The fine art of the interview and why some artists are stuck in culthood

While I was doing an interview with Kevin Ayers (coming soon to Perfect Sound Forever), something occurred to me. Ayers is a very nice guy who was pleasant to speak to but clearly not comfortable answering questions about his work and his life. There were short answers, long pauses and awkward silences- I found myself going through all my questions in half the time I thought that I’d need. I wondered if a problem like this was one reason that a great artist like Ayers unwittingly stays a cult figure.

So does that mean if a performer gives good interviews, they’ll make it in the biz? Of course not but that’s just part of playing the music game- it helps by getting recognition by having some press. Sometimes that means answering the same questions or just stupid questions but even if a performer can fake some enthusiasm, that can go a long way.

The same thought also crossed my mind with two other interviews. In 2000, I interviewed Butch Hancock. The man’s a brilliant songwriter (just ask Joe Ely or Jimmie Dale Gilmore) but he was clearly uncomfortable talking about his work. It seemed to me that he probably didn’t do many interviews. I also got the impression that he didn’t care- it wasn’t that he wasn’t a snob but it just wasn’t something that he was concerned with. During the interview, his main concern was spiritual matters, which he didn’t think he could accurately express in an article about his career. Hancock is far from being a careerist- he lives in a ghost town in West Texas and only puts out albums once in a while and doesn’t play out often (though he signed on with a local travel company to accompany rafting adventurers). He’s happy that way so why gainsay that? If you’re a fan of his though (like me), you might find yourself caring more about him becoming more well known that Hancock himself does.

Then there was a 1991 interview with composer Conlon Nancarrow. Host/composer Charles Amirkhanian is cheery and has a sympathetic ear but I felt for him as it seemed that he was pulling teeth at times to get answers out of Nancarrow, who usually gave short, casual answers to most of the questions. The fact that Nancarrow spent decades in Mexico City rather than a major city in the U.S. or Europe (self-exiled because of his Communist beliefs) or that he composed many pieces for an unusual instrument (player piano) probably didn’t help him easily make it into the modern classical pantheon alongside Reich and Glass though CN did make the good career move of expiring (sorry, bad joke). Though he did finally receive some much deserved recognition in the late 70’s and early 80’s (thanks in part to Amirkhanian who released his works), his compositions nowadays aren’t heard enough in the repertoire of modern classical works.

In his mid-70’s at the time and having suffered breathing problems for decades (he died about five years later), Nancarrow also sounded uncomfortable with his interview though it was still fascinating to hear his thoughts about his work. Like Hancock, he didn’t sound particularly concerned. One of his biographers (and a great composer and writer too) was Kyle Gann, who also explains this about Nancarrow:

“Conlon was never very chatty in his life. But in January 1990 he had a stroke, and he was never the same after that. I didn’t see him again until 1994, by which time he had recovered somewhat, but it sounds like he was still having trouble during the interview you mention.”

I’m sure that Nancarrow cared deeply about his work but his lack of savvy about presenting it or his persona didn’t help him sustain access to a larger audience. Maybe, like Hancock, he didn’t care about that aspect of work his work but then again, that may be of more concern to his boosters than it was to the artist himself.