Song Exploder shares the secrets of song writing
Let’s hear it for Hrishikesh Hirway: a self-taught musician whose career includes four albums and scoring indie films. His desire to learn more about the secrets of song-writing led him to revive his Song Exploder project. He was convinced there was an audience for this.
But it was nearly a decade ago and platforms were all about the visuals: “I took it to Spotify. But they were just focused on video at the time. So they, along with everybody else, passed on the idea,” he says in an interview with LA Times.
Bless him for keeping at it – since its launch, Song Exploder has consistently ranked among the most consumed music podcasts in the business with guests including U2, Iggy Pop and Metallica; now it’s a four-episode series on Netflix.
Each of those episodes is under half an hour so it’s an easy consumption. Also, you can watch them all or only the one(s) with the band or song you like. In my case, that is REM. and Losing My Religion. The other three episodes are Alicia Keys, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Ty Dolla $ign.
As short as the episodes are, they are crammed with information (I’m assuming the rest are similar to the one I watched, twice so far), and well balanced.
At the end, I felt satisfied, having seen college rock band REM, from Athens, Georgia, when they were first starting out in the early 1980s and into the 90s, when vocalist Michael Stipe had hair – and was quite hot (not that he isn’t now, just in a different way, for an older audience) – and bassist Mike Mills was in his 30s but looked, seriously, like a 16-year-old nerd. The other band members are Bill Berry (drums) and Pete Buck, who played guitar … and importantly, the mandolin.
It’s this unusual instrument that gives Losing My Religion its unique and irreplaceable riff, which was the foundation of the hit song. Stipe calls it “weird”, the way it was put together, and it should never have been a hit single. A five-minute song with “no discernible chorus,” who would play that on radio?, questions Buck.
Stipe further recalls that Buck was tired of being a guitar god, so he picked up the dorky mandolin. “He didn’t want to become a ‘guitar dick’; I think that’s the phrase he used,” says Stipe.
The consensus was that this could be the song that ended REM’s career – or at the very least put a “full stop” behind what they had done up till then – and they were okay with that. Of course, quite the opposite happened.
They won two Grammys, the album Out Of Time – mixed at Prince’s Paisley Park Studios – sold 18 million copies worldwide, and the video won MTV’s Music Video Awards video of the year, along with five more in other categories.
Stipe tells how he was influenced by the creepy yet beautiful stalker theme of The Police’s Every Breath You Take, and describes the intense agony of anxiety, and vulnerability, in the lyrics of Losing My Religion.
Hirway was on target; fans do very much enjoy learning about how their favourite songs take shape (and this is so much a favourite of mine that I know all the words by heart, and danced to it excessively in dark nightclubs when it was first released), even if it sometimes changes the way you listen to them.
For a group of guys who have probably performed this song thousands of times, they’re quite vague about it. Buck says he has his ideas of what it all means, but it’s not his “job” to share that. Stipe was aghast to mildly horrified when Hirway played his isolated vocals. Which, by the way, are spectacularly, exquisitely, almost painfully haunting. He also had to pause to recall the lyrics.
Berry was visibly surprised to hear the handclaps that were later added into a recording, along with orchestral strings, and the original demo is dodgy at best, which Stipe agonises over. I’m guessing they had all the top-shelf mind-altering substances back then. This is not an out-of-line assumption; Buck does refer to it in passing.
If you’re wondering why I refer to the band in the present tense, when they officially broke up in 2011, it’s because Buck says they still hang out, have dinners and whatnot. They just don’t make music together anymore. They did well, though.