Sean Exploder

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

I don’t have a favorite podcast. It’d be too unfair. There are too many I like. It is hard to choose just one but when people ask me that question, I always make sure to mention the Radiotopia show, Song Exploder. I think it is the perfect concept for a podcast. If you haven’t heard it, my friend, Hrishikesh Hirway, interviews musical artists and gets them to break down a song into its component parts to show how it all came together. It’s recently been adapted into a Netflix TV show. It is so much fun to watch. I hope you check it out.

And we love Song Exploder here on the show so much that in a meeting a few months ago, we thought, “What if we tried to do that for one of our own songs?” You might know that we have our own composer here at 99PI, her name is Sean Real, and hiring her was one of the best decisions I ever made. I love that we have our own in-house composer. I love working with Sean. And Sean works with all the producers to score our episodes with original music that she writes and records right here in Oakland. So, on this episode, we are bringing you a tribute to the brilliant podcast Song Exploder and our brilliant composer, Sean Real, and we’re calling it Sean Exploder. It’s the story of a song that Sean wrote for Avery Trufelman back when she worked here. It’s called “The Loom” and it’s the first song in Avery’s spinoff series, Articles of Interest. And to tell the story of the song, you really need to start at the beginning of Avery and Sean’s relationship. I’ll let Sean take it from here.

Sean Real:
Hi. My name is Sean Real. I’m the composer for 99% Invisible. I’ve been with the show for four years now but before that, I was playing music in bands and making a living walking dogs. Dog-walking is actually mostly driving and picking up dogs, so a lot of listening to stuff in the car, and at a certain point, you just get sick of music so that’s when I started religiously listening to podcasts and I couldn’t refresh the feed fast enough.

And the music was a big part of it too, I think that was a big part of what made it feel like this new art for me and part of me thought I could write that music, but then I thought, they probably just pull it from some music library here or something. There’s not one person who writes music for podcasts and so then I would just put it out of my head.

I was getting to a point where working all day and then going home and trying to find the energy to work on music with my bands Little Teeth and Basement, the sustainability had run out. I was emotionally and energetically bankrupt. It’s like trying to be like, there has to be a way out of this without, like, writing a hit song that’s going to make me rich and famous. Like, there has to be a way to make this a living and then I met Avery.

Avery Trufelman:
Hi, I’m Avery Trufelman. I am the host of the podcast, The Cut, from New York Magazine but for most of my life, I worked at 99% Invisible. Sean and I met on OkCupid which is now considered the old-fashioned way to meet someone. It’s quaint when you hear that someone met on OkCupid. It’s like, “That’s romance. You had to read a whole profile.” One of the stupid questions OkCupid asks you is, “What’s the first thing people notice about you?” And I was like, “My voice.” And I think Sean responded and said something, “I have a pretty signature voice too.” And so we started sharing these voice memos back and forth for a long time before we ever met, we had this very radio courtship. I remember walking down to the office, like, walking down Telegraph Avenue, three miles, like blah-blah-blah…. leaving voice memos for Sean.

Sean Real:
One time I was just recording a voice memo and then I looked at it, I was like, “Oh God, this is 45 minutes. I’m about to send a 45-minute voice memo.” And I texted you and I was like, “This is 45 minutes. Is this too much?” And you responded, “You know I’m about to get on the plane, please send it now, I need something to listen to.”

Avery Trufelman:
I distinctly remember that. I distinctly remember being like “Download! Download! Download!” before the plane took off. It was so fun. So we exchanged voice memos for a long time before ever meeting and then we finally met and I spent a lot of time hanging out in Sean’s house, going to Sean’s shows, getting to know all the band drama, Sean’s band. We dated, I think it was four months, we dated for a while, and then honestly this musical relationship was sort of our way back to friendship. So I was working on the story called “Miss Manhattan” and it was a story about the most famous model in all of New York, she appears on statues all over the city and also in other cities across America. She was a famous artist model and this was a story about one woman’s life and it was very dramatic and more cinematic than anything I’d tried to cover in the past and I realized that a lot of the music beds we used were these rhythmic jams that keep you humming along, but this was a story with real high “highs” and low “lows”. I wanted it to be scored almost like a film. I didn’t know a lot of musicians and I thought of Sean.

Sean Real:
For Avery to be like, “Would you want to make some music for 99% Invisible?” I was just … woah. It felt… it’s like a dream come true. The thing that I thought could never actually be a real thing was actually possible.

Avery Trufelman:
Working with Sean felt like mixing paint for the first time. Before it felt a little paint by numbers, I was like, “Okay, well, we got…” There’s a good song we like to use when things get happy and there’s a good plodding, talky-talk song. I used to call the genre “thoughtcore”, that was like … Then you had the plinky-plonks, the like boop-ba-doop-pa-doop… like, music to talk over. And then Sean was able to address all of these different nuances in the ways a story can take a turn. You can have music that moves with the narrative and I didn’t even realize how badly I wanted that. When you’re talking about stories about buildings and stories about objects, it’s weirdly more complicated. It’s not like, “And this is where it was sad, and this is where it was excited and happy.” It’s always like, “Can we make it like a ponderous but a little dark? Can we make it exhilarating, but also a little sinister?” It felt like mixing paint, it felt like Sean was helping make new colors.

Sean Real:
I love collaborating with people and I think that’s one of the things I love so much about this job, about working for the show, is that everything that I write is, like, it’s for the show but it’s also very much for the person who is producing the episode. And over the years, I worked with all the producers and was developing our working relationships with, what kind of music works for which people? For example, Emmett or Vivian might ask me to make something that would highlight how silly or delightful something is. Katie might want music that is more neutral but has a cool beat and I felt like I could always count on Avery to really want to pull me in a new direction, to be like, “Let’s do something experimental. Let’s really blow their minds this time.” And it was sad to think that I’d be losing that with Avery when she started working on Articles of Interest, which is the 99pi show about clothes. Avery was working with a different musician to score it, Rhae Royal, but lucky for me, Avery decided she wanted to bring me back for this one crucial song.

Avery Trufelman:
I wanted to start off with a launching point, like why talk about textiles at all? And it began with the origin of the computer and the computer punch card which came from a loom. A loom was arguably the first computer. It was the first to have an automated form of weaving and that’s where the punch card came from that eventually led to the computer. And so, this felt extremely like wheelhouse 99pi. That’s a cool fact, that’s a cool story to get people into the series.

Avery Trufelman:
And then as I was learning about punch cards, it was like, “This is also the same technology that makes music boxes.” It would cool to have a music box sound, so that people would be like, “Punch cards, I know what those are.” If you’ve seen a player piano or a music box, it’s that exact same technology where there is a hole or not a hole, basically the equivalent of one or zero and that decides if there is going to be a note there or not. So I turned to Sean and I was like, “Could you make a music box song?”

Sean Real:
And immediately, I was like, “Oh (beep), yes, I want to do that.” I was like, “How can I make a music box kick-ass?” And Avery didn’t just want something that sounded like a music box, Avery wanted the real thing, so she gave me this children’s make-your-own music box kit.

Avery Trufelman:
So I ordered it to the office, I was like, “All right, here is the music box I ordered for you, go make a song for Articles of Interest.”

Sean Real:
And the music box isn’t really an instrument so much as it’s a machine. You program it by punching holes in these little punch cards and then you run those through it as you turn the hand crank and the holes from the punch cards trigger little times in the music box. Each time produces a note and you have to punch the holes in exactly the right place to get the right note and also get the right rhythm. I didn’t want to start punching holes until I knew what the song was, what I wanted the song to sound like and so I started out by making a few demos on the computer using a digital instrument in place of the music box. And I was really thinking this is a way to introduce this new series with a bang. How do I make a walk-on song for Avery?

[DEMO 1: RENDITION OF WALK-ON MUSIC]

Sean Real:
But then pretty quickly, I was like, “This is cheesy actually and I’m leaning in a little too hard to that and actually, music box part is barely in this demo.” And so then I came up with another idea that was a lot more driven by the music box and sounded more like a music box.

[DEMO 2: RENDITION OF MUSIC BOX]

Sean Real:
But then I thought it sounded too much like a music box, it just makes me think of every music box you see in a movie is a porcelain ballerina slowly spinning and I was just like, “How can we make it sound a little more unique?” How can I make the music box actually feel like it is less of a toy and more of an instrument? How can I make it a valid instrument in an orchestra? And so that’s where the third idea came from.

[DEMO 3: RENDITION OF MUSIC BOX LEADING AN ORCHESTRAL MUSIC]

Sean Real:
It’s interesting. This one kind of accomplishes on paper all of the things I wanted to do – make a music box, lead an orchestra – except that it kinda lost that kicking ass walk-on song feeling. But then someday later I was in the shower and I just started hearing this circular melody in my head. There was this line in the episode in the script about going around and around like the punch card programming for a player piano or a music box, or an old computer, and I was like, “Oh, I think I have it.” And so I just ran to my keyboard to just get this idea out.

[DEMO 4: RENDITION OF CIRCULAR MUSIC BOX SONG]

Sean Real:
The way the notes circled around, it feels to me like turning the crank up the music box. But remember I wrote this on the computer so the next step was to program the actual music box that Avery gave me to play the part. I took my time because I wanted to be really careful and make sure I wasn’t going to punch any holes in the wrong places, but eventually, I finished poking holes in the paper and I tested it out. And I think what was really magical was just hearing this music that I had made in the ephemeral computer world being made by this tangible little machine. I don’t know, I felt like I had really made something and the next step was to record it, and I wanted the music box to start out slow and then gradually speed up. And so to do that, I recorded a few different takes at different speeds and the first one I did was really slow.

[GEARS TURNING & SQUEAKS]

Sean Real:
You can actually really hear the little gears turning and the little squeak from the crank. I really loved that sound.

[SLOW MUSIC BOX: GEARS TURNING & SQUEAKS]

Sean Real:
I love when you can hear component parts of a sound like you don’t just hear the sound but you hear what’s making the sound. I love hearing the strings of a violin or something like that scrape of the bow, maybe I could have done some stuff to lessen the squeak but I loved the squeak. I just wanted to let it be as squeaky as it was. And then I did another one that was a little bit faster.

[MEDIUM MUSIC BOX: NOTES WITH GEARS & SQUEAKS]

Sean Real:
I had a tempo in mind that I wanted to build to, that I wanted the other instruments to come up over and in order to get it to go that fast, I had to crank it really fast and this tiny little crank is not very ergonomic, so I’m just like whomp-whomp-whomp-whomp-whomp… There was a moment where I was like, “I’m not going to be able to keep this up consistently enough to have a consistent rhythm, it’s just going to sound like a mess.” So I had to practice it a lot before I could get a good recording of the fast take.

[FAST MUSIC BOX]

Sean Real:
I’m not sure if anybody would listen to that – the music box on its own – and think like driving but when I hear that, I hear…da-da-da-da-da. That’s what the rhythm is doing to me. That’s the syncopation that I can hear in my head and so that’s naturally how I started playing the next instrument. I really love contrast in music so I wanted the next instrument that you hear to be the polar opposite of the music box. So I got my stand up bass and just started going… da-da-da-da-da.

[BASS STEM]

Sean Real:
Like choppy, just like driving eighth notes. And then I really wanted to emphasize that chop so I also did a really high note on the base so that that cutting rhythm would be unmistakable or something.

[BASS STEM WITH HI NOTES]

Sean Real:
And so then just as I brought in this harsh choppy base in order to counter the pretty little music box, I wanted to counter a choppy sound with long, very pretty tones from the cello.

[CELLO]

Sean Real:
This cello belongs to one of my old bandmates and she was nice enough to let me borrow it for this. It just has this really full and moody sound that I love. I had all these other ideas for other instruments to come in too and bring it to the next place and have a huge crashing ending, but something that I’ve consistently learned from this job is that less is more and a lot of times it makes just as much sense or more sense to get something that’s good and then quit while you’re ahead. And now I really love how this song ends, I’m really happy with how it ended up.

[CLIP FROM “THE LOOM”]

Sean Real:
I felt with just these few little components, I had really accomplished the things I had set out to do which were making the music box feel bigger and badder than you normally think of it and making a song that matched and played off of the content of the story, and giving Avery this opening and closing of a chapter song for her opening and closing of a chapter series. When I was getting ready to play it for Avery, I was having just a little bit of worry that “I know I’m proud of this but the real test is showing it to the producer, getting notes, getting my ego checked a little bit.” So even with how proud I was of it, I was still protecting myself a little bit. I was ready to be like, “It doesn’t mean that you’re a bad musician, it just means that this is a process.”

Avery Trufelman:
The process of making Articles of Interest was really all over the place and I remember one day, I was feeling really scared and nervous about Articles of Interest and if it would all come together in time, and I remember Sean being like, “Hey, I want to show you something.” And she brought me into her office and from my memory, you played the song for me and it was just already done. It was immaculate conception perfect and I remember the minute you played it for me when the bass kicked in, I started crying and I was like, “Sean, it’s perfect.” And I remember it made me feel so calm, I was like, “Maybe this will be good.” Maybe this series will be good and then putting it under that moment when Roman handed the series off to me, I was like,”Oh (bleep) yeah, this is great, this rules.”

[CLIP FROM ARTICLES OF INTEREST #1:

ROMAN MARS: WHEN YOU CRANK THE GEAR OF A MUSIC BOX, YOU CAN MAKE THE TUNE GO AS FAST OR AS SLOWLY AS YOU WANT AS YOU SPIN THE LITTLE HANDLE AROUND AND AROUND.

AVERY TRUFELMAN: THE MUSIC IS READ FROM THE SERIES OF LITTLE BUMPS LIKE BRAILLE.

ROMAN MARS: PRODUCER AVERY TRUFELMAN.

AVERY TRUFELMAN: THESE LITTLE BUMPS STICK UP AND THEY HIT A SERIES OF TIMES WHICH CREATE A SONG.]

Avery Trufelman:
And it’s funny. I hear this song being used in other 99PpiI episodes sometimes and I always get really possessive. I’m like, “Hey! Like, you’re dancing with my girl.” It’s a great song, I don’t fault anyone else for using it, it’s an amazing song but I do feel like, “I will dual you, sir. She is mine,” this song.

Sean Real:
So a bit after Articles of Interest was finished and it was becoming more clear that Avery would be leaving the show at some point, I had the music box and I felt like Avery should have it. I felt I wanted Avery to be able to hold on to this physical token of the best that our working relationship had brought us and so I had a friend of mine actually make a little wooden case to put the little music box machine inside of. And so I had an actual nice little wooden music box that I gave to Avery as a gift.

Avery Trufelman:
And I have the box here — it’s the music box.

[MUSIC BOX PLAYS]

Avery Trufelman:
If I keep playing it, it’s going to make me cry. Honestly, this is my little rosebud moment and I, oh my God, I hear this music box and it makes me think about Oakland (chokes up). It’s like the most beautiful song in the world (sniffs). Ah…. sorry.

Roman Mars:
And now here’s the loom and its entirety.

[“THE LOOM” PLAYS]

Roman Mars:
This bonus episode of 99% Invisible was produced by Emmett FitzGerald and mixed by Bryson Barnes. Music, very clearly, by Sean Real. Additional music by Peninnah Albert Schwartz. Special thanks this week to Ash Clayton, Sofia Bell, and our good friend, Avery Trufelman. Avery now hosts the podcast, The Cut, from New York Magazine. It is fantastic. If you don’t already listen to it, I highly recommend you listen to it because you need more Avery Trufelman in your life.

Roman Mars:
Also, I mentioned this in the intro, but Hrishikesh’s podcast has recently been turned into a Netflix show and although I continue to think that Song Exploder is the perfect concept for a podcast, I’m here to tell you that it works incredibly well on television, too. There are episodes up right now with Alicia Keys, and Ty Dolla $ign, and R.E.M. I have been enjoying them with the boys. They are great for the whole family.

Roman Mars:
And we have a very special announcement of our own, we produced a 7″ record of music that Sean has written for the show over the past few years, so if you’ve ever wanted to hear 99pi music on its own without me talking over it, I highly recommend this album. The 7″-inch is a beautiful object. It’s filled with gorgeous, instrumental music that’s great to work to, or to cook to, or to do dishes to, or just to help you relax in your apartment.

Roman Mars:
We also have a digital version that you can download when you pay a little bit of money, but I really hope you get the record, the record is really special. I think it would make a great gift this holiday season. You can purchase Sean’s 7″-inch, right now, just click on the shop tab on our website at 99pi.org. And speaking of new stuff, coming up after the break we’ve got an extended preview of a brand new 99pi spinoff series that is dropping next month. Stay with us.

[BREAK]

Roman Mars:
And now a preview of 99% Invisible’s new limited series “According to Need.”

Katie Mingle:
A little over five years ago, I moved across the country to take a job in beautiful downtown Oakland, California. I didn’t realize I was part of a trend, but I was. Thousands of other people were also moving to the Bay Area for work. The cost of rent skyrocketed. And over the course of about five years homelessness in the county where I live doubled.

[SLOW MUSIC FADES IN]

All over town, you can see the effects of this. Almost as if a tidal wave of wealth washed people out of their houses, and into the streets. Into tents and RVs and cars.

Tulicia:
“I know these people right here. I know these people right here. I know them people fight here.”

Katie Mingle:
“All homeless?“

Tulicia:
“All homeless in their cars.”

KC: They’re renting not apartments, they’re not bedrooms. Beds! For $1200 a month near the college? That’s outrageous!

Reginald:
It’s hard to get out of this (bleep) when you’re homeless. You don’t know what your life’s gonna be in the next two hours. You know, it just like swallows you up.

Jordan:
“Mom?”

Tulicia:
“Yeah?”

Jordan:
“You know what I think about?”

Tulicia:
“What you think about?”

Jordan:
“We need a house.”

Katie Mingle:
Given just the sheer scale of homelessness all over the US but in the Bay Area in particular, you could be forgiven for thinking there was no system in place to address it. But you’d be wrong.

Operator:
“Thank you so much for holding, how can I assist you today?”

Tulicia:
“Yes. Me and my eleven-year-old son is homeless.”

Katie Mingle:
There is actually a system to help people out of homelessness. But it doesn’t help everyone

Thalia:
What does it take to be priority for them? I don’t understand it.

Osha:
So they get you on a list. They’re very good at getting people on lists.

Katie Mingle:
How this system works is confusing and opaque. Some might say kafkaesque.

Osha:
It’s all a huge mystery. I mean, we’re like, you know, professionals here. You know, we have law degrees. And we can’t figure out what’s going on and can’t get a hold of people.

Katie Mingle:
I spent a long time trying to understand this system.

Katie Mingle:
“Yeah, it feels a little bit like ‘The Wizard of Oz’. So I guess my first question is are you the wizard, is this Oz?”

Julie:
“I do have a map of Oz.”

Katie Mingle:
There are hundreds of thousands of people experiencing homelessness in the United States. And COVID could make things even worse. So what are we doing about it?
“According to Need” is a special documentary series from 99% Invisible that looks at the system we have to get people back inside. Find it in your 99pi podcast feed on December 1st.

Trish:
“So when are you going to…”

Katie:
“Do anything?”

Trish:
“Wrap all of this up.”

Katie:
[laughs]

Trish:
“What is 99% invisible? Like, is it a magazine? Is it a radio? Like, what are we doing?”

———

Roman Mars:
I am so excited for you to hear Katie’s new series. It is incredible. Just keep up to date on this feed and it will automatically.

We are a project of KALW 91.7 in San Francisco and produced on Radio Row which lives in various corners of North America but is centered in beautiful downtown Oakland, California. We are a founding member of Radiotopia from PRX, a fiercely independent collective of the most innovative, listener-supported, 100% artist-owned podcasts in the world. Find them all at radiotopia.fm.

You can tweet at me @romanmars and the show at @99piorg. We’re on Instagram and Reddit too. You can now order our first book “The 99% Invisible City” at 99pi.org/book. We have links to purchase it anywhere you get your books, including signed editions and the audiobook too. For all your other 99pi needs look no further than 99pi.org.

Credits

Production

Producer Emmett FitzGerald spoke with Sean Real and Avery Trufelman.

  1. Loot Shakedf

    I usually listen to podcasts at 2,5x speed. Too many podcasts, not enough time. But once in a blue moon something catches my ear and I pause, set the app back to 1x, and listen to it again. The Loom got to me this way. You might be surprised to find out that it works great at 2.5x as well, but it’s the kind of piece of art that deserves the respect of “as conceived by the artist”. Thank you Sean for making the world that much more beautiful.

  2. Richard Strimbeck

    Remind me very much of the short-lived Swedish group Detektivbyrån (the detective burreau). 2 albums on Spotify. I call their music “soundtrack to a dream”. Y’oughtta give it a try!

  3. Ling

    I absolutely love the music in 99pi!! I listened to song exploder and absolutely loved it too. so glad for this episode and learning the backstory of the composer and this song😭 such a great episode

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