Sunday, May 31, 2015

How to Interview Ginger Baker and How Not to Interview Wire

It's been a crazy couple of weeks with a lot of activity geared toward writing. First and foremost, I suppose, was that last week I got to interview Ginger Baker by phone. He's coming to town for the Pittsburgh JazzLive Festival in mid-June, so if there was any chance of talking to him, I was going to take it. 

Last year, when John Lydon was scheduled to come here as part of a production of Jesus Christ Superstar, I was determined to interview him. And at the time I thought the two hardest people to interview in music are probably Lydon and Ginger (who, not surprisingly, worked together). So I pipe dreamed about talking to both. Of course, JCS was cancelled, so no Lydon. Then, at the time, I thought, Well there's no chance I'll talk to Ginger because where would the opportunity be? It's not like he'd come to Pittsburgh....

I guess the universe called my bluff. 

It came together quickly too. I had been thinking about it, and when I emailed the JazzLive organizer, I got an email hours later from Ginger's English publicist trying to figure out a time for an interview. We settled on a Friday morning at 7 a.m. EST (in England, that's noon). Fine with me because my work schedule prevents me from doing interviews during normal business hours. I'm typically up at that time anyway.

The Love Letters had a show the night before, but no problem. I was up at 6:30 putting questions together, and kind of panicking. One thing: I WASN'T going to ask him  - Cream questions. I really believe that one of the reasons Ginger is such a rough interview is that people ask him freeze-dried, dumb questions. Plus, these people never seem to have taken Journalism 101, wherein it is taught that you don't ask Yes/No questions if you want your subject to open up. I went to pains to phrase questions with "How" and "Why" at the start. On top of all that, he's coming here with a jazz group. He's not coming to play some permutation of Cream music.

At 7, I dialed up the number and heard that unique British ring. Then I heard a voicemail. With a woman's voice on it. Did I dial the right number? Am I being stood up?

I waited five minutes and called back. Same thing. Quick - email the publicist. A few exchanges and we're rescheduled for 9 a.m. This time he does pick up. His voice is low, a bit gruff. At this point I should mention the big thing the publicist mentioned that really had me worried about the call: Ginger is hard of hearing. Like many 70+-year old men, he also had the tv going in the background. 

But it went.... smoothly. He didn't yell at me. He spoke. Not a whole lot. He even mentioned towards the end, with a chuckle, that he's not much of a conversationalist. "I just play," was repeated a lot too. I haven't transcribed the interview yet, but I'll need to get on that soon. Then I'll see how much I really have to work with. 

After that call, I felt like I could climb Mt. Everest. But that was shot down a few days later. While I was trying to get the Ginger interview set up, I also needed to land an interview with somebody in Wire, who are also coming to town. It finally came together on a Sunday night at 9 pm. I know their first three albums really well and I received a copy of their most recent album, Wire, which is pretty good. I'm set, right?

Not exactly. Ten minutes into the conversation, what started out with some career-spanning, over-arching questions had narrowed down into a talk just about the old days. Then Colin Newman asked if I only knew the '70s Wire albums. The real answer is that's what I know best. Working knowledge of their '80s ones, plus a few spins on the new one.

I wasn't trying to sound like one of the "boring" people that, as Newman mentioned, dismiss everything but Pink Flag. Hell, I was surprised that the band even revisits that stuff, or talks about it at all. I thought they didn't look back. But he told me I was the first interviewer on this tour that only really knew the early stuff. He doesn't mind talking about it, but he doesn't want someone to read the article and think they're going to just hear greatest hits. Apparently there are a lot of books about it to use as reference. Though, as a reporter, who's going to quote from a book when you have the real thing?

It made for a few uncomfortable moments, but it just so happened that I was about to go into some questions about new guitarist Matthew Simms and the making of the new album. By the end we made peace. Not that there was really a war there. It's just that I'm rarely in the situation and when it does, it feels quite uncomfortable. (I didn't know a whole lot of David Torn's career and we had a great conversation a few weeks ago.) 

By the end, we were on good terms, though. He spoke at length about the Drill Festival that they've done in various cities, including one coming up in Chicago on this tour. It was unfortunate that I only had 500 words to devote to the article, so the scope was narrowed. They're here next Sunday and I'm looking forward to it. Stay tuned for a link to it.

While I'm here, I might as well link the article about David Torn - who's playing Club Cafe tonight - and William Parker, who played this past Thursday at the Thunderbird. Click here. 

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