Podington Bear’s Chad Crouch

In 2007, musician Chad Crouch had a goal: create 156 songs in one year and reveal them thrice weekly on his podcast. He had no idea his little experiment would garner the attention of tastemakers like NPR’s Morning Edition and Wired.com. Seemingly overnight, his music filled the empty space in dozens of ads and radio projects.podington_bear

Podington Bear: Music For Misc. has been going strong ever since. Though Crouch revealed his true identity (for that first year he was simply known as “Podington Bear”) soon after he hit the 156 mark, the persona and the music that landed him licensing deals with Google, Microsoft, MTV, This American Life, and Chevrolet, continue to demand significance. As does his Portland-based record outfit, HUSH, the label behind the Decemberists.

His brand of electronica remains as subtle and gloriously small as it was back in 2007, but has somehow matured with Crouch, finding new depth every week. Recently, we talked about the origins of his ongoing experiment, his role in podcasting, and his open-source production library, Sound of Picture.

Interview with Podington Bear’s Chad Crouch

Has music always been a big part of your life?

No.  I never felt like I was exactly comfortable in my skin as a performer. Nor have I felt in any way gifted musically.  My dad played a few instruments over the years, sporadically, but I wouldn’t say making music or learning to play an instrument was a big part of my childhood.  Piano lessons only lasted a few months, and I didn’t continue trumpet after 6th grade band class.  I was pretty lousy.

Why the pseudonym that first year?

I wanted to experiment with podcasting, share my electronic music, and not have it attached to me or my record label.

You’ve been podcasting for almost 7 years now; was three songs a week a challenge in the beginning or business as usual?

It was a challenge and I didn’t keep to my original schedule. It took me 16 months to get to my goal of 156 songs, instead of a year.  Likewise, the most recent podcast episode is now a year and a half old, so it goes without saying I took my time with it, and take breaks.

Your fervor for all things open source came along at a time when music proprietorship was a contentious issue. Has that always been something you felt strongly about, or was it more a reaction to the state of the record industry at the time?

I wanted to explore it because it seemed like the business model of a record label was eroding, and I wanted to investigate it personally.

I’ve had great results with Creative Commons BYNC —though it’s not always clear cut to end-users what constitutes ‘commercial use’ — as well as the “freemium” model of giving away one version of the music, while selling another.  Having said this, I realize my experience isn’t necessarily transferrable to other traditional rock band with vocals enterprise schemes.

Tell me a little about HUSH records and the spontaneity that spawned it?

Well, it was just a hobby that turned into a business that seems to be turning into a hobby again.  A cottage industry.  It all started with a CD burner in 1995 that I paid $550 dollars for.  (It burned a CD in half the time it took to actually listen to it, and we thought it was amazing.) .  So the first dozen releases were largely home recorded and manufactured:  We crafted xeroxed art elements with collage and color copy elements.  Looking back I’m surprised how many CDs we actually sold in those days.

Over the years HUSH released over 100 albums.  In the past year I’ve put HUSH into hibernation in terms of new releases, as I’ve been distracted with other work, and puzzled over exactly how to proceed with the label.

Did the success of HUSH alums like the Decemberists impact the way you approached music, personally and professionally?

Yes,  the reason I have been able to eek out a strange career in the music business is due in large part to their success.  (I have managed their online shop since the beginning.)

In addition to that and HUSH, over the past four years I have also managed Laura Veirs’ record label, Raven Marching Band.  So my involvement in different facets of the industry keeps me somewhat insulated from the rigors of running a small label alone.

Far and away the best selling song in the HUSH catalog is “Wax & Wire” by Loch Lomond which is featured in a viral video (below) seen almost 30 million times.  It’s success is a tribute to the synergy between a great song and a great video acting as a lubricant.

Your songs are simultaneously accessible and obscure, but despite their genre ambiguity, they always feel thematic and distinctly Podington? What’s your writing/creating process?

My process, historically, has been 95% “in the box”, meaning I record almost solely in a closed loop: keybard-computer-headphones.  If it sounds like I’m playing an acoustic instrument, odds are it’s me playing a keyboard with convincing samples.  So it’s electronic music, but I think you’re right; there’s some genre ambiguity because it doesn’t always sound like what most people think of as electronic.

As far as what is distinct about my compositions, I’d say as a rule of thumb they are melodic, fairly simple and usually major key; they feature a bright–some might say childlike–sonic palette (bells and chimes are common); they have a tight bass and drum groove–I’m a big believer in the power of bass lines–grounding the song, and loosely performed composition elements or solos rising above.

What are you working on this week?

I’m on a big campaign to integrate Bandcamp into the HUSH shop and my music license site soundofpicture.com.  I launched that site earlier this year and I’m delighted by the performance of it, given I’ve put very little effort put into publicizing it.  In the past seven months I have sold well over 200 licenses.

Freemusicarchive.org played a big role in introducing my music to a lot of people in this timeframe (with over one million downloads) and soundofpicture.com is a site I can steer license inquiries to.  I’m excited about the potential to reach even more people, but I feel like I need to dial it in a little more.  Bandcamp will help as a familiar multi-format, high quality download gateway and embedded player. Uploading my music to free music archive.org has illustrated that tapping into sites with heavy traffic can have great results.

So while HUSH shop business is waning, Sound of Picture is taking up slack.

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You can follow the podcast at Podington Bear: Music For Misc and cherry pick Podington Bear songs at Sound of Picture.

Welcome to Nightvale

Serial radio programs have always intrigued me, probably more to do with Woody Allen’s Radio Days than anything else.

nightvale_8204Welcome to Night Vale is a serial, a surreal serial, but a serial nonetheless. New episodes drop every pay day, the 1st and 15th of each month. It follows the goings on of the small fictional town of Night Vale. The mundane mingles seamlessly with the supernatural in this comedy/drama.

Night Vale’s unflappable host, Cecil Baldwin, guides you through each episode with a style so “Kai Ryssdal” in affectation, that even mention of a “glow cloud” that rains animal corpses onto the town center can feel like Marketplace.

The only real through line in the show is “the Weather,” typically a performance by an obscure musical guest. And of course there are the characters:

There’s Carlos, the scientist; the mysterious hooded figures in the dog park, the Apache Tracker, and the “sponsors.” It’s a little Stephen King, a little David Lynch, and a little Garrison Keillor all rolled into one surprisingly digestible 20-minute episode.

The show, not unlike a lot of avant-garde entertainment, can feel a bit self-indulgent, but therein lies its charm. Strip it down, and it’s simply science fiction with indie rock accompaniment  and a touch of conspiracy theory to give it that small-town feel. It’s funny, peculiar, and well-produced. You may be satiated with just one episode. I think I was. But who knows?

Harry Shearer’s Le Show

Show of hands: Who loves Harry Shearer?

To those of you not raising your hands; I’m assuming you’re too young to have tapped into this comedy legend’s genius, so let me give you a quick recap:

He’s the voice of Ned Flanders, Mr. Burns, and Smithers on the Simpsons; he’s Derek Smalls from This is Spinal Tap, a film he also co-wrote, and he’s the guy with the mustache in the SNL skit below:

Le Show, Shearer’s public-radio program has been on the air since 1983. I’m clearly late to the game on this one. This could be a result of proximity and limited syndication (I live in Atlanta), but KCRW in Santa Monica has aired the the hour-long program, a satirical look at news and current events with a touch of sketch and a smidgen of music, weekly  for 30-plus years. And this is the first time I’ve heard of it. And of course, it’s also available as a podcast.

Shearer’s voice is so distinctive and reminiscent of ’70s broadcast conventions, that one need only listen to a few sentences to fall in step. His subtlety and humor lead you from one obscure news segment to the next. It’s rainy afternoon talk radio at its finest.

I can’t say I like the music interludes — not a big fan of Dr. John. But that’s on me. I did hear a ditty about the yule tide snows of Toronto, as sung by Montgomery Burns, I enjoyed. Take a listen. I’m kicking myself for not knowing about this show.