INTERVIEW: Mick Sullivan talks about The Past & the Curious, An Evening with Poe + more!

As more and more people decide to embark on their own podcasting endeavors, there are more podcasts than ever, for better or worse. It can be frustrating when after feverishly searching for your next favorite show, you end up with mediocre podcast after mediocre podcast. Finding a new worthwhile podcast is tougher than ever.

My latest podcast relief comes in the form of an enormously popular show called The Past & the Curious which focuses on strange and unusual tales throughout history. You may be thinking, “Oh great, another history podcast.” That’s fair, but I promise, this show is different. Each episode is constructed with smooth narration, really clever skits that are genuinely funny, and some rootsy tunes that help to set the vibe. The podcast is designed to entertain both children and adults alike with little known facts and stories that are sure to have you saying, “Damn, I didn’t know that!”

As the show continues to gain traction all over the world, The Past & the Curious has been named one of the top 10 Children’s Podcasts by The Times of London and also were the Pick of the Week by the The Guardian in recent months. In case you’re a newcomer to the show, I’d recommend you start with my personal favorite — Episode 19, which focuses on the history of the Statue of Liberty. Who knew that the story behind that large green monument in New York was so compelling?

I figured now would be as good a time as ever to reach out to show runner Mick Sullivan to ask a few questions about The Past & the Curious. Read on as we discuss what goes into each show, the music behind it, and his upcoming Evening With Poe series at The Frazier History Museum!

Never Nervous: What prompted you to start The Past & the Curious podcast? Was there something in particular that inspired you get it going?

Mick Sullivan: I have always been an avid podcast listener and I love learning. I also work with kids and feel that sharing information about the past is important, so when I looked around and saw no podcast filling that niche, I decided I could give it a shot.

NN: How do you decide on which topics to cover?

MS: I keep a running list. Some are things I pickup through reading and try to develop, others are things I stumble upon, and others are pretty well known stories, but I remind myself that a kid deserves to hear them too, on a level that they can engage with. The stories that work best are ones that have some central figure doing something noteworthy, but also allow for other cultural information of the time and place to weave in as well.

“The stories that work best are ones that have some central figure doing something noteworthy, but also allow for other cultural information of the time and place to weave in as well.”

NN: How much is the show geared toward younger folks, as opposed to someone in their mid 30’s (like me)?

MS: I know a lot of adults without kids who listen and enjoy. I think anything made for kids has to work on a lot of levels. If not, kids are savvy enough to know they’re being pandered to. But also it means adults can listen and joy along – learning together and being able to talk afterwards is awesome for parents. An added bonus of that is that any adult can dig it too. We definitely try to appeal across the board – and there’s jokes kids simply won’t get.

NN: Are there any topics that you’d like to cover, but might be a bit too graphic or intense for your target audience?

MS: Not really. Some people like to glorify certain aspects of war, but I’m not on board for that. Most things kids will understand what they need with just a hint (working on a story about a crazy explorer who lost his arm. It’s not important how he lost his arm in the Civil war, but the adjustments he made as a result, and the limitation he didn’t put on himself as a result are awesome).

More troublesome are the aspects of humanity and the longterm injustices like sexism and racism. And boy, It’s tough to talk about slavery with kids, and you can’t saddle them with everything all at once, but things can be delivered tactfully, and ultimately my hope is that the podcast is just a jumping off point into more learning on something they hear about.

I’m actually working on a story about a young girl whose parents were escaped slaves (from Louisville, actually) and whose Michigan farm was a stop on the Underground Railroad. When she was young she saw a lot of unusual things her parents did to hide and help others, but they were trying to keep her in the dark – she figured it out later and gave an oral history. It occurred to me that this perspective might be a good way to introduce the concept to today’s kids.

“Some people like to glorify certain aspects of war, but I’m not on board for that.”

NN: After all the research, script writing, and actual recording, how many hours is put in for an episode?

MS: Too many, probably. I write in the mornings before work, and record and produce after my son goes to sleep. 16-30 hours depending on the episode, I’d say.

NN: The skits you put together are a lot of fun — are those all written by you, or is it more of a team effort?

MS: I write the bulk of them. Though my friend Heather Funk has written a few and is on the schedule to write more in 2019.

NN: Do you have a personal favorite episode that you’d recommend to folks that have never listened?

MS: I hit on something around April or May of 2018, and was able to get more creative for whatever reason with the writing and production. So anything from those months is a great place to start. My most popular shows are “Statue of Liberty” and “Hot Dogs!” but I really love “Spies” and “Fakes and Frauds!” Will Oldham fans will like “Journeys.”

NN: Are there any other Louisville-based podcasts that you regularly listen to?

MS: I think Strange Fruit is great. Most of my listening tastes lie outside of what is available from local producers at the moment. I dig Memory Palace and I have been OBSESSED with Uncivil.

NN: Considering that it’s October, do you have anything special planned for Halloween? Or what about the rest of the holiday season?

MS: As far as the show, not really. My October episode does have a bodysnatcher story, though!

My Octobers are consumed by the “An Evening With Poe” theatre series at the Frazier History Museum. I’ve been in charge of the music for the last 7 years or so. This year Jose Oreta, Julia Purcell and I are accenting the macabre drama on stage with our musical arrangements. There are ten nights of shows, so, that’s my Halloween, but I love it.

“This year Jose Oreta, Julia Purcell and I are accenting the macabre drama on stage with our musical arrangements.”

NN: What’s new with Squeeze-bot?

MS: We had a great summer and will be regrouping for the remainder of the year soon. Been looking into festivals for the year ahead.

NN: Are you currently involved in any other musical endeavors?

MS: Besides the band for Poe (which we call Tamerlane Trio), I just released a CD under my own name of music from the podcast. Most episodes feature a song from the American Songbook and I’ve had some great friends joining me, including Tory Fisher, Amber Estes Thieneman, Suki Anderson Chris Rodahaffer and others. I picked several of my favorites for the CD. Really proud of it.

NN: Before you go, tell us about a record you’ve discovered this year that you really, really like.

MS: I’m so not-plugged-in. They’re my friends and all, but I’m telling’ ya, Big Momma Thorazine blows my mind.
Also, randomly, I randomly heard an album of Dwight Yoakam singing Buck Owens tunes and it pulled me back into music I had completely lost touch with.

EDITOR’S NOTE: I’m pretty sure Mick is referring to Yoakam’s 2007 record Dwight Sings Buck — and it’s absolutely worth your time.