The popular phrase may be “everything old is new again,” but for Scott Bradlee, it might read “everything new is old again.”
That essentially is what he does as the founder and lead arranger in Scott Bradlee’s Postmodern Jukebox, coming to the Englert Theatre in Iowa City on Sunday (2/11).
Bradlee created the ensemble with the idea of taking modern pop hits and playing them in ragtime, vintage jazz and other retro musical styles. It’s based on an idea stemming from his teens.
“When I was in high school, I was getting into really like early jazz, stuff like ragtime and New Orleans music and things like that,” he said in a recent phone interview. “You can imagine that most of my peers weren’t really into that kind of stuff. ... They didn’t play a whole lot of ragtime at school dances back then. So I wanted to be able to share this stuff with my friends, and one thing I wound up doing since I had pretty good ears — I taught myself a lot by ear — I would just pick out pop songs that they liked and turned them into ragtime or jazz and stuff. And it was really fun for my friends because they were like ‘Wait, I recognize this song. How do I know this song?’”
But making a career out of re-imagining today’s pop hits in pre-rock ’n’ roll form wasn’t exactly something Bradlee envisioned. Instead, he planned to pursue a more traditional musical career.
“I didn’t really think much of it because then I went to school and I was trying to become a jazz pianist in New York City,” he said. “I thought that was the path I had to take. It’s like OK, you study jazz and then you go and play jazz clubs and you do jazz albums and everything.”
It turned out to be a lot harder and less satisfying than he had hoped. Most of his gigs ended up being in restaurants and bars where he was little more than background music for patrons. And as he grew more frustrated with this life as a working musician, that old hobby of reinventing pop songs came back into the picture.
He decided to do a video of a song and post it on YouTube.
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“I didn’t know too much about YouTube,” Bradlee said. “I thought it was more for people who played music for a hobby or something like that. There weren’t too many professionals on there, so I kind of avoided it unfairly for a little while. But at the time, I was just over what I was doing in jazz, and playing the same depressing restaurant scene or cocktail hours. It was like I had nothing to lose. So I thought it might be an interesting way to get seen by other people.”
He knew a lot of musicians were having some success with “fun projects” on the video-sharing website.
So Bradlee crafted a medley of 1980s hits in ragtime piano style and filmed a performance and posted it on YouTube. Noted British author/comic book writer Neil Gaiman saw it, tweeted about it, and soon the clip went viral.
“From there, I just thought ‘Well, there’s something to this that’s interesting people.’ So I’m going to keep exploring this,” Bradlee said.
He continued to make and post his videos, then started growing the cast of singers and musicians he would bring in to perform the songs. They were filmed in his apartment, with no special sets or other visual accouterments. The emphasis was squarely on the songs and the people performing them. The approach was quick and allowed Bradlee to get into the routine of posting a new video almost every week.
He hit pay dirt again in 2012 with “A Motown Tribute to Nickelback,” which recast that group’s grungy hard rock hits into 1960s Motown, and then in 2013 scored huge viral hits with a 1930s jazz rendition of Macklemore’s “Thrift Ship”; a ’50s doo-wop take on the Miley Cyrus tune “We Can’t Stop”; and then a torchy jazz version of Lorde’s “Royals,” sung by Mike Geier, 6-foot-8-inch man dressed as a clown, who performs under the name Puddles and fronts his own act, Puddles Pity Party.
“That was a productive year,” Bradlee said. “That kind of planted all of the seeds where people started to learn about what we were doing and there became more and more interest around it. So in 2014, we started touring. During this whole time, I’m meeting more and more people and more and more performances for this project.”
Scott Bradlee’s Postmodern Jukebox has gained momentum. Each year, PMJ’s touring business has grown markedly, and Bradlee has built a rotating cast of more than 50 singers — including “American Idol” alums Haley Reinhart and Casey Abrams — and musicians who now form two units that allow for simultaneous tours in the United States and abroad. They will finish 2017 having played some 300 shows, with stops at the Sydney Opera House in Australia and Red Rocks Amphitheatre near Denver.
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“It’s been such an awesome experience,” Bradlee said. “It’s been a wild ride, and it’s been awesome to see how much support there is from fans that are hungry for this kind of music — for just the idea of real musicians playing real music.”
In addition to touring and doing videos, Bradlee has compiled songs onto more than a dozen self-released albums and EPs. And this year, he’s expanded the Postmodern Jukebox platform by signing a deal with Concord Records. That label recently released a best-of album, “The Essentials,” and has followed with “The New Classics,” a live CD/DVD filmed at the Smith Center in Las Vegas that coincided with the airing of a PBS special that essentially is the DVD.
The Smith Center concert was a memorable experience for Bradlee and his musical cast.
“My goal with it was just really to show the variety of a PMJ concert, how many different performers there are and how many different styles are represented,” Bradlee said. “I think we did a really good job just communicating all of that stuff. It was just a great show.”
This winter’s U.S. tour is one of the most extensive outings yet for the ensemble. Bradlee doesn’t reveal many details about which singers and musicians are on each tour, which allows the cast to change as needed over the course of a tour.
“We always play to the singers’ strengths and the things that they do best, so depending on which singers we have on the tour, that will change the set list,” he said.
“We always try to do a mix of stuff that is very familiar to people,” he said. “We have a few songs that PMJ fans will recognize from a video. (We) give it a new treatment so there’s something for the longtime fan, too.”
WHAT: Scott Bradlee’s Postmodern Jukebox
WHERE: Englert Theatre, 221 E. Washington St., Iowa City
WHEN: 7 p.m. Sunday (2/11)
TICKETS: Getting scarce; $46.50, Englert Box Office, (319) 688-2653 or Englert.org
ARTIST’S WEBSITE: Postmodernjukebox.com/