What 300 Hours of Interviewing Musicians Taught Chris Payne
The Author of Reflects on the Oral History of Emo Music
My new book Where Are Your Boys Tonight? contains material from over 300 hours of interviews with over 150 subjects.
I feel kind of exhausted just typing that. The book is a 460-page oral history, telling the story of emo’s Y2k-era rise from basements to Warped Tour, and eventually, TRL and the VMAs red carpet. It stars bands like My Chemical Romance and Fall Out Boy, alongside the scenesters, journalists, execs, and superfans who watched the genre’s explosion.
Oral histories are daunting, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. After a decade as a full-time music journalist, I’ve written everything from essays and news items to profiles and criticism. For me it all starts with the interview, it’s the part I love the most.
Interviewing musicians is its own skill. Some musicians are avid readers themselves, eager to discuss how they fit into the discourse of the day. Others are much tougher. Maybe they prefer to let their music speak for itself. Maybe they’re quite introverted. Maybe they just don’t have a very good memory. But it’s my job to connect with all of them, to communicate the value of sharing their stories.
I’ve never been a musician myself, unless you count a few teenage years playing bass guitar along to Fall Out Boy and Arctic Monkeys songs in my bedroom. I’ve gotten to know plenty of musicians over my seven years on staff at Billboard and freelancing for outlets like Vulture and Stereogum, but most of my advice for interviewing musicians applies to all sorts of creatives.
Your first question is all about finding the vibe.
I like to open interviews with a low-stakes, open-ended question: How’s release week treating you? I caught your show the other night, what did you think of that venue? The response probably won’t make the final piece, but it helps both sides navigate the interview. You never know how that person’s day is going, what they were dealing with just before they entered your presence.
This lets them collect themselves, and also helps you gauge their vibe: Do they seem especially excited to open up, or are they reserved? Is this one of those interviews where you’re going to have to keep them from rambling so you can maximize every one of those measly fifteen minutes their publicist gave you?
But be amenable. When I was an intern at Billboard, I tried to small talk with John Taylor from Duran Duran and he was basically like (in politer words), “Kid, don’t you want to ask me real questions?” So yes, there will be interviews, especially with bigger celebrities, where you’ve basically got to open with, “Hi! I figure you’ve got a busy day, cool if we dive right in?”
Let it flow.
Even if you’re working with limited time, ask your questions with the flow of a natural conversation. You’ll have your questions written out (in print or in your head), but don’t feel bound to ask them in that order. Designate a small number of must-ask questions—the quotes you have to get for your story—and promise yourself you’ll ask them at some point. With that established, treat your interview like a conversation where you’ll pepper in your questions (and follow-ups) wherever they feel right.
Speak professionally, but there’s no need to talk like a professor reading off notecards. Unless there’s a specific reason you have to word a question very carefully, just let your curiosity do the talking: Listening to your album, I started wondering about such-and-such and over the years I can’t remember you talking about such-and-such—could you tell me the story of such-and-such?
This is pretty much how I asked Fall Out Boy and My Chemical Romance about the moments they crossed paths—pivotal stuff for my book, but also I was dying to know! If you ask questions with intelligent spontaneity, the more likely you are to bring the artist’s guard down and get a correspondingly genuine response.
Compliments are great, but sincerity and specificity go a long way. If an artist has been doing press for a new release, chances are they’ve heard, “Congrats on the new album” a zillion times. Is there a riff that’s stuck in your head? A lyric you can’t wait to ask them about? Bring that up instead—they’ll appreciate that you spent quality time with the music, and this might even bridge into a useful quote for your story.
Questions about what artists have been listening to, favorite albums of the year, etc., often fall flat. I think most of us tend to freeze up when we’re put on the spot like this, and besides—most musicians don’t follow the flow of new releases the way journalists/critics do. If you must ask, do so early on, and give them a chance to come back to it once they’ve had time to think it over.
Don’t feel obligated to ask tons of questions about whatever new project they’re promoting. Your piece will inherently draw attention to it; unique questions will make both of you look interesting. From doing the press rounds for my book, I’ve learned how exciting it is to get asked something thoughtful and unexpected, after answering the same questions numerous times.
Is there an old song beloved to their core fanbase you’d love their present-day perspective on? A celebrity encounter they haven’t talked about in ages? Asking Gym Class Heroes rapper Travie McCoy about hanging with Lil’ Wayne at the 2007 VMAs felt like opening a door to a whole world outside my book.
When interviewing bands, try to interview members individually.
Getting the full band dynamic is important, but often your time is wasted by one member dominating the conversation, or inside jokes that aren’t funny outside of the tour bus.
More relaxed, genuine responses tend to come from talking to people one-on-one. Once I was interviewing Billie Joe Armstrong, Pete Wentz, and Rivers Cuomo together for a Billboard cover story. Our time was cut short without warning, and it felt like a huge blow to my story. I hadn’t even gotten to ask some of my most important questions.
But this was a blessing in disguise. Their publicist agreed to set up one-on-one interviews to make up for the lost time. Speaking to them individually, with a rapport already established, made it much easier to ask the personal stuff.
Asking the tough questions.
I often hear advice saying you should wait until the end of an interview to ask an especially difficult question. This is partially true. If it’s such a volatile question that you think the subject might flip out and end the entire interview, then yes, save it for last.
Remember though, public figures go through media training, and many of these people have already rehearsed answers for tough questions they expect to get. If the interview is in a comfortable groove, and the opportunity presents itself early on, ask the question in a genuine, conversational way.
You may get their stock response, but there’s no reason you can’t ask a genuine follow-up: And in that moment, how did that make you feel? Is there something you think people should know more about this issue? If you can communicate that you’re a real person invested in this topic beyond click-bait obligations, you may get rewarded with a story-defining reply.
One of the most touching anecdotes in my book comes from My Chemical Romance bassist Mikey Way describing fans telling him how his band saved their lives. This wasn’t a big, calculated ask on my part; we just got there by discussing how big comic book culture had gotten and the costumes MCR cosplayers wore over the years.
When subjects ask to retract quotes…
If I was interviewing a politician, I’d be a huge stickler for the old (and important) journalism axiom, that anything in an interview setting not specified as off the record, is on the record. No exceptions. These are elected officials, and they write policy that affects us all.
For people who work in the arts, I’m inclined to navigate off record/on record with more leeway. If a subject contacts me the day after an interview asking to rephrase a response that didn’t sit well with them, I’ll often hear them out. Be reasonable though, and stand up for yourself as a journalist. If a publicist hits me up asking to cut an entire hour from an interview, that’s not happening.
Find the not-famous people who spent a lot of time around the famous people.
So, you’re interviewing a band about their new album… there’s no rule saying they’re the only people you’re allowed to interview!
Maybe your piece could use a quote about your subject, before they were famous, from an artist they toured with half a decade ago. Or from whoever sold merch on that tiny tour. There’s a good chance they spent a lot of time with the big star you’re writing your piece on, long before that star could hide away on their own fancy tour bus.
For these people who aren’t often interviewed, the interview process will be more novel and exciting. Some of my book’s best quotes about My Chemical Romance came from Kate Truscott, who sold merch for them on tour in 2005, when they were on the cusp of fame. For Paramore, I tracked down their early producers: Mike Green (2005’s All We Know Is Falling) and David Bendeth (2007’s Riot!).
Whoever your subject, try to find these hidden experts—they can unlock the behind-the-scenes stories your subjects won’t want to tell, or don’t even remember.
And for those ultra-famous people…
Celebrities who have answered hundreds, maybe thousands of questions before, often talk like media-trained robots. You’ve really got to do the work to ask them things they’ve never been asked before – this is how you shake them off auto-pilot. And remember that their fans – the people reading your story – have also seen them answer the same questions over and over.
When I interviewed Pete Wentz for my book, I focused on interesting things I’d never seen him talk about. In the late ’90s, before Fall Out Boy, he briefly played bass in a super-confrontational leftist hardcore punk band called Racetraitor. The band had reunited recently and gotten a bit of press, but since Wentz wasn’t involved anymore, his perspective on Racetraitor seemed kind of lost to history, especially as a mixed-race person himself (another topic that was mostly overlooked).
Discussing all this led to some of the most rewarding quotes in my book.
Looking to the future…
Unfortunately, it’s getting harder and harder to get readers to engage with new music. We have more media options thrown in front of us than ever before. Publications are less likely to fund interviews with emerging artists because readers are more likely to engage with content featuring familiar names.
But this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be seeking out interviews with baby artists you see potential in. Many questions, even basic ones, they’ll be answering for the first time, perhaps before they’ve received any media training. You’ll be getting some of their most genuine responses.
If you can conduct one of the first interviews with an artist who winds up having a celebrated career—even if only in indie circles—both you and that publication will have a special interview to circulate for years to come.
Where Are Your Boys Tonight? by Chris Payne is available via Dey Street.