MadonnaTribe meets Stephen Bray and the Breakfast Club
The MadonnaTribe team is happy to have another chance to get back to the roots of Madonna’s three decades in the history of music. MTribe‘s Mario John is thrilled to meet Stephen Bray, the songwriter, drummer, and producer who co-wrote hits as Into The Groove, Express Yourself, True Blue, Each Time You Break My Heart, Where’s The Party and Causing A Commotion, to name just a few, not to mention the great input he had on Madonna’s early songs and on her first self titled album.
And it all started with Breakfast Club! and the guys are back with a brand new record available on i-Tunes this week and they are happy to chat with us about it.
But first let’s shortly summarize the story of the band. The current Breakfast Club members actually met in the early 80’s and have worked with Madonna at different times.
The original band was formed in New York in the late ’70s by brothers Dan and Ed Gilroy with a lineup featuring bassist Angie Smit and Madonna Ciccone on drums. Madonna then left to form her own band, Emmy, with her old Michigan friend Stephen Bray as the drummer and Gary Burke (who was also playing at the same time with the Gilroys) on bass.
When Madonna started her solo career in the early ’80s, Stephen helped her on her first album and eventually joined the Gilroys and Burke in the new Breakfast Club…
Hi guys, it’s a pleasure having Stephen Bray and The Breakfast Club here on MadonnaTribe.
Stephen Bray: Thanks very much – we appreciate the interest!
First of all, why was the band called Breakfast Club and who came up with the name?
Dan Gilroy: We used to go to IHOP with whatever musicians happened to be around. (buckwheat pancakes and we would bring our own real maple syrup)… we used to say, “want to do a breakfast club?” which was a play on the old radio show out of Chicago called Don McNeil’s Breakfast Club. This sounded catchy so we decided on it for a band name. This predated several bands with “Club” names including Gun Club, Culture Club and the movie “The Breakfast Club”.
Stephen Bray: It was a really big deal for us when the movie came out in 84 since Dan and Ed had been using the name since 1978! There was a lot of hand wringing and discussion of name changes but nothing stuck. We got a lot of weird looks back in 1986 but I feel it was a good decision to keep the name.
Can you tell us more about the early days of Breakfast Club? what was the idea behind the band and what was each member doing? Madonna was playing drums right?
Dan: We were gigging as Acme Band around NY in ’78. I met Madonna and shortly after she moved to Corona where we had equipment: drums, guitars, etc. With her dancer background and good rhythmic sense Madonna took to the drums pretty easily. So the first lineup was my brother Ed on guitar, Madonna on drums and Angie Smit on bass, whom Madonna recruited after meeting her at a club.
What kind of days were those? We know Madonna was determined, but were you trying to reach success at any cost or you had other jobs and playing music just to see what might have come along?
Dan: We loved to play and wanted gigs! Splitting 100 bucks four ways was fun but didn’t pay the rent so, yes, we (even Madonna) needed other jobs, too.
Stephen: This is tiny bit of out of sequence but arriving in 1980 was my first time in New York since being 7 years old. I was broke for the most part having arrived with nothing but lint in my pocket but in love with becoming a New Yorker. I was immediately rehearsing with Madonna and Gary [Gary Burke, who played bass in Madonna’s own Emmy band] and by 1982 was taking the train out to Corona to rehearse Dan and Ed’s songs too.
I was living more than less in a rehearsal loft on 8th avenue which really made for a fantastically romantic bohemian artist lifestyle. Playing gigs at Max’s Kansas City, Danceteria, CBGB’s and the clubs of the time was pure heaven. At one point I was playing at CBGB’s so often I’d leave my drums in the loft above the stage. This was after the super heyday of Talking Heads and Blondie but it was still an amazing time.
Speaking about those old days, a few years ago a rather tawdry tv movie was made about the early days of M in New York, Innocence Lost was the title. You were also portrayed in the film with a different name, I guess to avoid legal disputes. Did you see the movie? and if you did was fun or awkward watching a piece of your life being distorted on tv?
Stephen: I’ve seen a few bio pics about those early days and while they are fun to watch – I love movies as much as music – none of them have really captured the moment, in my opinion.
If you weren’t there you have to guess and I think in most of those cases they’ve guessed wrong.
One of these days someone will get it right, or at least closer. It’s far more flattering than awkward to be included in Madonna’s origin lore.
Back to music, in 1987, while you were enjoying your success as an acclaimed songwriter and composed the film score for Who’s That Girl, you and Dan brought the Breakfast Club back with a great self-titled pop album and scored a major hit with Right On Track which peaked at #7 on the US Billboard Hot 100 chart and with the “Jellybean” Remix it also became a top ten hit in the Club charts.
You were competing in the charts with other songs you wrote with Madonna. What do you remember about that era? Any funny moment behind the scenes?
Stephen: Ah, those were the days! I remember at one point Ed Gilroy started referring to turning on the “Braydio” because there was a wonderful moment where you could hear several songs I’d either written or produced.
I never thought of it as competition as I my lifelong dream had been to be on the radio so the feeling was pure gratitude all the way. Well, maybe gratitude and fatigue.
This week Breakfast Club are back! And with a new project! You are preparing two E.P.s of songs, the first one, titled Percolate, is out now on iTunes, Amazon, Spotify and other streaming platforms. Are the songs new penned songs or reworked unreleased tracks?
Stephen: Everything so far is material that was written along the way – some of
it is from the early 80’s and some is from the late 80’s – after our stint at MCA. Your question gives me the idea to include some new material in one of our subsequent releases. Percolate represents the late 80’s songs and we’ve got another five or six coming to round out what we’re calling Second Breakfast. It also reflects some fine work by Randy Jackson. We wrote several songs together and he’s singing and playing (awesomely, I might add) on a lot of the late 80’s material.
We had a chance to listen to Percolate and it’s amazing how you succeded to bring back the essence of the Breakfast Club sound, the pop beats, the guitars, but making the sound up to date. Tell us more about Percolate. Where is the title coming from?
Dan: The title ‘Percolate’? Who knows? A word pops in your head and you think “hey, that’s bouncy!” It’s kind of a mystery – almost like naming a child… You never really know unless a title pops into your head and sounds good. If everyone says ‘yeah why not?’ then you know you’ve got something.
Stephen: What’s been really fun about working on the old material is the discovery process. Digging through demos and finding crazy old sounds and beats from 1982 only to find that they’ve been incorporated into so much music made by young bands today. I’m a big Empire of the Sun fan and I hear a lot of modernized approaches to what we were doing back in the day.
Dan’s vocal are great, unabashedly romantic odes to relationships going good or gone bad and I believe they stand the test of time.
Why did you decide to bring Breakfast Club back to the scene in 2016?
Stephen: There was just too much music and too many songs to ignore! Breakfast Club was an awesome 10 year experience for me and I just wanted to share the scrapbook with those folks who liked us back in the day.
Are you planning to do live shows around, performing this material and Breakfast Club classic?
Stephen: We’d love to play together again. We’re currently checking out opportunities and look forward to being on stage. We’re way overdue for a reunion!
Stephen, as the co-author of Express Yourself, I just wanted to ask you about the Born This Way controversy. The song is widely described as an Express Yourself‘s “rip off/homage/parody” depending on how much of a Gaga fan people are. If I’m not mistaken, Express Yourself was inspired by Respect Yourself, a song from the early 70s by The Staple Singers. We are very curious to hear your voice on this as you are the one who put together the chords of this acclaimed Madonna classic?
Stephen: I like the idea that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. I think the world of Lady Gaga, she is clearly a creative giant so I don’t find the situation controversial at all.
If you’ve ever seen that “everything is a remix” video it shows how so much work is inspired and shaped by what has come before. I think it’s a question of staying on the “inspired by” side of the fence when writing.
There is definitely a common thread of Self-Esteem and Self-Respect in the Staple Singers song and Express Yourself and I’m sure there are a whole lot more titles we could find that explore that theme.
And speaking of Express Yourself, do you have a favourite version (remix or live version)?
Stephen: I love Shep Pettibone’s work on any of the songs I’ve done and especially his Express Yourself remix. One big regret is that I never got to work on something with him. Maybe he can help with some of this new Breakfast Club stuff!
That would be great, I’m also a big fan of the Shep songs and remixes. Now, of all the songs you wrote with Madonna, is there one that you love the most?
Stephen: Of the ones I wrote – Into The Groove for sure. Of the ones I produced I’m really proud of Papa Don’t Preach.
I was listening to the Papa Don’t Preach Extended Version on the single the other day and it really has a Breakfast Club sound. Did you produce that too?
Stephen: Yes, that is a remix I did with Michael Verdick at what was called the Hit Factory in NYC. I believe that it’s now condos or something – I actually walked by the building recently to see it was all gone…
That remix took a while because we were using a new system called Total Recall from SSL and it wasn’t totally recalling much at the time.
I think that was a 72 hour marathon session but it came out well.
By the way it should be noted that Michael V is the connective tissue between a lot of Madonna and Breakfast Club music. He tracked and mixed Live to Tell and it’s safe to say he is VERY responsible for that gorgeous and lush sound. Not to take anything away from the genius of Pat Leonard, of course! Pat was so taken with Michael that he introduced him to me and suggested I work with Michael on my True Blue tracks.
I then brought Michael into the Breakfast Club world and we’re working together to this day.
Papa Don’t Preach was also one of the few songs from that era that was not penned by Madonna with you or Patrick Leonard. Where did it come from?
Stephen: Papa Don’t Preach was a song written by Brian Elliot. It was my understanding that Michael Ostin at Warner Brothers found the song. I remember getting a cassette (1985 or so) of the demo and being excited to dig in. It was a cool challenge working on a song I had not written.
Papa Don’t Preach was the leading single off True Blue, the album on which you debuted as a producer. Did you feel the pressure, working on that record that was following the huge success of Nile Rodgers’ Like a Virgin?
Stephen: As far as pressure goes it was a lot to handle following in the amazing shoes of Nile Rodgers but Madonna has a way of inspiring confidence. I do remember playing the album for Michael Ostin and Lenny Waronker at Michael Verdick’s studio in Burbank and pretending to be cool and calm. I was VERY relieved when they gave us two thumbs up.
As a longtime fan I’m very curious about the songs that didn’t make the final cut? So now that I have you here I can’t refrain myself from asking… For example, what about the “mysterious” Desperately Seeking Susan song that you and Madonna wrote for the film and that was scrapped in favour of Into The Groove?
Stephen: Desperately Seeking Susan doesn’t really count because it needed some polishing we never got around to doing once they didn’t need it for the film. All we need is a time machine or alternate reality machine for that one to come back.I also loved Can’t Stop from Who’s That Girl. I feel I didn’t quite nail what it could have been from a writing stand point.
There’s also a song called First, There’s a Kiss that is beautiful but again, we never really signed off on a finished version because it wasn’t chosen for Like a Prayer.
I remember at the time the Like A Prayer album came out in March 1989, First, There’s a Kiss was known already to be one of the “scrapped” titles and it was rumoured to be a song about AIDS and promoting safe sex, can you confirm that? What was the vibe of that track?
Stephen: That may be true – the lyric could certainly be interpreted that way. It’s a really catchy tune chock full of fantastic harmonies. Maybe the Madonna fan base will convince her to polish and release it one these days.
That would be awesome. She reprised the demo version of Erotica for her Confessions Tour in 2006, so maybe there’s still hope to hear a finished version of First, There’s a Kiss in the future. Now, Into The Groove really is one of my all time favourite Madonna songs, I just love every version of it! Do you remember the exact day when you two came up with the music and lyrics?
Stephen: Thank you! I don’t remember the exact day but I do have a vivid picture of where and how. It was really low budget – a Tascam 8 track, a small Ramsa console and a Shure 58 microphone.
That and a ton of wires connecting Oberheim and Roland and Sequential Circuits gear all crammed into a little apartment on the east side of Manhattan. I’m pretty sure you can hear dogs barking and people yelling in the airshaft on the vocal tracks. Madonna was shooting Desperately Seeking Susan right down the street so it’s easy to pin point the time period.
In her latest tour, Rebel Heart, Madonna sung for the first time in years True Blue. Apparently she hated the song but now she seems very proud of this new acoustic version. Did you have a chance to listen to it? Do you like it?
Stephen: Okay – thank you again for asking these questions! Yes, I love it! We had a LOT of fun working on those True Blue songs. Madonna and I really adore that old school pop and it was a huge part of why we clicked.
Do you think there’s a chance you might write new songs with Madonna in the future? The fans would love to hear new music from the old team…
Stephen: In short, I’d love to. I’ve gone down a different path into music theater of late but I can still find my way around a sequencer.
As a last question I’d like to ask you about how you met Madonna. What is the most vivid memory of that day?
Stephen: Oh that’s easy – It’s like that Human League song only I was the waiter in a cocktail bar. I was working at a bar where they had the whole 1977 disco hustle Saturday Night Fever thing going on and she came in to dance with some friends.
Contrary to what she has said in my recollection I bought her a gin and tonic. I felt she’d earned it having cleared the dance floor with her attention getting moves.
Stephen, Dan and Ed, thanks for sharing your precious memories with us. Hope to keep the chat going when the next Breakfast Club E.P. comes out.
Interview written and conducted by Mario John for Madonnatribe.com.
1 Court of Love 4:16
2 Mirage (3:28)
3 Can’t Put My Finger on It (3:41)
4 It Just Don’t Get Any Better (4:10)
5 Hello (4:25)
Dan Gilroy: Vocals
Ed Gilroy: Guitar and Vocals
Gary Burke: Bass and Vocals
Randy Jackson: Bass and Vocals
Stephen Bray: Drums, Keyboards and Vocals