BY MICHAEL CASPER
For the 22nd consecutive summer, the streets of downtown Ripon are filled with the sound of music as the Ripon Summer Concert Series has returned. “Main Street has scheduled a diverse group of entertainers encompassing a wide range of musical styles,” noted Craig Tebon, Ripon’s Downtown Manager. “We tried to select bands that would appeal to a variety of people.” Several community favorites are returning to the lineup including Sam Llanas, formerly of The BoDeans.
Sam will be in town Friday, July 11th – sponsored by Horicon Bank.
Llanas was one of the founding members of The BoDeans, which he formed with high school friend Kurt Neumann in Waukesha, Wisconsin. They recorded their first album, the critically acclaimed “Love & Hope & Sex & Dreams,” in October of 1986. In the late 1980’s and 90’s, the band had several singles in the top 40 “mainstream rock” charts. In 1993, the band released the album “Go Slow Down,” which featured the song “Closer To Free,” which became a massive hit when the world heard it every week as the theme song for the television show, “Party of Five.”
Sam told me about his musical upbringing, influences, highs, lows…and the real story behind the break up of The BoDeans.
Michael: You’re selling your CD’s out of the trunk of your car, and at merchandise tables aside the stage after your shows. I imagine that’s where you started out, like Patsy Cline used to do it, right?
Sam: Well, not exactly. We didn’t really have stuff to sell back when we started out, but we certainly were working out of our car.
Michael: Tell me about your early days in music.
Sam: My dad was a bass player in a Mexican polka band, with a lot of accordion-sound. The style that Los Lobos dabbles in now. So there was always music around the house, you know? I’m the sixth kid out of seven, and my dad made my oldest brother, the first born, take guitar lessons when he was like 9 or 10. And when kids are that young, they don’t necessarily want to do it because they’d rather be outside playing or watching cartoons or something. So my brother didn’t really take to it and because of that my dad never really insisted anybody else play an instrument. Had I had that opportunity, I would have went for it, but with that said, music was always still around the house. It was always the number one attraction for me. I was more drawn to music than I ever was to anything else – ever. It just really called to me ever since I can remember and that’s really how I got started.
Michael: Who’d you listen to specifically?
Sam: Well when you’re a kid, you kind of listen to what’s around the house, so it was a bunch of Mexican music that my parents listened to. My dad was a big country music fan, so there was always Hank Williams and Johnny Cash and that kind of music around. Mom liked music by Perry Como and Nat King Cole so I had kind of an interesting education. Plus, when you’re young your brothers and sisters are always bringing music home. My sisters turned me onto a lot of the Motown stuff and my brothers were a little older so they were into Hendrix and Cream.
Michael: Quite the cross-section filling your ears?
Sam: Right. Plus, growing up when I did, the radio, the AM radio especially, was wide open. On the Top 40 AM radio stations back in the 60’s, you would hear everything. You’d hear The Beatles, Stones and CCR and you’d hear all the soul music, not just Motown, but you’d hear Memphis soul and you’d hear Philly soul. Along with all that you’d hear crazy stuff like Glen Campbell who had a lot of hits, and Tom Jones had hit songs and the Mamas and the Papas and all the “one hit wonder” songs. There was really just such a wide palette of stuff back then.
Michael: You grew up in Waukesha, and early on you connected with Kurt Newman. You guys became buddies and formed a band.
Sam: Well, we met in 11th grade and he was the only guy that I had ever met that was into music as much as I was. Back then he played drums and we talked about how cool it would be to have a band, but nothing really happened until we were both out of high school. I went to college and he stayed back, working at his grandpa’s business but he didn’t really want that. He bought a guitar, taught himself how to play and after about a year of doing that, he called me up and said, “let’s get a band together,” and I said, ‘alright,’ and we just did it.
Michael: Did you write your own music? Were you a cover band? What were you like then?
Sam: We started playing a lot of Chuck Berry songs, The Rolling Stones, all easy songs that all bands do. Louie, Louie…that kind of stuff. It’s 3-chord rock and it’s not that complicated to figure out, although I will say that it’s not that easy to make it sound great either.
Michael: How did you go from there to getting noticed? What was the big break?
Sam: Well, after a while we realized that if we were serious about it, we had to start writing our own songs. So we did that. We separated for a while, locked ourselves in separate rooms and each started to write music…tried to, at least. And after a year or so of doing that, we had songs, and we got back together and we put a little band together. At first, it was just me and him and the drummer. We didn’t have a bass player. Then we got Guy Hoffmann, and that’s when we got into the east-side of Milwaukee music scene and we just hit the ground running, because we were fairly well prepared at that point. We were well rehearsed and we took the scene by storm. We were really a breath of fresh air I think, and for some reason we just captured people’s attention and we were able to run with that.
Michael: Within a year, you were one of the most popular bands around Milwaukee.
Sam: And at the same time, we were recording demos. We were playing out live, recording any way we could, even if it was straight into a cassette deck. That’s how we recorded our first demo. After a while, we had a few songs (that actually made it on our first record) and we sent them off to anybody we could think of, and every name we could find…we just sent off a demo tape. I think within a year or so, somehow there was somebody at Slash Records, which was a small outfit affiliated with Warner Bros. The secretary there was also the person who would go through the tapes that came in the mail. She heard our tape and she liked it, so she got ahold of us and that’s kind of how it started.
Michael: That’s a great story, and kind of unbelievable.
Sam: Yeah, it’s a bit of luck and a bit of good fortune and a lot of hard work behind that. You have to make your own luck. You’ve got to plant a lot of seeds along the way and you never know what’s going to sprout.
Michael: You worked with T-Bone Burnett back when nobody knew who he was, is that right?
Sam: Well, he certainly wasn’t the big media star that he is now, so we take some credit for that (laugh). I’m just kidding. We saw T-Bone’s name on a lot of the early records that we liked, like the early Los Lobos records and his own records and a few more. Whenever we heard a record, it was like, ‘hey there’s that guy again, T-Bone Burnett.’ So we just inquired about him and he came out to see us and he liked the band and he thought he could work with us. He actually said he didn’t think we were really good enough to be making a record, but we could give it a shot.
Michael: Robbie Robertson (lead guitarist and songwriter for The Band), tell me the story with that connection.
Sam: I think Robbie is just one of those people that always has his ear to the ground and when our records first came out, it kind of made a big splash with a lot of music critics and he must have gotten wind of that somehow. He must have heard our records and liked the way we sounded. He told us we kind of reminded him of his band in a way, because we just sort of seemed like regular guys that stepped up to the mic and started singing. I think what he meant by that is there wasn’t a lot of pretense with our band. We really were just some regular guys who just picked up some guitars and started making music. There was no big plan, you know?
Michael: We’ll get to your latest album, but first tell me about the two prior efforts.
Sam: ’4/5 Live’ is a collection of live performances. Kind of a tiny retrospective, with only 10 songs on it. We recorded a live show and I picked 10 songs that I thought sounded good and worked well together. I just really wanted to have something to sell at the shows that was more representative of what I’m doing now.
Michael: One particular cut from your 4 A.M. (The Way Home) record struck me, “Nobody Loves Me,” where did it come from?
Sam: I’m not sure if I remember. I wrote that song quite a while ago. We first recorded that song for a BoDeans record, but it turned out very different than the way I recorded it for 4 A.M. I recorded it the way I wrote it, which was very simple and acoustic. It got turned into more of a rock song with The BoDeans because that’s what we kind of needed at the time.
Michael: Right, but it’s just beautiful now, acoustically the way you do it.
Sam: Thanks. It’s just a simple kind of a love song. If you spend a lot of time with somebody, they get to know you really well and those are the people that really know you. They know what you’re thinking even if you’re not talking. It’s about somebody like that. Even though there was nobody like that in my life at the time when I wrote it. So it’s kind of made up (laugh), but the sentiment is real.
Michael: 4 A.M. was something that became your “coming out” record.
Sam: But it was never supposed to be that. It was supposed to be a little record that I wanted to release on the side.
Michael: Everybody thought your doing solo work – that you wanted out of The BoDeans.
Sam: I never intended to leave The BoDeans. I think people have this idea in their heads that I left The BoDeans to pursue a solo career, but that’s not right. People were lied to. I left The BoDeans because Kurt Neumann broke the band up. That’s a fact. He said, “The BoDeans are over.” The only thing left now are the details of the split. At that point, I knew everything we had was gone and there was no use in sticking around, so I said, ‘Okay, if that’s how you feel about it, I’m leaving, so good luck.’ At that point 4 A.M. was scheduled to come out, and because of the timing, people think that I left the band so I could put that record out, but all I ever wanted that record to be was a little side project that I did in my spare time. I never really wanted the break up of The BoDeans. It broke my heart.
Michael: You had an understanding with Kurt.
Sam: Yeah, Kurt and his wife knew that I was putting that record out and we had an agreement about the schedule of things. And the schedule got messed up. It was nobody’s fault and there was this overlap. The BoDeans record came out and then the announcement that my record was coming out and everything was already set in motion. When that happened they blamed it all on me – saying I tried to sabotage The BoDeans record. Why would I do that to my own band?
Michael: Where does everything stand between the two of you now?
Sam: They have certainly reneged on their agreement with me. They were going to buy me out of the name and they had refused to pay me the money they owed me, and send me other money that they owe me. I certainly don’t want it to go into a legal thing, but who knows what’s going to happen? They’ve been very unreasonable in this deal. And I don’t understand that. Okay, things didn’t work out but why do we have to ruin everything that we did together? I’d like to at least keep some good memories from it.
Michael: I had no idea, and surely few of your fan base knows this.
Sam: Most people didn’t know about that, they thought I left the band to pursue a solo career and that’s what they said. They basically lied to everybody when they said I left. Kurt has yet to admit that he broke up the band.
Michael: It’s too bad. You were a great unit and produced some great music.
Sam: Yeah, we had a good run and it’s unfortunate that things turned out like that.
Michael: Switching gears, tell me about the stage play, “A Day For Grace.”
Sam: About a year and a half ago, I got an email from this guy wondering if I’d be interested in letting him use some music for this play that he was doing. It was a one-man play. I said, well it sounds interesting, why don’t you send us a script. So he did and when we read the script we realized that this play he had written was so close to a record that I had put out in 1997 called “A Good Day to Die,” which was the first solo thing that I released. And it was just sort of amazing how almost scene for scene, it mirrored the record that I put out. So I got ahold of this guy named Doug Vincent and I said, ‘You need to listen to this record that I put out,’ because he was completely unaware of the album. When he heard it, he was like, ‘Oh my God, we need to get together and work on this because this is too close for this to be some kind of coincidence,’ even though it was. So we got together and within an afternoon we had adapted the music to this play scene-by-scene and it really fell together that quickly. It was strange because I barely even knew this guy. Then we decided to present the play and see what we could do with it. We have been in New York, Chicago and Denver. We’re trying to get some national interest in it to bring it all across the country. Google “A Day For Grace” and you’ll find out all about it. That’s the best way to approach it, because it’s a little complicated.
Michael: What is your role in it?
Sam: I’m actually on stage with Doug. What started out to be the one-man monologue has turned into a two-man play. I don’t even know what to call it exactly because a lot of people have said that they’ve never really seen anything quite like this, presented this way, where there’s actually a live musician on the stage. Doug comes out and starts to do his monologue and at certain points I come up behind him with some music, just kind of supporting him. When he hits a certain part of the play, I’ll get up and sing a verse and a chorus of a song that punctuates what he’s talking about. For instance, when he’s talking about his dad, how his dad was an alcoholic and how he really felt alone and afraid. His dad is sitting by a campfire by himself, just talking to himself. Then I come in with my song, “Far, Far Away From My Heart.” I give a voice to that feeling that he was talking about and acting out.
Michael: What has been the audience reaction?
Sam: People have responded really strongly to it, even though it deals with heavy subjects like alcoholism and suicide and a few other things like that, but it does have a lot of humor too. Doug is a very talented performer in his own right, it’s a very entertaining piece.
Sammy’s new album is called “The Whole Night Thru”
Michael: You have a new studio album?
Sam: Well, if that’s what you want to call it. We recorded it in my house, in my living room. It is a brand new record of all original material.
Michael: Who’s we?
Sam: I’m working with a group of musicians that I’ve been with for a couple years now. Sean Williamson is playing guitar and lap steel. Lange Schiedermayer is playing drums and percussion. Matt Turner is playing bass. And Jason Lovall is playing violin with me now. They’re just guys from around here but they’re really good and we work well together – it’s really as simple as that.
Michael: Where did the songs come from?
Sam: A few of them I’ve had for a while and had always played in my solo shows. Maybe six of them were written within the last year and a half or so. That’s what I do, I collect songs until I have enough to make a record. And then I make a record. Sometimes it takes longer, sometimes it doesn’t. I go with the flow. It’s not something you can really rush.
Michael: Do you sense an evolution in your music?
Sam: I don’t think about things like that. This is obviously where I am right now. I think this is pretty much what I’ve always done. I think there are a couple tracks on the new record that maybe go off in a different direction. There’s a track called “Addicted to the Cure,” that we kind of created in the studio, which we don’t usually do. So that was a little different. We did record it as a band but it just wasn’t working for some reason. So we took a different approach to it to where it was finally satisfying. Take it one song at a time and try to present that song in its best light.
Michael: Do you have a particular favorite?
Sam: Well, I like them all. I’m a little biased. If anybody has seen me play live in the last three years, they’ve heard me play some of these songs already. There’s a song called “Dangerous Love” which came out really great on the record but we’ve been playing that song for a while now. Another called “The Best I Can.” Those both seem to get a good response live, so I thought we for sure should record them and put them on the record.
Michael: Tell me about the album’s photography.
Sam: On the cover you see a picture of my pet (stuffed) owl. The record is called “The Whole Night Thru,” so I thought the owl kind of goes with that whole feel. I just snapped a quick photo with my phone of the owl and it came out pretty good, so we decided to use that on the cover. The portrait of me on the inside was shot by Deone Jahnke. She’s a fine photographer from Milwaukee, and living in Nashville now. She called me up one day and asked if she could take my picture because she was doing a showing in L.A. and she needed another portrait for her musical series. She came into my house, set up her rig and took this really great shot of me so we decided to use that for the main picture inside the CD.
Michael: I think your fans are going to enjoy the ‘sound’ of this new work of yours.
Sam: I really view this as my first official solo record, even though I put out two other studio records on my own. I was always very careful to not compete with The BoDean’s sound. But now that I’m not in that band anymore, the gloves are off and this is a record that has many elements that my old band had. I think if people are looking for that BoDeans sound, it comes from my voice and it’s all over this record.
Michael: When I saw you perform, I noticed nobody else had a microphone to sing. It’s just you.
Sam: I’ve never been able to find the guy that I needed that was on the level that I wanted to get it done. I’d rather not do it if it’s not going to be done as well as I’ve done it in the past. That’s kind of why I hired the violin player. I hired him to support my voice, so he’s kind of taken that role, at least for now.
Michael: What do you do on your down time?
Sam: I’m pretty good at doing nothing (laugh). I like to go on long bike rides and I’m not talking about motorcycles, I’m talking about bicycles. I like movies, but I’m not real big on going out to a movie, I watch them at home. I’m at that age where it’s fun for me to stay home. Between my music and those two things, and spending time with my son, that keeps me busy enough. I’m not one of those people that has to be doing something all the time. I’m not like that. The writing of the music is enough for me.
The Ripon concert series run Friday nights from 7 to 10 pm at the Village Green located at the corner of Watson and Seward Street in downtown Ripon. A variety of beverages are available and participants are encouraged to bring lawn chairs or blankets to sit on. No carry-ins are allowed in the park, beverage sales help cover entertainment expenses. The series runs through the end of August.