The Eyes Behind: Song Exploder Interview
Have you ever listened to a song enough that it felt as if you were the one to scrawl the lyrics the first time? Or, maybe, you've reread the liner notes of an album to the point where the paper's crumpled and ripped? Trust us, we've all been there. Understanding the secrets behind what makes our favorite songs great is best heard directly from the source.
Whether it was while driving to the beach or walking through a busy city on the way to work, the moment of impact from a song isn't easily forgotten. We all savor it like candy.
In a day and age where having a podcast is as common as a having a blog, Song Exploder, pushes all other music podcasts to the side.
Song Exploder No. 16: Spoon
Hrishikesh Hirway is the host of a podcast that focuses solely on one artist and one song at a time. It's only here that artists break down each note and vocal loop, and are given the stage to fully explain what was behind every final decision made. We had the opportunity to sit down and chat with Hirway, who himself has spoken with everyone from Spoon to Daedelus on the show. A musician himself, Hirway understands the power of peeling back the layers of songs- we flipped the tables on him, getting the backstory of a podcast we love. Hirway indulges us with how Song Exploder came to be and much more- no liner notes necessary.
What first ignited your interest in breaking down songs and hearing from artists about each piece? What were you listening to when you first got this idea?
The very first spark came way back in 1999. I was in love with the drum sound at the end of The Roots' song "Double Trouble," and one day I was reading the Things Fall Apart liner notes and saw that Questlove actually wrote about that part. He said, "For the longest [time] I've been trying to achieve some sonic dirt sounds on these drums since the pre-Organix days. I had the style down, the right room, mics, et al. There was one thing missing, and this time I found what I needed to sound more like an old school Marley Marl joint." It was gratifying and inspiring to get a glimpse into the process, even just to discover at a basic level that there *is* a process, and even the pros struggled with getting the sounds in their head to come out on a record. And I also wanted to do was be able to ask him, "What? What was the one thing?" because as a drummer myself, all I wanted was to figure out how to be able to make my drums sound just like that.
How has the podcast changed the way you listen to music?
Nowadays, I listen to a much broader range of music. I've always held the idea, the way a lot of people do, that I can appreciate music across many many genres, but in practice, I tended to listen to stuff within a few spheres. Now, though, I'm actively listening to a lot more, trying to find possibilities for new stories, new voices and new approaches to making music.
Who's process have you found to be most inspirational?
The nice thing about doing this show has been getting to take little pieces of inspiration from everyone I talk to. Sometimes it's a recording technique, or the way they write lyrics, or just an overall attitude to how they approach the process. It feels like I'm in school again. One specific example: I loved hearing Jeff Beal talk about why it made sense to him to have the violins in the "House of Cards" theme play an A major even though the bass was playing an A minor. It's something I'd never think to do, or would think could work, but it completely does.
What something you've learned about a song that completely surprised you?
In the very first episode, I talked to Jimmy Tamborello about how he made the music for The Postal Service song "The District Sleeps Alone Tonight," a song that I've heard so many times since it came out back in 2003. It turns out there is a sound that I had been hearing that whole time, thinking it was a synthesizer and never thinking twice about it, that actually turned out to be a little piece of Jenny Lewis's backing vocal that he had looped. And now I can't un-hear it.
The Postal Service / Jimmy Tamborello
Who is your dream guest on Song Exploder and why?
There are lots and lots of dream guests, probably too many to list. One of them would be Christian Fennesz. I love his music, but every time I listen to a Fennesz song, all I can think is, "What the hell am I hearing?"
If you were to break down a song of yours, which one would you choose and why?
Actually, I did! It's a bonus episode that's available only for people who choose to support Song Exploder by donating to the podcast network the show is on, Maximum Fun. The show is free for anyone and I think that's important, but for those people who are actually giving a little money each month because they love the podcast, they got this extra episode this year. It's for the One AM Radio song, "Sunlight," which I picked because it's a song I'm proud of, and I know how much I packed into that recording. It's just layers and layers of instruments and voices, all of which add up to the feeling of the song, but most of which probably can't be heard, let alone thought about by a casual listener.
If you didn't have the podcast as a medium would you still want the show to be purely audio based?
When you're mixing a record, you're supposed to close your eyes, or at the very least, turn off your computer screen, because the brain processes audio much better when it isn't also distracted by visual information. A central idea of the show is to let people hear and appreciate the subtle details in a song, to be able to listen more deeply than you normally get to. Presenting the audio of a song along with anything else is just adding noise.
What was the first record you ever bought?
A couple caveats: it wasn't a record, it was a cassette, and I didn't buy it, exactly. My older sister was getting eight cassettes for a penny from Columbia House or BMG or one of those things, and she let me pick one of the eight out for myself out of the little paper catalog they send you. I chose "Whitesnake" by Whitesnake. Yeah, I know.