words by Chad Taylor // Pictures by Danny Carman
This is not a redemption story.
For that to happen, your main character needs to actually be redeemed in some way, and I'm not sure that's the case here. This story DOES have a main character, but he doesn't always come off particularly well in the telling.
Make no mistake, there is a certain degree of bravery involved in sitting down and talking about these things out loud. But there's a certain sociopathy, as well. Our main character can clearly identify the things in his life that he didn't do right. But he does not come out of this story seeming noble, or heroic, or even particularly apologetic. I can not promise you that you'll finish reading this, and come out the other end liking Bradford Johnson very much.
Which is really interesting, because at his core, Johnson is an extremely likable fellow. He's tall, handsome, charismatic, funny and incredibly talented. And yet, as he prepares himself to leave Des Moines and move to Nashville, Johnson leaves behind him a string of people who feel burned, betrayed, and profoundly disappointed in him, but who mostly all still like him enough to call him a friend.
But we're getting ahead of ourselves.
In The Beginning...
"I was born with a lot of talent."
Bradford Johnson sits in a booth at a taco bar in West Des Moines, a bundle of nervous energy. He agreed to sit down with me nearly a week previously, and tells me that he spent much of the past couple days wanting to cancel. Now that he's here, he says, he knows it was the right decision. It's time to get these things off his chest. That's probably true.
The 31 year old was born and raised in the Des Moines area. Home schooled until he was 12, Johnson started attending public school in tiny Van Meter. Referring to his preteen self as "severely socially retarded," Johnson was thrust into classes with children who had grown up together, while Johnson admits to really only interacting with his mother and brother for most of his own childhood. But he was, as he said, born with talent.
Growing up with no real friends, and describing himself has not having been taught the social mechanisms for making any, young Johnson started looking for some easy way to be accepted. In high school, he became the kid who would do crazy shit on a dare. The kid that everyone liked to have around, because they were always good for a cheap laugh. But even the craziest act wears thin, after a while. Luckily, that was about the time that Johnson finally found an outlet for all that latent artistic talent. That's when he found the guitar.
"People started respecting me," he recalled. "Girls started liking me. The cool kids started talking to me. That was 100% when I started craving the attention. I started to feel good about myself. That was my driving force to become a musician. When people told me my songs were good, I felt valid."
"But because of that, I was never forced to focus on the things that most people without that musical talent do," he continued. "I was never forced to focus on relationships. So I took, took, took from people all the time. But I'd show up at your party and everyone would have a good time."
That dynamic of taking from people while still making sure everyone's having fun would become a leitmotif of Johnson's post-high school life.
Johnson started his first band, Cardboard Canary, with a friend named Justin Norman. The pair lived on the same street, and would spend hours at Norman's house, jamming and recording whatever came into their heads. That was the point where Johnson says that he began to love writing music, because that was the first time he saw the visceral reaction that people could have to his songs. That reaction really became the first drug he got hooked on.
"All of a sudden the artistic side of it became my focus. I sold my soul to it. I realized that I could craft anything I want, and elicit emotional responses from people. I can be honest and open finally, without having to have intimate relationships with people."
While that feeling would stay with him forever, Cardboard Canary would not. The band had made the group decision to pack up and move to California, and Johnson backed out.
"They moved out there, and I just went 'I don't want to go'." He pauses a beat, before adding: "I've been the reason that all my bands have broken up."
I ask him how that makes him feel, and he ponders for a long moment.
"Important," he said at last. "And sorry, I guess."
Does he understand that that's kind of a fucked up answer to that question?
"Yes. 100%. Absolutely."
"I made myself into this weird persona," he continued. "So I had job security, just because of how weird I was. Not because I was anything special. I just decided to become a performer and I enjoyed it. So from that standpoint, it was always like 'It's fine, because they can't replace me.' Not that I could necessarily replace them either, but I thought, 'no matter how much of an asshole I am, I'm ok. I'm the lead singer'."
After Cardboard Canary ended, Johnson would find perhaps his strongest artistic outlet; a band called Rosefield Rivals. Formed in 2004 with Jeff Krantz, Elliott Tommingo and Aaron Buzbee, Rosefield Rivals hit the Des Moines scene at a time when local music was undergoing a period of revival. The band was good -- though very much a product of their time -- and finding success was easy for them. That success became the catalyst for something that had been laying dormant in Johnson for years: it was during this time that the superiority complex that had been just looking for a moment to eat its way out of him, exploded to the forefront.
"I really started thinking 'I'm, the best'," he recalled. "There's this 'Des Moines is my bitch' vibe that I got. I turned into an awful person. Just felt better than everybody else."
It had an alienating effect.
"Everybody came to our shows, but none of the musicians and I were close. There was no community, and that was pretty much on me."
It was also around this time that Johnson started drinking and, since Bradford Johnson is not the kind of person to do anything half-assed, he started drinking heavily. There are probably a litany of factors that contributed to the breakup of Rosefield Rivals, but Johnson will be the first to tell you that they all had to do with him.
This time, however, the split up of the band seemed to have a minor positive effect on him. He joined what he describes as "a little Christian rock band," severely curtailed his drinking, and started looking for more positive influences in his life.
He met a girl named Erin whom he would marry when he was just 21.
"I remember waking up the next day, married, and going 'what the fuck do I do?'," he recalled. "I moved out of my parents house into our home together as husband and wife. We both grew up religious, so it was like 'no sex before marriage, no living together.' So we moved out of our parents houses, and we owned a home together the next day."
He quit music for a couple of years at that point; a decision that he says was Erin's because she viewed his relationship with music as a dysfunctional one. But rather than having the intended effect, leaving music behind would prove to be disastrous. It was as if that creative outlet had been covering up a great, sucking hole in his psyche. And when that cover was removed, something else had to be pulled in to replace it.
"That's when I found Adderall," he admitted. "At first, you take it and it's like 'man, I can get everything done'. But as it progressed, I would be up for three days in a row; five days in a row. I just kept using it. I became a shell of a person."
"We were married for five years, total. It was good for maybe one. She hung on way longer than she should have. That's a common theme in my life: amazing people who hang on for too long."
The divorce absolutely wrecked him. He was deeply in love, but unable to give up the things that were ruining his marriage. That conflict, along with knowing the failures lay with him, caused Johnson to spiral. Aside from a couple of one-off projects, he had been out of music for nearly three years and he was heavily abusing Adderall. He was at one of his lowest emotional points, and turned back to his church in an effort to find himself again.
After his divorce, Johnson returned to his church and started playing in a band there, in an effort to find some stability in his life.
"And this drummer I was playing with, he was like 'you've got to meet my son, he's an amazing drummer'," he recalled. "He was living in Tampa, and was in this big band down there was was on the same label as Kings of Leon. So he'd come back to town and we'd talk, then one day he was like 'hey, I'm moving back for a bit' and I said that we should do some kind of music project together. Then we started writing, and the music was so good. So good."
Johnson and that drummer, Christian Peters, quickly formed a deep, abiding friendship. One that Johnson likens more to brothers than friends. In all the time we have talked I have heard Johnson describe exactly one person as a friend. He has more, no doubt, but Peters is the one person who gets openly spoken of in such terms.
"It happened pretty fast," Peters said of the formation of a band with Johnson. "We started meeting at church, through the worship band. Within the matter of a few months, we were already getting demos recorded and talking about artwork. We were writing within a handful of months, and within a year, we had enough of a body of work that we were able to bring in a bass player and make it a full band."
The man they eventually settled on was Brandon Clark, the former bassist for Blue Island Tribe, an act that had toured Japan and Europe before finally collapsing under their own weight and fizzling out.
"When I got involved, there were probably four or five songs written," Clark remembered. "They were completely different from anything I'd been involved in. I think that's what drew me to it. Christian is a lot younger, but had been through a lot and was really mature for his age. He'd been signed and dropped by a label and Bradford had been through similar situations with different bands. We all sort of came from a place where we had quite a bit of experience going into it."
"There was a lot of creativity," he continued. "It was clear to me that both Christian and Bradford are incredibly talented, but in different ways that compliment each other."
Thus was born MINT, a highly polished three piece with mildly grungey underpinnings. Peters, Clark and Johnson are all supremely talented musicians in their own rights, and their collective experience allowed MINT to come right out of the box with a lot of dangerous lessons already learned. The act's introduction to the world would be an audacious one that should have set them up for unbridled success.
All three members had contacts throughout the local and regional music communities, and for MINT's first show, Peters cashed in on one he had over at the Seven Flags Events Center. And so, on March 25, 2011, MINT played their first ever live show, opening for Jonny Lang. A few short months later, on October 15, MINT was back at Seven Flags, playing a show with local blues legends Matt Woods & The Thunderbolts and Rock and Roll Hall of Famer, Buddy Guy.
"It was just insanity," Johnson said. "Our first show ever, we're playing for 2,000 people, and from the beginning it's like 'this is going to be huge'."
"Every band that would come through town, it'd be like 'hey, do you guys want to open for Buddy Guy?' 'Do you want to open for Jonny Lang?'," he continued. "Rick Springfield, Vanilla Ice, we got a show with Weezer because of that."
With just the right combination of experience, talent and connections, MINT was seemingly on the cusp of becoming the Next Big Des Moines Band. But nothing lasts forever. And when you are burning your candle as bright and as hard as Johnson was, shelf life can come and go pretty quickly. In this particular case, Johnson can even tell you the exact date.
"The wheels started to come off when I started dating this girl," he said. "November 11, 2013."
"I met her at a bar. I was out with a buddy. She's still, to this day, the most undefinable person I've ever met. She's interesting and different and crazy. To this day, I'm enamored with her."
Peters never directly disagrees with that timeline, though he draws a clear line at placing any blame for MINT's downfall at anyone's feet besides Johnson's. For his part, Clark thinks that the troubles started much earlier, and that Johnson never really got "better" from his divorce from Erin. But he does admit that the new girl's influence probably did not help.
"The girl, I guess, was probably the biggest change in him," Clark said. "I think that things changed before that, but that definitely fed everything up and magnified all the issues that maybe before then were just starting to pop up, but weren't anything that were big problems before.
"Yeah, once he met the girl, I do think his focus did a complete 180," Clark continued. "He was partying pretty hard before they were dating, and when he met her, I was actually relieved. I thought maybe this will get him out of the bars and back to focusing on some stuff. And I think it might have done that for a short period of time."
But for Johnson, this new girl eventually opened his eyes to a whole new world of excess and fulfillment. She moved in circles that Johnson had never previously been privy to and, as such, she was able to tap into Johnson's two biggest weaknesses at the same time: his lust for vice, and his overriding urge to create.
"From the beginning, I knew she wasn't good for me," he admitted. "But there was something about her that was so amazing to me. She hung out mainly with DJ's. They were such cool people, and it was a whole new world to me. These underground dance parties that Des Moines doesn't know about in these seedy little places, and everyone was so different from the people I knew."
"Then she and I started getting into drugs. A little bit here, a little bit there."
This became the paradigm that would change literally everything in Johnson's life. Up to this point, one could describe Johnson as a bit of a fun-junkie. He was almost assuredly a high-functioning alcoholic, and he admits to being hooked on Adderall for a while. But this? This was to become a whole other beast entirely.
"I'd had a little bit of experience with drugs in the past," he said. "Being on the road with Rosefield there would be cocaine everywhere at parties and that sort of thing. So I started up with a little bit. You think you can manage it, then a year and a half later, I was taking four or five pills of E every day, just to survive. It wasn't for fun anymore, it was to get through the day. Within that year, I tried basically every single drug that I could think of. If it was around me, I wanted to try it."
Throughout the entirety of our conversations, Johnson steadfastly dodges outright calling himself an addict. But whatever tint you want to color it with, there is no mistaking the fact that he was now on at least four different kinds of drugs with daily regularity. The effect that it had on his creative output -- and on his band -- was unavoidable.
"I basically threw MINT by the wayside," he said. "I completely screwed those guys over. There was no communication. They hung on for a long time."
Johnson would go through good streaks and bad ones. He'd feel clear headed and healthy, and MINT would go off on a tear. The the drugs would get the better of him again, and he'd ruin a show. Each time, there were plenty of platitudes to smooth things over.
"Oh yeah," Peters said. "There was always 'I'm gonna make this better, I love you guys, I'm going to do anything it takes.' It was a lot of 'I'm working on it.' A lot of promises. There were several discussions. We put together action plans and deadlines and goals and, time after time, we fell short of those goals."
Finally, the load of all the drugs and alcohol and lack of sleep overpowered him, and Johnson started the dive to what most people would call rock bottom.
"We would still play shows, but it wasn't the same," he said. "I remember one show where I almost passed out because I was so destroyed. I was so strung out. On everything. Adderall and coke and anything to keep me energized."
"There were a number of times when Bradford just wouldn't show up to practice," Clark said. "And the last opportunity we had to practice before a show, Bradford shows up like four hours late, and he's more strung out than I had ever seen him."
"Christian and I were just sitting there looking at each other and thinking 'we have to cancel these shows'," he continued. "We basically made that decision together, and Bradford agreed with it, and I think he was essentially asking for help at that point. So we canceled the shows and tried to get him the help that he needs and get in a position to get creative again."
It's a funny thing about relationships, how some of them end in a bang, and others just kind of whither away. It doesn't matter if it's a marriage, or a friendship, or a band; sometimes there are fireworks and a heated argument and that big moment when someone yells that it's over and slams a door. But other times, it just kind of quietly dies, right under your nose and in a way that is so subtle, so slowly anticlimactic, that it's almost disappointing when you finally realize it. That's how MINT finally died.
"I don't think there has ever been a point when I thought 'OK. MINT is done," Clark said.
"No, there's not a specific point," Peters concurred. "It's like a slow realization. There's not a day when I woke up and said 'you know what? Fuck this'. There was a lot of trying and trying and trying."
At the time that Johnson and I are sitting in our booth, listening to him pour his heart out to me, MINT still hadn't officially broken up, despite not playing or practicing together in months. He hadn't yet told his bandmates that he is moving to Nashville in the summer. But as a practical entity, MINT played their last shows on back-to-back dates in August, 2015. First, there was the 515 Alive festival in Des Moines, followed by the NewBo Music Festival in Cedar Rapids, opening for Young the Giant. After that, silence.
"After our last show, I remember telling people that it was the most fun I'd ever had on stage with MINT," Clark said. "I felt like Bradford was in a good place. Then after that, I'm not sure what happened, honestly. I think it was just that he didn't have the desire."
The honest, light-of-day truth is that the drugs had too strong of a hold on him. They had not only sapped his creativity, they robbed him of most of his common sense. Bradford Johnson was headed towards a cliff edge.
"I didn't care about living anymore," he said. "I would wake up on floors. I was working at Professional Music Center in Clive. I'd worked there for a few years, but now I'm slowly stealing money to support my drug habit. I would make up these elaborate stories and fake receipts, all so I could steal money from a place that I truly believed in."
The owner put more faith in Johnson than he had ever put in himself, and allowed him to leave quietly. No charges were pressed, even though Johnson doesn't even attempt to estimate a dollar amount that he walked away with. But by the spring of 2015, Johnson had burned up the last of his good karma: he was caught trying to pass a stolen credit card at a Kum n Go and was arrested for credit card fraud. He pleaded guilty, and was sentenced to two years probation. But his legal issues were not done.
"I thought 'fuck probation'," he said. "I didn't do it. I got probation violations because I would skip meetings, or show up to probation meetings drunk. So I got arrested a couple times for those. I'd go to court, and they'd be like 'have you done anything,' and I'd have to say no."
His flaunting of the tenants of his probation landed him in jail, which ultimately proved to be the best possible thing for him.
"I loved jail," he admitted. "I was clean, and decided 'I'm going to make the best of this time.' I approached it so differently."
Johnson emerged from that lesson as clean as he'd been in years. He found himself rejuvenated, both mentally and emotionally. He started communicating with Krantz, his old Rosefield Rivals band mate, who was now living in Nashville.
"I went out there to visit my little sister and to get away," Johnson said. "(Krantz) lives up there, and he called me and said 'hey. I'm playing downtown.' I went and saw him, then we went over to his place. He showed me some stuff he's been working on, and it's so good, man. So i'm moving there in the beginning of the summer to work on some stuff together."
Most sane people would have concerns about such a move. A larger city with a bigger night life, playing music and getting involved in a whole new party scene. But if you think Bradford Johnson shares those fears, you haven't been reading along.
"It doesn't scare me at all to move," he said. "Because I'm embarrassed here. I feel bad. Also, I'm not afraid of very much anymore. I've seen the worst that can happen. And as long as drugs aren't involved, it's not going to end my life to try and fail, as long as I try earnestly."
But therein lies the rub. Does Johnson believe that he's done with drugs?
"When I say I got clean, did I say that I've never touched drugs since then? That's not entirely true."
"It's like, here and there, I'll be at a party and something will be there. Every once in a while, someone will hand me an Adderall at a party, and I'll be like, 'hey thanks man. It'll help me at work tomorrow'."
"When I got clean, it wasn't like 'hey drugs, see ya never!'," he demurred. "It was more like 'I need to get clean right now'. I'm constantly re-calibrating my life."
I ask Johnson if he's an addict. Not because the answer doesn't seem obvious to me, but because I'm genuinely curious what his thoughts are on the subject. The question is met with a long pause, as if he's pondering the answer for the first time.
"I don't know," he said finally. "More than likely, I am. Especially because as I'm talking about this, I'm listening to myself and thinking 'wow. There's never been a purely sober time in my adult life'."
"I don't know that he's an addict," Clark said, when asked the same question. "And if he is, I don't know what he's an addict of. Starting out, Bradford never drank. I would bring a six pack to practice, and drink four of them."
"I do think Bradford has an addictive personality," he continued. "Originally, he was on some perception pills, and I do think he abused those, and I think anyone that knew him would say the same thing.
"I've got several friends and former band members that have been through rehab and are addicts, but with one thing. With Bradford, it was never really like that. I think that there were times when he was obviously on things, and maybe hadn't slept in a while, but it wasn't ever to the point where I felt like it was an everyday problem. I feel like he's very much influenced by his environment. If he's surrounded by addicts, he's likely to take on character traits."
So, again: at this point, Johnson is as clean as he's been in a while and, frankly, about as clean as he's likely to ever get. He is still obviously immensely talented, if highly flawed, and he's still every bit as confident in himself as he's ever been.
He's also still wildly charismatic. Even now, having talked about his shitty marriage, the death of several bands, the drugs, the stealing, all of it...I genuinely want to like him. There is no doubt that Johnson is one of the most charming people I've ever met.
That's probably the thing that keeps people around through it all. In spite of themselves, there's something about Johnson that enthralls people. It keeps friends standing by him when outside observers wouldn't blame them for running. It buys him second chances. And third ones.
Which is not to say that this is the same old Bradford Johnson. If he can manage to keep his own inner demons under some semblance of control, there's genuine reason to expect him to continue to become a better, more fully realized person. Completely repentant or not, Johnson is clearly a self-aware individual who can admit to his mistakes. And, as any recovering addict knows, isn't the ability to admit to your problems the first step?
"It's like I was able to skip everything that you learn between high school and graduating from college," he said. "You learn how to have relationships and how to manage money and all of that. It's like I was able to fast-forward through all of that, because I had a guitar and a look. I lost all that, and I was forced at age 30 to learn how to be a good human being."
"But I absolutely, 100% feel like there are people right now who consider me a good friend," he continued. "The number is small, but it's growing. I would say that my addiction now would be knowing at the end of the day that I've been a good friend."
There will always be people who do not trust him. There will be people who look at how easily he can shrug off the stories of ruining bands and relationships, or his somewhat flippant use of the word 'addiction', and say that it points to someone who hasn't changed. But those people were never going to be swayed, no matter what he did as contrition. For now, all Johnson can do is look ahead, and focus on a better tomorrow.
"I used to make promises, you know? 'Hey, man, I'm sorry for fucking up, I'm sorry for doing this, I'm sorry for whatever,' and at some point people go 'we know. You've said that before.' So I'm just going to go away. I'm going to become stronger and better. Maybe there are some apologies that need to be made at some point, but right now, I feel a very mutual need for space."
"Then I'll come back older and wiser, and maybe a little more introspective and maybe a little less crazy than I am. Things are looking up."
In the weeks since our conversation, Johnson finally told his band mates, Christian Peters and Brandon Clark, that he was leaving. In a move that should not surprise anyone, he told them via text message.
A number of people, including his ex-wife Erin, his Cardboard Canary band mate Justin, and several people he did one-off projects with, declined to be interviewed for this story. Some of them didn't want to rehash old memories. Others just couldn't be bothered to talk about him anymore.
Christian Peters, once Johnson's closest friend, hasn't talked to him since the text message about his moving. He said that he sincerely hoped that Johnson can keep things together from here on out, even though he wasn't holding his breath.
"It's like Bradford needs that disaster in his life," he said.
I asked him if he would still call Johnson a friend.
"Well sure," he said. "If he was dying or some crazy shit like that, yeah. He could call me."
And if he called tomorrow just to hang out?
"Tomorrow? I'm probably gonna be busy."
Moving forward, Peters is looking for new people to collaborate with.
"I'm looking to write fucking awesome music," he said. "To play my drums a bunch, and go wherever it makes sense for me to go musically. My plans are to keep playing. In the long run, I picture putting a band together from scratch and playing some new music, but for now i'm just honing my craft."
"There's obviously been a little bit of dead space, so I'm fixing that, but I'm just trying to play as much as I can."
Brandon Clark has a thriving practice as a lawyer in town. He represents a huge number of Des Moines' local musicians. He said that he harbors no ill will for Johnson.
"Bradford is, in my opinion the most talented person I've ever worked with, in any capacity," he said. "The ideas that he had are sort of on another level, both musically and artistically. I think that can hurt him, but it was a ton of fun. I'd still play in a band with him tomorrow."