John Bradley on the End of Dads, Beating Cancer and Moving Forward
One of the most remarkable albums released in 2014 was I’ll Be the Tornado by Dads. Formed by drummer / vocalist John Bradley and guitarist Scott Scharinger in 2010, the duo quickly rose to prominence in (and were somewhat swallowed by) the emo revival scene, especially after the release of debut album American Radass (This Is Important) in 2012. Bassist Ryan Azada joined the fold after the recording of Tornado, a dark and emotionally heavy step away from the scene. It was also greeted with almost universal acclaim, and saw the band break through the boundaries of the genre it had unwittingly been consumed by.
But then, just as things seemed to be going well, a couple of tours were cancelled, and in spring 2015, after a tour supporting Kevin Devine, the band just kind of disappeared. After almost a year with no news, Bradley announced in February 2016 that he’d been diagnosed with cancer and was recovering from surgery. Now, just over a year since, Bradley is back with a cassette entitled Demo that marks the next step of his musical career. In a very long and frank interview — it’s only when speaking about the demise of Dads and his relationships with his former bandmates that he goes off the record — he talks about what happened over the past few years to bring him into the present with these new songs by his side.
Welcome back to the world of music! It seemed like momentum was really gathering around Dads when it all stopped. I’ll Be the Tornado was getting amazing reviews, and it seemed like things were really taking off.
Which is weird, because it didn’t feel like that. We saw the reviews, and that felt amazing. But what we felt in the van was we came from such a scene, that emo revival scene, where you could see how well you were doing every night, because it’s such an in-your-face scene, and they didn’t really give Tornado a chance. We felt like we’d made a record that we enjoyed, but was a very big departure from American Radass or even [2013's] Pretty Good. I think that if we’d toured on it more, it would have [done] more, but if you put it up against American Radass, it’s like two different bands. We grew up, and it takes time for people to grow up and still be able to keep their footing. And people started taking it for granted. You’d go to cities where they loved us, but you’d start to see, "Ah I saw them three months ago and I have a test tomorrow," or, "I need to go to sleep, so I’ll see them next time." Which is fine — everybody has their lives, and I understand that music isn’t a major priority for most people. So, it was my dream to be able to work work work work work, financially support myself, and then take some time off to let people miss us, to be able to just have six months in hiding where nobody would hear from us. That was a goal, to be able to say we don’t have to worry about rent. And, of course, money isn’t a major thing, but it is when you need to pay rent. I don’t think I’d planned on being away for that long, but it was kind of out of my hands.
At what point were you diagnosed with cancer? Presumably that was a big part of your decision to completely stop Dads, instead of just take a break.
With Dads, I think it was also a matter of our personal friendships. You start off and it’s just, "Show up to this show at this time!" and you play 25 minutes and just have fun. Everyone’s getting drunk. And then you go to a thing where you’re opening for bands where it’s very professional, and it was a very stressful thing for all of us because we didn’t know the weight of what was going on. When, in reality, you look at great bands that do it, and they still keep having fun. My fear was that I wouldn’t look professional to other people. And I think, no matter what, we needed that break. And that happened before the diagnosis. Everything just kind of came to a head, and we all decided to just go away, like, "Let’s just part and do our own thing." We also had to cancel two tours — we cancelled the Lemuria U.K. tour the week before it was supposed to start, and the Appleseed Cast tour a month before.
Why did you cancel those tours?
There were some … internal things. But it just wasn’t going to happen. I don’t want to speak for those guys and I respect them, but it was not a thing that could happen, unfortunately. But we didn’t want to say that it was a definitive thing and then realize two months later that we missed it and get back together. Another thing is, when you work with that scene — when you know those people and they’re not fans, but people you start following on social media, and you become friendly with them and you become great friends — you end up becoming close with these people that view your music as something of their own. And that’s something we aimed for. So, to sit there and break up and to say, "Hey, we’re done," felt weird. Granted, I do see that not saying anything might also be weird, but we all needed to clear our heads of it. It’s something that was amazing and fun, but then it became a job. And we tried to keep it fun during that, but there was a lot of stress that was added or we added ourselves.
That’s the catch-22. Playing music is fun, but if you want to do it for a living, it has to become a job. And presumably you wanted to do it as a job — so where and how do you draw the line if you also have those reservations and issues about it being a job?
Oh, I loved it as a job. I think what happened for me, personally, is that we started Dads when I was 20, 21, and we kept it going until I was 26. And a lot of stuff happened to me and Scott, and then when Carly [Hoskins, the band’s tour manager, photographer, merch seller, van driver and all-around on-the-road virtuoso] and Ryan came along, a lot of personal things happened, and we weren’t home long enough to take a step aside and go, "This is who we are as human beings." And as much as I thought I was self-aware, there were a lot of things I was doing that were slipping through the cracks. There were a lot of insecurities and anxieties that I didn’t even realize I had. So, I love it as a job, but it took what happened with Dads and the way that played out for me to realize, "Oh, there is a way for me to do this a job, as a lifelong passion, and some of these things you were doing weren’t okay." Like, some of the ways I was working and trying to keep other people in my life weren’t smart. Like, if you go to work and you get in a fight with your girlfriend, it’s going to fuck up your job for that day. If you’re on the road and you and your girlfriend are fighting and you can’t see them for a month, it’s going to fuck up a lot. I definitely had a hard time keeping those feelings inside and keeping those projections on my own. It was normal everyday life things, and you have to learn how to do those on the road. I think that we thought we did, and then you come home after everything and it’s like, "Oh … crap. I didn’t really do that that well." But I came to terms with it a little bit afterwards, where if Dads was the last thing I did in "music," I’m extremely proud and happy, because it’s more than Scott and I thought we would ever do.
So, let’s jump forward. You were taking this break and then you got the news?
I came home, moved back to New Jersey from Michigan, and the Dads stuff happened right after that. And then I was like, "I’m just going to take a break." So, I took a road trip with my sister, did as much traveling as I possibly could, because as much as touring was a [negative] thing, that’s how I got my mind off stuff. I spent time with family because I hadn’t seen family for a while. I started seeing doctors for other ailments because I hadn’t had a check-up in a while, and before Dads, something medical always seemed to be circling around. I started seeing a doctor because I had swollen tonsils, and this would have been August 2015. But you know how you feel a bump and you think, "Oh, it’s probably a tumor," or you have a feeling that you have cancer? I had that, too. So, finally, I was like, I need to grow up and get this checked out, because I have a break in life, and if there’s any time to be sick, it’s now. I need to respect whatever it is and allow myself to deal with it. I saw a doctor who said he didn’t think it was a tumor, but that I should see a specialist, so I saw a specialist who said the same thing, but who told me to get tests done. Then I had to see a different doctor because of his insurance status, so I saw a different doctor for, like, five seconds, and immediately he said, "The soonest we can get you into surgery is four days." And I go, "Why?" And he tells me that all my tests show I have a tumor, and I’m like [deep sigh], "All right." But I kind of liked the fact that it was that quick, because I didn’t have a lot of time to think about it. That was October 2015. I had surgery, and they said it was fine. They biopsied it and said it was the type of tumor that wasn’t growing, that when you take it out, you’re safe. But then there were other signs they didn’t like. I took like three weeks to heal and went back around Christmas for an annual check-up. I’d had to do bloodwork the week before, and he said my blood was still showing cancerous numbers. I asked what that meant and he said, "Well, you’re either looking at chemo or another surgery." So, I met with a bunch of specialists and got a bunch more tests done, and in June we decided that chemo wasn’t needed, but the surgery was.
What kind of cancer was it?
It was testicular cancer. Which I’m fine talking about, but I don’t know how anybody else feels about it. I have no problems speaking about it, because it brings awareness to people. I know a lot of male friends who’ve said they think they might have it. Because testicles are weird. And as much as there are ways of showing, like, do a check like this and this, you never really know. So, the second surgery was a lymph node removal surgery where they went into the abdomen and took a bunch out. It was this weird thing where I knew I had it, but I didn’t really have it, so I didn’t know how to process it. And that was a long period of time where every day it’s in your mind, whereas before I had four days and then I was out.
And, of course, you start imagining the worst.
Right. And that second surgery was terrifying, to the point where I was like, "I’m okay with chemo," and they’re like, "You don’t need chemo." This was February 2016. Finished that, there was two to three months of recovery, and through all that my tonsils were still swollen, which was what I’d originally seen my doctor for. I finished the recovery for the second surgery in May, and I went back to my ear, nose and throat doctor and said, "Take them out," and they removed my tonsils in June. So, by July I was like, "I’m ready to be a human again!"
That’s a long time to be in that position. How scared were you? Because cancer is a serious thing, no matter what kind it is. Did the thought that you could possibly die ever cross your mind?
It did. The thing was, the only sign that was showing that I still had quote-unquote cancer was my bloodwork. I was still getting CAT scans and x-rays and all that stuff, and they couldn’t find any tumors, but there are types of tumors that don’t show up there, but which are still growing, or just cancerous cells that could exist that they can’t find. During all this, I was doing my research and keeping in touch with a couple of friends who had gone through chemo, and I didn’t feel it was my fight. But I also felt I should take it seriously. Because at no point was I going through the problems that those friends were — I was basically just lying in bed all day feeling weird, and not because of cancer, but because of mental stuff. It was a mental struggle. There were moments where I’d lie in bed and take it in and think, "This could be the end," but more it was just trying, for lack of a better word, to stay strong. I’m very lucky with that, because a lot of people have to go through chemo and they’re very sick all the time. As long as I didn’t have to give blood or whatever, I was able to get in my car and just drive and see friends and get my mind off of it. But there was definitely a point where I was like, "I might."
And presumably you become much more aware of your mortality and the fragility of human life.
Yes. And I think the weirdest part is that you spend X amount of months worrying about a scene, you spend X amount of months worrying about a relationship break-up, you spend X amount of months focusing on super small details, and they seem huge because that’s what we live in, and then somebody’s like, "You have cancer," and I’m like, "Let’s make amends. Let’s be friends. I don’t care about these petty things anymore because I might not be here in a month." It was never that bad because it was never late of stage, but it was still the idea that made me think that none of that matters to me anymore. So, it was kind of helpful, like in this weird way of saying cancer helped you grow. But it did.
You kept it quiet for a long time and only announced it publicly once you were over it. How did that feel?
It’s weird. I had health insurance thanks to Obamacare — and still do, thankfully — but I saw friends that weren’t as lucky. I was very lucky. I lived with my parents and didn’t have to pay rent or work a job. I could just go get what I needed to get done, and relax and recover. I saw friends that didn’t have that, and who had to create a GoFundMe or whatever, and I didn’t want to come out and muddy their waters and say, "Yo, I have cancer, too. I’m also going through shit." And because it was testicular cancer, it was kind of strange, because I didn’t know how to speak about it. And because [after the surgeries] it wasn’t, "You have tumors, we need to take them out," but "Your bloodwork’s weird," I just didn’t know how to talk about it. But I went back in April after recovering from the surgery, and they did a check-up to determine if I needed chemo, and I thought that I’d found another tumor. And that was a thing I had to get used to. People talk about cancer like, "You beat it," but it kind of just lives with you. Once it’s in, you’re kind of just thinking about it. So, there was a month after I’d recovered from the surgery where I was just like, "What the fuck is this?" and thought I had to do some more testing, but finally realized that no, it was just something completely normal that I just thought was weird. It was about April 2016, I think, when I was told I was okay, that I didn’t have anything or need anything, and that was weird because I was just working with surgeons, and at no point did I hear that it was in remission — which is what you hear in, like, a TV show or movie. He just said, "Everything seems clear right now, see you in a month." And it’s like, "What does that mean?!" I want that finality. I want to know that I’m healthy. But that’s surgeon talk, because I didn’t do rounds of chemo; I just had two surgeries. There’s no mind ease, but I’m safe. For the first year, you still go through surveillance checks every month — blood, x-rays and a CAT scan every two to three months. Now, after that first year, I’ll do bloodwork every four months and a CAT scan every six.
And like you said, it’s sort of made you stronger. And what came out of it is these songs. When did you start writing them?
The first song was written when I was still in Michigan. I had a family member go through a crazy health thing, even before everything with me. 2015 in general was just riddled with weird family health and personal things — and then my own battles. So, some of the songs were written before cancer. Some are about trying to get over break-ups and friendship, but also cancer and not respecting the cancer part of it because I’m like, "What about this?" Which happened a lot. It should have been focusing on the cancer stuff, but in my mind I was still thinking about all these other problems. So, most of it happened during, and the final song I wrote afterwards, when everything was clear.
This is perhaps a cliché, but do these songs represent a new beginning for you, both in terms of music and who you are post-cancer? Or is it not quite as grandiose as that?
I feel like it is new, but I’ve learned so much about how to exist as a human in and outside of this music thing that, while I’m interested in seeing it as a new beginning, I’m also not going to ignore the different things I’ve learned and done.
And you’re very happy now just being John Bradley?
Yes. And no ill will towards anything or anyone, but just being able to say this is me, that it’s a portrayal of me and I don’t have to worry about trying to portray something else or put on this image of a mysterious band. This is the truest me.
So, what are you hopes for this?
I would like to get back to what I was doing. I would like to keep that going. At no point did I have anything against being … when you’re in a relationship and you’re touring, it gets kind of hard. There was a point where I was like, "I could settle down and get a job or I could keep touring." Dads and music was the passion, but I felt weird making that call. As a single human being that lives at his parents’ house, I can do that. And, of course, love rocks, relationships rock, but I’ve been through that where now I can see this is my passion. At the end of the day, everything can leave, but I can still play songs. I can still do what I love to do and let that be my creative outlet. Whether I like it or not, I’m a creative person, and I don’t feel productive unless I’m creating. So, I’d like to get back on track and just have fun with it. I’d like to be able to say, "This is what I do and I’m happy again." Right now, I’m very content. I feel good, I feel healthy, I feel happy with what’s going on in life, and I’m very excited to see what happens.
Get John Bradley's new demo tape from 6131 Records.