THE ARCHIVAL ARTICLE:
THE BACKGROUND STORY:
For many of my music critic years, I hewed to a fairly rigid, cyclical schedule: one record review, one concert review, and one “what’s happening in town” preview page per week, one artist interview every other week, and one “think piece” each month. Occasionally, there would be a “group piece” (some topic would be picked, and all of the writers would opine on it), or some articles and interviews would be accorded “cover story” status, giving me more column space than regular stories received, but it was all pretty production line and predictable for the most part.
When you looked at the compensation for each type of piece, and then how much time it took to produce it, record reviews easily had the highest hourly rate, since I could bang out a 250-word piece in 15 minutes, if I was already familiar with the artist, and had been spinning them around the house, as I would do anyway. Concert reviews had a far lower net cash compensation rate, since I had to go to the show (that could be five or six hours sometimes, if you factored in the travel time), then write the review, usually to a much tighter deadline than a record would require. But, of course, I got the concert ticket(s) for free, and while I couldn’t buy food or pay the rent with them, it did free up other funds for those necessities. Think pieces were reasonably lucrative, since I could think while doing other things, and the actual brain-to-paper time was usually reasonable.
Interviews could be a bit more unpredictable in how they played out, since you and the interview subject had to be on the phone or (rarely) in the room together at a certain time, and let’s just say that rock stars are not always the most prompt and responsible people when it comes to things like that, no matter how hard their handlers try to manage them. Since I was typically interviewing artists before they played in town as part of larger tours, most interviews followed the “phoner” format, where the artist sat in a room somewhere for some period of time and took a stream of calls from writers, each given a certain amount of time, and each probably asking the same questions, over and over again. I could generally tell where I was in that sequence by how interested and alert, or not, people were when I was talking to them.
Writing interviews was always an interesting process, because our paper did not generally present them in literal “Q-and-A” conversational format, where you transcribed a taped interaction, cleaned it up for grammar, and ran with it. You had to have the conversation, capture the conversation, then process the conversation to glean the key components, then find quotes that accurately reflected the artist’s voice, and present them in a sequence that accurately reflected how they were intended, all while communicating to readers — who may or may not have been familiar with the artists — who they were, and why they mattered.
While it seems like it would be fun to have conversations like this with artists you love and admire, I quickly learned that was not often the case. Some folks I talked to were just jerks, plain and simple. Some were not actually very interesting, even if their music was. Some were tired, or bored, or distracted, and were just begrudingly talking to me because they had to, not because they wanted to, at all. You can pick that up over the phone lines pretty quickly, and it tends to deflate any enthusiasm in the exchange, from both sides of the conversation.
But sometimes, those phoners could be magical. I had one such case when I interviewed Kim Deal, of Pixies and Breeders fame, some years after her greatest commercial success with the latter band’s Last Splash album. She was touring with a new incarnation of The Breeders, without several key members of the group’s original line-up. I took the interview because it was assigned to me, but I wasn’t all that excited about it: I liked Last Splash well enough, but I mostly detested The Pixies. Not for Deal’s contributions, mind you, but because I found the band’s other front person — who was then known as Black Francis — to be extraordinarily irritating, rendering their music mostly unlistenable to me, critical consensus be damned.
So I didn’t have many, or any, expectations that this particular phoner would be anything of note, since I didn’t have any burning excitement or preconceived notions about the subject, and there didn’t appear to be anything “wow” about the event I was previewing: a club show by a band without a new album out, missing some of its better-known members. Seemed like it should have been a quick fifteen-minute chat of minimal substance, bang out a thousand-word summary of it, hit “send,” collect check. Done.
Boy, was I wrong. Kim Deal was utterly delightful to talk to: smart, funny, and free from any of the “I am the artist, barely deigning to speak to you with ill-disguised contempt” affect. She was also incredibly generous with her time, admitting that she was happy to talk because she was in a hotel room on the road, bored with nothing else to do. We covered the business stuff, and I figured that would be that, when she unexpectedly said “Okay, what else do you want to talk about?” So we just shot the shit, and laughed a lot, for something close to two hours. My effective hourly rate for this project was tanked, but it was worth it from an experiential standpoint.
Of course, then I had to turn that sprawling mess into an article. Fortunately, the tape (yeah, we still used those then) ran out at some point, so I didn’t have to transcribe and parse the latter parts of the conversation. I wanted to capture the fun aspects of the call, but also wanted to convey that Deal was serious about her work and her craft, and smart about why and how she did what she did. So today’s “Best of the Archives” piece is the published interview that came from that chat.
If you enjoy this piece, and would like to see some of my other interviews with other artists — some famous, some not-so-much — you can click here for an index of the 35 or so interviews still on the site today. Unfortunately, the digital versions of probably 40 more were lost in a server crash in 1998, and the print versions that I had as backup were lost in a basement flood a few years later. Oh well. I know that the print editions exist in the New York State Library, so at some point, I might need to visit the morgue there to be reminded who else I talked to, and how interesting they were. Or not.