I love talking to musicians. I enjoy talking to them about what inspires them, and how they go about bringing their thought processes to life. It beats the hell out of talking to criminals, alleged or otherwise. That’s for sure!
I remember how nervous I was before talking to Vernon Reid, Living Colour’s guitarist, for my book. He was one of about 20 interviews I conducted for my research. But the more people I talked to, the less nervous I got.
I’ve conducted more than a few interviews since then, mostly for this very site. I’ve gone from, “Oh my God, I’m talking to So and So” to “Yeah, lemme make this call and get this done so I can write it up.” Confidence? Arrogance? Mostly Column A, with a touch of Column B.
I’ve decided my interviews into two types: my Seven Questions chats cover what the musician is doing lately, like my chat with Mark Owen of We Lost the Sea; the CirdecSongs Interviews are more in-depth, like when I spoke to Markus Reuter. Both have advantages and disadvantages, and I enjoy each style, regardless.
When it comes to conducting interviews, I adhere to two simple rules:
- Ask thoughtful, open-ended questions that can’t be answered with a “yes” or “no.”
- Once you’ve completed that task, get out of the way and let the subject talk.
Seems to be working so far.
I’ve been lucky enough to speak to a couple of my heroes, like Reid and Adrian Belew. There are still many, many people in the industry I hope to talk to. Some have proven obtainable, and dates and times are being set up. There are also a couple of “bucket list-worthy” chats I’d like to get (preferably in long form) with people like Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Steven Wilson, Branford Marsalis (and maybe Wynton), Robert Fripp, Stanley Clarke, Chick Corea, Bill Bruford, and Peter Gabriel among others. But there are also more than a few artists who have passed on, making an interview no more than a dream.
I usually don’t waste time focusing on that which can never be. But the more I allowed myself to think on it, the more interesting that “missed opportunity” list became. And while I’m certain I would’ve had to jump through a few hoops to get there, talking to these artists may have made it all worthwhile.
While I consider him a musical hero, I said in my book that I didn’t want to interview Miles Davis, because we would’ve ended up arguing about something. Miles was a brilliant musical innovator, but could be … difficult on a personal lever. He held the press in contempt, and had zero use for critics. But when I think on it, penetrating that armor and getting him to really talk to me would have been quite the journalistic coup.
I don’t get star struck any more, but I probably would’ve been just a little intimidated by Frank Zappa. He was so intelligent and well-read, I would’ve felt behind the 8-ball almost immediately. And he did not suffer fools gladly! One dumb question, and BAM! Interview over. And who knows what he would’ve considered a dumb question?
I had a great ten-minute or so conversation with Frank’s son Dweezil inside my local guitar shop before his gig a little over a year ago. He couldn’t have been nicer, and seemed genuinely moved when I told him Frank’s music, along with Miles and King Crimson, made up my musical Holy Trinity.
Based on his mercurial and enigmatic nature, a chat with Prince would’ve been quite the adventure. I’ve read that reporters were not allowed to take notes or record their interviews with the man, so I’m already scrambling for a possible angle to the story. Not that it matters, right?
I really wish I could’ve talked to David Bowie. This occurred to me only recently. I have the feeling he would have made picking his brain fun. That man accomplished a lot in nearly 50 years! Yet I probably would’ve spent a quarter of the interview trying to find out who his tailor was! Lord, that man could wear a suit!
It would’ve been amazing to tap into the genius behind Charles Mingus or Duke Ellington. I think my main question would have been, “Describe the methodology that goes into creating your compositions.” Then I’d get out of the way and enjoy the show.
It seems kind of obvious, but interviewing the likes of Beethoven, Bach, Mozart, or Stravinsky would have been remarkably educational. Imagine what could have been gleaned from that level of genius. “Describe your approach to melody and compositional arrangement.” The mind boggles.
How many true legends did I miss out on? Louis Armstrong, John Coltrane, Max Roach, Jimi Hendrix, Art Blakey, Stevie Ray Vaughan … for every artist I name, I’m sure there are at least two or three I’ve forgotten. And every single one would have made for an interesting chat.
Well, there’s no sense in crying over opportunities lost (though more than a few of these artists died before I was born). There are plenty of legends and legends-in-the-making to chase after. I hope to cross more people off the list than I leave on it. There’s even a little part of me that hopes one day, someone will want to have a little chat with an up and coming music journalist and author from his scenic condo in Chicago.
For now, I’ll just do my best to keep asking the smart questions.
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