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The Popdose Interview: Creed Bratton

For people whose pop culture radar is tuned more to TV than music, Creed Bratton probably first came to their attention as part of the ensemble of NBC’s The Office, where he played a character who shared his name and some, if not necessarily all, of his attributes…like, for instance, the fact that he spent a good chunk of the ‘60s as a member of the band The Grass Roots. Although he’s done a fair amount of acting over the course of the past 30+ years, Bratton has never given up music, and it’s a happy coincidence —and, yes, he swears it really is a coincidence—that he released a new album, Tell Me About It, just as The Office closed up shop. Bratton chatted with Popdose about the autobiographical and psychedelic nature of his album, his flirtation with certain pharmaceuticals, the end of his long-running series, and his feelings on seeing the adventures of the fictional Creed Bratton continue. 

The Office

Popdose: This is going to be a strange summer for you: it’s been the better part of a decade since you haven’t had to endure attending a Television Critics Association press tour.

Creed Bratton: [Laughs.] No, c’mon, man, that was a life-changing thing, The Office. Such an amazing experience. It was great.

It’s also great that you’ve got this album coming out just as the series has gone off the air, while your profile’s still riding pretty high.

Yeah, it’s finally out! Did you get a chance to listen to it?

I did, yeah. It’s a lot of fun.

Good! Yeah, I’m really, really quite proud of it. The band and I, we did some really good work, I think. And my producer, Dave Way, did the mastering and made it sound so good.

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Given that the album is described as “an audio biography about LSD, unemployment, and third acts,” the material’s obviously drawn from throughout your entire life. What made you decide to release this now?

Well, I’ll tell you, it really had nothing to do with the end of The Office, because when we started the album, we still didn’t even know for sure that it was going to be the last season of The Office. Y’know, they’d talked about it, but then there was also talk about continuing with some of us. I knew that Ed (Helms) wasn’t gonna come, Rainn (Wilson) was moving on, and John (Krasinski) and Jenna (Fischer), I believe. But the rest of us, y’know, we might’ve stayed around. But that’s not what happened. Anyway, the point is…this is my sixth solo album. It took me quite awhile to get started again musically after I left the Grass Roots, ‘cause I’d been studying acts and doing a lot of little projects for years. But I’m a writer, so I can’t stop writing! [Laughs.]

A few years ago, I did an album (Creed Bratton). Right after I got into The Office. I did it in Nashville. And then in 2010 I did the Bounce Back album here in L.A., at the WayStation, with basically the same band that’s on this one. And then it just came up that I started writing these songs, and I had all these songs together, and I thought, “Wow, these are even better songs than the last album!” And I was pleased with those! [Laughs.] So Dave said, “You know, this is, like, telling your life story, in a way. If you listen to it closely, it’s kind of the ups and downs of your career.” And he put in the right sequence, and I went, “Yeah, it’s absolutely true!” So we went from there to actually seeing it as kind of a psychedelic autobiography, where it just tells the story of how it was during the Grass Roots, the really down and depressing period of unemployment lines and struggling, and then, of course, the up story again with The Office. Some people might not understand it or get it, but if anybody wants to pay any attention at all, they can actually hear the thread of the story.

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In regards to the Grass Roots, the track name that’ll instantly catch the eye of music fans is “P.F. Sloan.”

Oh, sure, yeah! P.F. Sloan, who, by the way, I’ve played with all through the years. We do shows together, even if you haven’t known it. A lot of people think he’s dead. [Laughs.] But he’s still out there, writing some great stuff!

How did you and he first cross paths?

In the Grass Roots. He was our producer.

Sure, I just didn’t know if you’d met him prior to that or not.

No, I hadn’t. When he came into the studio, that’s when I met him. He’s a lot like me. He’s a whacked-out artist, too. [Laughs.] And when we met, we really hit it off.

Some people already wondered if there was any difference between Creed Batton on The Office and the real Creed Batton. Whose idea was it to tie the two even closer together by making your character on The Office a former member of the Grass Roots as well?

Let’s see… Well, first of all, you’ve met me before, so you know it’s an act. But, yeah, I know people get that confused, and I’ll be going through Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods shopping for my groceries, and I’ll see people with a big smile go, “Oh, hi,” and then they’ll move their child to the other side of the basket. [Laughs.] It’s not purposeful. It’s just prevention. Safety. Keeping the kid away from getting the Creed virus! But, no, people find out pretty quickly that I’m just an actor. But I think it’s to the credit of our writers and to our cast that we get typecast so much as those characters. It means that we did our job well.

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How did you feel about the way the series wrapped up? You certainly scored some great visual gags as well as a rather touching musical moment.

Yeah, the visual gags were really great. And I liked that they finally, besides in deleted scenes, actually put in there that I had been with the Grass Roots. That was a very nice gesture on Greg Daniels’ part. And, of course, he had brought the actors into the writers’ room and said to us all, “Okay, how do you want to leave the show? This is going to be it, you all know your arcs and what you’ve done, so how do you want to go out?” And I brought my guitar to the writers’ room and I played them that song, “All the Faces.” And I said, “I wrote this before my daughter was even born, over 43 years ago, but I think it should be sung at the end, because he’s looking around at the faces of all of his friends.”

So I started playing this song, and people were crying. They were really moved. And Greg loved the song. He was just so pleased with it. So they actually put it in the script! I didn’t know it until the table read…and I didn’t even have a guitar with me! I had to get the prop person to get a guitar for me! So I started singing this song, and we had all the NBC brass there, and people started crying, and…at that moment, I knew that, although it might not be a funny one, I was definitely going to make a mark on the finale no matter what. And I couldn’t be happier at how it ended for my character.

Was there ever any talk of a Creed spinoff?

There’s always been talk. There’s still talk about that. But I think because he was such a mysterious character…well, they didn’t get enough of ‘em, because as weird as he was, people always wanted more. [Laughs.] But they were scared of giving people too much of him, because it would take away that mystery about him. And obviously, as an actor, I wanted to do more. I was capable of doing more. A bit ago, when I was trying to find the Kings game the other day, I came across an episode on TBS, the “Survivorman” episode, and I saw the scene with Jon Krasinski and I. He and I have talked about this before, but he and I had such a great chemistry. Practically a David Mamet thing. It was so funny, and I wanted to do more of that stuff. But you can’t argue about how it played out. It was absolutely great, so I have no complaints at all. Yeah, it’s still open for me  to go on, but I’m not going to just jump into a Creed spinoff unless the writing’s there. That’s my Catch-22, though: how are you gonna find a show with writers as good as The Office? We had the best. So it’s gonna be very, very difficult to find something that I’m gonna be able to throw myself into wholeheartedly.

The video for “Move to Win” is making the online rounds.

Yeah! Yeah, it’s getting well-received. You saw it…?

Sure did. I even Tweeted it out.

Great! Yeah, it’s really, really funny.

Would you say that song is people’s best way to find their way into the album?

Oh, no, no. Gosh, no. I think…well, because it’s a psychedelic album, I think it’s “Faded Spats,” which is my free download. That’s why we have it as my free download. It’s telling the story of a boy and girl taking their first acid trip at this party and wondering what it’s gonna bring out of ‘em. Are they gonna see bad things, or is it going to open up to be light and creativity? I wrote that with Vance DeGeneres, by the way. Ellen’s brother. But I think that song’s a good one. Or “Unemployment Line.” Even though it’s not a poppy song, I think it’s a very profound song. And “Chemical Wings” is pretty indicative of the psychedelia of that album, too.

As far as psychedelics go, what was your experience with LSD? It sounds as though you have at least some, anyway.

Well, yeah, but I never took drug to escape. I know some people take drugs to escape, but I took drugs because I was an experimenter. And an artist. And I was always trying to go to the other side of that veil and get information, like all writers have done through the millennia. To get some insights on how the whole thing works, if there’s any way to know how it works, and write about it. And some writers go there and don’t come back. Like my character on The Office. [Laughs.] He didn’t come back all the way. So that’s the deal with him. But I did.

So did you just suddenly decide, “Well, that’s enough for me”?

Well, I did in the fact that I…I didn’t really have a problem. Like, when I was working, it was never any problem. It was just something that you had to do in the ‘60s. It was part of the lifestyle. If you weren’t doing that stuff, you weren’t legit. You were the Carpenters. You were Frankie Avalon. You were a milquetoast. You couldn’t be a rocker without doing that stuff! You had to participate, y’know? I started seeing these people coming out of rehab, and I thought, “C’mon, don’t whine about it! Do your drugs, get it over with it, and then stop.” It’s like parents telling their kids, “Eat your vegetables!” Take your drugs! “Oh, all right, if they’re good for me, I will…” So I did. And then after awhile, one day I just said, “Y’know what? I don’t think this is adding anything to my life.” This was years ago. But it wasn’t a big deal. I basically just stopped. And, by the way, the songwriting got so much better. You think you need to go do that for the songwriting and the playing and stuff, but it’s not true at all. It’s not true, kids! [Laughs.]

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As far as your time with the Grass Roots goes…well, Wikipedia is notoriously inconsistent with its accuracy, but there’s a line in the entry for the band about how you were frustrated with the label, Dunhill, refusing to let the Grass Roots write their own songs and play their own instruments.

Yeah, that’s true. That’s all true.

That’s funny. I didn’t perceive the Grass Roots as having that in common with the Monkees.

Well, the Monkees weren’t even around when that started for us, so that’s not even a legitimate comparison, really. But I just felt at the time that…well, I’d played guitar on “Let’s Live for Today,” and the band as a whole had gotten to play on the Feelings album. Now, the Feelings album didn’t really sell all that well, but I thought it was a good little pop album, y’know? It was a lot of fun, it was a little rough, but a lot of people that I know think it was one of our best albums. I still think it’s a really good album, and I think they should’ve given us another chance to show our stuff. But the band was happy to let the Wrecking Crew cut the tracks and for us to come and do the vocals. For myself, as an artist, it was frustrating for me. As a businessperson, that was a bad call. [Laughs.] As an artist, it was a good call, but if The Office hadn’t happened, and I hadn’t continued writing the caliber of songs that I’m writing, then it would’ve been a real, real bad mistake on my part. But it did turn out okay for me.

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In addition to The Office, you’ve also popped up in quite a few other places as an actor, but is IMDb correct in saying that you were in an episode of Kolchak: The Night Stalker?

No! I don’t even know what… Somebody mentioned that the other day, but I don’t know who the hell put that in there. What is Kolchak, anyway?

It was a show starring Darren McGavin.

I might’ve done a Kojak. [Laughs.] I’ve got to get my publicist to go in there and check that one out. Although, hell, y’know, maybe I was in a Kolchak. I was pretty stoned back then. I probably did some shows that I don’t even remember!

When did you first start pursuing acting formally?

Oh, I was in junior college…no, wait, in high school I did a play. Then in junior college I did The Madwoman of Chaillot, and a couple of girls came up to me and said, “Oh, my God, you were so good!” It was like music to my ears. I was, like, “Well, all right!” [Laughs.] But I enjoyed acting, too. During college, I switched majors. I was gonna be a veterinarian, and then I decided, “Y’know what? I think I’m more of an artist.” I mean, I’d been playing guitar and doing this music stuff all my life, but I didn’t realize that not everybody knew how to do it. So I continued in that vein. I came back from Europe, having spent a couple of years over there with a folk trio, to study acting. Once I did that, that was always the plan, to work as an actor.

You started popping up in films in the early to mid-‘80s, with parts in Heart like a Wheel and Mask.

Yeah, Heart like a Wheel, that was just a little tiny part, but Mask… That was with Cher and Sam Elliott. To be on the set and watch him… He was just such a gracious man. Actually, I had my son visiting me, and he took us aside and was yakking with me for quite awhile, because we had this scene together. I watched how he related to the other actors and worked with the crew, and I thought, “Okay, he’s respectful of what he does, and he gets along with everybody, and he’s a professional.” So I took notes. I watched all of the stuff he did. And I really enjoyed the experience. Also, my daughter, who was attending the Performing Academy in Manhattan at the time, she went with some friends of hers to see the movie, and she hadn’t told them that her father had a little part in it. So when I came on the screen and I went, “You can ride, but I won’t be responsible for the retard here,” this guy leaned over to her and said, “What an asshole!” And she said to me, “Dad, I was so proud of you at that moment.” [Laughs.] That’s true. And when I saw the film and saw my work, the look I gave him, I bought it. I said to myself, “Okay, I don’t see any falseness there.” That’s the deal for me. Can I read falseness in it? If I can’t, then I know I’ve done my job.

When you were in the Grass Roots, you made a few interesting TV appearances, including a performance onThe Hollywood Palace.

Yeah, with Jimmy Durante!

And Ethel Merman, too. That’s a little surreal.

[Laughs.] That is surreal. We had a lot of that. We opened for a monkey act at the Minnesota State Fair one year. The Grass Roots and Mr. Pippy’s Monkey Act or whatever. We drove up to the fairgrounds, and we just went, “Oh, brother…” It’d be like going to play a casino in Laughlin, Nevada nowadays. You just realize that your career’s going nowhere fast.

But on the other hand, you also got to play Playboy After Dark.

Oh, and that was a hoot. That was really Hollywood-y stuff. But fun. Hugh Hefner was such a gracious man. A very intelligent guy. I got to talk to him a little bit. Just briefly, but you could tell he was really together, that guy.

To wrap up by bringing it back to the album, what are your hopes and expectations for Tell Me About It? You’re obviously doing a fair amount of press for it, but are you planning to tour behind it?

No, y’know, because I’ve got to be in town now, because I’m doing all this writing on these other projects and have to get these other things finished. And I have to be available for my manager and agent to do films, even though it’s slow right now. I started booking a tour, but it landed right during pilot season, so I had to cancel two weeks of bookings, and it’s not fair to my New York agent if he books me and I have to keep canceling. So I have to wait until I’ve got a movie here, a movie there, blah blah blah. When I see when it’s all lined up, then I’ll go out. I played Boston awhile back. I did a show where I grew up. And I’m going to play the Summer Solstice in Santa Barbara.

Now that you’ve done this autobiographical album, does that rule out the possibility of a proper memoir down the line?

Y’know, I think the Creed Bratton story is…it’s not over yet. There’s still a few more chapters waiting to be told. I’m not being ego-filled or anything. It’s just, like, why shouldn’t I feel like the story’s not over yet, y’know? So I want to wait a little longer before I do that. I feel like we’ve just primed the pump on this thing. [Laughs.]