So, you're a musician, how is that going for you?
July 8, 2010 8:13 PM   Subscribe

I have an ongoing opportunity to interview musicians, but I've been fearful of being the most boring interviewer ever, or at least failing to pull the musician out of Dull Interview Mode and into Chatting Naturally About Interesting Things Mode. With that, I'm looking for tips and ideas for interviewing people, and/or examples of really good interviews.

I understand some of it comes from practice, but I've always gotten stuck on the standard stuff - who are your influences (now/in this last album), what drove you to make your (old/recent) music, is there anyone you're interested in these days.

I plan on reading other interviews on the artist before calling, but I'm looking beyond what not to ask, and I'd like to do more than ask them to elaborate on prior answers (though this is one thing I plan to do, just not exclusively). Also I don't want to just ask oddball questions to break people out of the routine, but I'm looking to do something engaging.

Along with examples of good interviews or interviewers, I'd be happy to see past AskMe threads. So far, I've only been able to find one that wasn't about interviewing for a job. That other thread is from 2007, and is on interviewing an author, and I thought there might be some other good ideas more specific to music, or at least new ideas. Thanks!
posted by filthy light thief to Media & Arts (23 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
There's a lot of AskMe on this.
posted by Miko at 8:17 PM on July 8, 2010

Response by poster: Erm, Miko, I don't see anything that relates to this question, though I may be going about this the wrong way.

In my head, my interests aren't in the broader Music Journalism field, but in the specific Interviewing Musicians sub-field. The questions I saw were about how to get into the field at large and get paid for it, and some interesting questions on writing band bios.

My end product would be something for my own website and/or the college radio station's site / zine (if they ever make another one).
posted by filthy light thief at 8:28 PM on July 8, 2010

One way is to BRIEFLY refer to something about yourself, your interests, etc at some point in the context of the conversation. If the interviewee mentions some musical influence that you love, mention that, say something about your experience with it. That kind of gives the interviewee the cue that it's ok to talk to the interviewer like a real person. It can loosen things up.
posted by Salvor Hardin at 8:29 PM on July 8, 2010

Oh, sorry, I was under the impression that you meant you were interviewing musicians for a job. I think my advice still stands, but it's phrased a little oddly in this context.
posted by Salvor Hardin at 8:30 PM on July 8, 2010

Best answer: My AskMe which does not show up in Miko's search, got a LOT of good responses.
posted by mkb at 8:32 PM on July 8, 2010

Best answer: Jancee Dunn formerly of Rolling Stone and MTV2 wrote a very funny book about her life as a celebrity interviewer that you might find interesting. Or terrifying. Every other chapter deals with a "rule" for interviewing people.
posted by fshgrl at 8:37 PM on July 8, 2010

Best answer: I'm a big fan of Jesse Thorne, who I think can be found around here. (His podcast lists AskMe as the sponsor, anyway.) He is really good at using himself in the interview without making it about him.
posted by palacewalls at 8:39 PM on July 8, 2010

Best answer: Check out some interviews in the Tape Op magazine - they're generally pretty casual and wide-ranging, as opposed to the more formulaic Spin-type interview.

Find out something non-musical about the artist that they clearly enjoy doing and talk about that. Go-karts or rock climbing or knitting patterns if that's what they're into; you'll find the conversation naturally returning to and revolving around their musical life without forcing the issue at all.

It's generally better if you let the musician come around to talking about their music "on their own" rather than prodding them into it.
posted by Aquaman at 8:44 PM on July 8, 2010

Best answer: my interview tips from the blue a few weeks ago
posted by smoke at 8:54 PM on July 8, 2010

Yeah, Jesse Thorne does the only musician interviews I bother to put in my ears. Definitely a good place to start. His Nellie Mackay interview... man.
posted by McBearclaw at 9:00 PM on July 8, 2010

I've had to do this a little in the past, and I found that personalizing questions and going against type are two strategies that can get you some interesting answers.
Questions about daily routines ("what do you eat on a Sunday off?") or show routines ("how do you come down after a big show?") can sometimes yield some pretty interesting tidbits. Or not, it depends.
As far as going against type, you can ask a hardcore punk how he feels about Helen Reddy, or something similarly ridiculous. You can be almost certain that they haven't gotten the question before, and that can open up some interesting opportunities for you to make some news.
You can almost be certain that the people you're talking to have been doing press all morning. Reaching out personally can loosen lips like you would not believe.
And, of course, have a lot of research done before you get on the phone.
posted by Gilbert at 10:36 PM on July 8, 2010

Oh, and questions about influences and themes have already been asked 1,000 times, and the answer is down to a pat soundbite. No chance to get a real moment out of it at all. You'll get better stuff if you ask them about their favorite Twilight movie.
posted by Gilbert at 10:42 PM on July 8, 2010

Ask them questions about their answers. That way you get beyond pat call/response QAs. If it's interesting to you, it stands a good chance of being interesting to your audience.
posted by Sparx at 11:06 PM on July 8, 2010

I'm a big fan of Jesse Thorne, who I think can be found around here.

Yeah, somebody page Young American.
posted by Beardman at 5:40 AM on July 9, 2010

I don't see anything that relates to this question

Well, you'd have to read the threads for the relevant comments. Sorry it wasn't helpful to you, though.
posted by Miko at 6:18 AM on July 9, 2010

Best answer: 13 Simple Journalist Techniques for Effective Interviews
Interview Technique (tutorial)
Audio Interview Tips
Inbox Journalism (pros and cons of e-mail interviews)
Ten Tips for a Better Interview
Reporting/Interviewing Techniques and Tools many links
Questions for Interviewing Musicians
The Good Interview
Peter Sagal on interviewing musicians

Also, if you just Google "musician interview questions" or "band interview questions", you'll get 100 bazillion music journalism and music business sites.

I agree that your basic questions about influences and motivations are pretty worn out, and any band that gives interviews regularly will have pretty pat answers to these. So you do need to probe more deeply.

Also, while some musicians are amazingly thoughtful and articulate about their craft, some are not as verbally adept as they are musically adept.

In my limited experience with music journalism, some questions I've found people like to answer:
-your song "so and so" deals with X subject matter. Can you talk about how that idea came to you and how you developed it into the completed song?
-was there music in your home growing up? what kind? did you participate?
-if I went through your music files or CD collection, name one album or artist I might be really surprised to find
-what do you see as the role of [your kind of] musician in society? what does success mean to you?
-what's your working process? do you write together as a band, does each person bring material in progress, or do you start from scratch, jam your way into ideas, etc?
-what are some of your favorite /least favorite kinds of gigs? who do you like to play for?
-tell me the story of how you all met and formed the band

Having a list of good questions isn't quite the same thing as conducting a good interview, though. It's a start. But I would advise you to listen. Listen to the answers. And be ready to abandon your list when you hear something really interesting - a throwaway mention of a long-ago music scene in another city, or a reference to a failed gig, or a wish to be doing something different. Ask spontaneous follow-ups. It's always fine to ask "can you say more about that?" or "something you just said was really interesting to me, and I wonder if you could elaborate on it a little." This is where the gems are. You're having a conversation in which you're delving for points of real interest, unusual information which hasn't already been published, and that can only evolve out of genuine listening and interchange. So I always have an interview 'scaffolding' but I'm also always ready to leap off the scaffolding.

This is one really important reason why a phone or in-person interview is way better than an email interview. A combination of the two techniques is often good - phone to start, email for followup/further thoughts.

Let people talk. One major mistake music interviewers make is talking too much themselves - this happens when the fan reaction kicks in. Detach from the fan reaction. Ask the questions, then be quiet. If the interviewee pauses, take a quiet second and make sure they're really, really done. Sometimes if you wait a couple seconds they will open their mouths again and say more.

When setting up the interview, you can also email an advance notice as you send the confirmation: "So I'll be calling you at 11 tomorrow, and the whole interview should take no more than 45 minutes. I'm planning to ask you about your writing process and how it contributed to this new album, what you're experimenting with or interested in these days, and the new directions you see the group taking." Something to give them a little preview so they can 'prime the pump' with some early thoughts. DO NOT send them your personal list of questions in advance! Ugh, straitjacket, and way to get only rehearsed answers.

Be sure you have 'cleanup' questions covered, though. Names of band members, instruments played, number of albums released, upcoming gig, record label - all that stuff.

Try to fit your interview within an hour at the very most. That's a long time to be on the phone with someone answering questions. But because you might forget something, at the end, say "Great! i'll be working on this for the next couple of days, and I might need to give you a quick call or email to confirm a few details or clarify any final questions I have. That OK?" Make sure you give yourself a chance to call again if you need to, because often you will.
posted by Miko at 6:41 AM on July 9, 2010 [2 favorites]

Another previous AskMe on journalistic interviewing.
posted by Miko at 6:43 AM on July 9, 2010

Avoid those quirky weird questions that too many interviewers thrown in in an attempt to be cute or different. e.g what's you favorite canned fruit? Can squirrels really run the world? What's your favorite snack cracker?
posted by DieHipsterDie at 7:55 AM on July 9, 2010

Best answer: I've interviewed a lot of musicians, and by far the best interviews are the ones where you get them to "geek out" on stuff, especially if it's stuff that they don't usually get to geek out on. One of the most fun interviews I've ever done, although I had to end up cutting most of it, was with the lead singer of Fear Factory, and a lot of it revolved around the two of us talking about what bands first got us into music (despite being mostly known for singing in an extreme metal band, it was stuff like The Sisters of Mercy and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds that got him really into music). It sort of devolved into one of those rapid-fire discussions that music geeks have, like "Oh, you like Nick Cave? Have you heard The Willard Grant Conspiracy?" "Yeah, I love them! Have you heard Murder by Death?" and went on for about half an hour past the cassette tape running out.

Some musicians, though, just aren't that into interviewing, or don't enjoy the process, or just might not be feeling talkative that day, so don't be discouraged if that happens to you. You might be surprised, too, by which musicians end up being "fun" or "by the numbers" interviews.

And I agree with DieHipsterDie. If you're going to do a weird, quirky question, you must make sure it's well-tailored to the person you're interviewing. It can work, but it usually doesn't.
posted by infinitywaltz at 9:15 AM on July 9, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks, everyone! Sorry for that glib first reply. My first search results were all for job interviews, and I didn't think about music journalism. Unfortunately, the other threads I found were more on the broad professional side of things. I wasn't thinking of this as a profession, but as something interesting to do with the opportunities I have before me. That, and I realize the music journalism business is competitive in ways I don't want to compete.
posted by filthy light thief at 10:23 AM on July 13, 2010

Response by poster: And fshgrl, thank you very much for the recommendation! So far, it's a really enjoyable book, and the mixing of interview tips (for interviewing celebrities and rock stars) with her life story of sorts is well done.
posted by filthy light thief at 2:49 PM on July 15, 2010

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