So, the world-class theorist Malcolm Gladwell and the music producer extraordinaire Rick Rubin were chatting and having tea in Bob Dylan’s old tour bus. The rusting thing sits marooned behind Rubin’s Shangri-la studio in Malibu. The two men were gabbing about Tom Petty – Rubin produced Petty’s 1994 album Wildflowers – when Rubin casually dropped a mind-blowing nugget about producer-musician Jeff Lynne. “He won’t record a drummer playing the drums,” said Rubin, of the methodical ELO maestro. “He’ll record a drummer playing one drum."
What Rubin means is that for a whole song, Lynne will record the drummer just playing the kick drum. Then just the hi-hat cymbals, then the toms, etc. Now that you know that little music-nerd tidbit, just try to listen to an ELO song again without thinking about how weirdly the drums were recorded.
The story came out on last season’s Broken Record, a music podcast series by Gladwell, Rubin and the former New York Times editor Bruce Headlam. The thing is, the conversation about Petty that meandered into Lynne wasn’t even supposed to part of the podcast. Petty had died in October, 2017, and Rubin and The Tipping Point author Gladwell were just chatting about him. The story about Lynne just came up naturally.
“I think these kind of conversational podcasts work when the listener feels like they’re there with you, and where an ordinary conversation takes an extraordinary step,” Gladwell says. “With Rick, you don’t know what he knows. Around every corner, there’s a little moment of revelation. His stored experience is so vast, all I can hope to do is to trip over these stories.”
Rubin is the secret sauce of the popular podcast that began its second season a week ago. Last year’s shows included interviews with (and performances by) Rosanne Cash, Rufus Wainwright and Nile Rodgers with Chic. Upcoming shows include visits with indie-rock hipsters Vampire Weekend, Nashville singer-songwriter Mary Gauthier, the Talking Heads’s David Byrne and Roots drummer Questlove, who dishes on DJ-ing Barack Obama’s last party at the White House.
The Broken Record dialogues have a relaxed flow, as does an interview with Gladwell and Headlam. Speaking on the phone recently with The Globe and Mail from their homes in New York, the two have a laid-back rapport. As they should: They grew up as best friends in the sleepy Ontario town of Elmira.
“My musical upbringing came from Bruce,” Gladwell says, with a laugh. “The Headlams knew about music. The Gladwells did not."
The Headlams indeed knew about music – still do, according to Bruce, whose brother Phil is an opera conductor in Berlin and whose brother Dave teaches at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y. “There was so much music in my house that my mother took up the clarinet at age 49,” says the journalist, who worked at Saturday Night Magazine and Canadian Business before moving to New York. “You’re talking with one of the few people who played in the high school band with his mother.”
While at the University of Toronto, Gladwell listened to CFNY (the alt-rock station now branded as 102.1 The Edge). Headlam – whose brothers were prog-rock aficionados and whose “cool uncle” turned him onto The Who’s masterpiece Who’s Next – was attracted to the harder rock offerings up the FM dial at Q107. Both, however, were fans of CBC talk radio.
“Outside of my parents, Barbara Frum was the voice of my childhood,” Gladwell says of the As It Happens icon. "She’s the greatest interviewer I ever encountered. My first exposure to the craft was listening to her night in and night out.”
Headlam was a Frum fan as well, but his style is inspired by another legendary CBC voice. “Even now, if I’m interviewing people and I’m not quite sure what to do,” he admits, “I channel Peter Gzowski.”
The intelligent, professional and easy-going interviews heard on Broken Record are in contrast to the slicker, more heavily edited podcasts around. After a Rosanne Cash or a Rufus Wainwright performs a song on the show, the listener will notice a pause. Headlam and Gladwell, not music snobs, but music fans, let the moment breath. The vibe is live and natural – as it happens, one might say.