Last Thursday, when I met up with Will Bradford, the 37 year-old frontman of alt-rock group SeepeopleS, he was lugging his guitar and amp from the cold, wind-swept parking lot, into a crowded Dogfish Bar and Grille. In about 30 minutes, he’d be setting up his equipment with his bandmates Ian Riley and Doug Porter in a small corner of the room, and getting ready to perform some original music: a creative activity he’s been doing in one way or another for 20 years now.
“Lord knows I’m not doing this for the money,” said Bradford smiling. “Tonight is just an excuse to come out and play music. We do it, just to do it.” He wasn’t asking for a cover charge for a night that would be a local music free-for-all.
Bradford was there for his monthly showcase, the “Songwriter’s Circus,” where he invites other local musicians to play a set of original tunes, for any length of time they want. According to Bradford, past Songwriter’s Circuses turned into, well just that, a circus: a booze-burger-fueled good time where the community comes together to celebrate the songwriting and performance prowess of some local favorites. This time he said some “awesome folks” were coming by: “hardworking hustlers,” like, Amos Libby, Tricia Riggs, Fletcher Curran, Joel Thetford, Hannah Damon and Greg and Bjork from the band Welterweight. Before he kicked off the revelry with an opening (stripped down) set that included songs from his recent genre defying behemoth, (the 25-track album called Dead Souls Sessions), he grabbed a beer with me and sat down for a chat, while the Dogfish crowd buzzed around us.
Aware of his new job at Empire, his hardworking nature, levels of popularity and most importantly, his immense amount of musical experience (five albums under his belt), I wanted to pick his brain and gauge how difficult it is to dedicate a life to a solely creative pursuit, like music. Is it hard to stand out in a town that’s filled with so much talent? Can commerce and art co-exist in an enjoyable balance? Do people even listen to CD’s anymore? Is attempting to pay the bills solely by the talent of one’s writing, beauty of one’s voice and proficiency with instruments, a pursuit that’s fraught with anxiety, hardships and risks (like I think it is)? Turns out to some degree it is, but if you’re good enough, the ends will justify the means.
“It’s an understanding as an artist, that if you want to mix commerce and art, you’re probably going to do the art part 5% of the time,” said Bradford. “But I think it’s an incredible privilege to be able to play music for a living.”
Before Bradford would strum dreamy melodies from his guitar and sing ethereal songs like his “Imaginary Lines,” and after another beer, he gave me some much needed insight into the industry. Although this anti-pop star noted afterwards that he was very distracted during our interview, I think that his words are important for both amateur musicians and local music lovers to take in. Below are some highlights from our chat.
Whenever I interview musicians, I like to start with this very broad and open ended question, because I’m interested in what drives people: why do you play music?
“I’ve been doing this for a long time. I used to be a selfish drug addict, and had moments where I was really lucky to be alive. Ever since those rough days, I realized what it meant for me to do this [play live music], and right now I just love to make people sing and be happy. I’m sober now, but every time I play a show, I treat it like it could be my last. For me, it’s a personal thing, but all the struggles I’ve gone through, are universal. I use music, partly, to share that message. I do believe that actually, selfishly, if it’s good, get it out there. If it’s good, it needs to get out. I never stop, I’m always writing.”
What’s a common theme in your music and writing?
“Universal suffering. Little bumps along the way in life, give me a boost when songwriting.”
What local bands in town are good examples of hard-workers that excel both in the hustle side and in producing good original music?
“I definitely do think there are a lot of bands out there that are under-reported on. Spose is probably the best example of someone who truly understands, at this moment, what the "hustle" is. The Mallett Brothers Band are out there, just killing it all over the country, often days behind or ahead of SeepeopleS shows in certain towns. Dean Ford and his musical partner Renee Coolbrith have a new show idea a week I swear, and are probably working on one right now!”
“There’s also Johnny Cremains, Jaw Gems, Ghosts of Johnson City, Dominic and The Lucid, Phantom Buffalo, Eyenine and El Chupacabra (Hip Hop), Forget Forget, Ruin (Heavy Metal), Covered In Bees, Sylvia, Hessian (heavy band that tours worldwide) Mosart Nunez (badass DJ/Producer), SS Cretins; there are so many talented people in this town!”
Will Portland ever have too many bands?
“For sure it will seem so, and jaded insecure people will complain and moan to no end. Us un-jaded, happy people will just rejoice that we have that much talent in one small town. As long as the rent doesn't go up even more. The reality is that it will happen, and it will get harder, and things could get more difficult, but then I guess that is status quo with every other profession and ambition on the planet.”
What are the biggest pieces of advice you'd offer from your experience as a musician, to bands that are just starting out and trying to gain experience?
“Never forget the very first reason that made you want it do it in the first place. As long as you can remember that your instincts will work for you. That and "anything good" in this life is gonna take some fighting and sweating for. Don't get discouraged, life is hard for everyone.”
“The whole problem with the entire scene right now, is that you’ve got way too many people trying to get famous, instead of people actually trying to make something that lasts. This town is actually pretty good to local acts. There are tons of way harder cities to get your music out there in. SeepeopleS started in Boston, so we know there are way tougher towns than Portland. Boston is the single hardest town to keep an audience. It’s a constant maintenance there.”
“People who I know that are super talented, I would rather they spend their time, even if it’s harder, to dedicate themselves to what I think they really want to do, and that’s make original music. But it’s tough to deal with rejection in the music industry. It kills the spirit of most people pretty quickly.”
So how do you make money as a musician?
“I'm not quite sure but when you figure it out if you could please send me the answer, said Bradford jokingly. “Most revenue from touring band's these days actually comes from merchandise. Bands who keep at it and are able to gain some ground and build a following in certain towns can get some momentum. The other way is through music sales, which is another whole interview: a dark, scary and depressing one.”
What did Will Bradford do right after this night of singing his heart out and performing with friends at Dogfish? He spent the entire next day, recording in studio with the Ghosts of Johnson City, hinting again at the notion that a passion for your craft preludes success. He tells me that him and his SeepeopleS are already working on number 6 and a secret show is in the works.
Dead Souls Sessions by SeepeopleS is available now on iTunes and Spotify.