They say that grieving takes place in stages; for me personally, in going through the different stages of coming to accept the loss that is the place that I’ve had the privilege to write for for the past five or six years, it has also given me occasion to pontificate the stages of my interaction with the Boston Phoenix. First, it was as an avid reader, where for years I would pick it up every week and read it cover to cover (even when it cost $1.25!); second, as a musician, hoping to be cool and hip enough to catch the eye of the paper’s tastemakers; and then finally as a contributor, psyched to get to attempt to live up to the paper’s storied legacy.
Writing about music means talking to musicians, and writing for the Phoenix meant that I got to talk to a lot of them; I never really counted but I interviewed several hundred people over my time there, from the first interview I did with Steve Albini (in 2007, when I cornered him for a long conversation after a gig in Verona, Italy) to what became my last interview, from the Phoenix’s final issue with KMFDM frontman Sascha Konietzko.
When I first started, I used to dread interviews— writing for the Phoenix really taught me how to get over my fear and strive to provoke more and more interesting conversations. My goal was always the same, whether I was talking to a grizzled veteran or some over-hyped new kid: to try to get to the essence of the artist in as few strokes as possible. If I was a superfan and read one of my articles, would I find it to be revelatory and sufficiently informed? If not, who am I to be doing this interview?
Anyway, in the wake of the Phoenix’s demise I’ve been going over some of my work for them, and decided that I’d put together a list of some of my favorite interviews I did. These aren’t necessarily the most famous people I talked to, or the most “important”, or anything; just ones that were either really funny, really profound, or both. There are many instances where an interview subject said something to me that I still think about, years later; it’s why I keep doing this whole thing, right? Anyway, not that you asked, but here’s my top 20, in no real order:
Joan Baez, October 2008
I spoke to Baez a few days before the ‘08 election, and she put the whole thing in a fascinating perspective. I guess anyone who can say “Obama, he has some of the power that King had” and pronounce “King” with such a familiar air is someone worth listening to.
Robyn Hitchcock, May 2010
I talked to Hitchcock for about an hour and he was probably the smartest guy I’ve ever talked to:
Reality is shaking hands with the impossible, which is what we do every day. Reality is a membrane of the banal spread over the inconceivable: we think that we are getting up every morning and going to work, or we follow these patterns of how we live — when all the while, this extraordinary mechanism is lurching and buckling beneath our feet.
There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think about that quote.
Glenn Danzig, June 2010
Like all of my best interview subjects, Danzig was almost hostile at the start and then revealed himself to be a super nice guy by the middle. His rants in this conversation are absolutely amazing, and he is an amazing mix of hysterical and completely full of himself. I love Danzig.
Ian Svenonius, January 2013
One of my final interviews for The Phoenix was this long long long talk with one of my big idols, Ian Svenonius. He’s my idol not so much because of the music he has made (with Nation of Ulysses, the Make-Up, Weird War, and nowadays with Chain and The Gang) as the ideas he has put out in the world, challenging the central tenets of pop music, it’s creation myth, in a way that is truly bold and unique. Moreover, when he talks about rock music, he knows the ups and downs intimately; talking about his new book, ostensibly a guide for creating a rock band, he had this to say:
I’m not really talking about the great appeal of the group, because everybody knows that, it’s been bashed into your head by cultural programming. So if rock is a cult, this is a pre-deprogramming guide. There’s a lot of hurt feelings in rock and roll, because people really never recover from a group. It’s like drug addiction, you can be saddled with it forever.
I can’t describe how immensely accurate a description this is, from my experience. Amen.
Jack Donoghue from Salem, July 2010
Some musicians are cool to talk to because they have so much experience, and some are great because they have so amazingly little. When I interviewed Donoghue he was about to do a DJ set in Central Square Cambridge; his band was on the verge of releasing their King Night album, but were on the cusp of becoming the universally despised thing to hang the failure of “witch house” on. Donoghue was driven to Boston for the DJ gig by his publicist, so my interview, in a loud club, was awkward on top of being weird. But I love that I got to talk to this guy about his strange, strange band. In an alternate universe they’d be as big as Crystal Castles (now there’s an interview experience that didn’t make the top 20…)
Monster Magnet’s Dave Wyndorf, October 2010
A few times during my conversation with the legendary stoner-space-rock pioneer, Wyndorf’s computer would emit a loud ping that was unmistakably the AOL “You’ve Got Mail” sound. It could be, I guess, a symbol that the man was a bit out of touch, a bloated rocker so lost in his own head that he hadn’t noticed that it was the second decade of the twenty-first century; but fuck it, it was really more about how rock and roll had pummeled his mind so heavily in the seventies that he couldn’t do anything but keep sharing that pummeling with an audience, even if they continued to dwindle as the years passed from his late-90s salad days.
M.I.A., October 2010
I assumed when I finally got Maya on the horn that I was going to get like two minutes and then the hook; she was backstage in her dressing room and was supposed to go onstage in a few hours, and her voice was shot. But nope, she wanted to talk, and talk, and talk, and it was rambling and defensive and awesome. This entire conversation is a mad pendulum swing between the opposing poles of being disarmingly honest and being completely and utterly full of shit— my favorite type of musician to talk to.
Sébastien Tellier, March 2009
Talking to Tellier, Eurovision representative for France and electro smooth operator, was like having a conversation with a real-life Pepe Le Pew; this interview was so funny, I don’t know how I made it through the whole thing without bursting out in tears. A sample quote:
I did a gig in New York, and some couple in the audience made love during that song [‘La ritournelle’]. And you know, the goal of a gig is not just to listen to bum-bum-bum-bum, you know? If people make love to my music, perhaps that means that my music can help create babies — which is a wonderful effect, because with music, you can dance, you can cry, anything. When people have sex in front of me during a song, it’s a pleasure — it’s like living in a dream.
Yanni, March 2011
Speaking of Euro lovermen, I also got in on a conference call with the one and only Yanni a few years ago. Like Tellier, he was such a super slick dude, somehow describing his musical process in drippingly sexual terms in a way that suggested that he maybe didn’t even know he was doing it:
I mean, with instrumental music, you can’t lie. You have to know about the love, passion, the emotions that your music is describing. And then you have to be capable of putting those emotions into notes, sounds, rhythms, so that the listener can feel them. You are attempting to transmit emotions, and it’s not an easy task. I just try to tell the truth and be honest about how I feel, about what turns me on.
Kitty Pryde, August 2012
Most musical artists have a deep investment in keeping their career afloat at all costs, which is why it was kind of weird to talk to someone like Kitty Pryde, who when I spoke to her last year seemed nonchalant to the point of almost not caring about whether this whole being a touring and recording musician thing lasted beyond tomorrow. Delusion is a far-reaching disease in music, and it’s a true anomaly to encounter someone with zero delusions about how the whole thing works.
In Solitude’s Pelle Åhman, April 2012
I’ve talked to a lot of dudes in metal bands, and most of them are really nice guys but really boring. It has to do with the fact that metal, as a genre, is seen more as a sport than an art by most, so the bands view songs and shows as things that require stamina and tenacity, which aren’t very interesting things to hear about. “We tried really hard and we’ve been practicing a lot and this new album is our best one”— that sort of thing. But every once in a while, a metal dude is just a complete loon, in the best way— and so it was when I spoke with Pelle Åhman a/k/a Hornper from In Solitude; dude is in his early twenties and way more emo about his art and his sacrifice and his anguish than most metal dudes:
“I have to portray my inner life; I have no other choice. With this metal music, the underlying emotive and spiritual values that power it are so important to me. I don’t know, I have no other choice than to write about it, actually. Otherwise, I dunno… . ” Åhman pauses in thought, before darkly proclaiming, “I would kill myself.”
Gang of Four’s Jon King, January 2011
I thought that I wanted to talk to Andy Gill, since he had been my biggest guitar idol since forever. But once I got on the phone with singer Jon King, I realized that I was in the presence of one of rock’s smartest dudes. Gang of Four are so awesome because they took rock and punk and funk and art and questioned all the central tenets, and only kept the things that they could live with associating with. The result is some of the greatest rock music of all time, and it was beyond fascinating to find out what the process was actually like.
Dinosaur Jr’s J Mascis, June 2011
When I was a kid and a Dinosaur Jr megafan, I understood J Mascis to be the ultimate impossible interview: catatonic to the point of being completely incommunicable, anything I read about the band centered on how he was basically retarded. When I finally spoke to him all these years later, it was indeed true that he was a tricky interview, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t perfectly lucid, with great insights on what it means to make it in a punk underground when you are louder and weirder than everyone else in the scene. The cliche about J is that he “lets his music do the talking”, but I think he’s perfectly capable of letting his mouth do the talking as well when he feels like it.
John Lydon of PiL/Sex Pistols, September 2012
Sometimes a great interview is when you get to really go back and forth and question a person on their music and their lives— but every once in a while, a great interview is with one of those people who just turns the spigot and points the verbal firehose at your face. So it was when I had the honor of being completely disheveled by Johnny Rotten himself, who is, besides being a whipsmart dude, the best person to explain exactly what is awesome about himself and his music. Every syllable of this interview was golden— I only wish everyone could hear it as well as read it, because the way he said everything is just as mint as what he said.
Any fan of the Melvins knows that Buzzo is a notorious crank— mostly because he has no filter stopping him from naming names or pissing people off. But behind the bluster, he’s also a sensitive musician and artist trying to keep doing what he has been doing for nearly three decades in a tough competitive musical world that is, more and more, a continued slap in the face to any self-respecting musician. Both of these interviews I had with Buzz play out like almost a master class in Rock Band Economics, whilst also expressing the despair at the heart of what it means to be a touring musician.
Simon Reynolds, April 2012
Reynolds is a veteran music journalist, and at the time of this interview, his book Retromania had become a cause celebre amongst those who bought wholesale into his premise that modern music culture is being completely taken over by its own past. It’s an interesting conceit that I somewhat totally disagree with, but when I finally got him on the phone, expecting to duke it out with the master, I was surprised at how non-combative our conversation was. I attribute this to not only Reynolds’ open-mindedness (and willingness to talk for nearly two hours!), but his ability to question even his most tightly held beliefs on the subject. It’s why even when everyone else has written a topic to death, it’s always worth seeing what Reynolds thinks about it, because it’s always going to be idiosyncratic and uniquely thought-out.
Die Antwoord’s Ninja, October 2010
M.I.A.’s team was so pleased with my interview with her (because everyone else hated her then-current album Maya for some reason) that they hooked me up with this phoner with Ninja from South African rap-meme Die Antwoord. He was, unlike his rap persona, amazingly nice and polite, but also completely loopy and batshit insane, and I loved it. “Pop music was, ultimately, the enemy I had to become. I mean, pop music is in control of the whole world, and the retards are winning. Not anymore. Die Antwoord are here.” A-fucking-men.
Richie Havens, December 2008
To write a full-page feature for the Phoenix, I usually needed a 20-30 minute conversation; when I got Richie Havens on the line, I was left at the end of our conversation with nearly two hours of anecdotes and reminisces. It was mind-boggling and awesome— I mean, the man just gets onstage and plays with no setlist or plan, and he talks in a similar manner. Also, he has experienced so much that even the most casual thing can blow the mind— like when he told me that he used to babysit a young David Lee Roth. I wish I still had the complete tape…
An unnamed ghoul from the band Ghost, December 2011
The band Ghost are totally anonymous for some reason, so I literally was connected via the band’s PR with “an unnamed ghoul” who spoke the whole time in the royal “we”. It was trippy, but he was also hyper-intelligent and thoughtful about the care and nuance that go into the juggernaut production that is Ghost. Probably my favorite new rock band of the last decade or so.
Eddie and Nash from Urge Overkill, June 2011
Interviews with artists whose high point is a few years back are usually filled with the band members pretending that the old times were far better than they actually were— but this talk with the U.R.G.E. guys was painfully honest, with both Eddie and Nash fully copping to how low they had sunk post-fame and how the acrimonious breakup of Urge Overkill was as painful for them as it was for the fans of the band. Their reunion, amidst a sea of 90s reunions, was one of the few real bright spots in a crowd of money-grubbing opportunists.