This interview is posted the day after Postmodern Jukebox was a surprise guest at Madison Square Garden, performing for an event that featured Google’s Brandcast. Our mutual buddy Puddles Pity Party also made an appearance.
We’d like to start with your background. Can you tell us how you got into this genre? Did this start in high school?
I can go even further back. Like most kids I took piano lessons when I was young. My parents had me take classical lessons. I wasn’t too motivated at the time. It wasn’t until I stopped taking lessons at 12 I heard “Rhapsody In Blue” by George Gershwin. I just liked the sound. I didn’t know what genre it was. There were elements of jazz and ragtime but I didn’t know what any of that stuff was called. I just knew I wanted to learn how to play that type of music.
I started essentially teaching myself. I’d go to the library … get out cassette tapes and CDs of old ragtime artists, sit by the piano and try to mimic them. Those were my formative years in a way. It was learning by ear and being self-taught.
Then, through high school, I would play gigs. You can imagine not too many of my peers were into ragtime or jazz. I learned to split the difference by taking songs my friends liked, like a Weezer song, and turning them into ragtime. I used to do a medley of “Stairway to Heaven” and “Freebird” and those classic rock songs as ragtime.
So I’ve been doing that genre-shifting thing for pretty far back.
Did Postmodern Jukebox grow out of that?
Yeah, well, you know, sometimes it takes 10 years or so to really define something. I think I had kernels of ideas that songs can be in any genre. You can take source material and turn it into anything. I always thought it would be fun to have an alternate universe. Imagine we’re back in time and all these songs were from that era? What would they sound like?
I moved to New York City in 2004 and I was trying to be a jazz pianist essentially. I don’t think I have to fill you in on the glamorous life of a jazz pianist. There weren’t a lot of options. Cocktail hours, playing at restaurants, things like that. I didn’t have any outlet for doing creative reinterpretations.
When I learned about YouTube in 2009 and saw a lot of people were putting a lot of interesting projects there, I recorded myself doing a medley of about 10 classic ’80s songs, like Journey, Bon Jovi and Men At Work. I put it online and within a couple days it had 60,000 views.
It had gone “viral” but I didn’t really know what that meant. I didn’t know what the significance was, but [it gave] me the feedback that, finally, there was an audience for these kinds of experiments.
That became a five-year project, beyond YouTube. Trying different things, seeing what works, seeing what people didn’t care for, and trying to perfect that. Postmodern Jukebox is the “finished product” of that.
Can you talk a bit about “Sleep No More”?
I’m the musical director of the show. It’s a really awesome show at Manderley Bar in New York. It’s immersive theatre [where] you basically walk into the set, into the scene. You can explore, without getting too much into that. It’s like getting into another world.
My job is to put together acts, working with singers, putting together sets that kind of fuse old and new. It’s set in 1939 so we have a lot of great jazz.
That actually predates Postmodern Jukebox, really.
I also did a lot of the music in Bioshock Infinite.
What’s the setup for your videos?
A lot of it was equipment I accumulated over time. In college I started getting into recording music. I invested over the years. I have a relatively simple setup. We get together, I go over the arrangement with everybody, and we just figure out what we’re going to do. Then I turn on the camera, which is on a tripod, and I have all the instruments miked. We record the audio and the video at the same. It’s a really easy setup.
But you have a good video camera.
I guess. Nothing really extraordinarily fancy. It seems to come out good. I’m pleasantly surprised by the quality.
Do you naturally follow modern music or do you feel obligated to pay attention?
I guess it’s a little of both. I definitely went through a period of time when I was completely ignorant of popular music. I listened to jazz and a few other things, and I believed stuff on the radio was too simplistic or something like that. …
But there are interesting things in the pop world. It’s interesting to see how trends change. It’s very interesting how it reflects the culture of the time. Even basic things. When I hear the bass line in a Kesha song it sounds like old Super Mario music. You can trace links.
When I try to listen to pop music – which I guess is part of my regimen, to see what’s on the radio, what’s on the charts – I listen with an open mind and a critical ear to hear how to best interpret the songs. I had to go through a lot of songs before having Puddles sing “Royals,” for instance.
I had to think, which [song] makes the most sense? Which one can I render in a way that will fit his voice well, and where the lyrics would still make sense, and be given new life?
It’s been an interesting process. I don’t think there are a lot of people who listen to pop music in that sense. It’s interesting that I know all the songs on the radio now.
I assume that people, when they first see [Post Modern Jukebox], think that it’s a joke, that we’re making fun of pop music, but that’s not the case. I’m here to do the project as I intended it, which is to take songs that are of today and reimagine them in different eras.
Over here at Pollstar, we tend to have to separate ourselves from music. The question isn’t, “Do I like this?” It’s “Will people like this?” You have to dig through a lot of layers to even figure out if you like it yourself.
Yes. It raises a lot of interesting questions and makes you examine what your musical taste is, and if there is any basis for good or bad taste.
Speaking of Puddles, after interviewing his “wingman,” Puddles sent Pollstar a ham, packed in dry ice. We had it for our St. Patrick’s Day potluck.
That’s very nice of Puddles.
Are you the sole composer of all of these arrangements?
In any good project you want to have input from everybody. There are going to be people who contribute good ideas. I handle the vocals and arrangement, and everything like that, but sometimes people will suggest a song and I’ll check it out. Even the fans will suggest some really good ideas. It’s not uncommon for us to take a fan’s idea and do it.
Also, the singers have a lot of good ideas. Robyn Adele Anderson, for instance, came up with the melody for “Thrift Shop.” We worked together and she worked out a melody to put the rap into the ragtime melody I put behind it.
I get inspiration from other people. These awesome musicians inspire me to take the arrangements in different directions.
What came first: the idea of touring, or your agent, Craig Bruck from ICM?
Actually, Craig suggested touring. We were bouncing around a lot of ideas. The goal is to build up a big live show, something that’s essentially that alternate universe I’ve been talking about.
Most people [who tour after making a name of themselves on Youtube] had never done much live performance, much less touring, so they go from their bedroom to venues. It’s a little opposite for us because we had all played live. That was our world. I worked as a jazz pianist, worked with different groups, did shows all over and things like that.
We were trying to figure out the best way to do this. At the time we were thinking, well, next year will be the year of touring. In the meantime … we get hired to do fancy corporate events and things like that.
But Craig suggested, “Well, why don’t we try a short, experimental run of maybe, like, four shows? We’ll keep it close by so it’s not expensive. Cities like New York, Boston, D.C.”
We tried a few of these dates, just dipping our toes in, and everything was selling like crazy. We realized that the time was now. We had that kind of momentum where we can go on the road. That turned into 24 dates in North America and Europe. The month of June is going to be crazy. We’ll be hitting the ground running.
We’re so excited because this was the goal of the project, to make this into a live show. We’re live show performers, and I think that’s why a lot of people enjoy what we do on YouTube. We do everything in one take and it’s essentially like watching a live performance.
But who’s “us”? You have some guest stars, plenty of singers …
Absolutely! And that’s all the fun things about it. The thing about a music collective is you can bring this giant posse with you. We’re going on the road with 11 performers and we’ll have special guests, too, at different shows. It’s essentially taking my YouTube channel and making it into a full-fledged production.
So obviously there’s demand in Europe?
Yeah! It’s been unreal. You see YouTube comments, the usual things, but … you don’t have any sense of how this will sell. I assumed that America would be our big market – it’s American pop radio and such – so I didn’t realize the European demand would be that high. We’re super excited about that. It’s going to be really cool.
And it will give us an opportunity to try things out and fine tune the show. The goal is to create a modern musical variety show, like if you took Lawrence Welk and updated it and made it about pop culture and a little hipper.
There are no West Coast dates. We’re assuming those will be coming soon.
When we get back from Europe we’ll take a little time to regroup but then we’re pushing to do a tour all through North America in the fall, and then probably back to Europe. We want to get everywhere.
What will happen to your projects in New York?
Sleep No More will obviously continue to run. I’m still going to have a hand in things because it’s a project I believe in and it’s an awesome show. Also, Postmodern Jukebox is just one of my projects. It’s the one that’s taking off but most people who start bands have other ideas, too. I think touring will keep us busy but I always leave the door open for other projects to come out.
Is this the first time you’ve been on a tour of this size?
Absolutely. It’s daunting but it’s exciting. … I’ve done shows all over and been in a lot of venues, but this is my first official tour.
And you’ll get to meet the fans that leave the comments. At least the nice comments, anyway.
I know, right?
“Hey, I’m that troll. I thought I’d come to the show anyway and say you suck.”
(laughs) Hey, if they’re buying a ticket, more power to them! It’s funny, being on YouTube. It’s exciting to see people in person. When I get recognized, it’s crazy. I never think that’s in the realm of possibility. All I see are comments and I see numbers. Up until now I haven’t had face-to-face contact with fans.
Anything else you want to tell fans?
We’re doing videos every Tuesday and just because we’re on tour doesn’t mean we’re going to abandon that. We’ll be shooting videos, even if it’s in the tour bus.
Upcoming dates for Postmodern Jukebox:
June 2 – Toronto, Ontario, Great Hall On Queen Street
June 3 – Montreal, Quebec, Le Cabaret Du Mile End
June 4 – Boston, Mass., Brighton Music Hall
June 5 – New Haven, Conn., Toad’s Place
June 6 – Providence, R.I., Met Cafe
June 9 – New York, N.Y., HighLine Ballroom
June 10 – Washington, D.C., The Hamilton
June 13 – Dublin, Ireland, Whelans
June 14 – Manchester, United Kingdom, Ruby Lounge
June 15 – Glasgow, United Kingdom, ABC1
June 16 – Birmingham, United Kingdom, The Institute
June 17 – London, United Kingdom, Dingwalls
June 18 – Borgerhout, Belgium, De Roma
June 19 – Paris, France, Le Divan du Monde
June 20 – Amsterdam, Netherlands, Sugar Factory
June 21 – Copenhagen, Denmark, DR Concert House
June 22 – Hamburg, Germany, Uebel & Gefährlich
June 23 – Cologne, Germany, Luxor
June 24 – Berlin, Germany, Imperial Club
June 25 – Prague, Czech Republic, Lucerna Music Bar
June 26 – Milan, Italy, Magazzini Generali
June 29 – Barcelona, Spain, Bikini
For more information please visit PostmodernJukebox.com.