I always think, no matter how bad an interview goes at least I have never done this. And really, these days, with this thing you’re on – the internet – there is no excuse for that.
It’s a funny thing, the music interview. Whenever I tell someone that I’ve scored an interview I get some funny responses. I mentioned interviewing a guitar hero and someone said to me “you’re going to live my childhood dream” or something along those lines.
My reply: “really? Your childhood dream was to spend 10 minutes on the other end of a dodgy international line with someone who would rather be anywhere else, instantly bored with anything you mention? What a strange dreams you had as a child”.
I thought perhaps I’d clear up a few misconceptions about interviews. Well, about the interviews I do. Since I’m qualified to at least discuss those.
Hardly ever do I chat to someone in person. Almost never. In fact the two big-name musicians that I have interviewed in the flesh are Wayne Coyne of The Flaming Lips. And Fergie.
Beyond that it’s phone-calls – at all hours. Hardly ever when it suits, often with very little notice. And sometimes it’s via Facebook chat or via email. Sometimes you get to bounce a few messages back and forth; sometime you have to prepare some questions and send them off. And wait. And wait…
Many of the interviews I do are done at my cost. I sneak out and arrange them to tie in with an early or late lunch-break; I get up early, or stay up late.
This is not a sob-story. Just a few facts about the process.
I’m just genuinely baffled when people say you are so lucky. Luck has very little to do with it. I definitely have felt very fortunate to have been granted a temporary connection with some musicians I am a fan of; certainly. But I’ve also been a bit underwhelmed by talking to people about their work. Some are instantly bored. Some are just very boring.
There are so many variables. It can depend what mood I am in – what time it is for me. And how well I know the subject’s work. How long I have had to prepare. It can depend where I am. And it certainly – often – depends on where they are, what time it is for them. And whether it’s the first or last (or only) interview of the day. I prefer, in a perfect world, to not sit in a queue and wait for a short handful of time. But you hardly ever get to make the rules.
There’s a very smart piece about the bizarre – false – nature of interviewing in the Chuck Klosterman book, Eating The Dinosaur. He talks about how it is a completely unnatural setting to be in. Someone else described it well to me by saying that it is somewhat ironic but to do a good job interviewing someone – essentially finding out all about them – you have to know all about them already anyway.
But there are always nice surprises.
I’ve had a few people ask me for advice on how to go about interviews. And I’m not really a good person to ask – well, I am; in the sense that I will reply. I will make suggestions. But I’ve learned to do interviews myself, my own way. And it’s probably rather unorthodox by professional journalistic standards. I like that though. I don’t plan on changing.
My plan, usually, is to not ask so many questions; to actually get the person talking. Sometimes this works well – I thought I was going to be interviewing anyone other than Wayne Coyne when I was granted a Flaming Lips interview. So I wrote down what is it like working with Wayne Coyne? as the only actual question. And then I was told, two minutes before meeting him, that my interview would be with Wayne Coyne. I asked him the question. It proved the perfect kick-off. He replied, “that’s a great question; I’ve never been asked that before”.
It feels good to be told that something you have asked is a great question.
It happened when I interviewed pro-wrestler Chris Benoit. He would go on to kill his son, his wife and himself.
The other thing that happens when I mention I am interviewing someone is that people offer to come along, to hold the camera, to take photos…I guess I explained this a few paragraphs ago, but you would be holding a camera and/or taking photos of me in a room struggling to hear someone on the other end of the line; struggling to connect – often in more ways than one. There really is nothing exciting about it.
There are definitely some happy stories, some great – temporary – connections. Sometimes it is fun to be able to tell someone you really appreciate that you really appreciate them. And by them you of course mean their work. I interviewed Jeff Beck a few years back and I told him, straight out, that Blow By Blow was one of my favourite albums; a record I still play. Often. He seemed really thrilled. It was sincere. And I just felt I had to tell him that. But I didn’t go in that call planning it. It just happened because of where we got to in conversation.
I interviewed John Paul Jones. I think I had about an hour’s notice before I was on the call. He was nice. But it was about plugging Them Crooked Vultures. Of course he was happy enough to talk about Led Zeppelin. He was even quite into being asked about Diamanda Galas. But he had to trot out his lines about how Them Crooked Vultures was the best band he’d ever been in. I’m sure he did not for a second believe himself.
Often, the curse of living down here I guess, is that I don’t even get to hear the music before I speak to the person. I found that out with Meat Loaf and then he came back and apologised; all because I was able to tell him I had heard the album.
Then there was Serj Tankian.
He was a bizarre person to speak with – so sure that he was a genius, so confident that he was brilliant. I had asked his record company for the CD or DVD before I spoke to him. I wasn’t much interested in speaking to him unless I had that. They couldn’t supply me with either but asked that the interview go ahead. It did. Then, after, I was given the product to watch – what a giant load of rubbish; a steaming turd. Well, Warners rang me and told that I would never interview one of their artists again. I tried to point out that it was an interview for a blog – and that it received more comments than any other interview I had ever posted; meaning that the fans got to have their say. Many told me off. It clearly drew in some international readers through Google search or whatever else. So, this was all good, right?
No. Not at all. Not as far as the record company was concerned. They just wanted some lines about the tour, the album, the DVD – preferably with a few adjectives suggesting it to be among the best in the world – must see/must hear and of course must-buy!
And then there are the publicists arranging interviews…
Just email us if anything goes wrong. Call me instantly if there is any issue at all. I’ll send the music straight away; you’ll have it before the call – with enough time to listen. It’s an exclusive; the only interview.
All of these statements can be false. Some are lies. Recently an interview fell through and I rang the publicist to report it. “Well what do you want me to do about it?” she replied. I suggested she have a go at doing her job. I only called her because she told me to do so if anything went wrong.
And this all happens regularly.
You are also bumped at the last minute. The publicists are a bit like a Gollum-creature. Oh shiny! If Mike Hosking draws the biggest audience he gets the grab. No matter that he hasn’t got a fucking clue and will ask shit-smug questions…you’re bumped. Because you’re not as important. You understand the pecking order. But fans want to read and see and hear good copy. Not edited soundbites packaged up to sell advertising.
But you forget about it when you have a good interview. When it all goes right – or you know you are capturing something that no one else will get, or at least won’t get before you do. And that you are (hopefully) writing it up for an audience that cares. That’s the cool stuff. That’s the fun part. The excitement.
And that’s where I am, in a sense, lucky. Or fortunate. Or whatever you want to call it.
Chatting to Mark Knopfler was cool; he was a nice guy, very serious, but nice. And I enjoyed it because I’ve been a fan of his work for years. The Jeff Beck one was great for the same reason.
When I spoke with Lucinda Williams she was great fun; laughing off the very annoying questions she gets asked.
Many years ago I interviewed David Gray. He was a colossal grump. I ended up saying to him, “do you like interviews? Because it doesn’t seem like it.” That got him a) laughing and b) talking. And he started off by saying “not really, no. It’s usually not enjoyable at all”. This is the area that Klosterman taps in to in his discussion. Saying how unnatural it all is; the subject essentially forced to talk about themselves. The interviewer essentially forced to be interested, to draw them out…it’s not honest; it’s not real.
But you get those moments. You get David Gray admitting that he hates it. Or Lucinda Williams laughing at people asking her what Elvis Costello is like (“I dunno! Ask me about me. I’m right here! Ask Elvis about Elvis”). You get Tony Joe White talking about meeting Elvis Presley; about knowing he’d penned something special when he heard Brook Benton’s version of A Rainy Night In Georgia.
You get Fergie telling you she’s never had plastic surgery. Then you look at a picture on a DVD cover from 18 months earlier and everything about it is different. It is a different face. And you realise you’ve been lied to. Face to face. And she didn’t even blink. Didn’t bat an eyelid. And you realise that it’s because, due to surgery, she couldn’t.
Seriously though, you do get some amazing insights. And you get some baffled silences. Most often it’s hard work. Most often it’s a bit of a chore. But sometimes you get a person that is very generous with their time.
I wrote a really good piece about Anika Moa – it was the result of a two-hour phone conversation. Same with Jan Hellriegel. Other times, you have a person on a tour bus, speaking for 10 minutes, the phone cutting out as they pass under bridges and through tunnels.
Or you are given an email of replies – and told to make of it what you will.
I’m old-school with interviews. I only record them with my ears and by furiously scratching a pen on paper. I don’t want a machine to capture it and play it back to me. I want to remember the mood of the conversation as best I can, making notes for direct quotes; having a handful of questions to guide it.
I’m asked what my favourite interview has been. I always say that it’s impossible to name one. That every interview is different; takes on a tone of its own; some are not that exciting but you get what you need and they give what they have to. Some result in what I think is a good piece of writing but it seems to go nowhere. Some are disasters – but memorable for it (see Benoit, Chris).
There are a bunch of interviews I would have to name to even get close to picking a favourite. I’d have to mention interviewing Ian Gillan live on TV for the Good Morning show a few years ago. Sarah Bradley asked me to sit in on the interview and ask some questions. Gillan was a scholar and a gent. It was a real buzz.
And I have to mention a couple of wrestling interviews, just in case speaking to killer Benoit gives a bad impression.
I spoke with Ric Flair just before his retirement. That was a thrill. And I interviewed Bret Hart before he came out of a long forced retirement. That, too, was a thrill. He spoke to me for 90 minutes.
Under the old pen-name of Mark Reid I spoke to one of the other Deep Purple lead singers, Mr Whitesnake, David Coverdale. He was hilarious. A real laugh. That was nice.
Too many to mention…
The worst? Well, St. Vincent and Don McLean, maybe the only time they’ll ever be mentioned in the same sentence, eh?