Gigantic: Unpacking the Process Behind a Pixies Podcast
The band's manager and podcast producer share tips and takeaways for making a behind-the-scenes show that stays true to its subject.
When It’s a Pixies Podcast launched last summer, fans of the iconic alternative rock pioneers were dropped right into the band’s world as they created a brand-new album. The making of Beneath the Eyrie took place over a month in 2018 at Dreamland—a former Upstate New York church that’d been converted to a live-in studio—and the podcast dropped by in the weeks leading up to the record’s release (mere months before Spotify original podcast 21 Days with mxmtoon). But as organically immersive as It’s a Pixies Podcast is, an immense amount of work went into achieving that feeling.
To learn how it was done, we sat down with Pixies manager Richard Jones and podcast engineer and producer Bradley Stratton, part of the four-person team behind the project (which also included host Tony Fletcher and co-executive producer Michael Simon). Stratton also worked on the Spotify original podcast Under Cover, but as he puts it, “I don't think that any amount of experience in podcasting would have prepared me for this.”
1. Know your limits.
Bradley Stratton: Richard had the idea that this kind of a deep, behind-the-scenes show would be a great component of a marketing campaign. It's the kind of access everybody wants—music lovers and even people interested in process—but it also leaves the artist in control of their image.
Richard Jones: You're treading that line between giving away personal information and the secrets of the studio, but also making it interesting and exciting and trying to tell a story. So there's a lot of turmoil because what might make a good podcast might not be the right thing for the artist or the album. At the end of the day, the record had to come first.
Stratton: An absolute rule Richard gave us was, "I don't want the band to be bothered by this. In an ideal world, I wouldn’t want them to even realize it's going on. If this thing intrudes in any way, we have to stop." So it's not like I was going to be following them around with a microphone.
2. Get your setup right.
Stratton: What we came up with was almost like we’d be spies bugging the studio. So we set up mics in places where important conversations would probably be taking place—one in the control room beside the coffee machine, and two in the live room where the band would be working. We also set up a system that turned all the studio mics into eavesdropping devices.
Because there was such uncertainty as to who would be where, I used Sennheiser ambisonic mics, the kind you use for virtual reality that record in every direction. I got the idea from the Wolverine podcast—the mics allowed the cast to move as they acted and still be captured.
We also gave the band a couple recorders—one called the confessional, basically a booth in the old church studio where they could stop in, hit record, and get stuff off their chests. And a handheld recorder they could take to breakfast or whatever. And Tony had his recorder.
3. Choose your host carefully.
Jones: We knew we needed some edge and perspective. We didn't want it to be too cozy, so we didn't want somebody who reviews our records every time, and we also wanted somebody who'd written significant narratives around music—books, basically. Tony fit and was also of the right generation to essentially play the part of the audience. To that point, we also wanted somebody British or European. The band has always been bigger in Europe than in the U.S.
The fact that Tony lived in the area also helped the dynamic, because he could pop in and out randomly to chat with the band, which kept it from being too regimented, where it’s scheduled and feels like a press junket. We were very determined to make sure it didn't become that.
4. Edit, edit, and edit some more.
Stratton: We generated an absolute mountain of content—altogether over 300 hours. And to be totally honest, almost every minute of it was interesting. It's them playing and figuring out the songs, milling around, bullshitting, working through tension. It's everything. I had to develop an efficient way of logging, and quickly marking key moments in Pro Tools—that ended up being the key to the whole thing. We settled into a three-step distillation, where I’d trim each day—about 14 hours of material—down to roughly an hour of highlights, then Richard, Michael, and Tony would evaluate everything on a story level and distill even further what they thought the best bits were, and then I’d put pieces from two or three days together into the episode.
We knew we had to make sure there were always compelling narratives going because, almost ironically, if it's not actually a compelling documentary, it won't be any good as public-relations material. If people think it's just an advertisement for an album, they won't listen.
5. Make it personal.
Jones: The really hard bit was balancing history, album process, color, and the rest. Ultimately, I think what the listener feels is the individual members and how they came together to make something far more special than anyone could have on their own. And there's struggle in that. There's no doubt you can feel the insecurity of certain members in trying to achieve the best they can, and that mirrors their own personal struggles, personalities, and ways.
Stratton: You're essentially taking reality and using it to paint a picture of what happened. One of the many storylines is Joey Santiago dealing with the fact that this is the first time he's been in a studio making music sober. He’s nervous because he's not sure how he's going to do this without a crutch. By the end, you're like, "He pulled it off!"
6. Celebrate your labor's rewards.
Jones: All of this was a lot harder than I imagined, but would I do it again? Most definitely. It actually worked. People were more engaged with this record than the last two, both in terms of sales/streaming and live—the new songs got a much more immediate reaction from fans. And although it came out last year, we saw a huge uptick in podcast streams in Australia and New Zealand when we went there to tour this year. It was also fun to do something first, which kind of surprised us—I still don't know whether anyone has done a podcast exactly like this.
Stratton: The Pixies were hugely influential. Without them, you don’t get Radiohead or Nirvana, so maybe this podcast will be similarly influential? [Laughs] I really do hope artists will see this format as a way to express and promote themselves, while at the same time making cool art.