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 Princess Stomper

How to interview

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Tokyo monkey statue by Bantosh from Wikipedia

Can an interviewee ever become your friend?

That’s exactly like asking whether a PR agent can ever become your friend. How do you even define friendship? “I pretty much define it in terms of whether you’ll be exchanging Christmas cards, or whether you’ll ever possess each other’s mobile numbers,” says Arnopp. That’s a lousy indicator – I stopped doing cards when I sent out an elaborately personalised card and got a blank corporate card in return. Back up a bit and think about all the people you actually care about, and you’ll arrive at a number around 150. Call it the Monkeysphere, call it Dunbar’s number, but it’s the approximate number that you can physically keep track of – anyone else is just a sea of faces. Within that circle of fond acquaintances, you have 30 to 50 people who are actual friends, and only three to five of those are close. The thing is, people aren’t in the same place at the same time – the person you think of as your “best friend” probably doesn’t think of you as their best friend, but if they’re Number Four to you and you’re Number Eight to them, you’re not going to notice the difference. It’s when you put someone in your top 50 and you’re not even in their top 150 that the problems arise.

Because of that limit, we’re naturally selective about who we prioritise, and the ambitious person prefers people who can help them in their career. That sounds awful and shallow, but is probably no worse than me surrounding myself with people who make me laugh. You can have each other’s numbers, even talk every day, but because each time someone gets added another person gets bumped, you might have huge numbers of acquaintances that – truth be told – you don’t actually give much of a shit about. Even so, you’re more likely to make the musician’s top 150 than their manager’s. If you ever want to know who your friends are, stop writing for magazines: about 90 per cent of my social circle vanished instantly – yes, some bands, but mostly it was the other industry types were no longer interested. It wasn’t that they hated me so much as they’d never even paused to consider whether they liked me. I was x from x magazine, and if not that, I was nobody. I’ve stayed in touch with some interviewees for years afterwards, but there were a couple of instances where we fell out over something stupid like a row over politics, and that’s when you know it’s the real deal: you don’t make exceptions and just treat them as a regular person.

Alcohol. It’s staggeringly unprofessional to get drunk at any stage, but even though I took that to quite colourful extremes, I was far from alone in my intoxication. My artless fanzine descriptions of interview scenes often included mentions of other (pro) hacks in the room, all of them wobbly drunk. Even though I’ve now cut my intake from five times a week to more like five times a year, I still think WordPress should have buttons that should say “did you mean to end this mid-sentence?” and “we’ll save this for when you sober up”. Pro tip: when you do inadvertently offer a six-pack to the recovering alcoholic, don’t gulp it down in front of them.

Underhand tactics. Again, I disagree with Arnopp here that your loyalty is to your editor and your readers. Your loyalty is foremost to your conscience: magazines change editors almost yearly and readers have no idea who you are (unless you’re Arnopp or Everett True), but you still have to face yourself in the mirror. Do you really want to pull a Vanity Fair-style hatchet job? I don’t think anyone’s ever woken up thinking, “I really wish I’d done that terrible shitty thing to that person”. In my fanzine days, I’d print whatever was said or done without even thinking about it, but I wouldn’t dream of doing that now. For example, when reprinting an old interview in which the drunk vocalist had named-and-shamed the subject of his hate song, I cut that part out, and later spotted her on his Facebook friends list. I also used to run a small gaming forum, and would occasionally delete posts from obviously drunken members. The following morning, they’d thank me. It’s not about being artificially flattering so much as affording someone the same courtesy as you would if they’d emerged from the bathroom with their skirt tucked into their underpants.

Chapter 5: other kinds of interview

Sometimes things don’t go according to plan and the interview you’ve arranged with their press office just doesn’t happen. In those instances, my aforementioned lack of social skills prompted me to simply hang around with the band until someone told me to go away – which, as far as I recall, never actually happened. It might take hours or even days, but eventually someone would sit down for a chat, and those ad hoc tour diaries turned out to be some of the more interesting pieces. It’s that Almost Famous situation, just sticking around patiently in the hope that the band will take pity on you. The best interview I’ve ever read was one in which no actual interview took place at all.

I’ve treated phone interviews in much the same way I’d treat face-to-face set-ups, and describe everything that was going on – right down to the cat crawling over the telephone lines threatening to cut us off at any moment. Email interviews are trickier still, but if the person uses emotes you can write them up as expression – “she’s smiling again” replaces :) in the article. (Emoticons or text expressions are really important since so much of the context gets lost via email – a brief response can sound curt or angry when no such intention was there.) All of the interviews I’ve done in the past five years have been via email, but I’ve written them up as if they were face to face. Interviewing multiple subjects, I emailed over the same questions and then jumbled the order to make it look as though they were together in the room.

Out of the following big pile of desk toys, which would you fight over?
- Remote-controlled motorbike
Megan: All Erik’s.
Erik: I can think of all sorts of nefarious uses for this.
- Wobbly-headed doll of En Esch from KMFDM
Erik: While I think we’re both KMFDM fans, I fear that my Vault Boy bobble head might get jealous. I’ll take a pass.
Megan: I would appreciate one of these, yes.
[Game designers Megan Sawyer and Erik J Caponi, 2008]

The email thing ties into the PR-being-there thing: you get an extra layer of filtering. In that instance, I fired off the questions to the press department, who sent it onto the designers, who then returned the responses to the press department for approval before it was sent back to me. When I was interviewed about my video game mods, I had the opportunity to run my answers past a friend before sending them over: “Do I sound like a complete prat?”

(continues overleaf)

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11 Responses to How to interview

  1. DC July 29, 2012 at 5:48 pm

    Nice piece, Princess. Whereas we don’t do/publish written interviews, we’re a radio show afterall, recorded/broadcast interviews are pretty much the same in terms of approach & execution. I don’t for one minute think I’m any good at interviewing (let alone presenting the show), & often refer to the ones I conduct as ‘conversations’ in a vague attempt to counteract any shortcomings on my or the interviewees part. Taking this approach certainly has its advantages for broadcast interviews (well, for what we do anyway) but monumental errors (of judgement / execution) happen from time to time.

    Back in early 2008, prior to Ida Maria’s career getting off the ground/simultaneously stumbling in America, I sent a co-host to interview her before a gig in Cardiff. I’d built up a pretty solid musician/presenter e-mail relationship with her, having played her demos before she was known outside of the then limited acknowledgement of her in the Nordic & Scandanavian regions. So, wrongly as it turned out, I assumed sending someone in my place (as I was unable to get out of a prior engagement in time), who had declared himself a fan, would be a doddle.

    My co-host arrived at the venue utterly unprepared — having scribbled his questions/notes in the taxi on the way & not familiarising himself with the very simple recording device (at the start of the recording, which he had unknowingly switched on by accident rather than deliberately, were 5 minutes of him fumbling with the device & complaining he didn’t know how to use it. Eventually Ida grabbed it off him & set it up herself). He then chose the worst spot imaginable to conduct a recorded interview — in a glass fronted observation booth directly above the stage, where the techs & band were running through a very long & loud soundcheck. So, the majority of the eventual recording was unusable.

    The interview began with him telling her he was unprepared & then asking her if she would like him to strip naked in order to conduct the interview in an oblique reference to her song “I Like You So Much Better When You’re Naked”. This wrongfooted her immediately. He then continued on that wrong foot by covering topics that her publicist/Sony had expressly asked us stay away from i.e. her relationship with religion & her synesthesia. In relation to the latter, he spectacularly misworded a question concerning the role of female artists in a male dominated area, by asking/stating “surely to be a female front person in a band you must have soe form of mental issues?” At one point in the recording you can physically feel & cut the atmosphere/silence with a knife – in response to which, when I was listening to the playback the next day, he said “it’s okay, she wasn’t upset she just had her head in her hands at that point”.

    He did manage to get in some relevant questions &, amazingly, despite him crossing so many lines, she coped incredibly well & gave some superb answers to some mundane questions. However, when the interview came to an end (her tour manager stepped in & insisted), he forgot to turn the device off for 5 minutes during which he very, very embarrassingly tried to pick her up. What he’d failed to declare to me beforehand was that the real reason he’d agreed to conduct the interview was that he fancied he.

    Amazingly it doesn’t end there.

    The following day, while we were reviewing his tape & I was beyond stunned at what I was hearing, he received an email from her publicist at Sony. She went fucking bananas with him/the show. Not simply because of the content of the interview but because, utterly bizarrely, after he’d spoken to Ida he had emailed the publicist a 2 page rambling email. In it he explained (in minute & laborious detail) that the interview had been a mess because he was so under prepared (due to a problem with his washing machine that had kept him occupied all day, the fact he’d not eaten that day, not preparing any proper research or questions, something to do with hiring a taxi & his unfamiliarity with/Ida stepping in to sort the recording device); that my interview with VV Brown (Ida’s tour support) conducted later the same evening was (his words)far more assured & frankly a more professional & entertaining endeavour all round – so she should listen to that instead!? – AND THEN he asked for Ida’s personal email address & phone number as he wanted to continue the conversation he had with her about God as he had an intersst in the subject, AND THEN enquired about her relationship status!

    As I said, the publicist went nuclear: banned him/us from contacting Ida ever again & blacklisted us from all of Sony’s artists (a blacklist that was only lifted about 4months ago). I sacked him on the spot.

    He didn’t learn, however. Somehow, & I still don’t know or understand how, he managed to get on the guestlist for all of the remaining UK gigs & turned up with presents for Ida at every one. I only found out because I received emails & a call from VV Brown, who at this stage had been brought up to speed by Ida & her management, asking me why he was stalking them. When I got hold of him (while he was backstage at one of Ida’s gigs in Manchester), to demand he stop using the show’s name to gain access to gigs & to leave Ida alone immediately, he told me that he was considering going on the Australian leg of her tour as the tour manager had promised him (taking the piss, I’m sure) guestlist passes for every date. He never actually went, but that was only because he was eventually threatened with the police.

    Taught me a lesson to *never* send someone else to interview anyone ever again.

    I have another less interesting/crazy anecdote about an Andrew Bird interview I conducted but never aired, too, but I’ve taken up enough comment space.

  2. Princess Stomper July 29, 2012 at 5:56 pm

    @ DC, no, you have NOT taken up enough comment space! I think most readers will agree that your response was better than my post! :D

  3. DC July 29, 2012 at 6:02 pm

    @Princess It’s a story I will take to my grave given how insane it was. I did manage to forensically edit the interview, cutting out almost all of the more contentious content & reduce most of the sound check from the background – taking 14 hours in total – & eventually air it. However, never heard back from Ida ever again despite my grovelling apologies & promise to cut his nuts off & post them to her.

  4. DC July 29, 2012 at 6:18 pm

    The same guy very recently reviewed a St. Etienne gig in Cardiff, in which he bitterly complained about a moron who invaded the stage/interrupted the gig & had to be thrown out by the venue management. Turns out the moron was him but he never declared it. When the 3 or 4 publications who he’d syndicated the review to found out & removed/retracted it (& have since taken him off all their books as a reviewer) HE went bananas claiming censorship. He subsequently self-published it on his won blog & declared it BANNED by the aforementioned publications. He has been arguing about it ever since, stating it was a ‘joke’ & the publications needed to lighten up(!), despite the fact one of them has now had their relationship with the promoter & venue seriously damaged by the event as he’d attended as press under their name. Total tool.

  5. Everett True July 29, 2012 at 6:24 pm

    I’m happy for folk to write follow-up pieces to this…

  6. Princess Stomper July 29, 2012 at 6:42 pm

    @ DC – wow, sounds like a “character”. What’s your Andrew Bird anecdote, then?

  7. DC July 29, 2012 at 8:29 pm

    @Princess — as I say, far less interesting… couple of years ago AB was playing Thekla (on the surface a romantic idea of a venue – a small cargo ship moored on the floating mud dock in Bristol — in reality, the main venue is a steel drum i.e. abysmal sound) & I’d set the interview up w/his manager about 6months prior to it, so I was pretty prepped. The gig was dreadful/uninspired & uninspiring. Poor sound, a disinterested AB on stage, a muted crowd heavily peppered with 50-somethings dressed like they were off to a classical recital (it was seeing them I realised how coffee table middle class his output had become), a truncated set & ridiculously high prices for merch all added up to me feeling pretty deflated by the time I’d found his tour manager to pass on the message I was free to do the interview (forget phone signals in or around the venue). Half an hour later AB emerged from his state of the art tour bus, looking exhausted & with an ‘against my will’ expression. He led me on a long & painfully silent (him) attempt at finding anywhere in the venue’s ‘backstage’ area to do the interview, finally deciding he’d prefer to do it back on the tour bus.

    I went into the interview first & foremost as a longtime fan, so I knew his output backwards & was very keen to pick his brains. I’d originally met him at a gig (St. Bonaventures, Bristol) in ’04 when he was tour support for Clem Snide, long before his current p4k / bonnaroo / etc. untouchable Festival God status took hold. I knew the bassist from CS, so that gave me an ‘in’. He was shy & reserved back then, but approachable & pleasant. We had chatted about his music for a good half an hour, with him recommending which of his albums/EPs to buy, & in what order, based on his assumptions of what people in general might prefer i.e. ‘poppiest’ first, with ‘poppy’ meaning verse-chorus-verse, then working backwards to his original homespun/folksey/bluegrassy releases. We parted with a loose ‘if you’re ever in my neck of the woods let’s do a session/interview’ agreement.

    His tour bus was pretty impressive but stuffy & had a loud AC zumming intrusively in the background, so my thoughts, as I was setting up the 2 recording devices I had, were “I’m going to have to filter this crap out”. As I was setting up he asked me about the devices, but I detected a snotty tone (might have been mistaken, but it struck me at the time as such) as one of them was a minidisc recorder — even then a pretty redundant technology, but something I still use to this day as a back up & ambient recording device. Also, his tech crew started coming in & out of the bus very noisely, slamming the door, talking loudly & addressing AB as though I wasn’t even there.

    By the time I’d asked my first question I had started to feel nervous & under pressure to get it over & done with as soon as. The first question came out wrong as a result, so I had to do an immediate pick up & I could tell he wasn’t impressed. Then the real problems started. He’d been on the road for months & months, either in the bus we were in or in a succession of busses, criss-crossing the US, Europe & now the UK. He was visibly battle weary & clearly in no mood to get into a textural discourse of his music — something I was very interested in & something that, at that point, hadn’t really been touched upon in previous interviews. Or, at least, not in any I could find during my prep. His answers, when they weren’t making the assumption I was making an assumption (I wasn’t, I was trying to get him to bite) &, therefore, disagreeing with me/them, slowly disintergrated into one word responses or short mumbles into his chest (something that dogged most of the interview & something I was acutely aware of at the time, which, coupled with the AC, had me thinking this would be a bastard to edit) & it was obvious there was no enthusiasm whatsoever for the interview.

    My ‘technique’, such as it is, generally doesn’t involve the presence of notes or written questions for reference etc., moreso it’s detailed prep beforehand & an idea of where to start, where/what to aim for & how to end; I try to make interviews as conversational as possible with as few actual direct/obvious questions as necessary (albethey the same questions I ask every one, but put in different ways each time & tailored to the individual artist based on circumstance/environment etc.). Just let it flow & steer it toward/end at a natural point when it feels like it’s getting longer than required. 99% of the time that relaxes the interviewee & they tend to be less guarded, less default setting or formal in their responses. In AB’s case, this wasn’t going to work – he simply wasn’t playing ball & in the mood to ‘talk’. It certainly didn’t help that at one point a band member came in to discuss travel arrangements with him & derailed the interview for 10 minutes — so much so that we both forgot at what point we’d been interrupted so abandonned whatever it was I had asked & he was part way to answering.

    I switched to a bog standard Question/Answer approach that graduated quickly into me compensating for his paucity of response with longer & more detailed questions (at one point I actually answered one question as I put it to him). As that didn’t work either, I then switched to covering old ground & asking him a general/mundane question I knew he’d been very vocal on in previous interviews I’d read. It concerned his homelife/farm/recording facility in a water cooler &, as predicted, he suddenly came to life, but this more substantial answer gave me pretty much the same answer he’d given every other interview. Using it as a springboard I tried to get it back to something off the beaten track, but he clammed up again.

    The interview finally stuttered to a halt (after about the 5th interruption by tech crew/band members entering the bus for beer or whatever) & I left. The longest 45 minutes of my ‘career’, chipping away at a mountain to carve it into the size of a stone & then trying to make it bleed.

    There were probably a whole mess of things that affected his participation; he was never (openly, at least) disrespectful or curt. But as an interview subject that evening he was totally lifeless.

    It took me a month to go back & listen to it, & when I did it said one thing: strained. So I shitcanned it.

  8. Joseph Kyle July 29, 2012 at 11:03 pm

    I think that Monty Python taught me everything I needed to know about interviewing:

  9. Joseph Kyle July 29, 2012 at 11:19 pm

    as an interviewer, i’ve learned that you have to be quick on your feet with a disarming comment that will break the ice of a reticent interview subject. i did an interview with Travis Morrison of Dismemberment Plan shortly before a show. First question was a “how’s the tour going” opener, to get a general feel of how things were going. He was as disinterested as possible. “Well,” he said with obvious disdain, looking out of the tour van, “there’s always one night on tour that just makes me question why I make music.” “Well hey,” I said with enthusiasm, “Maybe tonight’s that night!” He just turned to me, looked for a second, realized I’d caught him on his pomposity and called him on his shit, and burst into laughter–and we had a great talk.

    Did an interview with Lou Barlow a couple years later, and while Jason and I bonded instantly because I was a redneck and looked the part–i had a huge-ass beard, ski cap, and unironic overalls–Lou was being Lou, more responsive to the friend of mine that was co-interviewing with me. He made some comment about music that I found to be snooty, and then I quoted him from his 1991 tour tape, which disarmed him immediately. I think he looked on me as a guy who didn’t know his music, while my friend knew them. Quoting that brought him out.

    So you gotta be quick on your feet….

  10. Brian John Mitchell July 30, 2012 at 4:50 pm

    I guess I’m 18 years into my interviewing career now & one of the things I’ve come to realize is you should ask people things they want to talk about, things that they’d still be interested in saying after having said it in a dozen interviews. Also I feel like it’s the job of an interviewer to make the subject interesting to the reader & the number one way for that to happen is to ask questions your interested in. Better an audience of one (you) be interested in the interview than an audience of zero.

  11. Princess Stomper July 31, 2012 at 6:00 pm

    Some interesting stuff here about another journalist forced to resign after making up/stealing quotes:

    http://www.poynter.org/latest-news/mediawire/183298/jonah-lehrer-accused-of-fabricating-bob-dylan-quotes-in-imagine/

    http://www.poynter.org/latest-news/everyday-ethics/177809/whats-wrong-with-jonah-lehrer-plagiarizing-himself/

    http://www.poynter.org/latest-news/mediawire/177888/under-the-microscope-lehrers-work-shows-bigger-problems-than-self-plagiarism/

    http://www.poynter.org/latest-news/regret-the-error/177959/corbett-i-think-we-should-all-stop-using-the-term-self-plagiarism/

    I just can’t imagine making up a quote. Taking out the “umms” and “ahhs”, sure, but actually deliberately making it up? It’s just never crossed my mind.

    As for self-plagiarism (or “onanism” as it’s hilariously described in one of the links), I think that’s a tricky one. All of us unintentionally repeat ourselves, because we have a particular idea about a particular subject so if we’re covering the same subject we’re likely to say the same thing. I also think it’s fair game to reuse anything from your own little-read personal blog because that would still be the first time you had given those words to anyone. It’s like if you draw a picture, pin it to the refrigerator and then give it to someone. What you can’t then do is take it back off them and give it to someone else without telling either side. That’s being – in the wise words of the Rugrats – a Taker Backer, and even a baby knows you can’t be a Taker Backer.

    I still can’t get over the swapped-about quotes thing, though. I mean, who writes up an interview and inserts a quote from a totally different source? You can’t say that they said that to you because they didn’t say it to you. You’re telling porkies! Stop it!

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