There’s more to Creed Bratton than strangler jokes. Admittedly, it’s hard to separate the man from the myth — or rather, Creed Bratton in real life versus Creed Bratton on NBC’s The Office — but we’d be remiss to not mention, you know, the hundreds of other credits to his name. Like, for instance, did you know he’s been playing music for over 50 years?
A former member of The Grass Roots, Bratton has had an incredible history in the music industry, having worked with The Wrecking Crew and performed at iconic events such as the Fantasy Fair and Magic Mountain Music Festival and the San Francisco Pop Festival. Since leaving the outfit in the late ’60s, he’s never stopped writing music.
He also gets around. Name a country or toss out a city name and odds are he’s been there. He’s a globetrotter, a cosmopolitan, who has too many stories to tell, which is likely why he keeps writing songs. His latest album, While the Young Punks Dance, is his seventh solo record to date, and finds Bratton under the guidance of producer Dave Way and Dillon O’Brian.
In support of the album, which is now available, Bratton spoke to Consequence of Sound about a range of oddities. From his admiration for The Clash to his favorite far-reaching locales to his time working on The Office, Bratton was quite candid with Editor-in-Chief Michael Roffman, and he even managed to pull the rug from underneath him.
Your entire life has involved music. When I saw the title of your new album, While the Young Punks Dance, I wondered if you got to experience the earliest punk movements in the ’60s and ’70s.
All my parents and grandparents all played music. My grandparents on my mother’s side had a semi-professional band. I played through college and had started making money at 17. I played trumpet for years and years. I don’t know if you knew that, but I was first chair from my freshman year on on classical trumpet. And I could play piano by ear at 14 or 15, not that I’m a really great piano player; I write a little by it now, but mostly guitar.
To answer your question, I had a friend named David Jove, and he had a thing called New Wave Theatre at the period of time I was starting to listen to the punk. And I knew it was very simplistic, but there was something about that raw energy … I loved The Clash. Yeah, of course. And there’s a song I tried on The 80’s called “Hostile Gospel” that is my punk homage, and in it there’s a line at the end that goes, “All you punks are dead … Nuke the punks.” But it’s actually a cool track.
Did you ever get to see The Clash live?
No, no, but my friend Azazel Jacobs, who directed me in Terri, he’s a huge Clash fan. He rekindled my love for that band over just the last few years. I just realized how much I really dug those guys, you know?
Where does the title While the Young Punks Dance come from?
It’s a line … And actually by my producer, Dave Way, the multi-Grammy Award-winning Dave Way. We had recorded six songs, maybe five songs, and then we were going to put on “All the Faces”, the song I did for the finale of The Office. All the songs fit into that genre, that style of me just playing my acoustic guitar and singing. Doing it the old-fashioned way, just standing in front of a mic with a guitar and doing it all at the same time and not on different tracks. And then some friends of mine came in and did a little sweetening over it.
One of my songs, “Boxer in a Club”, there’s a line that says, “While all the young punks dance.” It’s actually a song about a dealer I knew back in my LA days, back in my crazy, crazy days, who died a while back. And when I sung the song at my shows, people started laughing thinking it’s one of my funny bits, and I’m thinking, “No, no, it’s not.” There’s a line from the movie Lonesome Dove: “Even whores have hearts.” And it’s true. Drug dealers, too. He was a good guy. That was just his job. Nobody thought he was a bad person. He just fulfilled a part of society … which made America great. But he passed on, and I was moved by the man and what he had to go through, so I wrote this song called “Boxer in a Club”. So that’s where that title’s from.
You’ve always been quite the traveler. Have there ever been places over the years you felt spiritually connected to and maybe wanted to stay there?
Just a few months ago, I flew over Romania to do this thing called The Sisters Brothers, this western noire outside of Bucharest. I went to visit some friends in Switzerland, and I went to Paris to hang out for a bit. I’d been to Paris a few times before, but this time I just walked around those streets and sat in those cafes, and the city was just saying, “You know, you could just come here for a while and be very comfortable.” I used to feel the same way about London, but this time Paris was really calling to me.
I love being at Lake Tahoe. I feel there’s a great energy there. People keep telling me I need to go to Santa Fe, those desert mountains. I’m actually going to Joshua Tree this weekend, driving out, to find a place to meditate. I’m kinda looking for a cabin to rent and write at.
Do you prefer more rustic places?
Yeah, I love cool cities, and I’m generally there when I’m working. But, for myself, I’m from the mountains, that bucolic upbringing in a small town near Yosemite. I like being around water, and I’d be very happy just running around in my boots and going fishing. I go fishing a lot. I’ve been to Alaska about three times. I went up there with my son recently. I go trout fishing a lot. So, I do like getting up by myself in the wilderness. It recharges me. And as a writer, as a songwriter, and as an actor, you don’t have to be working all the time. You’re getting a lot of great work done when you’re just out there in nature recharging. It’s important. People think you need to be working all the time. No, you really need to get away and recharge your batteries. It’s important.
Rock and roll was king when you started out. Now, a lot of people claim it’s dying out. What’s your take on the state of rock and roll?
Well, when I started out as a young child … As I said, I was playing trumpet already, and then my grandfather taught me some chords on guitar as a young kid. I had a little crystal set [radio receiver] in my room, and sometimes, if the climate was right, on some days you could get KFWB. B. Mitchel Reed from Los Angeles would come bouncing over the hills there from LA. And I started hearing Fats Domino and Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Everly Brothers. One time somebody played Link Wray’s “Rumble”, and that guitar came over [mimics chord sound], and that was it. I was hooked. I got my Silvertone guitar.
There’s something about music. Music has saved me. There have been times when I was emotionally distraught, broken up with girlfriends and thought my life was over. And then I’d hear one song and have my fist pounding on the dashboard, and I’d get all excited. That was my passion. There’s something about a great rock and roll song, whether it’s the Stones or The Kinks or Arc Angels or somebody, to me, who just got it and are connected to the fiber of rock. It’s always going to be there. And sure, other stuff can come in. I used to like country, but I just gotta be very honest. I think what’s going on in country now is just rehashed, anemic rock riffs. I can’t say anything about rap because it’s not that I like it or dislike it. I’m just ignorant of the genre. I can understand the political significance of it, but it’s past me. It came up too fast.
But I don’t think you’re ever going to get away from a really interesting melody and a great four on the floor, lean on the one, as part of human nature. I don’t think that sort of thing can go away. I hope not. As soon as I get back from my March tour, then I’ll go back in the studio and start my eighth album. And I’m going to go in with a couple of friends of mine that I’ve met through Dave and people on my own, and we’re going to put together a nice, little, raw, raw … I don’t know how I say it. Who’s doing stuff like that? Jack White, you know. Kind of that Austin thing. I heard some young bands there, and I can get really excited over hearing a clean, little combo. It gets me turned on. It makes me think there’s hope for rock and roll. Boy, I sure hope so. I do love it so.
You took about three decades off from releasing music while you pursued acting. Were you writing and playing music during this time?
Sure, absolutely. I was always playing. Those records you hear that came out — The 80’s, Creed Bratton, Chasin’ the Ball, those first few albums that came out that I worked on with Henry Lewy, Joni Mitchell’s producer. I had several bands. Nobody heard about it. I wasn’t out promoting, but I was still playing local clubs and recording, but I had to make a living. And I couldn’t make a living by music. Now, I can … Thank god for The Office. It put me back in the public eye. But all that time I was working in film to stay alive, and then 25 or 30 years later The Office comes along, and it’s this whole new paradigm shift, isn’t it?
Obviously, you’re Creed Bratton, and the name of your character in The Office is also Creed Bratton. Are there similarities between the two? How much of you went into that character? Did you have any input on where the character would go, because it got really dark.
[Laughs] …which I loved. In a nutshell, I was working on the show Bernie Mac, and the director Ken Kwapis directed an episode, and he was a big Grass Roots fan, and we started talking. And I found out that he was going on to do The Office. Now, I was a big fan of the Ricky Gervais show. So, I lobbied through Ken to get on that show. I wanted to find a way to work on the show because my gut said, “Do it, do it, do it. Take a chance.” I left Bernie Mac just to go and sit at a desk. But they liked me and told me they’d try to work me into the mix. Well, right away I went out and shot an hour’s worth of stuff based loosely on what I thought Creed would’ve done if he had continued on doing drugs, and it got really insane. So, I basically really amped up. I’m a lot calmer in real life, a lot more thoughtful.
So, they took the character that I’d given them and gave me a shot at the Halloween episode with Steve Carell. We did six pages of dialogue in one day. And that was it. I pulled it off, luckily, and got on the show. And every once in a while, they’d let me do music on the show. You saw on the show that I had a guitar at my desk behind my character. Only in deleted scenes would you see me playing with a band or talking about The Grass Roots days until the finale where it came out in prime time that I was actually in that band. But all that time, it was part of the B story. They were going to do it a lot, but it just didn’t seem to work out. But it worked out great in the long run, of course. It kept that mystique going.
So, you were able to embellish the character, too.
Once I gave them what I had and they knew I could do the stuff, they took it from there. I don’t know if I would’ve come upon that I was killing people and sticking them in the trunk of my car, but the stuff that they came up with was so funny. I laughed as hard as anybody at the table reads. I just loved the writers so much.
They were such great jokes. One of my favorite bits was when you walked in while they were acting out the murder mystery, and you just walk right back out the door.
I was doing a radio interview, and they referred to my character as “The Sniper.” I said, “What?” It’s a radio term for someone who comes in and goes zap, bam, and kills with one shot. And I said, “Yeah, that’s kinda like the Creed character.” He gets one good shot. It’s liable that it’s the writing. It’s not like they’re playing hardball. They throw me this beach ball, and I got a bat to knock this thing out of the park. It’s pretty easy if you had writers like you had on The Office.
And the show gets so crazy in the later seasons that it really feeds into the Creed mythos.
Oh, yeah. I had some fun stuff toward the end.
Do you ever get bothered by, even as a performer onstage, fans wanting to see the other Creed when they come out to see you?
No, no, no. I know there are some people who think that actors who come on to talk about music when others want to talk about the movie they did get all miffed out. Nuh-huh. Nuh-huh. Boy, I wouldn’t be getting to sing my songs for people now if it wasn’t for that show. So, I am very, very indebted and thankful for Greg Daniels and all those people, Ken Kwapis, for giving me that break. And I tell people right away, “I’ll do some funny stuff. I’ll talk about The Office in between because I know that’s why you’re here, but some of these songs are going to be downers.” I’m a far more serious person than that character would ever lead you to believe I would be. But you’ll hear that in this album. This is definitely the closest to who I am — these songs. I’m really proud of this album.
How did you come to sing “All the Faces” in the show’s finale?
PA comes to my trailer and says that Greg Daniels wants to talk with me. He’s back for the last season because he left to do Parks and Recreation. He talked to all the cast and asked their input on how they thought their characters should leave the show. And I thought, “Wow, this is amazing.” It’s not the typical show where they tell you to stand over there and do what they say. So, I told them that I had written a song and wrote it right after I left The Grass Roots; I was sitting there in front of the fire, and my wife was getting my dinner ready, and I was playing guitar, and my baby was in her bassinet. And I heard my wife say, “That’s a beautiful song. Who wrote it?” And I said, “I think I just did.” So, I told them the story, sang the song for him, and saw that he enjoyed it.
A couple months later, we were sitting at the table read. He had asked me how I thought the song should work, and I had told him that I thought it should be at Poor Richard’s bar on a small stage setup with maybe a couple people, and everyone walks in from the show to get a drink, and we see their faces while I’m singing this song. So, then, at the table read the script says, “Creed sings his song ‘All the Faces’.” I have to tell you I was moved. I got emotional. What a gift to give me. And, by the way, when I play that song, you can hear a pin drop. And people get very, very personal with it. And that always moves them and moves me. I still get that reaction to that song. It really hit a heart string, didn’t it?
It was overwhelming to think everything had finally come to an end.
Or did it? [Laughs] I think they should probably let it go, but, of course, if they asked me to go back and work with those people again … come on! I loved my time there. I would definitely do it. It would be so much fun.
Have you heard anything about the reboot?
So far nobody has talked to any of the actors yet. Greg sent me an email because I inquired, but they’re still just talking about it. I don’t know what to say other than I don’t know.
Well, we know that Creed got picked up by the authorities in the end. What do you think he’s been doing for the last five years? Where would you take the character at this point?
I think he’d right away get out of jail and be out in Wilkes-Barre, and Wilkes-Barre calls back to the Scranton jail and says, “We got him here.” And the Scranton jail says, “We don’t want him.” And I just con my way out of it, you know. I’d probably end up running arms, selling munitions to both sides of a war — something like that, blatantly out in front of everybody. Or developing a new designer drug. Just scammin’. And then he’d have to run from that, so he’d go back and hide at The Office again … under an assumed name.
Who do you think would be the ideal boss this time around?
Oh, come on. It’s gotta be Steve Carell, but he won’t do it. His career is going too well. It was hard. We had some amazing people: Idris Elba, James Spader, Kathy Bates. But, still, as good as all those people are in their own way, that Michael Scott character, man, you can’t beat him. That was the synergy, the glue that kept all that stuff together. And it was still funny because we had some great actors: John [Krasinski] and Jenna [Fisher] and Rainn [Wilson] and Ed [Helms]. My god, what a cast we had.
Do you stay in touch with anyone?
Well, everyone’s off doing stuff. For a while, Ed and I would get together and play music. He played on my Bounce Back album on two tracks. I see Rainn. I get together with Rainn. I just did a charity show. They had asked me to play a show in LA, which I hardly do, but I thought it was a good chance to do something for Rainn’s LIDÈ Haiti Foundation; they help young women in Haiti to get on their feet. So, I called him and said I got a chance to do the show. Why don’t we do it and donate it all to charity? I’ll do my show, and you guys can come in and do some stuff with me. So Angela, Kate, Craig Robinson, and Rainn all showed up. Rainn was the MC, and he and I did The Office theme. He played drums, and I played guitar a la The White Stripes.
I was playing this one song, “Rubber Tree”, and I hear this “peep peep.” I turn around and people are laughing, and Angela Kinsey is sitting behind me with this little Leprechaun-y smile on her face, just hitting this one off-note and grinning at me. It was so good. Nobody told her to do that. I started laughing. I could barely get through the song. She’s still a scene-stealer. Probably getting even.
Your new film, The Sisters Brothers, is a western and different from something like The Office. What about it appealed to you?
It’s not a very big part, by the way. Just two scenes — one with Joaquin Phoenix and one with John C. Reilly. But the reason I did it was because I worked on this movie that went to Sundance a few years ago, and it was called Terri … with John C. Reilly and Jacob Wysocki. And my friend Azazel Jacobs directed it. Patrick Dewitt, another friend of mine, who wrote Terri, he had written this book, which he gave me, The Sisters Brothers, and I read it. The character in there, this prospector, when the two Sisters brothers come to his camp, he makes them coffee, but he makes it out of dirt. He’s crazy, a lunatic.
So, I called up John and Allison, his wife and producer, and said if you make the movie, I need to play this character. So, years later, when it got made, I got a-hold of them again, and they said they weren’t going to do that character, but there were a couple others. So, I caught up with the casting director, Mathilde Snodgrass, in Paris, and she gave me the two other characters. And the director, Jacques Audiard, liked what I did, and he eventually found something for me to do. And by that time, I’d spent so much time invested in this project that, no matter what it was, I was going to fly over there. And I used it as an excuse to take a month vacation and run around Europe.
But doing a western with the gun and the boots and the whole thing … and I was out in this city in the middle of nowhere that they built, this western town, I should say, and you walk around town at night and go into these places, and you really feel like you’re in the 1850s. You really do. It’s crazy and wonderful.
Do you get the same sort of reward out of both acting and playing music?
I’ve been asked that before, and it’s basically the question of why didn’t I just pick one or the other. Am I spreading myself out to thin? I was a drama major in college. And music had always been something I just did. So, I always loved acting, and I started originally because I stuttered so badly. It was part of my therapy to get up and speak in front of people, and I found I was actually pretty good at it.
To answer your question, when you act, you are taking the writer’s lines and delivering them, hopefully, artfully into the camera and making them believable and eliciting an intellectually positive or negative response, depending on whatever the character is doing. So, in music the same thing except these are songs that I write. I have the stories, and I think I know what they’re about, sometimes not until much later. And I’m doing the same thing — singing the lines to the audience and making them as believable and honest as I can and trying to get a reaction from them. But I believe, in essence, it’s a very similar process. It’s words evoking a reaction in a positive or negative manner.
What’s the craziest reaction you’ve ever gotten onstage?
I had this moment one time in music where the whites of the audience’s eyes all fluttered upward, and they all passed out. I had said something just so profound, and they were all given smelling salts afterwards.
I had to walk off the stage for 15 minutes while the nurses revived the crowd. I never played that song again.
What song was it?
[Pauses and eventually breaks into laughter] Oh, I got you good. That was good. Make sure you write down that you were going for it.