by JIM KNIPFEL
June 23, 2019
So . . . What’s Your Favorite Color?
I’ve always doubted the value of interviews with famous people. Most strike me as boring, useless wastes of time and space. I don’t mean news interviews so much, which can be pretty hilarious—I mean long, serious interviews with writers, musicians, actors, artists and the like. Especially musicians, who rarely have anything interesting to say about anything, particularly music. Who needs to hear another actor claim the newest load of shit he appears in is the best, most exciting load of shit he’s ever done? And I’m with William Gaddis, who once quipped that writers should be read and not heard. Artists put the important things they have to say into their work, or should anyway, and the rest is drivel. The usually ill-prepared interviewers don’t help matters. What the hell kind of insights are you hoping to reveal by asking an Oscar-winning cinematographer, “What’s your favorite breakfast cereal?”
Although in theory interviews might reveal something about the subject’s personality not otherwise revealed in their work (Roger Waters and Nick Cave are humorless assholes, for instance), this is rare. The form itself is so contrived and artificial I don’t trust anything I read in interviews. People who know they’re being interviewed for publication are going to be on their guard, and they’re going to be wearing whatever mask seems appropriate.
For all my wary suspicions about the form, I’ve been on both sides of more than my share of interviews over the years, and, lord help us all, have more lined up down the pike. At the moment, in fact, I’m gearing up—or at least think I am—for a long interview with Nick Tosches.
I’ve mentioned on more than a few occasions my deep and abiding admiration for Mr. Tosches. As living writers go, he’s pretty well tops in my book. Two-fisted and wise, with an elegant prose that manages to blend the hardboiled with the liturgical, the sacred and the profane, whether writing about forgotten country singers, sinister global financiers, gangsters, boxers, or first century Judea.
Somehow after all these years in the same town we never ended up crossing paths, something I felt was inevitable. So in April of 2018, after snagging his email address from one of the several people we knew in common, I dropped him a line asking if he might be up for a feature-length interview for a fancy-pants magazine I write for on occasion. As much as I doubt their value, I’ve long used interviews as an excuse to meet some of the people I most admire. It’s cheap, but it works, simply because the creative types (and most everyone else) will grab every chance to keep their names in circulation. But I’ve been lucky.
Back in 1990 I called The Residents’ management team out of the blue looking for an interview, and as a result have been working with them for almost thirty years now.
Tosches proved to be a tougher nut to crack. He’s always been notoriously reticent about interviews, and I don’t blame him. Before I sent off that first note, I knew that if he told me to go fuck myself, I’d understand, and at least I gave it a shot.
Well, without going into the long and tedious year-long story, let’s just say he didn’t tell me to fuck off. Not yet, anyway. But the interview hasn’t happened, either. Due to a variety of circumstances, over a year since sending that first note, I’m still not sure if the interview’s going to happen..
For all the interviews I’ve done over the decades, with everyone from famous film directors and musicians to exterminators and car dealers, I’ve never spent this much time and energy trying to set one up. I guess none of the others seemed that important. In fact that car dealer—my very first interview ever—hung up on me after the second question, and I never bothered calling him back.
After sending my latest tap on the shoulder to Mr. Tosches in mid-June of this year, I got to thinking about my own history on both sides of the microphone, and it’s not pretty.
See, I’m a terrible interviewer. Just miserable. I hate transcribing recorded interviews, because it means I have to hear my own voice. I mumble, stammer, and take long, uncomfortable pauses between questions. I’m not too quick on my feet either, and so generally miss obvious openings into interesting tangents or deeper, more detailed answers, too tied down as I am to the questions I’ve jotted down beforehand. Oh, I’m just awkward and the whole thing usually turns out to be extremely painful, in part because I feel bad wasting people’s time asking them questions they’ve likely answered a hundred times already.
Worse still, over the years I’ve had a miserable time with technology. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve finished an interview, only to learn I hadn’t recorded a single fucking word of the hour-long conversation.
Back in the late Nineties I was interviewing Beat poet Marty Matz in a housing complex in the East Village. I was recording the whole thing on a little cassette recorder. When the first side of the tape was finished, I flipped it over and hit the button. Matz then spent the rest of the interview offering a detailed step-by-step recipe for turning poppies into smokable opium. It was amazing. So of course when I got the tape back to the office I discovered that instead of hitting the REC button, I’d hit the PLAY button by mistake, and so missed the whole thing.
Oh, it’s happened so many times. I’ve interviewed aging actors, my favorite filmmakers and musicians, only to find I’d hit the wrong button or the batteries were dead. I can’t very well call these people back and ask them to be interviewed all over again, so what follows this terrifying realization is a few hours of panic, in which to the best of my ability I try to reconstruct what they said in the way they said it.
Amazing thing there is, nobody’s called me on it yet. But now I’m filled with anxiety and loathing before every interview, convinced I’m going to screw up again somehow and not record a peep.
Despite my dread and incompetence, I’ve ended up with some mighty fine interviews over the years, thanks more to the people I was interviewing than anything I may have done. The above-mentioned exterminator (winner of New York’s “Ratcatcher of the Year” award) and Werner Herzog were amazing. All the interviews I did while piecing together a long oral history of The Residents’ early years were great. A recent one with L.A.-based novelist Steve Erickson turned out pretty well, too, though that one was done via email so I didn’t have to hear my awkward questions. The interview I did with Southern novelist Harry Crews turned out pretty good. At least that’s what I thought until picking up a collection of his interviews several years later and realizing that, word-for-word, he’d been giving the same fucking interview for forty years.
For all the good ones, however, there were twice as many bad ones. Atrocious, abominable interviews.
There was a Chinese-American guy I knew who was a gun nut, a martial arts instructor, an exotic animal collector, an outlaw biker . . . and my eye doctor. Fascinating guy. I loved this guy. Whenever I went in for appointments we’d talk and talk about everything. The minute I tried to interview him officially, though, he suddenly began answering all my questions in monosyllables. All the great biker stories vanished. It was miserable. I dredged what I could out of it and went on to turn it into sort of a story, but the story was miserable too. After it ran, he and I never said another word about it.
In retrospect I wonder if he was like Lou Reed. I never interviewed Reed myself. No real desire to, though I did nearly accidentally kill him in the East Village once. That’s another story. Anyway, I’ve known a few people who did interview him, and they all say the same thing—that he froze up whenever he knew he was being recorded, would become stiff and anxious and terse. The moment the recorder was turned off, he would visibly relax and become human again.
Another interviewee, who you might call an Outsider Musician, was likewise monosyllabic. He was a car mechanic from Mississippi who’d released an album that became, if briefly and accidentally, an indie hipster sensation. Don’t remember the guy’s name at all, but the album sounded more like Stan Ridgway than Hank Williams, and one song in particular, something about surfing, was strange and incongruous and catchy. So I set up an interview and called him at the garage where he worked, hoping to ask him how a Southern mechanic in his seventies would end up making a New Wave album. Nearly every answer I got was “I dunno.”
I didn’t even bother trying to turn that one into a story. After I hung up the phone, I simply tossed the tape in a desk drawer and forgot about it.
While I may have conducted more than my share of bad interviews, I’ve been the subject of even more. Some were my fault, some weren’t. But the results always make me cringe.
As mentioned, I mumble, I stammer, and I tend to intersperse phrases with interminable pauses. At least I learned early on not to drink during interviews, as that not only exacerbates my assorted speech impediments, it also tends to leave me rambling off on long, boring tangents with no discernible point.
Before I learned not to drink during interviews, I kept finding myself time and again stopping to ask, “Um, so what was that question again?”
A few interviewers made the most of my awkward speech patterns when transcribing. Some left me speaking in incomplete sentences of no more than three or four words. Others used lots and lots of ellipses. Others, while trimming stories for length, chopped my answers into incoherent gibberish. I’ve done precious few interviews where I didn’t, for one reason or another, end up sounding autistic.
On the flip side, I’ve also been interviewed by people who had clearly not done the tiniest bit of research. I mean none at all. (“So what do you write about?”). Probably the best example of this was the time back around 2004 when I was interviewed by some hugely popular talk show host on some hugely popular New York AM station. The man talked incessantly, barely letting me get a word in edgewise. That was kind of a relief, actually. Then about half an hour into a forty-five minute interview, he told me to turn around and look at someone.
“It would be pointless,” I said.
“Just turn around and look at her! Come on!”
“I’m saying it would be pointless.”
“Because I’m blind.”
This was followed by a long stretch of dead air. Finally he said, “WHAT?”
“Yeah. Blind. It comes up in the book you’re helping me promote.”
“Yup. Blind as a bat.”
“You don’t look blind.”
“Well, I am.” I refrained from suggesting on the air that he consider getting some new assistants to put together his program notes.
It went on like that for the last fifteen minutes. After the show ended, as I was getting ready to leave the station with a great sigh of relief, the host jumped up and hugged me, raving about what a great show it had been, insisting I come back any time I like. I didn’t.
Of them all, the worst interview I ever did was entirely my fault, and it remains almost too wretched to recall. It was on one of the satellite radio stations, a show hosted by a woman who happened to be Ingrid Bergman’s sister, which I thought made for a far more interesting story than I could ever offer.
Well, I went into the station ornery and hungover that morning. I don’t recall why I was in such a black mood, though the hangover likely played a role. The host was incredibly nice, had done her research, was taking a different, more interesting angle than most, it could have been great, but I wasn’t having any of it. This time I was the one who answered in monosyllables. Whatever mask I thought I was wearing at the time, it clearly didn’t fit very well. In the end, as I had done with the Chinese biker, she took what was supposed to be an hour long interview and cut it down to ten minutes, which she later tacked onto the end of another, unrelated show like an embarrassing afterthought. I’m ashamed she used that much of it.
Yeah, cruising back over all this now, I’m thinking it might be for the best if Mr. Tosches told me to go fuck myself.
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