Elaine Bradley

ON NEON TREES, GRETSCH DRUMS AND HER COMPULSION TO MAKE MUSIC

IF ELAINE BRADLEY WAS, AS SHE CLAIMS, “DUPED INTO PLAYING THE DRUMS,” IT’S UNCLEAR AS TO WHOM THE SUPPOSED RUSE WAS SCHEMING. SINCE JOINING THE POP/ROCK OUTFIT NEON TREES IN 2006, BRADLEY AND COMPANY HAVE RELEASED THREE STUDIO ALBUMS, BEEN A STAPLE ON THE LATE-NIGHT CIRCUIT, TOURED WITH SUCH MASSIVE ARTISTS AS THIRTY SECONDS TO MARS, MAROON 5 AND THE KILLERS, AND TAKEN HOME A BILLBOARD MUSIC AWARD FOR TOP ALTERNATIVE SONG—HARDLY THE MISFORTUNE OF A “DUPE.”

“I chose the drums when I was little because I liked the physicality of it,” says Bradley, enjoying her afternoon at Guitar Center Hollywood. “I used to beat on pots and pans with wooden spoons turned around, and the lids would be the cymbals, and, you know, I would beat on Quaker Oats empty things—but I used to also make the guitars with the toilet paper roll and the rubber bands—anyway, the point is, it all sounded bad. And, I think I play the drums because of the physical nature, but I never wanted to play them as a living, I always wanted to be the singer in a band. So, I played guitar and sang in a band for years and years, and that’s what I wanted to do. And then as a favor to a friend, I ended up playing the drums just, like, for fun … and then that’s how I met the guys in Neon Trees, and so, I kind of just got stuck behind the drums as a favor to a friend—which is a great happenstance, but I definitely didn’t seek out to be the drummer in a band. Ever.”

In fact, Bradley admits that sports were a huge passion in her life before a career in music became a viable reality. “The first truly tough decision I had to make—and sacrifice I had to make—was not playing college basketball in order to do music. Because you can’t—you just can’t. You can’t try and play collegiate sports and be completely serious about something that doesn’t have to do with school … I remember, my high school coach was extremely disappointed and dumbfounded [and] did not understand my decision, and that made it hard, you know?” Bradley adds, “But, I’ll have you know, that I received an email from him, not but a year ago, saying ‘I was wrong. You were right.’ That was a good payoff moment.”

With an ingrained sense of persistence and total engrossment in the world of music, it’s no wonder Bradley feels that the art form is, and has always been, more of an obsession than a hobby. “Music, to me, has always been kind of a compulsion … I don’t know that there was ever a moment where I thought, ‘I must play music,’ I just kind of always did it … there’s no reason, other than, it just feels right.” She elaborates on that feeling, “It’s an expression. I think playing music is very much an expression … there’s a raw emotion in both sport and music that I love. I love that you can express yourself in a way that you really can’t, just, in normal life … it would be really weird for somebody to get really emotional, and, like, jump around, and tear their shirt off, and do this (gesturing)—like Brandi Chastain—or you know, it would be really weird for me to just like, ‘Wyah! Gyah! Ynoah!’ you know? [But] you can do that when you’re drumming, you can say things like ‘Chya’ and nobody hears you,” she laughs. “I don’t know what it is about the performance of music that unlocks that freedom—but it does. And so I think that’s where the compulsion comes from, it’s this something inside of you that you feel compelled to do, but you also feel compelled to share … there’s a difference between a hobby musician, and a musician that works for a living, and the musician who, like, needs to play, and needs to perform … there’s this certain communication that happens between performer and onlooker that you can’t really replicate in any other way … I think that is what’s special about performing music. The compulsion happens because I need to, like, get in front of people and express this thing—whether that be behind the drums, or playing the guitar, or singing or whatever—to me, it’s all the same, frankly, it doesn’t need to be the drums. I just like what happens when I get to perform something. For someone.”

Certainly Bradley is fortunate to be able to mix business with pleasure, melding her livelihood with her passion for making music, though she asserts that privilege can be awarded to nearly anyone who’s willing to put in the work. “Number one, know your strengths and your weaknesses,” she says. “A lot of people who are aspiring anythings don’t bother to look into the mirror and figure out what their talents really are and how good they actually could be … as harsh as this may sound, know if you are any good. First. ‘Kay? And then if you are, then my next piece of advice would be work really hard at it. Go for it. Sacrifice for it … the desire gets you through the times when you have to sacrifice, and people who don’t have that desire or that drive, they get lost in the moments where you have to actually sacrifice, and they call it quits … so if you’re serious about, then commit to it. And be serious about it.”

As an undoubtedly serious musician herself, Bradley’s work with Neon Trees blends traditional acoustic drum sounds with electronic elements, giving the band its unique, modern sound. “I think I look for function, mostly. Like, for instance, the [Roland] SPD-S and the pads that I use, I wouldn’t choose to use them if I didn’t think that it was important. I don’t like overcomplicating my life,” she laughs. “There are things, like, this last album that we did (Pop Psychology, 2014), there are a lot of specific sounds that we got in the studio—a lot of them, with live drums and mic effects and things like that—that you really can’t reproduce live. You just can’t do it. So, taking those exact sounds and incorporating them in a live show through the pads helps get the feel of the album a little more, with the sizzle of a live drum.”

And when it comes to her live drum selection, Bradley prefers a simple, five-piece Gretsch setup. “There’re a lot of things about Gretsch that I really enjoy. I think the first thing that attracted me to Gretsch, that made me want to get an endorsement with them, was that their worst kit is better than so many other companies’ really good or best kits. I like that they don’t have a single bad kit to sell … no matter what you buy, if it’s a Gretsch, it’s at least good,” she says. “And also, there’re a lot of things you can do, tuning-wise, with Gretsch kits … they’re all able to be tuned, within themselves, in a range … and it’s nice that they’ve been around forever. They’ve been doing it forever.”

As for Bradley’s personal setup, “The [Gretsch] USA Custom kit I have is a Champagne Sparkle finish, and then I have the 14-inch tom [on my left], 16-inch tom, and then a 12-inch rack. Then I do the Brooklyn chrome-over-brass snare, and then, yeah, [a] standard 22 kick.” And when it comes to her cymbal selection, she offers, “I feel the same way about Zildjian as I do about Gretsch. They don’t—well, they do make China cymbals, so they do make bad cymbals,” she laughs, “but their China cymbals are good for China cymbals … they’ve got a cymbal for every situation. Like, I have a whole set of studio cymbals that I would never use live, because it just doesn’t translate the same—but in the studio, they come to life, and they cut through just right. And then the live ones, maybe are a little too clunky for the studio, but they cut through in the live [show], so it just depends on the situation … also, not breaking is nice. They don’t break very often.”

Simultaneously looking back at the career she has built, and forward at what’s yet to come, Bradley reflects on Neon Trees’ not-so-easy journey. “I think, Neon Trees specifically, the four of us, all have that same kind of drive and willingness to put out everything, even when you’re not getting so much in return. And we had, probably the worst year of our collective lives in 2007/2008 … we were at each other’s throats, and we were practicing, like, six hours a day, six days a week, it was just—it was gross, and gnarly, and we were taking any show, five people showing up was like a success, ‘But three of them bought shirts!’ … it’s funny to look at how that happened with Neon Trees, and how we handled it—because we all were on the same page … that was what I think made Neon Trees special, was the fact that we all went through that refiner’s fire together, at the same time, and never once thought, ‘Oh, this isn’t gonna work,’ or ‘Oh, this isn’t worth it.’ We never even talked like that. We talked like, ‘Okay well, when this, then this.’ And looking back, it’s kind of amazing—but, also really stupid,” she laughs. “I think that’s what’s great, is that drive that blinds your finer senses of disappointment … because you know that something better can and will come if you just hold out and do what you’re doing and get better and work at it. And we all believed that.”

Bradley offers a few final thoughts on trusting her success to her fellow bandmates. “It is scary, because you need all four to function, you know? But at the same time, there’s a great strength that comes with being with three other like-minded people,” she says. “If I were a solo artist, I think it would be a lot harder to maintain perspective. ’Cause, you know, we all have our ups and downs, and our deluded moments, and our, like, depressive moments, and what’s nice about being with three other people is that usually we don’t all have those moments at the same exact time. So, at least one of us can be the voice of reason, or the voice of positivity, or the voice of humility, you know? Like, ‘Hey, listen to yourself’—in whatever way you’re being—‘and come back to reality, ’cause this is what it is.’ And we can all be really grateful as well. We’re all able to kind of sit back and think about those terrible times we had, and then look at where we are and what we get to do, and feel really grateful and blessed. And I think that would be harder on my own. To remind myself to be normal.”

Written by Brian Ruppenkamp / Photography by Ryan Hunter

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