our conversation, as he’s musing on having to scratch out a toehold in a musical marketplace lousy with bands who’ve come and gone and come again while the BoDeans have endured, Neumann brings up “Jay Leno,” a track from American Made inspired by the story of a girl whose body was discovered in the garage next door to his house in Milwaukee. Kurt was just a kid when it happened, but it’s haunted him for 40 years—and it remains newsworthy in Wisconsin, where a columnist for the Journal Sentinel wrote about the still-unsolved case’s connection to the song. To hear Neumann tell it, that girl’s murder caused an estrangement in her own family that remained riven until the article was published, sparking long-overdue conversations that started the healing process.
“Whether this album makes money or not, in the end, that’s what I want,” he explains after relating the story. “I want to know that my music did something out there—that it was of value. Not necessarily that I scored a Top 40 single or a big paycheck. You deal with that stuff as it comes along; you can’t worry about it. I’m an old person now—or I feel old, anyway—and I figure that’s the way to live.”