How to interview
By Princess Stomper
I start to wonder if he’ll ever answer.
“Rome,” he says.
Good, good. That’s a start. OK, get him to elaborate.
“What did you like about it?”
“It was nice,” he says.
Did he really just say that? I wait for him to continue.
Well, that’s it. I mean, I’m out of questions. Panic.
A Clam, says ex-Kerrang! man Jason Arnopp in his book How to Interview Doctor Who, Ozzy Osbourne and Everyone Else, is “the interviewee who opens his mouth to say some words, then shuts it again after saying the minimum required of him“. A 16 year-old fanzine hack, I was faced with a bored, tired Richard Ashcroft who gave only one-word answers to this rookie unprofessional.
“Zere is no reality!”
We both look towards the door. A middle-aged, portly, dark-haired woman has burst into the hotel lounge and made such a declaration, and stands impatiently, waiting for a response. I think she’s Dutch or something. European. Strong accent.
“Pardon?” says Ashcroft.
“Zere is no reality!” she repeats.
Oh, good grief. I’ll just stay quiet and let the obviously more professional one of us explain to her that we’re in the middle of an interview and ask her politely to leave us alone.
I glance over to Ashcroft.
He gets up and walks over to her … and then begins to argue with her that there is a reality and she is obviously quite wrong.
“MY CAR!” she squeaks, pointing at the window. Seconds later, she waddles out at top speed to chase the tow truck down the road.
I suppose you could make it up, but why would you? I somehow convinced Ashcroft to pose for photos in the Mad Hatter’s Teacup Ride down by the seafront – wonderful snaps long since lost – and Nick McCabe gave me a signed 10″ of ‘Gravity Grave’. A great anecdote, fine photos and a great single – but the interview, let’s face it, sucked.
The problem was that I just didn’t have the faintest idea of what I was doing. I’d never even heard of people doing journalism courses, let alone ever taken one, and at 16 years old I was just muddling along on pure guesswork. I still am. I just read every music rag I could get my hands on – especially Melody Maker, always Melody Maker – and created a sort of collage of imitation. I started my fanzine because Emma from Lush used to run one and that was my “steal underpants” step for rock stardom. I’d never read anyone else’s fanzine, so mine didn’t look like the others, even if I used a manual typewriter, cut-out-and-glued photos and the photocopy machine at the corner shop. A few issues in, I’d recruited a co-editor with a desktop publishing program and we had pull-out quotes and a (fairly innocuous) gossip column.
I’d still never actually been told how to do things, so a brief guide like Jason Arnopp’s would have been pretty helpful in my day. I’m hoping it still will be now – two decades on, finally feeling like I’m ready to get back on that horse – and my £6.27 (less than two pints, as he’s eager to note) buys me pearls of wisdom that even now could be pretty useful. If the name rings a bell, it’s because Arnopp has written for Kerrang!, Heat, The Word, Q, Bizarre, SFX, Mixmag and FHM. If the name rings a bell with me, it’s because we were covering the same gigs so often I almost certainly owe him a beer or two.
Chapter 1: Overview of an interviewer
Did I ever have what it takes in the first place? I’m interested in people, sure – insatiably curious to some, bloody nosy to others. My twisted teen logic was that if I could work out what made my favourite bands tick, I could pinpoint some magic formula of how to be a rock star. What was it that made them special? Did I have that in me too? I guess that’s not so crazy when you consider the sales figures for Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. These days, I mostly want to know what on earth possessed these people to write that album. Knowing that a song was written about a specific person or situation can really change how you hear it.
I’m not confident of being a good listener or particularly personable. At 16, I even took a course in drama to try to improve my social skills, though I hope it had a greater impact on my personality than it did on my acting. The most interesting thing about conversations, let alone interviews, is what is not being said and you can only guess that from their expression.
Chapter 2: Preparation
Arnopp lists the various methods to record your conversation, from his trusty Olympus device to using Skype. I didn’t get a tape recorder for at least a year after starting the ‘zine – did everything from memory with a few shorthand notes. (Like him, I just omitted vowels.) Even though the quality of the interviews shot up when I actually had a way of recording them, learning to do it from memory is a really useful skill, like when you get something completely unplanned and have to snap the pieces together later. The few interviews I’ve done over the past few years have been via email, which at least preserves the text if not the context. I’d love to do an interview via instant messenger, which would combine the permanence of text with the spontaneity of conversation, but nobody I’ve wanted to interview uses it. [Instant Messenger is bloody awful for doing interviews with. Don’t even ask – thrice burnt Ed]
Research. Ha! Without a doubt, the most toe-curling interviews I’ve done have been embarrassingly under-researched. There was the time I offered recovering alcoholic Martin Atkins a crate of beer, which pales compared to my fist-chewingly awful Skinny Puppy interview. Yes, that was the one where the tape recorder packed up halfway through and where we were already off-kilter due to the Unexpected Hotness of Ogre.
Ah yes, Unexpected Hotness. This is the unspoken scourge of interviewers everywhere – where the person you are speaking to turns out to be so dazzlingly, distractingly beautiful that you wind up with the pitch-shifted squeak of a pubescent McEmployee. When we arrived at the conference room of the Cumberland Hotel in 1996, the very un-Shrek-like Nivek Ogre had opened the door, mouthed “five minutes” and closed it again, leaving us slack-jawed and starstruck in the hallway. Luckily, he then undermined it by describing in grotesque detail his bout of Hepatitis A, during the part where our tape recorder broke, but you tend to remember when Unexpected Hotness tells you that his “shit turned white and [his] urine turned this really funny colour”.