In a phone interview with City Paper, Bradlee admits that he didn’t see PMJ’s success coming. “It’s always very hard to predict what’s going to take off,” he says. “I don’t think I had any inkling of the possibilities, of how far this could go.” He’s lost track of exactly how many music videos — all shot on the cheap in his New York City apartment — Postmodern Jukebox has made, but the actual number is upward of 200.
Bradlee admits the project began out of a combination of desperation and necessity. “I was trying to make a living as a jazz pianist in New York City,” he says, laughing. “And I wanted to build a kind of online business card.” He noticed that many musicians had made successful use of YouTube as a medium to promote their work. So he made and shared a homespun video of his own. “More people saw me play that one piece of music than had watched me play my entire life!”
Postmodern Jukebox grew out of an earlier project of Bradlee’s. Observing the backlash when rockers Nickelback — named by Rolling Stone as the second-worst band of the ’90s — was chosen to play a football halftime show in Detroit, he decided to come up with a musical program he called A Motown Tribute to Nickelback. “Somebody had made an online petition with 60,000 names or something like that, petitioning against Nickelback playing there,” Bradlee recalls. “I thought, ‘What if I try to make both sides happy?’”
Bradlee’s retrofitting of Nickelback tunes like “Photograph” into classic 1960s-styled arrangements was well received, and the template for Postmodern Jukebox was established. Starting in 2012, Bradlee, his band and a rotating cast of top-flight vocalists have recorded and posted a new tune every week. Eighteen of PMJ’s best tunes were compiled as the album The Essentials, released in September 2016.
The touring version of Postmodern Jukebox serves up the group’s variety in thrilling style. A universally known tune like Celine Dion’s Titanic smash “My Heart Will Go On” finds new life as a doo-wop extravaganza in a style that recalls Jackie Wilson’s “Lonely Teardrops.”
There’s a never-ending supply of songs just begging for the PMJ treatment, but Bradlee is selective. While he admits that he loves a good challenge — that’s part of the project’s appeal — not every song lends itself to his radical reworking. “Surprisingly,” Bradlee says, “it’s much easier to adapt an electronic-sounding song than something that already has a throwback feel.”