For some artists, YouTube is a springboard or stepping-stone to the traditional music business path, a means of exposure good for securing some kind of record or management deal. For others, YouTube is the medium. One such troupe is Postmodern Jukebox, whose vintage renditions of such well-known pop tunes as Miley Cyrus’s “We Can’t Stop” and Lorde’s “Royals” have racked up almost 300 million YouTube views and earned them more than a million subscribers.
“By design, we don’t need a label. The YouTube platform fits what we do,” says Postmodern Jukebox’s founder, pianist and singer Scott Bradlee. “It came from live performance and then we went to YouTube. A record label wouldn’t have taken a chance on us five years ago,” he scoffs. “We cut a new song every week. We’re quite prolific. We did five albums last year. With the industry changing into this very different entity, we have a place. The traditional music business would have been difficult for us to break into — we’re not an album format group.”
Postmodern Jukebox started a few years ago when Bradlee, a New Jersey native, moved to New York City after attending the University of Hartford, where he had switched from music to management in hopes of covering the bases of his future career. He was living in Queens and playing in restaurants, adding a jazz piano backdrop to dinner. “I was background music, really,” he recalls. “I was playing to a room full of people, but I never felt they were present with me. It’s strange that I had to go to the Internet to have that.”
Bradlee is speaking from Los Angeles where the band’s career crucial videos are shot every Thursday. That schedule might see interruption when the group’s worldwide tour, which began this month and brings them to the St. George Theatre on Staten Island this week, runs into 2016 and takes them to Europe and beyond.
“I’ve always been an old soul when it came to music,” explains Bradlee of his musical path. “When I was young, my friends would be listening to hip-hop or grunge. I always liked ragtime, old jazz, and soul from the Sixties. I wanted to be involved in this subculture and I fixated on this alternate universe where all these modern pop songs were alive in a different era. I filmed the first video in 2009, just me on the piano. It was an Eighties pop song medley done as ragtime. It went viral. I didn’t understand what that meant, but I saw that what I’d done had worked.”
That initial impact was helped along after graphic novelist and author Neil Gaiman tweeted out the first video to “his millions of followers,” says Bradlee, who had met Gaiman’s wife, fellow pianist and singer Amanda Palmer, via Manhattan’s immersive theater experience, Sleep No More.
Emboldened by the reaction, Bradlee began seeking musicians and soon found an able cast, many of whom he’d gotten to know just from playing around on New York’s jazz circuit. Postmodern Jukebox now boasts a revolving crew of around 40 players, an amount that is whittled down to around a dozen to tour, including “multiple singers and a tap dancer.” “New York City is a place where there’s much more diversity in music communities. There’s a whole scene of vintage jazz musicians with really talented performers.”
As for that band moniker, Bradlee says Postmodern Jukebox was a throwaway name he picked without thinking about it: “I thought it was pretentious at first, but it does seem to describe the fusion and it is a jukebox, not just a band. It’s a self-perpetuating universe of new songs done in an old style. That’s postmodern.”
When it comes to choosing which songs to cover, Bradlee goes for hits that are familiar to most people, but there are melodic elements he looks for. “It’s usually something that I can hear sounds like it could be from other eras, like ‘My Heart Will Go On,'” he says of the Celine Dion hit. “We did it as a Fifties ballad and it totally sounded like something Jackie Wilson would have done.”
Postmodern Jukebox’s cast includes onetime American Idol contestant Haley Reinhart, whose re-imagining of Britney Spears’s “Oops!…I Did It Again” channels Marilyn Monroe in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes or Some Like It Hot. “Haley’s voice is like Betty Boop crossed with Janis Joplin. That song has a kind of Betty Boop coquettish thing,” Bradlee points out. Apparently, there are no genres Bradlee won’t touch. Even metal and hard rock hold possibility. “We did Guns N’ Roses’ ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine’ and it’s one of my favorites. It’s only really hard if a song is already obviously retro-feeling, because then we’re not saying something new with it.”
Many of Postmodern Jukebox’s fans get in the spirit of things and dress up in their favorite period outfits for their performances. “Our audience looks so good it’s hard to tell who is performing and who is the viewer. It is escapism: it’s a New Year’s Eve party set in the Golden Age of Hollywood with the Rat Pack. There is an element of nostalgia to it. Our fans are nostalgic for a time they didn’t grow up in.”
Postmodern Jukebox plays November 14 at the St. George Theatre, Staten Island.