When interviews go bad
Why some musicians and pop stars should just say no when it comes to doing interviews
There’s been a bit of music journalism hubbub in the last few days on the back of Guardian writer Michael Hann’s encounter with Ginger Baker. The drummer was flogging a new documentary Beware of Mr Baker and Hann was conducting a public interview with him after a screening of the flick in London.
Now, there’s a protocol to something like this. The interviewer lobs some questions at the interviewee, usually friendly or soft ones to start. The interviewee talks indepth about something which may have something to do with the question he or she has just been asked. The interviewer asks another question. The interviewee starts talking again. There’s the occasional laugh from the audience when something slightly funny is said (or, if it’s a Q&A in Ireland, when someone swears). All sides involved know that the job here is to talk about the film and keep people entertained.
Obviously Baker did not get that particular memo. As Hann reports, it was an excruciating experience. Baker sounds as if he just doesn’t want to be there and, instead of actually saying in advance that he couldn’t be arsed and was going to spend the day picking his nose instead, treats the interviewer and the audience with considerable contempt. This isn’t rock’n'roll behaviour – this is a grown adult throwing a tantrum you wouldn’t accept from a sugar-addled toddler. By all accounts, Baker has form in this area but surely, if he doesn’t like interviews, he could simply not do them. The world wouldn’t mind too much. Honestly.
On the back of Hann’s experience, a lot of other journalists chimed in with the stories of the interviews from hell. There was also a rash of reports from music fans about rum run-ins with various musicians and pop acts. Naturally, there was a lot of negative accounts – pop stars, like everyone else, are prone to occasionaly off-days and treating people who are looking for their time and attention quite rudely. Then again, how many times have we ourselves also lashed out or grunted or whinged or fumed or moaned in similar circumstances?
But the formal interview situation is a lot different. When a musician or, indeed, anyone else agrees to do an interview, there’s a tacid agreement that they’ll actually talk, act politely and answer questions. That’s what an interview is supposed to be about, isn’t it? Questions and answers. If you don’t want to do an interview, then just don’t agree to do it in the first place.
I’ve lost count at this stage of the number of times you end up with a crap interview because the person on the other side of the tape-recorder just doesn’t want to be there. And every single time I wonder why on earth they agreed to do the interview in the first place. Sometimes, I ask them and get a moany reply about “the label wants us to do promo” or “they said I had to do it” or “silence”. It always makes me wonder why they didn’t excercise their perfectly valid right to say no. You can simply say to the label or the mysterious “they” that you don’t want to do promo, don’t want to answer questions about your new album, don’t want to talk about why your drummer left, have no interest in discussing your upcoming tour, don’t want to waste your time explaining your admiration for Chris Martin. Just say no, dude.
But they don’t say no. They know that they need to do interview to get space and attention and profile so that their blasted new album will get some attention or that people will come along to their next live show. So they go along and act childish and you end up with an interview which is just not fit for purpose.
I’ve had some stinkers in my time. I remember an interview with The Chemical Brothers in their record label’s offices in London when it was abundantly clear that they didn’t want to be there. I didn’t want to be there either because it was a bank holiday Monday back home and I had other things to do. I’ve done interviews with the band since and they were fine so it was obviously an off day. I remember a howler with Dave Longstreth from the Dirty Projectors who again seemed to have no interest in doing the interview. Longstreth is someone who is held up by many interviewers as a great interviewee so perhaps I caught him on a bad day. I’ve never interviewed Lou Reed so can’t comment on his rudeness but I can comment on how absolutely turgid and unlistenable most of his solo albums have been in recent years, which is a very valid reason not to bother him with my tape-recorder.
By contrast, some of the best interviews have been with people who are supposed to be pains in the hoop. Often the people who very rarely do interviews turn out to be the best because they’ve agreed to talk and have something they want to say. They’re the acts I’d always say yes to because I know I’ll come away with something worth transcribing and writing up. Memo to all bands: don’t be afraid to say no. But remember, if you say yes to make sure you have something to talk about – and not the production process behind your new album.