For his chart-topping podcast, Song Exploder, where he pulls apart songs with the musicians who wrote them, Hirway is like a scientist putting sonic emotion under a microscope.
He interviews artists like U2, Björk, and Spoon, and breaks down their song construction. He pulls apart each musical track separately, stitches the interview and music together, and posts his creation. And then he does it all again the next week.
Song Exploder is currently the second most popular music podcast on iTunes and is slowly gaining steam (we recently named Song Exploder one of the five best music podcasts out there). Hirway discussed his transition from musician to podcaster and his work in developing his own voice as an artist.
New Times: I mean, first things first, what is Song Exploder? Tell me about it.
Hrishikesh Hirway: Song Exploder is a podcast where musicians take apart their songs, and piece by piece tell the story of how it was made.
And where’d you get the idea for that?
It comes from my work as a musician and also remixing other people’s work. You know, I’m a sort of a self-trained — if you could be so generous to call it "trained" at all — engineer and producer. I started recording my own music not knowing what I was doing. Along the way, I realized you have to do what you can with whatever you’ve got, and sometimes that leads to some very surprising decisions and creative problems that need to be solved.
You put in all this work to make a song sound the way you want it to and, in the end, the final version of the song doesn’t necessarily bear any traces of that original work. You know, it might sound cool, but a listener can have no idea what went into actually creating this thing. Often times, even if it’s not particularly difficult to make, even if it’s a regular song with three or four instruments in it, listening to those instruments by themselves, it’s a totally different experience than hearing the full song by itself. And that’s something you get to do as an artist, not a listener.
There’s a lot of beauty and a lot of depth you’d normally never hear. I wanted to create something that would both let a listener hear those pieces by themselves and appreciate how beautiful they were and all the work that goes into making a song beautiful.
Is that a common thread you’ve seen? You work with a variety of musicians, do you see that sort of breakdown with each artist or does it differ?
I think the main common thread is that every song is a host of ideas. It’s not just one idea and one decision. There are all these little pieces that get knitted into the final fabric of what a song is. It doesn’t matter what song it is, you can’t arbitrarily fall into a song. Everything that goes into it has to be thought out and created. It doesn’t matter what genre that is or who the artist is, that’s something that’s true for all music. There’s, at some level, a problem that needs to be solved.
You make it sound very methodical.
The way I make the show is, I break it down in this methodical way, but there are definitely people who make music where it’s very instinctive, where a lot of these processes are subconscious or unconscious and they’re just doing what comes naturally to them
That’s the fun of Song Exploder — actually slowing things down and shining a spotlight on those ideas that come so easily to a musician. With great musicians it isn’t necessarily something that is plotted out and worked over. It may just be something they can create out of instinct and thin air. But that doesn’t mean there are those kinds of gears turning under the surface.
In a different vein, how did you get where you are? You started off as a musician. How’d you get into music and how’d that evolve into podcasts?
I’ve been playing music my whole life. I started playing in bands in high school, and somewhere along the way I was introduced to that whole idea of DIY punk rock. That’s kind of been a cornerstone of my whole life as a musician, and just as a person making things in general — whether it’s music or something else. You know, it’s just making what you can with everything you’ve got and not waiting for approval of some larger entity in order to do something.
So I put out a bunch of records, I’ve toured a bunch, and along the way I’ve met a lot of musicians, people I’ve been fans of, and friends I’ve gotten to know along the way. When I had the idea for the podcast, I wanted to approach it the same way I make music, which is something I can do on my own with the resources that I’ve got. I turned to those friends I’d made and asked if I could talk to them in that way.
What’s the beauty of this DIY method?
It’s easy to get stuck on trying to figure out how to do things the “right way.” When you’re trying to make something and you admire anything you love from afar, it may seem monolithic and huge. You might listen to something on the radio and think, “This is so great. I have no idea how to get from playing guitar in my bedroom to this incredibly crafted piece of music.” Especially with music, it becomes easier and easier to do it on your own, and you don’t need people’s permission. You don’t need a record label or an institution to give you permission. If you want to put something out into the world, it’s just a matter of will. There’s something so nice about that.
Starting up the podcast, you said you talked to friends? Who were some of those people you collaborated with?
The first few episodes were all with people were close friends of mine — people I had shows, recorded, and toured with. The first episode was with Jimmy Tamborello, who is one half of the Postal Service.
And it’s grown from there.
Yes, on the seventh episode I asked the composer from House of Cards if he’d want to do an episode. I didn’t know him at all, I just sent him an e-mail and he said yes. I asked the creator of Bob’s Burgers if he would do an episode about the theme song. I didn’t know him, but I had a friend who worked on the show. I worked for weeks and weeks to get someone to introduce me to him. After the first episode being the Postal Service, it was a good calling card to take to other musicians and labels and say, “Hey I’m doing this thing and you can see it’s legit.”
Who’s the coolest person you’ve gotten to interview and talk about music?
I’ve definitely gotten to talk to some really cool people. I think the most mind-blowing for me was Björk because she’s been such a hero of mine for years, and she has such a presence.
How do you narrow these podcasts down? With Björk, U2 and all these famous artists, I’d want to talk to them for hours. How do you narrow your interview down to a 15-20 minute piece?
I think for fans of bands, it would make sense that they would want to hear a long, in-depth discussion about everything with an artist. But part of Song Exploder’s mission is to treat all music the same regardless of genre. So I try to cover a pretty diverse range of artists. What that means for listeners is that you may not know or like an artist. It might be your favorite artist one episode and someone you’ve never even heard of the next episode.
Has this changed your vision, how you see music?
It’s helped reinforce some things that I know, but don’t always act on or believe. For instance, there is no one right way to approach making things. Just based on the biases or assumptions on how you think things should be made, there are ways to deconstruct those ideas and find the new. ... Every single song that gets broken down ends up revealing so many new ideas and ways of thinking about the world. I’m blown away by this constant source of inspiration. It makes me feel okay that I don’t have that training and I didn’t go to school for composition. It’s good to know there’s no one right way to do everything.
So give me an example of how these artists break down these songs. Is it all different or are there similar trends where someone starts with a beat or specific sound?
People start from all different ways. Before we start the interview, I get the track breakdown of the recording. That’s where the work starts for me and I’ll go through the different instruments and layers of a recording, then prep my questions based on that. There is a similar thread, but I’m more of the common denominator than any of the musicians are doing themselves.
How do you break it down in a way that’s comprehensive?
It’s hard to do in the moment, which is another reason I don’t put out the interviews verbatim. Editing is a huge part of the podcast because that’s where I get the chance to put together ideas within the song. ... Generally I look for the things that are most interesting musically and most surprising. There’s stuff I feel like a smart listener can perceive in the song themselves. So I can skip that. The surprising stuff is where the conversation starts and it goes naturally from there. I let them direct where it goes, then at the end I pull it apart and put it in an order that makes sense.
What does the future hold for store? For not just podcasts, but you.
I don’t know. I don’t know what podcasts hold in store in general. Right now it’s trending and people are drawn to that. It’s such a cool medium and it’s nice to be part of something that’s growing and something, I wonder, will continue to grow. As a musician, the business, it’s slowly contracting. Ever since I found music, there’s been people ringing the death bell. I don’t know, and it’s kind of nice not knowing.