Music Journalism: Making it Sound Good
April 24, 2006 8:23 AM   Subscribe

Writin'Filter: What makes a great musician/band profile?

I'm working on getting back into writing, and have just gotten an assignment to profile one of my favorite old-timey bands for our well-read local arts and culture mag. I want to do a great job and get lots more assigments. So, I'm asking: if you're a reader, what makes a great band profile? What questions do you always wish an interviewer had asked? Can you link me to a profile you thought was great? If you're a writer, how do you go about researching your profile subject? What sources would you recommend drawing on? Good questioning techniques? Any other tips?

Thanks for any help. I'm not a newbie writer, but it's been a long while since I was published, and the profile form isn't something I've done a lot.
posted by Miko to Media & Arts (10 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
What I'm always interested in is hearing them talk about their influences and who they consider greats. Gives me more music to check out. I'm not sure what you mean by old-timey, but if it's like O Brother Where Art Thou where they're mostly doing standards, then maybe ask them about the stories behind their favorite songs. Ask which ones are the most fun to play and which the audience responds to the most.
posted by kindall at 8:31 AM on April 24, 2006

my favorite interview question is "what is your day job?"
posted by dydecker at 8:40 AM on April 24, 2006

- influences (not just music, but writers/art/cities they've recorded in)
- equipment used
- at least one funny tour story that involves someone being humiliated

Re: research, fan driven sites (if available) are a great resource for bands, as they tend to hoard old articles/interviews. Bit of a self-link (OK, a whopping great huge one), but this is my most favorite Trent Reznor interview. Ironic because he interviewed himself with a little help from emailed questions and his iPod. Sometimes, people just need the space to talk without immediate criticism.
posted by saturnine at 10:12 AM on April 24, 2006

Keep yourself invisible. For instance, if there's a Q & A section, everything labeled "Q" should be one. I don't want to know how unique and moist and delicious you are, I want to read about the band.
posted by PinkStainlessTail at 10:17 AM on April 24, 2006

Well, I do this for a living. Here are some tips— First off, you're not writing for the general public or us MeFites. You're writing for your editor. If you want more jobs from them, you pander to them and their tastes. Read other profiles in the mag you're pitching to. Copy that style. The editor will like things that they've seen before.

Second off, and maybe this is because I write (and read) a disproportionate amount of these damn things, ignore what the folks above said. The most important part of writing about a band is the WHY. The hook, the angle, the narrative that compels a reader to seek them out. Influences are nice and shiny, but they're essentially bullshit unless they serve some greater purpose. I don't give a fuck if this hardcore band thinks they're influenced by the Go Gos. I want to know why that'd be significant in their sound.

Don't, and this is more just general writing but I'd feel like I was missing an opportunity if I didn't mention it, don't ever describe bands as having a "unique" or "one-of-a-kind" sound. In fact, while those are the most egregious offenses, describing the sound should be seemless and simple.

You should see the band perform as many times as you can, and that means if there's no show before your deadline, horn in on a rehearsal. In fact, that's usually a great thing to see in general. Listen to their albums, and take notes. Read every profile you can find to see what's already been asked and then avoid those questions (unless there's an obvious follow-up). Be aware that musicians are generally some of the worst people at actually talking about their music. Sometimes that's because they have trouble articulating what is to them self-evident, other times it's because they're borderline retarded knobs who just happen to make awesome sounds. Oh, and a lot of them will resent you just for wanting to talk to them (like David Berman). It's OK.

I tend to think up about 25-30 questions before hand and then try to prioritize them. Ask your friendly questions first, and they'll open up more. You don't have to print those responses, but things like "what are you listening to right now" tend to be more interesting than seeing them try to dig up all the cred they can lay hands on with an overwraught list of influences. And while you're trying to get into a conversation with them, that's not at all what the write-up should look like.

Oh, and one last thing— the best interviews are ones in which the subject tells you more than they should about something. That goes for all of journalism, and is one of the reasons that being ingratiating is both vaguely unethical and incredibly necessary.
posted by klangklangston at 11:58 AM on April 24, 2006

(Oh, and don't ask about equipment unless you're genuinely interested. For general readership it's about the most fucking boring thing EVER.)
posted by klangklangston at 11:59 AM on April 24, 2006

I also write this kind of thing for a local magazine, and I agree with what klangklangston said above.
posted by dead_ at 12:22 PM on April 24, 2006

(Especially about the equipment)
posted by dead_ at 12:22 PM on April 24, 2006

I would agree with the advice against mentioning equipment, unless there's some unique angle to how the band uses it. If the band has unusual instrumentation or strange techniques, that can be a hook right there. For example, hearing that a band plays vintage '63 Stratocaster guitars with such-and-such pickups isn't interesting. Hearing that their lineup includes bass clarinet with live electronic processing might be noteworthy.
posted by cathodeheart at 3:35 PM on April 24, 2006

Pretty much everything that klangklangston said.

(I do this for a living as well.) Being ingratiating is unfortunately important, unless you actually want an argument, in which case feel free to go hard on them, though it does run the risk of the interviewee walking out. Or trying to hit you.

Research? Their website, fan forums, poring over lyrics, reading other interviews (pay attention to what kind of things they like/don't like to talk about), listening – over and over and over and over and over – to the music, reading books about them, if there are any, anything they might have written (again, if they have), and so on.

As for questions, don't – even if you're going to write the profile up as a Q&A – make it too restrictive. Avoid questions which can be answered with one or two words, because they allow people to clam up, or just mumble "I suppose" and not elaborate on why. Have your list of things to ask, by all means, but quite often, the best quotes come from deviations. if something deserves following up, do so, right now; don't move on to the next question you had planned, and then come back to it. You're trying to do something which, intuitively, is a little strange and false, which is to get a total fucking stranger to talk at ease about possibly very personal stuff. This is sometimes a difficult thing to do, especially if the interviewee isn't very talkative or friendly.

Oh, and shut up. Really. Just shut the fuck up. Silence is your friend. If you're babbling away and interrupting someone every time they're answering your questions, you're going to end up with a rubbish transcript. People don't like silence, and they'll clamour to fill it without even realising it, particularly when they're talking about something difficult, which means they'll often keep going deeper into talking about something just to fill the void. Let them.

And just because it can't be said too many times: nobody cares about equipment unless they're reading Guitar World, or unless there's a real angle. So The White Stripes recorded all of Elephant on equipment made before 1963. Do I care exactly what they used? No. Do I want to know why they did it? Definitely.
posted by Len at 8:00 AM on April 25, 2006

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