Behind the Theme Music – Breakmaster Cylinder – Composer of the Reply All Theme

This article was originally published in the January 2016 issue of Podster Magazine.

PODSTER: How did the Reply All people discover you and your work? 

BREAKMASTER CYLINDER: Alex Goldman says he found one of my music videos by accident, it disturbed him, and so he remembered me once it was time to have a theme written.  Except we already knew each other by then. I believe I watched a Ted Talk on SuperBetter (a physical rehab video game), looked it up, commented on an article he had written about it (he was once hit by a car), and then we started emailing. Is that interesting? Not really. Our origin story is murky though. We’ve never met but I enjoy his company. He also likes really gritty lo-fi punk music—who knows how I grabbed his attention? 

PODSTER: The theme you created is catchy and memorable but also really brands Reply All. What were you trying to do with it, and did the Reply All people have input or parameters? 

BREAKMASTER CYLINDER: Thank you so much! They had a podcast before Reply All, and we had written a bouncy, mischievous, purely electronic theme song for that; we aimed to make this new theme sound more mature. They gave me some reference tracks and a handful of adjectives which described the show (“earnest” and “irreverent”), but then they just trusted me. A lot.  We focused on how their style of journalism will take something vast and digital, then narrow it down to a single, very human story. So the Reply All theme blends digital and organic as well as I can: It’s got piano chords but also dubstep synths. I played the drum track live but it’s layered with trap/rave kit drum machines. There are bright, sharply quantized melodies, but there’s also fuzzy noise and the sound of dropping rolling smashing things in the background. I hope it sounds joyful. It was fun to write and I love working with Alex and PJ so to me it does feel that way: joyful. The piano chords are a simplified variation on some measures from Bach’s “Prelude in C Major”: play meas. 1-4, then meas.12-15, and then loop it. Except while each measure is normally voiced as eight consecutive 1/8th notes, you can play each note in a single measure all at once (and “block” it) instead. I love how it sounds and I think that piano riff was the very first draft. We scrapped it, tried a few new things, then came back to it later.  Anytime I write for someone else I check in with them frequently. Anytime that happens we usually try out a lot of different options, then at some point inevitably return to an earlier draft. And so it goes. 

PODSTER: I’m listening to your most recent album, Songs for Broadcast: Part 1. How do you describe your music?  

BREAKMASTER CYLINDER: Genrewise it steadily changes over time. It’s electronic for sure, except when it’s not, and it usually angles toward the surreal. I spent four months rearranging Biggie lyrics so it sounds like he’s bragging about cooking the world’s best schnitzel. Whatever you call that. I want my music to tell stories and I want it to sound like everything wonderful all at once. I want you to see things and forget where you are when you listen.

PODSTER: Your Soundcloud image has a person wearing a t-shirt that says “JS Bach changed my life.” Did Bach change your life? 

BREAKMASTER CYLINDER: Surely did! His music is the blueprint for chord progression and counterpoint. It feels like his pieces are objectively correct math equations which still manage to be subjectively beautiful. I didn’t appreciate it when I played him back in the day, but now I find it all somewhat dizzying and profound. The picture is a nod to the “J Dilla Changed My Life” shirt. It’s a joke for beat heads, especially Stones Throw Beat Battle participant types (who you should definitely research and follow because they have absurd talent: Sixfingerz, MNSTRMKK, Joa Gymshoe, Billinski, LinkRust, glue70, etc.). Anyway, my audience seems to be a really interesting intersection of people that might get that Bach/Dilla joke from both sides. And if not, well hell it just makes me happy. 

PODSTER: How did you come up with the name Breakmaster Cylinder and what does it mean?

BREAKMASTER CYLINDER: Someone I miss said it to me a long time ago. It’s a car part (misspelled) which adheres to the same funky rapper naming algorithm as Grandmaster Flash. Once I had a silver one on a chain. I nearly knocked myself unconscious.

This article was originally published in the January 2016 issue of Podster Magazine.

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