Sarah Blaikie meets with the beats and the boys behind eclectic radio podcast Trading Tracks to figure out the secret sauce that makes the show such an instant obsession.
I don’t know about the rest of you, but I can’t help but feel the teenciest, weenciest bit irritated when someone answers the question “What kind of music do you listen to?” with the response “Oh y’know, a bit of everything”. Maybe it says more about our British tendency to avoid confrontation at all costs than it does a person’s listening habits but this response leaves a LOT to be desired and, from my experience, is almost never followed up with a shred of substantial evidence to back it up.
Of course, very few of us stick religiously to one hymn book. For the most part, I would wager that listing the types of music we definitely don’t listen to would be much easier and make for more enlightening chat. But let’s get down to business here, the thing that irks me most about this response is that (shock! horror!) it is almost inevitably false. Whether your interaction with this hypothetical person goes no further than a few more half-hearted questions in this imagined exchange or they’re set to end up as godparent to your first born child, somewhere in between those posts it is certain to be revealed that they do not in fact listen to ‘a bit of everything’.
The thing is, in all my 26 years on the planet, I can count on one hand the people that I know for whom that response would be the three fingers in the air Boy Scout Pledge truth, and it just so happens that Sam Cornforth and Ian Speirs are two of them. The reason I know that? They’re the duo behind Trading Tracks, a radio show/podcast hybrid that comes with the quiet and dutiful promise to leave no musical stone unturned, however unlikely it may seem. So whether, like me, you’re an ‘a bit of everything’-sceptic or you’re downright offended that I have so much as called into question your musical prowess, I suggest you best read on.
“The whole show is about discovery really.” Ian muses aloud over a pint of pale ale. The three of us are tucked away in a comfortable nook of Mahogany Bar, stationed above Wilton’s Music Hall in Whitechapel. The venue is equal parts eclectic and local for both of the lads who live just a stone’s throw from each other in neighbouring Wapping, making this a highly appropriate East London backdrop for shooting the breeze. “It’s very DIY… the whole thing”.
For the avoidance of any doubt, ‘Trading Tracks’ does exactly what it says on the tin. Sam and Ian ‘trade’ up to 10 tracks each and reveal their tales of discovery, the often insightful grounds for sharing and their candid reactions. It’s a format that lends itself naturally to Sam & Ian’s shared desire to shed light on top-notch tunes, spanning all genres and eras. And, despite it being a rhythm that they simply fell into, it’s one that hasn’t changed since the first time they sat down together just over a year ago to record Episode 1. Ian sets the scene:
“The first one took about 5 hours. It took nearly an hour just to get the intro ready… you just hate the sound of your own voice. Getting a crate of beer in helps massively.” He confesses that he reached the point of packing the whole thing in on a few occasions that afternoon. But Sam patiently plugging on beside him prevented him. Sam glosses over the grateful sentiment and instead adds, “I don’t think we talk as much now as we did in the earlier shows.”
This seems to be the key perhaps. Within that instant I feel I’ve gained an insight into how they’ve worked in tandem to pull this passion project off so successfully:
“We started doing this partly because we had our blog, Alternative Jukebox, in the past and really enjoyed managing that and wanted to do something creative again. But also because we were going to a few more gigs together, chatting a load of old bollocks about new bands… We were kind of doing it in the pub already.”
For the record, Sam & Ian even have their own rather poetic, When Harry Met Sally-esque origin story. They both started studying at Bournemouth University in 2012 on separate courses but crossed paths just a few weeks in, queueing for a cab outside of Southampton Station. When they realised they were both in town for the nearby Palma Violets gig, it made good sense to hop in the back of the same cab and the rest, as they say, is history.
At the time of writing, Sam & Ian have produced 22 of these crackers and you can find them all on their channel on MixCloud, it being the only platform where they can bypass music licensing laws. They describe this as their only real barrier to entry but I’d have to disagree. Sure, if you want to think of it purely as a podcast then it’ll probably come as a disappointment that you can’t queue it for the commute. But if you’re anything like me then you’ve already got 100 different things vying for your attention through the day; all the podcasts you’re subscribed to, that book you keep lugging around and are struggling to finish, the latest TV series. The irony of all this dizzying choice is that it can almost act like a chokehold, overwhelming and starving you of the energy you need to dig deeper and really separate the wheat from the chaff. I’ve found that, actually, this is where Trading Tracks steps in.
Each 90 minute episode straddles the impressive line between being ideal background listening whilst also being worthy of your unfettered attention, and it’s totally up to you how you choose to engage. In listening to their back catalogue, I came to find that the thing it reminds me most of is radio and not just any radio; I’m referring to whichever radio show it was that you were completely obsessed with as a teen. The one you were truly sad to miss out on because, in a weird way, the hosts felt like friends or unattainably cool (and agreeable) older siblings. The FOMO of missing a new track that (in those days) you’ll potentially have to wait another 24 hours to wrap your ears around. Much like that radio show, each episode of Trading Tracks offers untold comfort in the familiarity that both hosts impart and unbridled excitement in anticipation of discovering your next favourite tune. It sounds like a lot to ask of the two lads and yet they dutifully deliver, every time, less any of the ego you might expect. In fact, the major way in which the show does differ from your trusty teenage radio steed is that there are no expectations. You can choose when and how to listen and I found it endearing to learn that both Sam & Ian veritably encourage that you skip through the bits that you aren’t enraptured by. Ian insisted:
“When people tell me they’re gonna listen to the show for the first time, I’ll always be like ‘Oh you don’t have to listen to all of it!’ If you’re listening, and you don’t like the track OR the chat – just skip through it!”
Honestly, I know it floats a lot of people’s proverbial boats but I’ve never much understood the allure of the traditional, longform interview podcast. The conversations that can go on for up to 3 hours or more just feel to me like indistinct ramblings, interrupted only by ad breaks and the occasional pause for breath. Of course, every Trading Tracks episode is made up primarily of ‘Track’, so to speak. The ‘Trading’ part might be at the heart of the show but Sam & Ian have fine-tuned their own interactions so that they are short, sweet and always take a back seat to the music. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t pay close attention to their exchanges.
Softly-spoken Sam, who has a background in reviewing, is unassuming but encyclopedic in his knowledge of new releases and the record label universe, real Phone-a Friend material. Even better than his impeccable trivia is his gift for translating a track into metaphorical gold. In one of their earlier episodes, I listened to him move from likening a track to the warm fuzzy feeling you might experience in a hammock, to comparing the tempo change of another to Mo Farah closing a race. On the other mike, you can rely on Ian to provide nothing short of realness. Whether it’s his unchecked cynicism about one of Sam’s shared tracks, or frothing anticipation about the next one lined up, his enthusiasm for the cause is infectious.
“Part of the beauty of it is that it keeps us on our toes, listening to new music, reading articles, listening to other podcasts… I’ve discovered more music over the last year than I probably have in the 3 years before it just because we’ve gotten so into it and we are actively searching rather than sticking to the channels we always had before.”
And with that, I reckon Ian quite succinctly summarises that which sets them apart, that which makes Trading Tracks such a worthwhile addition to anyone’s repertoire. You can rest assured that Sam & Ian have put in the hours so that you don’t have to. Arguably the most telling development of this year-long project is its most recent; Band Takeovers. The boys were at a gig (obviously) when they spotted frontman Nick from a band called Breathe Panel that they’d been listening to. They ended up exchanging digits and a few days later, struck by the thought and with nothing to lose, they posed Nick a question: Would the band be interested in sharing a few of their own favourite tracks on the show? Sam & Ian hardly expected a, ‘Yes’, never mind that they’d now be no less than 7 Band Takeovers down. “It’s nice because I know the sort of music (Sam) likes… so when a band comes on, for me, it’s completely fresh… it’s an extra surprise. It’s been so much fun for us”.
Ian goes on to tell me that in a rather fateful, full-circle turn of events he recently bumped into Nick at yet another gig. This time, however, Nick was present purely because he’d heard Ian share one of the night’s recordings on Trading Tracks and he wanted to catch the live version. The boy’s eyes glitter when recounting this, like proud first-time parents admiring their finest work yet. It’s also clear that the Band Takeovers have become a huge motivational push for them to produce the shows at a faster rate than before. When I asked them to shed light on their hopes for the future, instead of speaking of world domination it was more “Forming a nice community… of bands, of people”. And what about their fears? “I think this just ceasing to exist”.
Trading Tracks has rekindled my teenage fandom curiosity, it has me Googling gigs again AND dance-hoovering with headphones on (not unlike Freddie Mercury, in case you’re wondering). Aside from all of this and perhaps most pertinently, it has reminded me of the A-grade potency of a good recommendation. A track, artist or album that comes recommended to you by someone you trust carries a significant, emotive weight beyond anything that you might stumble upon or happen to read about on your way home. And so in an era when we have so much at our fingertips, fighting for our own free time, it feels like a real gift to have two such trustworthy lads put some of theirs aside purely to do us this honour.
You can subscribe to Trading Tracks and check out their back catalogue here. If you can’t wait for their next release, they keep their notably cool Instagram & Twitter updated with shots & soundbites of their most recent discoveries.
Words by Sarah Blaikie