When you're pushed trembling into the presence of a major international superstar with nothing but a sweat-damp notebook and a dodgy Dictaphone for protection, here's all you need to know to emerge as your generation's Nick Kent.
Wine o’clock on a Tuesday in the NME office and you’re just packing up to head out for a cheeky pre-gig Nando’s when the phone rings. Now you’ve barely answered your office phone in about nine years since it’s always some pesky PR trying to convince you to come and see The Wankbadgers supporting Double Denim Dickwads at Dalston Poundland, but for some reason this time you answer.
“Hello?” Thinking: if this is about the frigging Wankbadgers again I’m declaring open season on their sticky-furred arses.
“Hi, it’s Charles.”
“Charles? I think you’ve got the wrong num…”
“Charles, from the Pixies.”
Shit. Charles Thompson III – aka Black Francis, singer with one of the bands that literally changed your life and your dream interview since teenagedom – is calling for your pre-arranged 6pm interview for a major feature. Which you mistakenly thought was happening tomorrow. And, unbeknownst to you, he’s being filmed at his end by a film crew for their ‘Quiet/LOUD’ documentary, meaning that when you do thankfully re-arrange for the following day, your appearance is marred by your profuse apologies for getting the interview date wrong.
Don’t be that guy. i.e. me. Don’t be me. Of course we’re all great mates now and often laugh about it over flagons of monkey blood, but interviewing musicians is an endeavour fraught with pitfalls and, with more and more online outlets being offered interview time with press-hungry bands, the chances are every person in Britain will be drafted in to interview The Amazons at least once in their life, like in the war. So budding rock hacks or reluctant Lester Bangses – here’s our top ten do’s and don’t’s on grabbing that hot James McCartney scoop.
Do… your research
“Oh my God, you once bit the head off a bat? Gross! Wait ‘til I tell my editor!” “You were once in Pink Floyd? Cool! Did you get on with the rest of the band?” There’s never been more information on any given musician out there, so go prepared. Read plenty of band history and previous interviews, listen to all the records, know who’s who in the band and their various temperaments – if the singer clams up when the rest of the band are in on the interview (hello Alex Turner), coax them out – study the lyrics for themes and personal clues and gen up on the well-known stories so you don’t end up ploughing through oft-repeated anecdotal ground. Check facts too – don’t just read in a press release that Talvin Singh is “a bone fide Eastender” and go in asking him when he turned to acting (guilty). It seems like page one, line one of music journalism, but you’d be surprised how many promising careers have been tanked by a pup reporter coming back from their first big interview with a WAV file full of the drummer because “he seemed to be the spokesman”.
Don’t… get a selfie
Unless you’re literally interviewing Paul McCartney, nothing says ‘I’m just a blogger!’ more than getting your picture taken with the musician you’re interviewing ‘for our socials’. You’re trying to build a professional relationship, not act like the next time they see you you’ll be besieging their tourbus.
Do… be on time
News flash – it’s not just hip-hop acts that run on hip-hop time. On the way up you’re unlikely to be granted a full day to hang with an artist, chances are you’ll be one of a dozen or so hacks getting shunted into a hotel room for fifteen minutes with someone already knackered from answering the same goddamn questions all week (see also ‘Don’t… ask the same questions as everyone else’). These schedules regularly get shifted around and can run late or early, so don’t be the person who’s keeping a rock star waiting and screwing up a PR’s precious allocated-to-the-split-second press day. Be the person making it all run smoothly, or even slotting into spots when some other tardy get hasn’t shown up on time. Goodwill goes a long way in this game…
Don’t… ask the same questions as everyone else
If you’ve only got twenty minutes or so, why bother asking a musician something you already know the answer to? If information is already available, don’t clarify it, move the story along. It’s inevitable that you’ll be asking new bands how they got together and established bands what they’ve been up to since the last record, but once you’ve done that grunt work, try to come up with angles that won’t necessarily be appearing in twenty other profiles that will emerge from the same press day. Trawl the lyrics for your own interpretations, challenge them on issues and aspects of their opinions that you haven’t read from them elsewhere, don’t just try to get them to repeat a great quote or rock’n’roll anecdote they’ve already told. Over the course of a press day a musician will develop a by rote answer to predictable questions so, to make your interview unique, know which of your questions are predictable and add a twist. Believe me, the artist will appreciate it as much as the reader.
Do… know your timings
If you’ve got twenty minutes of interview time, write down about twenty minutes’ worth of questions. This will often depend on the effusiveness of your subject – twenty minutes is about one question with Trent Reznor, but you’ll need several hundred questions to get the same amount of quote out of J Mascis. But in general one notebook page of written longhand questions will equate to about twenty minutes, so know exactly how long you’ve got, plan your interview accordingly and don’t blow all your time on small talk about the last tour and not have time to ask them about the sex cult. Talking of which…
Don’t… go in too hard
Like Luis Fonsi, musicians like to be eased in slowly. You’re trying to have a conversation rather than an interrogation, so small talk to customary and it’s best to save your more confrontational accusations until you’re deep in chat-battle. Don’t sit straight down and insist your subject roll up their sleeves to check for track-marks – save the touchy, cheeky or plain insolent questions for a bit later, unless you’re adept at getting good quote out of an empty chair.
Do… treat them like human beings
With Lou Reed sadly departed, you now only have to avoid interviewing Van Morrison and Ginger Baker to virtually guarantee that your subject will be a decent, engaged human being who doesn’t instantly see you as a bug they have to spit words at every three years or so. Ignore scare talk of enormous egos or rampant heroin problems and (respectfully) treat your muso as an equal. Give a bit of yourself, listen to their opinions and react honestly, make them laugh, get a bit of a bond going and before you know it you’ll be ghosting their autobiography.
Don’t… be too rigid
After forty minutes of pedestrian chat about the new album, Brexit and Love Island, your interviewee, with a straight face, says “actually, I wasn’t going to mention this today, but I’m announcing the launch of my campaign for President next month, standing on a pro-robot overlord ticket” just as the PR knocks on the door to give you your five minute warning. Stuff the fact that your brief demands you spend your last minutes getting their opinion on Harry Styles’ performance in Dunkirk, chase that rooster! Don’t be afraid to ditch pages of planned interrogation if your subject suddenly starts splurging revelations about their hidden addiction to granny porn or comes out to you as trans-species. Getting that stuff is your real job.
Do… take a spare recorder
Record your interview on two separate devices at once. The demons of file corruption are legion, and they are eager to see your on-tape confession that Michael Nesmith of The Monkees filmed the moon landings in Basingstoke (or something) go down the technological crapper.