Sometime in October, 2001 I first heard the opening musical strains of NPR’s “On Point.” They’re enrapturing, unmistakable—and as of 2001, practically untraceable. This was before most of us even knew how to use the internet. Few people had heard of a small online resource called Wikipedia (launched earlier that year) and it would be nearly a decade before music identification apps like Shazam would explode into ubiquity with the iPhone revolution. I had no way to know this was anything more than the program’s theme music—and once I did learn it was a real song, I had no way to track it down. But when I first heard the jaunty snares and hypnotic guitar loop that announced the start of the program, I knew I wanted more. (That particular tune is “Everything Is Alright” by Four Tet, in case you’re curious.)
I was so fascinated to sit down with Town Hall’s Digital Media Producer Jini Palmer to learn about some of the opening music she uses in our Town Hall podcast series.
Frequent radio and podcast listeners are no doubt familiar with the practice of bookending a program with a few bars of catchy ramp-up music. And plenty of listeners will know the peculiar and unique chagrin of loving the ten seconds of theme song that opens their favorite podcast, but having no idea how to locate the full song. That’s why I was so fascinated to sit down with Town Hall’s Digital Media Producer Jini Palmer to learn about some of the opening music she uses in our Town Hall podcast series.
Recently Jini has been updating the series podcasts to feature opening music from the local label Barsuk Records. She’s selecting songs that she thinks speak to the character of each podcast series, transporting listeners to the right headspace while highlighting each show’s individuality. As I listened to these tracks, I was struck by how much each one had its own distinctive flair—which got me wondering about what it would be like to hear these artists perform on Town Hall’s stage.
For the opening song of our Arts & Culture series podcast, Jini chose the languid pop track “Eleanor” by Hibou, the echoing shoegaze-synth solo project of artist Peter Michel. “This song is from Hibou’s first album, and this particular song is kind of a breakdown of the album’s style.” Jini says. “This one has all the same elements that I enjoy in many of their songs, like the synth-drums and ringing guitar, but with a more measured tone that seemed appropriate for introducing the Arts & Culture lectures.”
But Hibou’s breakneck melodic dream pop isn’t absent from our podcast series altogether—the opening music for Town Hall’s insider podcast In The Moment is in fact “Dissolve,” the very first song of Hibou’s self-titled album. And as listeners of In The Moment can attest, those first driving seconds of Hibou’s energy seem relentlessly committed to putting you in a good mood. I wondered aloud to Jini about the possibility of bringing Hibou to Town Hall in person to perform the theme song at a potential live recording of In The Moment. “That sounds great,” Jini chirps, “and I’m sure Hibou would bring great energy. But a live In The Moment still seems a long way off.”
She turns my attention to a different track: “Eating Paper” by David Bazan. The song’s rhythmic rock guitar—alongside steady ringing tones with a curiosity-piquing timbre from an instrument I can’t quite place—comprise the theme music for our Civics series podcast. “I can imagine David Bazan playing to a packed Forum, with all the chairs full and standing room in the new Library and Bar.” As I listen, I can understand why. Bazan’s lyrics are provocative and profoundly down-to-earth. His honest, confessional tone seems to beg for a more personal performance—the kind that Town Hall’s new Forum or Reading Room are perfectly designed for.
“Or maybe in the Great Hall?” The comment startles me; I had pictured Bazan as such a perfect fit for the Forum that it almost feels wrong to move him, even hypothetically. But her reasoning makes sense. “Could you imagine what it would be like to hear him with the acoustic reflector?” I can. The old Great Hall admittedly had some sound quality issues: dead spots, audio distribution trouble, uneven volume depending on where you sat. The new acoustic reflector will deliver higher quality sound evenly throughout the Hall, and is designed to work with amplified, unamplified, and acoustic music. The songs on David Bazan’s album Strange Negotiations (where Jini discovered “Eating Paper”) switch effortlessly between acoustic, rock, and folk—and seem to live somewhere in between.
I was struck by how much each one had its own distinctive flair—which got me wondering about what it would be like to hear these artists perform on Town Hall’s stage.
Our Science series opening song was a bit of a dark horse, but the selection spoke to Jini’s peculiar sense of humor. She selected multi-instrumentalist Eric Elbogen, a.k.a. Say Hi To Your Mom (or just Say Hi for short) to lend us the gently grooving guitar-and-synth chords of his track “Galaxies Will Be Born.” It’s a deliciously ironic choice, given that the lyrics to every song on that album are pretty much exclusively about the life and times of vampires!
“I chose [this song] because the guitar reminded me of stars twinkling. That, combined with the song’s name, made it relate in my mind to Science since we have so many Astronomy events,” Jini explains. “Plus I thought it was a funny juxtaposition to open our Science talks with a song from an album that’s about mythical creatures like vampires. Most people wouldn’t necessarily make that connection unless they were familiar with the album and what it’s about, so it’s mostly just a joke for me.”
The song certainly primes Science listeners with a kind of pensive quality, but Say Hi’s creatures-of-the-night theme took me in a bit of a different direction. Eric’s music would make a fantastic complement to Seattle Radio Theatre’s annual live Halloween broadcasts at Town Hall, such as last year’s popular show Chimes At Midnight or this season’s live broadcast of Orson Welles’ fateful classic War of the Worlds on October 25, 2018. It’d be a real treat to see Say Hi join the live music accompaniment section for a Seattle Radio Theatre show—but sadly that’s just a beautiful dream. For now, we’ll have to make do with rocking out to his catchy vampire-themed album Bleeder’s Digest on the way to the show.
As our conversation draws to a close, Jini delights me with news of her runner-up musical choice. “I was considering using something by The Long Winters,” she tells me. “I almost went with their song ‘Unsalted Butter’ for the Arts & Culture podcast, and ‘Scared Straight’ for Civics. I like both of those songs a lot, and I dig The Long Winters. But they just weren’t the perfect fit like the other bands. Barsuk has so much good stuff, it was hard to pick.” The comment encourages me to dig deeper into the archives of other bands on the Barsuk record label—and there are plenty of great options to choose from. It’s strange the way we come to learn about amazing music, and how we come full circle. Exploring the origins of theme music back in 2001 inspired me to do the same for Town Hall’s podcasts and fall in love with the music on Barsuk records. And at the end of it all I re-encounter The Long Winters—a group I discovered several years ago because they’ve lent one of their songs to another podcast to use as a theme song.
I can imagine The Long Winters really putting Town Hall’s new acoustic system through its paces, and how they’d certainly bring the house down as headliners at one of our annual Distilled fundraisers or a reopening celebration for our newly renovated building. Of course, I know a Long Winters concert at Town Hall is purely hypothetical. Indeed, so would be a performance by Hibou, David Bazan, or Say Hi. For now I’ll have to make do with the first ten seconds of our podcasts.
But we’ve come a long way since 2001—this time I know where to find the songs.
Barsuk Records has been kind enough to let us use songs from their incredible repertoire. Take a look at their website to find more amazing groups like the ones features on Town Hall’s podcasts.