Kurt Neumann and Sam Llanas met at Waukesha South High School in 1977. After discovering that they both had similar music interests, the duo began writing songs together. Llanas entered college, but soon left after Neumann urged him to pursue music with him. At the time, Neumann did not sing much and considered himself to primarily be a drummer, while Llanas had little experience as a guitar player. However, the two decided to get serious about music and both began to sing and play guitar under the name Da BoDeans in 1980. Though there are several stories of how their name came into existence, Sam has often explained that he got the name from The Beverly Hillbillies character Jethro Bodine. For Kurt, BoDeans conjured up the image of rock n' roll icons Bo Diddley and James Dean for a familial name, similar to The Smiths and The Connells. Early on, Neumann and Llanas were often credited as Beau and Sammy BoDean.
In April 1983, Da BoDeans began playing around Milwaukee's East Side music scene along with a hired drummer and bass player. The band practiced in the garage of Mark McCraw, a mutual friend who soon became their manager. The band lost its rhythm section later that year, but continued to perform live as a duo and used the recording studio at McCraw's university to record demos on which Llanas and Neumann played all the instruments.In 1984, drummer Guy Hoffman joined the band. The trio's first recorded song, "Sally", appeared on the first volume of the Milwaukee Sampler compilation released by Breezeway Records. In order to compensate for the lack of a bass player, Neumann modified his Fender Esquire with two additional pickups intended to capture solid low-end frequencies. After the trio became popular around Milwaukee, they decided to add bassist Bob Griffin in 1985, whom Neumann and Llanas had met while roadies for his band The Agents in high school. Later that year, the quartet received interest from multiple major labels and chose to sign a contract with Slash/Warner Records. After signing, the label suggested that they shorten their name to simply BoDeans. Under the guidance of producer T-Bone Burnett, they entered Hollywood's Sunset Sound Factory in October to record their first album. Burnett focused on capturing the band's natural sound without many additional overdubs. The band later expressed their regret of not being able to spend more time on the production, but high studio costs kept the sessions concise. The critically acclaimed debut Love & Hope & Sex & Dreams was released in 1986.
In January 1987, a Rolling Stone reader poll voted them Best New American Band. Early that year, they traveled to Los Angeles to work with producer Mike Campbell, but the sessions were shelved after disagreement arose over the album's sound. Campbell wished for the album to resemble Tom Petty's brand of 1960's rock. The band, however, felt that this style did not fit their music and instead wanted a state-of-the-art production. They went back to Wisconsin and accepted an offer from Talking Heads member Jerry Harrison to produce their second album and were given more freedom to experiment. Meanwhile, drummer Guy Hoffman took some time off from the band to be with his newborn baby. Jim "Bo" Conlon filled in for Hoffman on the band's live shows, and session drummer Rick Jaegar was brought in during the recording sessions. Outside Looking In was released in October 1987 and featured a more modern 80's-rock sound unlike its roots-influenced predecessor. At the time, the band wished to break past the "roots" label with a state-of-the-art production, but in retrospect, they felt that the album was not able to capture the true essence of the band. The album's lead single, "Only Love", made #16 on the US Mainstream Rock charts. In support of the album, the band toured extensively with U2 on The Joshua Tree Tour, increasing their fanbase. Hoffman left the band shortly after the album was released. Drummer Bo Conlon and keyboardist Susan Julian would continue to tour with the band throughout the rest of 1987 and 1988. That year, they also contributed to Robbie Robertson's debut solo album alongside U2 and Peter Gabriel.
In 1988, the band began recording with Jim Scott, whom they had been introduced to by Robbie Robertson. Unlike their two previous albums, the tracking was mostly done live in their warehouse rental space. At least 22 songs were recorded during these sessions, but only 15 made it past the mastering stage and onto the record. In 1989, their third album, titled Home, was released. It was more reminiscent of their rootsy debut, but showed a diverse range of influences including Motown, U2-inspired arena rock, and heartland rock. This album was also the first with keyboard player Michael Ramos. Drummer Kenny Aronoff (best known for his work with John Mellencamp) also played on the album.
In 1991, in search of a different take on their music, the band began recording with David Z (producer and sideman of Prince) at Paisley Park Studios, and released their 4th studio album Black and White that year. The album's electronic-influenced sound was a sharp departure from most of their previous efforts, with more emphasis on synthesizers, drum machines, and processed guitar tones. The album also explored darker and grander lyrical themes. Though not a single, the album's first track "Good Things" achieved some success and became one of their best-known songs. The rebellious and political "Black, White, and Blood Red" was the only single released from the album, though it did not perform well in comparison to their previous songs that made the charts.
After Black & White, the band decided to shift their focus to making the album that pleased them instead of searching for a hit. For their 5th album Go Slow Down in 1993, the band reunited with T-Bone Burnett and took a more homemade approach with Kurt playing many of the instruments himself. Unlike their previous album, Go Slow Down was more acoustic and marked their transition into 90's alternative rock.
The first song from the album, "Closer to Free", brought them to a much larger audience after it was selected as the theme song to the TV series Party of Five in 1994. (The band would return in 1999 to perform a cover of The Beatles's "I've Just Seen a Face" as the theme song for the show's short-lived spinoff Time of Your Life.) Due to the new-found exposure, "Closer to Free" became the group's biggest pop hit, peaking at #16 on the U.S. Hot 100, three years after its release. "Closer to Free" was also the opening song used in the movie Heavyweights, and is the theme song (and namesake) for an annual fundraiser at Smilow Cancer Hospital at Yale-New Haven, in New Haven, Connecticut. The Smilow Cancer Hospital uses the modern multidisciplinary approach to patient care which allows the patients to receive the highest level of care, making them "closer to free" from their disease.
In 2003, the band was finally able to terminate their former management and proceeded to sign with Rounder Records. The following year, the band returned with their long-awaited 7th album Resolution, released on Rounder/Zoe. Being their first album in 8 years, it was well received by fans. A live album recorded during the Resolution tour was released in 2005, entitled Homebrewed: Live from the Pabst. The group released the DVD for Homebrewed: Live from the Pabst at the end of 2005. That year, a lawsuit against ex-manager Mark McCraw, along with his countersuit against the band, were settled in court. The settlement resulted in $200,000 in damages being awarded to the band. In January 2006, Bob Griffin left the band for personal reasons.
The BoDeans released an album, entitled Still, on March 4, 2008. Produced again by T-Bone Burnett, the album moved away from the modern rock sound of their previous albums and was more reminiscent of their heartland-esque sound of the late 80s. "Everyday" was the first single to radio from "Still". It was stated that the first 15,000 copies of "Still" had some errors in the lyrics booklet. The record company recently re-released the album with the corrections in the booklet. A live, acoustic CD became available on The BoDeans Official Website. It was recorded in Schaumburg and Arlington Heights, Illinois, the 16, 17, and 18 of November 2006. It features only Sammy, Kurt, and Bukka, and has 13 rare live, acoustic songs.
The BoDeans' 9th studio album, Mr. Sad Clown, was released on April 6, 2010. Similar to their 1993 release, Kurt Neumann produced and played most of the instruments on the album in his home studio. Though critics lauded the album for its homemade approach, reviews were mixed due to the overall melancholy theme. The album features some of Neumann's most personal songwriting. Their song "Headed for the End of the World" was used in the antiwar documentary film "Countdown to Zero".
The band released their 10th studio album, titled Indigo Dreams, on July 26, 2011. The album was originally scheduled to be released on June 28, but was pushed back. The first single, "Blowing My Mind", was released to radio stations and posted online. The second single, "How Can We" had moderate success at radio.
On August 10, 2011, Sam Llanas failed to arrive in Colorado for BoDeans performances at KBCO Radio in Denver, the Triple A Convention in Boulder (August 11), and a concert in Winter Park, CO August 13. He sent a text message to several band and crew members at 4:09 AM August 11, 2011 saying that he quit. On August 18, Llanas officially left the band due to "differences of opinion" that had been "going on for years", according to Neumann. His departure was also related to his rekindled solo career, with a new solo album titled 4 A.M. having been announced one day after Indigo Dreams was released. The band stated that they will continue on without him with the band's guitar technician Jake Owen filling in.
In November 2011, the band began recording at The Village in Los Angeles with producer John Alagía. Their eleventh studio album titled American Made was released on June 12, 2012. On March 26, the album's first single, "All The World", was released. In November 2012, the band announced the upcoming release of "Amped Across America", a double live album recorded at several venues from the American Made tour.
On October 3, 2014, Kurt Neumann announced the band's 12th studio album, titled I Can't Stop. The album is due to be released April 21, 2015.