Photo: Seth Olenick
Marc Maron Asks "WTF?"
Marc Maron's humble Los Angeles garage has become one of the hottest spots in the podcast universe.
Outside the garage, Maron is a successful, hardworking comedian, headlining stand-up clubs across the country and starring in his own IFC sitcom "Maron." But in the garage, Maron creates his "WTF With Marc Maron" podcast, which throughout the past four years has delivered deeply insightful and wildly entertaining longform interviews with a wide variety of performers.
The podcast began chiefly as a way for Maron to discuss the craft of comedy with other comedians, and the funny people he's talked to range from Carrot Top and GRAMMY nominee Bill Maher to GRAMMY winners such as Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner. But Maron, an unabashed music lover, has also managed to bring a boggling number of music stars into his garage for some remarkably open and thoughtful conversations. Recent podcast guests have included such musical heavyweights as John Fogerty, Thom Yorke, Iggy Pop, Fiona Apple, Nick Cave, Aimee Mann, Lucinda Williams, and John Cale, many of whom capped off an hour-and-a-half discussion with an impromptu acoustic performance.
"In my heart I never wanted anything more than to be in a band, but I never had the confidence or the discipline to make it happen," says Maron. "So there's a little heartbreak to my relationship with music now. But it's amazing to talk to the people I talk to. These are passionate, responsible artists who create stuff that comes from the heart. These people still believe in their music and what music can do, and they create music that's made to have an effect on you."
Maron says the key difference between talking to comics and talking to musicians is an obvious one: Comedians make their living speaking to an audience and musicians don't.
"Comedians talk all the time, but musicians don't have to talk," Maron explains. "That's not how they communicate the most important things they have to say. There's also more of a mystique to musicians. A big part of a musician's appeal is the image that's projected on them, whether it's [being a] sex symbol, rebel or whatever. It's a challenge sometimes to ask somebody to drop their public persona and talk freely."
Maron is an edgy and provocative talent as a comedian, and as an interviewer he shows no interest in lobbing softball questions or sugarcoating the difficulties or frustrations of a subject's career. Yet his astute questions and openness about his own life seem to put subjects in surprisingly relaxed and talkative moods. Fogerty, who at times has been understandably reticent to discuss the tangled legal issues surrounding Creedence Clearwater Revival, sounded cheerful and enthusiastic talking to Maron about the band's music; Apple was open about discussing her career goals; Yorke loosened up enough to share some easy laughs; Pop was comfortable enough to pull his shirt off before Maron's interview had even begun; and Dave Alvin ended his talk in such a good mood that he invited Maron to jam with him on guitar.
"I'm in a fan's position, and I approach these people as artists," says Maron. "But my approach is really about finding a connection with them as creative people. In order to serve the musician and myself, the best thing to do is engage them on a human-to-human level and see where the conversation goes."
Maron often makes a point to discuss his guests' pre-stardom, formative years, and that part of the conversation often turns up some of the most entertaining revelations.
"I talked with Maynard James Keenan and, of course, Tool and his other projects gave us a lot of music to talk about," Maron recalls. "But we spent about 10 minutes on the job he had at a pet store when he first moved to Hollywood, and I was thinking, 'This is the best part of the interview.' Maynard believes he reconfigured how a successful pet store should be laid out and has never gotten proper credit for it. Where else are you gonna hear that?"
With more than 400 podcasts completed, Maron says his passion for music and interest in musicians has only increased.
"Stand-up comedy is sort of a trick — music is the real magic," he says. "I was listening to [the Rolling Stones'] Sticky Fingers this morning and when 'Can't You Hear Me Knocking' [kicked] in I still [couldn't] stop myself from playing a little air guitar. I've heard that song hundreds of times and it still sends me. That's magic. And it's a real privilege to sit in my garage with people who have such an incredible level of musical talent — people who can walk onstage with a musical instrument in front of thousands of people and blow minds. You sit across from someone who knows how to use that power and think, 'This person is a wizard.'
"That's the real lightning in a jar — the way music can move us. I love talking to the people I get to talk to, but I'm not sure anybody can really explain that magic, and we're probably better off not trying."
(Chuck Crisafulli is an L.A.-based journalist and author whose most recent works include Go To Hell: A Heated History Of The Underworld, Me And A Guy Named Elvis and Elvis: My Best Man.)