On Interviewing


The only two things I'll ever identify as good at are playing basketball and interviewing musicians (since moving to Denver my ping pong skills have atrophied beyond recognition), and people know better than to get me started on the former. I started doing the latter because the god Mitch Oliver told me that I could get into music festivals for free if I identified myself as a WTJU staffer, but I felt a little guilty about doing nothing with my ill-gotten press passes. I started doing festival interviews with any- and everyone that would have me, my tendencies towards the obscure paying off for once as a startling number of my musical heroes felt, to some extent by self-preservatory obligation, that they could not pass up an interview with a large college's student radio station.

If you had asked me at the time, I'd have said that I turned to interviews because I had otherwise given up on understanding how the minds of creative people worked; this is still the case, but I'm a little bit less convinced that there is, ultimately, any answer to be found. This - the idea that I could expose myself to another way of thinking by osmosis or something - was pretty dumb, but yielded one happy by-product: I spent most of my time focusing on how to capture an uninterrupted streams of thought from the artist, rather than a series of distinct questions and answers. I was a little bit unsatisfied with the status quo: publications tend to view reviews, interviews, and essays (and. broadly, "content") as interchangeable, i.e. as a single narrative defined not by its form but by whether it fell before, during, or after the release of a particular album. Interview opportunities often appear at the end of a press release, and the expectation is that the content of the interview itself will mirror whatever talking points are being announced, rather than anything about the artist herself. If the albums themselves could be interviewed, they would be.

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Every time one of those Vulture interviews goes viral because someone said something inflammatory, there's a lot of talk about the astonishing amount of preparation that David Marchese puts into them. I have/had a bad habit of saying that you shouldn't ever prepare for an interview, and after a few of y'all that have done interviews said "that's bullshit" I've reconsidered a bit. If someone put me in a room with Quincy Jones (editors: do it), I'd prepare like hell. I'd find out who Quincy Jones is. I'd probably read that Vulture interview. I'd at least make an offhand inquiry about whether I could interview Rashida Jones instead. I'd probably have to read some kind of book.

I, alas, will never interview Quincy Jones. The reason that you're reading this, and every other Hip Replacement, in your inbox is that it's what I'm interested in writing about and there's nowhere else to publish it. I spent some six months thinking that I could make a career leap into freelance music journalism - that hallowed profession - before realizing that no element of my writing is compatible with paid music media. Somewhere between objective reality and coping mechanism for my own shortcomings, I've settled on the idea that I'll only ever be able to enjoy writing, interviewing, whatever when it's done on my own terms. This means that I'll never be put in a room with Kate Bush (editors: DO IT), but also that I'll never have to talk to somebody that I don't give a shit about so that I can eat well the next day. It means that I'll rarely have to prepare for an interview because I'll already have a hundred questions for anyone I reach out to (the ego is always nourished by being able to say that you and someone who's famous to someone had a conversation while doing this or that, but I'm getting better about not signing up for interviews just to meet somebody).

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On to the actual interviews themselves: I have disappointingly little in the way of instructional advice here. The interviews that I've most enjoyed conducting or re-reading (never transcribing) have seemed pre-destined to be so; the artist was well-caffeinated or feeling charitable, or, more likely, I simply had a genuine curiosity about all corners of their mind and work. Nearly every time, people have thanked me for asking atypical questions, which seems to mean either not mentioning whatever album they've just released or allowing them to talk about their really big-picture ideas, musical or otherwise - i.e. what their art is alleged to be communicating, rather than its technical specifications. A really common frustration that I've encountered is that every avenue of expression available to an artist hoping to be paid for her work - albums, interviews, tweets - is subject to revision or editorialization by PR firms, publishers concerned with their audience's attention spans, etc., and I like to think that insisting on zero interference between the artist's mouth and the reader's ears makes both parties happier. Put another way, absolutely anything an artist has to say is inherently interesting; some loser's (i.e. my or any other interviewer's) idea of which points are salient is not.

I don't really think there's a secret beyond that. If you can go into a conversation remembering that not a single person has ever read an interview wondering what the interviewer had to say, that your sole objective is to keep this person talking for as long as possible, the results with trend towards great and bottom out at "well, that person wasn't interested in speaking to me or anyone." If you roll in with a bunch of questions that you, the readers, and the artist already know the answers to, I'm not sure what you hope to accomplish.