A Conversation with George Hrab
July 28, 2016
George Hrab is a professional musician, author, and popular podcaster. The Geologic podcast is an intersection between music and scientific skepticism. George will also be our emcee at CSICon this year.
Susan Gerbic: For those who have not yet read your Wikipedia page, can you please bring people up to speed: who is this George Hrab person, and I’m not talking about your father who was also George Hrab?
George Hrab: Well… let’s see… I am an American citizen of Ukrainian descent that resides in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and makes a living playing drums in a nine-piece horn band called the Philadelphia Funk Authority. I produce a weekly Internet audio program called The Geologic Podcast. This program has no geology content whatsoever but is so named as a portmanteau of “George” and “logic.” This tends to confuse people. Quite rightly so. I seem to have a habit of regularly acting as emcee/host for science conventions like The Amazing Meeting, The Australian Skeptics Convention, QED, and now CSICon. Those are always super fun. When I am not performing with The Philadelphia Funk Authority or working on The Geologic podcast or emceeing science conferences, I like to write and record albums of original music. I have six so far, plus one live album and a DVD. When people find out that I am a songwriter, they ask me what my music sounds like. I usually tell them who my influences are, and that my songs are basically crappier versions of those influences. The main bands that I like are Yes, King Crimson, Talking Heads, and Frank Zappa—although Frank Zappa is not a band but an individual. I am also an individual…but nowhere near as cool as Frank Zappa.
Gerbic: You started The Geologic podcast in 2007 and have managed to keep it fresh. I assume because you still enjoy it. How do you manage to stay motivated? It’s a weekly podcast and you have just hit number 470. That is quite an accomplishment.
Hrab: When I started producing the show, I never-ever-ever imagined in my deepest of Emma Thompson–based fantasies that I would still be doing it almost ten years later. How I got here is still a bit of a mystery to me, and since most mysteries tend to get sexier as they remain unsolved I don’t want to think about it too much. I really enjoy the format of the show, and I especially enjoy the immediate communicative nature of podcasting. It used to be that when I’d have an idea—for a song, a story, a comedy sketch, or perhaps some prop-based mime—it would potentially take years for it to get in front of an audience. With the podcast, if something interesting happens to me on Monday, or I get a fun idea for something on Tuesday, by Wednesday evening of that same week a few thousand people get to hear it and immediately email me in great detail all the picayune mistakes I’ve made. AH THE INTERNET! Actually, my audience is quite incredible, generous, and attractive—and did I say incredible—and please keep listening; I was only kidding just then. To answer your question, yes it’s a challenge to stay motivated, but like clamping down after a really generous bowl of fiber cereal, well worth the effort.
Gerbic: Do you hear from people who were expecting it to be about geology?
Hrab: I have. Most understand very quickly that it’s not about geology and are cool with it, but my absolute favorite iTunes review of all time was from a person who sat through four hours of show and was vehemently disappointed that I never got to the geology part of the program. Yes indeed, it took four hours for this person to figure out that there was no discussion of the effect of subducting plates on igneous vs. sedimentary rocks coming up. It was so great. I have that screed now tattooed on my back.
Gerbic: I’m curious how you manage to mix music and skepticism. I wouldn’t have thought those topics would be such a good pair, but somehow it just works. What’s the secret?
Hrab: Song writing, like most endeavors worth doing, is really stupidly hard. (At least it is for me.) Finding topics to write about that both haven’t been covered to death and that foster interest can be a challenge as well. I love science and the process of critical thinking, so it just seemed natural for a large lyrical portion of my music to cover those themes. That being said, I desperately try to hide the subject matter or at least make it slightly subtle so that it’s not quite directly stepping on the listener’s face (I really dislike obvious “message” songs). I guess how well I do that can be decided by the audience, but I always figured there are enough love songs out there—why not have a few tunes about interesting animals or how everything in the universe will eventually end? Now that’s a song.
Gerbic: It seems that you keep reinventing yourself, drawing on your strongest skills. You were the emcee for several TAM’s and now CSICon. This wasn’t a role you had trained for, but just like the podcast, when we look back in retrospect it seems like an obvious fit.
Hrab: To me it’s all variations on a theme, but it basically comes down to entertainment and organization. I’m pretty good at both, especially in a live environment. I love the challenge of trying to keep a “preconceived entertainment chunk” moving and interesting, so whether it’s a concert with a nine-piece funk band, a podcast, an album, a science conference, or a sweatsock-based puppet show, I seem to have a moderately decent ability at keeping things chugging along and captivating. There’s also the fact that for some reason (which any therapists out there could elaborate on to be sure) I’m more comfortable on stage than in real life. I just really enjoy it all.
Gerbic: I’ve seen you come up with some terrific intros over the years. Let me think, you have done limericks, Haiku, silly songs, and questions such as “What was your first car?” and “What was the first music you purchased with your own money?” The answers you get are terrific. One year, you threatened to do interpretive dance which I think would have been amazing. Any chance you might use semaphore at CSICon this year?
Hrab: This year I think I’ll be using a combination of alpenhorn and Moroccan Schikhatt dance, in conjunction with Morse code performed on the shells of Galapogean tortoises. Just to have a “theme.”
Gerbic: One of the highlights of TAM was the Hrab sing-a-long on the last night of the convention. It’s informal and usually held in some quiet area of the event. I have many friends that will remain with you singing until the wee hours of the morning. Lots of videos are on YouTube for those like me who are dead on their feet by that last night. One of the highlights for me in 2015 was my friend Paula Serrano who came from Argentina who sang Chega de Saudade with you. Please tell everyone this tradition will continue with CSICon.
Hrab: If there is a corner where both hotel security and the Las Vegas police will not mind us singing standards for a few hours, I will absolutely do it again. Those times have genuinely been amongst my favorites at any convention, if not also my life. Seriously.
Gerbic: As an important part of the skeptic conference experience, what observations do you have to share with the organizers to improve them?
Hrab: I think there needs to be less hang-gliding and more fan-based motorized parasailing. Asking James Randi to land his glider on stage at last year’s TAM was a lot to demand of anyone, let alone an octogenarian hero of the skeptic movement. Powered parachutes are noisier, but much safer due to their inherent stability, limited response to control inputs, and stall resistance. I hope the organizers consider that. I think there also needs to be a chance for attendees to participate in an amateur Jai-Alai tournament. Just imagine the revenue that could be generated with xistera rentals! Finally, I hope that the “Pokémon Joe” app is ready in time so that we can all attempt to capture, battle, and train Mr. Nickell.
Gerbic: I feel that people come to conferences for the speakers, but return for the people. Do you think we need to keep conferences small in order to maintain that personal touch?
Hrab: Personal connections can happen regardless of the size of a conference, but there is a certain special feeling and vibe that happens when there are a smaller number of attendees. It’s all relative I guess. One gets quite a nice feeling thinking that you can communicate directly with a speaker if so inclined. In my experience, most folks love the interaction and look forward to the ability to socialize. I’ve always said that at conferences like these, since most everyone agrees on about 90 percent of things, you tend to get really interesting conversations based on that final 10 percent difference. It can get really detailed and wonk-tastic, but who doesn’t love getting detailed and wonk-tastic?
Gerbic: Besides CSICon and a weekly dose of The Geologic, what are you working on next?
Hrab: I’m off to Finland to perform a twenty-year retrospective piece I wrote for string quartet and voice called The Broad Street Score; I’m working on studio album number seven; there’s the continuing adventures of the Philadelphia Funk Authority; and I’m desperately trying to somehow quiet and numb the soul-crushing existential peril of modern existence through a steady stream of music, tears, exercise, Doctor Who episodes, and tacos. You?
Gerbic: Thank you for asking, George. Besides being at CSICon, I have been asked to speak at the New Zealand Skeptic Conference, December 1–2. I double checked and they actually want me to be in the same room as everyone so I guess either they are all coming to California or I will be going there. I am retiring after thirty-four years as a retail photographer on October 1st, so I suppose I’m going to have an extra forty hours a week to piss off grief vampires as well as expand the work we do with GSoW. Really looking forward to Moroccan Schikhatt dancing and I’ll brush up on my Morse code as will everyone reading this. I am a bit disappointed that you won’t be using semaphore, at least not this year. See you and everyone else at CSICon, Vegas Baby!