The Art of The Interview

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e1st5RkYYbs

Newcastle’s 02 Academy is a strange venue. Sitting at the intersection of Clayton and Westgate St it’s an imposing building whose red brickwork leaves a lasting impression upon the ‘Toon skyline. Although home to both a cinema and a bingo hall at other times in history, the building was officially opened as a concert venue in October 2005, bringing a multitude of internationally acclaimed musicians through it’s stages in the following decade.

When I first moved to Newcastle in January 2010 I was to become very well acquainted with the Academy in a very short space of time. As a contributing Journalist to several online and radio based publications I was often asked to preview, review and interview local performances of interest. More often than not those performances would take place at the Academy. One of my earliest interviews at this time was with an Ohio based Metal band. I’d seen the band perform in Dublin no less than three times within the space of a year, but that was almost a decade before this, so I still needed to do a lot of research beforehand and prepare extensively – something I believe any good Journalist should count as a personal trait in the same situation.

Upon arriving at the tour bus and being greeted by their manager, I was quickly informed the band might be a slight bit apprehensive, but that I was to be given access to all five members – a rather fortunate turn of events. The apprehension however, was due to the band’s lack of cannabis, which I assume they were using more for a recreational purpose than anything else. Without wanting to politely remind them that “possession with intent to supply” was viewed as a rather serious crime in the UK, the tour manager asked whether that would be something I might be able to obtain. This was most certainly a first.

As a Journalist you learn many skills and crafts during a typical interview. I’ve been very fortunate, throughout the last ten years, to have interviewed a variety of people whom others (and sometimes I include myself within this bracket) might consider to be famous. I’ve often gauged the level of fame of the respective interviewee when I’ve later mentioned it unsuspectingly in idle comment and the person I’ve mentioned it to has lost their balance for a brief moment. That being said, I once interviewed a lady on a radio show I presented, as a favour to my station manager. Halfway through the conversation we got onto the subject of music, and she mentioned she’d once been very good friends with Freddie Mercury, so needless to say there was little else mentioned for the rest of her segment.

In a professional setting there is little I’ve enjoyed more about being a Journalist than the interview. I think that has a lot to do with my personality, as I love meeting new people and bridging new connections, it’s always those first impressions I’m most eager to make. A few people have been kind enough to compliment me on the strength of my interviews, a lot of which I think has to do with my heritage, as Johnathan Swift once said “One of the very best rules of conversation is to never say anything which any of the company wish had been left unsaid”. I think that having those interpersonal skills is one of the most valuable assets you can have – as much as it’s either with you or it’s not, you also have the chance to learn this from one interview to a next.

When I was starting out in Journalism I was bought a book as a present from my then girlfriend called ‘Star Trippin’ by British music journalist Mick Wall. Wall is infamous for having interviewed some of the most influential musicians of his time, arguably reaching the peak of his fame in the late 80s/early 90s, while writing for UK rock publication Kerrang. Since then he’s made a career guest editing and writing columns in other such publications while also writing a string of “semi-autobiographical” novels on bands like Led Zeppelin, Metallica, Guns N’ Roses and AC/DC. I’d been aware of his work before I read the book but this was the first time a lot of these pieces had been collected together and, long out of print, made available.

Wall glamourised stories such as arguing with Axl Rose, reporting on Iron Maiden in Brazil and travelling to Moscow with Ozzy Osbourne. It was his accounts of these events and his career in general which had inspired me further. Although he was the first to admit, in reality, that chances like going to South America all expenses paid would never realistically happen again – I’m still waiting personally – there was an element of humour and laughter about his material that helped me connect to the story. His use of context and bringing people into the story defined a structure for me that, to be perfectly honest, I aspire to recreate in some way today.

What does it take to be a good Journalist? A good interviewer? Or both? You’re probably wondering what happened about the cannabis. Let’s just say the situation resolved itself, and I got almost 25 minutes with five members of the group, turning an otherwise quiet Sunday into a rather interesting affair. If I’d had no confidence, I’d of never snuck backstage at Guns N’ Roses, formed a connection with the band and gone on tour. I still remember the security man’s face dropping – probably the same way my draw dropped when James Hetfield asked me for a chicken stick in Sheffield – but I’d like to think I’ve learned a lot since then.

The Genesis Of Good Stories

“A real man makes his own luck, right Dawson?”
Billy Zane, Titanic (1997)

I think a lot of people are familiar with the classic car park scene from Alan J. Pakula’s 1976 cinematic ‘All The President’s Men’.

In the film, it’s the fictional retelling of the moment when Bob Woodward waits, in an underground car park, to meet the mysterious informant Deep Throat – and it’s his source material which, ultimately, brings President Nixon’s resignation from the Oval Office. Of course, as good as the scene is, you can’t help but wonder what the original tension must have been like, as Woodward himself knew this man’s information could bring down a President.

Naturally, it’s not all such cloak and dagger, Journalist’s sources can come from a variety of places at a multitude of times – rarely do you find something as exciting as Woodward & Burnstein. Take Orson Welles’s masterpiece Citizen Kane, for example, which deals in many respects with Journalism and their sources. Central to this film is Charles Foster Kane, a man born into Poverty, who later acquires an enormous wealth and fortune and decides to spend some of it on purchasing a newspaper. In one particularly telling scene, Kane arrives at the New York Inquirer, having just purchased the paper aged 25. It’s offices empty, any respected Journalists having left, Kane surveys a picture on the wall – understanding that the key to his “success” is not to write good stories or chase leads, rather it’s simply to hire the best Journalists money can buy.

The suggestion, of course, is that when it comes to source material – it’s the Journalists themselves who control the stories. I’m not suggesting anything unethical, you understand, simply that a Journalist’s little black book and their list of contacts can be the most valuable thing about their person. In the same way that Deep Throat consents to meet Woodward and share information based on the personal connection and trust formed between the two men, a Journalist forms a trust and understanding with their best sources, always ready to bring them along during their career. When a Journalist applies for a job, his contacts book can be almost as important as his CV, if not more so.

In Billy Ray’s 2003 film Shattered Glass, the plot deals with a young Journalist named Stephen Glass, who fabricated (either wholly or partially) several feature pieces he wrote for the New Republic, a leading US Political Magazine. Glass’ real life fraud lay unexposed, in part, due to the trust and reverence his colleagues held in him. As a young Journalist he was unequaled in his Industry, entertaining colleagues at briefings, never forgetting birthday’s and having that comforting, human bond. His shortcomings, such as not presenting a secondary source on a critical feature, were therefore forgotten. In some cases his Editor would defend him on face value, without knowing all the facts himself, based on his presumption of Glass’ good character.

Author David Randall argues that “good stories do not come to those who sit and wait in an office…good stories do not come out of the blue; they come from successful Journalists knowing where to look and doing certain things right”. In the Kevin McDonald film ‘State of Play’, released in 2009 and adapted from a BBC serial produced a few years earlier, the film tells of two Journalist’s who probe into the suspicious death of a Congressman’s mistress. Refusing to accept the person’s death as suicide, partially as she is a lead researcher on a political campaign, the pair refuse to stop asking questions until the truth is uncovered. Their story is a result of knowing where to go and who to speak to, a lot of the background work having already been done, due to the pair already having the established connections to make such appointments and knock on such doors.

The genesis of good stories, therefore, come from the Individual Journalists/Sources themselves – someone who makes their own luck and trusts instinct – a people person. But in the same way, it also comes from challenging the official report, not simply being satisfied with the “company line” and knowing where to go and what to say. Ultimately it’s about having solid work practice and knowing where to look – and where not to.