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No Expectations 034: Cool Dry Place
How to prepare for an artist interview. Plus, new songs from Wilco and SPIRIT OF THE BEEHIVE.
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This past weekend, I took a couple of days off from freelance work and traveled to Michigan to see family. My mom lives near Lake Michigan on the west side of the state. It’s great out there: the bars are so reasonably priced they make Rainbo Club look like a fancy cocktail joint, there’s a burrito place that wraps chili dogs in a tortilla (a genius hack to eliminate mess), and some honestly fantastic thin-crust pizza (Fricano’s). We even spent a couple of afternoons on a boat drinking Labatt Blue Light and listening to MJ Lenderman’s Boat Songs. I had a great time but I’m realizing that I should probably take more days off for my next trip: three full non-travel days to do nothing is great but it’s not enough to feel like a vacation. Because of this, going back to deadlines on Monday was pretty gnarly so bear with me while I combine a few recent mailbag questions about interviewing artists into the essay below.
Interview Hack: Know Your Stuff
There are few things more disappointing in entertainment journalism than realizing the writer conducting a Q&A you’re reading is not super familiar with the person they’re interviewing. This doesn’t happen often, of course, but when it does, it’s a huge bummer. The questions are too softball, too general, and too amateurish, which makes the subject’s answers boilerplate and inessential. It’s a big waste of time for everyone involved: the artist on a press cycle, the likely overworked journalist, and, especially, the reader. You’ll see this happen on YouTube interview shows, radio, random podcasts, and occasionally in print or online journalism from writers who are just starting their careers, but no matter the medium, an ill-prepared interview is never worthwhile.
This isn’t to say that I’ve always come perfectly prepped for every interview I’ve done. I still cringe thinking about a time early in my career when I thought I was just interviewing the frontman of a band but found out at the last minute that I was speaking to the entire group instead. (To make matters worse, that interview was filmed. It was brutal). To this day, I’ll occasionally mess up a song title or get a date wrong talking to an artist but I do truly value research and being as prepared as possible before an interview.
For one, all internet journalism is public-facing and you’re one flub away from embarrassing yourself to an artist you like as well as the people who end up reading it. Two, if an artist realizes you know what you’re talking about, they’ll feel more comfortable and open up to the questions you ask. Three, familiarizing yourself with an artist will make you better at your job profiling them. And finally, it’s simply good manners: if you’re going to take time out of a stranger’s schedule to chat with them, it’s respectful to know what they do.
All of this is obvious, Music Journalism 101 stuff, I know, but ask any artist about their press interview horror stories and you’re bound to find something egregious. To name just one, I remember covering a festival almost a decade ago and finding out another journalist there earnestly asked Jack Black, who was playing with Tenacious D, what it was like to star in The Hangover. (No, I will never say who—I’m sure they still think about that mistake to this day).
In my freelance career, a typical week now has me doing two to three artist interviews for writing press bios, publication work, or this newsletter. I love talking with artists and profiles are my bread-and-butter assignments. So after a decade of doing this, I’m pretty confident in doing them. That said, if I skimp on research for one chat, I’ll realize pretty quickly that I could have done better. I’ll listen to the transcript and think up ways I could’ve phrased a question more eloquently or asked something more informed and probing. Even in the interviews where I think I nailed it, I can easily find where I can improve. (In an earlier newsletter, I wrote about the Importance of Shutting Up being one of these ways).
Being a competent and thoughtful interviewer is a skill that you have to continually hone. No matter how much you prep, sometimes you just won’t vibe with the person you’re talking to and that’s okay. But, these four tips have been essential in helping me get the most out of artist interviews, making a good impression, and allowing a total stranger to feel comfortable enough to give me revealing and thoughtful answers.
1. Listen to their entire discography back-to-front
This is super time-consuming for sure but it’s so important. Being able to demonstrate that you have more than just a casual understanding of the person you’re interviewing is essential to them taking you seriously. Artists have to do dozens of press Q&As throughout their careers. The average person can only take so many “any cool stories from the road?” softball questions before their eyes glaze over and they start tweeting mean things about music journalists. As a writer, you have the opportunity to be the exception to the rule. Show your interview subject that you not only know your shit but you also care. It goes a long way.
Also, I’m a firm believer in the value of listening to a band’s catalog from start to finish, from debut album to late career LP. It’s the best way to get a sense of one artist’s artistic evolution but it’s also great to chart how an act’s music fits into historical trends in general. What did music sound like when this act started out? How did they adapt to the changing times? Did other acts follow them or rip them off? Did this artist’s ambition change when they started to receive more press and audience attention? If you’re a critic or a music journalist, these thought experiments help you come up with actually interesting questions that dig a little deeper than the average album cycle Q&A.
I’m not saying that you need to ask an artist about one particular detail from an album that they released decades ago but getting a general sense of how they’ve made music will help you focus on what to talk about.
2. Read as many profiles about your subject as you can
Beyond just being familiar with your interview subject’s work, reading up on them gives you important context to their motivations, their approach to songwriting, and a sense of who they are as people and artists. Are they typically icy or open to the press? Do they dive into their personal life or the way they write freely or do they close themselves off in conversation? Having a sense of how these people are in conversation will give you a sense on what will work and what won’t for your own interview. Most importantly, you’ll know what they’ve already been asked and what requires further investigation.
3. Check for any video and podcast interviews too
Reading what an artist says is an entirely different experience than hearing them actually say it. I love listening to a podcast with someone I’m about to interview because I can sort of gauge the kind of person they are in conversation: Do they laugh at every joke? Are they all-business and all-process? If they seem down to clown, I can come in with some jokes to lighten the mood and make them comfortable. If not, I’ll just go through my questions and keep it professional. Matching someone’s energy is honestly pretty important in interviews. You don’t want to overwhelm an otherwise stoic artist with manic energy unless you’re like, Nardwaur or something.
4. Write notes to guide your chat but remember to keep it conversational
Your mileage may vary here but I never write out my questions before an interview. I found that whenever I did more than simply write out a general outline with beats I wanted to touch on, I’d lose the conversational flow of the interview. You can lose so much organic conversation by sticking to a script. You can easily focus on the next question you’ll ask and miss out on something more interesting your subject is talking about. The research you did going in should guide you anyway without needing to follow a step-by-step plan.
Throwback: My 2021 Noisey Next Profile on Katy Kirby
On Friday, one of my favorite new artists of the past decade, Katy Kirby, is playing a headlining show with Lutalo at the Empty Bottle. The first time I heard Katy’s debut album Cool Dry Place it felt like I’d always loved it. Her songs are so well-written and do so much with their short runtimes and deceptively simple arrangements that I can confidently say it’s one of my favorite albums of all time now. That LP came out in 2021 when I was working at VICE and back then, the site had a great interview series called Noisey Next which gave a shine to new artists we loved. That chat turned into one of my favorite profiles I’ve ever done.
What I listened to:
No Expectations 034 Playlist:
1. Noah Kesey, “Dynamite”
2. Buck Meek, “Cyclades”
3. Squirrel Flower, “Full Time Job”
4. Mitski, “Bug Like an Angel”
5. Bonny Doon, “Maybe Today”
6. Hotline TNT, “Protocol”
7. Sinai Vessel, “Tangled”
8. Cantuckee, Dandelion Hunter, “Horse”
9. Field Medic, “iwantthis2last!”
10. Tobacco City, “Motorcade”
11. No Lonesome, “Strange How”
12. Spun Out, “Pale Green Sky”
13. Art Feynman, “Desperately Free (Radio Edit)”
14. Say She She, “Astral Plane”
15. Tyler Childers, “In Your Love”
Wilco is probably my favorite band of all time. This is not a radical opinion from a 30-something dude who lives in Chicago, has a beard, and owns more than a dozen baseball caps, I know. But no matter how much I rave about their music, I still feel like I’m underselling it. They’re the band that I always want to share, to bring friends and family members to their gigs, and to give out recommendations to newcomers about the best LPs to start with. (Some people will respond more to Summerteeth while others would prefer Yankee Hotel Foxtrot or A Ghost Is Born—there’s a whole science to it). I like everything they do and few artists have evolved more gracefully over 30 years, still making vital records even when the muse and priorities change.
“Evicted” is the first taste of their upcoming album Cousin, which Cate Le Bon produced. It’s been a long time since Wilco enlisted an outside producer to cut an album with and I couldn’t be more stoked it’s someone like Le Bon. While I’ve loved every latter-day Wilco LP, I think I might be the most excited for this one as I have been in a decade. This single hits all the right marks.
SPIRIT OF THE BEEHIVE, “tapeworm” / “natural devotion 2”
Philadelphia’s SPIRIT OF THE BEEHIVE announced a new EP this week and I wrote the press bio for it. For a band that’s consistently described by music journalists as enigmatic and cryptic in conversation, I found them to be an open book. Without much prompting, members Zack Schwartz and Rivka Ravede talked freely about the dissolution of their decade-plus romantic relationship and how the breakup affected their songwriting on this new release. “Every time we’ve released an album and done a bio, there hasn’t really been a story about the record beyond this is how and where we recorded it, so it’s probably chill to talk about this stuff,” Schwartz told me in the interview. But even if you don’t know the personal circumstances behind the forthcoming i’m so lucky, it’s still such a thrilling listen. Just listen to opener “tapeworm” and the closer “natural devotion 2,” which solidify the trio as one of the most exciting, unpredictable, and menacing outfits going.
What I watched:
Mikey and Nicky (Max)
I’m embarrassed to admit that this is the first film I’ve seen directed by director Elaine May. I love movies that respect your intelligence enough to just dive into the story without needless exposition, establishing shots, or flashbacks and this definitely falls into that category. It follows two friends played by Peter Falk and John Cassavetes fleeing from the mob in Philadelphia. One’s frantic and paranoid because he has a hit on him and the other is exasperated and trying to calm him down. There are shades of other movies like Thief, After Hours and Good Time here in how it’s such a nervy and anxiety-filled ride. But really, it’s a fascinating document on male friendship and how characters can slowly reveal themselves to be pretty despicable people at their worst moments.
The Civil Dead (Showtime/Parmount+)
Speaking of male friendship gone wrong, Clay Tatum’s The Civil Dead is one of the most inventive comedies I’ve seen in a long time. Though I watched it a couple of weeks ago, I haven’t been able to shake it. I don’t want to spoil it too much but it’s part buddy comedy, part LA dirtbag mumblecore, and part ghost story. You can tell Whitmer Thomas and Tatum are best buds in real life from their onscreen chemistry.
What I read:
The End of Summer Concerts? (Jeva Lange, Heatmap)
Outdoor concerts, though, are as much a staple of American summers as BBQs and pool parties. And in an age of Ticketmaster surge pricing and variable movie theater costs, local shows in particular are an inexpensive or free way for families to enjoy entertainment outside the house — part of what makes them so popular that practically every municipality seems to have its own version. But while in past summers, hot days at least led to cool evenings in lawn chairs after the sun went down, nighttime temperatures have offered little relief this year. Already some organizers are beginning to consider moving future summer shows indoors to protect performers and audiences, though doing so will also likely make them less accessible and more expensive.
Why Are Dave Matthews Band Fans So Loyal? (Perri Ormont Blumberg, NYTimes)
For a certain set of music enthusiasts born between 1970 to 2000, DMB is synonymous with summer. “When this time comes, I can’t wait for it. It’s the kid in me,” Mr. Roberts said on a follow-up call during a 17-hour drive from Wisconsin to New Hampshire to see two more DMB shows. “I have more friends through DMB than I do through high school and college.”
Since 1992, the band, or some iteration of it, has toured relentlessly from Memorial Day to “Labor Dave Weekend” and beyond (except in 2020, because of the pandemic). Superfans routinely follow DMB around for regional legs of tours. Many have seen hundreds of shows, displaying a band-as-religion level fandom with tattoos, license plates and jewelry professing their piety.
Coupled with DMB’s taping-friendly policy (fans are allowed to audio record shows with professional equipment) and its hippie reputation, the band’s music frequently gets lumped together with the Grateful Dead and Phish.
Sinéad O’Connor Was Always Herself (Hanif Abdurraqib, The New Yorker)
One of my favorite O’Connor performances is a cover of Nirvana’s “All Apologies,” from her 1994 album “Universal Mother.” In one TV appearance, she stands at the front of a stage in a white top with a large red heart at its center. The stage is dipped in crimson. A single acoustic-guitar player sits at her back. She sings most of the song in a restrained whisper, with her eyes cast down, which I don’t read as a manifestation of shame itself but as an attempt to divorce herself from the cameras, to erect a boundary between herself and the world. She looks up when she gets to the line “Easily amused / Find my nest of salt / Everything’s my fault / I’ll take all the blame / Aqua sea-foam shame,” and when she arrives at the song’s closing repetition—“All in all is all we are”—her voice grows increasingly quiet, until she is swaying back and forth in silence, mouthing the words but not speaking them, looking up as if she knows the answer to something you never will. Then she puts the mike by her side and steps back into the reddened dark.
The Weekly No Expectations Chicago Show Calendar
This is a lighter week for the show calendar because Lollapalooza basically takes over each Chicago venue the entire weekend. Most of the festival after-shows are sold out as of this writing but I’ve included a couple worth seeing with tickets available. Instead of anything Lolla-related, I’ll see y’all at Katy Kirby on Friday.
Friday, August 4: Katy Kirby, Lutalo at Empty Bottle. Tickets.
Saturday, August 5: MICHELLE, Girl K at Schubas. Tickets.
Sunday, August 6: Dehd, The Hecks at Thalia Hall. Tickets.
Tuesday, August 8: The Drums, Cold Heart at Metro. Tickets.
Wednesday, August 9: Sarah Weddle, Red PK at Constellation. Tickets.
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