Photo courtesy of Hrishikesh Hirway
Hrishikesh Hirway has been making music professionally for a decade and a half, first as leader of the electronic pop group The One AM Radio, and more recently as a composer for film and TV and a producer for Straight Outta Compton actor Keith Stanfield in the avant-rap project Moors. But he doesn’t just make music: He also makes sure people know as much about it as possible.
For the past couple years Hirway has been hosting a podcast called Song Exploder where he sits down with musicians—from The Postal Service to Ghostface Killah to U2—and discusses their creative process by dissecting one of their songs with them, part by part. It’s a treasure trove of inspiration and solid practical advice for musicians, whether it’s explaining how Spoon gets their snare drums to pop or just revealing that The Edge uses GarageBand the same as you (although unlike you he gets his drum loops straight from Larry Mullen, Jr.).
It hasn’t become on of the most popular podcasts on iTunes just by offering tips to home recording enthusiasts, though. Behind all the tech talk, Song Exploder offers listeners a new angle on listening to the music they love, and a unique way to connect with artists’ creative processes on an intimate level that’s hard to find anywhere else. In that spirit, we got on the phone with Hrishi to pick apart his process and see what goes into making one of the most interesting music podcasts around.
How long have you been playing music?
I started taking piano lessons when I was seven, so pretty much all my life.
Aside from piano lessons did you have a traditional music education at all?
Just the standard thing everybody goes through. I took piano lessons until about age 15 and then abandoned all that stuff to start playing drums in bands.
How much of the Song Exploder concept came from your own curiosity?
I think 80 percent probably. I just did an interview with Carl Newman from the New Pornographers. We'd never met before, and he had some reservations about doing the interview about this particular New Pornographers song, because he was like, "I'm not sure there's that much to talk about with the making of that song." Then an hour went by and it turned out great. I asked him afterwards how he felt about it, and he said to me with sort of a sense of revelation, "Oh, it's just like the conversations that we have at three in the morning in the van." And I was like, that's exactly it. That's where it came from for me, just hanging out with my friends who play music.
Musicians love to share the kind of stuff your guests talk about, tricks and techniques that aren't really taught anywhere in a formal way.
I think another part that informs the show is that I don't have any kind of formal education in terms of engineering, but that's always been a part of my music-making process. Recording my music has always been a part of making it, even though I don't really know what I'm doing. I think the songs I seem to be attracted to for Song Exploder have sounds like that, where the sounds are interested because they were crafted in this untraditional kind of way.
Have you had any guests whose creative process was so different from yours that you can't imagine working that way?
One was The Books. I talked to Nick Zammuto, and his whole way of looking at the world I found fascinating and unique, and the way he translates that into how he thinks about music... I could have listened to him talk for hours. It felt so fundamentally different from how I think about music. Another one was the band Anamanaguchi. The way that those guys operate is technically insane. The idea that they're actually using these 8-bit tools and things to create sounds... a few times during the interview I was like, "But you could just load all these samples into a normal synthesizer!" They were just not interested in that. It never seemed like an option to them. I had to basically learn a whole new language just to do the interview.
How much of what you book is determined by your personal taste?
I wouldn't put a song on that I find horrible, or even bad. I spend so much time making an episode that I have to listen to them for hours and hours. To some extent it's all driven by my personal taste. But I'm not trying to make a show that's just a reflection of my iTunes. I think that would be a little bit boring. I'm consciously trying to find stuff outside of my tastes. It's been a great exercise for me to broaden my listening palette by doing the show.
What goes into the preparation for an episode?
I spend a lot of time with the song, mainly. The backbone of the episode is the isolated stems of the recording, so the preparation mostly comes out of listening to those and finding the moments that seem right, just in terms of the sound or because there's something mysterious there for me. I think the show works best when it's surprising, and there's no way to create surprise. It just has to happen.
How often do you learn things from these interviews that you apply to your own music?
Probably every episode there's something. Sometimes what I'm getting out of it is a very specific thing, but more often it tends to be less concrete and more philosophical or something. I did one with the band Sea Wolf. The singer of that band, Alex Church, was talking about being a perfectionist and coming to terms with the idea that perfection is a myth, and that was great for me to hear personally.
How much of your audience is made up of musicians?
I did an informal poll where I asked on Twitter and Facebook, just out of curiosity. Out of the 600 or so people that responded, a little less than two thirds of the people are musicians.
What do you think the listeners who aren't musicians get out of the podcast?
The way I try and think of the show is not as a music show, even though the subject matter is music. I think of the show more about problem-solving at a basic level. These are all sort of success stories about people who had an idea for something and then made it materialize. I think just that idea fundamentally can be inspiring for people.
Miles Raymer does not have a podcast. Follow him on Twitter.