Interview: Song Exploder

Katherine Tiambeng
Photos: Jake Michaels

January 18 2015

Hrishikesh Hirway, with his brilliant podcast Song Exploder, interviews music artists from across genres to uncover the significance their iconic tracks hold to the artists themselves. In intimate interviews with big names across genres, the podcast tells fascinating stories of a song’s genesis and formation, from backstories of mended friendships and improbable collaborations, to minutiae from the production process that almost always go unheard in the final product.

Hrishikesh is himself a musician and his firsthand knowledge comes through in every episode. He is a gifted interviewer, and with just over a year of Song Exploder, has managed to speak with an extraordinary list of names, many of whom would otherwise be reluctant to share their processes so openly. Among the guests on the podcast so far have been The Postal Service, The National, YACHT and Ghostface Killah. And by inviting musicians to explode their own works piece by piece, Hirway gives audiences another, much deeper layer, to absorb. 

We spoke with Hrishikesh last week at his place in L.A.

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As a musician yourself, has Song Exploder influenced the way you create music for your projects like The One AM Radio?

Working on Song Exploder has kind of been my version of grad school. No one has gotten more out of the show than I have, personally as a musician. Besides hearing the stories that make it into the episodes, I’ve gotten to see how different studios are set up, and I get to look closely at the stems for all the different songs. There have been some specific things that I’ve heard about that I want to try, but the most important lesson I’ve learned has been that the tools you use to make things are the least important part. I don’t know if it’s a cliché, but it’s an easy and (dangerous) thing to forget.

Which artist’s approach has surprised you the most so far?

Two that stood out for me were The Books and Ghostface Killah. NickZammuto explained that he makes rhythm patterns by cutting notches and scratches into the locked groove of a vinyl record, like an analog drum machine. That was amazing, especially when he said that all rhythm is “simple geometry.” It’s such an eloquent and poetic idea, but he went and made it completely tangible with his vinyl cutting technique. With the Ghostface Killah episode, I had no idea that the principal architect behind that song was a guy who doesn’t even play music. It was all put together by the A&R on the album, who claims no credit as a songwriter, but the concept was his, and he was really at the center of everything. It was a very old-fashioned way of making a record that I thought had gone away.

It seems like an intimate experience to get artists to share their stems with you. Is this something that takes convincing, and how do you get them to do it? 

It’s really difficult, both in terms of the intimacy and the technical requirements. Some artists, those that are used to getting remixed especially, have no problem with it. But there are others that I’ve tried to get on the show who won’t do it because they simply don’t share their stems. Ever.

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Is there a challenge in taking a song discussed in musical/technical terms and making it relatable to an audience that may not have a background in music?

I’m always conscious of the idea that there are people listening who don’t know what a certain term means. With the kind of musicians who are excited to be on the show, it’s really easy to get deep into gear and jargon, because I geek out on that stuff, too. I make an effort to try and get answers or edit the interviews in such a way that my parents could understand what’s being discussed. My hope is that it’s all comprehensible, but not dumbed down, so the audience still feels like their getting an authentic view of how an artist thinks and speaks about their work.

Who are your biggest modern day influences and what do you like most about what they’re doing? 

In terms of the show, my first influence was the podcast The Memory Palace, which is fantastic. Episodes are very short, elegiac, and unlike anything I’d heard before, and a perfect execution of what a podcast could and should be. I also love 99% Invisible for their production values, and how they can turn potentially esoteric design stories into something fascinating and universal. And, while not a podcast, one of my favorite new TV shows is Going Deep with David Rees, which manages to break down things that seem like un-breakdown-able, like how to make ice, or how to shake hands.

What do you hope is the ultimate takeaway for someone listening to your podcast?

I hope that people hear a song in an episode entirely differently than they would have otherwise, and then — become addicted to that kind of listening experience, so that they listen to every episode, regardless of the artist or genre, simply for the joy of hearing music with that richer, more vivid understanding.

If you could have one artist come on the show and explode an entire album down piece by piece, who/what album would it be?

I think the dream, maybe, would be to have Portishead break down their album Dummy. It was the first album that I listened to where, in addition to loving the songs, I was very conscious of the sound of the recordings, and how much thought and creativity that would have required. It was a permanent shift in the way I listened to music.

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Subscribe to Song Exploder on iTunes.

All photos by Jake Michaels.