Marc Maron Q&A: The Comedian On How To Get Great Interviews Out Of The Biggest Musicians In The World

Like many American comedians doing the alternative circuit during the 1980s and 1990s, Marc Maron succumbed to a lifestyle synonymous with that world. Whilst still undeniably successful, with multiple segments on late night talk shows, radio and his own TV specials, a long and heavy stint with cocaine and alcohol got the better of him. He even blames messing up an audition to become part of the Saturday Night Live cast because he attended the meeting high.

In 2009 Maron started WTF, a podcast from the garage of his home in Los Angeles. Starting simply as a platform to speak to fellow comedians and chat to old friends, the show has ballooned to become a huge success, running to over 500 episodes and between 5 and 6 million downloads a month, with Maron now being a major go-to talk show personality in the U.S.

As the show expanded, topping the Podcast charts in the US and Canada, so did his guests and he began to attract a healthy number of band members and musicians. Maron’s laid-back and conversational approach has succeeded in extracting lengthy, in-depth and often revelatory encounters from many who are normally reticent. He has spoken with the likes of: Jack White, Iggy Pop, Thom Yorke, St Vincent, Nick Cave, Josh Homme, John Cale, Carrie Brownstein, J Mascis, Henry Rollins, Rivers Cuomo, Ty Segall, Bob Mould, Stephen Malkmus and many more. Whilst in the middle of filming the third season of his new TV show, Maron, NME caught up with him to talk about his experiences in interviewing musicians.

NME: What music did you grow up with?

Marc Maron: From very early on I became obsessed with Chuck Berry’s ‘Roll Over Beethoven’; Buddy Holly, the American Graffiti Soundtrack. A guy turned me onto all kinds of wild music like Brian Eno, The Residents, John Hassall; another guy to Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin – I got it from all sides.

WTF started off with mainly comedians and old friends, when did you decide to speak with musicians and how did you decide whom to select?

I loved music and began to think ‘why don’t I hear more music interviews?’. The first person to come on the show was Henry Rollins. I went to him because I’d worked with him previously and I knew he was a guy who could talk, he wouldn’t leave me stuck in the lurch and it was great because he likes to talk about music and he gave me a bunch of great music when I toured with him. He has mixes of Stooges records that only he owns, it’s crazy.

Jack White was quite early on too?

He’s this mysterious, interesting guy with a lot of things going on. He’s reinventing Nashville and building this strange little empire of aesthetic sensibility, both musically and visually. I wanted to get into the world he was building. I knew I’d start off with some blues talk as I’m a big blues fan. Starting off that way is a big ice-breaker when talking to musicians and learning that they’re a different thing, musicians don’t have to talk and a lot of them are their mystique publically and you’re either going to get around that or you’re not.

Was there anyone you really dreaded speaking to? When you introduce your Nick Cave interview you give off the impression that it went badly but I thought it came out pretty well.

The ones I thought I’d have a hard time with actually went pretty smoothly, like Thom Yorke, I had gotten it into my head that he would be very challenging. It’s about how you approach them, if you’re not too nervous or you’re not too loaded up with questions either that they’ve heard before or you’re trying to out-do them somehow. With Thom Yorke we started talking about politics straight away and because I had some background in that and similar sensibilities I think that really opened the door to a very easy conversation.

With Nick Cave – and this is my fault – I don’t really have a back-up plan if starting a conversation doesn’t work, I don’t have a bunch of go-to questions. I don’t know why I don’t do that but I don’t. So when Nick Cave was prickly it was because he wasn’t really there to be part of a conversation, he was there to be asked questions, or because he was told to be there. From what I understand I got a pretty good interview from the guy but it started a little awkward because of the misunderstanding about the word cowboy.

Chrissie Hynde was the same way, that was not easy, I dreaded that one. I’m terrified of her. John Cale was tricky, he’s sort of over some shit, he’s more than willing to talk about the Velvet Underground and I was surprised when he was talking about producing Patti Smith and the Stooges. What happened with him though is that I didn’t get the copy of his new record, it was a strangely decisive moment because he indulged me, he spoke about the Velvet Underground for an hour but he then said “Are we going to talk about the new record?” and it was one of those moments where I didn’t know what to do and I just said, “I didn’t get it” and he shot me this look like “What the fuck am I doing here?”.

Stephen Malkmus, he was another guy that I was nervous about. I didn’t know if he was a dick or not, he seems like a dick but you talk to him and you realise that’s just the way he talks. I was nervous about that one but that turned out to be pretty amazing.

You succeed in getting a lot of personal information from people on sensitive issues like depression, addiction, abuse etc. Like Asking J Mascis of Dinosaur Jr straight up if he was depressed.

I have a pretty good gauge for that. With J, I mean you’re going to get there, after you talk to him for like half an hour you realise there is no way he’s not a depressive. You don’t make sounds like that without having some kind of darkness. Same with Lou [Barlow] too, I mean Lou is even nuttier. I mean I have to come from a certain place, I knew Jack White was only going to get so personal and that he’s a very calculating person, I knew that Nick Cave is fundamentally a proper Australian, he’s not necessarily – even though he’s a howling maniac – going to talk too personally. I think some people can be more revealing in just talking about their habits. The fact that he [Cave] wanted to so aggressively be seen as a writer was bizarre to me but people like Thom Yorke, I think you get a good sense of where he comes from when he talks about art school. Then you have someone like Father John Misty and I was just going to let him spin around, I knew 10 minutes into that thing that this guy really sees himself as some sort of erudite philosophical wizard and I was just going to let him do that. Then you get people like Billy Bragg and he’s very heartfelt and earnest – how about that fucking Wayne Kramer [MC5] interview? Dude that interview was massive, that was crazy!

Any interviews that have led to great musical discoveries?

Lots. St Vincent, that to me was a difficult interview because I get it but I didn’t know a lot about her and she’s, sort of like, kind of amazing. She’s pretty cagey and put together but because of her I’ve started going back to my Talking Heads records, I’ve been listening to all these albums again and it’s like ‘These were fucking astounding’. You forget. So just because of her I got back to the Talking Heads thing, the Eno thing and then I start going back – because I didn’t know that Eno was on the first two Roxy Music records – to those Roxy Music records.

Any new interviews on the way?

It’s weird dude, I went and tracked down David Berman [Silver Jews]. He started reaching out to me to interview him. So I went down to Nashville and he wanted to meet me for dinner after my stand-up show with his wife. He doesn’t want to do a podcast but he wants to tell me his whole fucking life story and it was crazy…crazy. His father is a monster. It was insane, I wish I could have recorded that. It was really heart breaking. I got an interview going out with that Bright Eyes kid [Conor Oberst] too. He’s alright.

I get pitched a lot of people but I need to like them or want to learn about them. Beck’s name has been kicked about lately, he would be an interesting guy. Paul McCartney has been talked about to me but he’s one of those guys that it’s like: ‘What am I going to do with that guy? What stone is unturned?’

If you could interview any one dead musician, who would that be? And what would you ask them about?

The story of Elvis Presley would really be something to reckon with. If he would be candid enough to talk about – because there’s so much speculation – his stardom, his relationship with his mother, where he comes from and where he ended up. That’s pretty fascinating, so to get that candid information from him would be interesting. There is so much magic around whatever the fuck happened with that guy. Although there’s also part of me that wants to talk to Jimi Hendrix, and Brian Jones.

Listen to all the interviews mentioned in this Q&A at Marc Maron’s website