The Real Thing podcast tile and Car Seat Headrest's 'Twin Fantasy' album cover

Sometimes it’s nice to blow out the cobwebs, so things got a bit loud on the Office Playlist this week. The Real Thing is an ABC podcast collecting real stories from across Australia. Car Seat Headrest is a dumb name for a great band with loud guitars.

The Real Thing

Do you remember The Leyland Brothers? The brothers took their families around Australia in tents and caravans, filming along the way with the intention of encouraging other Australian families to follow in their footsteps. Along the way they unintentionally captured real stories of real Australians.

It’s those real stories that ABC producers Timothy Nicastri and Mike Williams aimed to capture in The Real Thing. I don’t think they’d mind being compared to the Leyland Brothers. I’m just surprised that the brothers haven’t turned up in their own episode yet. I’m sure Timothy and Mike have already put some calls in.

So, what’s a real Australian story? Remember three Lions escaped from the safari park in Warragamba in 1995. Timothy does – in fact it was an unnamed childhood friend who may have contributed to the lion’s quest for liberation!

What about the guy whose parachute didn’t open, and he survived the fall – just! The Real Thing goes back behind the headlines of these one-night-stand news events to discover how those involved were affected and where they are now.

The Real Thing is everything a great podcast should be, with Timothy and Mike throwing themselves into everything they do. In an episode called Positively Wilcannia, they head to the outback Queensland town which is almost always given a bad run in the media. In fact, the media have such a bad reputation in the town that they appear to be taking their lives in their hand walking down the main street. But they challenge themselves to a hand-shake-a-thon to really get in touch with the locals.

The team are also award-winning audio producers which raises this podcast high above the shoulders of its peers. The podcast is layered with sounds from archival reports, to music and sound effects – and their face-to-face interviews are often conducted in stereo adding a dimension of space that is usually absent from the podcast world.

They use interns, other broadcasters and elements of the program to help tell the story. Timothy has delivered an introduction by phone. Mike has stopped midway through an explanation to stop and change directions. Together they have spent hours in production to craft these episodes to within an inch of its life – both the program’s and their own.

With 35 episodes to choose from there are so many highlights and never a dull moment.

One of the most touching and personal episodes was ‘Balloons for Harper’ which captures the heartbreak of losing a child in pregnancy. Harper’s heart stopped beating at 32 weeks. Parents David and Alison (again, friends of Timothy) tell a very personal story and reveal the challenges of milestone birthdays as they live with the loss of a loved one.

At the other extreme is ‘Campsite Panorama’ which took The Real Thing to the top of the mountain at Bathurst. There’s a lot of colour, sound and no-doubt smells amongst the die-hard fans that camp out for the annual car race. I like to think that The Real Thing went there so that we don’t have to – but we all get to enjoy the stories of real Australia.

Then there’s Gary The Goat. Without The Real Thing he wouldn’t be just a goat, he wouldn’t even be thought about. But Gary is a goat who lived a life and became a podcast celebrity. He turns up in more than one episode and he’s worth keeping an ear out for.

I’ve highlighted The Real Thing’s most indulgent (although universal in appeal) episode for your listening pleasure. ‘A Kangaroo Has Three Ears’ is a tribute to one of Australia’s most famous pieces of creative audio ‘What’s Rangoon to you is Grafton to me’. Timothy and Mike asked Mark Colvin to be the narrator of this extraordinary work – the kind of thing you might never complete because it doesn’t’ really have a beginning or an end.

When Mark Colvin died last year, they pulled it all together and released ‘A Kangaroo Has Three Ears’. It’s an audio treat for everyone who enjoyed Colvin’s tone on PM and for anyone who’s wondering what the boundaries of possibility with podcasts might be.

The Real Thing #13 ‘A kangaroo has three ears’

Car Seat Headrest

It’s a dumb name. Apparently, when he started out making lo-fi albums at home Will Toledo recorded his vocals in the back seat of his car for privacy. So, he named himself after that thing in his face – the car seat headrest. Like any name, the longer it’s a name, the less you think about the object that inspired it. Or you can just play his music, which will force most thoughts out of your mind.

Car Seat Headrest is a good, old-fashioned, four-to-the-floor indie band that’s great for clearing out the cobwebs on a Friday afternoon.

Back to that lo-fi approach for a moment. Will recorded nine albums and uploaded them to Bandcamp between 2010 and 2014 – four in the first year alone. In 2015 he signed to Matador records and released ‘Teens of Style’ the next year. Followed by ‘Teens of Denial’ six months later. That’s where I met him, through the seven-minute song ‘Vincent’ which is one of my favourite songs to run to.

Once I’d discovered CSH (I think it’s time to abbreviate!), I dived into his back catalogue to find more – only to be disappointed. I mean, nine lo-fi albums in four years! Surely there’s some great songs in there that haven’t been given true justice in the recording process.

Thankfully Will agrees and he’s gone back and entirely re-recorded Twin Fantasy, the album he recorded when he was 19 in 2011. And it sounds great. Most of the songs hum along in a way that won’t upset others in the office, occasionally exploding into belters of indie rock that should really be greeted with cheers and air-guitar, not complaints.
The lyrics appear to be a conversation between 19-year-old Will and the voice in his head. In ‘Sober to Death’ he sings ‘don’t worry, you and me won’t be alone no more’. ‘Stop Smoking (We Love You)’ repeats the title over and over in an impassioned plea that’s reminiscent of flagging will-power.

In addition to re-recording his old albums, Will understands the benefits of repurposing content and he does it to charming effect. His plea to stop smoking appears on more than one song on the album. Apparently, he likes to bring in lines from previous albums along the way as well.

My favourite moment is when he adopts the lyrics of They Might Be Giants ‘Ana Ng’ in Cute Thing. The words sound familiar, but in another song with another rhythm they sound so strange and otherworldly – even though he announces his intention to sing those words (I missed that bit).

There’s a few long songs on here – 13, 14, 16 minutes – while most songs are around 6 minutes in length. More great running songs! I’m going to put them on my running playlist and see how they sound on the road.

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