In his years as a journalist, Malcolm Gladwell has a reputation for his ability to draw disparate information into a single point. He was an early speaker to appear on TED’s Web site, and he’s known for opinionated approaches to serious issues, say, in an article about mass shootings for The New Yorker or an episode about football’s concussion crisis for his podcast Revisionist History.
His music podcast, Broken Record, is a departure from his usual mode. He makes Broken Record with super-producer Rick Rubin and his childhood friend and journalist Bruce Headlam, and it focuses on open-ended conversations with musicians of various genres and levels of fame. The second season, which will premiere on March 26, will feature interviews with Questlove, David Byrne, Mary Gauthier, Pentatonix, and Ezra Koenig of Vampire Weekend.
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One way of thinking about this podcast is that it’s all about what Gladwell does when it’s time to unwind. “This is supposed to be pure fun, and escapism, and cultural discovery,” he said in a recent interview.
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Though Rubin, who has worked with the Beastie Boys, Slayer, Johnny Cash, Jay-Z , and many more, and Gladwell, a popularizer of social science, might seem like an odd couple, their styles as thinkers and researchers mesh well. Rubin has a deep musical Rolodex and vast technical knowledge, while Gladwell is a well-honed ear for what might make a compelling story. “What I’ve learned from working with him is what it means to be a great producer,” Gladwell said. “It’s a generosity of spirit. He listens to things—he never prejudges anything. He’s intensely interested in what other people want to do and how he can make it better.”
The planning process for episodes of the podcast is informal and reflects the ties of friendship between its three hosts. “Rick will text me,” he said. “He just texted me a while ago—the name of a really young and fascinating musician. He’ll say, ‘I just have to sit down and talk with them.’”
Gladwell said Headlam, his other co-host, has been supplying him with musical knowledge since they were kids in Canada. “We’ve known each other since we were six years old, and Bruce’s function in my life is that he is the person who always told me what to listen to,” he said. “Both Bruce and Rick know many, many orders of magnitude more about music than I do. I’m the naïf, and they are the experts.”
Because of his narrower knowledge base, Gladwell said that he goes into the interviews imagining himself as a proxy for the audience. “I get to ask the dumb questions,” he said. “It’s very liberating to come into the conversation as a layman, because I’m totally unself-conscious about the fact that I may not have heard that piece of music or . . . I haven’t heard that name before.”
He said that the ebullience of the musicians themselves is the real reason the show has a rollicking feel to it. In the two-part premiere episode of Season 2, Questlove, the drummer for the Roots, tells stories about his time in the business. Gladwell said it was unlike any interview he had experienced before. “It went on for hours, and it kept getting funnier and funnier,” he recalled. “I kept on saying, ‘You know, this is going to peter out. I have to go get dinner. He can’t be this brilliant for this long,’” he said. “Did I know that we were going to spend two and half hours with Questlove? No, I didn’t.”
He’s even had subjects burst into song while the tape is rolling. “Musicians give the sense that they don’t get to talk about their music too much,” he added.
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Gladwell has spoken before about his beliefs regarding plagiarism. On the phone, Gladwell said that musicians and the way they think about drawing from their inspirations had sharpened his thinking.
“One thing that bothers me about writers . . . they tend to think it’s illegitimate if you reveal that you were inspired by someone else. They have this false ethic of originality,” he said. “Whereas musicians are like, ‘Yeah, totally—we took this little bit from that song. And it’s inspired by this.’ I love that. I love how open they are about the fact that creativity is a collective enterprise. I’m waiting for writers. I want writers to be able to talk that way. Why isn’t it O.K. for me to say that?”
The eight-episode season of Broken Record will be released on March 26 and will run through May 14.
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