It was as Mark E Smith’s teeth closed in around my throat, lying on the floor of Filthy McNasty’s pub where he’d just thrown me, that I began to think that music journalism wasn’t all going to be MDMA cocktails by the Sunset Marquis pool with a jovial Keith Richards. Heaven knows Smith had form – a friend would often recall the time he sat down to interview Smith only to have the Fall singer immediately try to stub his cigarette out on said writer’s eye – but I never conceived he’d have any sort of problem with little old well-meaning me.
Then he got a bit bored of discussing current affairs during a round-table chat – which I was chairing – involving Mark Morrison, Cerys Matthews and Jas Mann from Babylon Zoo in 1996 and decided to abruptly curtail the interview in much the same manner that a Kraken might call time on a ship full of Argonauts.
NME’s own Rhian Daly came up against the professional pitfall of the awkward interview during her chat with The Strokes for last week’s Big Read cover story. “I don’t know how people are at the NME these days,” said Julian Casablancas. “But I know that the trend is always a journalist will kiss your ass to your face and talk shit when they’re writing the article. So I’m going to assume it’s still the same.”
This is a classic example of the Grudge To Bear school of awkward interviews. When writing on behalf of a title with a long and illustrious history behind it, you arrive at some interview chambers carrying a lot of baggage you might not even be aware of. It’s what, at some point in the noughties, saw me curtly refused an interview with Toyah Wilcox at the press launch of her new music panel show because someone at the NME had presumably given her single a kicking in about 1982.
Not that uncomfortable or tense interviews are anything to be ashamed of. There’s a truism in music journalism that if your interviews are all cheery displays of black-slapping chumminess, then you’re not doing it right. At times your subject should be squirming, cornered, under pressure – if you’ve never had a PR complain to your editor that you pushed their act too hard to say something interesting, you’re in the wrong business.
Musicians want to sit there for half an hour or so and talk about what inspired the tunings on their latest album and how remarkably affordable tickets for their forthcoming tour are; readers (admit it) want to hear about what goes on in their cult, the time they bit the head off a horse onstage and who got arrested for sticking which confectionary item where in 1967. There’s an art to forging a swift bond with an artist in the hope they’ll open up about their innermost personal triumphs and tragedies, but if you’re only using it to help plug their new album you should probably consider retraining as Graham Norton.
I’ve certainly had my fair share of awkward interviews, and I’ve found they fall into four distinct categories. There are those Grudge To Bear interviews, which can encompass musicians whose work you’ve criticised in the past – such as when I cropped up to do a brief on-camera interview with Noel Gallagher about a forthcoming festival headline set to be told “you’ll fucking hate it” – or those with a notorious distrust or borderline hatred of the press.
In the latter cases it’s often the animosity you’re after; had I not been shouted out of Lou Reed’s last-ever press interview for asking one too many questions about David Bowie, I’d have been disappointed not to have had the full Lou experience.
Then there are the Don’t Ask About Scientology interviews. Here you’ll be given a hefty list of juicy subjects in advance which you are specifically banned from asking about on pain of instant interview termination, which by coincidence is exactly the same as the list of subjects your editor insists you ask about.
It’s usually compiled by an over-protective manager rather than the actual musician, and there might even be stuff on there you weren’t even aware was remotely relevant, like ‘Jeffrey Epstein’ or ‘hamsters’. You’ll often find that the manager or their PR will sit in on the interview to make sure you toe the line, but only serve to send tense and panicky eye signals to the band when they inevitably start talking quite happily about all that shit.
I can’t recall the specific topics that were ruled out-of-bounds for my interview with US nu-metal band Staind in the late ‘90s, but I’ll never forget the manager who sat between us with her head in her hands for 45 minutes while we painstakingly covered every one of them.
An offshoot of such heavily policed chats is what we’ll call the I’ve Definitely Given Up Drugs interview. These are the harrowing promotional rounds, usually conducted in order to help smooth through a visa application for a forthcoming US tour, in which a legendary narc fiend gives you their ‘I’m clean!’ exclusive while basically soiling themselves from drugs in front of your very eyes.
One of my strangest interviews ever involved listening to Mark Lanegan tell me all about how revitalised he felt having finally kicked heroin while he was lying in the darkened back room of a Screaming Trees tourbus, spitting regularly into a bin and looking like he’d crumble to dust if touched by sunlight. It turns out, according to his recent autobiography Sing Backwards and Weep – and to my surprise – he was being upfront.
Finally, and arguably worst of all, there are the Tired And Unemotional ones. Often neither band nor journalist can be blamed for these – you’re given a slot at 5.30pm on a Friday, the last of 783 interviews in what feels like a decade of solid press engagements for the band, you’d need to be Andrew Neil on crack to be asking them anything they haven’t been asked a dozen times already.
I brought my worst interview on myself. When myself and Simon Neil from Biffy Clyro turned up to conduct a ‘meet your heroes’ sort of interview with Brian Wilson, I pre-warned Simon to have plenty of questions at the ready to fire at him in hope of landing one Brian could speak on at any sort of length. That, combined with Brian clearly having no idea what we were there for, spelled disaster.
Brian first met Simon when the awestruck rocker revealed a tattoo of the Beach Boys line “God only knows what I’d be without you” across his chest. Brian then sat bewildered as myself and Simon harangued him from all angles with questions like some kind of rock hack bad cop/bad cop. Eventually he reached for me to pull him out of his chair so he could escape. A kind of pop god tug-of-war ensued – easily the most physical effort I’ve ever gone through so that someone could walk out.