Hosted by Hrishikesh Hirway, each episode delves into the background of a single track, starting with the initial idea that led to the song, then digging deep into its soundscape to find the interesting sounds listeners might not even know were there.
The podcast, which airs on the Radiotopia network, stems from Hirway's fascination with musical production. A musician, Hirway taught himself the tricks of the trade, then realized that others might be interested in hearing how their favorite songs are crafted, piece by piece.
"When you're making music ... you have a relationship with those individual parts [of a song] that can be really meaningful and special. As a listener, you never got a chance to have that kind of special relationship with the things within the recording. I thought there should be a way to talk about that stuff, to talk about that process, and to reveal those sounds," he told me during a wide-ranging chat about the show.
During our conversation, Hirway and I discussed five of the most surprising things he's learned from guests on his podcast, as well as how he compiles Song Exploder.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
1) That time Stephin Merritt of the Magnetic Fields was so drunk he didn't remember writing a song
I did an episode with Stephin Merritt about the song "Andrew in Drag," which is perfect and complete like so many of his best songs. It just feels airtight. It turns out he had written it at a bar, was so drunk that he did not remember writing it, and discovered it the next morning in his notebook and was like, "Oh, I guess I wrote this song." Luckily, he remembered how it went. But he didn't actually remember the process of writing it.
So many interviews for me are about this granular process of songwriting and all the little decisions you make. This one was a lot about instinct, because he didn't actually remember the moment of conceiving the song.
Sometimes, knowing a lot about how something is made can change how you consume it. Do you feel that way about music now?
I started the podcast out of my experience making music myself. I wasn't coming at the show without some kind of prior bias and experience. It's been really educational for me in terms of making my own music, but also reassuring. There's a consistent purity of ideas that comes through, no matter the genre and no matter the background of the artist. Everything starts with nothing, and there's an idea, and then at the end you have to go through the hurdles of how to make the idea real.
It's changed the way I listen a little bit, because it's slowed me down as a listener, which I think is really important. It slowed me down to sort of appreciate it a little more. Not that I wasn't ever aware of it before, but I think because I'm then engaged with all these musicians that I wouldn't maybe necessarily interact with, it's given me a little greater sense of music overall.
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2) What you probably never realized about the Game of Thrones theme song (but will never be able to unhear now)
I'm a big TV addict, and I did an episode with Ramin Djawadi, the composer for Game of Thrones. [The theme song] is a really iconic part of the show. I was surprised to find out how much thought went into it, not just musically but in attention to the story itself.
When we actually sat down and started talking about it, he explained that it starts with a solo instrument, and then it becomes two instruments. It becomes a violin and a cello. That's because so often in the show, you follow the path of one character and then another character. Characters are often teamed up and then split apart, and then new team-ups happen, and he wanted to mirror that in the arrangement. That was a level of depth that I really appreciated but was surprised by. It made the track even more impressive to me.
An episode like this is fundamentally different from one like the Magnetic Fields episode, in that the song you're talking about isn't a pure original. It's a reaction, in some ways, to another work of art. When that's the case, how do you shift your process as an interviewer?
I get to ask questions about how they're responding to something else, as opposed to responding to something of their own creation, where it's like, "Oh, I have an idea," and you get to delve into why that idea came into existence.
Here, there is this preexisting thing they're reacting to. Then they have to take who they are and understand what this preexisting thing is and find a way to fuse them. It's a different kind of problem to solve. Fundamentally, Song Exploder is a show about problem-solving. This just reconceptualizes what the problem is.
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3) When the Album Leaf turned an instrument malfunction into a vital part of a song
This wasn't so much solving a problem as it was turning a bug into a feature. [Jimmy LaValle, the only permanent member of the Album Leaf] was in Iceland with Sigur Ros, recording an album. He uses a Fender Rhodes electric piano, and he didn't have the one he normally uses, so he had to rent one. This one happened to have its speaker on the bottom of the piano, and the sustain pedal had a squeak. In order to record the sound, you have to have the microphone on the bottom of the piano where the speaker is, which meant that the squeak of the sustain pedal kept getting picked up by the mic, and there was no way to get around it. It's in the recording.
It's a song from 2004. I'd heard it many, many, many times and never realized that [the squeak] wasn't an intentional part of the fabric of the song. Those were the circumstances, and that just became part of the song.
This was Song Exploder's very second episode. Since we're talking about the show's early days, what inspired you to start this podcast?
My background is somebody who self-produces. I don't have any real formal training. I don't really know how to engineer. I was writing songs, got a microphone, and started to record them myself.
What ends up happening is because you don't necessarily know what you're doing, you end up coming up with creative solutions. You have an idea in your head, and then you try to get it into the real world. Sometimes you do crazy things in order to do that, like in order to get the snare drum sound that you want, you've got to snap a branch from a tree and layer that on top of [the drum].
What the listener gets is the product of that hard work and all those ideas without necessarily knowing any of the things that went into it. I thought it would be cool to have something where musicians could reveal those secrets, and the listener could actually hear that when you hear that snare drum, it's not just a snare drum. It's these four things that have been layered together. Here's all of them individually.
Or there's this beautiful quiet part that happens at the end of this song. As a maker of a song, you know what it is, because you've pored over each of those parts. As a listener, it's just this thing that's baked into the song. If you hear it by itself it could be an entirely separate, moving listening experience.
When you're making music, you can solo just that part or hear just that part, and you have a relationship with those individual parts that can be really meaningful and special. As a listener, you never got a chance to have that kind of special relationship with the things within the recording. I thought there should be a way to talk about that stuff, to talk about that process, and to reveal those sounds.
What's your production process like? How much work goes into making a 15-minute episode of Song Exploder?
Sometimes the longest part is just booking the guest. That's the first part — a lot of emailing. When we finally get the interview, that part takes about 15 to 90 minutes.
Then I take that recording, cut my questions out, transcribe the whole thing, and look for the best parts and some kind of theme that might thread throughout it. When [the featured song is] about a movie, it's easy, because the theme is sort of predetermined — the plot of whatever it is they're scoring. When it's lyrics, sometimes it corresponds. It doesn't always.
Editing it all together takes usually about 15 to 16 hours. Then I mix it, and I have to record my little intros. All in all, maybe around somewhere between 15 and 20 hours total.
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4) Indie rockers Spoon do a song in the style of Dr. Dre
Spoon's process for writing ["Inside Out"] was they had a demo for it. Sometimes, they'll be like, "Let's take a shot at trying to produce this song in the vein of [another style or artist]." They're so musically fluent that they understand the styles of different bands. In that case, the style they decided to take was from Dr. Dre. That was their guiding principle. If you listen to the song itself, you might never get that. But when you play the two back to back, you can see where the ideas overlapped. I loved that.
What prompted your interest in production, even before you made music? Do you remember a time when you first realized how fascinating it was?
The record Dummy by Portishead. That was the first time that I listened to a record and had this recognition that the thing I loved wasn't just a melody but the sounds themselves. I couldn't figure out what was happening in the recording, why it was making me feel the way I was feeling. I couldn't tell what things were sampled, how they made things sound so old, even though I knew it was a new record. I was obsessed with that record. That was sort of the first moment when I realized production was a thing.
What made a podcast the best way to share your love of production with the world? And do you have podcast influences?
I wasn't originally thinking of the show necessarily as a podcast, but I did know that I wanted it to be an audio program. I didn't want it to be a video series. When you're making music and you're listening back to a track, to make sure it sounds right, you turn off your monitor, or you close your eyes. You do this mini sensory deprivation so that you're getting as much detail out of the listening experience as possible.
There were two instrumental podcasts when I was making Song Exploder. Of course WTF [Marc Maron's podcast] was one I was listening to. I love listening to comedian interviews. I think the problem with a lot of interviews with musicians is they can be a little bit boring because musicians don't necessarily know how to talk about their own work. It's hard to know what questions to ask a musician. It's a really difficult topic to talk about. Just because they can write a great song doesn't mean they can tell a story well.
Comedians on the other hand, their business is talking and being engaging in that format. There's a lot of stuff that musicians and comedians have in common, like touring and staying in hotels and the grimy life on the road and trying to perfect your set. So listening to WTF, I just felt like I was getting this insider information that I could apply and feel inspired by these stories of these guys and these women honing their craft and how they did it. That was one for sure.
The other big one was The Memory Palace. The sound of it and the format of it, it's so intimate and beautiful. That is a podcast that I feel like is art. I had a similar relationship to that as I did to music. It felt like listening to a lullaby in spoken form. This wasn't intentional, but I do think I have been influenced by that kind of intimacy that Nate DiMeo, who makes that show, achieves.
Nate actually told me that he thinks Song Exploder has a nighttime feel. That comes a little bit from the sound of hearing instruments in isolation. Even if you're talking about a bombastic, huge rock sound, when you hear just the guitars by themselves, the vocals by themselves, they have this ghostly, detached quality that gives them a romantic, melancholy feel. I really was influenced by Memory Palace's tone in that way.
Also, that show is sometimes only three minutes long, and that was the first time I recognized that when you're making a podcast, you have format freedom. Every week it could be a totally different thing. That was something that I really wanted to do. Musician interviews, part of the reason I don't necessarily enjoy them is I don't need to hear the hour-long story. In that hour-long story maybe there's 10 great minutes. Basically, The Memory Palace showed me a podcast can be anything.
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5) The unusual origins of a Ghostface Killah song
I did an episode with a song by Ghostface Killah called "The Battlefield," and digging into that song and the creators of that song, it had a really unusual backstory. I interviewed two people for that episode. One is one of the guys from the backing band. The other person was Bob Perry, the A&R guy from the label. Normally that's a position several degrees removed from the creation of a song.
But in this case, he had the concept for the record. Not only that, but the concept for each individual song in terms of this is what the scene is and this is what the story is. The way he described it to me is that Ghostface sees himself as an actor who is going to come in and do this scene, so he's like, "Tell me what it is that you need me to do, and I'll get on the mic." Like getting in front of the camera for his one scene, and then he'll leave.
So Bob Perry is really the one who came up with this song. The way he said it was, "I'm not a musician." And yet he's the one who came up with the idea for the song and the plot of the song and put the band together. That was fascinating.
Ghostface Killah, Spoon, and Game of Thrones are pretty well-known. But the Magnetic Fields and the Album Leaf are a little more niche. Have you ever had someone you wanted to do a show with, but you worried they were too obscure for your audience?
In the sense that my ego is in the show, it is me being like, "Hey, if you listen to this show, then I think you should listen to this artist." I think they're important. It's not necessarily the most famous artists, but I think they're making the best music that's worthy of this kind of exploration.
I guess after talking about all of this, the inevitable question is, who's on your wish list? Who would you love to do an episode with, living or dead?
For the reasons that I've mentioned before, Portishead would be a dream. I still am obsessed with that record, and I'm still curious about how it was made. I feel like I've spent my musical career under the shadow of that record and am totally indebted to it.
I feel similarly about Bjork. She changed the game for me in a way few others have. Her album Homogenic changed electronic drums forever for pop culture and for music. Aphex Twin is a pretty big stretch, but I love Aphex Twin, and I don't know how he does what he does. I'm also a huge Nick Drake fan. I wish there might have been a context in which I might have been able to speak to him.
I feel like I could go on and on. Kanye West is a dream guest. Rick Rubin. That's basically what I spend my day doing — coming up with this list and cycling through it.
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You can listen to Song Exploder at its website.