By TJ Kliebhan
For just about every musician, music is more a labor of love than a career, and it will always be that way. Thanks to the internet, recording music on a digital audio workstation and uploading it to a centralized platform like Bandcamp or SoundCloud means it’s never been easier to be a part-time musician, but being a part-time musician who balances full-time work is still far from easy. You wouldn’t know it from following Sean Neumann, freelance journalist, bassist in indie rock act Ratboys, and solo artist behind Jupiter Styles.
Neumann’s constantly promoting his work on social media, whether it’s articles he’s written, music he’s tinkering with, or musings on baseball and wrestling. It’s clear that the Chicago local engages in a balancing act of responsibilities, yet his unwavering positivity makes it seem simple. For Neumann, being a workaholic is a means of survival.
But on Jupiter Styles’s latest record Ultra St. Opera, which Neumann released last month, he takes a step back to observe how quickly life can pass by and how important things can start to blur and lose shape in the daily grind. The album’s lead single, “Supermodel,” finds Neumann recalling the death of a close friend and how that catharsis of the experience begins to fade as time passes and life’s other demands begin to take effect. You hear this in the first words Neumann sings on the song — “I’m getting scared I don’t remember that my friend’s dead” — immediately announcing itself as one of the album’s essential cuts.
“The song is about someone I worked with and who I saw multiple times a week,” he tells MTV News. “You take those people that you see in your life every day for granted because you see them every day. I remember I was driving, and his suicide was on the news in Urbana, Illinois. It was big news, but the broadcast didn’t say who it was. That kind of thing — you never think it’s tied to you. And then I saw people posting about [him] on social media.”
Throughout the album, Neumann laments how wrong it seems for those feelings of missing someone to fade. “I’m getting scared that my brain is changing in ways I don’t like. Maybe this is something that happens to everyone as we get older, but I wonder if I’m losing who I am,” he says. “It’s stupid and upsetting to miss important things because I’m so focused on surviving to the next day.”
In Neumann’s case, surviving means using his time wisely. Without coming from extreme wealth, being a young indie rock musician demands a devastating amount of time. “My 9-to-5 is pitching news all day, pretty much,” he says. “Maybe I’ll land a story every couple of days, and I spend my time working on that. I do a lot of music work after 5, too. That can mean anything from writing songs to pitching my album, to writing a bio of the album, to digitally distributing the album. Even if I’m on tour though, I’ll continue working in the van while someone drives, or if we’re at the venue, I’ll ask for the Wi-Fi.”
While his lifestyle would probably be hectic for most, Neumann sees every new task as another chance to chase a story, even if he’s just listening instead of telling it. He credits this to his belief that he comes from a family of storytellers. “I grew up sitting around a table with my grandma and she would exchange stories with others,” he says. “I like to tell stories, but I really like to listen to stories. Everyone has a story and I really believe that.” Ultra St. Opera is proof that Neumann has refined his storytelling craft to a professional level.
The 14-song collection — which he wrote and sings, in addition to handling guitar, bass, and keyboard duties — weaves ripping guitar solos and black-metal blast beats with somber acoustic ballads. Crucially, the entire project is connected by a clear themes of loss and change. Neumann excels at taking moments that deal with those themes and hyper-analyzing them into universal stories. This is most evident on what Neumann considers the climax of the album, “Now I’m Here.” The minimal track is carried by Neumann’s exasperated vocal performance where he croons, “I sat at the back of his funeral, late, but I caught the end,” and “I know there are times when I just want to go and be like him.”
Neumann also wrestles with social media’s never-ending assault on self-worth with the track “Haunted,” capturing a common feeling: “Two-thousand fucking friends now / Ain’t a one wants to hear from me.” “Songs should have an openness where you can place yourself in,” he explains. “I think people need to connect to shit or else it won’t hit them in any emotional way.”
Neumann pulls off the album’s sound, bigger than anything he’s done yet, thanks to his musical background. A musician since high school, he’s played “everywhere from basements and barber shops to clubs and parking lots,” as his Jupiter Styles bio reveals. His past work with acts like Single Player likewise proves Neumann’s always been able to write full-throttle catchy hooks that can stand next to the late-‘90s and early-2000s rock radio he grew up adoring. But Ultra St. Opera finds him leveling up with a more polished sound than what his previous releases captured. “People always compare me to Third Eye Blind, and I always say that’s probably accurate because I listened to a lot of Third Eye Blind growing up. I’ve started to realize I have more resources. I don’t need to record on the eight-track anymore. Pretty much all of my spare cash goes into music, and so I was more aware of what I can do.”
Neumann’s Jupiter Styles project greatly benefits from existing in a musical incubator. He’s been friends with Julia Steiner and Dave Sagan of Ratboys, who both play on the album, since high school, along with Chicago rapper/multi-instrumentalist Nnamdi Ogbonnaya. Both Ratboys and Ogbonnaya have seen their popularity grow outside the Chicagoland area in recent years, and with Ratboys, Neumann has played to crowds of over 2,000 people — good numbers for an indie act. He’s set to take Jupiter Styles on the road this month, too, for 15 dates across the midwest. “I’ve seen [Ratboys and Ogbonnaya] achieve something I didn’t think was possible before. I’ve seen them succeed, and it made it real and possible for me. I feel like if I can get people to hear [Jupiter Styles], I know they’ll like it because I believe that the music I make is good. Otherwise there would be no point in putting it out there,” he says.
Whether it’s as Sean Neumann, freelancer, or Jupiter Styles, musical project, it’s clear that Neumann invests in stories. Ultra St. Opera is a collection of real, specific, and yet often universal ones. He sums up this need to surround himself with stories on the album’s closer, “Orbiter”: “Tell me everything that you know, I want to see the way the world goes.” “I still want to sit around my grandma’s table and tell stories with people,” he says. “You can live and go to work and die, or you can seek meaning in this life by connecting with people.”