Music Journalism 101 g. Preparing for interviews

It is no secret that interviewing bands is a nerve-wracking affair. Most interviews you read are conducted by highly experienced music journalists, and it seems that they set the bar pretty high. Fear not – even if you need to meet an extraordinarily high standard, there is a method that can set you going in the right direction.

About nerves

There are a few things that cause you to feel nervous about talking to bands in an interview situation In my experience, these nerves come from a few common places. These are:

  1. Awe. If you’re a fan of a band or musician, then this is going to be your biggest thing. My most nerve-wracking interview was the first time I talked to Rob Halford. But that was equal parts awe, and equal parts of the second – standards. Dealing with awe-inspired nerves is perhaps the most difficult; all you can do is remind yourself that these people have been doing their thing for a really long time, that they are still people, and that manners and good preparation goes a very long way with other professionals. Think of yourselves as colleagues – because that’s how it often pans out.
  2. Standards – set by yourself or by others. If you are interviewing a band or musician that’s been around for a long time, then you’re going to be nervous about meeting standards. In all likelihood, you are never going to be able to ask a question they have never been asked before – but you should strive to be as original as possible at all times, without getting weird, nasty, or just plain stupid. See also point (1) about awe.
  3. Lack of knowledge. You don’t need to be a total band geek to conduct an excellent interview; in fact, sometimes it can help if you’re not. But if you don’t have a great deal of knowledge, which can come as much from not knowing a band from a bar of soap, as not having heard enough of their back-catalogue, then it can make you nervous as hell. Happily, there is a way around it: good research. See the next section for details.
  4. A recalcitrant interviewee (in-interview). This comes down to interview technique, and a certain mindfulness – this will be addressed in the next instalment of the course.

Dealing with nerves can be hard. But at the same time, it is something that you can use to your advantage. If you are nervous, it’s a signal to you that you need to take action of some kind, and becoming engaged in the interview process is one of the best ways of dealing with that nervousness. However, the nerves you experience immediately prior to an interview – that is, in the five minutes before a phone call takes place – can really only be dealt with by being properly set up, having checked that everything works, and breathing deeply.

Always remember that interviews, at their best, are good conversations. That is really what you should be aiming for: a good, engaging, two-way conversation that you can remember fondly.

What makes a good interview great?

Is it the interview method, or the questions themselves? Well, these are both important – but what makes a good interview great is the amount of research you put into it beforehand.

There are some very basic, bog-standard things you can do when you are preparing to interview a band. Broken down into steps, these are:

  1. Determine whether the interview is regarding a new release, or a tour, or both.
    1. if it’s about a release – make sure you get a copy, or at least one rough-cut – to listen to, to get a sense of the release
    2. if it’s about a tour – you need to find all of the details about that tour, and information/reviews on the previous tour, if possible
  2. Read as much about the history of the band as possible. Given the pervasive nature of the internet, this is so much easier now than it was ten years ago. Find the official biography, the label’s biography (if you have access to it), fans’ details of the band, and so on. The bio will give you a way of attacking the interview. Some artists, like Bumblefoot, have a really personal bio; others have very little at all.
  3. Read as many news items of the band as possible, from a diverse range of places. What you are looking for is a key piece of information that is unusual, striking, or odd. These things are great conversation topics.
  4. Find the band’s discography, and get familiar with it. Any live albums that stand out? Any split releases that stand out? Any artwork that is striking? What did their early material sound like compared to the new (if you have access to it)? Doing this will likely cause small items to stand out on their own, as being worthwhile bringing up in conversation.
  5. Read reviews of all releases, to get a sense of how the band has progressed, what the major issues have been for fans and media in the past, and what expectations are like for the new release. This should give you some material to consider asking.
  6. Get as many additional details on a release as possible: guest appearances, who the producer was, where it was recorded, where it was mixed, who did the artwork, who the engineer was, what the early promo has been like. This enables you to find out what the team that the band worked with was like. How was the art created and how much input did they have, and so on.
  7. Get as many details on a band’s tour cycle as possible: some bands tour not much, others tour for three years at once. It’s rich material for finding out how they cope, and how much effort they put in for their fans. Some bands, for example, have a really good family that helps them through; others rely on alcohol to blast their way through a tour; still others have small things – like an interest in architecture – that keep them interested when they’re on the road continually.
  8. Read other people’s interviews with the person or band you will be speaking with. This is perhaps the most vital thing you can do, because it gives you a sense of what the person or band is like to talk to (talkative or otherwise) and how they respond to certain questions; it gives you a sense of personality, so you can prepare yourself mentally; and it gives you a really good idea of the types of questions that other people are asking, what to avoid, what might be good to know more about, and so on. This can really help you with your interview framework.

Take care over your interview questions

It is important to take care over your interview questions, because your questions will frame your interview. In the first instance you want to make sure you cover the ground you need to; in the second, you want to eliminate closed questions; and in the third instance, you want to ensure that the questions flow well.

While you can bang up a set of standardised interview questions upon which to base all other interviews, I don’t recommend it. It can give you a good framework, sure, but at the same time, all of your interviews end up sounding the same, coming from the same perspective. It also means that you run the risk of being stereotyped – something which I suggest is good to avoid. Having a new set of questions for every band also helps you to remain memorable: never forget that bands are friends with other bands, and do actually talk to each other.

If you can get to the point where major musicians with a big history tell you that your interview was awesome – three months after said interview took place – then you’ve hit your mark. No, it’s not impossible: this happened to me in early 2009, and you could’ve knocked me over with a feather. Take from this a good lesson: you’re far better off being humble and professional, than caring about syndicated writings. If you get a reputation as an excellent journalist among the bands first, then the industry will hear about you from those bands (which is very credible), meaning you’re more likely to go the distance.

How to pull your notes into interview questions

Like everything, there is a simple method to writing interview questions. The key is getting the method right, and engaging in it religiously.

  1. Sketch out everything that you want to know about or talk about
  2. Write out all those points as single questions. Don’t double-up unless you have to – meaning, the second part asks for an expansion on the first part: it should never be a second question
  3. Make sure all your questions are individual questions
  4. Make sure all your questions are open – that is, they don’t require just “yes” or “no” responses
  5. Make sure they flow nicely – that is, think of all the possible interactions between yourself and the interviewee arising from each question. Reorder your questions until the interview flows smoothly
  6. Read the questions aloud to see if they flow nicely when spoken (need I mention that this is vital if you’re doing the interview by phone?)
  7. Critically analyse how many questions you have, and cull where necessary
  8. Re-order until you’re happy.

If you end up with more than thirteen interview questions, refine them. Most interviews run for an absolute maximum of twenty allowed minutes (especially by phone), so you need to make sure you can cover what you need to in the allowable time frame. If you have too many questions, and haven’t considered possible diversions, then you end up in a situation where you either ignore conversational threads (which are often very interesting) or you follow them and don’t get the information you want. This is why having a small, precise list of questions, which allow for expansion or diversion, is important.

The reverse is also true, though. If you have a recalcitrant interviewee – one who is not particularly forthcoming – then you may need to think on the fly to get some engagement happening if your questions are too limited.

Set, and strive to meet, high standards. Always.

As always, if you approach all parts of your journalism work with professionalism, those with whom you interact will respect it. While you might be nervous about meeting the high standards of other journalists in the field, you can literally only ever strive to meet the highest standards possible. If you make this something you engage in all the time, then you will naturally float to the top of the pile.

Some people feel that there is a culture of elitism in the music industry – and especially in metal – which is justified. It doesn’t mean that anybody who works in the field as a journalist should feel overwhelmed by it, or put upon because of it. Instead, it’s a challenge for you to meet a very high standard; that challenge is a worthy one, and one that calls for all of your knowledge of the art, and all of your professional flexibility.

It doesn’t matter whether you’re a student, a volunteer, a staff writer, or a freelancer: you must always strive to meet high standards. A solid method, a good framework, and a clear knowledge of what you’re doing and why, will go a long way. You can always skip steps in each part of the way, but if you do, you need to remember that you are also eroding the foundations that support your work.

Coming up in 101 H: Conducting the music interview

The next instalment of this course will cover the ‘in process’ interview: asking questions, dealing with talkative and/or recalcitrant interviewees, following conversational threads, and so on. Stay tuned!

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