The History of Postmodern Jukebox

You probably all remember the first Postmodern Jukebox video you saw.  Well, I remember the first one I made.  It was back in 2010, and I was living in a basement apartment in Astoria, NY, trying to figure out just what I was going to do with myself.  I was in my late twenties, had dropped out of school, and was stuck with a ton of student loan debt.  Making YouTube videos certainly did not seem a viable options at the time, but at least it was a creative escape.

I had been toying with the idea of “classing up” pop music for awhile, but I finally decided to make the jump into putting together a full band for a recording of Lady Gaga’s hit song, “Paparazzi.” I reached out to some of my most talented friends from college:  bassist Chris Anderson, saxophonist Ben Golder-Novick, harpist Brandee Younger, and vocalist Emma Walker.  I didn’t have any music prepared, just a general idea.  We set a date to record on February 20, 2010.

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Shooting this video was a laid back affair.  The gang showed up at my Astoria basement apartment and, after a lengthy ordeal that involved wheeling a harp down a back alleyway, we got to work.  It was a pretty loose session; I gave Chris, Brandee, and Ben chord charts and vague instructions for a quasi-latin jazz feel, and then we kind of just ran with it.  Emma was a jazz singer with great instincts for pop, and she gave a fresh interpretation of the melody, even though the song was brand new to her.  In the second verse she forgot the lyrics momentarily, but we decided to leave it in, rather than re-record it again. Like I said, it was a laid back session.

After recording, I synced the audio to the video that I captured on a cheap Flip camcorder, and placed a music video-style title in the bottom right corner.  I called the series “Postmodern Jukebox” – a name that both appealed to my [failed] academic aspirations, and also just sounded like a self-explanatory name for this project.  “Postmodern” because it broke down some of the walls between genres by blending the old with the new;  “Jukebox” because it focused on pop songs that were familiar to a lot of people.  I had no idea that this name would come to receive the recognition that it has today.

(The first Postmodern Jukebox video, back in 2010.)

One thing that was especially notable in this video was the frozen statue poses that we adopted when we weren’t playing.  Nowadays, sight gags and “Easter eggs” like this one are part and parcel of the Postmodern Jukebox video experience, but at the time, it was just an experiment. I felt a little silly explaining to my friends that I wanted to try this, but they wound up having fun with the idea of adding a little showmanship. Even today, I still get a kick out of Ben Golder Novick’s surprise Celtics-jersey-clad appearance at the end of the video.

The video went on to get a few thousand views, which was thrilling for me at the time.  Life went on; I continued making videos sporadically using the Postmodern Jukebox label, including this arrangement of Rihanna’s “Only Girl,” featuring my friend Niia, an incredible singer (look her up!).

I filmed it by candlelight, trying to be artsy…I didn’t really know how cameras worked at the time. But the music still holds up; this one is still my mom’s favorite PMJ recording.  The combination of cello, piano, harp, and voice is a beautiful sound, and something I continue to return to from time to time.

Interestingly enough, the concept for the Postmodern Jukebox stage show started around this time, only it wasn’t called “Postmodern Jukebox,” it was called “Thomas Jefferson and His Ragtime Orchestra.”  This is a story for another post, but I used to crash parties dressed as Thomas Jefferson around this time (remember, I had dropped out of school and was basically unemployed), and somehow decided to build an entire show around this idea. Like the #PMJtour show, it consisted of my jazz and ragtime arrangements of modern-day pop songs, presented in a variety show format and hosted by an emcee.  Oh, and I wore a powdered wig.

(A clip from Thomas Jefferson and His Ragtime Orchestra, live at Theater Bar in NYC.  We performed at an open bar event.  Niia, Alysha Umphress, and Lauren Molina (from The Skivvies) were featured singers, and Tim Kubart emceed the show.)

My first big “viral” hit using the Postmodern Jukebox concept wasn’t called “Postmodern Jukebox,” either. It was called A Motown Tribute to Nickelback…another subject that warrants a separate blog post altogether (see how complicated this is?).  But, from 2011 till 2013, this was the project that consumed most of my time and is responsible for my now-encyclopedic knowledge of Nickelback lyrics.

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(Motown Nickelback photo shoot.  Tambourine Guy received the instruction to “look serious.”)

This video wound up introducing the world to many PMJ featured performers, including bassist Adam Kubota, drummer Allan Mednard, PMJ emcee Drue Davis, sax / EWI player / producer Steve Ujfalussy (you may know him as ’90s R&B icon “Steve Sweat” from Saturday Morning Slow Jams) and, of course, Tambourine Guy (Tim Kubart). It also got me an interview with the Village Voice, in which I used a bunch of big words to communicate the importance of combining Nickelback with Motown.  We eventually released an album of Motown Nickelback remakes, and even performed at Live at Squamish.

If there was one video responsible for introducing Postmodern Jukebox to a mass audience, though, it was our 1930s jazz remake of Macklemore’s “Thrift Shop,” featuring Robyn Adele Anderson, in February of 2013.  At the time, Robyn had never considered making singing anything more than a hobby; in fact, I nearly had to talk her into participating in the video, since she was worried she didn’t have professional experience as a singer and had never made a recording before.  I immediately recognized that her unique voice and natural skill as a performer would be absolutely perfect for this project, and after some convincing, she got to work turning the rap to a melody that would complement the 1930s feel.  

I called up Adam and Allan, and brought the whole gang to my new apartment (I had recently become the music director for the immersive show, Sleep No More, so I could finally move out of the basement) to teach them the arrangement and record the whole thing.  I was afraid that the neighbors might not appreciate the noise, so I kept it low volume by stripping the drum set down to a single snare drum.  The session went quickly, and I bought falafel sandwiches for everyone, which was my usual currency in those days for musicians that played on videos.  None of us expected that much from the video, but I knew it was something great, and anticipated getting 10,000 views or so.

 

Download / Order “Thrift Shop” from our ‘Twist is the New Twerk’ album:


I was wrong.  Instead of 10,000 views, it racked up 100,000 views overnight and wound up on the front page of Reddit, the self-styled “front page of the internet” that received an enormous amount of traffic. Popular websites like The Huffington Post and Buzzfeed began sharing it, and by the end of the week, it became my first YouTube video to reach 1 million views.  Robyn had became PMJ's first superstar in her very first video, and the idea of the Postmodern Jukebox universe had spread across the internet.

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The question on everyone's mind then was: What is Postmodern Jukebox?  To this day, it's not an easy question to answer, because despite being seen as a "vintage" movement (and not the first one of its kind), it's a brand new style of entertainment. But, I can tell you what we've done since then.

In the two years that followed, we went from performing for a camera in my living room to performing sold out shows on four continents, including a show for 4000 fans at Microsoft Theatre, with plans for year round touring worldwide.

In the two years that followed, we've introduced the world to more than 40 world class talents  - many that have gone on to headline tours of their own, such as Puddles Pity Party, Kate Davis, and Morgan James.

In the two years that followed, we've amassed over 1.7 million YouTube subscribers and 400 million views on YouTube, plus countless more on Facebook and other sites.

And - one that I'm especially proud of - in the two years that followed, we've stayed independent and found success our own path without major label support or corporate sponsors, allowing our fans to remain our single biggest influence.

Back in 2011, I had a crazy idea and a bunch of extremely talented friends.  You - watching our videos, downloading our music, telling your friends, and coming to our shows - helped bring Postmodern Jukebox to life.

 For that, I'm extremely grateful.

#VotePMJ

-Scott

@scottbradlee

 

 

  • David Delarre

    I remember watching that Goyte glass thing you did and was hooked to your music, vibe and cottage industry-ness. Great to see you doing well – an inspiration to an aspiring late twenty something musician living in a tiny flat on the outskirts of London. Hoping to catch you in March.

  • Caleb J. Picker

    Thank you for this review. It is great to see how well recognized you and your friends’ talents are now–it’s obvious how much hard work and dedication have gone into your songs and the concept of Postmodern Jukebox.

    BTW, your marketing efforts are equally as genius.

  • Regina Moraes

    I am moved by your story, I’m teary eyes and my brain is all confused. Congratulations on your work and even more, congratulations for giving chance to other artists. You demonstrate humility getting background in your videos, leaving the other artists in evidence. That’s wonderful of you. I’m very happy to have met the PMJ and I confess that I have never been star-struck anyone, but I’m a fan of all of you. Thank you for everythin. Only I wonder how you can manage it all: singers, musicians, arrangements, videos, photos, blog …. You are a genius!! God bless you.

  • Izarael Hernandez

    PMJ, you guys are phenomenal! You know, it’s stories like this that inspire people like me to progress in the art that is music…thank you for doing what you do! You guys made it big and will continue to grow the coming years….I will remain a wholely enthusiast of your art now and more so when you guys reach your billions of fans, milestone …and further (if given the change).. Thank you once more, and keep up the amazing work!

  • Paul Halicki

    I was vaguely aware of PMJ, but being of an advanced age (53), I didn’t get the “covers” of modern songs because I wasn’t that familiar with a lot of them. (Yes, I should pay more attention.)

    But the local public music station played this song called “Royals” by some teenie-bopper and it stuck in my head. I noticed there were a lot of covers of the song online and then suddenly, there was an inordinately large clown transforming a defiant song of teen rebellion into a sad ballad of opportunities lost.

    And I was hooked.

    • Scott Smith

      Well said for us pentagenarians, Paul! I discovered PMJ at 54 while on deployment to Djibouti this past summer — felt the same way about Royals. And here’s the weird part. Had a blind date with a gal when I got back who is friends with Puddles’ sister, having known their family in Richmond growing up. Took the PMJ experience to another level buying VIP tix to their Charleston gig while still in Africa. Drove 8 hours from DC for it, and have subsequently turned my parents (79 & 74) on to it as well. Mom & Dad get none of the pop tie-ins and simply dig the tune-age for its own sake.

  • Mutu Thompson

    I was actually looking for electro-swing on youtube and PMJ (then scotbradleylovesya) came up on the suggestions. I can’t remember what sone ig was first because I listened to every single one right then and was late to an appointment. Robyn’s and Von Smith’s voices blew me away and every song was better than the originals.

    Keep it up guys, and come back to New Zealand soon!

  • Alejandra Vásquez

    Awwwwwww #feels
    Well I am so glad for that first video. The first time I found out about PMJ was last year. One of my favorite duos (The Civil Wars) had officially split off and musically speaking I had this void… I needed good music in my life. Then I saw this post on Haley Reinhart’s Facebook about a cover for Creep. Being a Haily fan since her AI days I went to see the video and was very surprise of her amazing vocals in a style that suits her so perfect. For the next days I was obsessed with the song, went to iTunes to buy it and pretty much sang it in my car during my daily commute. I went to youtube to find the original versio and was blown away to see how creatively ypu had transformed this song into a jazz piece. I was so obsessed with the song that since I knew I wouldn’t get that version on the local karaoke place I went to sing the Radiohead version. I still dream of being able to sing the PMJ version hahaha.

    After that, I’ve seen every video released last year. It has been so great to discover other fantastic singers, musicians and dancers. PMJ makes my every day ery special and I dream of the day I can see a live show.

  • barbarabosworth

    I was first introduced to you by your medley through the decades video. You are bringing real style back to these songs that are generically produced.

  • Vega007

    Three words: We Can’t Stop. I actually love Miley Cyrus and I was replaying We Can’t Stop over and over when my best friend tells me, “Oh my god, stop playing that song!” I said no, its my favorite song ever. She says “Fine, try this version instead before you make me push toothpicks into my eardrums”. She takes me to PMJ’s cover of the song and I instantly fall in love with PMJ. I mean sure, it took me a few days to actually explore the other covers because I just kept replaying We Can’t Stop. Its appropriate I think that I couldn’t stop and I won’t stop. I love you PMJ (and especially you, Robyn Adele Anderson).

  • marge201

    Scott, you’re a riot. Love reading your stuff. Just one example of what gave me a big smile/laugh, ” Tambourine Guy received the instruction to ‘look serious.’)” Keep doing what you’re doing and lots of good luck and good health and tons of fun along the way!

  • Zivhayr

    I discovered PMJ thanks to the fantastic Roar cover featuring Tambourine Guy 😀

  • Krzysztof Oborski

    No dziewczyny i chłopaki dzięki wam poznałem inny świat sztuki muzycznej. Groteska i humor. Ale utrzymane na wysokim poziomie artystycznym to na prawdę piękna sprawa. No bo przecież muzyka służy nam do zabawy relaksu i wewnętrznych przeżyć każdego z nas. No chyba że ktoś nie ma w ogóle uszuw

  • Mel Toulouse

    The first time I got to be introduced to your unique style was a year ago – I was dancing Lindy Hop in a french ballroom (it’s a partner dance from the american 1930’s) when your first cover of All About that Bass came up to my ears – yeah, your song among Chick Webb, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, and Fats Waller, to be danced on like in old days… it just went threw my body and never came out. Looking for more, I discovered the whole PMJ world, what a magical adventure you guys headed! So inspiring!

  • Jonathan M. Storm

    We saw you at the Cosmo in Vegas because they like to give me free tickets because I play video poker. Probably not your normal fans. We had to stand up the whole show!!!! (Kids today. They’ll do anything.) What a revelation. What a marvelous, musical, energetic performance. To top it off, “Kojak” is my wife’s favorite show, and, as the long-time TV critic at the Philadelphia Inquire, I’d met Telly Savalas several times. And we find out that marvelous whistling woman is his daughter! Congratulations for forging an independent path in these turbulent digital/musical times!

  • StripeTheGremlin

    I actually love cover songs as much as the originals. I found out about PMJ from Joey Cook’s appearance on Idol, and have been hooked ever since. My wife and I have seen PMJ both times they were in Denver, and will go anytime they come back. Awesome show. Sidenote: When I was younger, one of my favorite bands was a group on Rhino Records called Big Daddy that combined oldies with modern pop songs. (Their cover of “Hotel Callifornia” as done by Del Shannon is great.) Check them out if you get the chance.

  • Antonio Martínez

    I was spending some time in Facebook when I saw “Bad Romance”, I heard it and I like it. So, I went to your YouTube channel looking for more information and I founded more videos. I started watching more videos and I fall in love with Von Smith’s version of “Shake it off”.
    After that video I can’t have one day not hearing one PMJ’s song. And since that day I’m still asking… When are you coming to Mexico?
    See one of your live performances is one of my dreams, and I really hope one day it could become true.

  • Debbie Montes

    I came across PMJ when I heard Hailey Reinhart’s cover of Creep as I sat my mom’s bedside of ICU on my headphones as I scrolled through Facebook. I remember her voice gave me goosebumps that day. Few weeks later after my mom passed I found myself shutting myself in my room and coming back to your videos except this time I was watching your videos all day. I instantly fell in love with you all. I found out you were coming to my city and bought the tickets right away. (Awesome concert by the way) Now everytime when I want to ease the pain from the loss of my mother or just relax from daily stress, I put on my headphones and volume to the highest it goes and escape into your music. THANK YOU PMJ ! Love you guys and know you have a huge fan in Houston, Texas.

  • Sal

    Scott, way to stay with it. I’ve been wanting to see you and would have in SF except for business with my son in rehab. You are one amazing piano man. The talent you put together makes for some great shoots, the tap, the voices, the pure unadulterated joy in it is evident. Keep it up I am in love with this and I will try to see you in Switzerland. I’d love to see a cover of St Louis Blues with Arian Savalas or Haley Reinhardt. Don’t stop you are a genius my friend!

  • I debated with myself sharing this, and I figured why not sharing with you that the evil act on music piracy is how I found you. I am not good at being brief, but will try.

    I have a ridiculous collection of musical theatre cast albums (like over 3000) & I usually tell people I perform with to hit me up if they are looking for obscure things because if I don’t have it, I do like the hunt to try and locate it. I am usually successful and oddly rarely asked by many to find things.
    A lovely girl that I had met in a disastrous production of Sweeney and later bonded with during a epic disaster of a production of Route 66 (be so happy if u dont know that show) contacted me asking about PMJ. It took some digging (not a big youtuber here.) and I found the christmas album which wasn’t what she wanted and I hate disappointing people. So i posted a reminder to hunt some more. I found after some further digging the other couple albums which were available at the time. I sent them to her and on with my life I went. As I was zipping up the albums to archive I noticed the list of songs and noticed “we cant stop” then “thrift shop” and thought maybe you guys performed those bossa nova versions of Black Eyed Peas and Lady Gaga. I played them to hear versions of songs which surpassed the originals and many that (because I could hear the lyrics) I actually appreciated some artists I had previously blown off.

    I have been crazy broke the last couple years and driving Uber. Since most of my radio listening is made of obscure musical theater songs, and random podcasts I rarely had much that I could play that I would enjoy as much as the passengers. Your music has been the best for this. The lyric changes for dirty words is often unnoticed but it gave people something else to talk about then asking me about what its like driving uber. (so tired of that question) I mostly enjoyed not saying anything and just seeing when they noticed.

    I convinced a 13 year old that Taylor Swift and Ariana Grande covered these songs from the 30’s and 40’s. I had two Bev Hills sisters who seemed to be both banging the same guy, stop their bickering when they realized it was a kesha cover that i was listening to and soon one was telling the other to go be with him. (I give credit to you guys) and I could go on and on. I think until your music, I had one girl ask me if I always played classical (2cellos version of the pulp fiction theme) and the rest push their hipster playlist of electronic loops

    I am slowly climbing out of financial poverty, but I try to make up for never paying for it by telling everyone to check you guys out. The showroom I work in I have often put on Scotts mashups albums from spotify. Scott is so awesomely talented, and your band and the arrangements are so clever. I have been a Von Smith and Shoshanna fan for years but now am such a fan of Morgan and Robyn and that tapper girl is so sik (love her). Anyway could go on, (this is actually my edited message) but i think you get it. Wish you all the best. If i can help located something, hit me up twiiter:mrpemby.

  • Jessica

    I love this blog post. Being a long time fan means nothing if you don’t know the origins of what you’re obsessing over. I’m so grateful for the talents and music you have brought to life. I can’t wait for your tour to hit where I live again.

  • immacdonell

    Hey. I first saw you with Robyn on Youtube doing “Timber”. I don’t think that I got to sleep that night, watching everything that was there. You have been to Vancouver [I saw you there], and Seattle, when the hell are you going to jump the puddle and come to Victoria,B.C.? And bring Robyn with you, all your friends are impressively talented; but Robyn brings an appealing on off style that is a winner.

  • Tim Shriver

    I’m always late to the party on these things, but does anyone (Scott?) know what video was initially intended as PMJ episode 2? Only Girl in the World is marked as episode 3, and the bizarre “kitchen” rendition of Somebody that I Used to Know is marked as episode 4, but oddly published to Youtube a year and a half after episode 3. I seem to remember a PMJ-like video recorded in some kind of small ballroom, with Lauren Molina singing Till the World Ends, but I can’t find that one now. Everyone please flood Scott’s inbox until my memory is sufficiently jogged. 😀

    • Blake Vancouver

      Tim, that song is one of my favourites. It seems to have disappeared off the postmodern site, for reasons unknown. But you can find it with a careful google search. To save you the trouble. Scott’s piano is pure genius on this song. http://vk.com/video27075981_170974578

      • Tim Shriver

        Thanks for finding that. I remember the strange, very un-PMJ-like vocals added in post-production, but had forgotten they come in after the big instrumental break. This would be a good candidate to redo I think, in the familiar ‘formulaic’ PMJ treatment.

        • R.P. Rosen

          Tim, Episode 2 is “Tik Tok (On The Relativistic Clock)”. It’s pretty bizarre even by PMJ standards. It’s currently unlisted & pretty hard to find, but I’ve found it several times. I love it, but then again I’m a hardcore fan. I live for finding PMJ easter eggs, and there’re so many out there. I know there are several I haven’t watched yet. Good luck on your search.

  • Danielle

    I remember exactly why I bumped into PMJ. My daughter, who is now 7, loved the song Roar and I searched for a video to show her. After finding PMJ, we never bothered with the original, not with the tambourine guy to entertain us. I remember the shock and delight when he started working that Itty bitty space.

    PMJ has been a wonderful musical bridge between my daughter and me. Plus, songs like Timber and Anaconda are things she can actually listen to/watch the way you perform it.

    Our whole family saw PMJ live in Buffalo this year, and my 4 year old son danced in the aisle to songs he has heard many, many times. Thanks.

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  • Space Cowboy

    You guys need to add Ms Melinda Doolittle to your collective of singers and make music history at the same time together. As a former American Idol contestant she has a ton of fans that are ready made for PMJ. Plus she is an excellent all around singer and would fit in perfectly with the PMJ crew. I would love to watch her videos and to watch her on tour with PMJ, and like Haley her music on iTunes would inevitably become a top seller. PMJ needs Ms Melinda Doolittle. Please make it happen.

    • s4ducati

      Melinda is absolutely wonderful.

  • Nicholas Plencner

    i was surfing random music on youtube and decided to check out some covers. i found ‘Creep’ ft Haley Reinhart, and i was instantly hooked. Haley’s voice and PMJ’s interpretation of songs is incredible. so i decided to look into both further and am very pleased at what i’ve heard, both from Haley, and PMJ, as well as the other incredible artists who grace the songs with their talents. all i could ask for now is to hear a cover of foo fighters, sublime, the beatles or even something from zac brown band, and i’d be ecstatic!

  • Dan

    WOW! Great progress
    You’re amazing guys. Love you lot
    I’m flying to Gdansk in May so I’ll see you there 🙂

  • Val Erie

    Your cover of No diggity got me. I feel like I watched you guys grow and evolve and get cooler and better and more famous and I’m grateful to see you rise so fast. You are all awesome and your music makes my day whenever I’m in a bad mood. Thank you for touring Europe again, though, I’ll be there in the crowd singing my heart out with you. <3

  • Raúl Leandro

    Funny thing is, I don’t remember which one of your videos I saw first; but I’m sure the one that got me was your “Sweet child o’mine” version. After that one I just kept playing the Youtube list over and over at home, and boring my sister (in touch with the originals, not like me) with my comments about why she should be listening your versions instead.

    Are you planning to make a Latin America tour? I’ve been in Germany for the past two months, but I haven’t been able to get to any of your concerts here; so, if you do plan to go, please try to make sure Costa Rica is on your list. Maybe I’ll have a better chance back home.

  • Kratz Leatherman

    I first found PMJ by accident. I was on YouTube looking for something else and “All About That Bass” popped up. Being a “Dan Hicks and his Hot Licks” fan, I thought it was one of his numbers as he’s quirky and did eclectic music. I was blown away by the song, the singers, the band, the duo bass solo, the setting, everything. I didn’t even know who Casey Abrams was, just a weird guy with a bun, but fell in love with pmj on the spot. Been an avid fan ever since. Going to the wang Thurs Oct 6 to see them live in Boston. I can’t wait. This is going to be so much fun.