“What the world needs now: Ragtime covers of ‘Come on Eileen,’ etc.”
And with that 2009 tweet from British author Neil Gaiman, people around the world first found out about what would become Postmodern Jukebox.
Gaiman’s caption accompanied a video of Scott Bradlee pounding out ’80s hits on a piano, ragtime-style. The video went viral, and Bradlee went on to form a band called Postmodern Jukebox to carry out his retro musical visions. The group’s YouTube channel now has nearly 3.7 million subscribers.
Postmodern Jukebox plays and sings covers of modern pop, rock and R&B tunes in vintage styles including ragtime, jazz, soul, swing and doo-wop. Known for their high-quality videos, the group churns out songs almost weekly, with band members dressed in period clothing, and also takes its act on the road.
The retro rockers bring their vintage sound and costumes to the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza on Friday, Nov. 23.
Postmodern Jukebox, despite the throwback vibe, is also forward-thinking. As a publicity stunt during the 2016 U.S. elections, the group created a political button that says “Vote PMJ for a Better Yesterday” — a slogan that works as a motto for the group itself.
Postmodern Jukebox could easily be a silly gimmick or parody, but Bradlee, who writes all the arrangements, keeps it classy with musical restylings that maintain the originals’ integrity while adding something new and worthwhile.
Bradlee, who grew up in New Jersey, has a history of being inspired by and then tweaking the classics. When he got tired of Monopoly, for example, he created his own board game. He took piano lessons as a kid but didn’t really get interested in the instrument, or in vintage music, until he heard George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” at age 12 and obsessively tracked down an unabridged version of sheet music for the song.
In his book, Outside the Jukebox: How I Turned My Vintage Music Obsession Into My Dream Gig, Bradlee described his initial reaction to “Rhapsody in Blue”: “Exciting, humorous, brash, and alive and adult . . . it got under my skin.”
Gershwin led him to seek out and study jazz, ragtime and other nonclassical genres.
Bradlee was a struggling New York musician (earning a living in part by playing the piano for music classes that catered to toddlers and preschoolers from wealthy families) when he created the viral ’80s medley video. He formed Postmodern Jukebox and started filming videos in a Brooklyn basement, then moved to Los Angeles. Bradlee constantly writes new tunes and films new videos, and the group has released hundreds of songs and 21 albums, including its latest, Blue Mirror.
Bradlee isn’t usually a part of the touring group, said drummer David Tedeschi, because he’s “focused on the creative side of PMJ and making sure that the fans get new music every week,” but the group’s founder sometimes makes an appearance.
The band’s repertoire is vast and varied, branching out from Bradlee’s original 1980s musical timeline. Among its tunes are a sultry jazz version of Radiohead’s “Creep” (sung by American Idol contestant Haley Reinhart), Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” performed 1920s Gatsby-style, Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass” a la Billie Holiday, Pitbull’s “Timber” as 1950s doo-wop, Taylor Swift’s “Blank Space” as a cabaret tune and Fountains of Wayne’s “Stacy’s Mom” as vintage 1930s jazz.
To capture all those different sounds, Postmodern Jukebox needs more than a few singers and instrumentalists. The group has a large stable of about 40 vocalists and 13 instrumentalists, plus numerous guest artists. The lineup gets pared down for tours, but the traveling Postmodern Jukebox still has more personnel than most roving bands.
“Our tour bus has 15 bunk beds on it and we have every one of them filled,” Tedeschi said. “You can expect multiple singers, instrumentalists and a world-class tap dancer at every show.”
What the world needs now: tap dancing.
Postmodern Jukebox performs on Friday, Nov. 23, at 8 p.m. in the Fred Kavli Theatre at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza, 2100 Thousand Oaks Blvd. For tickets and more information, call 805-449-2787 or visit www.civicartsplaza.com.