Song Exploder’s Hrishikesh Hirway on the Value of Dissecting a Single Track

The creator behind the musically analytic podcast reflects on talks with Björk, Solange, and Rivers Cuomo.

On Thursday night at the Kaufman Music Center’s Ecstatic Music Festival in New York, Hrishikesh Hirway “exploded” Sleigh Bells’ song “I Can Only Stare” in front of a live audience. For those who’ve listened to the One AM Radio frontman’s Song Exploder podcast, you’ll know that the titular blast refers to the weekly hyper-analysis of one artist’s work — by the artists themselves.

It’s a task you’d think might be uncomfortable for a songwriter or producer — pinning down the mercurial nature of song and cutting it into clean shapes. They generally go about this by sharing the roots of their tracks, then tracing the stories of how they were technically conceived. For non-music-nerds, this description might sound like a boring and unnecessary demystifying ritual. But the process actually sees the artists at their most comfortable — and, as a listener, it can leave you in awe. In the same way that seeing an x-ray of your own body can make your existence feel even more wildly unfathomable, the podcast can reveal the divinity in the micro.

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For instance, I’ve never particularly felt drawn to Sleigh Bells’ music — but when vocalist Alexis Krauss and writer/instrumentalist Derek E. Miller finished their reconstruction-by-deconstruction of “I Can Only Stare,” off the album Jessica Rabbit, guided by subtle prompts from Hirway, every element of the song’s thickly sedimented production became clearer. Prior to the taping, I had the opportunity to talk to Hirway (who, it should be noted, has another hyper-analytic podcast, about The West Wing) about how he makes artists comfortable enough, and thereby clear enough, to enhance rather than flatten their music through explanation.

Why Sleigh Bells for the live taping of your show at the Ecstatic Music Festival? 

There’s a sense with Song Exploder that I’m trying to get across that there are interesting and deep ideas about the types of music that some people might dismiss out of hand. Not one kind of person or one kind of music — everyone has their biases about what is good, smart or thoughtful music. And one of the things I try to do with Song Exploder is show how deep the process and ideas behind songs are, regardless of genre. I thought it would be neat to talk with Sleigh Bells [at the Kaufman Music Center] because the venue is geared a bit more towards classical music. I liked the idea of being able to present something more aggressive like Sleigh Bells in that space. They put out their new song — “I Can Only Stare” — and I thought it was a nice evolution. It still sounded like them, but it also seemed like there were ambitions to do something else.

Was there ever an episode where you think audiences’ perceptions of — or biases about — an artist may have been flipped?

I talked with Rivers Cuomo about his process for Weezer, and I think some people — including myself — were not expecting the response he gave. It was a really in-depth and fascinating look at how he writes. It involved spreadsheets, and improvisation, and journaling, and doing all this freeform association, and then this very scientific thing of matching syllables or accents, in a way that really defied people’s expectations of what a Weezer song would be. He said, “I’m sure people think that everything I write about is just something that happens to me,” and that’s actually not the case at all.

Are artists often averse to artistic and emotional self-analysis? Do they ever close off in your interviews?

There have definitely been some cases where I’ve asked for some deeper introspection about a particular part or idea or lyric and they’ve actively pushed back. They’ve either said, “I don’t want to talk about this” or “I don’t want to impose meaning on it for other people.” It doesn’t always work that I can get there, but I’ll sensitively and empathetically — without imposing  — try to relate it more to memory and their own experience of something. A lot of times artists are asked to make big statements about their work, but the work itself is the big statement. To try to expound around it in a way that’s profound and big and meaningful is difficult and in some ways also redundant. I try very much to avoid that stuff and talk about it in a very small way. Counterintuitively, that’s what ends up revealing some of the most profound stuff that they have to say about their music and process.

So does the way music criticism and interviews usually work — in their album-centricity — bother you? Getting too granular about a certain song in that context can seem digressive, so you get this somewhat panoramic and generalized view in music criticism. 

Song Exploder at the beginning was somewhat borne out of a reaction against the kind of music interviews I was used to answering as a musician. My band is not big enough to get to a level where the questions get juicy, and we would be at SXSW and doing interviews where you’d be asked the same question three times over three hours, and the questions were often frustrating. It felt like the people who were asking didn’t know what we did, and couldn’t relate to it well enough to actually understand that what they were asking would be annoying. If you’d been in the position I was in — if you’d had any kind of empathy for the person on the other side of this question — you wouldn’t ask this question.

Who have you found to be the most willing to share everything — about their process, their musical vulnerabilities, etc.?

I was really blown away when I did an episode with Björk.

I recall you telling Spin she was one of the people you’d most wanted on the show.

She was a dream guest, and on top of that, in terms of the thesis of the show, she nailed it. She was able to connect incredibly eloquently how she went from an idea or experience in her life, into a musical execution of that idea. It felt so natural — in terms of introspection, she just had it at her fingertips in a way that was really impressive, but it didn’t feel at all like it was canned. At one point in the interview, she said, “I’ve never been asked that question before,” but she proceeded to answer in this wonderful, well-articulated way.

For my part, there’s never too much stuff an artist can give me, because I don’t know what the story’s going to be beforehand. For the Rivers Cuomo interview, I went to his house, and he showed me all of the different iterations for the song. There were 15 different files, and he opened every single one of them and showed me how the song changed. He’s meticulous about saving everything and documenting everything. My favorite part in that episode was when he talked about how he writes guitar solos by singing them. He sings them because he thinks, if you write them on a guitar, it might not be as catchy as something you came up with. If it’s something you can sing, then it’s something you can sing along to, which means it’s more catchy and that it’ll be a better part. And so he writes guitar parts by playing the song, and then singing, and then recording himself singing, and then he records the guitar part. He actually gave me a recording of him playing the air guitar, running into the studio singing a guitar solo. I sped it up so it’d be an octave higher, so it’s this crazy chipmunk-voiced Rivers Cuomo. He was incredibly open.

Have artists been more politically engaged in their discussions of their music in recent interviews?

I don’t really feel inclined to talk about trends in music, because Song Exploder is so focused on what’s in front of us. I don’t even bring in the context of the album. Just, “This is the song. What was going on with the song?” I did an episode with Solange, and she talked about “Cranes in the Sky.” There was a political component to that particular song, and she talks about how the song had been around for so long, but it had evolved in her own understanding of what the song could be about, as the world changed around her. Her interpretation of the song was informed by the political climate, and less overtly by trying to write a political statement in music.

You’ve done interviews with TV and film composers as well — and lately with awards season contenders. One thing I find interesting about that profession is how, if a movie isn’t otherwise praised or popular, the score doesn’t really get that much attention. Can you think of any scores that were neglected because a film itself was, like, a piece of shit? Have you ever become attached to a score without liking its movie?

It’s possible to appreciate music from a film in a way that’s divorced from your opinions about the film itself. There’s something like Judgement Night — that soundtrack was definitive when I was growing up, but that movie is whatever. I grew up in a tradition of separating film music from films themselves, by virtue of the fact that I’m Indian. I grew up here, but when my parents would listen to the Indian radio show on Mondays, all the pop music they would play was music from movies. People would listen to and know the songs before they’d ever seen the movie. They’d know every word. And there were these shows — some cable access or small market shows where they’d have an Indian program for an hour. It would essentially be MTV where they’d play a song with videos, but it’d be songs from movies. It’d be like, “From this movie, here’s this song.” And you’d watch that without seeing the movie. Music and film were always connected but you could also separate the two.

Recently you teamed up with Vulture to talk to select film composers.

Every fall when the big awards movies are coming out, I’m always looking for one or two movies I can talk about. A friend of mine from Vulture asked me if I’d ever want to do something with them, we could do some kind of collaboration together. I said yes and pitched them this idea, saying I was already trying to do an episode with Johann Johanssen about Arrival. Instead of me doing one, [through this joint project] I could do three or more. Arrival, Moonlight and La La Land are the three films I’ve done — they have incredible scores that help define those movies. I would really love to do an episode with Mica Levi about Jackie. That score made that movie as well. It let you know right away that you were in this fever dream of a world, not a documentary world.

The podcast itself is formatted more as a monologue by the artist, with your introduction, despite the fact that it all comes from an interview. Why edit out your voice and questions?

It is nice to have the back and forth in an interview, but the back and forth here is really between an artist and their music. My approach is much more as an editor or a remixer. It came out of the idea of remixing and getting stems from other artists, and being like, “Wow, that’s what that sounds like on its own.” My interviewing was coming from that same place — this is your stuff, what I can I do with your words and your music? I’m a minimalist at heart. Dieter Rams has this thing, Principals of Great Design, and one of the principals is “as little design as possible.” I feel the same way about the show. The best version of the show is as little show as possible to say what’s happening. I’m just taking up space if I’m in there.

The Ecstatic Music Festival brings “together composers and performers from different musical genres for nine one-night-only performances featuring world premieres, new arrangements and the exclusive opportunity to hear artists discuss their work,” and runs through May 13. Here’s the full lineup

*This interview has been edited for length.