Bestcasts asks podcasters to discuss the three most memorable episodes of their podcast. Ties are allowed/encouraged. For more podcast coverage, see Podmass, The A.V. Club’s weekly roundup of the best ’casts out there.
The podcaster: As the latest member of Roman Mars’ Radiotopia family, Song Exploder is riding high. The podcast and its host Hrishikesh Hirway have recently locked down a number of marquee guests for its in-depth and artistically arranged chats, including members of U2, Death Cab For Cutie, and Arcade Fire. Encouraged by Hirway—but in a way that’s generally mostly edited out of the podcast—each episode finds a musical guest expounding on how a single one of their songs was created—U2’s “Cedarwood Road,” for instance—from mental inception to actual recording. It’s a process that’s endlessly fascinating for both music fans and casual observers alike, particularly when guests dive deep into their creative processes and subconscious.
As a member of The One AM Radio and score composer himself, Hirway is uniquely able to facilitate these one-on-ones, which he then splices together with song stems and bits of instrumentation to give listeners an almost visual mental picture of how each track came into existence. The results are generally lush and revealing, and with each episode clocking in around (if not under) 15 minutes, Song Exploder has become one of podcast’s most intriguing and compelling looks at the music industry.
The A.V. Club: Game Of Thrones is great, but why did you pick this episode as one of your three favorite Song Exploder’s of all time?
Hrishikesh Hirway: I’ve watched every episode of the show and I’m totally a fan. I haven’t read the books. My experience of the story is just through the TV show. I love it and I love the theme and I have the typical experience of a lot of viewers, which is, just—you get excited when that theme comes on.
I was really surprised by how much thought and intention went into the theme. It’s the kind of thing that I always hope for, that there’s some meat to the music.
I had gotten a tweet ages ago that was like, “Hey, you should do the Game Of Thrones theme, and you should ask them about why it changes key.” And I was like, “Yeah, that would be a good question, if I could ever get it together to actually talk to Ramin Djawadi.” Then when it finally happened, that was my first question. Actually, I didn’t even ask it. He just volunteered it, which was so great. He was like, “So the first thing that happens is this.”
It’s just that there was an idea or that he was like, “I made the music do this because in the story the characters are always stabbing each other in the back.” That was really satisfying. There are so many details in the theme, and to hear that they weren’t just cool because they were cool musically, but they actually corresponded to things in the show, it was really surprising to me. I enjoyed it as the person making the podcast, but also just as a fan of the show and of the music.
AVC: It was interesting that he applied specific instruments to specific characters.
HH: With TV themes and in general, I always hope for some kind of “Peter And The Wolf” approach to how music is made. I love that, “Oh, well, here’s this character and its instrument.” In the past, with some computers and songs I’ve asked, “Is there an instrument that corresponds with a character?” Because I’m always thinking about that, that maybe a special theme gets assigned an instrument or somebody’s actual voice gets assigned its own musical voice.
AVC: How did you get Djawadi? How long was that episode in the works?
HH: He was one of the first people that I tried to reach out to when I was first starting the show last year. I was trying to reach him and also Jeff Beal, the composer from House Of Cards. I just wrote to them on Facebook and emailed whatever email address I could find online. I never heard back from Ramin Djawadi, but I did hear back from Jeff Beal, and so that was a lesson for me that sometimes, no matter how far-fetched it might seem, you just have to ask. Just try it.
Around October of last year, I started airing some condensed versions of Song Exploder on the local NPR station here in Pasadena. I call it the local NPR station, but I think it’s like the fifth-largest NPR station in the country. The producer over there that I work with is this woman named Darby Maloney. I kind of stalked her a little bit because I was a fan of hers when she worked on The Business, the KCRW podcast, and so we’ve been doing stuff. She’ll kind of curate which episodes they want to take from Song Exploder and air them on their show, which is called The Frame.
She wrote to me as the new season was approaching and was like, “Would you ever want to do an episode with Ramin Djawadi on the Game Of Thrones theme?” And I was like, “Yeah, of course, that’s something I really wanted to do.” She has just been in the game a lot longer and, especially after doing The Business, has great contacts, and KPCC, like I said, is no minor figure in all of this stuff. So she got in touch with HBO. I think they were trying to line up some other interviews for the show as well, with some folks from the cast or something like that, so she had asked them if there could be a Song Exploder interview that would eventually also be a segment on the radio show. That’s how it came together. I was really fortunate there to have a little extra muscle behind me.
AVC: A Game Of Thrones related episode would seem like a listener home run, but something like The Books is a little more obtuse. How do you pick the bands you want to talk to or the songs you want to cover? Do you have a goal for what you want the show to be overall?
HH: I don’t have a particular thesis with the show in general that carries out how I’m booking it, because I want the show to be broader than just what my own personal tastes are, but I have to feel like it’s interesting in some way, either because it’s an artist who is interesting because of who they are or because it’s a song that I think, sonically, is fascinating. When I book I show, I don’t actually know what it’s going to be. I don’t know what the story is going to be or how the episode is going to turn out.
AVC: Do you let the artist pick the song or do you pick the song?
HH: I try and go for something mutual, if possible. Sometimes I’ll specifically ask for or about a particular song, and sometimes I’ll get approached about doing a song and I’ll say, “Hey, that’s cool and this artist is great and I’d love to talk to them, but there’s this other song on the record that I think would be a better fit for the show,” either because I like it better or I think it’ll be richer in terms of the chance to deconstruct it. Sometimes I get my way, and sometimes I don’t.
AVC: So how did you decide on “Smells Like Content?”
HH: The Books one was also kind of a long time in the making. I think I had emailed Nick Zammuto before. We’ve never met, but I’ve seen them play a bunch of times and I knew their record label and I’d just been trying to make it happen for a long time.
The thing that’s tricky is that The Books had broken up. I think it was an uncomfortable breakup, and so it was a little bit tricky to do an episode. But I think I had asked a couple times. I had asked Nick Zammuto directly, I think I had asked his label, and then at some point somebody on twitter, again, posted something like, “You should really get The Books on,” and I was like, “Dude, I know. That would be a dream episode for me.” Then Nick actually responded and was like, “I could do this song. I could do ‘Smells Like Content’. That would work.” That’s one of my favorite Books songs so I was like, “Yeah, that would be fantastic. That’s a perfect candidate.” That one was a little more comfortable for him because it was essentially a solo track. He had made the entire thing on his own without his bandmate, Paul De Jong.
I’ve been a huge fan of theirs for years, they were one of my favorite bands while they were around, and I’d read an interview in Tape Op years ago with them, something about how they made a bass drum sound by putting a microphone inside a filing cabinet, and then hitting the filing cabinet… some crazy thing. This was early on when I was just getting into recording and producing stuff myself. That interview really stuck with me and opened my eyes to things you can do and how wide open the possibilities are for production, and for getting sounds that are completely unique. Ever since then—I think that was like 2004, 2005—I’ve been wanting to talk to them about this stuff, even if it wasn’t in the context of the podcast. So then when Song Exploder started, I was like, “Oh, these guys would be the perfect people to talk to.”
My favorite thing—it’s still one of my favorite things about the show, about any show—is when he talks about how he made the drum-machine rhythm by cutting notches into the middle of a record, like creating this analog drum machine out of an insane idea about like, “Oh, I’m going to use an X-Acto knife and a protractor and subdivide rhythms into this thing, and then put it through an EQ.” That’s one of my favorite things that I’ve learned on the show.
AVC: Did this episode also air on 99% Invisible?
HH: Yep. Roman [Mars] put it on there when I joined Radiotopia. I did a collaborative episode with him, and then to announce that I would be joining Radiotopia he just played what he said was his favorite episode, which is this one.
AVC: This episode was recorded as part of a live taping. How did that work?
HH: That was the second live show I’d ever done. I still have only done a handful. The first one I ever did was in September, and it seemed like kind of a weird idea at first. When I first got asked to do a live show, I think my first answer was “No, I don’t think there’s a live version of this show,” because it’s so reliant on editing, and because I’m not keen on making people listen to me talk or filter the ideas. I’m not trying to take the spotlight away from the music or the artist. So I wasn’t sure. But then we did it as an experiment and it turned out really great. It was at this festival in Portland called XOXO, which is this experimental art and technology festival. They had this little event where they had three live podcasts. Mine was one, Dan Harmon’s Harmontown was one, and then [The Long Winters’] John Roderick’s was one. My guest was The Thermals, and John Roderick knew Hutch [Harris] from The Thermals, and so after that event, I went out to dinner with him and some of his friends and he just said that he thought my show was interesting, and I was like, “You should come on and do an episode.” I was going to be in Seattle on tour a couple months later with my band and we had a day off in Seattle. So I asked him if maybe we could do this as a live thing in the place where you record your podcast. Because then it’s like, people already know you, people are already excited to come see him just sort of like do a different live thing anyway. It felt a little bit safer to try it there. Then we talked for like an hour and then I just did what I usually do with interviews, which is just take that audio and cut myself out of it.
AVC: Did he pick “The Commander Thinks Aloud” or did you? Or was it collaborative?
HH: Ultimately what it came down to was that there were not that many songs where there were stems available. John Roderick is not really a technically oriented guy when it comes to this stuff about recording. He is not going to be the guy who will have all the Pro Tools sessions and everything. So I had to reach out to his bandmate, Eric [Corson], and I talked to Chris Walla formerly of Death Cab and all these people trying to find where these files actually lived. Finally we tracked down some of them. There were three or four options, and “The Commander Thinks Aloud” was one, and I love that song and so I kind of pushed for that one.
AVC: Are stems a must-have for you? Could you do an episode without them?
HH: I think I would need a song multitracked somehow, like I would need to digitize it. I have had to do that. The Microphones episode—which is another one of my favorites, if I could pick four that would’ve been the fourth one—[Phil Elverum] had to digitize from the analog tapes, but he is his own producer and he is a recording nut so he was able to do that himself.
I don’t think that the show would work without stems. At least I think it’s really what makes the show special. Certainly in terms of podcasts needing a gimmick, that’s my gimmick, but I think really structurally and sonically I need it too.
AVC: Anything else you’d like to add?
HH: I think Song Exploder is secretly actually a design podcast.
AVC: I don’t even think it’s that secret.
HH: [Laughs.] Okay. See, I wasn’t sure how much people feel that way.
AVC: I mean, I don’t know if all people would think about it that way, but I think about it that way.
HH: I went to school for graphic design, and I’ve been doing design and music at the same time. The first graphic design I ever did was making posters for my band. So they’ve always kind of been linked in some way for me.
I feel like sometimes when I think about the show I realize how much of my instincts about how it’s made come from the graphic design side of things and maybe even more so than something musical. Just the way that it’s edited and stuff.
AVC: It makes sense when you think of something about, for example, The Books. That group was essentially making audio designs or aural art. Then Game Of Thrones, in that instance you’re talking about how the composer was writing music for something that was already visually designed.
HH: It feels the same way, how it works. With design, you’re trying to serve the best way to convey some content, like you’re the vehicle for some content. I think of Song Exploder like that. Especially with me trying to take myself as much out of it, I’m really trying to have it just be about somebody else’s art, and I’m just trying to provide this nice canvas for it. The John Roderick episode is so good and so many people love it and have said that they found it moving, but I feel like I can take very little credit for that. It’s not me telling that great story, and it’s not me who has written that amazing song. Somebody else did that. All I’m really doing is trying to find a platform for people to share that and also a way to frame and pace it so that it’s the most effective.
AVC: You said you don’t really have “goals” for Song Exploder, but are there things you want to get out of each interview? You don’t want to talk to someone who’s just like, “I put these guitars on there because they sounded sick.”
HH: I think the best ones are ones where it’s overtly thoughtful, where there are very specific ideas that go into things. Like with The Books episode, his lyrics were written randomly. He says he walked around and assembled them by whatever he happened to run into. Instead of audio samples he was taking samples from the world and then setting them to melody. So there isn’t great intention in terms of what each line means to him, but just that idea—that there is this approach to it—was neat and meaningful. But if you said, “I just wrote this sick guitar riff and it was cool and that was it,” that would not make a good program.