How to interview
The questions. That ties into the research, and I’ve asked some bloody stupid things in my time. Even so, as a fanzine writer I employed some nifty ideas (often Claire’s) to get the conversation flowing, such as tying questions to the tail of a Wiggly Worms board game for Death In Vegas, or getting Brian Molko to play Snakes & Ladders (on which landing squares corresponded to questions). Whether you’re just going for a standard grill or setting up an elaborate game, I’d disagree with Arnopp here and insist that the interviewee makes an interview good or bad; your questions pretty much count for jack. Regardless of the quality of the questions, your interview will be OK if you’re dealing with a Professional:
“They shake your hand enthusiastically, maintain healthy eye contact, listen attentively to your question, then give you a perfectly–formed answer, full of enthusiasm and well–chosen words.”
There’s no level of inanity that the Professional can’t spin into gold, even if they’re sick or drunk or both. That said, the more you know about your interview subject, the better it’s likely to go – which is why the interviews I’ve done with my favourite acts have tended to be the best. It’s especially easy these days, now that you can simply google the past few interviews and ask them to elaborate on how they answered last time.
Chapter 3: arriving at the interview
Interviewing with an audience. I’d go as far as to say I very rarely interviewed a band alone – there’d always be people around, though I don’t recall a PR ever being present. Because I didn’t really think of questions in advance, it didn’t throw me if an extra band member (or someone from another band) was present. I figured out pretty quickly that the band knows what they’re going to say and the interviewer is almost passive in that equation – look at any celeb doing the talk show circuit and you’ll see how that works. The ultimate example was Ogre, who left us feeling like he’d given us a scoop until we read about eight near-identical interviews in other publications, irrespective of what had been asked. (Arnopp would call him The Runaway Train.) People sitting in have generally been polite (and quiet!) – though one broke into applause at the end, saying how much she enjoyed hearing the conversation. If they have piped up or distracted us in any way, I just wrote them into the interview:
Was there one single moment in your life when you thought, “I gotta be in a band?”
“When I was 14-“
[“To get women!” Julia shouts from the back of the bus.]
“Cut the shit! Yeah, there’s only one single motivation for any youngster to get involved in music and that is it, basically.”
[Death In Vegas, 1997]
Chapter 4: conducting the interview
I don’t have experience of the kind of interviews Arnopp describes. I was mainly a reviewer and only ever did a couple of interviews for print magazines, and they were with people I already knew. It was only when I found the old issues that I remembered they were interviews in the first place: I just recalled them as casual conversations. I never looked at the clock or had a list of questions with me. A few times I’d have a list of short phrases scribbled on a piece of paper as a memory prompt, which Arnopp specifically advises against. Most of the time, I’d take the advice Richard Gere gives in Final Analysis: just repeat the last two words the other person says to prompt them to elaborate.
The problem with my fanzine days is that the settings were too self-conscious and artificial. It shouldn’t feel like First Question; Answer; Next Question. It should feel like a conversation. Roll the tape and try to forget it’s there: by far the most intriguing quotes have been the result of unstructured chats. I mean, sure, there are certain things you want to know about – but aren’t there always when you talk with anyone? Starting at the beginning has generally been my most effective move: when did you first love music? If you know that, ask for more, and just keep going until you arrive at the future. Chronology provides its own structure.
The eight types of interviewee. There’s a typo in the word “politician”. It’s my one criticism of this book (aside from its brevity): it really could have done with a proof-reader. I’ve never had a problem with Politician interviewees – you know the type, polite and cautious – and it’s not that I’ve never encountered them. I just think that if it’s a fluff-piece on some band and not an actual politician at the centre of some international scandal, then let them be diplomatic. Mean-spirited scandal and gossip is the wrong kind of entertainment. Arnopp agrees:
“If you’re writing for a lighter, breezier publication which doesn’t thirst for the blood of anyone who refuses to answer precise questions, then you can afford to write off the odd query–avoidance tactic and ask the subject something they will want to discuss.”
Fandom versus Professionalism. I haven’t really worked out the whole “professional” thing yet, but my general gushiness has often resulted in better questions. I thought my chat with Filter had been fairly amateurish, but looking back at those old questions, they were at least specific. “You were only 21 when you joined Nine Inch Nails – didn’t that, like, totally freak you out?” resulted in an honest and intriguing response, because the immaturity is offset by the flattery that you do at least know something about the band. I’ve only ever lost it twice in interviews, though “losing it” amounted to stuttering a bit and saying “um” a lot. However bad you think it is, it really isn’t – and neither the tape recorder nor the reader can see you blush.
“During an interview, awkward pauses seem to last for ten times as long as they actually do.”