How to Interview Musicians

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    Interviewing James Gurley, 1978.

    The best description I’ve heard of what it takes to be an excellent interviewer of musicians came from Ry Cooder. We’d been talking about his performing with celebrated players from around the world. “What’s the attitude you approach them with?” I asked. “Like you go to a master when you want to learn or be in their presence,” Cooder responded. “The thing is to empty yourself. If you’re truly committed in a real way, you come across as a receptacle of some kind, a vessel to be filled up. You’re not saying, ‘Look at what I got. Let’s see what you got’ – God forbid! You come and just say, ‘Imprint me with something.’ And if you love the thing, are with and for your practice and your ears are open, then the person knows that immediately, because musicians like that have seen everything and they know who’s what. There’s no faking at that level. You can always tell in a microsecond who’s got the vibe and who doesn’t. I always have found that people are quite happy to meet you in that spirit. And it’s a great process that goes on.” In my experience, this same quality holds true for interviewing performers. If you’re genuinely interested in learning and you come across as selfless, most people open their hearts to you.

    The way I developed this skill no longer exists – hitchhiking. Back in the 1960s, the fifteen-mile, three-bus commute from our house to my Jesuit high school took an hour and a half each way, most of it spent crawling along Detroit’s West Side on the Wyoming Through. So I ignored my parents’ dire warnings, stuck out my thumb on the side of Seven Mile, and hitched rides home. Besides meeting people I’d never otherwise encounter, I discovered another bonus: By the end of the week, the 80¢ I’d saved each day was enough to buy a new record album. There was, however, an implicit danger in getting into a stranger’s car. Sometimes people did have shady intentions. I quickly learned that projecting a guileless attitude and initiating conversation created a calming effect. It even worked with the greasers who tailgated at 75 mph on the Southfield Freeway. Once they got into speaking about themselves, many drivers would go out of their way to bring me closer to home.

    I hitchhiked all through college. My last and longest journey, in the summer of 1974, took me from Detroit to Yellowstone, south to Las Vegas and Mexico, and back through Albuquerque and St. Louis. By then I had selfless conversation down to an art. I learned of hearts broken, crimes committed, dreams lost and found. On some lonely stretches I became a father confessor. Every day, without fail, people offered me meals, a Coors, a toke or two. I very seldom was asked anything about myself other than where I was heading. Most people, even after hours of intimate conversation, never even knew my name. I didn’t know it at the time, but this was perfect preparation for interviewing musicians. I still instinctively slip into this mode around cabbies and shuttle drivers.

    Another perfect preparation: Learn to play an instrument. Jam with others, maybe even join a band. Most performers would rather talk about their art than their personal lives, and if you play an instrument, you can relate on more levels. I could not have scored my first major interview, with Eddie Van Halen, if I didn’t play guitar. You don’t have to be great, you don’t have to know how to read music. But if you can speak with first-hand knowledge about instruments, gear, techniques, and song construction, you’ll have added depth and insight.

    When you go to an interview, remember that you’re not there to become pals. Never waste a second trying to impress someone who’s heard it all before. And if you delve into nervous flattery, especially upon first meeting a performer, you risk creating distance between the two of you. Instead, think of yourself as a midwife between the artists and their fans. Make it your mission to come away with info that thrills even their most knowledgeable followers. Sound easy? It’s not. Sometimes it takes more preparation than anyone who’s never done it can imagine.

    Getting Ready

    Before the event, prepare, prepare, prepare. Listen to all of the performer’s recordings. Read as many articles – especially interviews – as you can find. Discover his or her passions. Creative people do not like to endlessly repeat themselves, so avoid the pat questions they’ve been asked before. As you think of areas to cover, write them down. Then edit long questions, or even lines of questioning, to just a few keywords. I’ve reproduced here the card I used for a 45-minute interview with Mick Jagger. An entire line of questions about how he approaches songwriting, both with and without Keith Richards, is condensed to a few words and song titles. Another 15 words sparked several questions about his approach to playing guitar and harmonica and his favorite gear. The words “Willy Dixon, Wolf, Mud” led to intriguing revelations about his relationships with Chicago bluesmen he admired. Most in-person interviews work best with uninterrupted eye contact, so the less you have to look down at a piece of paper, the better.

    Put your most important questions right at the top of the list and get to them as quickly as you can, because you never know when an interview will be cut short. This is especially true for musicians who have a reputation for being reluctant interviewees. Case in point: Charlie Watts. In 1994, I was hired to write a one-shot magazine to help promote the Rolling Stones’ Voodoo Lounge tour. This involved doing separate interviews with all the band members and sidemen. Keith, Mick, Ronnie, Darryl Jones, and Chuck Leavell were easy. But Charlie, I’d been forewarned, could be a challenge. He didn’t do many interviews, especially longer ones, and he was self-effacing. So I did my research and found that he is passionate about old-school jazz drummers.

    When Charlie walked in for the interview, I felt I had one shot at getting the train on the track. I asked, “If you could somehow transcend time to visit any musical period or see any artists, where would you go first?” Charlie, taken aback, responded, “Good Lord! God, there’s loads of them, isn’t there?” He sat down across from me, thought for a moment, and said, “I’d like to have gone to the Savoy Ballroom – Chick Webb, I think. I’d loved to have seen Ellington at Cotton Club and have dressed up for the occasion. I’d love to have seen Charlie Parker at the Royal Roost or something like that. Louis Armstrong, probably at the Roseland Ballroom in Chicago.” As he spoke, he glanced at the names on my index card – his heroes Papa Jo Jones, Micky Roker, Roy Haynes – and was hooked. This led to a memorable 45-minute interview included in this Archive.

    Sometimes mentioning a small detail can lead to expansive revelations. Before a 1982 phoner with Brian May – as nice and genuine a person as I’ve met in rock and roll – I listened carefully to Queen’s entire catalog. Early on I asked him about a strange, uncredited little guitar passage at the very end of Queen’s Day at the Races album. “You’ve really been listening!” a surprised May responded. “You’re probably the only person in the world who’s ever noticed it.” He went on to explain how he’d labored over this musical equivalent of Max Escher painting, and then took the time to take me through the guitar highlights on every Queen album to date. We ended up speaking for so long that my arm and ear hurt by the time we said goodbye. The next time Brian had something to promote – his Star Fleet Project album with Eddie Van Halen – he invited me to interview him again.

    The most enduring interviews lead musicians to reveal their creative process – what inspires them to play their best, how they engender creativity, how famous songs were written and records made. And when there’s deeper trust, interviews can even delve into issues such as spiritual beliefs.

    The Interview

    One time I traveled to the Record Plant in Sausalito, California, to interview Carlos Santana. We’d never met before. As I waited in the studio’s main room, Santana came bounding through the door, played a quick roll on some timbales, and then said, “Remember when we used to go see a band in the ’60s? You’d see Wes Montgomery play at the Matador from 9:00 to 1:00, and then you’d follow him to another funky club on the other side of town, and he would play there until 4:00 in the morning. Well, that’s the kind of feeling I’m trying to get lately on certain ballads. It’s funny, because 4:00 in the morning is 4:00 in the morning. What do you do at 8:00 at night? How do you capture that after-the-party feeling? Somebody from the Grateful Dead said to me, ‘When the music starts playing you, you don’t play music anymore,’ which makes a lot of sense. Music starts playing itself through you, instead of you trying to make it happen.”

    All things considered, a spectacular start to an interview. The lesson here? You never know when the best material is going to come, so have your recorder switched on the moment you meet the musician. And keep it running until you’ve parted ways. This can save you considerable anguish of the “Oh, man, if only I’d recorded what so-and-so said afterward” variety. Back in the heyday of heavy metal, one famous guitarist was so cagey he’d perpetually keep an eye on my recorder’s red indicator light. Whenever he was about to talk smack about manufacturers, fans, or other players, he’d edit our interview-in-progress by grabbing my recorder and switching it off. After the first couple of times this happened, I covered the red light with black electrician’s tape. Problem solved.

    For in-person interviews, run two recorders. You never know when one might fail. If you’re using old-fashioned cassette recorders, keep one outfitted with a 60-minute tape and run a 90 in the other. This allows you to change tapes without interrupting the conversation. When I did the Stones in Toronto, the stakes were so high and the deadline so challenging – eleven days from interviews to shipping the final pages to the printer – I ran three recorders. Sure enough, two of ’em malfunctioned during the first part of the Jagger interview. Today, I use two small digital Sony IC Recorders. Sometimes I also run a Sony cassette recorder, just so I don’t have to burn a cassette for transcribing purposes. More on this in a moment.

    For phone interviews, my old-school setup never fails. The toughest part is finding an old-fashioned Touch-Tone phone with a land line, like the one depicted here. The dialing touch pad has to be on the base of the phone – models with the touch pad in the handset produce an unusable signal. The other component is a Radio Shack Mini Recorder Control, Cat. No. 43-1237, that connects between the phone’s base and the cord that runs to the handset. You can order one here: . Hook it up, plug its jack into a cassette or digital recorder, and you’re ready to go.

    Always use fresh batteries and test your recorders moments before the event – this is especially important for single-recorder phone interviews. Most of my old phone interview tapes begin with the sound of an operator saying, “At the tone, the time will be . . . ,” and end with me asking “Is there a number I can call you back on if I need any other information?” This helps prevent the phone interviewer’s worst-case scenario: You hang up, hit playback, and the tape is blank. This happened to me twice in 35 years. The first time, the artist had called me and I didn’t have a callback number. In a panic, I told my editor, Tom Wheeler, what had happened. Tom said, “Don’t talk to anyone. Get on your computer immediately and re-create the conversation.” It worked! With my question prompts in front of me, I was able to remember all of the answers, even the way they were phrased. After the article was published, the artist called to thank me for a job well done. The second malfunction occured during an interview with Tonya Donelly of Belly. This time, I’d written down her callback number. I immediately rang her back and explained what happened. Tonya, bless her heart, laughed and graciously agreed to do it again right then and there. Our second interview was actually better than the first.

    During in-person interviews, it’s essential to get the microphone as close to the interviewee’s voice as possible, especially when you’re in a crowded restaurant or noisy backstage area. It’s far better to not hear your questions than to struggle to hear someone else’s answers. When you use two recorders, you’ll likely find one source easier to understand than the other.

    John Renbourn interview in San Francisco, 1979. Note position of tape recorder. Photo by Jon Sievert.

    Transcribe your own tapes! This is the quickest way to learn when to shut up and let the other person talk – a skill I wish some of today’s cable news hosts knew about. And if you ever go blank during an interview, or feel the interviewer hasn’t given a good-enough answer, try repeating his or her last three or four words in a questioning tone. “In a questioning tone?” you ask. “Yes,” I’d respond, “because this way you’ll get another paragraph of info and . . . .” See? Works every time.

    When traveling to interview a musician on tour, try to stay at the same hotel or nearby. This way, if there are last-minute schedule changes, you won’t be at the mercy of cabbies and crosstown traffic.

    Sometimes when you request an interview, publicists will try to strike a deal. It typically works like this: “Yes, you can interview [insert name of well-known musician here], if your publication also agrees to also do an interview with [insert name of lesser-known musician here].” Sometimes this is even applied within a band. Around the time Stevie Nicks’ “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around” was a hit, I wanted to interview Tom Petty about songwriting and rhythm guitar. At the time, I didn’t even have any Heartbreakers albums, although I liked some of their songs. A deal was struck: If we wanted to interview Tom Petty for Guitar Player, we had to run his image on the magazine’s banner and do a companion feature on the band’s other guitarist, Mike Campbell. I was happy to agree, since Campbell plays beautifully. Flew down to L.A., took a cab to the Beverly Hills office of a super manager, and had a great hour-plus conversation with Campbell, who seemed delighted to be getting some coverage. As we spoke, I could see Tom sitting on a couch in another room.

    Once we’d finished, the publicist came in to inform me that I would not be interviewing Tom. I called her bluff: “We agreed to publish articles on both musicians. If I don’t get to interview Tom, I’m pulling the article on Mike, and you can explain to him why this happened.” Flustered, she left the room for a few minutes. She returned and said, “You can talk to Tom for 15 minutes – that’s it. And no questions about drugs or sex.” A few minutes later Tom walked in. “I guess they’re afraid I’m gonna ask you the wrong questions,” I said. “Oh, yeah?” Petty said. “Fuck ’em.” He locked the door behind him and pulled his chair so close to mine that our knees touched. “How’s your sex life?” he began. “Great,” I responded. “Getting some good drugs?” “Yes,” I answered. “Good. We can talk about anything you want.” Ignoring the knocks on the door, Petty went on to give me a no-nonsense 45-minute interview. I found him to be exceptionally charismatic and walked out of that room a diehard Tom Petty fan, which I remain to this day.

    If a manager or publicist asks you to avoid certain subjects, do so unless the musician brings them up. A friend of mine was sent to Los Angeles to interview Frank Zappa around the time of “Valley Girl,” with one major caveat: “Do not mention Moon Unit,” Frank’s daughter who’d provided the song’s Valley Girl-speak. As my pal patiently awaited his turn in Zappa’s rec room, he could see Frank speaking to someone from Ms. Magazine. Zappa suddenly sprang to his feet, grabbed the journalist’s tape recorder, pulled out the tape, broke it against the edge of his desk, hurled it into a waste basket, and yelled, “Get the fuck out of here.” As the journalist scurried away, Zappa crooked his finger toward my friend and said, “Next.” Zappa, ever the pro, acted like nothing had just happened.

    Be sensitive to other special requests. Near the end of John Lee Hooker’s life, his manager, Mike Kappus, asked me to limit our interviews to 20 minutes. After that, Mike confided, John’s voice began to give out. So I kept an eye on the clock, and when those 20 minutes were up, I ended the interview, even though we were in the middle of some great stuff. John and Mike appreciated this, and I was invited back to interview him several times. My favorite conversation with John, our Living Blues cover story, actually benefitted from being done in two sittings – I was able to transcribe the first part in advance, which led to new questions for the second meeting (John Lee Hooker: The Living Blues Interviews ).

    Hey, your best friend or that person you just began dating is the “world’s biggest fan” of the star you’re about to interview. Want to take him or her along on the interview? Don’t even think about it. Instead of having a soul-searching, productive one-on-one conversation, you may just find your star slipping into pat answers and “performing” for the expanded audience. This is especially true with older bluesmen – bring along a pretty girl, and you run the chance of having an entirely different kind interview than if it’s just the two of you.

    Scheduling photo shoots to coincide with interviews is tricky too. Some photographers are extremely sensitive and stay dead-quiet during the interview. Jim Marshall was the best I’ve even seen in this regard. When photographers and their assistants feel compelled to blurt opinions or join in the questioning, the material may be unusable. If a photo shoot has to come down at the time of the interview, try to have the photographer set up in another room or, at the very least, arrive a half-hour or more after the interview begins.

    Sometimes the distractions come from the musician’s side. For example, when I did a mid-1980s Guitar Player cover story interview with Steve Lukather, his Toto bandmate Jeff Porcaro was in the same room, tinkering with his drum kit. At the outset, Porcaro kept interjecting comments into the conversation, cutting off Steve’s responses in the process. Finally I said something. It was a delicate situation, since we were in Jeff’s home.

    How do you approach a musician who’s been asked to cover the same events in virtually every interview he or she has done? For instance, no matter what they’ve achieved on their own during the past 40 years, Paul and Ringo are always associated with the Beatles. Mick Taylor is usually viewed as inseparable from his stints with John Mayall and the Rolling Stones. Donald Kinsey and Familyman Barrett are linked to Bob Marley. The late Son House, Johnny Shines, and David Honeyboy Edwards were continually asked about their old associate Robert Johnson, often at the expense of coverage of their own considerable musicality.

    If you find yourself interviewing performers in this situation, pay them the respect of focusing on their recent careers and accomplishments for the majority of the interview. If you then want to ask about well-trodden historical links, approach it in a creative way. When I talked to Johnny Shines near the end of his life, for example, we started by going over his early musical experiences and reviewing a copy of his discography. I waited for him to bring up the name of Robert Johnson. When he did, I reached into my bag and handed him a gift I’d prepared: a framed 5×7 print of the Robert Johnson photo that had recently been published in Rolling Stone for the first time. At the juncture, in fact, not everyone was convinced it was Johnson. Johnny stared at it intently and said, “Thank you, thank you, thank you. Thank you, thank you, thank you. I’m really glad to get this.” “Is that the guy?” I asked. Shines responded, “That’s him. That’s him. [Long pause.] Yes, it’s him.” This moment sparked Johnny’s memories of Johnson, and he proceeded to speak at length about their association. At the end of the day, he was happy with our interview (Johnny Shines: The Complete Living Blues Interview ).

    If you’re going to cover anything controversial, I suggest waiting until the very end of the interview. With Jeff Beck, for instance, I waited until the last moment to ask the “who played what” question about “Beck’s Bolero,” his collaboration with Jimmy Page. Ditto for autographs – if you ask an artist to sign something before the interview, you instantly put up a wall – you’re a “fan,” and he or she is a “star.” If you avoid autographs entirely, which I recommend, there’s more camaraderie.


    Processing the Material

    This bears repeating: Transcribe your own tapes! In the process, you’ll learn to be a better interviewer and you’ll ensure the accuracy of the words. After making a digital safety copy of an interview, I transcribe mine with a Panasonic Standard Cassette Transcriber, Model RR-830. Simply plug it in, attach the foot pedal, and pop in the cassette. Tapping your foot onto the right side of the pedal plays the tape through the speaker. Tapping if on the left side rewinds the tape for the amount you’ve set it for. The machine’s variable speed control allows you to speed or slow the playback. This is much faster than working with a source that doesn’t allow instantaneous rewind. These machines are expensive, but they last for years. Shop around – a quick internet search shows my model selling for $569.99 at Amazon and $180.00 at buymebuyme. I’ve heard there are now digital versions of transcribing machines, but I’ve never used one.

    There are two main schools of thought regarding the presentation of a musician’s words. Some editors and publications insist on putting everything a performer says into standard English, while others allow a more verbatim approach. I belong to the second school. Before I became a professional music journalist, I was an avid reader of Living Blues magazine, which specialized in accurate transcriptions. To me, reading these were like bathing in a musician’s natural rhythm. I also felt this when I read Quincey Troupe’s unvarnished Miles: The Autobiography – in every passage, I could hear Miles speaking. On the other hand, I was deeply disappointed when I read the “autobiography” of someone I’d interviewed at least a dozen times, and I could not find one sentence that resembled the way the man actually spoke.

    Miles Davis used to say that he could tell how a musician sounds on his instrument by watching him walk into a room. I believe he could. And I believe the best music journalism captures the interviewee’s natural rhythm. The hardest-fought battle I ever had with an editor was over this very issue. I’d just done my first cover story interview with John Lee Hooker. Like most people raised in Mississippi cotton country, John had his own way of saying things. Instead of “We have to leave now,” he’d more likely say, “We gots to go!” There is strength, beauty and insight in language such as this. So I did a verbatim transcription. My editor read the copy and told me to put it into standard English, pointing out that some readers could interpret my version as being racist. I countered that making John Lee Hooker, who could neither read nor write and struggled with the meaning of words such as “influences,” sound like a college-educated white guy was racist. I upped the ante by saying if his language was changed, the magazine would have to pull my byline. We reached an impasse. Finally the publisher issued a decision: Run it the way Hooker spoke it.

    Throughout my interview experiences, I’ve found that the rhythm of a musician’s music often mirrors the way he or she speaks. James Honeyman-Scott was just as excited and exciting in conversation as he was soloing for the Pretenders. Onstage, Buddy Guy can go from a locomotive roar to a whisper at the drop of a hat. In conversation he’s the same way – loudly passionate one moment, quietly confiding the next. John Lee Hooker’s stuttering, rhythmic speech closely mirrored the way he sounded on guitar. Eddie Van Halen, especially in the early 1980s and afterward, was like a human pinball while speaking or soloing. Whenever possible, capture this.

    Once I’ve done my first pass, I always do a second listen to the entire interview, often using the second source tape. This ensures that everything’s been accurately transcribed. I’ve only had one complaint from someone claiming he was misquoted, a luthier. I played him the tape, and there it was, word-for-word. Case closed.

    A final suggestion: Save your tapes. Back in the 1970s, I was told to recycle tapes. In other words, once that first Eddie Van Halen interview was transcribed onto paper, I was to recycle the tape for the next interview. Lunacy, I thought. So I bought my own cases of cassettes and still have the master for every interview I’ve ever done. Good thing – if I hadn’t, this Archive wouldn’t exist today.


    Donations to help maintain this Archive are appreciated.

    © 2011 Jas Obrecht. All rights reserved. This article may not be reposted or reprinted without the author’s permission.

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      10 comments on “How to Interview Musicians

      1. Stratoblogster on said:

        And that’s why Jas is the best! Any questions?

      2. Great tips!

      3. Coming from a “musician” => Thank You for Sharing Your Knowledge!

      4. Oscar Jordan on said:

        This is invaluable. I wish I’d had this available to read this when I first started interviewing musicians.

      5. Charles Shaar Murray on said:

        This is how a PRO does it! I’ve been in the racket for over forty years — and I still learned a few things!

      6. Francisco José Molina González on said:

        There´s a huge amount of wisdom here. Tons of tips for the perfect interviewer, and the perfect interview. You´ve done a great job through the years, Jas. I really enjoyed that one with Johnny Shines… Wow! The moment you describe here, I loved it, I can see Shines olding the photo in his hands, his eyes sparkling in joy!!

      7. Hideaway on said:

        Gems in every story !!! Amazing Jas !!

      8. I was looking for advice for my first interview and I was fortunate enough to find this. Thank you so much.

      9. This is actually brilliant, thank you.

      10. Charlie on said:

        This was an awesome read with excellent advice, thank you. Just secured an interview of a musician I’m a big fan of and probably would have made many mistakes had I not read this. Thank you!

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