“I gotta leave here in a little while to go do a soundcheck. But I’m just so close, I’m staying at the W in Boston and I just…I walk right across the street. Literally. Right across the street. I’ve never been at a hotel where I could walk right to the gig. It’s so amazing.”
The person on the other end of the phone is Creed Bratton. You may know this name from the American version of the hit television series, The Office. I grew up familiar with a band Bratton had once been in, The Grass Roots.
In fact, when I learned that Bratton’s past included being a member of The Grass Roots, who recorded ‘Let’s Live for Today’, I became interested in interviewing him about his professional journey in the arts. I’d let my pursuit of this story slip. I loved the song, and often listen to it on repeat. I also always found the character of Creed Bratton a catalyst for guffaws and sweeping laughs. When this story blinked back on my radar, I jumped at the chance to speak to Bratton. We scheduled a phone interview, though I then realized that I could have possibly reorganized my schedule and made the twenty minute bus ride down to the Theatre District, where he was performing that night.
He asks me if I am from Emerson College; some students will be attending his sound check. I mention that I actually did go to Emerson College, but graduated in 2009. I thank him for taking time to speak to me before his sound check, and apologize for the technical problems I had experienced with my phone. He is nothing but cordial and pleasant.
My blog focuses on different aspects of working with music professionally. Creed Bratton’s journey has taken him through music, acting, and now music again. The Office is wrapping up its ninth and final season, and Bratton released a new album, Tell Me About It, this month, with Act 1 of the album having been released on April 16. The album is very telling of his life, and I’m interested in his musical career. Where better to start than with his first guitar?
“You said that you knew you wanted to be a musician from a young age, and I saw a note that your first instrument was a guitar from Sears. I remember my first drum set was nothing fancy, but I remember coming down the stairs and seeing it there and being completely elated, even though it would fall apart all of the time. What do you recall from receiving your first guitar?”
Bratton dives in. “We were very poor, and I had been playing trumpet since grammar school basically, you know? I played trumpet through grammar school, junior high, and high school. But I was like, thirteen years old, and I heard Link Wray over the radio. I heard Link Wray play ‘Rumble’. It’s just an instrumental guitar thing. My mind, my spirits soared, the sound got me going.”
He then explains that loving that sound led him to pursue music. He had worked milking cows, taking out garbage, as a soda jerk…but music made a profound impact on him.
“So, I got the guitar. I sent away from Sears…and it came in the mail. And it was basically a Silvertone guitar. It had the lipstick pickups on the front of it. (…) The amp was built into the guitar case itself.”
He began learning chords. “I’d slowly let each string ring and let the sound go through my body.” He recalls the peace and elation that each note brought him, and concludes the thought with, “Yeah, I know, the first instrument that you really want to do is a life changing moment. No doubt about it.”
And now he is releasing this album digitally, and on vinyl. Bratton plans on releasing vinyl with free downloads–not MP3s, mind you, and to monitor how listeners respond.
The CD is certainly on its last hurrah, or already done with it. Singles are powerful, but what about the concept of an album?
“Well, I…it’s not a good thing or a bad thing. It’s just evolution. It’s the way things are, you know, you can’t really stop anything. I definitely believe that the CD-and both myself and my producer are of the like mind (that if) we get another year out of CDs that will be it. Because people now, they don’t even download a full album. They go, they like one song in an album and they’ll download a single.”
As for singles, he is hoping for two or three. ‘Faded Spats’, ‘Move To Win’, and ‘Unemployment Line’ are his picks.
“I think as far as singles, I think those will be the ones that the younger people will probably want”. Bratton sings a few bars of ‘Faded Spats’.
“It’s definitely an earworm.” I tell him, and it’s true. The chorus keeps getting stuck in my head.
But some of the songs have origins from years ago. Decades ago.
“A lot of them…I know ‘Chemical Wings’ I wrote a long time ago (…) ‘Heart of Darkness’ I wrote with Billy Harvey, who is an incredible guitar player and songwriter. He worked on the album with us. I wrote ‘Faded Spats’ with Vance DeGeneres, (who) is Ellen’s brother. I met him at a health food store, and he runs Steve Carell’s production company, Carousel. So we were talking about music and stuff and we hit it off.”
He affirms that it’s always great to hit it off with someone and click with them in a way, especially to write music. I agree. Writing music is personal. You share your stories, your creative thought process. Finding someone you’re comfortable developing that with is refreshing.
‘Faded Spats’ and ‘Unemployment Lines’ form interesting stories. ‘Faded Spats’, the first single?
“Basically a boy and a girl’s first acid trip at a party, and how it makes you feel. And ‘Unemployment Lines’, that was written when I was forty years old, so that was thirty years ago. And I’d come back from being in the unemployment line. I told my friend, I said, ‘I thought I saw an old girlfriend of mine’, and it just made my heart sink. Here I was in the unemployment line. And he said ‘Well, you’ve got to write about it’. They gave me some verses and we wrote that song together. Peter, Sarah, and I. And that’s a heart wrenching song. But its honest, there’s no doubt about it.”
(Peter and Sarah Dixon co-wrote the song with Bratton)
The story of the song, ‘Unemployment Line’, hits home for me. The whole album is said to be autobiographical. “You describe this album as an audio biography, but you mention an off-Broadway play. Think we could ever see that? I’m a little bit of a musical nerd, so this has me very intrigued…” Perhaps Bratton didn’t mention ‘off-Broadway’ to me, but I had read it in his other interviews. I needed to clear this up!
“I had originally, when I play around…I’ve done shows with Rainn Wilson for some charity events…” He explains that his stories intertwine with his music during performances. “People like my stories in between the songs because I tell about my life. I’ve had a pretty interesting life for sure.” He continues recalling instances, and adds, “I’d love to do…go off-Broadway and do a play where I walk out and I tell these stories, and sing these songs and really craft it.”
And then, in the midst of production for Tell Me About It, someone mentioned to Bratton, “This album we’re cutting is your audio biography.”
Bratton reflects, “And it actually tells the ups and downs of my career. You can hear the ups and downs of my life.”
So, I have to ask. “Do you like musicals?”
Bratton seems surprised at this. “No, no I don’t like musicals at all!”
A split second later and we both burst out laughing. Somehow this question now seems absurd of me to have asked. I went from frying pan to fire with off-Broadway to musicals.
“This, I wouldn’t consider this a musical,” Bratton says. Then he adds, “Musicals are kind of weird. And I mean that in a very loving way, I don’t judge.”
But with theater, acting, performing, education…how do we keep it together?
“You mention that you are at home with the guitar-it makes you feel better, and you follow the direction the art takes you. That you will always have music. I really admire and appreciate that,” I say. And I mean it. “My blog focuses on musician stories from all walks of life-from the studio and touring musician, to music educators and hopeful students. I find that, even with social media, it’s still tough to work in the arts, with layoffs and arts funding being cut. What feedback do you have for those of us who are dedicated to staying in this field?”
Bratton takes a moment and then says, “Ok, well, as far as I am concerned, I didn’t really have a choice. I did lots of different jobs. I worked as a caterer…a prop man…I studied acting, I worked as a waiter…” This spawns a joke about actors being waiters as a rite of passage. Then he adds, in a more serious tone, “To be very honest, Farah, I always wrote music, I loved it so much I never had to stop. I’ve always written songs. And through the years they’ve gotten better, the songs have gotten better because I continued at it.”
He continues, “All those times in the thirty years where I didn’t have a pot to piss in and I was really wondering whether I was going to be able to eat the next day, I always found a way to get to my class…whatever group I was working with, and put up a scene, and always act. So, yes, my advice is-no matter what’s going on-find a way to keep doing it. Even though you say ‘well, what’s the point’? The point is…the point IS you’ve got to keep doing it. Because it will get better. Even if it doesn’t, you’re going to feel better about yourself. It’s not about saying ‘I gotta do this to be a success’. You do it because you love it. If you don’t do it because you love it, then you’re doing it for the wrong reason. That’s true, that’s very true. And I’m a living example of that. I didn’t hit it really big-well The Grass Roots, yeah sure. Forget about that. I was in my twenties. As far as an actor…I didn’t hit it until I was sixty. Think about that. Most people would give up.”
“Another thing to say to actors and musicians: if you see it in your minds eye, if you actually see yourself doing it and you’re not kidding yourself…’I believe in my heart of hearts, I believe this is going to happen’. And you’re not just blowing smoke up your own ass…you really see it. And if you see it you gotta continue with it.”
I let this sink in for a moment. The Grass Roots pop back into my head, though I know he mentioned to skip over The Grass Roots when he mentioned his career path. I can’t help it. Not even a week before I happened upon the opportunity to speak with Bratton, I was chopping veggies in my kitchen and listening to The Grass Roots on repeat. I have to ask.
“Ok, so I know you said to skip the Grassroots…but ‘Let’s Live For Today’ is one of my favorite songs from the 1960s, and I found out that you were in the Grass Roots a few years ago. How did that song come to be?”
After a humble thank you over the mention of my love of that song, Bratton quiets a bit, and mentions that he has to save his voice for that night. His sound check is not far off.
The Grass Roots had gotten in with Dunhill Records. The daughter of the president of the company was in Europe, when she heard a catchy song. The track was “Piangi Con Me”, and she brought a copy of the song to The Grass Roots and Dunhill, where it was suggested they do an American version.
“This song took off in, like…not even a week. It was on the charts. It was amazing. Amazing.” Bratton recalls.
In the midst of showing the song to my friends, and pointing out, ‘did you know that’s Creed from The Office’, I noticed one video with a particular funny moment. “I don’t know if you remember, but there is a video-I saw on YouTube-of one of your performances on a TV show, and at one moment, it pans to you, and you kind of smirk. Do you remember what happened that made you almost laugh at that moment?”
Bratton laughs. “I was probably laughing because I never take anything really seriously. There’s one of me out there on YouTube,too, where I actually spit, like some punk rocker, on the ground. Showing my disdain for the whole process. I’m laughing because I didn’t take myself seriously. I thought it was all kind of a joke and it was really funny. We didn’t really take ourselves very seriously.”
“So, humor and comedy have always been important to you?”
“Yeah, of course, of course, the human being…the human condition is absurd. And we have to see the humor in it or we all go crazy. That’s why I think, people who don’t laugh…there is something really wrong.” Bratton concludes.
I guess what I was getting at was a segue to The Office. “A lot of people of course know you from The Office. One my friends once told me that the cast of The Office could floss their teeth and she would still laugh. Who is one person on set who can, without a doubt, always make you pee your pants laughing?”
Bratton takes a moment, and then says. “Oscar.”
I let out a snort. “Oscar!”
“ Oscar can kill ya. Steve Carell could do it, no question. But Oscar, he’s…you wouldn’t think…he’s very dry but he’ll do some stuff that will just make us die. Just die. He’s great.”
Now we begin discussing the development of Creed Bratton, the character. Bratton, the actor, had started to get involved with The Office initially as a background character. Bratton developed his character and presented it as if he had maintained a rock star lifestyle, chock full of drugs and alcohol. Off-kilter and absurd. The creators of The Office found it hilarious, and the character of Creed found himself a steady home with the cast. Since so many of the cast are skilled comedians, I wondered if they ever find themselves improvising and crafting lines.
“No, oh, some of the stuff is ad-libbed,” Bratton replies. “More and more as years go by, more and more stuff is ad-libbed. But all in all, through the years it’s basically ninety percent scripted. We get all the scripted lines for sure before they say, ‘okay, we got it, now lets play with it’. Because we’ve got the best writers. The Office writers are the best. And we all acknowledge that. How lucky we are to have those people brought in for us.”
Now Bratton fears his voice is getting raspy, and the soundcheck is approaching. We agree on one more question before he has to leave.
“What are some bands you’re currently following, or you see being important to this generation of music?” Bratton has been involved with this craft for quite some time, and I’m curious on what his outlook on the current music scene is.
“Oh, I don’t know. The show-we just finished the show up after nine seasons, and we work twelve-hour days, and I…when I’m not working, I write songs myself. I don’t listen to a lot of music. I still listen to John Coltrane and Miles Davis…”
I interject. “ A Love Supreme is one of my favorite albums!”
“Yeah, I listen to jazz and classical music.” He finishes.
I definitely hear a mix of influences on Tell Me About It. There are hints of the era of rock and roll that The Grass Roots emerged from. The ambiance of the songs drift in such a way that you truly feel a narrative, thoughts, emotions–of course as with any album, but you are bounced through being an observer and to somehow feeling as though you are having a conversation with Bratton himself.
Bratton leaves for his sound check and we agree to reconnect. I smile at the thought of students from my Alma Mater moving into the soundcheck. Small world.
Act 2 of Tell Me About It is out May 7, with Act3 out May 21. The vinyl of all three acts will also be out May 21.
You can check out more from Creed here.
Here’s to staying on our paths to creativity, and keeping music in sight.