Originally created 09/15/03

Former kids' TV host remakes himself as an indie rock artist



NEW YORK -- Fans of "Blue's Clues," take heart: Departed host Steve Burns is still using his Thinking Chair. Only now, it makes music.

"It makes a great percussion instrument," Burns says earnestly. "There's one entire song on my album where I play the Thinking Chair."

For the uninitiated, the Thinking Chair is the plush maroon throne that Burns sat in during six years as the floppy-haired host of Nick Jr.'s "Blue's Clues." He used it to ruminate on hints provided each episode by Blue, an animated puppy.

Producers of the show gave Burns a replica of the chair for his 25th birthday, and it doubles as a drum kit on his new album, "Songs for Dustmites."

That's right - "Steeeeeve," as he's known to countless preschool fans and their parents, is now a budding rock star.

His followers might be surprised by what they hear on "Dustmites": dense, string-laden tunes that David Bowie might have written in his "Ziggy Stardust" period. Sample song titles include "Troposphere" and "Superstrings."

The album's producer is David Fridmann, best known for work with surrealist rock heroes Mercury Rev and the Flaming Lips. Steven Drozd, the Lips' drummer, even plays drums on tracks where the Thinking Chair didn't suffice.

Burns, 29, says becoming a neo-psychedelic rocker isn't as much a left turn as it might seem.

"There's a thread of logic between the album and the show," he says during a recent telephone interview from Oklahoma, before joining his band for a tour rehearsal. "There were elements of 'Blue's Clues' that were absurd and surreal. And I take this wide-eyed approach to science on the record that's very 'Blue's Clues'-esque."

For example, the album's title is a testament to his fascination with microscopic bugs.

"Dustmites are like fleas or tics but exponentially smaller," he says. "They live in your pillow or other places and you don't want to think about them."

He also identified with their smallness, being just 5 feet 5 inches tall himself: "In my context, they're just a lovely little metaphor."

Burns, who lives in New York City, has dabbled in songwriting and guitar-playing since high school. During his stint on "Blue's Clues," he spent much of his free time sequestered in his Brooklyn bedroom, crafting intricate indie-rock songs on his desktop computer.

After leaving the show when his contract was up - amicably, he says - Burns sent the tapes to Fridmann. The producer knew of Burns through his two small daughters, who are devoted "Blue's Clues" followers. But Fridmann says he tried to evaluate Burns' work on its own merits.

"I get tapes all the time from people, and if I like what I hear I'll work with them," Fridmann says. "I liked this one."

Burns began shopping for labels before recording was finished - a disheartening process at first, he says, due to major labels' preconceptions of him.

"I think because of the industry's knee-jerk desire to capitalize on whatever paltry celebrity I had, they wanted something for kids - more pop," Burns says. "And I said, 'No, I'm going to write my songs and if people like them, great."'

Eventually, he decided to work with PIAS America, an independent distributor that Burns says didn't try to dictate the album's content.

Since its release Aug. 12, "Songs for Dustmites" has made a modest showing on Billboard's independent albums chart. But it remains to be seen whether it will have lasting appeal for anyone beyond curious "Blue's Clues" fans.

"I'm aware that I'm functioning from a credibility deficit," Burns says. "Like, who do I think I am?"

The solution, says PIAS' Kevin Wortis, has been to adopt a policy of full disclosure.

"We all made the decision early on not to run from Steve's past but to talk about it straight up," Wortis says. "Yes, this is the same Steve Burns that used to consort with a blue puzzle-solving puppy. But it's also this Steve who made this amazing rock record for grown-ups."

The second version is a closer reflection of his true aspirations, Burns says.

"I came to New York because I had some opportunities as an actor," he says. "But I was pretty sure I didn't want to be actor - it seemed a preposterous way to make a living and it really didn't seem right."

Though he loved "Blue's Clues," doing the show was "all-consuming," Burns says. When his contract was up, he saw an opportunity to throw himself wholeheartedly into music.

"I wish I were a smarter man and could tell you that I had some grand scheme to reinvent myself, but that's not what happened," he says.

"I wasn't thinking, 'What will I do next? Indie rock!' I'm a big believer in following momentum and I just kept going with (music) because it felt so right."

On the Net:

http://www.steveswebpage.com