What I learnt from interviewing rock stars and superstar DJs

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The art of interviewing is useful long after the ‘on air’ light dims. The Royals’ Emerald Cowell shares what she’s learned about asking the right questions of others during four years of hosting her radio show.

It’s 7.45pm on a Saturday. I’m standing outside a yellow brick warehouse on the corner of Blyth and Nicholson Street in East Brunswick, Melbourne, waiting for Steve Cross to buzz me in.

Steve’s the presenter of a radio show called Beat Orgy and the founder of Remote Control Records. Waiting for him to let me into the RRR studios is a pretty familiar routine. After all, I’ve presented a show — Tomorrow Never Knows — on the station for nearly four years.

But there was something a little different about this particular Saturday night. I had a pre-recorded interview with Ed Simons packaged up and ready to put to air. Ed’s one of the world’s most respected music producers — one half of The Chemical Brothers.

Only a few months earlier, I was standing in a sweaty pit of thousands of flare-waving fans, witnessing Ed and bandmate Tom Rowlands lay down an electrifying set at Glastonbury.

I’ve been volunteering in community radio for over six years. And it’s taught me a whole bunch. But one thing that’s really stuck with me — something I’ve been able to apply to all facets of my life — is the art of interviewing, getting over nerves and getting the best out of people.

Being a good interviewer takes a set of skills. There’s no one simple way to do it right. But there are ways to make sure you get some bloody good answers.

Lesson 1: Know your shit

The Chemical Brothers are electronic music legends who have collaborated with some of the world’s best. So when the opportunity came up to interview Ed Simon before The Chemical Brothers brought their Glastonbury set here to Melbourne, I had to know my shit.

Interviews like this are coordinated through the record label. An agent blocks out an hour or two for back-to-back phone calls to radio stations and media in all the places a tour will visit. And that means artists get asked the same questions again and again. So, how do you ask a question that surprises and gets a response the world hasn’t heard before?

Answer: You know your shit. Like knowing that The Chemical Brothers met at uni and quickly became a musical duo trying to find their break. They’ve been at it ever since, so I knew it was worth asking what they’d pass on to up-and-coming local producers.

Ed’s response echoed Block Rockin’ Beats, one of The Chemical Brothers’ breakout hits:

“There’s always a party to be had. Electronic music works best when it’s the catalyst for people having fun together. Find a crowd. Rock your block.”

Lesson 2: Make the subject feel comfortable

Before the interview

Being on the radio can be quite daunting, let alone being asked questions by someone you don’t feel comfortable with. It’s important to take the time before your interview to learn a bit about the person, including how to pronounce their name and what their pronouns are.

Simona Castricum has been producing dance music in Melbourne for 20 years — but she’s also an academic and architect. After I interviewed her, she said I made her feel relaxed enough to really open up about her experiences because I made a real effort to understand the relationship between her music and her academic practice.

“I’m interested in how we can take those principles from the dance scene and apply it to other places. There’s things we have done down at [Melbourne music venue] The Tote that have made their way to parliament,” she told me on air.

During the interview

Guide the subject with positive body language, like a smile or a nod. And don’t feel like you have to fill every silence. Breaks in the sound can make for good radio. Give them space and time to think about their answers, so they can respond with confidence.

Female Wizard is one of the most skilled DJs in Melbourne. They told me they’d never had the opportunity to talk so openly about their work like on my show, because they felt comfortable, not rushed. We talked about what they were trying to offer their audience: “an experience of reception and participation”. Sounds like how I want the people I interview to feel.

Lesson 3: Don’t be afraid to ask the hard questions

The first CD my mum ever gave me was the 1986 album Infected by The The. If you’re a fan, then you know why they’re considered one of the seminal post-punk bands of the era. If you’re not, take a listen to This Is The Day. I’ve already picked it to be played at my funeral.

Getting told that I could interview lead singer Matt Johnson ahead of the band’s 2018 Australian tour gave me the sweats. And not just because he’s one of my musical heroes.

It was because — even though I’ve been a massive fan since the age of 13 — I knew nothing about his life outside the songs. I had to do my homework. So I went deep. I read articles, listened to radio interviews and watched everything about the band I could find — including Matt’s appearance on the ABC’s Rock Arena in 1986.

And I learned that in the late 80s — at the peak of The The’s commercial and critical success — Matt’s youngest brother Eugene suddenly passed away. He dissolved the band and began a 20-year hiatus away from the music industry. Losing his oldest brother Andy in 2016 prompted him to return to music.

Having done my research, I felt confident to ask Matt a pretty tough question: “Your new single is such an incredibly powerful tribute to your older brother. What did it mean to write that song?”

His response: “It was a song that had to be written. I was compelled to write it. We have a huge fear of life and death and that song really represents the cycles of nature and letting go. It’s about not taking things for granted on one side, but also having an acceptance of the natural order of things and not fearing death — which is just a gateway to somewhere else.”

Emerald (right) with Josh Davis aka DJ Shadow.
Emerald (right) with Josh Davis aka DJ Shadow.

Lesson 4: Don’t set the narrative, start it and listen instead

Stop thinking about your next question. Listen to your interviewee and let the narrative happen organically. Sure, it pays to know your shit, go in with a plan and ask the hard questions, but you should make them conversation starters — not checkboxes you’re ticking off as you go.

I learnt this through interviewing legendary producer Josh Davis, who is better known to the world as DJ Shadow. He’s got a reputation for creating music from samples, sometimes of well-known songs by well-known bands — like Metallica’s Orion and Bjork’s Mutual Slump.

“So, do you want to shake up that expected behaviour of DJs and producers using obscure samples by choosing to sample more obvious songs?” I asked him.

I anticipated a straight up “yes”, based on previous interviews I’d heard. But stopping and letting Josh navigate the conversation allowed him to open up, and reveal more than I’d expected.

“Sometimes people get a little too caught up in this idea of me in a dusty basement with a hoodie on listening to old records,” he said.

“Yeah, it’s an important piece of who I am as an artist, but a small piece of where I get my sounds. I want to show my peers that obscurity in itself is not a virtue, it’s what you do with those sounds.”

Just like each musician’s approach to their art, every person you speak with will be different. But knowing your shit, making people feel comfortable, not being afraid to ask the hard questions and making an effort to listen should help you navigate the challenge of having a conversation with anyone, interview or not.

After airing the Chemical Brothers interview that Saturday night, I got to witness their show again in Melbourne only a few weeks later. Watching them drop Block Rockin’ Beats at the end of their set, again drenched in sweat from a crowd ecstatically jumping up and down, I thought back to the interview with Ed and how he was right — there’s always a party to be had.

– Emerald Cowell