What everyone always wants to know is: who’s the worst? Meaning: which really famous person out there is a berk whose lack of personality is in inverse proportion to their abundance of fame? And the answer is, of course, all of them. No, it’s not. It’s Jon Bon Jovi.
The next question – who’s the best, of course – is more difficult. The interviewees I like are the ones that turn out to be more than you expected, whether that’s more intelligent, or honest, or bonkers, or fun, whatever. And there are plenty of those. Madonna (sharper), BjÃ¶rk (wilder), James Ellroy (odder), Shaun Ryder (cleverer), Donnie Wahlberg (sexier), Ozzy Osbourne (wittier), John Travolta (more vulnerable), Jarvis Cocker (more anarchic), Tracey Emin (more charismatic), New Order (more hilarious). An hour spent with any of those people and you feel like clapping for joy, or asking if you can do it all again.
In fact, Jon Bon Jovi is the only person I’ve ever interviewed who managed to make an hour feel too long. We bored each other into staring-into-space submission after about 20 minutes; after 10 minutes more, when he was lying on his back on the sofa burbling gently about how he just makes music, y’know, he’s still the same man he always was, I knocked on the hotel room door to be let out.
This, as any interviewer knows, is unusual. Usually you’re fighting for time – any time – with a star. You’re promised a day, you get an hour. You’re promised an hour, you get 10 minutes in the back of a cab on the way to the airport. The problem is that, these days, pop celebrities work really, really hard. By pop celebrities, I mean the musicians and actors and presenters and artists that everybody knows, even if they’ve never seen them perform; and by working, I mean their days are scheduled as regimentally as those of an overworked GP. To them, you’re just another patient after the same cure: a piece of their innermost soul, in quotable form. If they can fob you off with same placebo they give everybody else, they will. It’s your job to make sure that they don’t.
Remember, most stars don’t want to do interviews. Only the vacuous go into pop for the photo sessions and the Q&As. What every band wants is to release a record and for it to take over the world without them doing any promotion whatsoever, other than touring. But that never happens. Even Madonna does promotion. Still, it’s worth bearing in mind when you’re cooling your heels on a video set for 15 hours, waiting for your slot.
Sometimes, of course, you do get proper access: you go round to someone’s house (Damon Albarn, Ozzy Osbourne, Dave Stewart); you spend a whole day together (Paul Weller, Shaun Ryder, Mike D); you go out for a whole evening and get drunk (Tracey Emin, Bono, God knows how many others). And it’s brilliant when you do. But it’s rare. Rarer still that that is the interview that’s arranged and that it happens as arranged. Mostly, there’s some waiting involved. I can’t tell you how much of my working life has been spent hanging around for stars. I once waited a whole week to meet up with a Jamaican ragga artist called Lady Saw. That might sound fun – seven days in Jamaica! – but I couldn’t leave my hotel room, in case the manager called and said, we’re in reception. And my room didn’t have TV. It was as close to purgatory as you can get, other than spending Glastonbury with the grumpy old Levellers. And yes, I’ve been through that one too.
But before this all gets too moany, I would like to say that I love what I do. I’ve been a pop writer now for 14 years. It is a fantastic job, much better than being a rock journalist. Far fewer snippy arguments about the relative merits of Puddle of Mud or Mudhoney (clue: they’re both rubbish). As a general rule, men make better rock journalists, women better pop writers. There’s a fact-collecting aspect to the male psyche that is never happier than when listing the B-sides of The Byrds’ five UK top 40 hits, in chronological order (NB: ‘You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere’ – the A-side – only got to number 45). I haven’t got a clue about stuff like that. Who cares? But I can hear a hit at 50 paces, spot a pop star after one play of a tune.
I grew up reading Smash Hits rather than the NME. In fact, I didn’t read any other magazine, right into my 20s – which must have been good for something, because my first ever job, straight after university, was at Smash Hits. (Weirdly, I beat Vic Reeves, who also applied, under his real name Jim Moir. Barry McIlheney, the editor, thought he was funny, but too far out. I was more trainable.) At Smash Hits, you took the music as read; what you were interested in was the stuff around it, the people who made it, where they lived, what they did, whether they had any interesting scars and whether they would put pineapples on their heads for the photo shoot. Sixty per cent nosiness, 40 per cent cheekiness, plus jokes. Still a fantastic interviewing combination. Look at Jonathan Ross.
Anyway, why I like pop writing, as opposed to rock journalism, is because it lets you put a CD, a film, an artist into context. Pop writing understands that pop is born within and of a living, breathing culture, and that this is what matters, rather than how the snare sound was achieved on track seven. It also allows that because of this, some performers are better discussed, rather than actively reviewed or interviewed. (A great example of this is Kylie. Fantastic pop person – ace music, lovely outfits, slick entertainer, bottom as thing of beauty etc – but has she ever said anything of any interest whatsoever?)
These days, I interview or write about people from fields as diverse as comedy and art, cars and books. But I started off with, and still write about, music. And I think this is important, for two reasons. One, although music is the most accessible and emotional of all the art forms, it’s the hardest to write about. If you can explain why Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ is a vital piece of work without resorting to pomposity or cuteness, then you can easily do the same for a book by Ian McEwan. And if you can get an interesting quote from a pop star who’s been talking constantly for the past five hours – the past five months – on the same subject, then you can get a good interview out of anyone. If you get pop writing right, you can write.
The second reason why I still write about pop is that pop, and all the hoopla that surrounds it, is now considered to be mainstream. Pop culture is culture. It wasn’t, when I started. No way would The Observer have talked to Bros in 1988. But today, if we were offered an interview with Justin Timberlake, or even Will Young, we would be considered derelict in our duty if we refused. During the Nineties those media classes usually referred to as ‘chattering’ came to realise that football and pop music were worthy of their attention, if only because the rest of the country thought so and they didn’t want to be left out. There’s a quote that says that the press, when truly great, is the sound of a nation talking to itself; the Nineties showed that Britain wasn’t discussing opera but Oasis. Now, Robbie Williams and the Reading Festival occupy the same front pages as the Hutton Inquiry, as the Middle East.
I was very lucky to be a young pop writer when pop was going through a good time, as it does, without fail, every so often. It’s great at the moment, for instance: revolutionary US R’n’B and hip hop, hilarious British electro and rock, proper shoot-your-mouth-off characters in people like Peaches, Pink, The Darkness. It all makes your job easier. When I started, acid house and Britpop happened on my doorstep. It’s much simpler to write about someone if you fall over them every time you go to the bar. Interviewing Blur, Oasis, Pulp, Happy Mondays, The Stone Roses was easy. They were my age, or thereabouts. They did pretty much the same stuff as me. They were round the corner, or from Manchester, where I grew up. I knew where they were coming from without even trying. And I had the simultaneous advantage and disadvantage of my sex.
Ho hum, the women-in-rock question. (Note that it’s always rock, meaning serious music, worthy of analysis by chaps: in pop, women have always been accepted. In fact, that’s pop’s flaw: too many girls like it, so it can’t be any good.) Anyway, within music media, PRs are usually women; writers, mostly men. Though there have always been honourable exceptions – Julie Burchill, obviously, but Joan Didion way before her and, in my time, Sylvia Patterson, Caitlin Moran, Barbara Ellen, all brilliant – to be a female music writer and not to stick to the poppiest of pop is to be a rarity.
So, you turn up halfway through a tour, to see the gig and do the interview. You are, with the exception of the PR who’s with you, the only woman in the band entourage. You are determined to do your job – but also to have a laugh. If you stay out later than 11pm, and have all parts of your body in approximately the right anatomical positions, someone – roadie, band member, band mate – will make a move. Don’t flatter yourself that it’s because of your fantastic personality. Or, indeed, your amazing good looks, or (snort) your journalistic talent. You are being propositioned for the same reasons as any woman in any drinking establishment anywhere in the world. It’s because you have lady bits. And it’s after midnight.
I’ve never had sex with an interviewee, because I love my job. Shag one, and people will assume that sex is your interview technique. In fact, some people will assume that’s your interview technique anyway, but if you know the untorrid truth, at least you can feel smug. That’s not to say I haven’t been tempted – an in-depth interview can be as romantic as a first date (pop stars are charismatic, that’s their job), and you’re a long way from home, from your normal, non-tour life and its steady cause-and-effect. But get nasty with a pop star and, aside from the likelihood that the sex will be rubbish (all that drink and drugs), you can forget about ever speaking normally to him again. You’re a groupie now.
Mind you, like I said, even if you make like pre-Timberlake Britney, you may well be treated like a groupie anyway. Even by other women. I turned up to interview John Travolta in a T-shirt that said ‘Nice Tits’ on it. Ha ha. The American female PR complained to my editor (presumably she thought gentleman John wouldn’t be able to resist checking). And I remember being introduced to the manager of Primal Scream. I said, ‘Hello.’ He said: ‘You can write my autobiography if you suck my cock while you’re doing it.’ The charmer.
So, them’s the drawbacks. The advantage of being a woman is that most pop stars, being straight men surrounded by other straight men, miss having women around for reasons other than sex. They want other smells, not just feet and farts. They want to talk, properly, not just about Neil Young’s fret technique. They want a different interpretation, a different outlook to their inward-looking world. Despite what you may assume, most male pop celebrities are not sexist – and I don’t mean by the Spinal Tap definition of the word. Art attracts liberals. Pop stars like women. It’s not until you venture outside pop culture that you realise just how anti-women the world really is.
Whatever. Being a pop writer does not require you to be female. It just requires you to be interested in other people. If you really, genuinely want to know how someone ticks, and you’ve done all your research, you’re familiar with their work and their life, then being a pop writer and interviewer is easy-peasy. Just ask them the questions you want to know the answers to. Then go home, think hard and write it all up.
The OMM Guide To Survival In A Boy’s World
Always interview a band one by one. Together, they’re the tough gang and you’re the outsider to be picked on. Separately, they’re just people.
‘We just make music and if anyone else likes it, it’s a bonus.’ Every single band in the world says this. It is boring. Ignore it. In fact, ignore anything that’s said in the first 10 minutes. They’ve already said it to everyone else.
‘That’s an interesting question’ means ‘That’s a rude question.’ Keep pushing. You’re on to something.
Often, the questions which get the best answers are the ones that seem stupid. Try – ‘I don’t understand what you mean, can you explain?’ Or, ‘When was the last time you hit somebody?’
Never think a pop star is your mate. You’re doing a job, not lengthening your Christmas card list, you sad git.