Two years ago, friends Taylor Gonda and Kevin O'Brien realized that they didn't just enjoy discussing popular culture, but that they also reveled in the High Fidelity spirit of connecting it to personal experiences. Thus the These Things Matter podcast was born, and Gonda and O'Brien began bringing special guests into their home studio to talk about "pop culture, autobiographically," covering topics like Caddyshack, Weezer, zombies, R. Crumb and more.
Tomorrow night, Westword's Best Podcast in 2014 celebrates two years and one hundred episodes with a live broadcast at the Sidewinder Tavern, inviting past guests back to talk about songs that, for them, represent singular moments in time. In advance of the big live show, Westword spoke with Gonda and O'Brien about what works and doesn't work for a podcast with as wide a scope as These Things Matter.
Westword: Is there anything you feel like you've learned over the last two years? Like, what works or doesn't work for a podcast?
Kevin O'Brien: If I talk less. That's the number-one thing. When I shut up, the shows are usually way better. It has been this way my entire life; If I get excited about something -- and I'm sure other people are like this too, I'm just more shameless about it -- then it's like, I have an opinion that nobody else has had, and I have to let it out or I go crazy.
Taylor Gonda: It's such a geek thing. Like, my opinion is amazing!
Kevin: The longer we've done the show, the more I realize I'm not saying anything original. I should probably just shut up.
Taylor: But the things that are original are our personal connections and the guests' personal connections to subjects -- that's where the good stuff is. I think what I've learned from Kevin and from the show is that it is better to let go of control a little bit. Coming from theater, my understanding of how you put together anything is get all prepared and make it perfect, and then it's all the same way every single time.
But the thing is, good actors do all that -- and then they let it all go. That's the part I didn't get for a while. The best shows are when we're just sitting here, having a conversation and not even remembering that we're recording. I have to trust that Kevin and I know what we're doing and the guest is great.
You have guests on from a variety of backgrounds talking about everything from literature to comedy. Do you have prompts or things you lead these conversations with?
Kevin: We used to do it more than we do now, where we would kind of plan before the show and put an outline together of things we wanted to talk about. But the more and more we do it, the less we've been doing that. You kind of get a shorthand after a while of how to do it, regardless of the topic. We used to prep with the guest a little bit, too -- but now Taylor and I know what we're going to do, and we let the guest join into the rhythm of the show.
Taylor: We don't really talk about it at all beforehand. We'll find the guest, we'll find the topic. That's about all we do.
Kevin: The first year, it was like find a topic, find a guest for the topic, and then spend a day talking about it. After maybe the first dozen or so episodes, we started letting the guest pick what they wanted to do. We had some topics that we've blown just because we had a guest that wasn't the best fit for it.
What I always tell guests is, if they're struggling to find one thing to talk about, don't overthink it. This seems to happen more with musicians than anybody else, but they overthink it -- I think they think this is a big deal, and it's really not. It's a podcast. [Laughs.] But comics will come in and be like, I want to talk about Caddyshack. I want to talk about Nicktoons or whatever. They are ready to go.
Well, comedians are used to talking, as, like, their thing. A lot of times, musicians are not talkers.
Taylor: Yes, a lot of times musicians aren't talkers, and writers aren't talkers, either. And lots of other folks that we've had on are not used to being behind a microphone. A lot of times we have to mold what we're doing to them. So, if we're having a really quiet writer person on, we take it slower.
Kevin: It's like a courting -- with writers, especially, more than comedians or musicians. Writers have a very specific sort of energy; it's not super-low, but...with some of the best shows, it's like what I call the three-man weave in basketball -- when people don't wait to get asked a question. I throw something at them and they go with it, then they throw it at Taylor, and the conversation just keeps moving. With writers, it can be hard initially to get that going. It's like three beats lower than what we're usually at. It doesn't feel strained anymore to get them going.
You can tell that we have started letting the guest take control a lot more now, which makes the shows feel more varied. Some of the shows feel very NPR-ish, while others are way more of a stupid comedy podcast. For the most part, it depends what the guest is bringing.
So, comedians -- your people -- are your favorite guests to have on, Kevin?
Kevin: I do love having comics on the most, just because they have something to contribute right away. They're jackasses, which helps a lot. And Taylor is the best laugher on a podcast, so any opportunity to get more of Taylor's laugh in there...
Taylor: I like having anybody on. My favorite shows are the ones that reveal something about the character of the person that we're talking to. I think there is something about people talking about their obsessions -- whatever it is, if it means something to them, you can tell something about who they are and what they believe and what they are all about. Those are gold.
There was an NPR interview recently about an author who said something about how you can fall in love with any human being if you spend enough time with them. I kind of fall in love with the guests during the show, because there is something about them revealing that part of themselves. When they are talking about something that they adore, it can be really vulnerable.
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Kevin: It can become very intimate sometimes, too. I think the more familiarity we have with a guest, the closer that we are with somebody, it's easier to get to that kind of stuff. But there have been a few episodes where we casually know somebody, but then personal stuff comes out in the episode, and afterwards you feel closer to them.
Taylor: Those are the ones where you feel like you're just having a conversation at a coffee shop or at a gig or in a bar. The show is just a great vetting system for meeting new friends. If you're obsessive like us, probably we're going to be friends, even if we're not obsessed about the same things.
Kevin: This show is just a big ploy for Taylor and I to find friends. We looked around and saw all these people we thought were cool, but had no real reason to introduce ourselves, and thought, you know what? We gave them a reason to talk to us.
The These Things Matter anniversary party and live show taping takes place tomorrow night, April 24, at 8 p.m. at the Sidewinder Tavern. The event is free and open to people ages 21 and up. For more information on featured guests, live bands performing and more, check out the These Things Matter anniversary party Facebook event page or website.