How to interview

Written for Collapse Board

I start to wonder if he’ll ever answer.
“Rome,” he says.
Good, good. That’s a start. OK, get him to elaborate.
“What did you like about it?”
“It was nice,” he says.
Did he really just say that? I wait for him to continue.
He doesn’t.
Well, that’s it. I mean, I’m out of questions. Panic.

A Clam, says ex-Kerrang! man Jason Arnopp in his book How to Interview Doctor Who, Ozzy Osbourne and Everyone Else, is “the interviewee who opens his mouth to say some words, then shuts it again after saying the minimum required of him“. A 16 year-old fanzine hack, I was faced with a bored, tired Richard Ashcroft who gave only one-word answers to this rookie unprofessional.

“Zere is no reality!”
We both look towards the door. A middle-aged, portly, dark-haired woman has burst into the hotel lounge and made such a declaration, and stands impatiently, waiting for a response. I think she’s Dutch or something. European. Strong accent.
“Pardon?” says Ashcroft.
“Zere is no reality!” she repeats.
Oh, good grief. I’ll just stay quiet and let the obviously more professional one of us explain to her that we’re in the middle of an interview and ask her politely to leave us alone.
I glance over to Ashcroft.
He gets up and walks over to her … and then begins to argue with her that there is a reality and she is obviously quite wrong.
“MY CAR!” she squeaks, pointing at the window. Seconds later, she waddles out at top speed to chase the tow truck down the road.

I suppose you could make it up, but why would you? I somehow convinced Ashcroft to pose for photos in the Mad Hatter’s Teacup Ride down by the seafront – wonderful snaps long since lost – and Nick McCabe gave me a signed 10″ of ‘Gravity Grave’. A great anecdote, fine photos and a great single – but the interview, let’s face it, sucked. 

The problem was that I just didn’t have the faintest idea of what I was doing. I’d never even heard of people doing journalism courses, let alone ever taken one, and at 16 years old I was just muddling along on pure guesswork. I still am. I just read every music rag I could get my hands on – especially Melody Maker, always Melody Maker – and created a sort of collage of imitation. I started my fanzine because Emma from Lush used to run one and that was my “steal underpants” step for rock stardom. I’d never read anyone else’s fanzine, so mine didn’t look like the others, even if I used a manual typewriter, cut-out-and-glued photos and the photocopy machine at the corner shop. A few issues in, I’d recruited a co-editor with a desktop publishing program and we had pull-out quotes and a (fairly innocuous) gossip column.

I’d still never actually been told how to do things, so a brief guide like Jason Arnopp’s would have been pretty helpful in my day. I’m hoping it still will be now – two decades on, finally feeling like I’m ready to get back on that horse – and my £6.27 (less than two pints, as he’s eager to note) buys me pearls of wisdom that even now could be pretty useful. If the name rings a bell, it’s because Arnopp has written for Kerrang!, Heat, The Word, Q, Bizarre, SFX, Mixmag and FHM. If the name rings a bell with me, it’s because we were covering the same gigs so often I almost certainly owe him a beer or two.

Chapter 1: Overview of an interviewer

Did I ever have what it takes in the first place? I’m interested in people, sure – insatiably curious to some, bloody nosy to others. My twisted teen logic was that if I could work out what made my favourite bands tick, I could pinpoint some magic formula of how to be a rock star. What was it that made them special? Did I have that in me too? I guess that’s not so crazy when you consider the sales figures for Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. These days, I mostly want to know what on earth possessed these people to write that album. Knowing that a song was written about a specific person or situation can really change how you hear it.

I’m not confident of being a good listener or particularly personable. At 16, I even took a course in drama to try to improve my social skills, though I hope it had a greater impact on my personality than it did on my acting. The most interesting thing about conversations, let alone interviews, is what is not being said and you can only guess that from their expression.

Chapter 2: Preparation

Arnopp lists the various methods to record your conversation, from his trusty Olympus device to using Skype. I didn’t get a tape recorder for at least a year after starting the ‘zine – did everything from memory with a few shorthand notes. (Like him, I just omitted vowels.) Even though the quality of the interviews shot up when I actually had a way of recording them, learning to do it from memory is a really useful skill, like when you get something completely unplanned and have to snap the pieces together later. The few interviews I’ve done over the past few years have been via email, which at least preserves the text if not the context. I’d love to do an interview via instant messenger, which would combine the permanence of text with the spontaneity of conversation, but nobody I’ve wanted to interview uses it. [Instant Messenger is bloody awful for doing interviews with. Don’t even ask – thrice burnt Ed*]

Research. Ha! Without a doubt, the most toe-curling interviews I’ve done have been embarrassingly under-researched. There was the time I offered recovering alcoholic Martin Atkins a crate of beer, which pales compared to my fist-chewingly awful Skinny Puppy interview. Yes, that was the one where the tape recorder packed up halfway through and where we were already off-kilter due to the Unexpected Hotness of Ogre.

Ah yes, Unexpected Hotness. This is the unspoken scourge of interviewers everywhere – where the person you are speaking to turns out to be so dazzlingly, distractingly beautiful that you wind up with the pitch-shifted squeak of a pubescent McEmployee. When we arrived at the conference room of the Cumberland Hotel in 1996, the very un-Shrek-like Nivek Ogre had opened the door, mouthed “five minutes” and closed it again, leaving us slack-jawed and starstruck in the hallway. Luckily, he then undermined it by describing in grotesque detail his bout of Hepatitis A, during the part where our tape recorder broke, but you tend to remember when Unexpected Hotness tells you that his “s*** turned white and [his] urine turned this really funny colour”.

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The questions. That ties into the research, and I’ve asked some bloody stupid things in my time. Even so, as a fanzine writer I employed some nifty ideas (often Claire’s) to get the conversation flowing, such as tying questions to the tail of a Wiggly Worms board game for Death In Vegas, or getting Brian Molko to play Snakes & Ladders (on which landing squares corresponded to questions). Whether you’re just going for a standard grill or setting up an elaborate game, I’d disagree with Arnopp here and insist that the interviewee makes an interview good or bad; your questions pretty much count for jack. Regardless of the quality of the questions, your interview will be OK if you’re dealing with a Professional:

“They shake your hand enthusiastically, maintain healthy eye contact, listen attentively to your question, then give you a perfectly–formed answer, full of enthusiasm and well–chosen words.”

There’s no level of inanity that the Professional can’t spin into gold, even if they’re sick or drunk or both. That said, the more you know about your interview subject, the better it’s likely to go – which is why the interviews I’ve done with my favourite acts have tended to be the best. It’s especially easy these days, now that you can simply google the past few interviews and ask them to elaborate on how they answered last time.

Chapter 3: arriving at the interview

Interviewing with an audience. I’d go as far as to say I very rarely interviewed a band alone – there’d always be people around, though I don’t recall a PR ever being present. Because I didn’t really think of questions in advance, it didn’t throw me if an extra band member (or someone from another band) was present. I figured out pretty quickly that the band knows what they’re going to say and the interviewer is almost passive in that equation – look at any celeb doing the talk show circuit and you’ll see how that works. The ultimate example was Ogre, who left us feeling like he’d given us a scoop until we read about eight near-identical interviews in other publications, irrespective of what had been asked. (Arnopp would call him The Runaway Train.) People sitting in have generally been polite (and quiet!) – though one broke into applause at the end, saying how much she enjoyed hearing the conversation. If they have piped up or distracted us in any way, I just wrote them into the interview:

Was there one single moment in your life when you thought, “I gotta be in a band?”
“When I was 14-”
[“To get women!” Julia shouts from the back of the bus.]
“Cut the s***! Yeah, there’s only one single motivation for any youngster to get involved in music and that is it, basically.”
[Death In Vegas, 1997]

Chapter 4: conducting the interview

I don’t have experience of the kind of interviews Arnopp describes. I was mainly a reviewer and only ever did a couple of interviews for print magazines, and they were with people I already knew. It was only when I found the old issues that I remembered they were interviews in the first place: I just recalled them as casual conversations. I never looked at the clock or had a list of questions with me. A few times I’d have a list of short phrases scribbled on a piece of paper as a memory prompt, which Arnopp specifically advises against. Most of the time, I’d take the advice Richard Gere gives in Final Analysis: just repeat the last two words the other person says to prompt them to elaborate.

The problem with my fanzine days is that the settings were too self-conscious and artificial. It shouldn’t feel like First Question; Answer; Next Question. It should feel like a conversation. Roll the tape and try to forget it’s there: by far the most intriguing quotes have been the result of unstructured chats. I mean, sure, there are certain things you want to know about – but aren’t there always when you talk with anyone? Starting at the beginning has generally been my most effective move: when did you first love music? If you know that, ask for more, and just keep going until you arrive at the future. Chronology provides its own structure.

The eight types of interviewee. There’s a typo in the word “politician”. It’s my one criticism of this book (aside from its brevity): it really could have done with a proof-reader. I’ve never had a problem with Politician interviewees – you know the type, polite and cautious – and it’s not that I’ve never encountered them. I just think that if it’s a fluff-piece on some band and not an actual politician at the centre of some international scandal, then let them be diplomatic. Mean-spirited scandal and gossip is the wrong kind of entertainment. Arnopp agrees:

“If you’re writing for a lighter, breezier publication which doesn’t thirst for the blood of anyone who refuses to answer precise questions, then you can afford to write off the odd query–avoidance tactic and ask the subject something they will want to discuss.”

Fandom versus Professionalism. I haven’t really worked out the whole “professional” thing yet, but my general gushiness has often resulted in better questions. I thought my chat with Filter had been fairly amateurish, but looking back at those old questions, they were at least specific. “You were only 21 when you joined Nine Inch Nails – didn’t that, like, totally freak you out?” resulted in an honest and intriguing response, because the immaturity is offset by the flattery that you do at least know something about the band. I’ve only ever lost it twice in interviews, though “losing it” amounted to stuttering a bit and saying “um” a lot. However bad you think it is, it really isn’t – and neither the tape recorder nor the reader can see you blush.

“During an interview, awkward pauses seem to last for ten times as long as they actually do.”

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Can an interviewee ever become your friend?

That’s exactly like asking whether a PR agent can ever become your friend. How do you even define friendship? “I pretty much define it in terms of whether you’ll be exchanging Christmas cards, or whether you’ll ever possess each other’s mobile numbers,” says Arnopp. That’s a lousy indicator – I stopped doing cards when I sent out an elaborately personalised card and got a blank corporate card in return. Back up a bit and think about all the people you actually care about, and you’ll arrive at a number around 150. Call it the Monkeysphere, call it Dunbar’s number, but it’s the approximate number that you can physically keep track of – anyone else is just a sea of faces. Within that circle of fond acquaintances, you have 30 to 50 people who are actual friends, and only three to five of those are close. The thing is, people aren’t in the same place at the same time – the person you think of as your “best friend” probably doesn’t think of you as their best friend, but if they’re Number Four to you and you’re Number Eight to them, you’re not going to notice the difference. It’s when you put someone in your top 50 and you’re not even in their top 150 that the problems arise.

Because of that limit, we’re naturally selective about who we prioritise, and the ambitious person prefers people who can help them in their career. That sounds awful and shallow, but is probably no worse than me surrounding myself with people who make me laugh. You can have each other’s numbers, even talk every day, but because each time someone gets added another person gets bumped, you might have huge numbers of acquaintances that – truth be told – you don’t actually give much of a s*** about. Even so, you’re more likely to make the musician’s top 150 than their manager’s. If you ever want to know who your friends are, stop writing for magazines: about 90 per cent of my social circle vanished instantly – yes, some bands, but mostly it was the other industry types were no longer interested. It wasn’t that they hated me so much as they’d never even paused to consider whether they liked me. I was x from x magazine, and if not that, I was nobody. I’ve stayed in touch with some interviewees for years afterwards, but there were a couple of instances where we fell out over something stupid like a row over politics, and that’s when you know it’s the real deal: you don’t make exceptions and just treat them as a regular person.

Alcohol. It’s staggeringly unprofessional to get drunk at any stage, but even though I took that to quite colourful extremes, I was far from alone in my intoxication. My artless fanzine descriptions of interview scenes often included mentions of other (pro) hacks in the room, all of them wobbly drunk. Even though I’ve now cut my intake from five times a week to more like five times a year, I still think WordPress should have buttons that should say “did you mean to end this mid-sentence?” and “we’ll save this for when you sober up”. Pro tip: when you do inadvertently offer a six-pack to the recovering alcoholic, don’t gulp it down in front of them.

Underhand tactics. Again, I disagree with Arnopp here that your loyalty is to your editor and your readers. Your loyalty is foremost to your conscience: magazines change editors almost yearly and readers have no idea who you are (unless you’re Arnopp or Everett True), but you still have to face yourself in the mirror. Do you really want to pull a Vanity Fair-style hatchet job? I don’t think anyone’s ever woken up thinking, “I really wish I’d done that terrible sh*tty thing to that person”. In my fanzine days, I’d print whatever was said or done without even thinking about it, but I wouldn’t dream of doing that now. For example, when reprinting an old interview in which the drunk vocalist had named-and-shamed the subject of his hate song, I cut that part out, and later spotted her on his Facebook friends list. I also used to run a small gaming forum, and would occasionally delete posts from obviously drunken members. The following morning, they’d thank me. It’s not about being artificially flattering so much as affording someone the same courtesy as you would if they’d emerged from the bathroom with their skirt tucked into their underpants.

Chapter 5: other kinds of interview

Sometimes things don’t go according to plan and the interview you’ve arranged with their press office just doesn’t happen. In those instances, my aforementioned lack of social skills prompted me to simply hang around with the band until someone told me to go away – which, as far as I recall, never actually happened. It might take hours or even days, but eventually someone would sit down for a chat, and those ad hoc tour diaries turned out to be some of the more interesting pieces. It’s that Almost Famous situation, just sticking around patiently in the hope that the band will take pity on you. The best interview I’ve ever read was one in which no actual interview took place at all.

I’ve treated phone interviews in much the same way I’d treat face-to-face set-ups, and describe everything that was going on – right down to the cat crawling over the telephone lines threatening to cut us off at any moment. Email interviews are trickier still, but if the person uses emotes you can write them up as expression – “she’s smiling again” replaces :) in the article. (Emoticons or text expressions are really important since so much of the context gets lost via email – a brief response can sound curt or angry when no such intention was there.) All of the interviews I’ve done in the past five years have been via email, but I’ve written them up as if they were face to face. Interviewing multiple subjects, I emailed over the same questions and then jumbled the order to make it look as though they were together in the room.

Out of the following big pile of desk toys, which would you fight over?
– Remote-controlled motorbike
Megan: All Erik’s.
Erik: I can think of all sorts of nefarious uses for this.
– Wobbly-headed doll of En Esch from KMFDM
Erik: While I think we’re both KMFDM fans, I fear that my Vault Boy bobble head might get jealous. I’ll take a pass.
Megan: I would appreciate one of these, yes.
[Game designers Megan Sawyer and Erik J Caponi, 2008]

The email thing ties into the PR-being-there thing: you get an extra layer of filtering. In that instance, I fired off the questions to the press department, who sent it onto the designers, who then returned the responses to the press department for approval before it was sent back to me. When I was interviewed about my video game mods, I had the opportunity to run my answers past a friend before sending them over: “Do I sound like a complete prat?”

Chapter 6: writing the interview

If there’s one pet hate of mine, it’s when an interview consists of just question-answer-question-answer – I rarely bother to read those. Sure, it looks odd if at least some of your interview isn’t presented Q&A style, but a straight list looks like you just published your transcript without bothering to write it up properly. What does your subject look like? What were they wearing? Were they in a good mood? Make me feel like I was in the room there with you. Most of your face-to-face conversation will be non-verbal, so I want to know about them staring at their feet or biting their nails.

“There’s no moral reason why you can’t switch the order of events in an interview, unless it really does somehow manage to distort the subject’s opinion on some contentious issue.”

That’s how I approached my record labels feature. The (identical) questions were emailed to each, and then I slotted the answers in whichever order made the most sense. If part of an answer given to a later question made the most sense in the context of an earlier question, I cut that sentence out and moved it back to where it seemed to belong. Rather than pull a Johann Hari, if the interviewee said it better elsewhere then I’d attribute the quote. You don’t need to be verbatim because people don’t read verbatim – they just take away a general sense of what was said. “He recently told Big Shiny Robot that this is his best album yet” works just as well as “this is my best album yet”.

The longest editing process I’ve been through was my JG Thirlwell interview. It was my first music interview in nine years and I was keen to get it right, so I spent the time between sending off the questions and getting the answers doing further research for the bits between the Q&A. He was mixing HIDE at the time, so there was a 10-week gap to fill, and I was house-sitting our old, empty house while my husband decorated the new one. Trapped alone with just cardboard boxes, an internet connection and vodka for entertainment, my first draft ran to 11,000 words – and that’s before Thirlwell sent his answers back. From my pages of quotes and information from maybe 70 different sources, I whittled away everything that was spurious, irrelevant or just plain unfair. I integrated Thirlwell’s replies, whittled it further in light of things he’d said, and then sent the resulting 8,500 words to a mutual friend for fact-checking: there was absolutely no point putting in all that time and effort just to get it wrong. He cleared up one or two points but was unsure about the rest, so I consulted someone else for a further three stages of rewrites. I found it immensely frustrating, because my neat, Hollywood fable was being undermined by the squishy mess of truth. People change so much over time that they can contradict themselves without being untruthful at any point, so you should never rely too much on 20- or 30 year-old sources for information – and especially not use that information to construct a story before your interview is done and expect it to resemble the outcome. (It’s like trying to draw a sketch of a job candidate from their CV, and then being surprised when they walk in looking totally different.) It finally clocked in at just under 6,000 words, and I’m pretty happy with it, but a lot of lessons were learnt that week.

Editor’s notes. The only specific feedback I have ever received from an editor – for good or ill – was an instruction to ditch the word “gorgeous”. I objected (I felt it was important to the piece) but did it anyway for that publication. Other than that, zippo, zilch and nada. If they keep printing my stuff, I presume they’re happy with it, and if they abruptly stop calling, they’re probably not.

Chapter 7: the joy of it all

There’s something utterly magical about meeting your pop star crush and finding them to be better than you even imagined them.

“When you’re sitting with the interviewee, chemistry is flowing brilliantly between you both and you really feel like you’re effortlessly getting the best out of them, it’s a seriously good feeling.”

Indeed. For me it’s always been about meeting the person rather than getting the scoop, but it is so very gratifying when they’re telling you the things you always wanted to know. Arnopp says it’s a rush, but for me it’s more like having my back scratched. Those points of curiosity are itches and the sensation is one of relief rather than exhilaration – especially when you’ve worshipped the person for years and they spend the whole interview with an ear-to-ear grin, babbling animatedly about all your other idols.

“After Gaye Bykers On Acid, one night we went to see Henry Rollins play in Highbury, when Paul Raven from Killing Joke came up to me and handed me £200. Cash. He said, ‘I really want you to be on the team. Get a plane and come to Chicago.’ So I spent it. A couple of days later, he called and said, ‘I was serious about you coming out here. Get the next flight out.’ I told him that I’d spent it, but a royalty cheque came through, so I ended up in Chicago. Martin Atkins was like ‘Yeah, yeah, come on over’, so suddenly I’m surrounded by people like Andrew Weiss from Rollins Band, En Esch from KMFDM and it’s like, great, I’m in a band with loads of complete nutters.”
[Ian “Mary” Hoxley from Apollo 440 talking about his Pigface days, 1998]

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To conclude

Arnopp links to his Formspring account, promising to answer any questions we have. After just 56 pages, I’m sure I’d have many, but he’s done a pretty good job of covering the bases in a very short time. A few examples of good and bad interviews would have been nice, but at least this had the advantage of being a fast, easy read. Perhaps at some point, I’ll prepare some well-thought-out technical questions to ask him on Formspring – but knowing me, I’ll just turn up unprepared and try to keep him talking.

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