Music journalism 101 h. Conducting the interview.

The previous instalment of this course took you through the, sometimes arduous, preparation required for conducting interviews. It discussed dealing with nerves, what sorts of things you need to research and why, and how to go about thinking through your proposed questions. This instalment talks about actually conducting the interview itself: how to ask questions, how to deal with talkative interviewees (and the converse, the monosyllabic), and how to focus on both the interview and the conversation without falling to pieces.

This post will focus exclusively on telephone interviews, because the majority of interviews one does are conducted over the phone. The next instalment will be a shorter one, and that one will talk about email interviews (known as ’emailers’), and how they differ in practise to a ‘phoner’.

What to do immediately prior to the interview

First things first: make absolutely sure that you know what time the interview is scheduled to take place, and what your time allocation is. In my case, all of my interview times come through as Australian Eastern time (standard or daylight time); not being in that timezone, I have to make sure that I know that I have the right time. Knowing how long you’ve got will help you stay on time so you don’t put anybody else out.

The second thing you need to make absolutely sure of is whether the band is calling you, or whether you are calling them. If the latter, ensure that you have any relevant phone card details provided by the label, agent, distro, or whatever agency is scheduling the interviews, and make sure that the phone number is correct. If the band is calling you, make sure that you are in the right place, with the right phone. Trust me, there’s nothing worse than being prepared for a recorded interview and having poor facilities, and then facing the prospect of typing the transcript as you go.

To this end, if you are doing this from home, make sure that nobody else is on the phone when you need to use it, or when a band needs to call you. It’s a simple thing to word people up ahead of time: so simple that it’s something easily overlooked.

The third thing you need to do is make sure that your recording facilities function properly, and that you have your questions at the ready, and the right version of those questions. Also try to make sure that the room you’re in is quiet enough for you to get a good recording; having to work from a poor recording will make your write-up process much more work than it needs to be.

And finally, grab yourself a glass of water or a cup of coffee. If you’re nervous, coffee’s probably not a good idea – but if it’s early in the morning, as some interviews inevitably are, it can be no end of help in waking up.

Kicking the interview off

So – you’re all set up. Now what? The phone rings, or is ringing, and your heart is thumping like mad. Here’s a tip for when you answer (or the band answers at the other end): keep an ear on your own voice. It is a truism that using your ‘best voice’ at all times makes nearly everything better. To this end, ensure that you are speaking clearly, slowly and naturally. If you are smiling, so much the better! You might feel like a right tosser, but the smile does come through in your voice. Keep the pace relaxed and be in it to enjoy yourself.

Engaging in small talk at the beginning of an interview is not a bad thing at all, unless it starts to eat into your interview time. Small talk can be a fabulous way of getting the measure of your interviewee: some are all business-business-business; some have just woken up; some are rushing around organising pre-tour mayhem; some have been pulled out of the studio. You’re talking to people at the other end who have busy lives, and sometimes it can intrude into the interview situation. Being able to have a bit of a chat about nothing in particular will help you to scope what the environment is like at the other end.

To give context to this, one interview I did started out with the band member at the other end of the phone (in Sweden, I think) sounding sleepy. He was making coffee, and started asking what the weather was like. He told me that he “just needed to talk shit for a while” so that he could wake up and get into the business side of things.

Getting into the ‘human side’ of your interviewee is vital: but I’ll get to that later.

Asking questions, and letting your interviewee talk

If you have engaged in small talk, however briefly, with the person at the other end, you will find yourself (hopefully) naturally segueing into your first question. If you struggle, a good thing to do is to thank them for their time before you start and tell them roughly how many questions you’ve got. If nothing else, this gives your interviewee some context for the interview that’s about to take place, and it also gives them a time framework.

If you haven’t really spoken on the phone down an international line before, it is well to remember that there is often a delay between what you say and when your interviewee hears it, and vice versa. If your interviewee is on a mobile phone, then that delay can be a lot longer. Some countries are worse than others, too: Australia to Britain can be immediate; Australia to Sweden or Finland can have a palpable two or three second delay; Australia to the US or Canada can swing either way.

The lesson here is: don’t be so eager to get the interview done that you’re tripping over what your interviewee is trying to say. I could tell you that it’s unprofessional, but the reality of it is that it’s just downright uncomfortable. If it happens throughout an interview, then there’s a good chance you’ll wish a big black hole would just open up and swallow you whole.

It is important to let your interviewee talk. If you’ve done your research right, and have crafted some nice questions, then there is a very good chance that the person at the other end will have to think about what to say before saying it. An interviewee who has to think is engaging fully in what you’re asking, and it’s a sign of a good question. If your questions are getting answers that sound suspiciously like they were prepared ahead of time, your warning bells should start ringing! It means you will have to change your style on the fly.

Dealing with Mr Business & the recalcitrant interviewee

Yes, they exist: band members for whom interviews are work, and therefore should be conducted in the most militaristic, business-like way possible. Such a band member is often characterised by answers to most questions prepared ahead of time (and delivered a million times in the same way); an unwillingness to engage in small talk; a brisk voice; and a rapid-fire answer delivery.

Recalcitrant interviewees may not come from the same place, but they are incredibly difficult to get talking. The recalcitrant interviewee will prefer to answer your questions with monosyllabic answers (even open-ended questions will have a brief response); they may come across as being annoyed or irritated; they will have a low tolerance for small talk; they may sound tired, or jaded, or like they’d rather just be elsewhere.

So what do you do in this situation? The answer is so simple, it’s beyond belief: try to get them to laugh (without telling a joke or otherwise going beyond your immediate boundaries). It might simply be a matter of commenting on something they’ve said, which then makes it seem like the interviewee has a sense of humour.

Getting a laugh out of a business-like or recalcitrant interviewee is like working magic: it turns them back into people. All of a sudden their approach becomes warmer and more relaxed, and the ‘interview’ turns into a conversation.

Interviews as conversations and particular technique

The previous instalment of this course discussed interviews as conversations: that the best interviews are two-way conversations that you can remember fondly. This is so true it’s worth remembering.

And yes, with a lot of things like this, there is a technique to it. On the one hand you need to ask the questions you want answers to; on the other hand, you want to be able to follow the conversation. How do you do this?

Easy: treat it like a conversation. Your questions are markers that segment the conversation, and between those you are able to follow the threads of what comes up as it comes up, unless you are constrained by time limits. Be wary, however, of simply asking more questions. As with any good conversational technique, you need to show that you’re listening: this means providing comments about what they said, adding a bit of information of your own and following up the conversational hook, and leaving it to the interviewee to run with it. What you find when you move from questions to comments is a deeper level of engagement, and the interviewee will often be more forthcoming with more interesting information. It’s not a ‘trick’: it is a way of enabling both parties to forget that this is a structured, formal discussion, and that it’s more like one between friends.

What you find, when you engage in a discussion like this, is that it is sad to have to whiz through the remainder of your questions, and it is terrible to have to end a conversation. Rich Ward is one of my favourite interviewees: I think our last chat – at about an hour and a half – was the longest phone interview I’ve ever had. It was also the most fun, and one of the saddest to have to end.

Bringing band members to the level of the ‘human’ is vital if you are going to forge good connections, establish good rapport, and bring your interview out of the formal and into the conversational. However, on some occasions it can also work against you.

Dealing with the talkative interviewee

Sometimes you find yourself in the situation where the interviewee – because you’ve let them talk – goes on, and on, and on, and on. I sometimes find myself so amused that I let them go on, just to see if they’ll stop; often they don’t. Usually, for an interviewee like this the only way to stop the flow is to intervene.

Intervening is vital if you don’t have the leisure of time, and you are constrained by other journalists who are slotted into the schedule behind you. If you’re not off the phone on time, it means you are putting somebody else out, and that’s just bad grace.

Really, there’s not a particularly graceful way of dealing with an over-talkative interviewee, except for shaving your questions down as you go, so that there is something specific he or she has to answer. Then, if you have to interrupt, do it by way of commenting on what they said, and segueing nicely into your next question at the same time. If your questions have been structured well, then this will not be particularly difficult for you to do. It’s really just awkward and practise makes perfect – as with everything.

Keeping your mind in two places at once

Following the flow of a conversation, and following your interview list isn’t quite so difficult as it seems or sounds. There are some things that can help you, though:

  1. If you’re recording directly onto your computer, turn everything else but your recording software off. Don’t look at Facebook while you’re interviewing someone; don’t check your emails; don’t look at who’s just sent you a tweet. Focus on what you’re doing right now: it’s so much easier.
  2. Print out your questions list and put a line through each question as it’s been answered. This can help you enormously if your interviewee is talkative, and answering questions ahead of time.
  3. Keep a scrap of paper next to you and jot down anything that occurs to you to ask, as the conversation goes on. Sometimes it happens that something an interviewee says is so enormously interesting that you think, ‘I must ask about that’ – and then you forget what it was. Writing a note or two down will help you to remember. This can also help you follow the flow of conversation even better.
  4. Don’t think about your questions to the exclusion of the interview. It’s really awkward: I’ve done it. You end up facing a gap where the interviewee has clearly just asked you something that you have totally missed and need to find a good way around as an excuse.
  5. Stay focused on the conversation, to the exclusion of your notes if necessary. It’s the conversation that matters.

What to look forward to next time…

In the next instalment, I’ll take you through writing emailer questions, what to expect with emailers, and how they differ to phoners. It’ll be short but sweet. Until then, if you have comments or questions, drop them here and I’ll make sure to work the content into the course!

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