The Memory Palace is one of those podcasts: the kind you decide to try after reading a "Best Podcasts in the World" article or on the advice of a devout friend, and then can't ever stop listening to. The format is simple and elegant. Host Nate DiMeo tells you a story, usually about an arcane event from some sepia-toned byway of history, accompanied by perfect music. And then it's over. Some of the stories are monumental, some mundane. Sometimes it's an unlikely love story between a man employed to play a Zulu in a sideshow and an immigrant piano teacher; sometimes it's a haunting tour of an amusement park destroyed by fire 100 years ago. But throughout all 72 episodes, the understated narration and gorgeously lean (but unabashedly starry-eyed) prose align to create a powerful seduction into DiMeo's relentlessly fascinating and moral perspective. The Memory Palace packs so much narrative detail and surprise in so concise a package that after listening to, oh, I don't know, 20 or 30 of them in a row (so?), a person could be forgiven for thinking this broken world is also ordered, and perversely beautiful.
Tonight, DiMeo will bring The Memory Palace to Seattle, to perform the very first live show of his podcasting career, (7:30 p.m. at the Vera Project, $20). I know several people who are eager to go, not only to see what he has cooked up, but to put a face to the now-familiar voice. (Photos of him are hard to find online. Let's all pause a moment to try and remember the last time we could say that about anyone.) I asked him a few questions yesterday about what we can expect from the event, and some more intrusive matters:
This is to be your first Memory Palace live show, and given the evident care you take with the recorded one, I imagine you’ve been doing some serious prep work. Can you give any indication of what the audience might expect, or would that violate the spirit of the event?
Yeah, there's been a lot of prep and, frankly, skills acquisition. I've literally learned five whole new pieces of software to get this thing off the ground (and found that two of them totally didn't suit my needs and turned out to be entirely wasted time). My goal is to Put On a Show. In the, I don't know, Micky Rooney/Judy Garland sense of the word. As I understand it, most podcast live events are just a live episode—you pay your $20 bucks, you watch a couple of dudes talk about things a couple of dudes talk about. Maybe you get a not-particularly-related musical guest. And I think that's fine. It's a nice way to spend a night out. And it is fun to see people in person that you form this odd and oddly intimate relationship with through your headphones. But, I like a show. I want to do a bit more. The RadioLab shows, the This American Life shows? That's the bar. It's a hard bar to meet. And I won't get there during this first iteration of the show, but that's where I'd like to head: a theatrical experience that still ends up feeling like the radio program. I'm not there yet. But come to the Vera Project and you'll get stories, some with slides, an animation, a little audience participation, and a surprise or two. The show is built to have a couple of variations every night. Each audience will get a couple of things that no other audience will ever get.
A lot of podcasts have an element of performance (or at least of spontaneity) built in. You’re more the enigmatic, benevolent narrator type on Memory Palace. Is there any sense of anxiety involved in relinquishing the total control of the recording booth?
I've got plenty of anxiety. Mostly, it's about pushing the wrong button at the wrong time. I have this sort of existential anxiety about not matching up with the sense of me that the audience holds in their head, but I've just gotta get over that.
The stories you tell on the show obviously vary in intriguing ways, but they also seem to posit a world in which suffering is a constant, but it’s also tempered by—I don’t know if it’s wonder, exactly, but maybe wonder. Where the capacity of humans to do nasty things to each other is balanced by their capacity to surprise and delight each other. Or maybe that’s nowhere close. A more concise version: Whether it was intentional or not, can you identify an organizing theme in the 72 episodes you’ve done so far?
I think there are a lot of themes that run through them but yes, I suppose one of them is wonder. I, and by extension, The Memory Palace, operate under the assumption that life is filled with toil, and tedium, and cruelty, and sorrow. And those were, with rare exceptions, the default settings for humanity, for millennia. But there are moments and months and whole-good-years for most of us that are filled with joy and pleasure and ascent and exhilaration, but all of that is inherently fleeting. The Memory Palace tends to live in the fleeting, if that makes sense.
Do you like your own voice?
I have to admit, I kind of do. It took me a long time to get used to it. I hear stuff in it that drives me crazy. But I get it as a thing. It's nice enough.
I know you used to play in a rock band and were involved in the punk/art/music culture in Providence in the late '90s. Was there a moment when you had to or chose to give up your musical ambitions, and to what extent does the success of the podcast fill—and also not fill—that hole? (Also, is the decision to do a live show now a reflection of your musical past?)
At some point in my mid-20s I said aloud that the best thing I could achieve, creatively, was a devoted, small audience who really liked what I did and the ability to see a bit of the world and pay the bulk of my bills. At some point, a couple of years ago, I realized I had the first part. And it was extraordinary. Still is. Moreover, I realized I was making art. I was, in effect, writing songs again, just in a different form. But, yes, the live performance is scratching that same band itch.
Do you employ fact-checkers or editors or any other kind of staff?
The Memory Palace is a one-man band. For better and worse.
Your show is extremely popular and beloved. Does podcasting fame feel like fame fame?
I have no idea. I'm not being coy. I have little to no sense of my place, or my podcast's place, in the world. I mean, I have a pretty good sense of how big my audience is (bigger than many, smaller than many), but I have a hard time getting my head around the idea that each of those listeners is an actual person, listening. I have no idea how it'll feel to get up onstage at the Vera Project on Friday and see some of those actual listeners.
Last one: Is there something organic about the length of your stories? They’re clearly rich in detail, beautifully put together, and profoundly more-ish. Is there or was there ever a part of you that was aiming for 30- or 60-minute iterations of these stories? Do you write long and cut, or has your metabolism developed a sense that seven to nine minutes is just how long they need to be?
It's organic. They're as long as they need to be (if anything, they may've started to creep a bit too long lately). But, they're short by design. I believe in the pop song. I believe in the poem and the comedy bit and the well-told dinner table anecdote. There's enormous possibility and power in small things. Also: How many times have you been to a rock show and the first 15, 20 minutes are transcendent? Hair up on your arms. Chills. The whole thing. Then they play the song you don't like that much from the new album. Then you kind of have to pee. Then your new sneakers start to bother you. Then some of the magic starts to dissipate. I always want The Memory Palace to get out before you have to pee.