Musicians: Transform a Bad Media Interview

Musicians: Transform a Bad Media Interview

fusion16This past Wednesday, the Village Voice blog posted some cringe-worthy videos of musicians being interviewed…badly.

Here at Fusion, it got us thinking about some of the interviews we’ve read, watched or listened to over the years, and what makes some better than others.  One thing we’ve noticed is that many music journalists tend to ask artists the same questions over and over again.

And that’s when we thought about our occasional blog contributor Kim Brittingham.  We pulled her into the conversation because she engaged in some music journalism back in the 1980s and 90s – initially not because she wanted to, but because a musician friend talked her into it.  She wound up having a great time with it, and even went on to publish Café Eighties Magazine, interviewing ‘80s music icons on a regular basis.  Anyway, the point is, Kim did some pretty kick-ass interviews.  And what made them kick-ass?  Because they were as far from boring and ordinary as you can get.

“When I started interviewing musicians, I wasn’t really a reader of music journalism,” she told us.  “So on one hand, you could say that made me a clueless bumpkin.  But on the other hand, I think it ended up helping me, because my approach was completely fresh.  I wasn’t trying to emulate anyone else.  I just looked at each interview like a party conversation.  I always wanted to know if the artist ever had a supernatural experience, or what was the weirdest thing they ever ate, or the wackiest excuse anyone ever gave them for showing up in their dressing room.  Goofy stuff like that.  The result was really good stories.  That’s why I think people still compliment me on interviews I did over twenty years ago.”

We decided to ask some musicians what makes an interview stand apart for them.  And not because we want to use our blog to lecture would-be music journalists on what not to do.  Actually, the more we thought about it, the more we realized that a great interview can actually go a long way toward boosting an artist’s profile.  And likewise, a boring interview can make an artist completely forgettable.  And while an artist doesn’t often have control over what questions an interviewer asks or what does or doesn’t get included in a finished piece, a savvy artist can make a conscientious choice to shape an interview as much as possible with his or her responses.

That’s why we think there’s value in paying attention to what others find memorable or remarkable about a musician interview.  So here’s some food for thought.

Howard Vatcher, singer and guitarist for the Vatcher Brothers, says the interviews he remembers most are the ones that reveal a specific personal insight into the artist’s influences, inspiration or creative process.  “It takes a certain amount of courage to share those kind of details with a stranger, but candor can be refreshing.” He added, “I also like it when the person shows a sense of humor. Some artists are skilled storytellers, and it’s fun to hear how they embellish their exploits. Their stories can come across like canned performances sometimes, but it probably beats sounding bored when they’re giving interviews over and over and over.”

Agreed, Howie.  But what can an artist do when faced with mind-numbing interview questions, or worse – a bumbling, incompetent interviewer?

Vatcher advises that “It helps if we have a plan. What do we want our audience to know about us? Some unflattering details can be omitted or made as hilarious as possible. I’ve noticed in the past I tended to sound negative, so now I try to have more fun with the process. I try to always put in a plug for our website where people can get a free download of our Best of The Vatcher Brothers album to see what we’ve been up to so far, and let them know we’re working on some exciting new stuff.”

Ah, excellent point: The Plug.  Even in the worst of all interviews, an artist would be wise to drop a plug for whatever he or she is currently marketing.  If you have an album to sell, then by all means, direct the audience to where they can purchase it.  Alternatively, you may have decided that more than anything else, your band needs to start collecting e-mail addresses.  So maybe your plug will ask the audience to go to your website and sign up for your newsletter.  Whatever your prioritized “call to action” is for the public, make it routine to drop that plug into every interview. 

Billy Bishop of Blue Plasma Orb spoke on the advantages of being prepared.  “I think a good interview starts with the person conducting the interviews.  If the basic talking points are discussed in advance, then neither the artist or interviewer will be caught with a question or answer that hasn’t been properly thought out.”

While a totally scripted interview runs the risk of feeling “empty” and devoid of personality, it can be helpful for the artist to know what questions will be asked ahead of time.  It can make for clearer, more interesting answers that still flow like informal conversation, as long as the artist only uses the advance questions to mine his or her experience for possible anecdotes; not for writing out responses word-for-word.

Having a vague sense of what one might say is also a huge help for quiet types.  “An interviewer can be presented with an artist who isn’t particularly talkative, provides brief answers and was not prepared for the questions,” Bishop noted. “I don’t think anyone wants to hear follow up questions for clarification or the same questions asked over again which we have all heard or read during interviews.”

Sometimes it isn’t possible to see interview questions in advance.  Take for example Alec Stephens III from soul rock band I AM THE THIRD, who recalls a recent gig when he was taken completely off-guard: “One was right after a show at Webster Hall, and there was a film crew that night, and one of the guys asked me right when I got off stage how I felt. I said that I felt good.  Then he asked me what I had to say to the ‘people watching,’ and it really kind of stumped me.  I’m the frontman for our band, so I’m not shy talking to the crowd, but out of context, talking to the camera to ‘the fans’ feels weird, and forced.”

In situations like these, simplicity can save the day.  If somebody’s going to ambush you with a question, it’s better not to attempt to offer a deeply intellectual response in that moment of chaos.  Instead, maybe memorize one or two standard, positive phrases you throw out in spur-of-the-moment circumstances.

Stephens reflected on what makes for a good interview, and told us that “the most important thing is that the interviewer understands that they have an active role as well in making the interview a success.   Oprah is amazing.  She asks specific questions in a way that gets people talking naturally and honestly.  I’m not sure what makes that magic happen, but as long as the interviewer can get the band to open up and talk naturally, I think the interview will be a success. It probably also helps if the interviewer has genuine interest in the subject.”

No doubt.  But when you’re in a less-than-stellar situation, remember that you’re empowered to take over the controls in a bad interview.  Remember what you enjoy in other artist interviews, and feel free to contribute comments that steer the conversation in a more compelling direction.  Never be shy about getting your plug in.  And above all, relax and enjoy it.  In our humble opinion, relaxation is the key to making that interview magic happen – even when your interviewer is as far from Oprah as you can get.

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