Music podcasts like 155, 2 Much TV and Streams & Variations aren't just talking about music – they're creating it
One of the most prolific and eclectic music catalogues on Bandcamp doesn’t belong to a musician or band – it’s a podcast.
Since it launched in November, 155 podcast has been putting out a full new compilation every single week. Ranging from 10 to 40 tracks, each album jumps wildly between delicate folk, ska, hardcore and ambient electronic soundscapes. But there’s one thing binding each album together: each consists of covers of one single punk song – however that might be defined.
“It’s kind of amazing that this is even happening,” says co-creator Sam Sutherland. “But also that so much of it is so good.”
155 is not the only Canadian podcast putting quality new music into the world.
Music podcasts are far from new. Shows like Song Exploder, Switched On Pop and the New York Times Popcast are some of the most renowned podcasts on the Apple charts – but those tend to be podcasts about music.
This new crop of podcasts, like 155, 2 Much TV and Streams & Variations, are instead creating music from scratch.
And in the process, they’re recreating some of the community that’s been lost during the pandemic.
Sam Sutherland and Josiah Hughes didn’t set out to release a compilation every week.
From their respective apartments in Toronto and Montreal, the two hosted Blink-155 podcast for three years, breaking down a single Blink-182 song every week until they’d done the whole catalogue (which ended up being 174 songs, not 155). A mind-bogglingly dedicated community formed around it, a strange constellation of fan accounts and associated personalities.
On every episode, Sutherland and Hughes would comb the internet for funny and strange covers that people had posted online. Soon, their fans started sneakily planting their own covers for them to find.
A recurring joke on Blink-155’s quarantine Twitch livestreams soon became a compilation album when listeners of the show coordinated to cover Hinder’s 00s butt-rock song Lips Of An Angel 65 times, which they used to raise over $10,000 for Black Lives Matter-related organizations. The show released another compilation of covers for their final Blink-155 episode, which took on Blink–182’s Dammit.
Now that they’ve re-launched as 155, the less Blink-focused podcast about “punk” songs by bands like Against Me!, Goldfinger and Avril Lavigne has a cover comp on every episode. Sutherland and Hughes let their Patreon supporters know which song they’ll be doing a few days in advance on their Discord channel. Within 72 hours they have an inbox full of twee pop, spoken word experiments and pastiches of bands like the Cure.
The community and breadth of creativity that’s sprung from “an aggressively foolish podcast idea” has totally surprised them.
“It’s magic to be engaged in that kind of conversation with people listening to a fucking podcast,” Sutherland says. “To have the diversity of output that coming in is a huge, tremendous gift every week. It’s also very shocking to us.”
It shouldn’t come as a total shock. With live shows off the table during the pandemic and virtual concerts often feeling the distance between the artist and viewer, fans and musicians are finding new channels to recreate the community that exists around showgoing.
Sometimes playing loose acoustic sketches, or even video games, on Twitch can feel more like hanging at a show with your friends than someone playing into a webcam. So can collaborating and building off each other’s ideas on TikTok, where songs blow up overnight and sea shanties have suddenly become the genre of the day.
“Podcasting is traditionally a very one-sided conversation. It’s like hanging out with friends, but you don’t get to say anything,” says Sutherland. “But by thinking about the people that listen to our podcast not as an audience but a genuine community where the ideas can come from anywhere, we’ve been able to create this two-way, 10-way, 10,000-way conversation.”
Matty Morand and Sam Bielanski have been finding their own sense of community and creativity through their new podcast, 2 Much TV.
Morand, who performs as Pretty Matty, and Bielanski who leads the band Pony (also with Morand) both found themselves back in their apartment in March, home from tour and laid off from their day jobs. So, they did what so many of us have been doing during the pandemic: they watched a lot of TV.
With their podcast 2 Much TV, they’ve managed to make Netflix binging productive. Each week, they watch and discuss an episode of television from The Ringer’s list of the 100 best TV episodes of the century. Then, they each spend a few days writing and recording an original song based on that episode. They also invite a friend, most of whom they meet through music, to talk TV and contribute a song.
It’s fascinating to hear what each songwriter zeroes in on from a particular episode, whether it’s a particular line from a show, a character perspective or even a whole imagined country music backstory based on an episode of The Price Is Right.
The debut album from Pony, TV Baby, will finally come out on April 9. After a long process of soul searching and label drama to get that album ready, 2 Much TV gives the pair an outlet to write and record in a low-pressure, low-stress way and experiment beyond their usual guitar-heavy pop-punk/power-pop sound. Bielanski has gotten into synths and drum machines, mostly because she records on her iPhone because her computer is too “garbage.”
“Most of my stuff is pretty autobiographical,” says Bielanski. “So after making this record, I felt too exhausted and hesitant to trudge through my trauma again to make another one. I just wanted to write music about anything other than myself. Of course, a lot of it ends up being autobiographical anyway. You’ll find yourself in the content, but you don’t always have to traumatize yourself in order to do that.”
Morand agrees, and says writing to a prompt and with a tight deadline is a way to avoid the pressure they put on their own self that each song has to be a big, perfect statement.
“One of the ideas behind this project is breaking down the opaqueness and mythology that surrounds songwriting,” they say. “There’s this idea that you have to be a tortured artist or that you have to write about your bad relationship. To me, being able to write songs that I like that don’t have anything directly to do with my life is fun and interesting.”
The songs often end up being pretty profound anyway, but one of the things that draws the pair to the exercise is its ephemerality. Listeners are brought into the process too, hearing how a song was made and what it was influenced by. So, like 155, it feels a bit closer to the “live” anything-can-happen atmosphere of a show at a small bar or a typical album campaign.
“One thing that’s really freeing is that the songs don’t have to be commodified in any way,” Morand says. “I’m not putting out a song and thinking: does this fit with the vibe of Pretty Matty? Is this something the record label is going to like? Is this something I can promote on social media? Do I have the assets for this ready? The song just comes out and there it is, that’s it.”
“Freeing” is also a word that Toronto writer Jamie Johnson uses to describe Streams & Variations, the podcast that he co-produces with Shawn Erker.
Described like a game of broken telephone, the show chains a series of original songs and monologues, each inspired by the one before it. One author writes a 10-minute monologue, then a songwriter writes a song based on it, then another writer pens a monologue based on that. Each is made on a deadline, and it’s interesting to hear the themes and elements that are carried on or twisted into something new.
The concept actually started as an in-person event at musician David Newberry’s Sunday residency at Wenona Lodge, but Johnson and Erker decided to revive it during the pandemic. At a time when many creative people are suffering from a lack of structure, the prompts and deadlines give them something to work towards.
“For a lot of people, it’s easier to write when someone comes to them with an idea than sitting at home wondering what to write about,” Johnson says.
Some musicians, like Shawn William Clarke, have told him it’s helped with pandemic-related writer’s block.
“It makes them go through with the writing process that’s just in their head, not going anywhere,” he says. “And there’s the interactivity of passing ideas and influence back and forth, which is a connection we’ve all been missing.”