The rudest interviewee I've ever had

21:29, Mar 05 2012

A few people have asked about the worst interviews I've ever had. I regularly offer interviews here as part of Blog On The Tracks and I'm very proud to say that I've spoken to some living legends and had some amazing conversations with musical heroes.

Sometimes the interview doesn't end up making it to print, or to the blogosphere - for a bunch of reasons.

I've parked a couple of interviews that were meant for Blog On The Tracks because I feel the subject has been adequately covered elsewhere (by another writer). My meanderings might be overkill. Other times I'll happily be the last cab off the rank with a story if I feel I have a different way to tell it.

Generally though, it pays to be quick. Obviously when a touring musician visits New Zealand there are a few outlets keen to cover the news - so if you snooze you lose, or risk looking like you've just repeated conversations that have already been turned into features in print or online.

I might not need to point this out - but with interviews I'm not looking to set anyone up. I'm just keen to hear their story.

Obviously, since this is a blog, I can stretch that out beyond the perfunctory 600-word or 800-word feature that usually mentions the new album, the tour and asks the questions that seek to find any and all New Zealand connections.

I'll ask for that information too - but if you're talking to Mavis Staples, say (as I did here) much as I needed to cover the new album (produced by Jeff Tweedy) I also got to talk about her connections with The Band and Prince and Ry Cooder. And though I hope readers are interested in that - I am asking that information, a lot of the time, for myself.

So I've had a couple of bad interviews along the way. They happen. I told you all about Patrick Carney from The Black Keys. This was a few years ago now. I was writing the interview for Rip It Up. And because it was exactly as I described above, a trace around the new album of the time and mention that they were touring, I did end up putting together a piece. It was adequate. But it was uninspiring.

But when I've talked to Mark Knopfler, Sonny Rollins, Elvis Costello, Lionel Richie and Damon Albarn I've been genuinely lucky to receive, first-hand, some amazing stories - as well as the touring/recording details (and to read/re-read my interviews with those people click on their highlighted names).

Obviously I had a lot of fun being yelled at by Meat Loaf and he returned to try his best to be nice to me (I actually think he was far more honest the first time, but both calls were entertaining).

And years ago the drummer from Duran Duran was my first worst interviewee - I was fairly new to doing interviews but I knew enough to challenge some of his comments (pointing out that I was aware of his role in the band, when he left and when he returned) and he didn't seem to like that at all.

Most often though - and what you always hope for - is a friendly chat. This is not some hard-hitting political interview after all. I had a very friendly chat with Amanda Palmer late last year. I did not end up using the interview for Blog On The Tracks because Palmer was everywhere, with two other interviews on this very site. And press all over and around the country. I had a nice chat with her despite not being a fan of her music so much.

The phone interview is so forced though. You get a pro and you're fine. You get the wrong person and it is awkward! I had an average-at-best chat with Aaron Neville - but out of respect for his music, for music that I have loved for many years (in terms of his early material and the Neville Brothers band work) I still wrote up a positive interview.

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If you read the piece, I in no way suggest that Neville was great to speak with - I filled it out with background information. He gave me some very boring answers but he wasn't awful - there was just no joy in his voice. He had done it all before. And he was only doing it again because he had to. In fact he only sparked up a little when I referenced professional wrestling (he's a huge fan). And I only mentioned that because it was like pulling teeth getting him to talk about the music I wanted to focus on.

But Aaron Neville was not the worst.

Fifteen minutes on the phone, or sometimes 20. It's not a lot - not when you have to make a connection, cover the obvious stuff, try to take it down the path you want and all the while be prepared to merely steer the conversation.

Someone once said that to get a good interview from someone you need to know everything about them already - and there's some truth there.

But I've had amazing chats with people whose work I don't even know all that well. I've also had to struggle with people whose work I know very well - because they are simply not in the mood. It's not a lot of fun. Presumably they're not having fun either.

I approach most of my interviews with a mixture of a fan's enthusiasm and the planning of a journalist/researcher. I'm (hopefully) armed and ready to chart. Carrying information that I've stored (in some cases, uselessly, for years - finally it has a purpose) and in most cases there's been a recent brush-up session; new facts and figures, a listen to the latest material, a plan for an interesting angle...

It is always devastating when you talk to someone you are a fan of and they treat you like dirt. It happens. It's part of the job, you dust yourself off and prepare for the next time. If you made a mistake, hopefully you won't make the same one again.

But let's be very clear here: these are interviews about music - this is not some tricky debate. I'm not trying to catch people out. They should be happy to speak about their art (and let's be perfectly clear/honest: their job) because it is part of their job to do the interview. If an artist doesn't want to do it - they don't have to. If they have to then they best learn to enjoy it - they might sell a few extra concert tickets or albums in the process. So as awful as it might be for them there is a perk or two - extra fans, money, further (continued) success.

Last Thursday night I met - in a phone-interview sense - my worst ever interviewee. I'm still a bit sad about it.

You see, I was driving up to Hawke's Bay after work - a weekend away. And I had been asked if I would do a phone interview at 10.30pm. This one would be worth it though - heaps of time to prepare (a week's notice, instead of the usual day or two). And I was a fan. So I was ready. And looking forward to it.

In timing that was perhaps a little too close for comfort I arrived in Hawke's Bay at 10.20pm (I would have pulled over and taken the call on the side of the road; it's happened before, got a great interview out of Ryan Adams parked next to some cows on the outskirts of Martinborough). I found a quiet place to take the call and had my notebook and pen ready. I was calm and on task - excited to be speaking to a musician that I admired; someone I had seen once already and was already excited about the return visit.

The person I spoke with was Annie Clark. You might know her as St. Vincent. You might remember I previewed her upcoming return to New Zealand here.

Something was up as soon as we were connected. I was told twice that she could not hear me, it was a bad line. The line was fine. In fact I doubt I've ever had a clearer international phone line.

Thrown off a little by the insistence that the line was bad - when I could hear her every word, as if she was calling from next door -I battled on for a bit.

I tried to ask about the evolution of St. Vincent, three albums in. Now there was no need for the back-story that she had had to provide for albums one and two. The St. Vincent of album number three was an established solo artist - no need for her to have to show her credentials. The writing was frank and startling. She sounded more confident as a composer and performer.

My series of conversation-starters were met with a giant yawn - it was almost a comedy-yawn. It felt forced. I gave her the benefit of the doubt. It was, after all, early-ish in the morning for her.

She muttered that people should just read Wikipedia (thoughtfully I've provided the link for you, as I often do). And told me that she could not hear once again.

I asked her to tell me about her collaboration with David Byrne. She replied that, yes, she was collaborating with David Byrne. I asked how the album was coming together, when it would be released and how she and Byrne had met. I referenced David Byrne and Fatboy Slim's concept album about Imelda Marcos (St. Vincent is one of many guest vocalists) because I had the feeling she was going to tell me to look at Wikipedia once more.

She ignored me. There was silence. I asked her to clarify the writing/recording process with Byrne for the new album. Were they emailing tracks to one another, or meeting up to jam, were they writing separately and then sharing or writing together?

"Oh, who has time to jam, come on, don't be ridiculous!" She added a faux-shriek of mocking laughter. I thought I might offer a laugh and realised it would be wasted. We were not getting on side while this phone-call was happening! She then announced that it was pretty obvious they had been emailing tracks to one another. She said it in a way that felt like she was ignoring my original suggestion. She had, though, stopped telling me that she couldn't hear.

More silence. So I asked about her previous New Zealand trip - that had been a duo show, these next ones would be with a band. I asked about the band. She told me the instruments that this show would feature. She didn't want to say anything else.

She ignored a question about her guitar-playing influences. More silence. I asked if she was having trouble hearing me again. She said "No, what's your question?" I asked another question. Six or seven minutes into our 15-minute allocation (and it felt like a gruelling half-hour had passed) I politely thanked her for her time, apologised to her for the fact that she couldn't hear me, pointed out that I had heard here very clearly and told her that we were all looking forward to seeing the show.

I did this because my cue to get off the phone came in the form of a second yawn - this one louder than the first. No apology, no attempt to catch herself, or excuse herself, no reference to the fact that she yawned - just a very rude statement that she was trying her hardest to be difficult; her mind was made up that this was a waste of time and she would not be enjoying it.

She had an opportunity to discuss her career and tour with a fan - someone that had seen her play before and was genuinely passionate about her music. I decided to bow out with such a clear signal that she was not on board with the discussion. Most disappointing? It didn't even feel like someone being outwardly rude. It was worse. It felt like someone trying very hard to pantomime being very rude.

I wasn't going to write about the interview - I've told you basically everything that happened now anyway, so there's your interview whether you wanted it or not.

I decided I would share this because I heard from one of the other interviewers the next day; someone that had spoken to her just before I had. He had suffered every bit as much - maybe worse. He had heard her shouting at the phone-operator. It was clear to him that she figured he had left the conversation.

I assume that she had been caught on a day-off and was unaware that interviews had been booked. This sort of thing can happen. I assume that she decided she would make it as hard as she could for any interviewer that day. Or at least she started off playing the cranky card. Maybe she warmed into the day of interviews after the first couple.

St. Vincent will still play her New Zealand shows in a couple of weeks. She's playing Wellington and also Auckland.

I doubt I will go to the show now. I'm not sure I want to listen to her music ever again.

These are the sorts of bad days you have, occasionally, as a music-writer. And they're no fun at all. I feel like I wasted my words previewing her gig and hoping that I might get an interview with her.

That said, I really loved her last show and maybe one day I'll listen to her albums again and forget about that awful phone call. I doubt that will happen though. One of the downsides of interviewing people is that as wonderful as it can be to say you spoke with someone famous and talented, perhaps you got extra insight, felt a connection was established or simply did your job well and got a great result - it is pretty gut-wrenching when you have your interest in the music crushed because someone else is having a band day.

In this day and age can people with a product to sell and a brand to promote risk it by throwing a hissy fit?

It might be a shame to have to be on the whole time - but that is the job.

Annie Clark makes her living as St. Vincent - so she needs to be St. Vincent whenever anyone calls; whenever it is time to record or to step up on stage.

Unfortunately, for me, talking to Annie Clark has ruined my appreciation of the music of St. Vincent for now.

And possibly forever.

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