Interviewing My Musical Heroes – The Ups & Downs
There are many great things about writing for a music magazine. From getting to hear albums before their official release, to gaining entry to gigs on press passes and getting access to the photo pit, it’s all good. However, the one aspect that I both love and fear the most is the interview. Over the years, I have been lucky enough to chat with many of the musicians that I don’t hesitate to refer to as heroes. Be it over the Internet, by telephone or face-to-face, nothing is more exciting, rewarding, challenging and downright nerve-wracking. In this blog, I hope to explain this and put it into a little context as I go.
When I first started writing for Powerplay, it took me a few months to build up the courage and confidence to tackle an interview. However, I could avoid it no longer and eventually agreed to take the call. The band in question was France’s symphonic metallers, Fairyland. It was not until I started to prepare for the interview that I truly realised the work involved and the amount of things that I needed to think about.
First up, from a technical basis, I had to work out how to record the interview. I bought a digital Dictaphone and then devised a cunning method to record the chat – I would talk using the cordless phone and then use another handset, propping the Dictaphone up against the receiver. It wasn’t glamorous, but it seemed to work. I have since tweaked my method and now it’s a much smoother process.
There was always that heart-in-mouth moment as the interview ends when I’ll check the recording and hope that it is clear enough to hear. Long distance calls are the worst as you’re in the lap of the gods as to the quality of the line. I remember chatting with Joe Elliot of Def Leppard and the transatlantic line was so poor, I could barely hear his voice at the other end. It ended up being murderous to transcribe and the pressure was on as this was to be my first ever front cover feature.
I don’t mind the job of transcribing per se, as I get to listen to the conversation again. However, making sure I get all the important information down and written in an order that flows and maintains the reader’s interest, whilst sticking to a word count, can be really difficult. Who am I to determine which interesting nugget is included and which should be omitted?
Then there was the time that I was speaking with Machine Head’s Robb Flynn when the phone cut out entirely mid flow. I scrabbled about trying to re-establish connection and, when we reconvened the conversation, the flow was broken and the interview took a completely different path after that. I feared it would be a poor interview but, whilst transcribing, my fears were fortunately not realised. It still worked out ok, but these glitches I could have done without.
I have carried out upwards of fifty interviews over the years and I still get nervous. In fact, the inspiration for this blog came to me quite recently as I waited nervously for my slot with J.D. of The Sword. The above-mentioned occurrences are part of the reason, for my trepidation, but they’re not the whole story. Would there be a language barrier? Is the interviewee going to be in a good mood and receptive to my questions? Will my questions engage the musician? Which bits of the chat are off the record? Will I be able to ask the questions I want and will the answers be interesting?
On that last note, my interview with Zakk Wylde was a lot of fun, but really stressful at the same time because, with over half of my slot gone, I’d managed to ask just one question. I couldn’t get a word in edgeways. The results were really absorbing, but it can be frustrating if the chat is taken off-topic and I’m unable to steer it back on course.
And then, there’s the no show – those times where I’ll be sitting by the phone awaiting a call that never comes. Sods law says that this will happen close to deadline and then leave a frantic rush to rearrange. I wouldn’t want to embarrass the bands concerned but it has happened occasionally. What’s more embarrassing is when I’m not ready and I miss the call. This has happened only once, but I was late home from work on the evening I was due to speak with Richard West from Threshold. I was mortified when first I realised that I had missed the call by a matter of minutes and then discovered my Dictaphone was out of batteries. Fortunately, Richard was very nice about it and the interview eventually went well, but I was crushed.
The research is often more than half the battle – making sure that I have done my homework fully. I’m always worried if I interview a band less familiar to me because I fear I’ll miss an obvious line of questioning or not probe in the right areas. And then, when interviewing bands for the second or third time, how do I come up with a new and interesting angle? Sometimes that can be harder than anything else.
My pet hate is the email interview. I hate the question-and-answer format and I really dislike the fact that I have to submit my questions in advance. I cannot receive an answer and feed off it, meaning that the content often just ploughs the same old furrow. I have done a few of these, but I dislike them intensely and, wherever possible, at least speak to the interviewee over the phone.
Face-to-face is the best however. Not only can you hear the answers, but you can see them too. Facial expressions and body language comes into play and it can put a whole new spin on a given answer. I can begin to tell whether the artist is happy with a question, whether they are engaged in the topic and when I think I ought to dig further. Furthermore, from a fan boy perspective, you get to actually meet the person.
Not only that, but the locations can be very exciting too. One of my first face-to-facers was with Bjorn ‘Speed’ Strid of Soilwork on their tour bus. It was a surreal but extremely cool experience, later replicated with Swallow The Sun, Lacuna Coil, Haken and even Dimmu Borgir. Being able to chat with artists in their own personal domain is a real privilege, allowing me a brief insight into the musicians away from the stage. The dressing room, often in the bowels of a venue, offers a similar thrill, although this can offer its own negatives – as much as I love Katatonia, seeing drummer Daniel Liljekvist walk into the room is just his underwear was perhaps a sight that wasn’t top of my ‘must see’ list! Thank your lucky stars that my banner picture at the top of my blog has been cropped too!
Generally, it will be a hotel in central London somewhere, as with the likes of Zakk Wylde or Jon Schaffer of Iced Earth. However, occasionally, the location will be the recording studio or at the offices of a record label like Nuclear Blast in Germany. These tend to be on ‘pre-listening’ sessions and these are a lot of fun because, on top of the interview, you get to hear the album ahead of time, on equipment that does the music the full justice it deserves. The flip-side of this though, is that you need to be able to listen to an album, digest it and question the artist about it on a one-off listen that tends to fly by in a bit of a blur.
For all these ups and downs, nothing can prepare you for the very best bit of the whole interview process. It’s that moment as the interview is winding down and the interviewee takes the time to compliment you on the questions or your knowledge or even your enthusiasm. Getting praise from people, who you hold in such high regard gives me such a massive high and, let’s be honest, boosts my ego tremendously. It doesn’t happen every time, although I try to put in the work in every time to make it a possibility. On the occasions that this happens, I put the phone down or walk away from the interview on cloud nine, in a blur of elation and adrenaline as the enormity of what I have done floods over me. It is this feeling that makes me go through all the ups and downs month in, month out making it 100% worthwhile.
I am a lucky boy and I know it!