The producer and podcaster on his passion for music and art.
What did your parents want you to do in life, and how do you describe what you actually ended up doing?
Early, early on, my mom probably wanted me to be a doctor. Her older sister and her older brother were both doctors and, as Indian immigrants, it’s the default position. But I made it pretty clear early on that that was not for me, that was not something that was going to happen.
How early on?
By the time I was twelve. I’m grossed out by everything medical. So, then my mom was like, fine, you can be a lawyer.
As far as what I tell people I do, I’ve had to try and solve this in the context of a Twitter bio. Because of that, for a long time I’ve said: I make music, podcasts. I feel like that was like, "That’s good enough" – no follow-up questions, please. (laughs)
Okay, next question! (laughs)
Yeah, because then it’s like, "Oh, well, what kind of music do you make?" And then I’m like, "Well, that’s a really brutal question." You have to describe the thing that you make, the creative thing that you make, in words for a non-verbal medium. It’s really tricky.
The process of revealing where songs come from isn’t new; it’s been done through interviews with musicians for a long time. When you were conceiving of Song Exploder, what did you feel made it very different from what came before?
I wanted to be able to ask other musicians the questions that I wanted to be asked. When I would listen to or watch or read interviews with artists that I really admired, those interviews often didn’t give me a lot of insight into what they do. I wasn’t interested in a lifestyle profile. I think, selfishly, I wanted to know more about somebody’s process. I wanted to know more about them in a way that felt relatable to me. And as somebody who is trying to make creative work, I was looking for ways to learn from them and apply lessons to the way I think about things.
As a musician, so much is about these small creative decisions that you make along the way, little technical decisions to realize the creative vision, then the weird roadblocks that come up. All of these things are little granular choices that actually make up the day-to-day work; I wanted to hear about that, and that felt like it was something that nobody ever talked about.
Some people are like, “I’d rather not know how my favorite art was made. I don’t want to know about the process of creating the sausage.” But there’s something ineffable and unique about a person’s brain in making these choices that’s really neat.
I’m very skewed toward the visual. I wonder if you, as someone who has devoted so much of his life to the audio world, is your brain also skewed but toward sound?
Well, you know, I was an art major in school. And I actually think that a lot of my brain as a designer goes into the making of Song Exploder. And a lot of the roots of the show come from my experience from having crits in class. That crit process is really important for me in terms of everything that I make, not just the podcast but my own music and just really the way that I think about making things with intention. Song Exploder, for me, is a chance to have that kind of critique experience with an artist about one of their songs.
Also, I still think of Song Exploder as a design project where I happen to execute it in audio. There’s a need for logic and linearity and understanding of the audience, a clarity that I relate to design thinking more than anything.
Based on your relationship with art – past and present – I’m curious about what you think makes art good?
I mean, I think if it moves somebody, then it's good.
And what about the art that you own? What place does that have in your life?
I have a few pieces that I really cherish, but not enough to say it would be like a collection. I have things that are all pretty meaningful to me and mostly from people that I know. The most recent piece was a present for my wife; it's by the painter Seonna Hong. I think I first got exposed to her work 15 or 16 years ago, and then we met seven or eight years after that and are now really close friends.
How did you meet?
She lives here in LA, and she has a lot of friends who are in music and one of them was associated with the label that I was on. We basically met at shows, and we started talking, and I was like, "I know your work."
Another work that I own is something my wife got me as a wedding present: a photo by Arthur Oh, who's a photographer who I really love. He was somebody who was very kind to me in school when he was a grad student at Yale and I was an undergrad. I thought he was so wise and so cool.
There's another photographer named Phil Chang whose work has become really cool and experimental, challenging people to shift their perspective on what counts as a photo. He makes these works with Epson ink and paper, but no camera.
Do you and your wife have similar taste in art?
Yeah, I think we do. I mean we have our own individual tastes as well, the stuff that we have in the house is where we overlap, but I think the overlap is pretty huge and part of the reason we got together in the first place. She also went to art school, and she's also a designer, so we have a lot in common aesthetically.
It sounds like you both got lucky!
Yeah. Though it does get tricky in the moments when we fall outside of the overlapping on that Venn diagram. (laughs)
What else do you collect, if anything?
I'm in my studio now and there’s a photo by Matthew Porter, who I am also a big fan of. That was a birthday present from my wife this year. And then I have a couple of drawings by my wife on the wall. And then I have a drawing, a Singer Sargent drawing, of Yeats that I've had for 20 years.
How did you get it?
I moved to New York shortly after I graduated, and I got a job working as a designer at NYU Press. The managing editor of the press was this wonderful woman named Despina Gimble. I had a little office and when I moved in, she was like, "Oh, you need some things to hang on your wall." She had a few things in her office, and one of them was this little framed drawing of Yeats, and I was like, "Well, Yeats is my favorite poet and I love John Singer Sargent." She looked at it and she was like, "You know, he kind of looks like you. You should definitely put this up." It's just a page from a book that's been framed, but I really love it. For me, it's less about the object or the scarcity of it, or something like that. It's really more just the feeling that I get. For me, I'm like, "Oh, wow, there's this one piece of art that combines two people who I find really inspiring."
Like you, everything I own has a story. But still, I feel like if I needed to, I could pack what really matters to me in one suitcase and leave everything else behind. I wonder if you feel that way, too?
Yeah. I think about that all the time. I was basically just on the road all the time touring for a few years. In between that and, you know, doing other weird things. Like, I was in San Francisco for three months working as a designer for Apple in between tours. But it made me really learn how little I needed.
When I finally kind of got back to LA with some level of permanence, I remember the dream I had was just to buy a bookshelf, to be able to put books on it. I did that, and I love all the things I have, but I know from experience that I can exist in a very lean way if I need to. There's something satisfying knowing that in the back of my head.
You seem like someone who makes every decision with a lot of intention. Is there a part of your life where you have less self-control or perhaps just less desire to have self-control?
Well, I definitely have a lot of desire to have self-control, but the place where I don't have any self-control is the world of desserts. Eating desserts is my major vice.
Tell me more. What kinds of desserts are especially tempting?
You know I've daydreamed about the life of being a cookie aficionado. I've made a couple of steps in that direction. I did a story for Pop-Up Magazine. I was doing a piece for them that was called "Cookie Exploder" which was about the creative process behind my favorite cookie in LA. It's also a story about me and my dad – he’s a food scientist. And as a parallel to Song Exploder, at the end, instead of playing the song for everyone, I needed to have everybody eat the cookie. So everyone in the auditorium got a little version of this cookie and then we would all eat it together. It was my dream come true, eating delicious cookies, making everybody else eat a delicious cookie, and having that be my job for the night.
Can I ask: where are these cookies from?
Her name is Marion Mar, her bakeshop is called Crumpets Bakeshop. You can order this Mocha Fudge Cookie. But you should specify that you want it with the Maldon salt on top, which is off-menu – but then she'll know that I sent you.
Last question: is there something that I should have asked you that would have been really surprising?
I guess it would be: what flaw in your character has most led to success in your life?
That's a really great question. By fault or feature of the question, I want to know the answer, but I’ll come to terms with being kept in suspense.