On interviews and credibility 1: metal music journalism

One of the first elements of maintaining your credibility as a Music Journalist is undertaking, and writing up, good interviews. If you do this well, and if your reviews are solid, then you’ll start to build a pretty good reputation for yourself.

The title of Music Journalist might seem glamorous to those outside of the music industry, to punters or fans. It can seem especially high-and-mighty in metal, because metalheads are notoriously knowledgable about the music they like, and they take good journalism very seriously. They also tend to hold their heroes up on very high pedestals; if a bassist friend of mine hears that I’ve spoken to Vortex (Dimmu Borgir), for instance, then they sit in awe listening to my account of the interview, and demand a copy of the recording – with much attempted bribery attached to the demand.

Interviewing is a particular skill, and doing it well can be difficult. Ask any health professional who has needed to interrogate a patient about his or her past medical history: you can come up against all sorts of people. The chatty people are the best, as are those who know what they want out of a feature in the end. These people can help to drive an interview to a conclusion that they know will be either successful, or at least satisfying, and with a positive outcome. Some of the worst are those who answer with monosyllabic words – even to open-ended questions – or those who have done fifteen interviews in a row, and really just want to go and get a beer. Or a coffee. Or away from the phone.

I believe it was Russell Crowe who commented that a good interviewer will write his or her questions, leave them for a day, and then discard the first 150 of them. Those questions that come after that would have been difficult to write, would have required solid thinking, and would have necessitated a good deal of quality research. They also get to the heart of the matter very quickly and, often, very amiably.

However, writing up an interview is not always the piece of cake that the interview itself often is. You might be in a situation without a recording device, and must rely on your typing speed or your ability to recall comments accurately. Without a super-fast typing speed, with a high level of accuracy, the first is painful; and the second, in any situation, is dangerous.

A good interview write-up starts pre-interview. Your questions need to be solidly researched – which means knowing the band’s biography and discography, having a good knowledge of controversy, knowing what the interview is promoting (either a new release, or a tour, or sometimes both), knowing to whom you are going to talk so that you can target your questions appropriately; and writing questions that are outside the square. The latter is important because unusual questions get a good response. Writing questions that are largely observational also tend to get a good response from an interviewee because they start to feel on the level with you.

If the interview is to be about a new album, it is very desirable to have heard the album in question; to discuss how it came together, how the art came together, and how the band feels about their release. It is important, too, to have read – extensively read – reviews from critics worldwide. The last point about questions is that for an interview promoting an album, you must have some knowledge of the producer/s and engineer/s who worked on the project, an idea of what they’ve worked on before, and a good idea of how to make a point of asking something about the process.

During the interview, a friendly tone and a smile (even if you’re on the phone) is absolutely essential; it helps you sound engaged in what you’re doing, and connected – really connected – to the person on the other end. You need to be a King of Multitasking: you have to take copious notes of what the interviewee is saying, including solid quotes that you know are accurate (word-by-word, and pause-by-pause); you need to make notes on contextual information that might become important; and you need a continual, running mindfulness of how the write-up might be pieced together afterwards.

Make no mistake: no interview is ever written up (except for transcript-style interview write-ups) in the way the interview runs. Features are like essays and, like essays, need to be informed. You need to tell your readers about the band and why the interview took place; you need to set the scene, write knowledgeably about all aspects of the band and its release or tour. Writing a feature is quite literally taking a reader by the hand and leading them on a journey through the piece, and introducing them to the personality of the interviewee. Without that sense of personality, the feature will be good but it won’t have soul.

I do go on about soul, and vibe. They are vital in any piece of writing no matter what it is. It’s like playing a flute technically very well but having something ‘missing’ in the sound: that is the soul of the person playing it. However, I digress.

In order to write a feature like that, you must take liberties with the interview. You might need to re-sequence portions of it so that the write-up makes sense. You might have to take a section of this quote, and a section of that one, and segue them to give the reader a sense of direction and wholeness. You must include material that the person told you, and use it alongside your solid research to give it depth. And, of course, you must punctuate it throughout with key quotes that highlight, illustrate, or otherwise define what you are writing about.

Perhaps equally importantly is the need to write yourself, as the interviewer, into the equation. The event did not occur in a vacuum, and your readers need your personality inside the piece as much as they do the interviewee’s.

Stay tuned for the next instalment of this essay, in which the issue of interviews and credibility is looked at in terms of complaints made about you or your journalism.

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