The debut album from Steven Bradley is an 11-track power-pop gem entitled Summer Bliss and Autumn Tears (Porterhouse Records). In addition to discussing the album (on which he sang and performed most of the instrumentation with the help of some special guests, who are noted in the conversation below), the man also known as Steve Kravac delves into all aspects of his musical journey, including how he got into his successful career producing bands and managing his long-running Porterhouse label.
Bradley also debuts his brand new music video on New Noise today, check it out here.
Getting into this album, how did it start? This is the first album you ever put out by yourself?
Yeah, it’s completely the first record I’ve ever done on my own. I have played on and off in bands since I was a kid, 16 or 17 years old. But my music career has been that of production. I’ve always had it in my mind that I was going to sit down and pen a record or two or three at some point. So, it was a goal that had presented itself and has been around for a while. I’ve been threatening to do this for some time [laughs]. Finally something happened in my life that sort of pointed in that direction, and opened up and said, now’s the time. I think it just became clear: OK, if you want to get this done, now’s the time to do it, so start getting the wheels going. I sat down and had pretty specific writing sessions, at least in the beginning for lyrics. All the lyrics for these songs came before the music, so I was kinda trying to write these stories first of all to make sure all these stories kind of held together, and then place them to music. It wasn’t, “Oh, let’s go in a room and start making racket.” It was, “Let’s develop this idea and see what these stories are about.”
From that I was able to hone it down and without kind of spreading myself out too thin, I know a lot of people like to write 20 or 30 or 40 songs for a record, but I felt I was gonna keep it focused, it was gonna be about a dozen songs. I knew that. I knew the subject matter, and I kind of knew some of the avenues that I wanted to tell the stories. So, in essence, it kind of distilled itself in that respect and I didn’t have to flail around too much. When I got the last one in place it was, “You’ve told the story,” so now it’s time to set these to music and figure out how these are going to work instrumentally and that became a whole other part of the process. So, it didn’t really unravel in a band way or even in—I guess it’s organic, sitting there with pen and paper and a word processor for a couple of months [laughs]. But I’m happy I developed the material the way I did. I think it’s a little more thoughtful. I think it’s kind of parsed over more so any clunkers have been kind of removed. There were some rewrites there. Not everything came out how I envisioned it and […] sometimes you gotta go back, “Oh, there’s a better way of doing this, there’s a better way of saying this.”
I did try to take time to try to develop the stories and I feel like the music was an extension of those stories in the respect that it wasn’t too hard to figure out, “OK, this one sounds like a ballad, let’s start with something that sounds more relaxed.” “This song’s got more of an angry, upbeat tone to it, we need to set an upbeat tone to it.” The ideas for the songs kind of told me what direction to go in. From there I was able to flesh out the ideas. I demoed the songs, so I could see they were complete and at that point I sent them out. At this point it’s just me, right [laughs]? I sent them out to a few folks who I’m close to and who are accomplished and dedicated writers, and asked them, “Where is this material at? Are we OK? Do we need to address some stuff here?” I didn’t want to do it completely in a vacuum, and I did take some input and some advice from those peers, and then tidied some things up some more, and I was ready to record it. The bulk of the recording I recorded myself, and then for pretty much each tune I brought one or two people in to sweeten and add on to what I was doing, just to get some collaborative juices going. I don’t think it’s that healthy to do everything in a petri dish by yourself. Things are going to start sounding stale sooner or later, so you gotta get the energy of others in there and you gotta make a little bit of a mess [laughs]. It’s a rock ‘n’ roll record after all.
Like you said, being in bands from early on, you were kind of itching to do something.
I think it’s always been in the back of my mind. And I think I’ve felt I have stories to tell from my perspective. I think the sound that I’m mining on this record definitely has a throwback to the ’90s, it has a bit of a throwback to the ’60s and ’70s. It’s its own kind of animal, but I kind of knew the sound or the shape it was going to take. I did have a vision for it, for sure, and I think that’s why despite the fact a lot of the songs have a different tone or a different lilt to them, they all kind of stick together and the whole record seems to hold together as a listen all the way through. And that’s a good thing. But yeah, it was something that was on the radar for a long time. I think because of the fact that I’ve done a lot of production in my life, and watched a lot of other people play music, there was also a lot of tricks I’ve learned that I wanted to use [laughs]. “Remember when so-and-so did this. It was the coolest-sounding thing in the world.” Or, “Remember when you were working on that record with so-and-so and they did this?” So, kind of nice to apply a few of those tricks of the trade.
But yeah, to answer your question, it was something that was on the radar for a long time and something I definitely wanted to do. I wasn’t going to leave the planet without leaving a record or two behind me [laughs].
So, you think maybe you could do more in the future. It’s open.
I would definitely like to do more. I’m going to focus on working this record for the next eight months or so, give it a one-year cycle, working it with single releases and videos and press where applicable. Obviously, it’s impossible to do live performances now. But I did kick off with a couple of live performances in the fall when the record had just come out, and I played L.A. and I played San Diego. And I was fortunate enough to have Richard Lloyd from Television come out from his house in Chattanooga and play guitar in my band for a couple of shows. So, it is something I’d like to continue to do live with once that sort of thing happens again. But I’d definitely like to write more and I think part of the exercise of getting this record done was also to build confidence as a writer. I’d like to write for others in the future and I’d like to try my hand at trying to do some writing for film and television, if that’s at all possible.
I think this is a good way to whet your appetite for something like that. Demonstrate that you can knock out a block of material that’s cohesive and has a sound and a direction and go from there. I’m very fortunate to have a partner in marketing in film and television. It’s taking these compositions out there and shopping them. Unfortunately, this is happening in a pandemic when production is closed [laughs]. Isn’t that the way of your life. But I think there’ll be more music in the future. It was such a process of getting to this point and getting this done, I will probably just rest on my laurels a little before I throw myself back into the pit again [laughs].
One of the things I will mention too about kinda getting in there and doing it yourself, but again like I mentioned, I had other folks come in, sort of an individual guest on each song. And getting the input from your contemporaries who have come in and played on the songs and who are having fun working with you on it, I gotta say that that was exceptionally heartening and encouraging as well. To have folks you’ve been working in the business with, maybe you produced a song for them, maybe you sang some back-up vocals on a record they were on, just small connections here and there. But when you reach out to these folks and say, “Hey, I’m making a record, and I’d really like to get you involved.” I’ll tell you what, it was pretty incredible, the positive response I got from people like Jonny Two Bags [Social Distortion] and Wayne Kramer [MC5], Kevin Kane [Grapes of Wrath], and Steven McDonald [Redd Kross], these guys all stepped up and were like, “We wanna be involved in the record.” When you see that happen it definitely gives you encouragement to say, “Yeah, OK, there’s potential here and it’s something that should be mined more.”
But also, I know you said you kind of wanted to differentiate this from your production persona, how did you come up with the name? Is there any significance?
[Laughs] It’s the most WASP-y English name I could come up with. No, I’m kidding. Bradley is actually my middle name. My full name is Steven Bradley Kravac.
[Laughter] So, it’s actually your real name.
It’s actually my real name, so, I thought why not use that. It’s easy to remember. Kravac is a little obtuse. It does sound a little bit English, and I definitely come from that Nick Lowe/Elvis Costello school, so that can’t hurt too much. In all honesty, in respect to the differentiation of the production career, yeah, absolutely. I think that was important, in the sense that I really do want these songs and the writing to stand on their own and be their own thing. I was concerned if I came out and used my production trade name, my family name, that folks would immediately make those inferences and think, “Oh, this is an MXPX record, this is a Less Than Jake record,” and I needed to be able to have that distance. And the fact of the matter is because I produced the record my name’s there on the production credit anyhow, so from a trade perspective, that’s there. And just a breath of fresh air, maybe also step into that persona, feel it out. Feel what it’s like to be Steven Bradley, and does he think a little bit different? Talk about great shape-shifters like David Bowie, like Madonna, folks who reinvent themselves on every record. They come up with a different persona, a different story, a different storyline, a different band, a different producer. I respect artists like that who’ve been able to re-inject or look at themselves a different way every time they make a record. I think that’s really, really hard to do. I think if I move forward to a second LP, I think that’d be one of my biggest challenges—moving off the sound that I’m really comfortable with and creating something that was maybe more stripped down and more dressed up. I guess that’s yet to be written.
Like you mentioned, you didn’t want to get lumped in with the bands you’ve produced. How’d you get into that in the first place?
When I was a kid, I had a punk rock band in high school, so by the time I was about 17 I’d actually gone into a recording studio for the first time and played some drums and saw how things went together. It seemed pretty fascinating, the whole process, and later on when I was at university, growing up in Canada, I was involved in the college radio station which had a production studio. A mentor of mine was able to take me under his arm, walk me in, and say, “Steve, you said you’ve showed interest in this before, let me walk you through a little bit about what’s going on here.” And I was bitten with the bug right away, and it was also the days when production was a huge, huge element in everything we were listening to, in everything from England The New Romantic sound had just landed, Steve White was making the biggest drum sounds in the world. All these bands, U2 were making these huge records, Simple Minds, Big Country. A lot of window dressing was behind it and I just found that fascinating, coming out of a punk-rock element where you were just trying to get a decent sound out of your amplifier—and you couldn’t do that half the time. But then you listen to these records with real producers and engineers and musicians were making, so it opened up a whole new world. It’s like, “How do we get there? How do we do that?” I was just fascinated by that process. I built a few studios on my own, taught myself a lot about what to do and what not to do too. Lots of mistakes [laughs]. I was able to parlay that to a move to Los Angeles, where I started working at Westbeach Recorders, the studio was owned by Brett Gurewitz of Epitaph Records. I started working with some punk bands there and was able to establish myself enough to get some opportunities, and from there onto doing some records that had gone on the radio and had sold some copies. So, 20-year overnight success, something like that [laughs]. It’s one of those things.
Back then there really wasn’t a school to go and be a producer, you had to figure it out yourself. You had to sit down in a room and figure it out. And there’s something to be said for that method of learning. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with people that are teaching people the ins and outs of the music business, contractual stuff, the labor law, just simple stuff that a lot of musicians don’t know about. There’s many, many sides to it, but I’m grateful to have had a career in music that’s allowed me to make records for bands that have been on the radio, make records for myself, tour with cool bands and go all over the world, perform on other people’s records and be part of their creativity. This thing called music, we always seem to say it’s on its last legs, but I don’t know, there’s still lifers like me out there that are trying to squeeze every drop we can out of it. You find one way to shut us down and we find a new door. They’ve got streaming, but we’ve got vinyl. If I sell one copy of vinyl this week, that could be 15 months of Spotify royalties right there.
It’s important that we have control of our business as musicians, as producers, as content creators. It’s important that we register our work. It’s important that we take care of the business side of things and we protect our intellectual property. As a label owner, I’m confronted with this a lot: legacy artists who haven’t kept their eye on the ball and now are trying to unite their catalogue or trying to organize it so they can monetize it. These are some folks who just got a raw deal. Some of these folks never learned the lesson, either. Everybody’s in a different boat. People ask me for advice. I try to say, “This worked for me,” or “This didn’t work for me.” One size doesn’t fit all but I definitely try to talk to people if they have questions, trying to be direct and honest in my answers.
What about starting the whole record label? 1997, that’s so long ago.
It’s so long ago. I did have a partner early on, we parted ways a number of years ago. But in the beginning, it was just sort of learning how to be a label, sort of finding what the responsibilities were, to finding what contracts were. Defining what agreements were. Building a distribution network. Seeing that distribution network go from mostly hard sales with compact discs into iTunes, and from iTunes back to vinyl and streaming. As a label owner, I’ve gotta say I’ve seen a lot of changes over the last 20 years. You find new ways of remaining relevant, but it’s really about having some good content to offer people. The vinyl thing has definitely helped to keep the lights on, and has given this business a rejuvenation—throughout the business. We really needed a shot in the arm. It’s the one big thing to cheer about right now, I think. The pressing plants are still humming and people are still buying vinyl. People really like the idea of having vinyl in their hand again. CDs still have their place. I think they’re good for compilations, there are some things that do still sell well on compact disc, but those classic vinyl titles have kind of been a backbone. Even for the major labels they’re creating a lot of revenue. And yeah, Spotify is offering a lot of people exposure, I know it’s not offering a lot of income, which is unfortunate, but it was sort of that way with terrestrial radio as well. It’s pretty hard for an independent to get those airplay royalties if you’re one person on your own. If you’re a publishing company leaning on them you’re more likely to get something, shake something loose.
But I’m super-happy to have my little indie label. I still think it’s a great time to have an independent label. I think there are obviously channels there that people can exploit and there are still ways to sell music and you just have to find a way that works well for you and works with the content you want to disseminate. Having a label is still fun. Working with bands is still fun. Making records is still fun. It’s still fun to go to the plant and pull a record out of the sleeve and look at a really nice finished product. It makes your heart pitter-patter a bit. It’s been good to keep that part alive. It keeps me happy and it keeps other people happy, so more power to us.
Pick up a copy of Summer Bliss and Autumn Tears here