How To Dismantle A Siren’s Song: The making of a podcast theme

American fansite atu2.com was founded in 1995 and has become a substantial force in the U2 fan community. One of its more recent ventures was to relaunch a podcast hosted by Chris over at Goodstuff.fm, who is regularly joined by atu2 staffers such as founder Matt and news writer Sherry to discuss the latest U2 news.

In late 2015, the group shared wishes for the upcoming year related to the website and the podcast. One was a request for a podcast theme song. It wasn’t until episode #25 in March this year that the question was back on the agenda.

The theme song that was used for that episode, composed by Sherry, sparked a conversation on Twitter and I decided to join in. At first I offered to make an original theme song for the podcast but I soon had second thoughts. I didn’t actually have anything ready so I discarded the tweet. To my surprise, this came back when I refreshed my “Mentions” the next morning:

I explained the situation to Chris and said not to expect anything just yet. I had some stuff cooking, but they were ideas for my Calypte project. I felt it would be better to start fresh.

Step 1: “Maybe you could educate my mind”

I had never worked on anything as specific as a podcast theme before. How do you capture U2’s soundscapes from so many decades into a single minute? I needed to find something that reflected U2’s sonic identity.

I recalled an interview with producer Daniel Lanois where he explained that the embryo of a U2 song often comes from “electro-beginnings”. These are snippets composed by himself and co-producer Brian Eno.

“Hmm, that’s interesting”, I thought. More research. As the atu2 podcast concerns news, I listened to some television news themes. They often seem to have a pulsating beeps or steady ticking noise going on, which I liked. It was time to go hands-on and grab my instruments!

Step 2: “Things to Make and Do”

At this point, I had a rough outline: electro-beginning, showcase the bandmembers’ styles and no longer than one minute. I didn’t want it to be too demanding on the listener yet something that would tolerate a few runs on repeat.

Thinking of an “electro-beginning” the opening kickdrum/piano-loop from Beautiful Day came to mind. I set up a basic 4/4 drum track at 135 BPM to keep time. I grabbed a bass guitar and reworked the bassline from the David Holmes Remix of the song into a reversed With Or Without You-groove. “That’s uplifting” I thought, “but not very original“. Back to square one.

Next, I started playing around with the bassline from New Year’s Day that is so distinctly Adam Clayton. As I swapped the order of the notes and simplified the riff, that bass part mutated and ultimately became the key to moving forward with the rest of the theme.

Then I remembered an idea I had toyed with: what if Beautiful Day had been written in the 1980s?  Maybe a mix of old and new would take the theme in a new direction.

Step 3: “Boy meets Man”

First though, I needed a new intro. The ticking of the news themes guided me towards the coffee mug noises on Zoo Station. That song also has a droning synthesizer-loop when played live. Continuing on the Achtung Baby path, I supplemented that monotone synth sound with accentuations resembling an alarm, i.e. Even Better Than The Real Thing.

Now the drums. Some of Boy and War seemed to begin with just a kickdrum beat (Out of Control, Twilight, Like A Song) which would mimic that steady pace from the news themes. I also noticed a drum pattern that Larry seemed to do back then: a combination of tom-toms and kickdrum, e.g. I Will Follow,  11 o’ Clock Tick Tock and Gloria. For the main section, I let it transition into a Vertigo-like drum part.

Staying with the 1980’s era U2, it was time to add the guitars. Back then, Edge used short echoes on his delay unit e.g. I Will Follow, The Electric Co., and An Cat Dubh/Into The Heart. As I don’t own an Explorer guitar, I brought out my Fender Stratocaster for this one. Although guitar is my main instrument, and Edge’s sound is familiar territory, I was struggling to find what the theme needed.

Step 4: “Good is the Enemy of Great”

From the uplifting Beautiful Day idea, the song had morphed into something darker and more serious. I revisited Edge’s instrumental piece for the animated TV show “The Batman” (2004). I realised a theme doesn’t need to be joyful to be captivating and I liked how it was built up into a crescendo. Besides, U2’s early sound was dark, reflecting the lyrical themes about loss, teenage anxiety and anger.

The incredible bit about the chords used in the podcast theme (D minor, G major) is that it fits a variety of U2 songs. If you listen close, you can imagine the chimes of Spanish Eyes, Heartland or the icy piano riff from  The Unforgettable Fire or even Raised By Wolves on top of the backbone for the theme. Like my heroes, I had go beyond “That’ll do”, however.

I had settled on the slap-back delay to mimic Edge’s early signature sound, but then what? It occured to me that Edge was using the so called “palm muting” technique on songs like Twilight and Out of Control to create some rhythm to his playing. Bingo! That added the impression of a clockwork in the background.

To finish things off, I returned to an acoustic loop I had recorded on my phone a few weeks before. It had a Vertigo-like power riff over a slapbass thing (e.g Adam’s solo in Gloria). None of that would fit here but I had come up with a gem of a melodic guitar riff. Inspired by the hauntingly beautiful guitar solo on 11 o’ Clock Tick Tock, it turned out to be a extra-ordinary ending.

Step 5: “I am here!”

With the big picture done, I added some flavour in terms of a glockenspiel melody. This sound is noticeable on An Cat Dubh/Into The Heart but also more recent songs such as Electrical Storm and Crumbs from Your Table. To conclude, I threw in an electronic snaredrum part at the very end, reminiscent of what Larry does on Invisible. I thought this would reflect U2’s sonic journey in one minute, starting in the 1980’s and ending with 21st century sound. That’s a wrap!

I decided to call it Sirens based on the hoax name for what would become Songs of Innocence, and given the alarm in the intro. Before sending the song to Chris, I listened to it a couple more times to ensure it wasn’t boring or repetitive. Here is an excerpt of the reply that came back:

Hey Simon,
Me and a couple other @U2 podcasters took a listen and it sounds great. It’s hard to nail a U2 sounding song without just flat out copying a U2 song.”

Mission accomplished! I hope you enjoy the song and this backstory on how I wrote Sirens as the theme for @u2’s amazing podcast. If you have any questions or comments, you’re welcome to leave them below.

Simon

Edit February 1st 2018: Following requests from atu2.com podcast listeners, I have decided to upload the full song for streaming only, below:

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2 thoughts on “How To Dismantle A Siren’s Song: The making of a podcast theme

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