We chat to Hrishikesh Hirway about his favourite musical moments + the future
Will Butler

15:28 9th October 2015

"There’s just something universal about creativity that I find inspiring", the words that encapsulate the entire ethos behind the world's most exciting music podcast at the moment, Song Exploder.

Hosted by the musically insatiable Hrishikesh Hirway, the audio series gives a platform for artists to dissect, or explode, their own songs piece by piece, uncovering new meanings and secrets behind the music.

Speaking to Hrishi about music is what I imagine talking to a librarian who just happens to be your best friend would be like - there's a warmth surrounding his knowledge passion for the artform that can't be replicated falsely.

Even though Hrishi's voice takes a backseat during the podcasts, his curation and choice of artists is indicative of someone who's driven by the minutia of the recording process, who has found a way to almost capitalise on his fervent fandom to create something for music fans who care about these artists as much as he does.

So where did it all start, musically?

"I’ll tell you my first memory. I was waiting for the bus and I was 10 years old and somebody told me 'hey, listen to this', and they put headphones on me and played 'Straight Outta Compton' - that changed everything for me."

"It was a kind of indicator of this bigger, unsheltered world of excitement and danger and the idea that there was more than what was available at your fingertips on the TV or radio".

Like all of us stepping warily into adulthood, there's an innate latching onto the medium that makes us feel inspired. For some, it's an entire culture while others find adolescent quelling in the form of live atmospheres, for Hrishi, it was The Roots' drummer Questlove that inadvertently set Song Exploder in motion.

"Questlove is a hero of mine", Hrishi started: "In the liner notes for Things Fall Apart by The Roots, I remember him talking about a particular drum sound that he got on a track and, for me, knowing which song and which sound, it sparked my imagination but it also made me want to hear more, read more than just one small paragraph in the liner notes."

At it's core, SongExploder is an aural reconstruction of a song's liner notes, a simple concept with an unlimited scope. Hrishi explained it best: "[When you're] in the studio, they tell you to turn off the monitor, close your eyes, so you can really hear what’s going on. I thought it’d be great to have an audio series that did that. That was a deep focus into what you’re actually hearing."

Hirway's background is not grounded in journalism or radio production but rather the experiences of being a working musician. For the last decade, Hrishi has been writing albums for his The One AM Radio project as well composing and remixing for a handful of wonderful artists including Silversun Pickups and Baths.

Prior to knowing this, I was dubious of how one person, working in a home-studio, could get hold of the likes of mammoth artists such as The National, Garbage, Ghostface Killah and U2, it was a work of sorcery - who had he payed off?

"I know people from shows, from touring and having made music for the last decade. My first step was to trick all of them into being on the show."

While the songs that feature of the show tend to emphasise on newer releases, there have been musicians that have been in the industry for over 30 years now.

Do you notice a difference in the way the older musicians speak about their music than the younger bands?

"This is a huge generalisation but I think that with people who have been in music longer, there is more of a segmented process. There’s a songwriting period, there’s a demo period then there’s a period where you record the songs."

"[With the] mindset there is now, it’s more like, you just make your thing. You might have a process of revision but it isn’t as segmented. If you can record yourself, then the very first thing you put on tape could end up being the final product."

The DIY culture of music seems to have come full circle since the early days of punk and hip-hop. Hrishi and I took a few minutes to discuss the recent collision between smartphone technology and the modern songwriting process. We mused with the idea that the next Dark Side Of The Moon or A Love Supreme could just be lying dormant in the pocket of some struggling musician. 

"One thing I have noticed, not necessarily about older vs younger artists, but more and more times, the demo is an Iphone voice memo - it seems to be the go-to tool for so many people. The first moment of a song gets captured on the voice memos. Also, the phones are probably littered with the carcasses of the songs that could-have-been."

Song Exploder is set in it's trajectory to become one of the most innovative and popular music podcasts at the minute and while that's something to celebrate, podcast fame is slightly different to mainstream media popularity.

"I would sometimes get feedback saying “Have a considered this in a video format” - all the action is on Youtube but it just didn’t feel right. I really believed in the purity of the concept even if it meant limiting who would be engaged by it."

Because of their niche audiences and lack of formatting restrictions, podcasts have become a new frontier for creative expression. Since Serial hit the scene last year and renowned shows like WTF and Nerdist grew in scope, the wider-world has been subjected to a crash-course in the podcast format. It doesn't have the range of television or the communities of mainstream radio but it should, shouldn't it?

Podcasts are easily accessible content straight to your pocket, a hub of unresting creativity, hosted by people that are motivated by nothing but personal investment - all the most successful instances of podcasting are passion projects that got out of hand. By virtue of the fact that podcasts are gaining traction over time, ideas like Song Exploder are becoming more commonplace in the new-media melting pot.

"Even despite the huge growth that happened last year, I feel like it’s just like trends in music. You’re into something and you see it to get popular and you’re like: ‘oh my god, it’s gotten so huge and now it’s reached critical mass’. Then you realise that your world is actually quite small and when it starts to get to the grandmothers of the world, there’s a whole other critical mass to be reached in the general population - and I don’t think we’re there just yet with podcasts."

It's an underdog medium that's sparked a new DIY renaissance wherein anyone that has a few microphones, a bed-sheet for sound management and a great idea can share their creativity with anyone willing to listen. Hrishi plays important part of this rejuvenation, his podcast is slowly growing to be something ultimately more significant than being a niche source of insider knowledge for music fans.

In the host's own words: "Song Exploder and podcasts might always still be the kid brother of over kinds of media but I still think there’s a long way to go, and I’m excited to be a part of that."

I spoke to Hrishi about his favourite moments of the songs he had exploded, I've attached the episodes below if you want a sample of the show. You can subscribe to the podcast here or alternatively check out the episodes of Soundcloud.

Song Exploder is a part of the awesome Radiotopia network. Follow the link if you want to discover more podcasting delights. 

1) The Album Leaf - ‘The Outer Banks’
"There’s a sound in this track that turned out to be a squeaky pedal below the electronic piano Jimmy LaValle was playing. I thought it was a musical production decision and it turned out it was an accident. The band were in Iceland with Sigur Ros and couldn’t bring him Fender Rhodes piano so he had to rent one with the speaker at the bottom and a squeaky. So there was no choice, the squeak of the pedal is in the song and you can just not hear it once you know."

2) Ramin Djawadi - ‘Game of Thrones’
"There’s a melody that starts off with a single cello, the main melody of the theme and then later a violin joins. He explained the reason why was because, in the show, there are so many characters and since the intersections between those characters is always surprising, he wanted to capture that kind of element. I was thrilled to learn that there was kind of instrumental narrative decision making that went into this theme song. It wasn’t just about making the catchiest, most epic piece of music, there’s real thoughtfulness behind what the plots were and how to translate that into a musical theme."

3) The National - ‘Sea of Love’
In the song, singer Matt Berninger is singing to someone called Joe. And he’s singing: ‘Hey Joe, sorry I hurt you / But they say, love is a virtue don’t they”. I had always categorised that as a heterosexual relationship where he is singing to someone in his life called Jo, short for Joanna. When I got to ask him about it and ask who Joe was, he explains that the name was a placeholder he had stuck in because he had been listening to ‘Hey Joe’ by Jimi Hendrix. Joe is actually a guy but the song has no sexuality or gender it’s just a name. I loved the wholehearted embrace of that gender ambiguity that’s in there.

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Photo: Press / Jake Michaels