Interview with Eli McIlveen & Sean Howard

Alba SalixThe End of Time and Other Bothers

I started listening to Alba Salix early this year, I was a little late to the party. But once I started listening, I couldn’t stop. So when Sean emailed me an advance copy of The End of Time & Other Bothers, I knew it was going to be good. I love a good fantasy and even more when it is inclusive and just a really good time. I want to share the four key ideals that guide The End of Time & Other Bothers:

Have a super fun time
Listen fully: Don’t interrupt each other; focus on the scene, not the joke; “Yes, and” or “No, but”
Empathy first: For each other; for the animals in our world; less focus on violence
Be inclusive: Play the game we will be proud of later

I just really love that The End of Time & Other Bothers is founded upon those four ideals, it really shows you the character of Sean, Eli, and the Alba Salix team. It shows in everything that they do. When I interviewed them during a video chat, I unknowingly was only recording my audio, so I got a really great hour-long video of me talking and laughing at nothing. When I told them what I did, they immediately reassured me and answered my questions again. This was all during their rush to get Alba Salix season 2 ready to launch. Which, season 2 of Alba Salix will launch November 2nd. Without further ado, here is the result of multiple interviews and wonderful discussions.


Interview with Eli McIlveen and Sean Howard

 

What inspired you to create an audio drama?

Eli: I grew up listening to audio drama on CBC Radio—shows like The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which they rebroadcast, and Midnight Cab, plus a ton of sketch comedy. In high school, I started recording sketches and a short-lived serial called Cretins in Space with Julian, who now plays Magnus, and our friend Kyle. They were the main performers, while I laid in the music and sound effects using whatever we had on hand. Later on, I produced a comedy show on my university radio station. I would have loved to create a full-on radio drama, but back then I didn’t have the first clue how to write a story!

What was the inspiration for Alba Salix?

Eli: Back around 2011, I’d been kicking around a lot of ideas for comedy-dramas, but Alba Salix was the first one that really stuck. At the same time, I had a list of made-up names for generic drugs (like Haxor, Zantrafenol and Frinozipax) and thought, “hey, we could do a medical show.” The thought of setting it in the real world seemed like too much research, so I started to look for other settings, and fairy tales fit the bill. They’ve been crossed with so many genres, but I’d never heard of a hospital show set in a fantasy world. As soon as I hit on the concept, the ideas started to flow.

Were any of the characters inspired by real people?

Eli: For the most part, no! But little hints sneak in here and there. We have a new character coming up in Season 2, very forthright and irreverent, who I realized was quite similar to a friend and former colleague of ours. Mister Benvenito, AKA Astraxo, was inspired by Sean’s experiences doing some work for a company that did marketing for the pharmaceutical industry.

What has been the hardest part in making the show?

Sean: Season 2.
Alba Salix is a 30 minute, fully scripted sitcom with a full cast. It is all recorded in-studio. It’s produced entirely in the margins of our hectic, insane lives. The most common question we get is “When will Season 2 launch?” It is coming, October 26th! We had to delay things a bit because it is important that we hit the mark with Alba Salix, as it is our flagship show. We decided it’s best to proceed slow and steady and not to rush as we don’t want to lower the bar. If anything, we want Season 2 to raise the bar for Alba Salix, Royal Physician.

Eli: Ha! Slow and steady indeed. I’m surprised to hear you say that, given that for me, the hard part is knowing when it’s done. For aspects of the show like writing and post-production, I could fuss and polish forever, but at some point you’ve got to call it a day and release the damn thing.

Did you have doubts going in? How did you deal with them?

Sean: I don’t think you can create anything without doubts. Launching our latest spin-off, The End of Time and Other Bothers was a great case in point. I was a mess. I recorded a video sitting in my bed, unable to sleep, just to remember how tough it is to release a show. The last few weeks were brutal in their intensity. There is only so far you can take what you recorded. There are endless decisions to make about tone and approach. So many questions, doubts and flaws all amplifying each other, or so it seems.

It’s beguiling to think that other people have some system or special ability that we lack as creators. This is impostor syndrome at its muscle-pumped peak. It’s debilitating at times.

There’s no way to stop the doubts. That said, it really helps to have a team working with you—others that you can turn to. That first viewing, no matter the creator, is a fragile moment. Create a safe space for feedback and allow yourself to not have all the answers.

Eli: I didn’t have doubts going in because I had a very clear idea about the kind of show I wanted to make, and a template based on the CBC and BBC radio dramas I grew up on. It was only later in the writing process and post-production that I started to waver, I realized how stupidly big a job I’d taken on.

Other Bothers is much different. We’ve borrowed plenty of ideas from other actual play podcasts, but we certainly don’t want to steal anyone’s signature style. So we’re trying a ton of things that are new to us. Unlike our scripted shows, we really don’t know where our story arc will end up. But luckily, between Sean’s experience with improv and GMing, and our players’ brilliant roleplaying, I think we’ve started to find a great groove.

What do you think is so appealing about audio for storytelling?

Eli: For me, audio drama combines so many things I like: writing, music, sound design and, as I’ve discovered along the way, directing. It’s immensely satisfying to bring characters and scenes to life in audio. We’re so attuned to sound—a tiny noise can set us on edge; a little catch in someone’s voice can bring us to tears. And I love finding just the right effect or bit of Foley to make a great performance shine even brighter, whether it’s comedic or dramatic.

If you were in the world of Alba Salix, what would your job be?

Eli: Tinker, perhaps? I inherited a very do-it-yourself attitude from my parents—they built things like furniture and did a lot of crafts, especially my mum.

Sean: Johann. Oh wait! That’s legit.

What audio dramas are you listening to?

Sean:  SO MANY. I feel so awful as I just can’t list them all. So I will tell you of the latest three I am binging. The Amelia Project is a brilliant concept with great writing and impressive production values. Attention Hellmart Shoppers: this show is INSANE and beyond hysterical. Mission to Zyxx is better than sex, sleep, and eating combined.

Eli: In the last little while, I’ve been listening to Girl in Space, Tides, Saffron and Peri, and What’s the Frequency? Plus Sean’s got me hooked on actual play podcasts, so lots of Join the Party, The Adventure Zone, and Terrible Warriors. But as Sean says, there are so many amazing shows out there right now. I need a hobby that doesn’t involve listening to things the entire time, so I can catch up!

What has been your favorite thing about creating and producing Alba Salix?

Eli: Hearing from fans that our little show has made their week better. Getting together with the cast to rehearse and record is a great excuse to hang out and have fun with some delightful and talented people—even if Sean and I spend the day running around getting everything in order!

Sean: Seeing Eli come into his own. A few listeners recently chimed in on a thread where we were discussing how, as creators of fantasy, we can’t help but find ourselves lacking when we compare ourselves to people who are out there making the world a better place. And I will never forget what one of our listeners said: We change THEIR world and that does change the world. I’ve seen Eli go from a timid guy with an idea to being someone respected in the industry and that just makes my heart leap.

What is your favorite joke from the show?

Eli: I always like to toss in a bit of modern everyday life into our fantasy world, like franchise pubs and office humor. I’m also quite fond of all the bits about troll language and cooking in The Axe & Crown.

What made you want to make an actual play podcast set in the world of Alba Salix?

Sean: We had been talking about starting another podcast in the Alba Salix universe, specifically, a show format that we could release more often with less pre- and post-production demands. After PodCon 2017, I fell in love with The Adventure Zone and Join the Party. I listened to some actual plays before, but I found them less than engaging. I clearly hadn’t found the right ones yet, as today I listen to a few great ones! But it was TAZ and JTP that lit the fire under me to create something in this space that was new and uniquely ours. Our idea was to use comedy improvisation as a driving force and not just die rolls.

How did you decide on the system?

Sean: We were looking for a system where the story came first. I never wanted to see another D&D-style Perception roll, ever. I went through system after system, and eventually our game consultant Stephen suggested Dungeon World. I read the book in close to one sitting. It’s a Powered by the Apocalypse game, which means it’s easy, and highly encouraged, to create custom moves and playbooks to suit each character. And the fantasy focus meant it was a great fit for the Alba universe.

That said, I’m an old-school D&D person, so there’s definitely been a bit of a learning curve and I make tons of mistakes. It’s about having fun at the table, and I have truly fallen in love with Dungeon World.

I want to talk a bit about how you approached community building. There are so many things for supporters of the show and for regular listeners. The Discord and all the channels there, as well as the Farlorian Fridays. Why was it important to create this community around the show?

Sean: Alba Salix started as a super fun thing we did with our theater friends. Eli was the backbone. He wrote it, did the sound design, wrote the music, directed, and edited it. We had a blast and we learned so much.

But then our numbers began to climb. We realized one day that there was a growing community of listeners hoping for more Alba Salix. We really didn’t know what to do. At first, we thought we would just make a Season 2, but we soon saw that there was an opportunity to do much more.

We both dream of the day where we can devote more of our time to writing and producing fiction in the Alba universe. But this is going to take a lot more than just the two of us. At first, I thought community-building was just about listeners, but was I ever wrong! Community-building is about fostering rewarding, two-way relationships. We have become surrounded by incredibly talented people since starting Alba Salix, and it is extremely humbling. It gets us up on the weekends when our day jobs are over and we are able to dedicate our free time to all things Alba.

We also want to create real value for our supporters, to let them know that their support matters. That we appreciate them. That means we need to double down on what we produce and the spaces we create for us and everyone.

Scheduling… the scheduling is overwhelming. I have a hard time meeting my deadlines. How do you manage it?

Sean: It’s a lot, I won’t lie. It became clear that if we wanted to attract listeners and supporters, we would have to offer them more. So we’ve tried to add one piece of content at a time. We began with getting The End of Time up and running, and later, we came up with Farlorian Fridays, where we post something new and special every week: deleted scenes, draft scripts, breakdowns of music and sound effects, even game playthroughs. Then came the Prepping for the End of Time videos, where I share how I prep for each recording/roleplaying session. And we have more on the way, our time and sanity permitting.

Eli: Producing The End of Time was what finally forced me to get my act together. I used to just toss everything in a big messy heap in a to-do list app. Then we tried Trello for a while. Now I have not one, but two whiteboards next to my desk just to track all my audio production work, plus a detailed paper workflow checklist for each show.

The sound design for both Alba Salix and Other Bothers are impressive, can you talk a bit about your process?

Eli: Given our schedule, there isn’t time to create an immersive sound design as we would for our scripted shows, so we are selective — it’s like the difference between a graphic novel and a novel with occasional illustrations. So during recording sessions, I listen for key moments that I feel are memorable either to the listener or the characters themselves. If our heroes suddenly transported to a strange new place, shown a terrible vision, or tap into a wild new ability, that’s my signal to add a sound or music cue.

When I start designing an episode, I like to set the scene with background ambiance, which is an important non-verbal cue to remind the audience where we are. That includes sounds like forest birds or café chatter, of course, but I also treat our players’ voices to fit the scene whenever someone speaks in character. I add reverb to simulate interiors and unnatural environments, but I also remove reverb from our characters’ voices for exteriors. When one player speaks, everyone else’s microphones will pick up the sound bouncing off the walls, which emphasizes the fact that they’re all gathered around a table in our upstairs game room. Muting those other mics helps make those outdoor scenes sound more believable.

From there, I add spot effects to call out those key moments. We don’t have the time to do extra Foley or the money to buy sounds, so where possible, I use sounds from my existing library or public domain sources. For example, the sound of Blat summoning his soul-bound weapon is made by combining several elements I found on FreeSound. A number of effects, like the huge waterfall in Episode 2, and a lot of the magic sounds, I design using various synth and processing plugins.

And for a select few scenes, I add music when I think it’ll heighten the drama, tension or comedy. Often that’s a simple melody, but once in a while a scene will just cry out for something big and over-the-top, like the infamous kitchen scene from Episode 4.

As a special treat, Sean and Eli have given me permission to include this Farlorian Friday clip where Eli explains the sound design of the kitchen music. If you don’t support Alba Salix on Patreon, you should because you can learn so much and be a part of an incredibly supportive community. 

Finally, the most important question! What is your ideal fairy cake? I need a detailed description of the look, taste, and the effects.

Sean: Our story consultant is actually working on a recipe! I have to say that “roll for fairy cakes” has become one of my favorite things to happen in the game. My ideal fairy cake is the purple swirly. It is crumbly and sweet and tastes of forgotten dreams and rainbows. On a 10+, it creates a euphoric drive to plow through the toughest of to-do lists. On a 7-9, I become deliriously distracted by social media and lose three hours of my day.

Eli: An almond-flavored cake, rich but not too sweet, pairs well with Earl Grey tea. On a 10+, you are refreshed mentally and take a nice stretch break; regain 1d6 hit points and remove any debility. On a 7-9, your dog stares fixedly at you until you cave and give her half; split the hit points healed between the two of you.


If you aren’t listening to Alba Salix (Season 2 begins November 2nd) or The End of Time & Other Bothers, then you need to remedy that immediately. Follow them on twitter @AlbaSalix and @OtherBothers. Visit their website at albasalix.com. You can also support them on Patreon and get access to the Alba Salix discord ( I post pictures of my lil demon dog there).

I cannot wait to share even more interviews with you all, so be sure to follow or subscribe to the email list so you can stay up to date when I post. If you have any suggestions for future posts, or want to chat you can find me on twitter @Audiodramarama  or email me at audiodramarama@gmail.com