Podel is one of the internet’s most eccentric creators. Earlier this year he released his first album – I met him to talk about ambient music, graphics cards, and the nature of memory.
Walking from the North London streets into a patch of forest, Podel tells me about his love for the rain. “The calm nature of it when you go for walks compared to just… cloud. It’s just easier”. It seems like he’s turning to nature to decompress. It’s January, and the 26 year old YouTuber, animator, and now musician has just wrapped up a busy year with the release of “Suburban Memory”, his first music project in a decade and a departure from his typically erratic YouTube videos. These include “Nividia Bread”, where bread is surreally hybridised with PC components, and a retelling of the Star Wars saga comprised mainly of non-sequitur memes and unfinished CGI sequences. “Suburban Memory” presents itself as the opposite of random, an album obsessed with the fractality of nature and memory. On the record, Podel weaves together ambient refractions based on real-world experiences. “Night Voyage” is full of cloudy alarm and reminiscent of motorway lights oscillating through the window of a dark car, “Autostrada” flutters with indecision and speed, “Silence” rings out in synthesised peace and foggy reverb. The atmosphere shifts from shaded humidity on “Magnolia Blooms” to Silent Hill coldness on “Roamer”. It’s a record that has the passion and history of a first album, and finds frequent moments of beauty. “Some other guy said it was like a soundscape” he adds quietly, “which is quite true”.
Spend enough time on the more erratic planes of Youtube and you’ll probably come across Podel’s cinematic universe. In the past, the main channel was a collaborative project known as Blazinskrubs, but since collaborator SgtSkrubs disembarked things have only gotten more surreal. Podel’s animations are hard to describe because they so feverishly attack categorisation, the type of thing that throws anyone with less than 5 years of esoteric internet experience in a confused loop. One video claiming to be an Adobe After Effects tutorial just devolves into a bunch of red lines drawn across the screen. Another asks “Did Louis XIV use an RPG-7?”. In one of my favourites, the house from Pixar’s “Up” gets in a dogfight with a realistic fighter jet. A very fragile thread runs through all of these works, tying nihilism to surrealism and placing them both in a familiar palette of online aesthetics; disdain for logic, calculated chaos, digital dadaism. The unrelenting creative freedom and commitment to unpredictability has attracted legions of fans; and Podel’s main channel has over 300,000 subscribers and 50 million total views.
It was surprising, then, to see Podel upload a much calmer video – more of a video podcast, really – titled “Why You Should Listen To Ambient Music” last year. “Hey guys” he says, entering a frame silhouetted by a setting sun, “welcome to a very special video where I tell you my favourite ambient songs”. He speaks with reserve and reverence for the music – artists like Igneous Flame, Echo Grid, Aphex Twin. This sparked my intrigue as a longtime fan of both Podel and ambient music, intrigue which doubled seeing Podel drop an album of his own.
I couldn’t imagine how such a subdued and thoughtful record had come from the same mind as “Joe Biden busts some moves in the Oval Office”. I’d have to start at inspiration and work upwards, and hopefully give Podel the space to define these processes himself.
“Honestly I go on youtube and watch clips of successful films that have really good production values… I just like looking for that inspiration, the lighting and all, you know, cinematography” begins Podel, highlighting a love for technique and technology that becomes more apparent as we talk – by day he works in motion graphics and graphic design, and makes his animations with two RTX 3090 graphics cards. Recently he’s started uploading “all versions” compilations of some of his animations, showing the extreme effort that goes into a single video; 1400 hours went into “Mr. Incredible Gets Blasted By a JDAM”, which in turn scored 2 million views. “When I watch anything on Netflix I’m rewinding it to look at the technical aspects of it. I don’t think many people do that” he continues. Technical aspects serve as jumping off points for escapism; one of Podel’s side projects, AI Refinery, is dedicated to upscaling old TV clips (alongside the occasional BBK freestyle). Films – and their construction – are a way to “get out of real life”.
There’s an easy flow of information between sound and visuals in Podel’s mind. In the lead up to his album’s release he issued a number of stills, glitched-out and urban, representative of the way memory fragments and rearranges the most routine of places. “I think each one gives me inspiration for the [other]. Say I wanna make a video, I will listen to an album first or a bit of music to give me inspiration for the visuals” he comments enthusiastically. “If I’m making music I watch videos to give me inspiration. What music could I put in this scene? That’s how I design these songs”. The jump from video to music is not a blank one of equipment and technique, but an intentional sharing of very visual ideas. “Cinematic” is a word that comes up a lot, and in the tracklist for “Suburban Memory” are references to “Bloom”, “Sunset”, “Midnight” and “Shadow”, the latter represented by burrowing noise and synthetic orchestra.
Maybe it’s escapism at the core, the desire to design worlds more cozy or more interesting than our own. I considered that the crazier aspects of Podel’s work might respond to the constant rush of modern life. When I ask him about it, he just says he was “trying to fill the frame with everything”. He says about escapism; “It really helps with creative projects. If you’re just grounded in real life, for me it’s quite hard to make anything fresh. So if I’m in this new world, especially with music or whatever, and I’m watching fantasy stuff then I can get into that mindset, create new things”. “Suburban Memory” was born from similar feelings, Podel’s past adapted into a mental fantasy. “The album’s about my life living in suburban London and Italy, so I wanted to express what it’s like growing up. The only thing I can do that is through sound, or actual recordings of stuff like the wind or whatever, together with some music it’s… yeah. That works”.
Podel presents a past split into memory clusters; “I go [to Italy] every summer, for the whole summer, so it’d be like June until September. So every year for the last 20 years I’d go there, I’d grow up with all my friends and family there, in that little village with like 20 people there that you all knew. The last time I went was before the pandemic… I’d like to go back and see that again”. The pandemic put a hold on these trips to Italy for a while. He speaks with great fondness of this second home; “Especially where I am and where I live it’s just fields, like really peaceful to go for walks. Obviously you know everyone there, so you can just go up to people and start talking, it’s so much easier than London where you go up to people and they think ‘why are they talking to me?’”. He’s even considered moving to Italy outright. It’s hard to blame him – the village he describes from his childhood sounds almost utopic; “ there’s a few times I’ve wanted to completely move and live there, but there’s no work in the village – in fact there’s no internet in my village, there’s nothing. If I had to go to Italy I’d have to go to a little city… We have a house from one of my relatives in Italy, but it’s really old. I think it still has 80s furniture inside, everything’s completely retro. The plan is, if I ever go there, I’ll do that up and make it look nice”. At one time, the plan was to reside in Italy while creating “Suburban Memory”.
Turning webs of memory and space into tangible, expressive music no doubt seemed a daunting task. It’d been ten years since Podel last worked on music, and the task ahead was a long one. “It takes a lot of commitment” he tells me, “you might do it for a day then give up. I don’t know what made me do it for two months straight… it was really fresh to do”. Podel turned to his lifelong love for ambient and electronic music over several periods of composition, arranging, mixing – all done solo. Similar to how animations are built up in multiple renders, “Suburban Memory” was built in increments. “I would make like 20 versions for each track” he adds, casually.
As in his video from last summer, Podel talks at length about ambient music, and its formative effect on the way he uses music in general. At first it was just background music for many hours of editing work; “back then I didn’t even know what to type into Youtube to get some music, I ended up typing in “relaxing sounds” or something, I ended up on some long playlist of random ambient music. Over the years I kept listening to that as background music”. In Podel’s video about Ambient he speaks with particular admiration of Igneous Flame’s 2013 track “Zephyr”, a churning wind tunnel of drone filtered on both ends. He reckons he’s listened to it over 3,000 times. “My favourite ambient artist is called Igneous Flame” he explains, “he does very long ambient pieces with drones and a lot of soundscape involved. And each album he does in in a different area, if that makes sense. One album is in the sea, one album is in space, one album is in the forest. That’s where I got the inspiration to do each song as in a different space. It’s a bit different in each one… like a different memory”. “Zephyr” is from “Nyx”, an album described by its maker as “encompassing depth and air”. Two sides, opposite and inextricable.
We talk about other artists, and memories of Aphex Twin’s “I”; “I love that song. That’s such a nostalgic song, I remember listening to that at like 13, 14 in high school… Nostalgia drives my music”. The sounds across “Suburban Memory” attest to this, at various times longing, distant, reflective, and embracing.
I begin to get the sense that the calm demeanour, grateful speech, and infusion with nature Podel presents is not entirely separate from the mindset that produces his craziest work. In fact, there’s an array of Podel content that takes a much more soothing approach. On secondary channels he posts walking videos, and there’s a small but impactful crop of calmer animations on the main channel. The most touching is “Dreams/Memories – Brother”, a touching tribute to his late brother made up of 3D models and virtual sunsets.
Whether genuine to the core or totally flippant, all of Podel’s work feels uniquely positioned between the bubbles of genre. He’s infectiously fascinated with the space between spaces, the creative worlds where, no matter how hard you rebel, you can’t cross a line because there’s never been one drawn; “There’s an interesting thing called liminal space. I can’t really describe it, it’s just like when you’re in between places and it’s quite surreal”. This too has made its way to his music. He continues “I think [liminal] describes memories really well, because you don’t really remember each aspect completely, it’s sort of in your mind quite hazy. “Autostrada” is like the place between the UK and Italy going on the motorway. “Night Voyage” is on the train, going in tunnels. Then there are a few others where you’re in a field or in empty space”.
Liminal space is another deeply online subculture that blew up during the pandemic – space between space for the time between times. It’s in revenant memes like The Backrooms, and in the cover art for “Suburban Memory”. “ I nearly got arrested for taking that photo” says Podel, surprised, as if he also was hearing it for the first time. “I was staying at Glasgow Airport… just found this road, I realised it ends up behind the airport with all this security”. Podel’s favourite track from the album, he tells me, is “Magnolia Blooms”, a track based in the feeling of “really calm and like you’re going to fall asleep” in a field, a song steeped in liminality and overgrowth. This feeling of embrace is one he finds endemic to ambient; “depending on my mood it really elevates whatever mood I’m in… If I’m in a relaxing mood that just helps me relax and focus on work and stuff. Especially when I’m freelancing I’ll just play that the entire time that I’m working… It makes you feel like you’re at home”. Being at home anywhere sounds pretty good after years of isolation.
Just as I’m getting a sense of where Podel’s surrealism stems from, the conversation switches. “ I’m getting older. I don’t want to spend all that time just making all these videos. Obviously I still wanna do it but I don’t wanna spend 3 months on that. I think I’ll limit how long I can spend on things… then I have more time to do real life stuff”. The real life stuff in question seems much more in line with the Podel I’m speaking to than the one known by his viewers. He details a travel ritual of his, driving down to the Seven Sisters cliffs on the south coast of England and listening to music for hours on “my phone or basic Samsungs”. Travel is a fact and reflection of life; “I do a lot of travelling, hiking, basically when I’m not working I love to go anywhere in the UK or abroad pretty much, to remote areas” he explains, “On my other channel I just do walking videos, I strap a GoPro to my shoulder and walk for hours, just talk about life”. Pride and reflection come at once to his voice when we talk about Blazinskrubs, or even earlier stuff on Newgrounds, but he emphasises change clearly. “When I started in 2015, I was just getting out of Uni. I was quite young so I didn’t really care. I was just making this absurd content. I wasn’t really bothered [about] what people thought… now that I’m getting older I’m gonna tone it down a bit. I don’t really enjoy having that sort of persona now”.
How long can someone survive as an extension of meme culture? Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised at Podel’s swan-dive into the calmest music genre on the planet, maybe it’s dizzying to think in confusion comedy all the time. Or maybe – and more likely – he’s just mastered doing both. When I ask about what drives the jokes, he says “I can’t even tell you – and I’ve been trying to figure that out for years”. Whether intentional or not, Podel’s sprawling brand of humour is everywhere in the surrealism of today’s meme culture, and he’s inspired others – it’s impossible to watch the deranged ramblings of Jixaw or the bizarre animations produced by the Bosnian Ape Society and not notice Podel’s influence. When I ask what it’s like to have driven meme culture itself in some way, he says “it’s quite cool. Loads of people don’t even realise it’s you”.
Though the legacy of Blazinskrubs is still alive in Podel’s new work (see “Spiderman Gets Hit In The Groin With A Brick”, 5 seconds long, 47 thousand views) it may be winding down. What is in Podel’s future is music. “I have a list of song titles, I just write them down” he tells me thoughtfully. “My next album’s gonna be more about Italy, about growing up” he adds, still committed to memory as memory commits to itself. Others have taken notice too – there’s are contact interested in scoring for films, and scores of fans sharing their experiences; “I’m glad the people who listened to it have enjoyed so far” he cheerfully adds. Call “Suburban Memory” a turning point, call it what you will; for Podel it’s clearly the start of something new. I came to our conversation trying to understand what makes Podel create in the way he does, and by the end it’s clear that through all the mystique and memory, this is a creator who just does things, makes for the experience of making, speaks for the expression itself. Looking forward to the next record and thinking of “Suburban Memory”, Podel sums it up with satisfaction; “I’ve done something now”.
Listen to “Suburban Memory” here.
Follow Podel on YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, Spotify and Apple Music.
– Jamie (Managing Editor @108MICS)
Some quotes have been shortened for brevity and clarity. Alterations to quotes are presented in square brackets