A music podcast featuring Tom Scharpling finds fans by breaking out of the regular music-biz spin cycle
12:17 pm Feb. 28, 2012
For a lot of people podcasts have seemed mostly to serve as the solution to a music problem: if you can’t listen to everything, find some folks you trust and discover more music through them.
This idea has made hits out of podcasts from, among others, Seattle indie-rock station KEXP and dance-music publication XLR8R. But the iTunes charts don’t lie—the top podcasts right now are overwhelmingly talk-based, and sports, news, and comedy rule the roost.
The Low Times Podcast, a new, biweekly venture from Tom Scharpling, Daniel Ralston, and Maggie Serota, combines news, comedy, and music all in one. Its debut edition, which went out on Nov. 13, set the tone: Three interviews with musicians—one long, one medium-length, one short—back-to-back, by each of the three hosts.
This seems like an obvious enough idea—so much so that it’s surprising how long it’s taken for something of its type to come to fruition. There are other music-talk podcasts—for instance, Resident Advisor’s RA Exchange, a weekly sit-down with electronic-dance D.J.s and producers—but Low Times is the first high-profile indie-rock-focused interview podcast.
“It feels like it’s a pretty underrepresented audience,” Scharpling said over the phone. The WFMU D.J. has become a cult comedy figure for his extended routines with Superchunk-etc. drummer Jon Wurster on The Best Show on WFMU, which spawned a handful of comedy C.D.s and, more recently, the podcast Best Show Gems.
“There’s so many places now for comedians, for example, to tell their stories and there’s places for people who make comic books to tell their stories. There was nothing where people could just talk without it being a part of a produced, NPR-style piece. There’s always some performance element to things. If you have the person there play a couple of songs, the conversation is secondary to the performance. Or it’s a thing that’s really chopped up and their music is inserted throughout it, as if the people aren’t interesting enough without hearing their music.”
Indeed, part of Low Times’ defining charm is that it draws the listener in whether or not you know the artist being questioned.
“There’s an Australian comedy podcast I listen to called Little Dum Dum Club,” Maggie Serota said over coffee in a 14th Street diner. “I don't know any of the people they’re talking about because it’s all Australians, but they have a really good vibe, and they’re funny.”
“Marc Maron has people on I’ve never heard two jokes by,” said Scharpling. “And I’m fine listening to it, because you’re listening to a person talk about their life and tell stories. We’re not doing commercials for their latest album. I did something with Patrick Stickles from Titus Andronicus at this stretch where he’s got three songs written for the next album. It’s really off-cycle, business-wise. But those are interesting periods also, when people are ramping up to make the next thing. I think that’s more interesting than talking to somebody who made the thing, and it’s done.”
Low Times makes a lot of these sorts of off decisions, business-wise, and it seems to be working.
“I talked to Peter Prescott, the drummer from Volcano Suns and Mission of Burma,” said Scharpling. “I know he’s not the big name in Mission of Burma. I don't care—he’s the one I want to talk to. That’s enough.”
Media blitzes or lack thereof aside, Low Times’ most intriguing feature may be the way it comes across as something conceptualized as a podcast—something specifically designed to take advantage of the medium, as opposed to recasting the old-fashioned mix (a la most dance-music podcasts) or talk radio as downloads for leisure digestion.
“It took a lot of meetings at a diner in Jersey,” said Serota. “We started meeting in February . When you get something going, you want to have it on a certain schedule. We wanted to have enough material in the bank so that when we launched, we could keep going at a comfortable [pace].”
Scharpling directs indie-rock videos as well as working with indie über-drummer Wurster, and his contacts came in handy with Low Times: His first two interviews were with Janet Weiss (Scharpling directed Wild Flag’s “Romance”) and Patrick Stickles (Scharpling directed Titus Andronicus’s “No Future Part Three: Escape From No Future”). He calls Low Times an outgrowth of his ’90s fanzine, 18 Wheeler—the sort of project he’d long wanted to try again.
“[When] the podcast explosion, or whatever you want to call it, took place, I was already well into my radio career,” he said, adding that Low Times “made sense as something that could be self-contained and kind of shaped to capture the spirit of what fanzines were to me. And it was definitely a podcast—it's not a radio show. It’s meant to take advantage of the form. It feels like podcasts were the perfect medium to pull off what used to be a fanzine.”
Ralston and Serota, who work with Scharpling on various other projects, began discussing the idea with him over several months.
“What it was going to be took a while to take shape,” said Serota, who works for Barnes & Noble’s website as a proofreader. “At my day job, I don't interact with anyone, so all I do is listen to podcasts all day. And before this podcast even happened, I decided NPR wasn’t cutting it. A lot of the comedy podcasts [had] the same five people on the show. So before I knew I was going to be doing my own podcast, I cut into this really good perimeter of what I liked and what I didn’t like.”
“I think the radio show helped me figure a lot of stuff out in terms of what makes an interesting interview and subject,” said Scharpling. “I'm bringing a different skill set that I developed from doing the radio show for over ten years. Part of [the goal is] to get people’s actual stories. There’s so much interesting stuff to me about the minutiae of things, as well as the big events. It’s trying to strike that balance between all of the things that go into making up a life as a musician.”
Low Times’ long-medium-short format makes it something of an informal music-focused “60 Minutes,” a suggestion that made Serota wonder aloud, “Which of us is the Morley Safer?” She laughed. “Now I'm going to spend the whole time thinking about which ‘60 Minutes’ person we are.”
Though Serota guessed that Ralston might be the show’s Anderson Cooper (“Daniel’s really well dressed,” she said), that honor probably belongs to Scharpling, if only because he gets the show’s marquee names.
“I have definitely interviewed people where it comes out: ‘Oh yeah, I listen to The Best Show,’” said Serota. “People really like and respect him. That really helps with anything we’re doing.”
When Ralston asked after rapper Danny Brown, his publicist responded, “Is Tom going to be doing this interview?” “I totally understand it,” said Ralston over the phone.
“We try to tell all of our guests that the show is more of a conversation than an interview,” Ralston, who edits the shows, said. “The parts we end up pulling [are] almost never what I think I'm going to get. In the first episode, we didn't know that a huge part of the [Weiss] interview was going to be about her fantasy basketball team. But it ended up being funny and worth putting in there.”
“The biggest surprise as far as people's reaction to it was when I interviewed the singer from Thursday,” said Ralston, whose sit-down with Geoff Rickly, on episode three, is astonishingly frank: Rickly discusses, with a clear head, his band’s brief flirtation with fame, the pressures of being on a major label, and dealing with bad press.
“I had all these questions planned to talk to him about, things that our mutual friend had told me that he was into—literature, different kinds of writing. Then he said, in the first two minutes, that he understood that people wanted to go see [a band like] the National play now. I still get a couple of emails a week from people saying they were shocked by his candor. That interview has kind of become the template for what we're trying to get out of these.”
Ralston continued: “One of the things that's really great is that people are meeting each other through our show. Jennifer O’Connor is going on tour and she's playing some shows in the Midwest with Owen Ashworth who was on our first show. They met through being on our show.”
“That warms my heart a little bit,” said Ralston.