Dirt Q&A with Kris Kaiyala

Who said the only exciting thing to happen in November was black Friday!  Traditionally Tea in the Sahara would offer up the best shop window of podcasts for you lovely people to tune into. This week guys is different, and as promised in my recent newsletter (plug) we sit down for a Q&A with Kris Kaiyala, the indie podcast magician pulling all the strings behind his hit audio drama ‘Dirt’.

Dirt has an IKEA minimalist modern & historical vibe, excellently presented and brilliantly executed by the man-dem Kris Kaiyala! I have previously had the pleasure of reviewing both seasons of Dirt which you should listen to for further context as this week it is not about being a parrot, and more about getting on with the Q&A.

I must quickly say before we kick on with the Q&A a lively shout out to Kris for answering my slightly niche questions in record time! If an indie podcast deserves more accolades and appreciation none is more fitting than Dirt. Remember guys most indie podcasts are usually performed by one or two people wearing multiple hats to get sh*t done on top of the daily grind. If James Brown was the hardest working musician in showbusiness, then Kris is definitely the James Brown of audio drama. Hope you like the analogy fella?

Tea in the Sahara reviews of season one & season two of Dirt.

How did you get into podcasting?

Good question. I didn’t actually set out to be a podcaster. Prior to a couple of years ago, I hadn’t given the medium much thought or attention. But I had been toying with several short fiction ideas for years and was thinking about how I wanted to go about crafting and publishing them, when two things happened: I listened to Limetown Season 1, and then the pandemic hit. When I heard Limetown, it just set my mind ablaze. The story itself was interesting, but the serialised fiction format floored me—the idea of telling a story in chapters that could be released as podcast episodes and that could easily be available on Apple or Spotify right alongside the greats. I had never considered that as an option before. The idea of telling a contemporary story with highly immersive audio and music—it just hit me as something that I could try to do and potentially have a lot of fun doing it.

After Limetown I promptly binged Girl in Space, The Message, Ghost Radio Project, Temujin, Homecoming, The Black Tapes, Vega, Point Mystic, and other podcasts I absolutely cherish, studying their styles and techniques. This was in the fall of 2019 and early 2020, before Covid was a big news story. Weeks later I was working remotely like so many people around the world, and I figured it was a good time to really dig in and try to make a go of it on top of my day job. It’s turned out to be an incredibly creative outlet, and I’ve loved every moment of it.

For those not so familiar with the podcast, where did the concept of Dirt come from?

Dirt is kind of a mashup of several story ideas I had brewing in my head. For one, I’d always wanted to tell a story that conveys the beauty and harshness of the “other” Washington—the part of the state that isn’t Seattle or what people commonly know or see on postcards. There’s a whole other aspect to Washington state that is mostly barren deserts and rocky chasms and lonely crops of all kinds. To me, that part of the state has always felt like home, probably because I grew up outside of Spokane, a city in eastern Washington, and spent my youth traveling from small town to small town visiting family or competing in soccer—or I guess you’d call it football over there.

The idea of the driver’s license literally came from me finding a license of Yakima woman in the street one morning, in downtown Seattle, as I was walking in to the office. The first name of the person on the license might have even been Antonia, I can’t remember for sure. I put the license in an envelope and mailed it back to its owner anonymously, without a return address. But in my mind, I was like… What if someone decided to return the license in-person, instead, since the address is right there on the license? Why would someone choose to do that, for a stranger? What would that encounter be like?

And then the historical part of Dirt is largely based on my own family heritage and Finnish-American roots in the Pacific Northwest. I actually do have a Finnish grandfather who lived an adventurous life and who was a musician and who wrote stories about his life around Washington and Oregon and who took up metal detecting in his later years.

Was Joseph’s character loosely based on someone in real life?

Not really, but I’ve worked on and led teams in digital advertising for quite a while, so the character of Joseph—and the environment he operates in—are familiar to me. Also, his connection, or maybe disconnection, to his family heritage is also familiar to me. I’m aware of my family roots and have always been very interested in them, but I’m also a couple of generations removed from those early days when immigrant families like the Kaiyalas made a go of it around Grays Harbor. And plus, even though I now live in Seattle, growing up on the other side of the state I was a little separated from the rest of the family tree. In Dirt, Joseph is connecting more with his heritage as he goes, and in a sense, I am too.

How hard was it creating Dirt largely by yourself?

It has been difficult at times, but the honest answer is that it has been 100% amazing. From the beginning, I wanted to do mostly by myself. Not because I don’t like working with others. I do. It’s been awesome collaborating with the voice actors, many of whom are friends and co-workers. And my wife, Sara, and other family members have been a huge help at every step along the way. But when it came down to making the show, I sort of jealously kept it all to myself. I really wanted to wear all the hats and learn about and get good at every aspect of creating and producing immersive audio. I crave owning every role—writing, recording, sound designing, casting, composing, and directing. The hardest part has been the time it takes to put all the pieces together, especially since I do it during off hours. But I absolutely love the creative control and freedom I have over it. I collaborate with people all day long in my day job, which is great, so this project has been an interesting contrast to that.

I have highlighted the audio quality within Dirt a few times within both of my reviews. Were you a sound design engineer in a previous life?

Ha, no. The closest I ever got to something like this was recording funny skits on cassette tapes as a teenager in the ‘80s (just dated myself). Oh, and I used to write and record goofy answering machine greetings for my parents with character voices and background music, just to make them laugh. Dirt is my first serious attempt at creating something for the world at large to consume and hopefully enjoy.

As you have created quality soundtracks for both seasons of Dirt you clearly have an ear for quality music & audio. How did you come across Mya Tozzi whom we can hear singing within ep.10?

Thanks for saying that. Scoring and placing the music has been another super fun component of this project. Mya is pretty great, isn’t she? She’s my sister’s niece, so I’ve known about her for quite a while! A few years ago, she started posting videos of herself playing and singing songs on her Instagram and I knew I had to find a way to involve her. I also knew she was writing her own material, and I suspected her style would fit the podcast well. Fans of Season 1 of Dirt will also recognize her as the performer of “Skin Touching Sinew,” in Chapter 6.

Your writing depicts parts of America that are not so frequently heard of. Speaking as someone based in the UK I found it insightful to listen to. Was raising the profile of Seattle done intentionally?

Really, it’s just me writing about things that I know and that are important to me. The US is pretty big, and it’s so different from place to place—especially in the west where geology and geography play key roles in people’s lives. I grew up in an area that isn’t often in the spotlight, so I understand if the setting, especially when the story ventures outside of Seattle, is new to many listeners. To me, that was part of the allure of the story. I want the land to be a character of its own. 

Seattle is a big global city, but even Seattle is unknown to a lot of people. (And a lot of people who live here would prefer it stay that way, feeling there are already too many people here.) But interestingly, you only have to drive an hour or two in any direction from Seattle and it can feel like you are heading off the grid, just like what happens to Joseph in Chapter 8. 

The description of the Coinmaster metal detector is so detailed I wondered if metal detecting was perhaps a hobby of your own?

No, I’ve never done it. I’m only familiar with it as a hobby that my grandfather took up later in his life, in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Us grandkids used to call it his “beeper” because of the noise it made when it detected something. But it was an easy device to weave into the story once I decided on the basic premise. I actually bought a vintage detector on eBay that is very similar to the one my grandfather used decades ago. The detector handling sounds you hear throughout the chapters—the plastic grip, the opening of clasps and covers, the clicking of switches on and off—those are literally the sounds of a vintage detector in my hands as I’m recording.

What recording equipment and software do you use to create the show? Any tips or tricks to share?

The recorder I use is a Zoom H5, which is a terrific device. The stock XY stereo microphone capsule it comes with does an amazing job of picking up environmental and even vocal audio. For narration I use a Shure KSM32 microphone, which I’m not ashamed to say I purchased because I had read that’s what they use on This American Life. And for almost all of the dialogue I use a Sennheiser MKE600 shotgun mic. I really love the crisp sound it produces. I use a Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 as an audio interface between the mics and my computer, and I edit everything using Adobe Audition. For the music, I proudly use Garage Band on my iPad. It’s an amazingly powerful, and I suppose underrated, app. And for the handful of sounds I’m not able to record or produce myself, I make creative use of uploads on freesound.org, which is an incredible resource. You just have to make sure you’re paying close attention to attribution licenses so you are using sounds correctly.

One tip I would share is if you are a budding sound designer or audio mixer, make sure you listen to your edited sound files away from your workspace. My routine goes like this: build a scene, mix it down, then listen to it in the backyard or on a walk with my shiba inu Reggie using different headphones or earbuds, make note of changes as I listen, go back in and make those edits, mix it down again, then listen again in the backyard or on a walk while taking notes, etc. Repeat this until it sounds the way you want. I’ve found that separating the listening experience from the editing experience is really key to making things sound as complete and polished as possible. 

Gun against head moment, so far what has been your favourite episode of Dirt?

Oh, this is tough. Parents aren’t supposed to name favorite children, right? I think in terms of production and draw-you-in moments, I really like Chapter 4 (S1 E4) and Chapter 8 (S2 E2). I have always loved how quiet Chapter 4 is in places. There’s a risk in being quiet, because the norm is to be loud and flashy in order to get people’s attention. In Chapter 4 there’s a lot of activity and mystery swirling about in the periphery, but the moment when Joseph rolls down the car window for Kim to hear the train in the distance, or at the end of the chapter when he walks to the opposite wall of the garage and realizes what’s there in front of him and the soft music kicks in, those are moments where I still sit back and I’m like, wow, that turned out pretty cool.

I know this is a cheeky Q given you have only just wrapped up season two, however is season three currently in pre-production?

Well, I can’t leave people hanging like that at the end of chapter 13, can I?

Finally for any budding indie podcaster out there looking to get into the fantastic world of podcasting what advice would you give them?

I would want Dirt to be evidence that you don’t need a lot of expensive equipment or a huge staff or even a fancy studio space in order to create immersive audio fiction. If you think you need those things before you can even get started, you don’t. The equipment I use is good, but it’s not top of the line stuff. Don’t get overwhelmed or stalled out by thoughts like that at the beginning. Big podcast production houses do come with the added benefits of marketing support and paid sponsorship and revenue, which I can admit to being jealous of. But if you have an idea and just want to get something out in the world as a creative outlet, buy a decent recorder—such as a Zoom H5, which is what I primarily use for environment recording—and start playing around with it. 

To me, there’s no better way to tell or consume a story than through audio. Audio puts your imagination in the driver’s seat; it’s where the proverbial magic happens. And it’s a great way to start to tell that story or stories you’ve been hanging on to for a while. 

Once again thanks to Kris for agreeing to do this Q&A with me, and for being a jolly good sport. Although we have never actually met I like to imagine we share similar insights into the exciting indie podcasting space which is rapidly developing.

As you can see guys my writing style is far from a neutral Switzerland, which I hope in some insane way appeals? True I am not the coolest beer in the fridge, however what I like to offer is awesome scripted podcast reviews to captivate imaginations. You see I try not to offer a flurry of fire-sale style reviews, opting for a more less is less policy. Again not everyone’s cup of tea, moreover for me writing should simply engage with its audience.

So where can you find out more about Tea in the Sahara? Well funny you should ask! Recently I launched a newsletter that aims  to keep you up to date with all of the latest reviews & Q&A blog banter happening. If you haven’t checked it out yet you can sign up via my Twitter profile, or by using the small Revue sign up box at the end of this review.

If you are a writer, creator, or production company looking to have your podcast reviewed just like Kris surely Tea in the Sahara has to be worth a punt? If you enjoyed this Q&A format, and are looking to give your future fans more context about your own podcast then maybe (just maybe) I am the Indie Podcast Critic Writer that you have been looking for? Please get in touch via my contacts page, or email me directly tinthesaharah@gmail.com.

You can follow more about Dirt on their website and the show can be found on Apple Podcasts & Spotify or from wherever you grab your podcasts from. Just make sure you do!

For further Tea in the Sahara reviews please check out my other podcast & audio-book reviews. And to all my American readers, and pals I have worked with throughout the years Happy Thanksgiving! Cheers Kev.

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