Interviewing pop stars is the kind of career that would have made the 14-year-old me faint with excitement. Which is why I’ve never stopped feeling incredibly lucky about it, ever since I started writing for magazines later in my teens. I’ve never stopped feeling nervous about it, either, as much as I genuinely love doing interviews; I’ve always believed that you should meet your heroes, or at least try to talk to them (my first major feature for Time Out was with my teen idols, the Pet Shop Boys) – I’ve also really enjoyed getting unexpected insights and observations from artists of every musical genre, established stars and emerging talents. But I’m basically shy and klutzy by nature, and at points, those qualities lurch over any professional veneer. So here is a checklist of what not to do when interviewing, based on my own tried-and-tested methods:
1. DON’T THROW UP ON THE POP STARS – Pop star schedules really are relentless, and interviews have to fit in with that punishing pace. And so it was that I found myself hitching a ride in a people-carrier with Brit r’n’b-pop hearthrobs JLS, as they hurtled between early morning central London radio promo and a charity event in Hertfordshire. The only free seat in this time slot was backwards-facing, and I get pathetically car-sick, so my bright questioning became increasingly shaky as I struggled to suppress the urge to vomit. I could see the band peering at me strangely, as I pulled faces through their polite answers. Eventually, I had to yelp: “PleasecouldyoustopthecarI’mgoingtobesickI’msosorry”, and I can attest that the pinnacle of glamour is when you’re keeled over, retching on a country verge while a pop group look on pityingly. JLS were actually very chivalrous (Aston offered me his water), and they still made their charity event on time, so at least some of us were professional.
2. DON’T LOCK YOURSELF IN THE TOILET – “Press day” timetables invariably run late, particularly when international artists have a limited time in which to meet all the media who want to interview them. On one occasion, I was hanging around for ages in a posh London hotel suite, waiting to interview US film director Morgan Spurlock, and eventually I decided to visit the bathroom. I made sure to lock the door, because I was mortified by the idea of a press officer bursting in on me – and then I realised I couldn’t open it again. Even after twisting the key really hard, and shaking the handle in increasingly panicky bursts. My mobile rang – Morgan’s press officer, telling me he was ready for my interview. “Yes, great,” I replied. “I’m ready, I’m still here… it’s just that I’ve locked myself in the toilet next door.” Brilliantly, the door wouldn’t open from the outside, either, so after what felt like hours, hotel reception had to send up a handyman to release me with his power tools, and I almost stood up Morgan Spurlock – who was charming, and not overly cruel about my “restroom” experience. But then, he had just made a movie about barfing up Big Macs.
3. DON’T BE FAZED BY THE ENTOURAGE – The best interviews are essentially personal conversations, and it can be quite offputting if someone else is sitting in with you: the artist’s spouse, a bodyguard, a random member of their posse. The most disconcerting example I’ve had of this was when interviewing Liza Minnelli, who greeted me by introducing her steely blonde female companion, who sat at the edge of the room, coolly eyeballing me for the duration. Liza remains an awe-inspiring performer, but she’s given to robotic showbiz patter in interviews, and frequently broke her flow to ask if I knew her friend (I didn’t, though she’d apparently starred in Chicago), while her friend scrutinized me with an icy smile. Eventually, I mentioned the words “David Gest”, Liza’s friend flew out of the room, her protective PR flew in, and the interview snapped shut.
4. DON’T USE ANCIENT TAPE RECORDERS – Because I’m not bothered about being an “early adopter”, I stubbornly used a clunky C60 cassette dictaphone to record my interviews, for years. French electronic duo Air were impressed by my “vintage” technology – the Beastie Boys less so, when said recorder noisily chewed up and spewed out the tape mid-interview. It was Mike D’s sweet (and sensible) suggestion that I use an app on my actual phone instead, which changed my analogue ways to (hi-Q) digital ever since.
5. DON’T ERASE YOUR VOICEMAILS – This won’t necessarily ruin your interview feature, but I will always regret losing a late-night voicemail from Red Hot Chili Peppers bass supremo Flea, who was confused about who was supposed to be interviewing him. “Hi, Arnold?” he blustered, in cheerful Cali twang. “Arnold? You don’t sound like an Arnold.”
6. DON’T ASK FOR AUTOGRAPHS – Obviously, I completely flout this rule on occasion – because my ardent music fandom is what fuelled me to become a journalist, I know that I’m incredibly lucky to be doing this, and the idea of having a record or book signed by an artist I greatly admire (or a favourite of my son or stepson) is way too thrilling to miss for fear of looking uncool. Prized possessions include my Aerosmith box set, where Steven Tyler and Joe Perry were flummoxed by the spelling of both my name and Quinton’s; an A4 lined sheet signed by my playwright hero Edward Albee; and Yoko Ono’s personally signed book of poetry, to which she added some elegant Japanese script. “This says: ‘Let’s go for a drink’,” she smiled, wisely. I have a few friends who speak fluent Japanese, but I haven’t asked them to translate Yoko’s message yet; I’m just waiting to discover that it really says: “Haha, silly klutzy journalist”.
Sometimes I get this ringing in my ears. It will be a song that suddenly whisks me to a place in time; this time, I’m transported to the dawn of the 21st century, to the fashionably gritty nightlife district of Shoreditch, East London, and I am hit by a blast of body heat and smoke as I step into one of the city’s most credible clubs: 333 Old Street. And I am struck by this song the DJ is playing: the immediate, incongruous ‘80s pop smash hit of Bananarama’s Love In The First Degree. It is my first time at monthly club night Impotent Fury, and in a brief, brilliant affair, I fall in love with it forever.
Impotent Fury was the brainstorm of DJ/designer Fred Deakin (who also formed dreamy sample-fuelled duo Lemon Jelly with Nick Franglen, and whose current creations fuse music and amazing digital art), and it undeniably stemmed from a particular era. Pre-millennial tension was easing into the naughty noughties, and London club culture was booming, right across the city. Shoreditch would give rise to a spread of hipsters, but back then, its landmark venue 333 was also a kind of “anti-superclub”, smart and spiky in its attitude, as characterised by its influential fanzine, Shoreditch Twat, helmed by venue promoter/writer Neil Boorman. There was already an alluring irreverence here, but Deakin’s night added a surreal, joyous sense of fun that melted any ice on the dancefloor.
Impotent Fury took over all three levels of 333 – there was weird karaoke and cabaret in the murky basement, while the top floor Mother Bar often felt like a woozy house party. But very little could drag me away from the packed main dancefloor; this was where you’d find the club’s prominent centrepiece: a variety show-style “Wheel Of Destiny” which would be ceremoniously spun every 30 minutes to decide the music policy. On that first night, I’d walked into a set-list dedicated to pop hit factory Stock/Aitken/Waterman, but Impotent Fury’s music policy was broad-ranging, fast-moving and fantastically random; the pointer might land next on drum’n’bass, or half an hour purely from Stevie Wonder’s rich Innervisions album, or classic British sitcom themes (hopefully including the elevator shimmy of Are You Being Served? with its “going up!” hook). In the spirit of the night, you just went with it all, and cheered louder and danced harder with every spin. For all its novelty, this club never felt like some snide ironic statement; rather, it was ardently absurd, and passionate about all kinds of music, cool or not. Deakin might have taken crafty pleasure in trying to clear the dancefloor, but he always knew how to pick an excellent tune, whatever the Wheel decreed. I recently reminded him of that Bananarama first impression, and he hooted, happily: “It’s a brilliant pop record!”. Which is simply true.
London’s social scene can often seem frustratingly aloof, but Impotent Fury’s silliness felt easily convivial, if also random by nature. I recall a sweetly earnest English guy once trying to chat me up there by speaking Nepalese; it didn’t work, partly because it was a bit too random, and also because I’m Iraqi.
The main floor also featured the “Wardrobe Of The Stars”: a strange little lair with rails of mismatched second-hand clothes that you could model, and walk away in, if you liked. This would usually involve me cherry-picking what I thought looked like a funky vintage coat, which would transpire to be a mouldering, sick-coloured heap of material in the harsh light of day. Because nightlife is a magical time, and this was an enchanting place.
Club culture should also be a hotbed of great design, and Impotent Fury’s artwork was consistently brilliant, created by Deakin’s Airside Studios, and depicting a vivid, hypercolour array of everyday British heroes: a snooker-playing old gent, a prototype hipster, masked health professionals. It made for very collectible flyers, as well as some excellent promo items, including a club T-shirt, which I was very alarmed to once find my Dad wearing; I don’t know how he’d got hold of it, but I never saw it again.
In 2015, we’re told more than ever that British clubs are dying, casualties of an economic slump and a “luxury” property boom. I’m certain that nightlife energy never dies, it just fluctuates over time, though it’s currently hard to imagine Impotent Fury as a big Friday night out in a rampantly branded scene not given to much risk-taking. But its offbeat, distinctly British imagination feels irrepressible – these days, the Wheel Of Destiny would surely feature EDM alongside Northern Soul – and its parties left the most colourful impression. As they always did, even after two night bus rides home, when I would eventually resurface, bleary, but with a brazen hallelujah ringing in my ears.
Rock’n’roll creates its own peculiar sense of scale: hyper-real, larger-than-life. And so it is that the first thing that really hits you about U2’s Innocence + Experience show is that frontman Bono’s (currently blonde) head appears cartoonishly big, even viewed from way up high. The next, more enduring impression is that only a band as globally mega and stridently assured as U2 could make a six-night stint at this 20,000-capacity arena – a venue that has previously hosted a Prince residency and a one-off Led Zeppelin reunion among countless star dates – feel unusually intimate.
U2 have long sealed their stadium-sized status, and Innocence + Experience feels like some kind of confessional creature compared to the blockbuster behemoth of 2009’s blockbuster 360° shows. It’s their first indoor arena tour for a decade, and it’s also the first chance to really hear how material from their 2014 album Songs Of Innocence stands up alongside classic anthems. That latest album was widely lambasted on release – not for the quality of its songs, but the supposed arrogance of its arrival: gate-crashing iTunes folders as part of an Apple freebie deal. In tonight’s packed-out live setting, its tracks prompt a considerably warmer welcome, but you don’t need to be a U2 die-hard to be struck by how effortlessly bold they feel: as personal statements, and as part of the quartet’s mega-catalogue.
Album opener The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone) also forms a strident kick-off to this set-list, before the band flow through the pleasing power riffs of Out Of Control (from their 1980 debut album, Boy), and Vertigo (from 2004’s How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb). U2 have been on the road with this tour since May, and they play with the ultra-slick expertise that stems from decades of success, yet also an unabashedly joyful vitality which summons the fact that Bono, guitar hero The Edge (who spends much of this show beaming), steadfast bassist Adam Clayton and coolly sullen drummer Larry Mullen, originally got together as fired-up teens in north Dublin. As Bono declares to the delighted Monday night masses here: ‘We’re a Saturday night, Sunday morning kinda band.’
Youthful recollections are the driving force of the concert’s first half, in particular Bono’s poignantly raw tribute to his late mother, Iris (Hold Me Close), as well as the memory of his childhood home, Cedarwood Road. In these early highly intimate moments, the show’s fantastic set design (directed by U2’s long-time collaborator Willie Williams, with work from Es Devlin and Ric Lipson) really bursts into life: through mesmerising loops of home video footage; through an animation of Bono’s old street, which the vocalist walks along within a lengthy elevated ‘video cage’ linking two separate stages (illuminated ‘i’ and ‘e’). Invariably, the personal and political overlap, as the music’s themes turn to the 1970s backdrop of Ireland’s Troubles, and the iconic Sunday Bloody Sunday loses none of its devastating atmosphere here, with Mullen a lone figure on the stage walkway, beating a tattoo on a single snare drum. It’s followed by latest album song Raised By Wolves, with images in commemoration of the 33 victims, young and old, of the 1974 Dublin and Monaghan bombings.
As the title suggests, Innocence + Experience is a concert of two parts, and the video cage becomes a graffiti-strewn ‘Berlin Wall’ (soundtracked by a rendition of 1991 Achtung Baby anthem The Fly) for the intermission, before a more showbizzy spirit takes over. This second half feels more like a series of grand gestures which actually lack the emotional punch of the earlier set, though the classic tracks still sound resplendent. Various fans are hoisted on stage: a girl who films the band for a live webcast (streamed above their heads, with a haze of emoticons); two boys who play guitar on Angel Of Harlem; and as a last-minute surprise, Brit rocker Noel Gallagher (who apparently took the tube to play at tonight’s show).
When politics crops up again, it unfortunately feels clumsy and rather crass. Bono ‘doing’ global activism has always jarred, and for Bullet The Blue Sky, the video screen is filled with a splurge of timely and heart-rending yet cluttered images: bomb-shattered Syrian neighbourhoods, bathed in a strange sunlight; refugees fleeing for safety; drowned bodies floating in an ‘EU’ formation. Within this, Bono highlights his antagonistic status – ‘You’re part of the problem, not the solution,’ he drawls, mimicking his critics; somehow, it still comes across as an ego trip rather than self-awareness, boosted by the fact that the star in wraparound shades has spent much of the show sloshing around loads of bottled water. At such points, that rock’n’roll scale just feels like a massive lack of human perspective. Innocence + Experience proves that U2 remain most powerful and believable in their original element: as local boys made loud and proud.