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Nearing its 100th episode in just over three years, Song Exploder host and creator Hrishikesh Hirway has helped deconstruct the creative process of some of the most exciting names in music. Sitting with their original composers, Hirway peels apart individual track stems, providing a frame for artists to unpack their decision making process. Piece by piece, musicians ranging from Ghostface Killah to Iggy Pop speak candidly, sharing intimate stories often reserved for late-night talks with fellow musicians.
Well-versed in the problem-solving and experimentation involved with songwriting, the Los Angeles-based musician and producer was inspired to create Song Exploder after spending time working on remixes of his peers. Listening to isolated tracks gave Hirway a fresh perspective. Each episode clocking in at just under 20 minutes, Hirway edits himself out of the conversation allowing for remarkably focused and in-depth results. While music remains a centerpiece of the show, Song Exploder is a refreshing listen for anyone seeking to access their creative spirit.
Vinyl Me, Please: Song Exploder feels like living inside the liner notes of an album. Were they part of the inspiration for the podcast?
Yeah, actually. The first moment that I can trace back to a feeling of wanting Song Exploder came from reading liner notes for Things Fall Apart by the Roots. Questlove had written something in the liner notes about how he had gotten this drum sound that he had been looking for for so long. Coyly, he doesn’t say how he got the drum sound...I loved the particular sound he was talking about and wanted to get deeper into that. It was just a few sentences. He had written a few sentences for each song and that was all I got from that. I would have read a whole chapter of a book just based on that. In the back of my mind that was some kind of guiding principle for how I make Song Exploder or what I hope other people will get out of it.
Once you have an artist confirmed, how do you decide which song will be featured?
It’s just a conversation really. It depends on the artist and the situation. A lot of times there’s a new record that they’ll be promoting so naturally they might want to talk about a song from that record. Sometimes there are artists where I’ll say “Hey, this is a song that I’d really love to discuss with you, would you be open to it.” Sometimes that works, sometimes I’ll approach someone and say I love this song I think it would be great for Song Exploder and they’ll come back and say this song has a much better story, can we talk about that. Of course they know better than I do. I’m just trying to base it on what I hear. There isn’t one set process for how that is determined.
How do you prepare for your interviews?
It revolves around the actual song itself. I’ll get the stems from the artist and I’ll spend time listening to the difference between what I can discover in the stems vs what’s in the final mix. A lot of times the things that I think make for the best moments in the show are what I discover only by virtue of having the stems. I’ll listen through and realize there are things that I’ve never heard in this song and so then I’ll try to focus some of my questions around those sounds. What they are and bringing those to the forefront. A lot of times those are either secrets or they are in there for a reason. Even if you can’t hear them clearly, there is a reason why they are in the song.
The artists seem to be very comfortable speaking with you. Does it help that you’re a fan first and not a critic?
I don’t think of myself as a fan first. I wouldn’t say that is how I engage with them, but I also wouldn’t say that I’m a critic either. The context for the conversions is that I try to approach it more as a peer. They are a musician and I’m a musician and I can empathize with some of the process of making a song, the creative and technical difficulties. The process of writing lyrics, the process of writing music. Even if they have no idea who I am or have no idea what Song Exploder is, that is the background that I am coming from that I’m bringing into the discussion, even if they aren’t aware of it. That’s what informs the way I ask my questions so that it feels for them, hopefully, like they are talking to a peer.
The conversation that I have had a lot is with friends either in the studio or on tour. It was Carl Newman from the New Pornographers, we did an episode last year and he had been worried that there wouldn’t be enough to say about the song. We ended up speaking for an hour easily. Afterwards I thanked him and he remarked how surprised he was at how easily the conversation went. He put it in a way that I thought was exactly what I hoped he would feel. He said it feels like the conversation that you have at 3 am in the back of the tour bus. That was really gratifying. That is exactly what I want them to feel. That it’s natural, I want listeners to feel like they are being let in on that conversation that isn’t necessarily normally public.
How did you decide to remove yourself from the conversation for the final edit?
At the beginning when the show wasn’t anything, I wanted to be careful to avoid making it seem like I was trying to create a vehicle for my own personality. In the purest version of the idea, like liner notes, like Questlove’’s liner notes, it’s him communicating directly with the reader and the listener. You don’t have the person that he is dictating that stuff to, you don’t have their fingerprints all over it. The liner notes metaphor is a good one because it should feel like it’s directly from the artist. It should feel more like show and tell from the artist rather than the listener learning this information through an intermediary. I felt like that would get in the way of some of the directness and the intimacy of the listening experience.
So many episodes center on small decisions in the studio making a big impact on record. Is there an example that always stands out to you?
One that jumps to mind immediately, I don’t know if this counts as a small decision. I have loved for a long time the drum sounds on Writer’s Block, the Peter, Bjorn and John record. The production on that record in general is fantastic, and for a long time after that record came out, I was obsessed with that production. For my own music, trying to think about how it’s so magical and trying to figure out my own way to find the things that I loved best about it. I was excited to get to talk to them about “Young Folks” from that record this September for lots of different reasons, without knowing what the story was. Just knowing that I loved the lyrics and everything about that record. The one thing I was not expecting was the story of why the record sounds the way it does and why the drums sound the way they do. To me it has this perfect drum sound. It turns out that on their record before Writer’s Block they had gone to a studio and spent a lot of money making it thinking that it would be their breakout record. They wound up feeling like they hadn’t got what they put into it and hoped for.
They almost broke up and decided to make one more record and give in another shot. They decided to do it on the cheap and recorded it at their practice space. The practice space was acoustically really strictive because it was this small, sort of boxy sounding room. They didn’t record the drums with any cymbals. Crash symbols weren’t going to sound good so the reason why those drums sound so tight is because they didn’t have to worry about mixing it in a way that would account for cymbals. Instead, they used all these other sounds in the place of where you would have cymbals. They used the sound of a reverb tank hitting the ground as a cymbal in some places or a thunder sheet from an orchestral percussion section. In any case, the drum sounds, which I wasn’t sure if they had looped it or if it was a sample…I couldn’t figure out why they were so perfect sounding and tight. It turned out that it wasn’t because of some amazing studio magic, but the results of their last record not going well. That story hit home for me.
You’ve mentioned that you use a ‘mom’ test to keep the show relatable to non-music makers. What’s the story there?
My parents, very sweetly, listen to everything that I do. The music that I make...they’ve come to see my band play in punk rock venues. It’s pretty great. They are listening to the show so it makes it easy for me think of them as a stand-in for a potential wider audience. People outside of that tour bus at 3 am. The conversation you have then is one thing, but how do you edit it, frame it, and contextualize it so that people who have never been in a tour bus can find some meaning and significance.
Are there any trends when speaking with newer artists vs. seasoned veterans?
One trend, it doesn’t really split along the length of career of the artist, but something I think is the product of the modern age is that everybody uses the voice memos app on their iPhone. It is the premiere demoing tool of writers. It’s great when I can include those for an episode. The first moment, where you can hear the birth of the song in this context. Everyone from Chet Faker to Metallica have mentioned using voice memos as a place where they start their ideas.
You’ve said multiple times that a big part of your show is about problem solving. What’s been the biggest problem you’ve had to solve since you started?
The most major change that the show has underwent was the structure. The original first four episodes of the show were put out with a little introduction and then the song playing in its entirety and then the breakdown following it. I started to understand the scope of who was potentially listening to the show. This is something where the mom test comes into play as well. I didn’t realize the potential for how general the audience might be for the show. I think I was expecting an audience that much more closely resembled my own background and other musicians. Not necessarily musicians, but people who were culturally coming at the show from the same place that I was. There was a curatorial, almost DJ aspect of the show where I’m like here’s a cool song, now let’s hear how it was made.
It turns out that there were a lot of people who had no idea who some of the bands were. There was someone who mentioned that they had discovered this band The Postal Service thanks to this podcast Song Exploder. That blew my mind. For me, in my experience, The Postal Service…a platinum artist, they were ubiquitous in 2003 through whenever. I couldn’t imagine that this fledgling podcast that had a few thousand listeners would be introducing a band like that to anybody. That was something where I didn’t realize there was a problem that needed to be solved until the show came out. I had to say, well in that case, there might be people who are listening to this with a different set of assumptions and cultural context than what I have. I talked to some people, got some advice and then switched it around so the conversation happens first so people could build in some sense of attachment to the artist, some sort of investment into the song. There might be some sense of mystery, pieces coming together so the song being played at the end feels like a reveal.
Jeffrey is a special education teacher, freelance writer, and musician. You can find him at a show, on a hike, or petting dogs.