This week, one of our favorite podcasts, Song Exploder, takes over Reply All. Host Hrishikesh Hirway interviews the mysterious Breakmaster Cylinder about coming up with our theme song. Then, we air one of our very favorite episodes of Song Exploder, an interview with Phil Elverum of the Microphones about his song “I Want Wind to Blow”
Our theme song (which is the subject of our episode today) is by the mysterious Breakmaster Cylinder.
Our ad music is by Build Buildings.
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ALEX GOLDMAN: From Gimlet, this is Reply All. I’m Alex Goldman.
PJ VOGT: And I’m PJ Vogt. And we’re doing something different this week.
ALEX: There is a podcast that we are both huge fans of that is called Song Exploder, and the way that it works is the host, Hrishikesh Hirway, he takes one song and he sort of tears it down to its component parts. He interviews the person who made it and talks about exactly how it was made and why it was made.
PJ: Yeah, that’s sort of what’s cool about it. I feel like usually when musicians get interviewed, they’re like, “I don’t know, it just came to me in some weird dream,” or whatever, but because he talks to them about like the mechanics, somehow a lot of times they’ll be like, “Okay, here’s exactly what this song meant, and like what it was referring to,” and it’s really satisfying.
ALEX: So this week’s Reply All is two episodes of Song Exploder. The first is our theme song, which was incredibly informative for us because even though we listen to that theme song every week, there is a lot we don’t really know about it.
PJ: We knew nothing about it, it turns out, it’s crazy.
ALEX: And then the second episode is an interview with Phil Elverum of the Microphones. It is the explosion of his song “I Want Wind to Blow.”
PJ: This was the Song Exploder episode that turned me into a Song Exploder fan, cuz I like, I sort of knew that song, I liked that song, I didn’t think I had a lot of questions about that song, and instead, I don’t know, it was fascinating. It sort of ends up just being about how, getting to see all the tiny little creative decisions that go into making anything, even something that sounds like it came into the world fully formed. It’s really good.
ALEX: Alright. Enjoy the show.
HRISHIKESH HIRWAY: My name’s Hrishikesh Hirway, and this is a special Reply All edition of my podcast Song Exploder.
On Song Exploder, I ask musicians to take apart their recordings, to let listeners hear the inner workings of a song, and learn how the whole thing was made. One of the things I love about Reply All is the music by Breakmaster Cylinder.
[Reply All Theme song]
By the way, I’m not sure how many of you know this, but before Reply All, Alex and PJ had another podcast about the Internet called TLDR, and a lot of aspects of Reply All first manifest in that show, including having a theme song by Breakmaster Cylinder. So they’ve all been working together since September, 2013.
When I wanted to find out how the Reply All theme was put together, I discovered a few surprising things. Like the fact that PJ and Alex have never actually spoken to Breakmaster Cylinder, who prefers to remain anonymous. They’ve only ever emailed. So when the guys say “the mysterious” Breakmaster Cylinder in the credits, they really mean it. They don’t even know if Breakmaster’s a “he” or a “she.” I interviewed Breakmaster Cylinder, but out of respect for his or her privacy and mystery, I had an actor replace Breakmaster Cylinder’s voice. Or did I? I’m sworn to secrecy.
I also discovered that before there was a theme for Reply All, before there was even a theme for TLDR, PJ and Alex first had to agree on whether or not their podcast should have a theme at all. Here’s PJ.
PJ: Alex wanted one and I didn’t want one. I think I remember like, feeling like it was not a good idea because you would end up having episodes that didn’t tonally fit the theme song. Do you remember that argument?
ALEX: Yes. I don’t think I had a particularly strong counter argument.
PJ: So why did you win that?
ALEX: It’s a weird question; I never win any arguments. I wanted something kind of anthemic and break-beaty, and just like really heavy.
PJ: Isn’t it anthemic, like an anthem, instead of an an-theem?
ALEX: Many years ago—probably 2008 or 2009—I somehow stumbled upon a video that Breakmaster Cylinder made, which was a remix of “Mr. Sandman” by The Chordettes.
[“Mr. Sandman” remix]
It was this video that was just the most gruesome moments from every horror movie strung together to the tune of this sort of creepy, distorted remix of “Mr. Sandman.” And I was like, “Whoa, this is someone I want to keep an eye on.”
So I started looking through Breakmaster Cylinder’s other videos, and I started following their music, and then when it came time to do a theme song, I was like, “Who is just weird enough to work with us and make this thing?
BREAKMASTER CYLINDER: My name is Breakmaster Cylinder, and I first wrote a theme song for PJ and Alex for TLDR.
[TLDR theme song]
The first theme was received relatively well and was sort of the sound of the show. In retrospect, it feels more childish, I guess. It’s sort of goofier.
ALEX: I think that, initially, we were enamored of the idea of doing a show about the internet, that was very internet-y, and our first theme song was all synthesizers, and it was all synthesized. One of the things that we really realized making TLDR is, yes, it’s a show about the internet, but it’s mostly a show about just, your environment and where you are, and who you’re talking to, and how you’re talking to them.
BREAKMASTER: So they wanted to do something a little more refined, maybe. The tone of the new show was going to distance themselves from what that theme sounded like, which was too, you know, little-kid-like. I am reading an old email from Alex Goldman to myself in November of 2014, and he says, “If I had to describe what I wanted in terms of emotion, I’d try to describe our show, which at its best moments is both irreverent and earnest.”
[Bach Prelude in C Major]
I had some weird thing where I was just—I was obsessed with Bach. Prelude in C is basically what the Reply All theme is.
Yeah, it follows the same chord structure. It’s the first four measures, but instead of playing each individual sixteenth note, you bring it all into one chord. So, what you can do is you can take one measure…
[BMC plays piano]
…and you can block it into one chord so it’s this:
[BMC plays piano]
And then the second measure is this….
[BMC plays piano]
[BMC plays piano]
[BMC plays piano]
And then it goes the first four measures…
[BMC plays piano]
…and then it goes measures twelve through fifteen.
[Bach Prelude in C]
[BMC plays piano]
And you land back on the tonic and it’s nice. You can’t possibly do it better than Bach would have done it. It’s got all those nice diminished sevenths; it’s really good.
[BMC plays piano]
This piano in this room is not really good enough to record most of the time.
[Reply All piano stem]
That is a fakey piano sound, though, which is a little unfortunate, but I kind of tried to dirty it up in the EQs.
[Reply All piano stem]
I totally cannot play drums, so I just recorded every drum hit individually.
[Reply All drum stem]
I bought some brushes, ‘cause they’re awesome.
[Reply All brushes stem]
That is layered with a trap kit.
[Reply All trap kit stem]
This theme song is just, like, layering all my favorite shit ever, I guess.
[Reply All Coin Spinning stem]
It’s a coin being spun on a table, but it’s pitched up, like, exponentially along a curved line, so it starts low and it gets higher quickly, so hopefully it sounds like it warps into whatever sound comes next.
[Reply All Coin Spinning stem]
[Jar + Glass break stem]
Those are two different sounds. That is a mason jar being rolled across a table,
…and then the other sound is a small glass being shattered with a hammer.
HRISHIKESH: In addition to these organic elements, Breakmaster Cylinder also made parts of the music digitally, programming notes with MIDI software on a laptop.
B: This bass line….
I wrote a MIDI line and then exported it to five different bass noises.And then throughout the track I have them all layered at the same time, and then I’d mute all of them except for one, and just switch between them when it sounded right.
It switches between them quickly, so you get some sort of beep boops and some rumblier dubstep basses and some sort of warm midrange out of all the same bass melody.
HRISHIKESH: After a few rounds of drafts and revisions went back and forth between Breakmaster and PJ and Alex, the theme settled into its final form. I asked PJ and Alex if the theme song had a title. It doesn’t, really, but —
ALEX: It’s called “Reply All Intro 4, Frankenfucked 1 and 3, Beep Boops Lower Down.wav.” It’s called “Frankenfucked” because we combined the beginning of one and the end of another, and then it says “Beep Boops Lower Down” because—
PJ: I said I wanted “lower down” beep boops!
ALEX: Because we turned down the beeps and the boops in the mix.
BREAKMASTER: TLDR is a great show, but Reply All has a lot more depth than TLDR did. They’ll be talking about one general branch of the Internet, and then they suddenly zoom in on one human story. And I don’t know if the theme does that, exactly, but I think it does balance the organic with the electronic, you know: Bach and machine bass. Like, the human component and the Internet, which their show does really well.
PJ: I think our show feels a lot like both of our personalities, which is like, cheerful with, like, a depressed streak, and like a little bit manic. But I think that mostly it’s a pretty optimistic show, and I think the theme song is an optimistic theme song, and I like the feeling it starts us out with every week.
HRISHIKESH: Normally in Reply All episodes, what we hear is a condensed version of the theme song, but it’s actually a longer piece of music. So here’s the fully assembled, full-length version of the Reply All theme by Breakmaster Cylinder.
[Reply All full theme]
ALEX: Coming up after the break, Hrishikesh takes apart another song. This time, the song “I Want Wind to Blow” by the band the Microphones. It’s one of our favorite episodes of Song Exploder, so stick around.
HRISHIKESH: You’re listening to Song Exploder. My name is Hrishikesh Hirway. In the fall of 2001, Phil Elverum released the album The Glow Pt. 2 on K Records. Pitchfork named it the best album of the year. In this episode, Phil recounts how he created the first song on the record at Dub Narcotic Studio. He spoke with me from his home in Anacortes, Washington about his love of being alone in the studio, evoking nature through music, and where the name the Microphones comes from. Plus, we’ll hear from Calvin Johnson, founder of the legendary record label K Records.
[“I Want Wind to Blow” segment]
PHIL ELVERUM: My name’s Phil Elverum, and I made a bunch of records under the name the Microphones, and now I make records under the name Mount Eerie. This song is called “I Want Wind to Blow” and it’s the first song on my record The Glow Pt. 2 which came out in 2001. I recorded it in Dub Narcotic Studio in Olympia, Washington on January 1, 2001. I just noticed that when I dug out the track sheet. I just recorded all the time, that was my life back then. I lived a block from the studio and I had a key, so I would just kind of be in there whenever it was available. So Dub Narcotic Studio is sort of the in house studio of K Records, and I moved to Olympia ostensibly for college but I only lasted two quarters there because I just got so involved in all the other cool music and funk stuff that was going on downtown. Calvin Johnson invited me in to work in the studio and gave me a key for some reason, I still don’t know why, but I had access to this amazing studio and I would just be in there at all hours doing experiments. I was obsessed.
CALVIN JOHNSON: I mean, it was great that he was able to work with all this stuff and make things work for himself. My name is Calvin Johnson. I work at K. I mean, the studio’s just there, people are doing all kinds of things in there. There’s recording, there’s people doing silkscreening, it’s just a room full of stuff happening. I said to Phil, I said here’s a key to the Dub Narcotic Studio. I just figured if he didn’t know what he was doing, he was figuring it out, and he’s good at it.
PHIL: That’s kind of how I continue to work to this day, is just making mistakes and discovering crazy accidents.
CALVIN: Once the record was done, I was like whoa, this shit’s good.
PHIL: I remember writing this song in Philadelphia, mid-tour, in my friend Mira’s parent’s upstairs bedroom. I just have a distinct memory of waking up, noodling around in the morning and coming up with a melody of like twang, twang, twang. It just happened. Sometimes it just comes out.
This song is kind of an exception because customarily, I don’t have a song when I start recording, it’s based on experimentation in the studio. And I probably had played a version of it a few times on that tour. So I came home with this pre-formed thing.
When I recorded it, I decided to break it down into just the low Gs on one track.
And then the higher melody on another track.
So I was kind of figuring out, it would sound unnatural in a way but interesting. So that’s kind of what I was doing with this guitar part. I’ve always been really into utilizing the stereo spectrum.
Music comes out in stereo, people listen to music in stereo. There’s a lot of opportunity there to play with spacial stuff and two speakers. There’s two speakers everywhere. It’s amazing.
I used to have a musical group with a girlfriend called the Thunderclouds. It was like a Beach Boys cover band, and we would just figure out Beach Boys songs, break em into two-part harmonies, and you know, we played a couple of shows around Olympia, it was very fun.
So the first words in the song are, “The Thunderclouds broke up,” which is about us breaking up as a couple and also about changing weather. You know, it’s multiple layers of meaning about weather being a metaphor for my emotions. That was kind of what all my songs were about back then and arguably still are.
[Sings: The Thunderclouds broke up,
And the rain dried up, the lightning let up,
The clacking shutters just shut up]
And then there’s three other vocal tracks which only come in on these few words that make this kind of elongated chord.
Yeah, I’ve always recorded analog and I still do. So in preparation for this interview, I had planned to go down to Dub Narcotic and make digital backups of the reels, which I have never done, they’re still just sitting there. But because they’re twelve, thirteen plus years old, the reels of tape are deteriorating. That’s a thing that happens with certain tapes of a certain generation I guess, where the adhesive starts to break down and when you rewind it or fast forward it or play it on a tape machine, it doesn’t play properly. But there’s a work around where if you bake them at a low temperature for like two days, then you get one or two more passes out of them on the machine, so. We were able to salvage the tracks for this interview.
I’m playing all the instruments here. I guess I prefer it that way. I get kind of crazy when I’m deep in a recording project, where I’m not really communicating in words or anything. I’m so immersed in this sound idea that if I had to talk about it to someone else or tell them what I’m trying to do, that it would throw me off, I think. Which leads to a lot of logistical complications running back and forth to hit the record button.
And this sound you can hear is me walking, getting the headphones on, and walking back after I finish the piano. The alternative is me going back and erasing all the sounds of me walking over to the piano, walking back to press stop. I like the sound of human life going on, in between, you know in the quiet parts, between performances.
You know, there’s just two piano tracks but I put the mic like, fifty feet away and just slammed the notes down, let em resonate in the room. So they feel huge.
The song is about tumultuous feelings. The song sort of builds and morphs into this explosion. And I feel like that’s maybe where the power of this song comes from, is this tension that is building for the whole thing. There’s this pulse, and finally there’s this release.
I had this hollow body electric guitar, this K guitar. I was aiming for basically the sound of water.
You can hear the pick sound almost. I miked the strings as well as an amp. Two different delay rates on the right side and the left side to sort of create this disorienting, watery, waves hitting each other effect.
[Sings: There’s no ship on my sea]
Is the last line I sing, and so I go out to sea with the instruments.
This recording is me alone in the studio, scraping the bottom of a snare drum. I heard that sound first in my head, and I was like I need this like, weird kind of scrape, without thinking about snare or thinking about whatever it was that could make it. And then I’ll look around the studio, where can I find those sounds in this room? I was going for this thing for this song of new characters appearing all the time and then vanishing.
I wanted there to be people poking their heads, not people, instruments, poking their heads in the door.
I remember discovering that I loved recording, that breakthrough when I was in high school, getting to record for the first time. We had a simple 8-track studio setup in the record store where I worked. And just staying after work and experimenting, realizing what was possible with recording. And also realizing that so much of orthodox recording ideology is about capturing a thing perfectly. And I just was never interested by that because it seems like all of the other ways around that perfect sound are much more, you know, there’s a vast world of possibilities. So I guess I maybe developed a tendency to work in the opposite direction of trying to do it the right way. In fact, every time I’ve ever recorded a drum set, I’ve probably put the mikes in a different place. Just because, they’re gonna sound enough like drums, and why not have them sound characteristic and new? If possible.
That’s why my project was called the Microphones at first, was because, wasn’t even songs really, it was just sound and recording and the early songs were literally about recording. About gear. Sort of in a metaphorical way, like my heart is the preamp or whatever, you know it’s, I was in high school, so lay off, man.
I love recording. And that was how I got into doing this. Not because I wanted to write songs. Of course, I’ve developed a love for writing songs since then. But yeah, it was that breakthrough of self-recording which changed everything for me.
HRISHIKESH: And now, here’s “I Want Wind to Blow” by the Microphones in its entirety.
[“I Want Wind to Blow”]
ALEX: Thanks to Hrishikesh Hirway, the host of Song Exploder. You can subscribe to Song Exploder on iTunes or whatever podcatcher you use, and at songexploder.net. And thanks to Breakmaster Cylinder for giving us a tiny peek behind the curtain.
PJ: Reply All is me PJ Vogt and Alex Goldman. We were produced this week by Tim Howard, Sruthi Pinnamaneni, and Phia Bennin. Production assistance from Kalila Holt. Special thanks this week to Mickey Carter, Christian Koons, and Ferelith Young. Matt Lieber is a book you stay up and read in one night. Our theme music is from the mysterious Breakmaster Cylinder and our ad music is by Build Buildings. You can find more episodes at iTunes.com/replyall. Our website is replyall.rodeo, thanks Hover.
ALEX: Oh also, we’re on the Think Again podcast this week. Think Again is part of the Big Think video series on YouTube. If you’ve ever watched a Big Think video on YouTube and you like those, they also have a podcast. It’s called Think Again, we are on it this week, we talk about stuff that we know very little about, and try and sound knowledgeable. You can find that at bigthink.com.