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 Cleeseall 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 keyto 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
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.