Thursday, September 25, 2008

Interviewing musicians on live radio - the horror! The horror!

The live radio interview with a musician is normally, like much else in the media, a conspiracy of implicit, mutually agreed fakery. The musician has a product to promote (CD, DVD, download, gig that has sold fewer than seven tickets) and the interviewer has a show to promote. The presence of the musician serves to add 'furniture' (I prefer the word' decoration') and a tiny bit of glamour, should they be even slightly famous. On the other hand, finding and showcasing new musicians who may later become famous and glamorous is also part of promoting the show's image.
Straightforward? No. The musician will normally have done hundreds, possibly thousands of interviews where the same tedious questions keep getting asked. Even if they are comparitively obscure. Their job, if they are as professional as most US country artists (who respect the promotional process and the fans reached through it to an almost inconceivable degree) is to pretend that it's a pleasurable, fresh, interesting business, being asked (Josh Ritter) about their dad and mum the neurosurgeons or (Elvis Costello) which comes first, the lyrics or the music.
Some do act like pros,, and some behave like assholes. They do that for various reasons: jetlag, loneliness, boredom, cocaine, contempt for ill-researched questions or the bad haircut and beard of the interlocutor. Cocaine. Not enough/too much cocaine. Or sometimes because they can't (or don't want to) speak the language of the interviewer and the audience. Young or inexperienced bands are sometimes nervous, and they can try and disguise that with aggression, surliness or lots of giggling.

This is one reason for splitting a group up, asking beforehand for the two best speakers - or one - and INSISTING only they have a microphone. Shut the smartass drummer (or whoever) up! An interview with four people at the same time NEVER works, and that's one reason the Sigur Ros interview shown here is such a car crash. There's a group dynamic (fuelled by the band's common Icelandic language) and a subtext: there's been a problem beforehand, one member of the group is in a total, simmering fury, and his colleagues know that. Unfortunately, the DJ - well-researched, clearly a fan, knowledgeable and doing his bloody best - is outnumbered and indeed shut out of what any band is - an exclusive gang. And in the case of Sigur Ros, not just people whose first language isn't English, but highly self-conscious 'artists' as well. As soon as someone says 'we just make music; success is immaterial to us' you know they couldn't give shit about communicating with their audience. and always, the DJ IS the audience.
The interviewer, it must be said, is often at fault. Fandom, a desire to be loved or respected by the musician, is often fatal (the radio guru Dan O'Day was the first person I've heard articulate this). It leads to a feeling of intimidation and sometimes wandering, nervous questions. The interviewee ALWAYS picks up on this, either through verbal cues or body language (if the interview, as comparitively few are, is face to face; most are done using remote studios and ISDN connections).

For me, a first encounter with Steve Earle (the epitome of utterly pro country attitude, even though everything he says has already been said in EXACTLY those words) was nerve wracking and at first embarrassing, as I couldn't speak properly; and then there was the legendary Ivor Cutler interview, in which the horrible old bastard determined to sneak in some swear words and did his level best to intimidate the hell out of me. Succeeding, it should be said. Games players. To hell with them.

Musicians never, or hardly ever ask you out to dinner, or really want you backstage for drinks. If they do issue an invitation, you should never go. They are all, without exception, egomaniacs you can never praise enough (they have hundreds of people slavering over them, remember at gigs every night). They hate criticism of even the most constructive kind. They are always right. They are, like footballers, afforded a respect that has nothing to do with their intelligence. They continually pontificate on subjects they know nothing about. They think they can do your job better than you do. And if they are friendly, it's because their PR person suggested it, or because they want something. And it's never your physical charms or witty conversation: It's a session, an album of the week or just whimpering, lifelong devotion they seek and expect.

The thing is, for that period when you're on air, when you're presenting the show, doing the interviews, you're the host in YOUR house, and they're YOUR guests. OK, it's a pleasure, maybe even a privilege to have them there, but they should know the etiquette and behave with respect. They (or their people) should have researched the expectations and context of the show. They should also realise that always, always, ALWAYS, the DJ and the audience has the last word. That when he or she has been shown out, the show goes on and that the audience is for the SHOW, not the guest. The emails will start flying (what a dickhead that guy was) and the presenter may pass some dismissive comment or more likely, cease to play the artist's records as much, as enthusiastically, or at all. That affects sales. And they're selling. That's what they do.

So. Only EVER have people in you're actually keen to talk to. Don't waste your time on famous people you despise. Don't allow yourself or your producers to be sold some loser by a PR person in exchange for a promise of somebody famous and good the following week. Do (or read) the research, get (one or two of them) in, ask the questions, get them to play a couple of songs. Enter into that conspiracy of familiarity and ease with them. That's your job, and theirs. Psychologists call it 'deep acting.' Everyone else calls it pretending.

And sometimes, just sometimes, it will be a magical encounter of true minds. Or seem that way to the listener.

Oh, and never do phone interviews with people on tour buses or in taxis. Particularly not with Rufus Wainwright or Adam Duritz from Counting Crows. It probably helps not to call him Adam Durex. And if you want to interview Sigur Ros, speak Hopelandic.


Tonykaku said...

amusingly AWKWARD Sigur Ros interview.
cheers for your Teddy Thompson interview this
morning. i will and always will be pro-ukulele.
have you heard of Jake Shimabukuro? he is amazing!
i have seen him twice in concert.

Brian C said...

Hilarious stuff !

It is an unfortunate aspect of life that most musicians - though not all - are complete wankers .....,

Anonymous said...

Great post!

I host a music program on community radio here in northern California, and have conducted a few interviews with musicians. I'm slowly getting over my infatuation/intimidation stage... Any other tips you'd like to share would be welcome!