These days I do most of my interviews, face to face, in long form, for the podcast. And I love doing that. But I have a lot of time – too – for the old phoner. I’m always saying, on the podcast, that I hate/d the “15 minute phoner” and that’s true. I did. And do. But with a bit of luck – and maybe skill – you could take that 15 minute phone call and turn it into 20 or 30 or 60…or even in the allotted fifteen minutes you could just nail it. It isn’t just about you the interviewer though. It never is.
Sometimes you get lucky – score some extra time, or just manage to cover a lot of ground in the allocated 10-20 minutes. Other times you get (almost) nowhere. And the story is just another “we’re really proud of the new album/can’t wait to visit New Zealand” set of sound bites.
For the last few years I’ve been based – mostly – at home. The interviews have had a different feel. I’ve been sitting at a desk. Keeping office hours, or as near as I get to them. And so it’s just part of the day. There were a few timed to (hopefully) slot in around a sleeping baby, and then during Master Tyrant’s school hours but either way it’s largely been a case of the phone ringing – and me answering it at the desk. Taking some notes, having a chat. Nothing more exciting than that.
But it’s funny to revisit the old interview haunts.
I think I really enjoy doing interviews somewhat on the fly. You see, for a while there I had to squeeze in interviews around a full-time job in a shop or office. This meant turning up early, leaving late, sneaking off for a lunch-break at a strange time…it also meant finding a makeshift office.
When I worked in a shop down on Lambton Quay I sat in the store one day and talked to the bass player from Duran Duran. Another time I talked to Daniel Ash of Bauhaus. What made those conversations weirder – apart from sitting in a book-store, suddenly pretending to be a customer, and on the phone to musicians overseas – was that I was writing them up under a pen-name, and had to answer to another name, almost pretending to be someone else.
In one of my jobs I actually used to sneak off into an abandoned office – I’d hide on the floor, somehow thinking that was the right approach in case anyone walked past. Actually it probably would have been weirder for them to see me there, on the floor, rather than just sitting at one of the available desks.
I talked to Lucinda Williams about her fear of flying, and the guy from Old Crow Medicine Show told me all about his special supper, I booked a meeting room in the office one time to talk to one of the Dandy Warhols, he finished every sentence with a stoned chuckle. I went straight back to work after talking to him. Put a new cover sheet on my TPS report. Or whatever…
There was overnight notice that I would have 10 minutes only with Jeff Beck – I had to make it stretch to a 2,500 word article in The Listener. Four pages with photos and sidebar, it doesn’t seem that long ago. I bet a new Jeff Beck album wouldn’t even get reviewed in The Listener today. So it was early start that day to do the interview before my shift started. There I was in the kitchen – people making their instant coffees all around as I tried to squeeze in as many questions as I could about Blow By Blow.
And then my main “external office” was Civic Square. I’d dash across the road and chat to “Weird Al” Yankovic, or the drummer from the Melvins, to Henry Rollins and Dean Wareham and one time, Joe Walsh told me about the time he joined Herbs, eventually got sober with the help of his new brother-in-law Ringo Starr and, heartbreakingly, about the death of his infant son. I was standing outside Capital E. There were kids running around playing some version of tag. I was contractually obliged – as was he – to mention that other band.
None of this is to boast – interviews are fun, but they’re also just work. You try your best to make some connection – it doesn’t always work. And then that’s that. You either have a story or you don’t.
But for me the stories that I’ve written based around my Civic Square interviews – and other places, like one time on the side of the road just out of Martinborough talking to Ryan Adams – live on when I revisit that space. I always think about Ryan Adams when I’m in Martinborough – some ten years on. I play one of his albums on the drive up most times.
And walking through Civic Square I remember the different places I’ve stood – talking to a guitarist from Megadeth or some radio station when my book was released. It gives that part of Wellington strange and special meanings. It’s just a little bit funny.
One time I spent an hour on the phone with Mitchell Froom – all to get a quote or two for my book On Song. He had produced Don’t Dream It’s Over. And he was happy to chat to me. He replied to my email – a shot in the dark, I had thought – within minutes. Gave me his number. The next day we were talking. He told me about his work and marriage with Suzanne Vega, how he still admired her work even though their marriage had been difficult and was long over. He talked about arranging strings for Randy Newman, producing The Corrs and being a member of Latin Playboys. (The best thing about that? “Standing on stage night after night right next to David Fucking Hidalgo!”)
When I asked his permission to use any of those other stories outside and away from our main conversation – Crowded House and the song I was writing about for my book-project – he laughed and said, “knock yourself out. I’m nobody – no one’s ever going to take the time to interview me these days. Thanks for the chat. Good luck finding someone to read it”.
A while back I went for a stroll into Civic Square, to revisit the interview territory and I had a chat with Sharon Van Etten. She told me all about catching up with New Zealand music, she reckons Tiny Ruins is “otherworldly, like when you first hear Vashti Bunyan” and she’s a fan of The Clean and The Bats. She moved to New York a decade ago, a shy, introverted kid. She was hoping to get some music mentoring, some tips, maybe see a few shows for some inspiration. She never imagined she’d get a career out of it. And that’s what has happened. She’s eternally grateful.
She’s telling me all this and other people are wandering around by the library and art gallery, enjoying their lunch-break, soaking up a bit of sun.
And then another time, straight after seeing Bill Burr, I rush back to my car and make a call to speak with Neneh Cherry. I’m there on the side of the road talking to one of my favourite musicians. She’s a big deal in our house. Oscar thinks she’s pretty terrific. When I told him I was speaking to her (he’s always telling me that he’s had phone chats with members of The Beatles or Bob Marley or Bob Dylan or even with a particular album, last week it was Abbey Road he spoke to) he looked at me like I was nuts. He didn’t believe me – and/or his mind had been blown.
So I’m there chatting to Neneh Cherry. She had released an incredible album, one of my favourites of 2014. But sometimes, if you’re lucky, even when parked on the side of the road, you can get some sort of connection happening. And it’s probably silly, but it’s made all the more special because of the makeshift arrangement. It’s 11pm for me, I’ve just seen another show, dashed back to get some notes down, make a call, hope it goes well. We talk about the new album and all the way back to her first “proper” band, Rip, Rig & Panic. And then we talk about that phenomenal song, 7 Seconds.
I wonder what it’s like living with a song like that. Knowing you’d done something so huge, so special. Neneh Cherry says, “I feel very proud of it, and honoured to be proud of it. It’s a song that was very much a case of right time/right place. It’s also a song we just had to record. The song then did the work – we didn’t have to go out and push it. It just soared. Then we hung onto the kite and went with it. People tell us what it means, they have their own ideas around the lyrics, what the song means to them”. I tell her it’s like something by Burt Bacharach or The Beatles, like Somewhere Over The Rainbow, just one of those iconic songs – its recorded version definitive. She reckons that’s “a lovely thing to say”. She suddenly sounds just a bit choked up, even. It seemed a pretty cool way to end a fascinating and wonderful conversation. The right way. And of course you never know that – ever – until it happens. Only one thing to do after, turn the car on and drive home.