10 things I learned from music interviews

I can celebrate this month because I did my 100th interview (I might have done more but officially, let’s just say it was the 100th) and figured that since I am working as a music journalist since roughly 6 years, I could share some of my infinite wisdom on the subject.

Before I start, I should say that I never worked for a big music magazine, label or radio station. However, I have written reviews, columns and informative pieces, I did interviews, have a network of labels and PR agencies, I worked on festival radios, live reports and talked with indie, rock, punk, metal, hip hop and pop-artists. So, while I might not know how it is to do an interview with the Rolling Stones (or for the Rolling Stone), I have learned a few tricks of the trade and know my way around the beautiful work of music journalism.

1. Research is everything (well, not everything but quite a bit)

There are people out there that can pretty much wing it, no matter what. I once saw a colleague winging it by asking about survival techniques in case of a sudden flood on a festival and my head nearly exploded because back then I couldn’t even move a muscle in front of a band without my little notebook telling me to.

But even now – fully moveable at all times during an interview – I still do my research. It’s a simple rule that most have probably already heard somewhere at school, university, even work: The better you are prepared, the more relaxed you are. And it’s true. But moreover, in case of a music interview, research helps you to avoid the questions that EVERYONE asks and get more technical, obscure or whatever else pops up.

Example: I recently did an interview with a duo and had read that one of them dreamed of opening up a sandwich shop. So, for my fluff-question (great as closers but more about that later), I asked him what kind of sandwich they would like to be the official band-sandwich. Success!

In another case, I read a side-remark of an artist about soundtrack-work and asked him about that and he happily talked about his plans to get more into soundtracks and how many musicians generally have to do more than just one job to make ends meet.

Research also (or rather – especially) helps with bands that have been through a ton of interviews with radio hosts, magazine interns and festival reporters that haven’t done their homework or had to ask the same questions to get that certain information in. Instead of asking the same stuff over and over again (and through your research you know which questions to avoid), you’re able to get to the interesting, less explored bits of the band’s work and don’t get their rehearsed answers that have already been printed in a dozen magazines. Because lack of research is exactly how the worst questions are born. If you have no clue who you are talking to, then you will ask the stupid questions.

Speaking of which.

2. Avoid the stupid/lame questions – but don’t be afraid to ask some of them if necessary

Sorry, that headline is an SEO-nightmare and also sounds paradox but bear with me because it isn’t. So, there is a difference between a stupid and a lame question and both can be good questions if the context is right which makes this thing even more difficult. So let’s work it out.

A stupid question shows that you didn’t do your work. “Who are you exactly?” (I am not even joking here, I was told by a few bands that they got asked this question) or “is there anything else to say?” are questions that show off that you as an interviewer don’t really know what to ask next or haven’t any questions left but are kind of afraid that it isn’t enough and therefore opted for the worst kind of Smalltalk. Even a question about the weather would be better than this.

This is the best example how stupid questions ruin everything. Modest Mouse got this from an interviewer who couldn’t be bothered to show up personally and who asked the band to tape their answers. Well, don’t fuck with Modest Mouse, right?

A lame question is sometimes necessary if you need certain information in your article. It always depends how much creative freedom you yourself have for the writing. If you can give the information in a previous paragraph, then you don’t have to ask about the origins of the band but when it’s about a newcomer band, it might be nice for the reader and therefore shouldn’t be dismissed immediately.

BUT a lame question should always be cut if you have a bunch of cooler questions. There is a questioning technique called “balcony question” (at least in German) that can be used for that occasion.

Oh Romeo – The Balcony Question

A Balcony Question gives background information before asking the actual question, therefore providing the reader and/or listener with crucial info so they can understand a question that refers to something they might not necessarily know. It can also include information to put a seemingly weird question into context, especially when you draw from something you’ve heard from another artist, have seen in a documentary or whatever else. It is usually quite long, so for live-interviews or if you don’t have too much time, this kind of question should be kept at a minimum.

Example Question: I recently saw a talk with actors who said that it sometimes is difficult to come into a play in the middle of the run and replace another actor because it always depends on the director whether they can be creative with their character or have to play it the exact way the previous actor did it. And I was wondering whether it was the same for a touring musician like you.

3. Feel the room

I used to hate Smalltalk when I came into an interview. I used to introduce myself, sit down and start with the first question. I would now say that this was maybe not a giant mistake but it certainly didn’t help me all too much because sometimes, mundane stupid Smalltalk can help with a few things that are pretty golden for an interview.

If you feel Jesus in the room, ask him politely to wait outside until you’re finished. Unless you don’t mind someone silently hovering over you while you’re having a conversation.

a.) you can get your technical equipment ready and calm your nerves a little

b.) you can very easily see in what mood the artist is. Someone who just wants to get through with the interview, won’t delve into big discussions about the weather, the tour so far or the city they are currently in and therefore probably appreciates very straight-forward questions with no unnecessary conversation in-between. However, someone who openly talks about their lunch and shows you pictures of their dogs will probably appreciate off-topic questions, jokes and a more conversational style.

Feeling the room also helps with a larger group because sometimes you think that the singer will be the best choice to talk to and then you realize that he/she is distracted and very curt with their answers. But if you are alert you might have noticed that the drummer is in a good mood and seems very interested. So ignore the stupid singer and just delegate your questions to the drummer.

! Feeling the room is also very very very important when it comes to avoiding certain questions. It doesn’t happen all too often but I once did an interview with someone who seconds before had received very horrible personal news and therefore was incredibly distraught. I chose my questions very carefully, trying to avoid everything that related songwriting with private life and also emphasized on questions of a lighter tone to distract the interviewee (who seemed to appreciate it). I also did not try to elongate the interview, so they could catch a breath afterwards (I would have canceled the interview but the interviewee didn’t want to).

4. Don’t be a pretentious asshole – even if the music is crap

I did quite a few interviews with bands and musicians I didn’t necessarily like. Not for my private blog and/or radio show but during my time as a radio host and online editor, I had a few musicians in front of me whose music would never ever come anywhere close to my playlists. I still listened to their albums, though (remember #1) and I especially didn’t let it show during the interview.

Be a shiny example of optimistic glee!

Maybe this is a personal thing and it might work in certain circumstances but I don’t like confrontational interviews. I think that you can ask critical questions without being an asshole or alienating the artist. Especially when the person in front of me is nice, polite and respectful, I like to return the favour and not open the interview with “so, how in the hell did your mediocre crap manage to get a record contract?” If I would want to do that, I would have to do an interview with the record label anyways because the bands most of the time have nothing to do with it.

Instead, I can try to ask questions that explore their realities. Casting show-bands for example have a distinctly different experience from “self-made” bands and therefore can talk about the whole process, the recording time between the show’s finale and release of the album (usually – very short and hasty), the fan reactions and their own opinion on casting shows. Bands on major labels might have a different experience with recording an album (more cooks?) or have special deals (I once talked to a pretty famous German band who produce their own albums and then hand over the final product to the label). Think about what makes this band/artist interesting instead of concentrating on all the things you don’t like about them.

You don’t have to call a band out on selling-out or being shite because quite honestly, as an interviewer, you are supposed to ask the questions, not state your own agenda.

5. Check your equipment

Oh, it happened once or twice. I am in the middle of a great interview, everyone is having a good time and suddenly I notice that I didn’t record anything because I failed to push the right button or because the battery was low.

Fortunately, it didn’t happen often but since then I always carry a second pair of batteries, keep a close eye on the display of my recorder and turn it on BEFORE I start with the important questions.

By the way, with the exception of one interview that I completely fucked up by not recording it (the band was nice enough to repeat it with slightly altered questions), during the few that I noticed the non-recording during the interview, I played Poker and slowly pretended to just adjust something while turning it on while the interviewee just continued their answer. The final product might be a little shorter than intended but at least you don’t disturb the vibe by openly showing that you are not capable of handling an on/off-button.

However, if you have to change batteries during the interview (it can happen, those battery-displays can be assholes and change from two to zero bars within 20 seconds), politely wait for the next intake of breath from the interviewee, explain what you have to do and bridge the gap with a little Smalltalk (or let them tweet or chat or whatever).

! Your surroundings should also be part of this. If you suddenly realize that you sit in an incredibly noisy room, try to find some other place. Most musicians with media-experience will do so themselves and mention it but if they don’t, don’t be shy to ask for a change of scenery because in the end no one gains anything from an interview that you can’t hear because someone decided to vacuum clean right next to you (fun anecdote: my interview with Derrick Green from Sepultura, which was done in the band’s Tourbus, was shortly interrupted by their tour-manager who wanted to vacuum clean while the band was supposedly outside to eat. That’s the most metal thing that ever happened to me, by the way).

6. Dramaturgy of questions

So, how do you start? After some small-talk and feeling the room and checking the equipment and turning off all vacuum cleaners, you somehow have to get into it. Is there a magic question to start it all off?

No. Not at all.

Every interview is different and every artist is different. I can only say from experience that I like to start with the new release, because those questions are – most of the time – the backbone and reason for the interview and if you get into them first, you don’t risk that the time is over and you have asked a lot of funny stuff but have not a single bit about the recording, the new album, etc.

The exception to this applies when the previous Smalltalk (maybe with the tour-manager or the artist themselves) has led to some cool information you might want to get into first before starting with your prepped questions. I sometimes start my Smalltalk with weird daily news and those can open up into great conversations about pretty much everything.

However, after my album-block, I am a pretty messy interviewer and try to go with the flow.

I used to be very adamant to put all my questions into a certain categorized order and just check them off. But at some point I realized that that really hurt the overall conversation because it forced me to disregard a lot of questions that spontaneously came up during the interview and it also forced me to look on that goddamn piece of paper all the time. Nowadays, I write down keywords/notes for all of my questions in case we end up somewhere with no apparent continuation but I have most of it in my head and therefore can adapt all questions to the overall interview and change them according to answers.

Sometimes I disregard questions that have been answered in one way or the other in previous answers or I just cut them because they don’t fit the general mood. If you happen to stumble upon a really interesting thought within the conversation, maybe a remark, a joke or some information you didn’t know about, pursue that rather than religiously stick to your questions. Especially in arts and entertainment, a more conversational interview can be a lot more informative for the readers/listeners than a list of questions that you follow like a checklist.

I myself also switch a lot back and forth. As much as I try to have a certain flow in every interview, sometimes a question I really wanted to ask pops in my mind and we’ll be back from talking about HBO-shows to the album process. In my experience, that hardly ever hurts the interview because that’s how a normal conversation with a friend works as well.

6. Don’t interrupt – unless it’s live

It should be a given that you let your interview-partner speak, after all, people want to know what they have to say and don’t care that much about you. But I have witnessed it over and over again, that interviewers have pretty much cut off the artist’s answers to ask the next question. That’s fucking rude and also detrimental to any good conversation.

Unless you want to talk about the King of the Planets.

First of all, you might miss some really cool bits that might have elevated the interview to another topic and revealed something new about the artist.

Secondly, the artist will notice – consciously or not – and adjust. The answers will be shorter with every interruption and at some point you will have lost every goodwill from the artist – and rightly so.

Thirdly, a long answer can reveal much more if you really listen. Sometimes it feels as if you have to, if you only have 15 minutes for the whole interview and the artist bloats up every answer but in the end it is not about how many questions you ask but about the quality of the answers and most of the time, a rambling answer can be filled with great tidbits, anecdotes and revelations. And if some of those things are boring, just edit them out. Badabingbadaboom, it’s no rocket science.

The exception to the rule

NOW, if you are conducting a live interview, it is not as easy. A lot of live radio interviews don’t have the luxury for running an hour. Usually, a guest is there for cute little pieces of 3-5 minutes, a few song-interludes and so on. Every 3-5-minute section has to be interesting and can’t be edited and you therefore have to cut off someone to get into the next segment.

Most bands know that and will make sure that they don’t ramble or pick the one band member to answer most questions who is entertaining and quick enough not to overstay his welcome. But if you have someone who gets into long monologues, just softly intervene in-between sentences and maybe tell them in the song-break that you don’t want to be rude but that you have pretty strict rules at the radio. Most “ramblers” usually just don’t know and will adjust after that and therefore won’t take it personally as long as you are nice and polite throughout.

7. Don’t be a stranger

I used to try to keep my personality completely out of every interview and be totally professional but soon realized that – after reading the room – it can be a real plus to add own anecdotes, ideas and thoughts into an interview as long as you know how and when it is good for the overall reading/listening experience.

Robots are not very good at interviews. They also have horrible hair-styles and Cosby-sweaters which are very off-putting.

However, too personal can hurt at times – remember: It’s about the artist and not you.

One of my biggest blunders for quite a while was giving my song-interpretations before I asked the artist about theirs. Some of them still gave wonderfully long answers but some of them would just say: “Yeah, that’s pretty much it”, which is crap for the listener who didn’t want me to peacock my way through the interview. So, I changed my opus moderandi and started to ask about the artist’s views and then – if appropriate – gave my interpretation if I thought that it would add to the conversation and maybe turn into a discussion about the song. And that’s the thing: If you think that what you have to say helps the conversation or if it can elevate the mood, then feel free to do so (if the time is there to be a little off-topic).

When it comes to jokes, anecdotes and especially those weird tidbits you just have in your mind from podcasts, articles or whatever you read lately, I learned that they can sometimes add to a conversation. It’s all about context and timing – if you don’t have much time, you better don’t talk about that super complex study you’ve recently read about. But if you have the time and the conversation goes into the weird-part-of-youtube-direction, why not talk about religious documentaries and bible-camps? If the result is either informative or entertaining (or – gasp – both), everyone is happy and if it isn’t, then just edit it. Bam. (The sub-title to this whole post is: Don’t like it? Edit it!)

8. Namedropping and Comparisons

a.) Ah, it’s a tricky one. As a reader I personally don’t enjoy interviews that reference roughly 300 other bands because to get the answers, I have to look up all artists that I don’t know. That’s not to say that a reference is not interesting, especially if a musician talks about influences, colleagues or friends. But as an interviewer, I don’t have to do it, even if my question refers to something a musician once said. I usually go with “I once did an interview where a musician said” or “a lot of bands complain about…” to avoid especially unnecessary name-dropping because unless the named artist is actually important for the question (a colleague of the musician, a friend, etc.), it shouldn’t be included if only to make it easier for the reader/listener to concentrate on the actual interview. I guess what I am trying to say here is this: Always ask yourself whether you just want to refer to a cool quote or boast with the kind of people you know about/interviewed?

Angelica says so, so it’s true because she is the queen of everything that is style and class and Wes Anderson.

b.) Comparisons are even worse. If you want to annoy most bands to death, just tell them about that one band they usually get compared to. It’s a knock-out. However, a comparison does have its place and time in an interview when it’s not just about “hey, you get compared to that one other band – what do you think about that?” If you instead compare it because maybe the recent album is a detour from their previous sound or a certain song has that certain David Bowie or Peter Gabriel-vibe, then it’s also super-duper okay to ask about that.

In the case of the comparison, it’s always about the context. My personal rule of thumb would be: Don’t simply compare to another band if you think they generally sound like that band (if you want to address a similar sound, you can go with the genre and thereby avoid pissing of your interview partners). If you want to compare to talk about stylistic changes in the music or individual song-choices, then go ahead.

9. Outro questions/fluff questions

This is – as many things in this entry – a more personal habit but it actually helps quite often to round up an interview, especially when the PR manager just signaled that you only have one question left or your interview partner brims with giddy energy.

Like this video: it has no relation to the whole article but isn’t it charming and lovely and absolutely joyful? Look at Elijah; he is the actor-equivalent to a double rainbow.

I do have a small selection of off-topic questions that I can ask pretty much every artist and that are usually more general and not very specific to the artist, genre, etc. Those questions are usually fun, can result in some surprisingly insightful and funny answers and also are a good outro for an interview because the answers are mostly short and concise. That’s a good thing if you only have one question left because one of the worst things would be to ask a super meaningful question (you should have asked that at the beginning of the interview anyways instead of letting it simmer) and then open up a super interesting topic without having the time to cover it. It’s like watching the first 20 minutes of “The Prestige” and then being forced out of the room.

Those questions are also pretty nifty for – maybe – ongoing series or a collection of answers in one article/entry. They are light-hearted, lift the mood and you go out with a nice impression. Basically, those questions are the dessert of every interview. Tasty.

Fluff questions are also quite nice in the middle of an interview, if you feel that the interview partner is in a really comedic mood or seems a little tired (believe me, a silly question is better than Red Bull). It helps to riff off a little and relax a bit before you get into the next batch of incredibly analytical and serious questions. Don’t be afraid of them, most interview partners enjoy them. Again, read the room and you usually know whether they would be appropriate or not.

10. Don’t be an ass in post-production

I once read an interview where the interviewer didn’t edit any answer. He literally left in all the half-finished sentences, all the “erms” and “ahs” and other things we do in colloquial speech if we try to think about the next thing to say. Most people who answer to questions they haven’t heard before or want to answer honestly and with thought talk like that and for an audio interview, you can usually leave most of it in because if you hear it, it sounds normal. But if you transcribe your interview, for goodness’ sake, edit those things. You’re not glossing over anything, it’s just a service for the reader because it is very unnerving and annoying to read something exactly as it was being said and it also makes the artist look unnecessarily dumb (without him/her actually being dumb, it just reads like that). Oh, by the way, that asshole interviewer very obviously edited his own questions, so there was really no excuse for that fuckery.

That’s the douchebag-level you’re navigating through when you do this, ok?

When I transcribe my interviews for my own blog/radio show, I try to edit as few things as possible but I do edit. I edit out sentences that go nowhere or change a few mix-ups of words/grammar. Sometimes, I cut repetitions or streams of thought that were interrupted and not picked up again. I do that for two reasons:

a.) It reads better. In the end, I want the reader to enjoy the interview and read it without stumbling over unfinished sentences, weird word-choices and odd grammar.

b.) My interview partners are mostly smart, witty, nice and charming people – like myself. And I know that if someone would transcribe exactly how and what I say during my radio show, I would explode into a thousand tiny, bloody pieces of embarrassment because in a situation when you don’t have time to prepare for a lecture or a monologue, speech can be a little messy but still convey a lot of smart, witty and charming insights. I wouldn’t want to do them a disservice, especially when it’s just little things that don’t change the context whatsoever.

11. Fin

Well, I hope that helped a little or was at least moderately entertaining. If you have your own tips or disagree with me and think that I am a big stupid turd, you can tell me so in the comments. However, I will only accept insults from 90s Nickelodeon-shows, so be creative if you disagree.

 

4 thoughts on “10 things I learned from music interviews

  1. I promise I won’t ask you to drop names, but do your interview partners have a wide range of competence? I would think that there’s a certain skill required to answer interestingly and honestly and some folks (me, probably) just wouldn’t be capable.

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    1. I doubt that you’re boring unless you have a ghostwriter for your blogs and I bet that we could get a cool interview going (now that’s a plan, ey?). I’d say that most musicians have something good to say or at least the ones I got in front of the mic. Plus. if the lyrics (for example) don’t give that much food for interesting questioning, there’s always the life as a musician and that’s usually pretty interesting. From those bands that have been around since the 90s or those that very quickly gained success through a clever use of social media…Also, I guess as a musician you are in some way or the other more comfortable in front of a mic than other people.
      I think, the job of the interviewer (me) is, to divert a boring interview into an interesting direction – even if it means an abundance of fluff questions. But yeah, sometimes it gets a little dull or repetitive but that’s very seldom the case. There’s always a good story somewhere, as cliched as that sounds.

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      1. I’m not boring, just overly humble.

        It does make sense that musical performers are likely to be communicators. That probably explains why some sports stars sound astonishingly dull/stupid, even when their actions prove otherwise. They’re physical performers not communicative performers.

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      2. Haha, well, there’s also a somewhat scientific reason: most music interviews happen before the show, most sport interviews after the game which is really mean because the adrenaline is high and the brain is still in fighting/physical mode instead of verbal. But yeah, an artist’s work is to reflect,most sport stars can do that but probably don’t do it all too often.

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