Death and Consequence: Three Things Ive Learned About Interviewing
Old people will tell you anything you want to know as long as you shut up and let them.
– Rick Bragg, Somebody Told Me
Here is a column for people who do or who want to do interviews. For further research, go read Randy Rays interviews, but not mine. Mine are uncalled for, except for maybe the first question I ask. Those are pretty well crafted.
I am not a good interviewer. Randy Ray is a good interviewer. He uses things called facts, and other things called research sources. I really know three things. I learned them working for Rick Bragg, whos a local author and a Pulitzer Prize-winner, one summer in the remnants of the Mill District of Jacksonville, Alabama, watching him interview old men with bent hands who could barely breathe because of the paychecks they traded their lungs for.
They were weathered men, and they knew that this was their only chance to look back and cut to the heart of human nature and greed and desperation for survival in a way that would be some red flag they could wave to a middle-class world that ignored them and had passed them by, and say here, we existed and you never considered us. With Ricks help, and with gifts they had always had, if not known about, people who were the very opposite of famous wove narratives with crucial details and a voice that will soon pass from this Earth, if only to be reincarnated in Asia and the outer rim of the Industrial Revolution where the factories are now. And far more importantly, to them, they also said Here is how I met the woman of my dreams and here is how I raised my children and here is how I paid my rent or bought my house. Here is where I found it in my soul to live this hard life to make things a little better.
I do not do these interviews anymore Im not hard enough or willing enough to accept the responsibility of chronicling the last gasps of dying men. I help someone sell a product, whether a compilation or a CD or a concert ticket, or, in two cases, books. In exchange, I get to talk with an interesting person, and sometimes get some utterly shocking stories for the readers of the site. Here are some things I have learned.
1. The music scene is trivial. Compared to the sawmill scene, or the cotton mill scene, or the steel plant scene, or the kids who cant go play in the projects because they might get shot as an innocent bystander to gang warfare scene, the music scene is trivial. Yeah, I asked about it, but who gives a damn how George got kicked out?
2. Music is absolutely not trivial, and the process by which it is made and the purposes which it serves are fascinating. Tools song Lateralus got me through Bonnaroo this year. Bob Dylan kicked open the doors to my ability to think critically and to be compassionate. Phish, before they crapped in their Easter basket, gave me 11 four-hour blocks of happiness, two shows that were bad but still fun, and Coventrey (and I spelled it that way on purpose).
Here are some things to think about: What makes people drive to the ends of the country to see a band? How does music shape who we are and what we love? How does music help us discover ourselves and cope with the fragility of life and the universal sense of loss which will descend upon us all? Music wraps in rhyme and melody the death of a parent, the trust of a newborn, the joy of a mother, the ecstasy of a dancer, the whimsy of a flying hot dog, and a brief journey through this world. That is why I do interviews. That is why I care.
3. This one is nitpicky and actually useful and doesnt dive into and do the breast stroke in the sea of abstraction: the first question matters a hell of a lot. Get them talking. Make sure its a question they have never, ever been asked before, and, most importantly, make it a question that forces them to switch off their autopilot, listen to what youre asking, and put some effort into answering it. And make it show you did your research, because it will pay off throughout the entire interview.
If they know you have really put an effort into this, they are going to put more effort into it. If they got derailed from their standard interview procedure, theyre going to put more thought into it. And theyll know you arent taking them too seriously and that you are capable of being a smartass.
In my Butch Trucks interview, I asked him about playing World of Warcraft, and he gave long answers, tolerated my bad questions, and went into a ten-minute ramble on the history of the Allman Brothers that remains my favorite answer to a question ever. Even if it didnt answer my question. When I interviewed J.B., the first thing I asked him about was Star Trek, and he actually opened up about a few things he hadnt talked about because of it (George, Oak Mountain, not knowing how to dance). The first question sets the tone for the rest of the interview. Make it jolt and pleasantly surprise the person youre asking. Theyll jolt and pleasantly surprise you with their answers.