After more than five years as host of Nickelodeon’s “Blue’s Clues,” Steve Burns is passing the leash to his successor and passing the mic to himself.
Burns, who along with animated canine Blue has solved nearly 100 puzzles since the children’s show premiered in December 1996, is now facing a quandary that has baffled just about anyone who ever wanted to form a career around picking up a guitar: how to get signed.
The 28-year-old Brooklyn, New York, resident has recorded 11 tunes, some of which are posted on www.steveswebpage.com, for an LP titled Songs for Dustmites. That was the easy part. The hard part is getting a label to release his stuff, which combines the sweeping orchestration of the Flaming Lips, whose Steven Drozd assisted in the album’s production, with the DIY-aesthetic and detached spookiness of Chicago’s homegrown indie rock.
“I really don’t care who puts it out,” Burns said. “At the end of the day, I just want people to like it. I want as many people to hear it as possible, and I hope it finds a happy home somewhere.”
Music isn’t a new direction for Burns, who’s played in bands since high school, when he was a member of Sudden Impact. From there, he rocked with Nine Pound Truck and the Ivys, his “Morrissey rip-off band.” “It’s back when I wanted to be [guitarist] Johnny Marr, ’cause you gotta do the Manchester shoe-gazing thing,” he explained.
He had been working on material for Songs for Dustmites for nearly two and a half years, ever since he got a computer with sound recording and editing capabilities. His method for making the album was similar to the way he took up playing music as a teen: he just messed around, trial-and-error style, until he found something he liked.
“When I was 14 I would pick up my brother’s bass guitar, and I would just pound on it, having no idea how to play it,” he said. “I would just pound on it until I sounded like Fugazi. And I do the same thing on the computer. I pound on it until I sound like … Boards of Canada. I just beat on it until I get it to comply.”
The Steve Burns who no longer spends his mornings being shown up by a little blue beast hardly resembles the Steve Burns who did. For starters, he shaved his head the day after his final episode was in the can. It was something he’d wanted to do for years, but “Blue’s Clues” wouldn’t let him. And it’s highly improbable that he’d be caught wearing khakis and that trademark green rugby shirt at his local indie-rock watering hole. Now Steve is closer to being a guest on MTV2’s “120 Minutes” than any program broadcast on Nickelodeon.
The opportunity to work with Lips drummer/multi-instrumentalist Drozd was an amazing experience, said Burns, who first heard the band’s most recent album, 1999’s The Soft Bulletin, at a party and immediately left the shindig to purchase the LP. While recording his own album, on which he plays most of the instruments, Burns figured he’d at least ask the Oklahoma City band for some advice, but what he got in return was a dream come true.
“I started trying to do my own music at home, and I was like, ‘You know what, I can play the guitar, sort of. And I can do these things, sort of. And I can make these crazy noises on my computer, sort of. But I need a ridiculously good drummer. I need someone to help me with string arrangements,’ Burns said in a rhetorical fashion similar to the way he thinks aloud on “Blue’s Clues,” though in a hoarse, breathier tone.
“I was thinking, ‘Who would be first to choose from? Well I would like to work at Tarbox Road Studios with the Flaming Lips.’ I made a couple phone calls and it happened. We hit it off instantly. … We sat around college dorm room-style with his trusty keyboard and my acoustic guitar and in a very short time polished the arrangements to what you hear now.”
Drozd assisted with six of Songs for Dustmites‘s 11 tracks, and Lips bassist Michael Ivins engineered the LP. David Fridmann, producer of The Soft Bulletin as well as several other Flaming Lips albums, also worked on the album, though band frontman Wayne Coyne did not. Coyne did, however, cast Burns in his film about the first Christmas on Mars that he’s been working on for several years. In the flick, it’s Burns whose actions give rise to the red-planet holiday.
When Burns first immigrated to the Big Apple from rural Boyertown, Pennsylvania, he had aspirations of being an actor and landing a role on a crime drama like “Law & Order.” However, he scored the “Clues” job almost upon stepping off the bus, and it’s been his main gig ever since. And while he’s somewhat worried about being typecast as the “Blue’s Clues” guy — though without the green shirt and dorky haircut you’d never peg him as such — his tenure at the long-running program has left him with proud memories.
“I took this about as far as I could, I guess,” Burns said. “It was a really difficult decision, too, because on one hand, if I wanted to, I could do this for a really long time. The show is extraordinarily popular in several countries. I could be like Fred Rogers (‘Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood’), which I consider a very noble profession. But I thought, ‘Well, is this really what I came to New York to do? Why not quit right when I’m at my peak.’
“I just don’t think it’s true that people can’t do something else after they’ve done something that seems so permanent,” he added. “I hope I’ll be remembered for that show for the rest of my life. That will always be a part of my identity, and I’m totally cool with that.”