Anil Prasad: Inner Views, Borderless Perspectives

Joe Lang By

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AAJ: Why do you think for most journalists the research begins and ends with the enclosed bio, and what makes you different?

AP: I can't speak for every writer, but for some music journalists—those who are really lucky—music journalism is still a job, a paid gig. This is an astounding concept to consider in 2010. Those opportunities are few and far between these days. Sometimes their motivation is their professional survival. Often, they have to write about someone whether they give a damn or not. Then there's the brand of music journalism that is oriented towards three-to-six paragraph interviews—that capsule interview format you see in print so often. When someone is working in the half-page or one-page universe, they have to distill down to the very basics, and basics are usually what are contained within these bios. So they pluck out all the info for the article and away they go. And if you have to generate five or ten of these a month you're dealing severe deadline issues, also necessitating the reliance on the bio.

The thing with the Innerviews website is that I don't get paid to do it. I do it on my own. I lose literally thousands of dollars a year running it. I have a day job that I do to support it. I do it for the love of music. One thing that's interesting is that music journalists get pitched by music publicists day in and day out. Every single day in my inbox there are probably 50 to 100 press releases from music publicists and record labels. Probably five to 20 of them are targeted pitches to me personally. They often get frustrated and they can't understand why they get so little traction with me. It's because I only write about musicians that I'm passionate about. It doesn't have to be a legacy artist with 50 albums in their back catalog. It could be a relatively newer artist. But if I'm writing about an artist, it means I'm really motivated. I want to learn everything I can about their music.

I've got an interview with Bunky Green coming up. He's a legendary jazz saxophonist who I wasn't really aware of until very recently when Rudresh Mahanthappa pursued a collaboration with him called Apex. So I'm talking to Bunky in the near term and his albums are virtually impossible to find. There are about three or four that have been put up for download on iTunes, but otherwise you have to scour the earth to find his back catalog of albums with people like Sonny Stitt. And if I'm going to talk to this guy, who is a celebrated jazz educator and has a mind-boggling depth of jazz knowledge, I better dig deep, find this music and internalize it, or I'm going to look like a hack. [laughter]. Also, I want to come up with something substantive and interesting and of value to people, and I think you can only do that if you really do your research.

Hopefully, the pieces on Innerviews have a long shelf life via the web. Prior to the advent of the web, basically music journalism was disposable. When the issue came down from the newsstands, that was basically it. Goodbye. If you happened to miss that issue, maybe you could find it as a back issue, but with the web, things have the potential to exist forever. I have interviews that stretch back to 1989. Hopefully until the day I'm gone, and even beyond the day I'm gone, these pieces will still be available.

AAJ: What is it that drives you to get inside the heads of the artist, going so far as to buy whole back catalogs and read everything ever written about them?

AP: That's a good question no one has asked before. It's just a complete deep, mad passion and love of the art form that is music. I think it has a lot to do with my maniacal record collecting instincts as well. When I was a kid, back in the day as it were, even in the early days of CDs, I was always one of those people who would sit there with liner notes and pour over them and wonder "What does a recording engineer do anyway?" or "What does mastering mean?" On the early progressive rock albums by Yes, Eddie Offord would show up all the time in the credits and I would think, "Who is Eddie Offord and why is he on all these records? He's not a member of the band." This is when I was eight or nine years old. So in the pre-Internet days I would start buying books about music trying to find out who these people are. I had a lot of musician friends when I was a kid too. I played electric bass for a long time, as well.

I think the combination of those interests with journalism school really spurred me to pursue music journalism. I've got a background doing a lot of journalism outside of music. I've covered speeches by major politicians. I've covered local crime. I've written about movies, dance and theater. I've done television work as well. It's all contributed to this kind of questioning framework I employ in the work. I think all of these experiences swirl together to inform what I do. There's a certain thrill in doing interviews that's never actually left me after almost a quarter century of doing them. It's always a great moment when I can sense the light bulb going on inside the artist's head when they realize, "OK. This guy really wants to go deep and I'm going to let him in." And that's when things really start happening.

AAJ: Have you ever considered doing interviews outside of music, and if so, who would you really like to interview if you had the chance?

AP: Clearly I've solidified on music and musicians as a core focus while keeping a day job and a family intact. It's a pretty comfortable niche and one I enjoy a lot, especially as a record collector and concertgoer. I still go to a lot of live music. A big part of my core circle of friends is musicians or people related to the world of music. All that stuff is always conspiring to keep my interest focused on this realm. But yeah, I've thought occasionally about expanding. Some people have even said, "Now that you've got this book out on music and musicians, maybe your next book shouldn't be about music." I'm interested in a lot of other things beyond music. It would be very interesting to talk to film people like Steven Soderbergh, Errol Morris, Louis Theroux or John Cleese—all people whose work I admire. Interviewing someone like Vaclav Havel or Desmond Tutu could only be fascinating as well.

AAJ: What are some surprises that you've come across while interviewing over the years that you have learned from?

AP: In terms of lessons, you can prepare all the questions you want, but prepare to go completely off script. Be prepared to toss your questions altogether. Some people think that the questions they have written down must be answered, and if they're not getting them answered that something is going wrong. The story you think you want isn't always the interesting one. Sometimes you'll get an artist that doesn't want to talk at all about their current project. They won't answer any of the questions you've put together. I've dealt with a lot of really hard-ass interview subjects. Sometimes you have to figure out what it is that they want to talk about. Ron Carter wanted to talk about not being able to take his bass on the road with him because of the post 9/11 climate. So we did. It was actually really interesting what he had to say about that stuff. Some of these artists just want to talk about something on their mind.

I think what you're trying to do is capture a snapshot of who that person is and where their head is at any given moment. I used to try reining the artists in early on. I remember I interviewed the famous bassist Tony Levin. He had just put out his first solo album. Of course, the only questions anyone wanted to talk to Levin about was about his work with King Crimson and Peter Gabriel. I noticed he wasn't crazy about answering those questions. He actually told me that his goal as an interviewee was to move the interviewer away from those questions and into what he was currently doing as a solo artist. I thought that that was an interesting revelation: the interviewee telling the person doing the interview what they're trying to accomplish. It was kind of an interesting moment for me.

I think after doing more than 300 interviews at this point that I've realized that there's a lot of value in letting the artist drive the conversation sometimes. One of the consistent positive pieces of feedback I get from artists is, "Thanks for allowing me to ramble." I've probably had 40 or 50 people say that to me. The other thing a lot of artists say is, "Wow. That just felt like a conversation. It didn't feel like an interview at all." I think that's another key—to keep things conversational and not seem like you're journo-robot reading questions off of a page. It's better to take a completely human approach that's not that much different from talking to a colleague or an acquaintance, with a little bit of structure. A good interview is basically a structured conversation.

AAJ: A lot of serious music fans can cite a specific moment in time where music hits them. There's a seminal moment where there's some synaptic connection where music takes on the meaning it will have for them going forward. What was that moment for you, and also, how did you get into jazz?

with John McLaughlin

with Stanley Clarke

with Phil Collins

with Chuck D

AP: It was the group Genesis, and I'll tell you why. When people think of Genesis they only think of the gigantic Phil Collins hit machine. But everything started with an album called Abacab from 1981 by the group. That would have made me 12 years old. I thought, first of all, this is a really interesting album. My friends were listening to Ozzy Osbourne, Def Leppard, Van Halen and stuff of that ilk at the time. I was really out of phase. I kept going with Genesis and started checking out their back catalog. There's a lot of remarkable drumming and epic musical suites on their more ambitious records. Yeah, there's a bit of pop treacle, but at their best, they were an epic prog-rock band. I started digging into the music and going back into the early days of the group with Peter Gabriel, which contained some amazingly ambitious side-long pieces of music. That opened up the whole world of progressive rock. And once you're in the world of progressive rock, if you dig any deeper you will hear elements of jazz, classical, and fusion.

Those were the days where you could still go into a record store and talk to extraordinarily knowledgeable people about music. They would say, "Yeah. You know this Phil Collins guy has done a lot more than what you might be aware of aside from those Genesis records. You need to hear him on this Brian Eno album called Another Green World (Virgin, 1975). And more importantly you need to hear Collins play with a group called Brand X." I was like, "What on earth is Brand X?" They go, "They're what's called 'jazz fusion.' I think you might be interested in this group." For me, Brand X was like progressive rock without vocals with all these odd time signature turns and flashy virtuoso passages. It was really interesting music for a kid.
I would go back to the record store to get some more Brand X music and they would say, "You know, there's this other guy who plays with Genesis you might be interested in. He's a drummer named Chester Thompson. He was a drummer in a group called Weather Report." So, I'm this 14-year-old kid going, "What's Weather Report?" So he hands me the Heavy Weather (Columbia, 1977) album and says, "Go take this home and listen to it." I put Heavy Weather on the turntable and I went, "Holy crap. What is this?" [laughter]. "Is that a bassist? How can anyone make a sound like that with a bass? Who is that?" Suddenly, I'm into the world of Jaco Pastorius, Wayne Shorter and Joe Zawinul. It's interesting, but Genesis got me into jazz and jazz fusion. Once you set foot into the world of Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter, the whole universe of jazz opens up to you if you want to follow it. It's all there. Everything is linked to those two guys through some degree of separation.

Interestingly, in 2007, I got to spend some time with Collins when he was touring with Genesis for the last time. All we did was talk about Zawinul, who had passed away a few weeks earlier. Collins is a huge fan of Weather Report and Zawinul. We talked about the Genesis track "Wot Gorilla?," that was directly influenced by Weather Report. We also discussed how he was friends with Zawinul. In fact, Zawinul asked Collins to play with him on a project, but Collins didn't think he was up to the task somehow. Zawinul apparently told him to "Get in touch when you're ready." Unfortunately, Zawinul passed away before they had a chance to make a collaboration a reality. Meeting Collins and talking about Zawinul was an amazing moment for me given where my journey began.


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