I began my career as a reporter before we started shoveling news online, so I've been interviewing a while. Actually, it's been a while, but I know a good interview from a bad interview, for sure.
One of my first professional interviews was with Tish Hinojosa. It was awful. I didn't even know how to pronounce her name. I couldn't get her to open up about anything, and it was all my fault. I'd received her most recent album the day before the interview, didn't particularly enjoy it on first listen, didn't have time to study it, and didn't know who Barbara Kingsolver was or why her writing some of the liner notes was a big deal.
Another bad interview I had was with someone whose work I really enjoy: Bruce Campbell. Now, if you know Campbell's work, you have some idea of his personality. He's warm, confident and doesn't enjoy taking crap from anyone. I was so nervous for the interview – he was on tour for If Chins Could Kill: Confessions of a B Movie Actor. I'd read it twice in three days, already knew the Evil Dead trilogy by heart, and even went and checked out some of his more obscure stuff, like 1992's Mindwarp. I thought I'd impress him by referencing it. I did so by asking if he thought The Matrix had merely ripped off the concept with a higher budget. Then he gave me a list of about 15 other films Mindwarp had ripped off.
I've had some great interviews, too, and some of those were surprising. Joan Jett, who comes off really shy in person offstage, gave me 10 minutes over the phone in an airport once. It was amazing. She even let me get away with a bad question. I asked if she was tired of being known primarily for one song ("I Love Rock 'n' Roll"). She told me no, in fact, she could play whatever she wanted and it didn't matter how the rest of the show came off. By the end of the night, she could play that one and everyone would sing it for her and be into it.
David Clayton-Thomas [via]David Clayton-Thomas, best known for work he did way before my time (as frontman for Blood, Sweat & Tears), wanted to talk at 7 a.m. (yes, a musician wanted to talk at 7 a.m.), and we were on the phone for two and a half hours.
This is not about name-dropping. Hell, it's not even about me. It's about interviewing. Maybe more accurately, it's about how to have a conversation.
You might know Biz Markie from 1989's "Just a Friend." You might know him from the scene in Men in Black II when he beat-boxes in the back room of a post office. If you have kids, you might know him from Nick Jr.'s "Yo Gabba Gabba."
James Altucher, who does one of my favorite podcasts, interviewed Markie recently (see episode 35). And it was awful. So bad, in fact, that the podcast wasn't the straight interview. Altucher ran a commentary track, stopping every time he had a criticism.
Now, Altucher had done his research. He knew a lot about his subject. But it took a while to let his subject know that. It was really, really awkward. Sometimes, when it's like pulling teeth to get an interview, it's time to give up on the interview.
On the other side of the spectrum is comedian Marc Maron, who's had one of the top-rated podcasts on iTunes for years. It's called WTF, and, apart from having amazing guests, features amazing interviews, even the ones he's really nervous about doing. They all turn into good conversations that flow easily between topics and across timelines. Some of my favorites include his interviews with the likes of Roseanne Cash (No. 511), Bob Newhart (No. 523), Shepard Fairy (No. 497) and Lewis Black (No. 485).
I came to his podcast late – there are dozens of interviews I'll probably spring for the premium app to hear. Go give them a listen; the last 50 are always free.
That brings us to this: What makes a good interview? Does it take a professional? Does it take practice? Does it take research?
No, it doesn't take a professional. It definitely takes some practice. A little research is not a bad thing, but is entirely unnecessary if your subject is patient.
A good interview winds up being a conversation. And you can have a conversation that essentially turns into an interview. And if you've never heard of your subject, or conversation partner, just ask the pertinent questions without appearing nosy or pushy.
Have an idea of points you'd like to hit along the way, but be as open about yourself as you want your subject to be about himself or herself. It should feel natural after the initial discomfort of meeting a new person.
Go try it on a friend, then a stranger, then someone famous. Good luck!