Bratton departed psychedelic pop band the Grass Roots in the ’60s after he felt that his experimental instincts were being stifled. He pursued acting, and eventually landed the role of a lifetime as a version of himself on all nine seasons of the American version of The Office, which helped rekindle interest in his musical output, resulting in new albums and live shows.
His new album, Slightly Altered, brings together new originals and a fresh twist on an old Grass Roots song, and scratches his endless itch to hear his songs brought to life with the help of other musicians. In conversation with AllMusic, the lifelong Californian described how at age 77, his enthusiasm for taking unexpected musical turns is still as strong as ever.
AllMusic: It sounds like you take lyric-writing fairly seriously.
Creed Bratton: Oh my gosh, yes, absolutely. I don’t separate my lyrics from my music, I just don’t, that’s not how it works for me. “Right Where I Belong,” “Not Comfortable,” “The Lovers,” those songs came out in their entirety, I wrote the music and the lyrics at the same time. I’m sitting there, the muse hits me, I pick up a guitar, I start playing, and I’m not thinking about it and saying, “I’m going to write a song about this, with these chords,” my hands just start taking off and doing these weird finger-picking things and I sing a melody over it, and before I know it, the words are coming out.
Only in retrospect do I realize what the words are, but I do believe the words are an indication of where my life is at the time, things I should look out for, signposts of how my life is going. I feel like as an artist, I have a mission to complete these songs, so I’m thrilled when they come out. And I write poetry, too, so sometimes the lyrics that come out aren’t conducive to the music, and they become poems.
AllMusic: How did you end up with the version of “Temptation Eyes” that we hear on the record?
Bratton: That was a Grass Roots song they cut after I left the band. In late 1969, I had a problem with how none of us got to play on the records, so they asked me to leave if I wasn’t happy, and I said, “I will,” and I took a settlement and left. Cut to a few years before The Office, and the drummer comes in and says, “We’ve got an offer to play the 35th anniversary of the Whisky-a-Go-Go, do you want to come do the vocals?” So I had to learn “Temptation Eyes,” because I hadn’t performed on that song, and I really dug it, so I worked out a finger-picking version of it. I personalized it, it has the Creed vibe to it. It doesn’t sound like the original version at all.
I played it with the Echoes in the Canyon band, and they added their brilliance to it. You get a good song, then a good arrangement for it, and they added their musicianship, and Dave Way comes in with his engineering and producing skills. He suggested the trombone, and I think that big, brassy trombone interspersed with the lead guitar is so cool. When it came out of the speakers, all of us in the room went, “Oh man…” I love the way this thing turned out, I think it’s so cool.
AllMusic: When you work with these backing bands, what do you play for them ahead of time, and how much direction do you give?
Bratton: They add so much stuff to it. I had played with the Jackshit band before, Val McCallum is a good friend of mine, and a great guitar player, and the Mojo Monkeys, I’d played with them, and we’re all friends. Dave had produced the Echo in the Canyon album with Jakob Dylan, and so I was invited to the premiere. After the movie, I went outside and smoked a joint with the band and was chatting with them. Dave said, “If you like these guys, maybe see if they want to play on your record.” They didn’t hear anything before, they just came in, and I played it live for them on acoustic guitar. Then I sang and played at the same time with the band as we were doing it.
AllMusic: It sounds daunting for them, to be handed someone’s song and to build on top of it right there on the spot.
Bratton: Any player worth their salt can do that. I’m not one of those studio musicians, I can get there and play rudimentary stuff, but my forte is the acoustic and finger-picking and the folky aspects of it. But to hear what these cats did on lead guitar dazzled me, and they’re pros. That’s my favorite thing in the world, to be in the studio and hear my songs brought to life, it’s a wonderful place to be.
AllMusic: Did any songs turn out completely different from how you imagined?
Bratton: “Chan Chu Toad.” I always knew I was going to put the guzheng on it, right off the bat. I was hanging out with my friend Susie, who used to be my assistant on The Office, we were talking about the song, and her boyfriend said, “Oh, I have a guzheng,” and I said, “Get out of here!” And the serendipity of all this: it was in the D pentatonic scale, and I went, “Oh my god, that’s already in the key of this song,” so he loaned it to me for a couple of weeks and plucked away at it and brought it into the studio after the track was cut.
AllMusic: I enjoyed how the Latin drumbeat adds a totally different feel to the intro of “The Ride,” did you anticipate that?
Bratton: If you heard me singing it originally, my left foot is always last. It’s definitely a Latin thing, and the guitarist went the direction he did, as a melodic guitar player, so the way they approached it put it in a different place. The musicians I admire are the ones who do unexpected stuff, that’s what keeps everybody on their toes. Don’t do something you’ve heard before. I don’t think with this album you can say, “I’ve heard that before,” because there’s a lot of different stuff.
AllMusic: How important is it to make mistakes?
Bratton: They always say when you’re playing lead, if you hit a bad note, go back and hit it again so they think you planned it. If I’m sitting there working on a song, I’ll sometimes slide to a wrong note. I had a song called “Matters Like This” on my Bounce Back album, and I wrote that in the green room on the set of The Office. I was sitting there playing it, and in my mind I heard a note, and I missed it by a half-step, but I went, “Oh, that’s even better than where I was going,” so then I used that for the root and worked from there. So even a bad note can lead you to something very cool sometimes, as long as you cover it up well.
AllMusic: Was the rest of the cast also waiting there, watching you work out songs?
Bratton: No, this is when nobody else is in there and I’m just waiting around because I got there early. I had my guitar behind my desk, and god bless that they allowed me to do that. Greg Daniels said, “Just let him play guitar, he plays it all the time anyways.” So I was constantly playing, and no one ever complained.
AllMusic: You’ve said you want this album to tap into the healing power of music; what albums have been doing that for you lately?
Bratton: If I have a troubling day, I’ll put on Sketches of Spain or Kind of Blue by Miles Davis. So mostly anything with Miles Davis or Bill Evans, just to put me in that beautiful, calming space. Music is healing, and I’m lucky enough to be an artist and to be able to write.
I always look at it as that thing that may not happen again. You make a movie and say, “This might be my last movie,” or, “That’s my last song, I don’t think it’s going to happen like that again.” But fans will come up to me after a show and say, “We came here because of your character on The Office, but that one song meant so much to me,” so I get the feeling that on some of these songs, especially the softer ones like “Right Where I Belong” and “All the Faces,” that there is a healing thing to them, and that’s not just me, that’s anybody that touches that artistic space. Music really is therapeutic, I never doubt that.