Top Ten Things Musicians Have Told Me In Interviews
f we believe everything we see in Almost Famous and read in Ben Fong Torres’ inscription in the dog-eared copy of The Rolling Stone Interviews Vol. 2, interviewing is a magical experience wherein writer and artist impart their wisdom upon each other, secrets and lies are laid bare for inspection and everyone—reader included—comes away enriched by grains of knowledge they might not have absorbed before. Well, having worked as a jobbing music writer for the past three-and-a-bit years, most of the time I find it difficult to subscribe to this dream (or myth, if I’m on a really bad day). These days—with the exception of those fortunate enough to undertake tour diaries or long-winded, multi-day profiles—interviews can be face-to-face or over the phone or even via email, but you can forget about going ten rounds in the foyer of the Plaza; few are allowed to stray outside of the allotted ten, fifteen or twenty minutes assigned to each publication or writer, which doesn’t allow an awful amount of time for gut-spilling—not to mention the fact that it’s hard to feel intimate when you’re talking into a speaker phone. More often than not, the artists are on their third, twelfth or twenty-second interview of the day (and sometimes, it’s one of many I’ll have to trot through that day)—who can blame them if they can’t be bothered coming up with anything more revealing than “we’re just making the music we love, if anyone else likes it well that’s just a bonus”?
Sometimes, though, an interview comes along that makes me remember why I started doing this job in the first place (that is, because I’d become enamoured of what I saw in, you guessed it, Almost Famous after having written a few live reviews and thinking that, maybe, after testing the waters in ten or so other careers, this could be for me). It could be funny, tragic, excruciating or enlightening, we might find that both interviewer and interviewee share a common love of a particular song or film or album, or they might just issue a line that I know will make the subeditor cry tears of joy when they whip out the pull-quote highlighter pen. Having so far written upwards of 170 interviews and features, obviously there was a lot of material to sift through when assembling this Top Ten, and plenty of material that was noteworthy but not quite fitting. There was the time Hanson went Benny Hill and told me I had “great boobs!,” the time Gene Simmons asked me “what does your asshole look like?,” the time the Sleepy Jackson’s Luke Steele and I sang Carole King in harmony over the speaker phone—and of course, all the stuff that was “off the record” (Young Heart Attack’s Jennifer, you looked so lonely) or “not for publication” (Frankie Poullain, I won’t tell anyone who picked a fight with you at the Marriott) or just told completely outside of the confines of the interview (Justin Hawkins, I’m looking at you). All colourful and memorable moments, sure, but there are some that just transcend the context and the purpose of the interview—or something. They’re those moments that just spark something indefinable inside you. I hope you get as much out of them as I did (whatever that is), these… Top Ten Things Musicians Have Told Me In Interviews!
10. Dick Valentine, Electric Six
Dick Valentine: “Okay where you at?”
Clem Bastow: I’m in Melbourne, in Australia.
“Oh, Melbourne, yes! Okay, yes. Okay, right.”
“Okay, go ahead. I’m in the United States!”
Anywhere in particular?
“Yeah, let’s go; let’s kick it off!”
The Detroit some-hits-wonders’ lead singer said a whole lot of great things in this interview (particularly, when asked to describe the band’s sound, “We call it ‘nervous dance’. We’re all nervous individuals, I’m a nervous individual, and it kinda just goes from there. We kinda transmit our nervous energy into the music, throughout the crowd, and at the end of the show everybody feels a lot more anxiety”, and, when asked what other band E6 would have an ‘80s teen movie dance-off with, “I guess you’d want a girl band, now, wouldn’t you. Ah, let’s go with… The Ramones! Yeah.”), but it was all-systems-go from the word go when Valentine came bursting onto the line before the hapless conference-call operator could even finish introducing him. That level of enthusiasm in phoner interviews is rare to extinct and that alone qualifies Dick for inclusion in this list.
09. Andrew Innes, Primal Scream
Would you consider moving to Australia?
“Maybe later on. The thing is, Australians and New Zealanders always come over here, and then move back home because of the lifestyle here. But I don’t think we’d get past immigration, I think we’d get put in one of your concentration camps! We could stitch our eyes up! We were all people who were against the war, but [the world leaders] still go and do it. They’re all lizards, anyway.”
“You know, that theory that they’re all lizards. Some English guy, a total nutcase, who says that all these leaders of different races are lizards. And when you look at them on the telly, you think, ‘I’ll tell you what, he’s not that crazy…’ You look at Blair and you look at your PM late at night and you go, ‘actually, he is a lizard’.”
It took no less than five late-night attempts to get this interview to go through; originally I was supposed to talk to front man Bobby Gillespie, then something happened, then something else, I ended up dribbling in the beanbag at 1am, under the desk, and then finally, the call came through. Innes was, like so many been-there-done-that rockers, refreshingly honest and upfront with every response (everything from being past it to the band’s ‘troubles’ with drugs to agreeing that Give Out But Don’t Give Up pre-empted the new rock revolution), but the real clincher for me was the complete seriousness with which he delivered the “lizards” clanger. Where do you go from there, really?
08. Dan Hawkins, The Darkness
“I can’t wait until we get to the stage where we don’t have to explain anymore.”
Taken out of context as it is here, this unfussy line from The Darkness’ stoic guitarist doesn’t look like much, but in the midst of the laugh-a-line interview (every fourth sentence or so was peppered with Dan’s infectious Basil Brush-goes-to-Lowestoft “ha, ha, ha!”), the simple, almost yearning way with which it was offered was part cry for help, part annoyance and mostly a hand offered in the spirit of like-mindedness. I was at pains to assure Hawkins that I got it; the band was right in the middle of their initial burst of hype and just about every interview was given over to ‘explaining’: why did Justin wear cat suits? Why are you guys so happy? Why are you playing stadium rock? Why? Why? Why?? Given that, and the fact that it was one of the few interviews (like, two or three out of the hundreds) I’d done when my own fandom had left me gawping and dumbfounded, Dan’s casual-yet-intimate admission was all the more affecting.
07. Noodles, The Offspring
“I don’t really listen to that. If I don’t meet somebody else’s criteria of what ‘punk’ is, fine—I have my own [definition]. I grew up listening to punk, going to punk shows and later playing in a punk band, playing punk rock music in punk rock venues! You can’t take that away from me, it’s something I really hold strongly in my head and in my heart. The more time you spend trying to convince someone else how punk you are, the more you’re just posing. Who has the time for that? It’s a bullshit argument anyway.”
Believe it or not, rock-snobs, Noodles, The Offspring’s lead-guitarist, is one of the friendliest, most insightful and generous interviewees around—if you’re prepared to get over whatever ‘oh my God, you guys sold out’ stigma you’re carrying on behalf of the “punk” faithful. In addition to tossing off gems like, “The future is [uncertain], but there’s five things that I am pretty sure are guaranteed: weight gain, hair loss, alcoholism, divorce, and moving back in with mother”, Noodles simultaneously defended his punk qualifications and shot to pieces every whingeful statement about ‘real punk’ ever whined in the last ten years with this efficient quote. Sometimes you don’t even have to ask—the gold just tumbles out of their mouths unaided.
06. Clem Burke, Blondie
“Our goal was just to make a record. The best records when I was a kid were the ones that no one wanted, that were reduced to a dollar—that was my goal, to be in that bin where the records were a dollar, but everyone knew those were the cool records.”
This was a surreal interview, beginning of course with the fact that Clem B. was interviewing Clem B. (an occasion so apparently momentous that Burke greeted me with a huge bear hug), but it was just generally… odd. Despite his obvious successes (as he puts it, “The fantastic amount of success we had—although we desired it—I don’t think we ever imagined it would go as far as it did”) and the material gains that brings, he seemed more than a little uncomfortable in the penthouse suite at Crown Towers— “they have these funky TVs and no entertainment systems, no music. It’s supposed to be this luxurious hotel!”—pacing back and forth. Anyway, in the spirit of oddness, I’m not sure just what it is that made this quote strike a chord with me, but considering the at once disposable plasticity and art-heavy meaningfulness of Blondie’s work, this statement just… fit.
05. Steven Hall, Young Heart Attack
“I’m just walking down the street to the store to get some cereal.”
Why is it in the list? Come on! The most righteously rocking heavy party rock band for the last 15 years and he’s out buying fucking Granola? That’s instant qualification right there.
04. Polly Jean Harvey
“I don’t even bother thinking about what other people think, anymore—I really don’t care. You pretty soon realise that it’s just a waste of energy and a waste of time. You can never make people interpret you how you think you are, you just can’t do that, you just have to choose whether to eat yourself away inside about feeling like you’re being misunderstood, or you can just get on with the business at hand, which is most important, making good work—and making it how you think it should be made."
This interview couldn’t have happened at a better time: dismayed by endless meaningless phone interviews, dull singles and soulless albums, the constant niggling criticism from my detractors was bumming me out and the lack of musical inspiration made it hard to defend myself against their whining. What I didn’t realise was that I needed—and was about to get!—a lesson in give-a-fuck from School Marm Harvey. During the interview I felt somewhat intimidated by Harvey’s no-nonsense manner, and afterwards convinced myself that she’d been too reserved—but when I finally transcribed the interview, I realised that she’d imparted more than a few priceless insights into the creative life. This one in particular rang so true that I sent a mental ‘fuck you’ group e-mail to the chattering hordes and got on wit’ job. Simple.
03. Matthew Followill, Kings Of Leon
Do you think a lot of people hear the words ‘gospel’ or ‘religion’ and turn off, to a certain extent?
“[Weary] Oh yeah. We’re not anything like Creed or anything like that… Hold on a sec, we’re getting out of the car and they’re all talking… They’re talking at me while I’m doing the interview!”
Nathan: “If you don’t make us look cool I’m-a kick you in the ball-bag.”
“[To Nathan] Shut up! [To me] Alright… go ahead!”
So were you guys surprised when you were picked up by the press as ‘leaders of the New Rock Revolution’?
“Hold on, they are raggin’ me so bad…They won’t let me talk! Alright, I’m gonna run upstairs so fast, so they don’t get me… [footsteps on stairs, door slamming…] Okay, you can go ahead now. Again.”
…A lot of emphasis is put on how you guys look and your style, how important is that to you?
“We don’t try to dress any way, it’s just that we don’t cut our hair, and we just buy clothes that are too small for us. We don’t have an image-consultant or anything like that. [Away from the receiver] Hey! You left the lights on inside the car! [Returns] Sorry, I had to tell him.”
There have been a few instances where I’ve been fortunate enough to interview a band just before their star hit the big time; locally, Wolfmother were one, while internationally there was Kasabian, The Killers and, in an apparent ‘letter k’ theme, the Kings Of Leon. The foursome were only just starting to hit the big time in Europe and were barely known here (in Australia) in the middle of 2003. As fate would have it we didn’t actually run the interview until seven months later when they toured here for the 2004 Big Day Out festival, so the piece took on an almost magical, time-travelling quality. Here was a band so completely unaffected by their growing fame—and so unconcerned with its requirements and job description—that they gave the phone to the guitarist and then carried on as though the presence of interviewer on the other end of said phone was merely an afterthought. Hearing Matthew running upstairs to escape his tickle-monster cousins was an indescribably joyous moment—and one that shot into the front of my mind when I ran into the band, cool as a pack of Jameses Dean, buying cigarettes and gum at the 7-11 across the road from the Marriott come Big Day Out time. I hope it’s still in them, somewhere.
02. Tom Meighan, Kasabian
“Do you know what? Everything that’s happening in front of our eyes right now is everything we’ve ever dreamed of, and it’s a wonderful thing. We’re over the moon! We can’t believe it, we’re laughing at each other… But we can believe it, because this is what we wanted! We’re all humble boys, we’re good boys—we are naughty boys as well—oh God, my Mum’s the only thing that keeps me sane, still, and washes my pants. The only thing that is left to do is get a rock’n’roll house, get married, and have about four kids!”
So often these days, you get the feeling that not only are the ‘rock stars’ over the whole interview jaunt, they’re just over the whole thing—especially, funnily enough, the ones who’ve found themselves smack-bang in the middle of instant fame and fortune. Not so Tom from Kasabian! As he so sagely put it, “It’s only music. People are supposed to feed off this and feel it; the only things we’ve got left in this word are music what everyone loves, and, love! People have got to get that in their heads, mate, it’s not about being the so-called scarred-poet-writer, in trouble in a band—you’re supposed to love it!” The whole interview was one wonderful gush of enthusiasm peppered with charming interjections like “cool as you like” and “let’s try and find that sound and put it in a part of our song what we love”, but there was something so wonderfully unhinged about the above quote—so full of happiness, enthusiasm and slightly confused excitement—that Meighan instantly made Kasabian my favourite band.
01. Nic Cester, Jet
Which side of what you do, do you think, is more indicative of where you will end up heading as a band?
“I think all of it, you know? I don’t really wanna… I don’t think it’s that… we’ve always tried to really be not one-dimensional, you know? I mean, it’s always important to us to have simple rock songs with the lyrical content of the word ‘yeah’.”
About ten minutes later…
“[slams table] Come on, Clem, get stuck into us!”
Do you want me to? What do you guys wanna talk about?
“I want you to say what you really want to say.”
I’ve pretty much said it. What do you guys see as coming out of this?
"[With the release of the album] a lot of people will hate it and say ‘see, I told you!’ And a lot of people will really like it. I think a lot of people have already made their minds up, and I’ve gotta be honest—the people who have already made their minds up that they hate us, I care as little about them as people who have made up their minds that we’re gonna be awesome. I put them in the same basket. You’re not deciding on the basis of actual songs, you’re deciding on the basis that you’ve read about us in the NME and we’re hot at the moment. Or, you hate the fact that we’ve been written about in the NME. Both are the same to me [taps cigarette].”
For those of you who don’t know my “colourful history” with Jet, I’ll make this as pain-free as possible: I didn’t buy the hype, I wrote about it, they didn’t like it, I didn’t like that, blah, blah, blah and eventually things came to a head with a cancelled interview, a half-hour phone-call and allegations of flying beer cans. But the truth is I don’t hate them: I like what Jet could be. I want as much as anyone else from Melbourne for a local rock band to conquer the world—but I just don’t think Jet should be doing it with their current songs. Whatever. Anyway, this was my first and last interview with the band (though others were organized); they’d obviously read my reviews and I was aware that they knew who I was by then. It was a face-to-face interview in a café’s garden and we all had a merry time pretending to ignore the elephant in the corner. Cester is a mess of contradictions: the front-man who’d rather not be at the front, seemingly at ease with his band’s pig-headedly simple rock and yet all too aware of its limitations and derivativeness, the list goes on—but, though his music might be Big Dumb Rock, dumb Mr. Cester is not. He is also dryly funny in an acerbic, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it manner, and that first quote sums it up tidily. But the ‘aha!’ moment came when Cester thumped the table and let on, in a not-very-convincingly-‘funny’ way, that we were both beating around the bush. I was running a temperature (though it was probably psychosomatic) and didn’t really want to praise famous death dwarves in the courtyard of Wazza’s Deli and so I put him off, but I love how he still manages to draw attention to the friction. Sure, he’s talking about “the people”, but by the time he’s swapped “them” and “they” to a very obvious “you” it’s more than obvious. “You hate”, “you’re not deciding”… It’s a shame we never got the chance to go Round Two; I think this interview (which ended up being titled “It’s A Short Way To The Top”) was the start—or maybe just the consolidation—of a beautiful… something.
By: Clem Bastow
Published on: 2005-02-25