Louie Louie, I really gotta go

The 15-minute phone interview is a staple of Australian music journalism. You get a quarter of an hour on the phone with a musician who’s doing press to promote a tour or a record, enough time to make slightly awkward small talk and ask a few questions about said tour or record and whatever other interesting things you can think up in order to make the experience somewhat more pleasurable for both parties.

As a promotional tool, it’s a winner – the artist can knock over most of the press they need to do in a couple of days, everyone can get their own interview to run with, you get enough quotes to fill our your half-page article, and everyone’s happy.

As a tool for actually learning anything about the artist and/or the art in question, however, it’s almost totally pointless. This does to an extent depend on the artist, but generally, how much can you learn about a person in the course of a 15-minute conversation? If you met someone in the supermarket queue and had a chat to them, you wouldn’t go off and write an article about them.

More fundamentally, the whole 15-minute phoner model represents something that I’ve come to dislike about the music press: music magazines these days are largely centred around getting to know the artists, rather than evaluating their work. Interviews occupy the bulk of editorial pages; reviews are pushed toward the back and generally given minimal word counts. They’re also where new writers are started off, before they can graduate onto the serious business of doing interviews.

Back in the day, when print media was profitable and magazines like Q and Select ran 10-page features, this wasn’t the case: they’d send journalists on tour with bands, or to spend a week with them in the studio, or whatever. But these days, it seems, no-one has the budget to do this any more, and record companies are disinclined to submit to such requests anyway. Thus, the phoner rules supreme.

But either way, the pre-eminence of the interview says something about us, I think: we want to know about the people who make our entertainment. You can see it in our obsession with celebrity – we want to uncover the person on the other side of the camera, to know everything detail of their lives, to prove to ourselves that they’re human like us, with all our foibles and failings. And we don’t trust our opinions. We want to know the full story. We want validation. Next time you go to the gallery, count how many people read the little plaque explaining a painting before they even look at the work.

We all do this to some extent – I know that certainly when I was younger, whenever I came to like someone’s music or writing, I wanted to go off and read up about them, to know everything. But really, art should stand on its own. It should speak for itself. You shouldn’t need to know everything about the artist. A good song, or a good painting, or a good book, speaks to you on its own. You can be struck by the visceral power of Francis Bacon’s images without knowing the first thing about him. A song like Famous Blue Raincoat is emotionally affecting and evocative, even if you don’t really know what it’s about.

This isn’t to say that all interviews are worthless. Musicians are often interesting people, with a lot to say on all sorts of subjects. As a result, some of my favourite interviews – both mine and others’ – have been about everything but the artist in question’s music. In some cases, knowing an artist’s backstory can also make their work more compelling – listening to Manic Street Preachers’ The Holy Bible in view of Richey Edwards’ disappearance, say, or reading Yukio Mishima’s Sea of Fertility tetralogy in the knowledge that he committed suicide the day he finished The Decay of the Angel. But both those works also stand on their own two feet even if you have no idea of the context.

In fairness, the advent of the music blog has begun to alter the critical landscape. The absolutely fucking awesome 20 Jazz Funk Greats, for instance, gives you pretty much zero information about the artists whose music it distributes. I’ve been enjoying listening to the music of these mysterious faceless artists and knowing nothing about them. It’s refreshing. The limitless space of the internet allows people to devote thousands of words to criticism and evaluation, allowing for really interesting discussions of music. But for now, the print media’s totem pole still places the artist well above the art.

Anyway, this is all stuff I’ve been thinking about for a while, but this particular blog entry was catalysed to a large extent by an excruciating interview – yes, a 15-minute phoner – I did with Lou Reed the other day. The idea of interviewing a hero of my teen years, someone whose music I’ve admired immensely, should probably have been more exciting than it was. Unfortunately, Lou’s reputation precedes him – he detests interviews and also seems to detest journalists.

You can kinda understand why:

But whatever the case, his palpable contempt for the entire interview process makes speaking to him a singularly disconcerting and largely unpleasant experience. Personally, it was a disappointment – I thought my questions were pretty sensible and could have done with some more respect. But in a broader sense, I can understand and empathise with Reed’s disinclination to share any more of himself than he chooses to do so via his music – although, in that sense, you’d think he’d just include a clause in whatever contract he signs to say that he won’t do interviews.

"What sort of a question is that??"

The experience has certainly crystallised my dislike for the whole phoner process. I’ve enjoyed writing this blog, and things like the the piece I wrote for The Big Issue recently, because they let me write about a subject that I care deeply about – music – outside the strictures of needing to whack together some interview questions and knock out an article.

Anyway, they say you should never meet your heroes. That might be true. But what’s definitely true is that you should never meet your heroes in the context of a 15-minute phone interview.

5 thoughts on “Louie Louie, I really gotta go

  1. Excellent writing, Tom. I’ve not had any particularly awful experiences with phoners yet – touch wood – but I can see why you felt a bit off after the experience with Lou.

  2. Spot on, Tom. The 15-minute interview as described above is the main reason I’ve almost entirely stopped doing interviews since I’ve moved to Brisbane, and certainly are a contributory factor to the lack of dialogue in Australia’s street press. They’re a complete waste of everyone’s time… except, one presumes, the record company’s. Sigh. (So why don’t magazine/website editors realise this, and refuse to commission articles based on same?)

    P.S. As already hinted at in this article, if you do find yourself in the unfortunate position of having to conduct one of these, don’t ever bother asking the musician in question about the tour/album/comeback etc. You can get way more information on these from just a cursory three-minute Google.

    Good on you for writing this. I’d like to take issue with your contention that Q has ever run anything worth reading, however!

  3. Oh, and P.P.S. The UK music press rarely paid for critics to go on the road with bands – that was always the province of the record company. At best, your magazine would cover your expenses.

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