Kurt Neumann, one half of the roots rock duo the BoDeans, has been a musician his whole life, or at least since he was in grade school. A true love of music is what has kept him and partner Sam Llanas on stage for more than 25 years, since their high school days in Waukesha, Wis.
And yet, he finds himself in a musical predicament.
"I'm overwhelmed by the amount of records that are out there now. ... I hear so much stuff, whether it's online or on the radio or whatever. It got to the point where I just didn't even recognize who was doing what. And I would see people on the cover of Rolling Stone, and I'd never heard their music in my life, and I'm like, 'How can it happen, that someone's so popular they're on Rolling Stone, but someone who's been in music his whole life like me, has never even heard of them?'"
Perhaps it's because Neumann's taken a backward turn lately. Originally inspired by the likes of Yes, Genesis and Queen (then later, the Stones and the Everly Brothers), he's recently listened more to jazz greats like Miles Davis and John Coltrane. And as a duo, the two chose to record their April release, Mr. Sad Clown, without the aid of their former producer, T-Bone Burnett.
Sometimes artists need the vision a producer like Burnett can provide, he acknowledges, but that's not what the BoDeans were looking for in their ninth studio album.
"It's a really pure view of us as singer-songwriters," says Neumann. "The more people you bring in to the equation, the more your song gets kind of filtered through different lenses."
Still, there's nowhere to find something more purely BoDeans than their live performances.
"Just hearing your audience sing with you, I mean, that's the whole reason to make the journey, to go to the town. That's what you're there for. You're not there just to stand there and have people applaud for you. You're there to interact."
Songs such as "Fadeaway," "Still the Night" and "Closer to Free" (recognizable as the Party of Five theme song from the late '90s) provide the contagious energy that makes sing-alongs easy. But Neumann adds that he always tries to leave an instrumental section open so he can just let himself go.
"I think it keeps it real fresh for you and it keeps it fresh to kind of let anything happen. The audience responds to that. They feel like, well, something creative is going on here."
Pushing forward isn't always easy, though. After the BoDeans submitted the new album to iTunes (which encourages artists to send a pre-release listening copy to be considered for "editorial placement"), the company informed them they're no longer relevant to today's music world.
"It was kind of heartbreaking this year because iTunes didn't want to put a banner up for the release of Mr. Sad Clown. I was like, how can you play music for this long, and put that kind of effort into being real, true and honest American music, and have somebody like that say it's not relevant?"
Of course, Neumann recognizes that iTunes is just a business, trying to make money.
"You can't let that be the judge of what you're doing with your music," he says. "You gotta stay honest to what you feel is your path."