Last Podcast on the Left's Marcus Parks on How to Make a Weird, Successful Podcast

If you’ve never listened to Last Podcast on the Left, one of the top five comedy podcasts on iTunes, there are three likely outcomes to a first encounter: disgust, confusion, or a laugh. Most likely is a fourth option: some mix of all three.

Billing itself as the show that "covers all the horrors our world has to offer both imagined and real", LPOTL isn’t an experience that boils down easily to one word. At best, you can get it down to two: funny and terrifying. Hosts/Agent Mulder disciples Ben Kissel, Henry Zebrowski, and Marcus Parks spend days researching and explaining/making fun of aliens, conspiracies, serial killers, the occult, and everything else that makes you look over your shoulder when you’re sitting alone in your living room. The easy designation is gallows humor, but it’s more like the executioners took off their black hoods for a trip to the bar to tell jokes before another rope goes up.

Marcus Parks of Last Podcast on the Left

Three guys talking about chupacabras is off-kilter territory for Reverb, but knowhow on creating a successful podcast with the right gear is a resource thousands of people are hungry for. Fiercely independent from day one, Last Podcast on the Left won the Webbys People’s Voice Award as a completely independent production, and Marcus Parks and company built Last Podcast Network, an enterprise spanning topics from celebrity gossip to nerd culture that attracts millions of listeners a month. If we’re in a new era of radio production (and we are), Last Podcast Network is that pirate station people flock to that the guys with corporate backing are trying to ape.

I talked with Marcus Parks, one of the central figures in Last Podcast Network, about his experience in radio, making a professional production with next to nothing, and how to best serve a band as a drummer while you’re covered in blood.

For more on Parks' work and Last Podcast on the Left, check out their website here.

Let’s see, Last Podcast [Network] is now at what, 12 podcasts?

I think, where are we at right now? We’re about to actually add a new one. We’re going to add the Adventures of Danny and Mike, which is Danny Tamberelli and Mike Maronna of Pete and Pete.

Oh yeah. That’s another one, so that’s 13. That’s a grassroots empire. You guys did this with a complete DIY aesthetic, right?

Completely from the very beginning. We didn’t necessarily do it on purpose: we just did it because we had to do it. Throughout the years, the thing about podcasts is that there’s really no model for it. This entire medium is totally new.

For inspiration, we’ve kind of looked towards books like Our Band Could Be Your Life to look at what indie record labels did to kind of get off ground, looking at what they did right and more importantly, what they did wrong and using that as a template for what we’re doing.

Starting out, you had some experience in radio?

Yeah, I’ve been in radio since I was 18 years old. Actually about half of my life I’ve been in radio. I was in college radio from my entire time in college. KTXT FM 88.1 back in Lubbock, Texas, at Texas Tech. I had five years of radio experience before then and then when I got here I started doing work for The Onion, for Onion Radio News. From there I went to East Village Radio as a fill-in guy.

Then I went to this other network called Breakthrough Radio. That’s where I kind of got a start doing comedy stuff: recording stand-ups and things like that. After that, we started The Network. We’ve been doing that for 7 years now.

The Roundtable of Gentlemen (Marcus Parks on the far left).

That’s a lengthy run. Through all of that, were you picking up engineering knowhow and tricks that you would eventually apply to podcasting?

The thing is with all of this, I’ve pretty much had to teach myself how to do all of this as far as the production and engineering stuff. I mean of course there have been people along the way that have shown tips and tricks and stuff like that. The problem with the DIY aesthetic is that sometimes you end up doing things the hardest way possible because you don’t know what you’re doing. It’s been a pretty long journey figuring all of this stuff out, but I think we’ve got something good.

You have something very good. What were some of the kinks that you ran into starting out with in the way of say, interfaces or mics? What were the biggest hurdles starting out and podcasting on your own?

Back when we started, I think we tried using a USB cord from a soundboard, a regular live mixing soundboard. I tried plugging that in and using it like a USB connection. Back in those days, that was still kind of an early technology, so it didn’t really work that well. What we ended up having to do with my Mac laptop is hook a 1/4" cable and use a 1/4" to 1/8" converter to plug that into the old Macbook input and then recording it directly from a soundboard into the computer, which was a terrible way to do it.

Audio-Technica AT2020

The other thing about it is that we were always working on an extremely tight budget, so we just kind of had to figure out what to do with the equipment that we had. On the other hand, we’re still using [Audio-Technica] AT2020s for voice and things like that. We’re thinking about upgrading right now, but those things last. I think the last original AT2020 gave out last year. Those mics went through some hard times but they made it.

Eventually we got to where we started using sound cards. We used a Tascam US-322 [interface]. We were able to run the mixer into that and then run the US-322 USB into the computer. That worked well for a while but we just upgraded actually last week to a Scarlett 18i20. The last couple of weeks have been great because for the first time we have been able to record separate tracks.

That Scarlett stuff is so clean. You get pretty much zero latency, right?

Yeah. Zero latency. It took us a little bit to figure it all out, but once we did, yeah. It’s no latency at all. These Scarlett boxes are great.

What program were you using for editing early on?

It’s the same one we use today. We still use GarageBand.

Really?

[Laughs] Yeah. We’re still using GarageBand—I think 10.8—for all of our recordings. We use the new one for recording but we use the old one for editing, because back in the day, GarageBand was geared towards podcasts. They wanted you to use GarageBand for podcasts but then in the last few updates, they’ve turned it into a beat-looping program. It’s terrible for editing voice. It’s an awful program for that.

When I edit, we’ve still been using that old GarageBand for editing. We’ve been playing around with Adobe recently, Adobe Audition, but I just haven’t had the time to sit down and really get used to it and really play with it. Right now, our schedule is so tight with, of course, getting a heavily researched and edited podcast out every week. We just got a book deal with Houghton Mifflin. That takes up the time that I could use to learn a new program—I need to devote it to the book. But the other thing is, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. GarageBand has been working just fine for us for years so at the moment, we’re kind of sticking with that.

The other thing about it too is that we have a lot of people that will produce their own shows here. We don’t necessarily have dedicated producers for each show, so the setup needs to be as simple as humanly possible. Pretty much everyone needs to be able to sit down and get a five-minute tutorial and be able to press record and go. We’ve geared our system and our entire setup to be as simple as it can be.

Last Podcast on the Left Episode 208: David Bowie and the Occult

I think in a lot of people’s minds, when they hear "producer," they think someone in LA with a tie and most likely a lot of product in their hair. What does it mean to be a producer?

I think, to be a producer for like a podcast, it’s very simple. Just make sure everyone sounds good and balanced. Make sure everyone sounds clear. Make sure the room sounds good. That’s a pretty important part—is making sure you don’t get echo, not too much outside live noise. In New York City, it’s very difficult to find a space where you don’t get outside noise without spending hundreds of thousands of dollars. So I think you just have to get creative with it. I think that is a producer’s job: to make sure it sounds like radio. It sounds like the old days.

Here’s a good producer conundrum I think people would be interested to find out about. A lot of the last podcast episodes had Henry [Zebrowski] working remotely in LA or in Atlanta. How did you circumvent that?

Well we’ve been doing it like that for a couple of years now. Henry is permanently in LA now. We’ve actually been recording Henry in LA for a very long time now. What we do is, we record on our side. He uses the same mics, the same AT2020s over there. He records on his side, we record on ours, and then I put it together. That way we get a consistent sound and it makes us sound like we’re all in the same room as much as we possibly can.

Of course it’s not going to be perfect. What I’m actually doing this weekend on Friday is, I’m flying out to LA to essentially make both studios identical. Personally, I don’t know if other people really notice, but I can always notice that there’s a little bit of a sound discrepancy. I want to fix that and make sure that everything is as consistent as it can possibly be. I think that’s another important part of producing: making your sound consistent.

Wasn’t there for a minute prior to Henry being a permanent fixture in LA where you guys were kind of playing it by ear, like he would be in a studio apartment? I remember for a while he was using a hood of some sort? What was that?

I can’t remember exactly the type of sound hood that it was, but I have the same one in my apartment now to record ad spots and things like that.

For years we’ve been doing things like blankets. Henry had to have his sound hood to record in hotel rooms in Atlanta or Toronto or wherever he ended up being. We just had to improvise on the fly so much, but in the process of doing that, we’ve learned a lot. I think, in the end, it’s all been worth it to get to the point that we’re at now. We’ve had to learn everything on the fly so we’ve accumulated a lot of knowledge over the years and know how to solve problems a lot faster than we used to.

The Cowmen - "Skeleton Dan"

It sounds like all of your life is sound. Also touching on your band, Cowmen, you play drums in that right?

Yeah. The funny thing is, I’ve actually been in the Cowmen longer than I’ve been doing podcasts.

Really?

[Laughs] Yeah, I’ve been in the Cowmen in one form or another since 2010. [When] I originally started, I had a large marching bass drum that I started playing at their live shows because it used to just be three guys playing stand-up comedy shows, so they’d bring you out with a bass drum. I’d cover myself in blood and dirt and dress up with a tank top and cutoff shorts and big boots and a cowboy hat and all of that. Just kind of come out for regular shows.

Eventually one day I was like "You guys know I can play a trap kit right? We can actually add drums to the band." We did and then we eventually added a bassist and [then] a third singer and recorded an album and an EP. We’re about to go into the studio again to record another EP this summer.

What kind of kit are you working with?

That’s another thing: I’ve also had to work on a budget with the band as well. It’s a Japanese kit from the ‘60s.

Like a Tempro?

No, it’s not a Tempro, it’s an off brand. I never heard of the actual brand before but that’s what I use for live gigs when needed.

That’s the other thing about being a drummer in New York: you have to work a lot of times with whatever kit the venue gives you. When we recorded our album, I used a DDrum kit that I picked up super cheap, I think for like $300. It’s a big two-foot bass drum, it’s got a lot of thump. For cymbals that I use, I prefer Sabian for a crash, Zildjian for a ride. Also, Sabian for high hats.

I play a really simple kit, a little three-piece. I like to keep things very simple. Our band is a combination of country and punk which can be two of the simplest drum styles that there are. I think for me, as far as drumming goes, I just want to get out of everyone else’s way. I’m there to keep the beat. Also, I’m not the best drummer in the world: I think it plays to the strengths of the band. It keeps everything simple and lets everyone else in the band breathe and take the front stage.

For sure. People knock those old MIJ kits. I used to have Tempro. That Philippine mahogany gives you such a full tone even from a 20" kick.

Yeah! What I’ve got is a little cocktail kit. It’s a travel kit, but it’s got a cool garage rock sound to it. It’s got a real dirty sound that I really like.

Another thing: I like drums to sound dirty, especially with our type of music. The type of music that we like to play, we call ourselves alternately bar fight country or nightmare country. It can’t be too terribly clean. It has to have a little bit of an edge and make you feel a little shaky and that’s the sort of sound that I like when I come to drums.

Those are two very appropriate titles for a show where a guy is walking around with a big ol’ bass drum covered in blood.

[Laughs] Definitely. On our first album, it wasn’t necessarily a concept album, but most of the songs were set in this fictional place called Russiatown. It’s essentially if hell was a wild west town with Satan’s Old Saloon and the Devil’s Dirt. It’s a desert that’s constantly cold and miserable where snakes are used as currency. It’s a really fun world to play around with.

Our songwriters Doug [Austin] and Holden [McNeely] wrote most of the songs for that album and they really did a great job of playing with this world and writing really interesting lyrics and really interesting music.

On the subject of spooky things in music, I wanted to say how much I loved the Bowie episode and the black metal episodes of some of your last podcasts. Do you have any other spooky themed artists you’ve got coming up in mind for future episodes?

I don’t know about spooky-themed [episodes], but music-related cases. We’re going to be covering Biggie and Tupac here real soon. There’s a lot of stuff in the music world to mine. I’d love to cover Phil Spector—it’s a classic crime story. There’s another: Which bassist was it that killed his mother with an axe? I can’t remember, it was either a bassist or a drummer [Jim Gordon, drummer for Derek & The Dominos]. There’s plenty of weird murders and things like that to be mined in the occult world.

There’s another one, I don’t know how true this is, [but] I just got this book that’s about Laurel Canyon that says that the hippie scene in Los Angeles was actually a murderous organization that was tied to an underground government base. It supposes that Mama Cass was killed not because she had extreme health problems but because she knew too much.

I’m looking forward to all of that. Then to kind of wrap everything up, is there anything that you could recommend to someone who wants to start out in podcasting in the way of what to do with equipment?

In the way of equipment, I would say keep it simple but don’t skimp. Everyone needs to have their own microphone—sometimes you get a group of people who just kind of all gather around a Yeti.

The one thing about podcasting is that sounding professional is extremely important. Sounding like you know what you’re doing is very important to how seriously people are going to take your show. That’s why we’ve always tried as hard as we can even though we’ve had limited means to make our shows sound as professional as possible. People just take you more seriously.

I would say to anyone starting off, I think AT2020s are a great starter microphone. They run about $100 each. You can get a Scarlett, a two- or three- or four-input Scarlett for relatively cheap as well. I’d say if you’re serious about it, put a little bit of investment into it, a few hundred dollars at least.

The other thing about that is, if you put a little bit of investment into it, then you might end up taking it a little more seriously and putting a little more effort into it than if you had just spent 50 bucks on a cheap Yeti. It definitely can be an investment, but you don’t necessarily have to break the bank. We put something together with limited means. This whole thing has been DIY. The whole network started in a moldy basement in Bushwick and our soundproofing was comforters that I bought for $10 each at a discount store on Grand Avenue that we stapled to the wall. We wanted to make it sound good. We wanted to make sure everything sounded up to standards. I think that’s another important thing to have when it comes to sound is standards.

Throughout the years, we haven’t always been perfect: there have definitely been times when the sound quality has been less than what I would prefer. Even today, we still kind of struggle with it because we’re still doing everything DIY but standards are, I think, a very important part when it comes to audio quality.

Marcus, thanks so much for talking to me. I’m the copywriter and I write a lot of the site, and I can personally tell you that a lot of Reverb was written while listening to Henry yell about UFOs.

[Laughs] Good. Thank you very much man, I never get asked about this stuff.


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