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An Interview with Creed Bratton

[ACTOR, MUSICIAN]

“I know now that as long as I do the process of a human being in the moment—exercising, meditating, doing all the right stuff—then I can let that pony dance, as it were.” 

Meisner method prompts suggested by Creed in this interview:
“Dad, I’m pregnant”
“I’m going to leave home right now”
“Something happened and I’m on drugs”

header-image

An Interview with Creed Bratton

[ACTOR, MUSICIAN]

“I know now that as long as I do the process of a human being in the moment—exercising, meditating, doing all the right stuff—then I can let that pony dance, as it were.” 

Meisner method prompts suggested by Creed in this interview:
“Dad, I’m pregnant”
“I’m going to leave home right now”
“Something happened and I’m on drugs”

An Interview with Creed Bratton

Niela Orr
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Creed Bratton is an enigma. As is the case with Creed Bratton, the character he played on the American version of  The Office, his persona is bound up with incredible lore—some of it misinformation that threatens to become canon. There’s a rumor that Jimi Hendrix once taught him how to play a guitar riff. (This is untrue; Bratton’s former band, the Grass Roots, was on the bill with Hendrix at the legendary Newport ’69 Festival at Devonshire Downs, in California, but that’s as far as the connection goes.) There’s the rumor that he authored NBC’s Creed Thoughts blog. (Jason Kessler, a former digital writer for The Office, actually ghostwrote the blog.) There’s also a rumor going that Creed Bratton isn’t even his real name.

That one happens to be true, or at least partially true, depending on the credence one gives to a birth name. Bratton was born William Charles Schneider in February 1943 in Los Angeles. Eventually, he went by Chuck Schneider, and then Chuck Ertmoed, incorporating the surname of his stepfather. At some point, he became Creed Bratton. In the 1960s, Bratton joined the psychedelic-folk-rock-pop band the Grass Roots, but he left in 1969 because he wanted more creative control. In the aftermath, he had relationships, and children, and searched for himself. He acted in films, sometimes as a character actor and other times as a stand-in for Beau Bridges, while continuing to write and record music.

His big break came in the early aughts, when he was cast in The Office. On that show the Creed Bratton character was like a counterpart to Absolutely Fabulous’s Patsy Stone: a freewheeling, free-loving former flower child, living by his hippie whims and the consciousness-expanding credos of the Age of Aquarius. As Dunder Mifflin’s feckless quality-assurance manager, Creed was a cult hero, a twenty-first-century Bartleby, the Scrivener. He preferred not to, and then he really didn’t, intending to grift and get over by means of his hilarious avarice. In fact, in one episode, Michael Scott plans to fire Creed, who then talks his boss into letting a different employee go. Here is another place where the two Creeds converge: the real man has some of that same wiliness and determination. Regarding friends who discourage you, he told me, “They’re going to tell you this can’t be done or that can’t be done. And if you buy into that, then you can be talked out of your dream. I know that for a fact, because I almost bought into that a few times. But you have to keep pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, as it were, and believe in yourself.”

We spoke on Bratton’s eighty-first birthday. Our conversation capped off a festive day for Bratton, who said he’d been receiving an abundance of “natal acknowledgment,” and had had breakfast with Sam Cooper from the band Mt. Joy. Bratton stars in the video for their song “Evergreen,” as a man who uses a message on a milk carton—“Drink Milk Adventure Awaits”—as a prompt to embark on a delightful day of instruction in a variety of disciplines: Jazzercise, golf, a “fist lesson” with a karate instructor, painting, playing keyboards, although he keeps getting injured accidently. The narrative of that video neatly overlaps with the quixotic mapmaking, as well as the curiosity, autodidacticism, and resilience, that have come to define Bratton’s life. As a kind of grace note, at the end of the video, Bratton’s character advertises that he’s looking to start a band. “Must have a rockstar mindset,” the flyer goes, which kind of sums up the actor’s sensibility.

Talking with him was like hearing Creed Thoughts improvised live and read aloud—our conversation was somewhat trippy and very amusing, though inflected with the intelligence of a seriously thoughtful person. I found him warm, charismatic, playful, and sensitive. He often took a moment to consider my questions, pausing before answering. We discussed subjects as sundry as songwriting, creative visualization, William Gibson’s oeuvre, acting methods, and electromagnetism. Later, he emailed to thank me for the interview, and to send the cover of his tenth solo album, Tao Pop, which features an illustration of Bratton in his Office garb, interacting with a robot family. He joked about his “esoteric rambling.” “Ha ha, on my birthday I tend to wax philosophic,” he wrote. The following is a brief excerpt of that heartening, hopeful, and hallucinogenic philosophy. 

—Niela Orr

I. THE ONION SKIN

THE BELIEVER: In a few of the songs from your album Slightly Altered, I’ve noticed you sort of gesture toward existential questions of time. I mean, you just turned eighty-one. How do you think about time?

CREED BRATTON: Perhaps I’m viewing it more from the atomic level as I get older. I’m starting to kind of believe—and Eastern philosophy believes this too—that time keeps on slipping into the future or passing you by. I’ve started to believe that, and I’m pretty sure of it: time and space and everything is just one four-dimensional continuum. So time is not moving; time is just there with space. Our consciousness, this force of awareness that’s us, is just moving through time and space like an onion skin. That’s what I’m getting through my introspection when I meditate. More and more, I dwell in those stories as I get older.

BLVR: How long have you been practicing meditation?

CB: Since nineteen… Oh, gosh. Mid-’70s. Nadine Lewy, Henry [Lewy]’s wife, initiated me in Transcendental Meditation. Henry was Joni Mitchell’s producer and engineer for years. I’ve been meditating for a long time, and sometimes I get away from it, but I’m back at it now in full force. I’ll close my eyes in the morning and I’ll start saying my mantra. I hear the music of the spheres [mimics the sound]. And then the twenty-minute alarm goes off and I go, It’s been three minutes. It’s been five minutes. It’s been seven minutes at the most—certainly not twenty minutes. Anyone that meditates realizes that time doesn’t exist like we normally think of it.

BLVR: I’ve read that back in the ’70s, when you were going through a tough time, you started to practice creative visualization. Is that something you still do?

CB: No. You can do that, but it’s also kind of like wishing, right? And if you’re wishing, then you don’t have the faith that the higher power has got it all locked in for you in a good way. So now I more have faith that it’s all going to work out. I feel much more comfortable just being in the moment and not trying to plan. I accept more than I used to. I used to want to just control.

BLVR: It seems like having a sense of acceptance is good practice for working in the entertainment business, which is so finicky. If you have a good relationship to acceptance, you’ll be able to ride the waves of fame and fortune. You cowrote “Hot Bright Lights” for the Grass Roots. In the song, you sing about the vicissitudes of fame and the hot, bright lights, the pressure that comes with celebrity. And I’m wondering what your experience of celebrity has been like, back in the ’60s and then during the Office days and up till now?

CB: Well, I like to say how egotistical it was of us to say we were like tired old whores on the road when we were only in our twenties and didn’t know shit. We were so lucky. Some people can handle it, but a lot of people can’t handle celebrity. There was a thirty-year period, at least, between the Grass Roots and The Office, when I maintained equilibrium and faith. I have thick skin.

BLVR: There was a period when you weren’t in the band, because you’d left for a righteous reason. You wanted to be able to write and direct the course of your musical career. The other people in the band weren’t really for that. And then you had this fallow period. How were you able to maintain your faith during that time?

CB: It was in ’69. We were in Montana. It was the summer. We were on a tour. I had this gestalt occurrence where I walked out of the hotel we were at in the middle of the night. At that time, I was really into my vegetarian period; I was meditating. My own form of meditation wasn’t Transcendental. I was doing things like putting white balls up my nose, bringing them out of my mouth, sucking them in—that stuff, you know. Really out there. And so I got called in the middle of the night. This is going to sound LA woo-woo, but then again, I’m an LA woo-woo guy, you know. Woo-woo! I went downstairs and I walked out. It was a full moon. And this is the honest-to-God truth. I stood there like this and all of a sudden bam! Kundalini shot up my body through my feet. Talk about being in the fourth dimension. I had the most incredible experience. I realized there was really no fear; there was nothing to be fearful of at that moment. It reinstated a vision I’d had on the road in Algeria in 1964, on the side of the road. I had been without food for a few days, and I saw this version of myself walking up and receiving a plate onstage. So I had harbingers of the future. As we know, the past and the future and the present are all just there. I shot ahead, had kind of a mystical experience. And I haven’t lost faith. I saw it happen. I said, Well, it’s there for me, why should I ever doubt it? And you do. Everybody does, no matter how positive you feel at that moment. Even if Jesus came down and said, Here’s the book. See your name right there. Do this, you’d go, Yeah, yeah, well, maybe I need more cocaine to believe it. You know? It’s hard to be positive. My friend Willie Nile—he’s a New York guy, a great songwriter, a good friend—he has a song called “You Gotta Be a Buddha (in a Place Like This).” It’s true! You just need to go off and live in a cave somewhere. But to be in New York City or LA, with the vicissitudes of all this stuff, to stay positive: it’s rough. It’s a twenty-four-hour game, and if you drop your guard for one second, it’ll come like a little weevil into your ear and seed you with doubt.

II. THE COSMIC ALGORITHM

BLVR: I read that you like to keep busy, and that when you’re not working, you don’t feel good. Is that when the doubt creeps in?

CB: Yeah, yeah. Right now I’ve got a movie I’m supposed to do. I’ve just finished two short films. I’m working on my biography, and a novella, and I’m finishing up my tenth album, called Tao Pop. Irons in the fire. That’s what my nickname was in college: Irons in the Fire Ertmoed.

BLVR: You have such vivid, singular titles for your albums. How do you come up with them? Where did you get Tao Pop?

CB: I read Ray Kurzweil’s book The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology, and it talks about AIs becoming sentient in 2045. It had a profound impact on me. A few days later, I was meditating and I saw an alien mother and father handing me their little robot AI baby. I’m taking the baby, and I have a little USB port in my head. And obviously, apparently there’s no Bluetooth in the future, because I want to take the cord for the baby and stick it into my head. Whether the baby’s going to teach me or I’m going to teach the baby, I hope the baby’s teaching me. After a couple days, I wrote a song for the album, one of the main singles, called “Chip in My Brain.” I dreamed I had a chip in my brain to keep me mellow and from going insane, to stop the madness about having more money than you.

BLVR: I can’t wait to listen to it.

CB: Again, it’s all that existential whatnot.

BLVR: I’m really curious about the alien chicken character that runs through your iconography, from the cover of your album Tell Me About It to the name of your label. Who is this alien chicken?

CB: I’m like everybody else speculating about UFOs and if there’s anybody out there. I was just sitting there thinking about, you know, going out to dinner [in the future]. What are we going to have? Steak, fish, chicken? How many different ways can we have chicken? And it came to me. Wow. What if the aliens came down and they had a chicken that tasted totally different from ours? I got excited. I was less excited about what information they could give mankind or what they could do to save us from global warming than I was about what chicken they might bring. So that’s exactly how it came about. I started thinking, Alien chicken. Yum, yum.

BLVR: I love that. It’s almost like “To Serve Man,” that episode of The Twilight Zone.

CB: Oh, yes. [Bratton makes bawk, bawk clucking sounds.]

BLVR: It’s such a cool figure. I think people associate your persona with an oddball quirkiness, and so it totally fits.

CB: I have no idea where they got that from.

BLVR: I’d like to ask you about songwriting. You said that for the song “Chan Chu Toad,” you didn’t sit down to write it specifically, but it just came to you, and that all your songs come to you that way. It seems you let your creativity flow. You’re not sitting down like, I must write a song about this subject or that subject. You let it come to you in an almost oblique way.

CB: That’s absolutely a fact. And I’m not alone. There’s songwriters who say, Today I’m going to write a song about a specific subject. Or, I’m going to get down and I’m gonna start writing every day. I wait and I think. Maybe it’s just because I’m older now. It’s come with time—my sense of awareness that there’s that little nudge on the other side of the veil. I’ll go, Ah, and I’ll grab the guitar and I’ll get out a piece of paper—it’s always longhand—and I wait. I don’t force myself to write. I just wait and it comes, and then I write as fast as I can. I’ll get the melody, the verse, maybe two verses, and a chorus if I’m lucky. And then it might be two weeks of crafting and working to find a bridge or a coda, or that last missing verse that ties together all this nefarious stuff that doesn’t make sense. I think that’s the glue, the metaphysical glue that will put my cosmic algorithm together. That’s how I work.

BLVR: You have such trust in your process. We talked a little bit about doubt earlier, but you’re so assured in waiting for inspiration to come. That should be a big inspiration to a lot of people, just to have the confidence to wait.

CB: There’s always a point when you worry. If you do a movie, Is this my last film? Is this my last song? That’s the demon that artistic people deal with, you know? I mean, you write. You think, Well, will I write anything after this? Everybody does. If they say they don’t worry about that, they’re kidding, they’re lying. But I know now that as long as I do the process of a human being in the moment—exercising, meditating, doing all the right stuff—then I can let that pony dance, as it were.

III. “WORKING WITHOUT A TIGHTROPE”

BLVR: You are pretty good friends with Beau Bridges.

CB: Yep.

BLVR: Did you name your son after him?

CB: I did. After I separated from my first wife, I was in a real down period. She went to New York and I was with my daughter for quite a while, and then she went with my ex-wife. So I was really in a down period. I auditioned for a play and Beau put me in this play. From then on, I went and did another play with him, and I got an agent from that. And then I worked as his stand-in for years. I’m really indebted to him as a friend and also as a mentor.

BLVR: He cast you in a few of his films thereafter?

CB: In all the films he made, I got a small part, or sometimes I got a part and a song in the thing too. He’s a very sweet and very generous man.

BLVR: What it was like for you to work as a stand-in?

CB: Well, as you can imagine, it’s a double-edged sword. People are viewing you as though that is what you are: you’re a background artist. You’re not going to be taken seriously as an actor. I was a theater major. I’ve always known I was good at what I did, but I had to make money; I had to pay the rent. Later on, I had child support at times too. I had to do something. This was a job where I could learn the business; I could watch the dance. I could be out there on the ice with everybody, you know; I could see the ballet ensue. So I trusted it would be all right, but numerous people told me that no one was going to take me seriously if I was working as a stand-in. But I’d already seen myself successful.

That touches on something about success and people and friends. You know, your friends, as much as they love you, sometimes they don’t want you to rise above them. They can’t help it; it’s a subconscious thing. They’re going to tell you this can’t be done or that can’t be done. And if you buy into that, then you can be talked out of your dream. I know that for a fact because I almost bought into that a few times. But you have to keep pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, as it were, and believe in yourself. You ever see people twirl their fingers around their head like they’re crazy? There’s a book, I can’t remember her name… Eileen [Day McKusick]. She is talking about human beings as magnets, human beings as batteries, human beings as an electrical force. And I’ve seen it on acid and stuff, the etheric body. There’s these chakras and things around your body. You may want to cut some of this. [Laughs]

BLVR: I find it interesting.

CB: She talks about “the hamster wheel of worry.” The male side, the right side, is going to be worried about the past. The other one, the left side, the feminine side, is going to be projecting into the future. It’s one or the other. I forget. It doesn’t matter. But I was driving down the street one day and I saw someone talking on the phone and they went like this with their finger [makes the twirling gesture]. And I went [snaps]. It’s not just a metaphor. It’s actually that they’re outside their body in that other dimension, going like this, duplicating it with their head. Now, I may be totally off with this, but I think we’ll find out in the future that Creed was onto something here. [Laughs]

BLVR: I think that as humans, we’re always battling regret and balancing that with hope for the future.

CB: Well, I believe it. And I’ll swear by what I say.

BLVR: So you were working as a stand-in while holding on to the belief that you would be able to be seen and recognized for your art.

CB: And also I was writing songs and recording them.

BLVR: Eventually you go from being a stand-in to having smaller roles in movies and television shows, until you get your breakout moment in The Office.

CB: I started getting some lifting up on The Bernie Mac Show. He took a liking to me, and he was such a sweet man. I mean, my god, he was a great guy. He thought I was funny. So I was in the background of these scenes doing all this absurd Creed-like stuff, you know, my Jacques Tati walk, and all the faces I’ve developed, which is a conglomeration of all the people I grew up with. It’s not a conscious effort: it’s fabricated. And then Ken Kwapis [a director of The Office] comes along and then I get this thing all this time later: The Office. At age sixty I get The Office. Who knew? How could anyone know that show was going to become that show? [Whistles] Wow.

BLVR: I read that you would tell stories about your life and Ken Kwapis would overhear them. You said that you wanted to try out for The Office, and it sort of worked out from there.

CB: I met him [Kwapis] through [The Bernie Mac Show’s] first assistant director Joe Moore, and I’d heard he was going to be directing the pilot, the first season of The Office in the American workplace. I’m a huge Ricky Gervais fan—genius, genius stuff. [Kwapis] gave me his number because he was a Grass Roots fan. Now, I did something that no actor does: I called him. I had never done that before; I did an end run around casting. But truthfully, I had a lot of film credits by then, albeit mostly black-and-white and silent films. Still, the numbers add up.

BLVR: One of your film credits is Mask. You played a carnival worker.

CB: I was in the scene with Sam Elliott and Eric Stoltz, who played Rocky. My daughter was studying in New York at the time, and she and a bunch of our cast members went to see Mask at the local cinema. She was sitting there and she knew, but she hadn’t told anybody. During my scene, the people around her went, “What an asshole!” But she said, “Dad, I was so proud of you.” And that made me feel so good. [Laughs]

BLVR: You worked with Peter Bogdanovich on that film, and then later you wrote a song called “Peter Bogdanovich Movie.” It’s one of my favorite songs of yours. In the lyrics, Bogdanovich says, “Act real, just feel, let the part take you away.”

CB: “No stalls, no falls. Think perfect love memories.” Look at you. Good for you! Very few people have interviewed me and gone to the depths of my back songs. I applaud you.

BLVR: Oh, I love that song. I’m a big fan of Peter Bogdanovich and his former wife Polly Platt and the work she did as a production designer. The chorus, which we just recited, sounds like great acting advice.

CB: It is great acting advice!

BLVR: Is that how you approach acting?

CB: Well, yeah. I mean, I studied the regular way, you know, doing Chekhov, The Crucible, the Arthur Millers and things like that in college. You do the tropes, as it were. And then, after the Grass Roots, my little voice—it wasn’t a cognitive thing where I thought, What am I going to do? It’s just that the voice said, Get back into acting. You studied acting, you were an acting major, for god’s sake. So I worked for a couple of years with an acting teacher who had an office on Cahuenga Boulevard in Hollywood. He taught the Sanford Meisner technique. Now, if you’re familiar with the Meisner technique, you react to the situation, you learn the lines. It’s not a method. You learn the lines without any meaning at all, and then you wait. It’s working without a tightrope. So if you and I were in a scene right now and you were playing my daughter, let’s say, and you said, Dad, I’m pregnant or I’m going to leave home right now or Something happened and I’m on drugs, or whatever, I would think, Oh, I would cry here. I would get emotional. I would beseech you here. I don’t do any of that. I know the lines. Then on the day I just come in ready to go. And I wait and I react in the moment to what you say. Now, you could fall flat, but when it works, it’s alive and real and I prefer that.

BLVR: What was it like to work with Bogdanovich as a director? What inspired you to write that song?

CB: Well, actually, the thing is that he and I hit it off. We became friends, which was lucky. I was friends with his sister. And then I got the part in Mask and he was gracious enough to let me just go. He put me in the part, then we did it and it turned out better than I’d thought. I want to give a shout-out to Sam Elliott too. He was gracious enough after the scene to invite me to lunch. We were having lunch outside his trailer, and he knew everybody’s name. You could feel the respect that all the cast and the crew had for him. He was just a man of the people. And he wasn’t full of himself. I made a note: this is how you do it.

BLVR: I love the little physical details in your songwriting. It’s almost like something you would see in a short story. There was this one image from “Not Comfortable,” about the narrator and his girlfriend presumably out to dinner. The narrator is uncomfortable with “total strangers” pulling out her chair at the table. Or another lyric, in “The Lovers,” about someone fiddling with their watch. These are small details in your songs that tell you so much about these characters.

CB: I saw a screening of The Lovers with Debra Winger and Tracy Letts. A couple days later, I woke up and wrote that song.

BLVR: You also have a few other songs with titles where you name-drop actors and filmmakers, like “Lauren Bacall.” I love the parallels between the kinds of characters Lauren Bacall played and this woman the narrator is singing about, who is Lauren Bacall–esque. It is very sophisticated doubling.

CB: I myself think my songs are very cinematic. In retrospect, I believe also that the muse, which is my subconscious, let’s say, is giving me information that I need. I may not know it when I’m writing down notes to myself. So maybe six months or a year later, I’ll go, Oh, it’s trying to tell me to do this or act this way, or not to fear. They are always a note to self, my songs. And, yes, there is a layered and unconscious juxtaposition of references, also with my emotional growth and development at the time. I don’t think about it. I just notice that that’s what’s going on. I don’t even know what you call that.

IV. THE HAPPY TIMERS

BLVR: Your grandparents were in a country-and-western band.

CB: The Happy Timers.

BLVR: What was their music like?

CB: My Coarsegold album has their picture on the front. That’s my grandfather playing guitar and that’s my grandmother playing drums. I was just a little kid. I’d come down from Yosemite. I’d spend a few weeks in the summer. I’d fall asleep behind their old amp. They’d play Tex Williams, and Western swing, and Hank Williams. They played all the country songs of the ’40s and the ’50s. They did covers. I love that stuff. I obviously wasn’t enough in love with it to do just country, because I get bored. I’m a pop musician, which means I can play a little jazzy, in the Norah Jones vibe. I’ll do country. Definitely can do rock, definitely can do folk music. It’s eclectic.

BLVR: I wanted to ask about your interest in William Gibson’s work.

CB: Where do I start? That’s a world I want to live in. I don’t know if it’s because I’m an Aquarian or what, but that futuristic stuff just absolutely sucks me in. And we’re seeing now what he predicted: the metaverse, avatars, things like that. He’s a prophet, as they say.

BLVR: What’s your favorite Gibson book? 

CB: I can’t pick one. There’s little ones like Mona Lisa Overdrive. But that’s not one of the big ones. What’s the one with the girl? She’s a trendsetter. And she takes all the logos off her shirts [Pattern Recognition]. That one’s great. So are the others where they’re living on the bridge in San Francisco [the Bridge Trilogy, comprising Virtual Light, Idoru, and All Tomorrow’s Parties]. I love those. Right now, when I think of William Gibson, all of his work blurs and merges into a conglomeration of what he is about. So to my mind, I can’t even decipher between books. It’s just a block of Gibson consciousness and I’m going, Grok this. Great.

BLVR: It’s a whole universe of references.

CB: That would be [Robert A.] Heinlein with “grok.”[1] But, you know.

BLVR: Does it ever bother you when people conflate CB the person and CB the character?

CB: No, I’m lucky. I’m lucky to be me.

BLVR: I’m thinking of a lyric from “When I Settle Down” where you say, “I sure did my share of crazy. / Maybe now I can just be lazy.” Is that something that you still aspire to?

CB: I wrote that with my friend Blue, so that might be Blue’s line. The “crazy” part would be me. But I think you die if you stop working. I don’t understand people retiring. I guess, like, if they’re doing a nine-to-five, I understand them retiring, but artists shouldn’t retire. That’s not part of the deal.

[1] Grok is a term invented by the science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein in his novel Stranger in a Strange Land, meaning “to empathize with.”

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