Anil Prasad: Unfettered Freedom
Author of Innerviews book and web site discusses the art of the interview and the future of music journalism in print and online
Anil Prasad is the editor and publisher of Innerviews, a web site featuring in-depth interviews with a wide variety of creative musicians, including many jazz artists. Prasad is also a frequent contributor to Guitar Player and Bass Player magazines.
His first book is Innerviews, a collection of interviews conducted for the book, as well as extended versions of interviews that previously ran on his web site. Among the subjects in the book are John McLaughlin, Victor Wooten, Joe Zawinul, Stanley Clarke, David Torn, McCoy Tyner, Bela Fleck and Bill Bruford. He spoke with JT about the interview process and the interesting confluence of print and web within the field of music journalism.
What was the first piece you wrote professionally?
It was on a guy called Rik Emmett from an arena rock band named Triumph. He was one of those guys who was striding across these gigantic stages with laser shows and audiences of twenty thousand people. So that was kind of a cool way for me to start. It was for a magazine called The Charlatan in Ottawa, Canada. That’s a university newspaper in Canada associated with the foremost journalism school in the country. So it was very much a professional situation.
What was the first piece you wrote about jazz?
I think that would have been an interview with Allan Holdsworth.
Did you have any formal training in journalism or even music journalism?
Yes, I have a Master’s degree in journalism from Carleton University in Canada, which is considered the number one journalism school in the country.
Why did you start doing these interviews for your site, rather than for various mags?
Innerviews emerged over 1993 and 1994. It served as an outgrowth of the print work I’d been doing in Canada. It started largely as an experiment for me to learn how to use HTML and code things by hand in the days before they had actual content editing systems. Just as an experiment I threw up a bunch of this content on the web not really expecting anything other than a few people to just flip by and have a peak. At it turns out, in the early days of the Web, there was a lot of interest.
Were they longer versions of pieces you had done for consumer magazines like Guitar Player and Bass Player?
What’s interesting is that those opportunities to write for those magazines came out of this material. Way back in the early to mid ‘90s, initially what I did was put stuff out there verbatim as they had run in print. Then when I realized that people were coming to read this stuff and interested, I thought that I could put outtakes here. I can put extended director’s cuts of the pieces, with extras and commentary, and not necessarily be held to a specific word count. I did start running extended pieces and as interest in Innerviews emerged and grew as the explosion of the Web continued, artists and publicists and labels started to approach me directly, saying, “Would you be interested in covering these projects just for your web site?” And I thought, “That’s an interesting idea.” It had never crossed my mind that the content would be created exclusively for the Web. You need to remember the time period we’re talking about here – the early to mid ‘90s. It all grew out from there. Suddenly, really amazing and interesting offers from either forward-thinking publicists or artists came along. Or people just happened to be fans or had an interest in emerging media. That’s how it began.
As far as my work with Guitar Player and Bass Player, that started around 2003 or 2004, from someone I knew at the magazine who happened to be an avid reader of Innerviews. He said, “What you are doing, almost ironically, would work really well for us at the magazine in print.” It’s interesting that it took a focus on web-based journalism to get me back in the print world so significantly. But I’m very happy to live in both universes.
Certainly both of those magazines are known for the long Q&A format.
Absolutely, it’s very common in those books, though it’s more of a hybrid model, with a feature narrative. It’s a logical move.
What are the pros and cons of that Q&A format?
The pros of the Q&A is that you probably can more faithfully represent the thoughts of the artist and the flow of the conversation. The key negative would be that if you want to construct a narrative or storyline, you have to do that at the head of the piece. With a feature-oriented piece, you can construct a beautiful story line, integrating other anecdotes and context and quotes from other places. They both have their benefits. I enjoy doing both of them.
For Innerviews, for the book and the Web, the Q&A takes on a whole different level. I have a Steve Coleman piece on Innerviews that is almost book length – about 10,000 words. A piece like that could never exist in print, at least not in the current environment. So you can have answers that, for better or worse, that can be 2,000 words. You can debate whether or not that might be interesting or whether or not that’s a great journalistic approach. But there’s a certain level of unfettered freedom that’s available to you in a Q&A.
There has been a lot of debate in the media about how much people want to read or will read online. We’ve all heard that people supposedly aren’t reading as much, yet one could make the argument that the Web enables and even celebrates more in-depth pieces. Do or don’t people want to read longer pieces?
I think there’s so much in play here – the questions of demographics and money, in particular the click-through, trying to get people to jump across pages, to come across ads and banners. When those are the considerations, then, yes, that can really affect the way content is presented. I think younger people are more interested in shorter pithier pieces. But I think there’s still a great deal of interest in in-depth looks at musicians and artists in general. I think Innerviews has really proven that. It has a gigantic reader base at this point. We just launched an iPad version of Innerviews and it actually features incredibly lengthy pieces formatted for the iPad and iPhone. I was talking to my developer Tony Wallace who co-created this app with me. We were kind of wondering if we put a 3,000 word piece into an iPhone, is anyone going to care about or read this thing? Do people want that level of content in this new emerging universe? We just launched the app last week and much to our shock it debuted in the top 40 of all music apps and remains there a week later. In some countries, it’s even in the top 10. So clearly there are people that are looking for this level of content. I do get a lot of feedback from people thanking me for making this stuff available at this level of depth. I think there is very much room for a hybrid era. My favorite magazines of the classic era, and that includes JazzTimes in the modern era, are where you have the shorter pieces and you have the longer in-depth pieces. I think that model works on the Web as well. I don’t think we have to go to the 400 word piece that links to a Youtube clip. I think there’s room for everything.
How do you measure your readership?
The joyous thing about the Web are the comprehensive metrics and analysis that are available to you. Innerviews’ traffic changes dramatically depending on the artist on the front page of the site. So it can go anywhere from 35,000 visitors a day to as high as 100,000. Truthfully, it’s the bigger rock and pop acts on the site who generate the big traffic. Really, it’s quite remarkable the level of traffic that’s generated.
Roughly what percentage of the artists you cover are jazz artists?
When you talk about the intersection between jazz and world music and fusion, I would say it’s 30 to 40 percent who are in that area.
Are there any artists who are guaranteed to produce big numbers, the same way that a magazine like Guitar Player perceives Jimi Hendrix? Who are your numbers stars?
Victor Wooten, surprisingly, generated an amazing amount of traffic. There’s an interview with him from almost a decade ago, and people flock to it. I can’t explain that exactly. There’s a rock act called Porcupine Tree that has a crazed web-based fan audience. Every time I put up an interview with them, the traffic goes bonkers. Bela Fleck is another one that generated a lot of traffic. John McLaughlin is another one with a faithful audience that’s generated a lot of interest as well. Some of the heritage rock acts do well. I once got an interview with Genesis during their reunion tour in 2007. That drew extreme interest as well.
I was surprised that a story I did about Mandy Harvey, a singer who lost her hearing, got a large response in part because the deaf community is very active online. It wasn’t something we had anticipated in any way. We simply wanted to do the story.
One of the wonderful things about the Web is the unpredictability of what will become a hit. I was thinking about this interview I did with Vijay Iyer in 2008. Obviously, Vijay is like the talk of the town now and he was pretty prominent in 2008, but given the social media nature of a lot of his following, that attracted a lot of attention. A story like the one you mentioned could get re-tweeted and it can go crazy and gain incredible traction overnight.
How often do you post interviews to Innerviews?
It completely varies. There can be 6-8 new interviews posted over the course of 3-4 weeks. A lot of it has to do with what I have going on with Guitar Player. It’s more of a weekly thing. I’m not seeking to compete with the magazines that are posting news every five minutes. I haven’t sought to monetize the site. Innerviews is nothing more than a labor of love. When I feel like something is ready, I put it up there without feeling any commercial pressure.
What sort of research do you do for you interviews?
I think that is one of the defining characteristics of Innerviews. I will spend hours or even days researching an artist. Typically if an artist is featured on Innerviews, it’s someone I’m pretty passionate about. I normally go out and buy their whole back catalog. I scour through previous interviews and sources and books, to try to excavate the odd nugget that’s unexpected. As you know, artists do these interviews all the time and 98% of the time, they are asked very very similar questions, much to their annoyance. It’s refreshing for them to encounter different perspectives. And also to even hit them with the perspective of other artists. One of the things you’ll see in a lot of interviews is: “One of your contemporaries said X and what is your perspective on that?” I think that research and spending time getting to know the artist is critical.
I think a lot of journalism is, dare I say it, press release driven. I think most readers aren’t aware of it, but you get a press release, CD or download, and for a lot of journalists that will be the beginning and the end of their research. It’s why so many pieces read the same. My goal is to take a deeper approach and hopefully that’s reflected in the book.
Who was your favorite or most memorable interview?
Probably in the year 2000 when I got a call saying, “Would you like to interview McCoy Tyner?” My head nearly exploded. I knew it was going to be a little bit of a challenge, because he’s a quiet and thoughtful man. I am so thankful that it was truly a wonderful and memorable experience. He was so gracious and so generous with his time. He’s a personal hero. That was incredibly memorable for me—striking the right tone with him, quickly understanding what he likes to talk about and what he doesn’t like to talk about. The worst thing you can do in a McCoy Tyner interview is to hit him with a question about John Coltrane. The way I approached is was that we were sitting a few blocks away from the John Coltrane church [St. John Coltrane African Orthodox Church in San Francisco] and I was curious what he made of that. He just went off and talked about his general dissatisfaction with the idea of artists deified in that way. He used it for his own exploration of his thoughts of Coltrane in the moment. I thought that was an interesting way to get him to talk about something in a different or unique way. I think that goes back to the research element, walking into an interview with a few nuggets. That was a big one.
Another interview going back that I consider to be exceptional was Bill Laswell, which is in the book, where he talks about the realities of the recording industry. That whoever holds the purse strings are really in control over the final product in ways that people don’t really understand unless you’re the artist. He had a fascinating viewpoint on how 9/11 and the political environment that sprang out of it has fundamentally altered the ability of musicians across the world to collaborate in the way that they used to. It was just really heavy stuff. Responses from artists that really make me think or make readers think about the surrounding infrastructure that informs the music and its creation – it’s stuff like that that really fascinates me.
Can you say who was your least favorite interview and why?
[Laughs, and pauses.] I don’t think I want to say that one on the record.
Can you say what makes for a bad interview?
I think a lot of it has to do with the attitude that both people come to the table with. If you really think about an interview, it’s a really odd concept. Two strangers being paired together with one of them more or less in control and the other one expected to relate the details of their lives and careers. A very odd thing if you stop to consider it. For it to work, both people have to come to the table with a pretty open attitude. Both people should be prepared to go off script and that’s where things get really interesting in interviews, when you get the unexpected question or you get the interesting anecdote you didn’t anticipate. When the interviewee and interviewer are operating from any element of rigidity, that’s when the problems start. If the interviewer specifically expects and needs to get something out of that artist and they’re not getting it and they keep pushing that artist to answer in a certain way… You need to go with the flow of the interview and try to extract what’s interesting from what’s going on, as opposed to trying to make it what you think it needs to be.
For the subject of the interview, an attitude of negativity or “Oh God, here we go again”… There are certain artists who just don’t want to do interviews or hate doing interviews and are very overt with their feelings about it from the get-go. That’s always going to create a negative situation. Hopefully, you can try and maneuver them into being more open and interesting with what they do. Time constraints can be a problem. Other things that contribute to negative interviews are when labels or publicists impose their own rules on the interviews, particularly with pop stars. I’ve had interviews where they say that you can’t talk about this, that or the other thing or a former colleague. I’ve stopped even accepting those interviews at this point. I feel like life is too short to do an interview where I know I’m not going to get anything real out of it.
The last thing I’ll mention is that there are certain artists who say the exact same thing in interviews and no matter what you ask them, they have their own script. I see that much much more in the pop world than I do in the jazz world, because the jazz world is filled with very colorful characters that want to have their personalities come across in the music. [They're] so often diverse, interesting and sophisticated personalities. In the rock world, there can be a really expensive PR company that has coached them to say certain things in a certain way to emphasize selling points. That can be a drag. I think that jazz musicians tend to be among the most interesting people out there in this regard.
What did you learn from your interviews that surprised you?
There was John McLaughlin talking about the break-up of Mahavishnu and him forming Shakti with Zakir Hussain and how incredibly difficult and stressful it was for him. And how disappointing it was for his fans and the infrastructure. And how he had to rebuild his career from the bottom up. He provided a really heartfelt examination of that for me. I really hadn’t read that elsewhere. That knocked me out because he’s such iconic figure for me.
And Joe Zawinul, one of my favorite all-time musicians.
A real character. Did he box with you?
He didn’t make me box, but he definitely made boxing motions. He gave me some great anecdotes about Jaco and his relationship with him. And about substances and how they may or may not have informed certain elements of Weather Report and his relationship with Jaco.
And Stanley Clarke talking about turning down Miles Davis was very interesting to me. Stanley could have been one of Miles’ principal co-conspirators in the early ‘70s during that electric fusion realm. It could have been a very interesting thing.
Or given Miles’ quixotic nature, he could have also been fired the next week.
That could have been true. But it was interesting to hear Stanley Clarke talking about all the things he turned down to continue with Chick Corea and Return to Forever. Bill Evans offered Stanley the bass spot with his trio, a pretty radical thing to not want to pursue for an acoustic bassist. And he had projects set up, like with Charles Mingus, with whom he was going to do a tour – “Father and Son” – where they would collaborate together. I didn’t know any of these things.
Do you do these interviews in person or by phone?
I always prefer to do them in person rather than by phone, but sometimes you have to do the latter.
Are there any tricks to the trade when you have to do a phoner? Interestingly, Terry Gross of Fresh Air, prefers to do her interviews via phone or ISDN line. She explains it in her book and argues that she feels more comfortable asking tougher questions when she isn’t sitting across from the subject.
That’s interesting. Terry Gross is very very good at phrasing extremely difficult questions in an engaging and accessible way for the subjects. She’s got a remarkable gift for that. I think anyone that studies the art of interview should definitely pay attention to what she’s done. I will disagree with her in that I think there is a way to do that in person as well, as long as you don’t come across as too provocative or too in-your-face. That’s the stumbling block. As long as the artist understands that your question is coming from a place of genuine interest as opposed to the “gotcha” style of a Bill O’Reilly. I don’t recommend that people look to his work for tips. There is a certain humanity and a certain emotive element that you can only capture when you do an interview in person.
The one advantage of a phone interview is that I can be surrounded by my notes. I can have my back-up questions. I almost have an interview map in front of me when I do a phoner, with alternate questions or a stack of CDs, that I can look at while they’re talking. I might pull something out of a set of liner notes.
Were there any real common themes that ran through most or all of the interviews?
For the book especially it’s a collection of artists that have a real determination to push the boundaries of their art. They’re pushing themselves to the absolute limit of their creativity to do something new and innovative. They have left their mark on the world and they’re continuing to try and do that.
One of the other themes is that they’re not creating music for the marketplace, but rather they're creating music and hoping that the market finds the music. The artists are trying to take listeners on a journey through their work. I think the unpredictability of the creative process is another thing that a lot of these artists have in common. The book focuses on jazz and world musicians, as well as rock musicians that probably share the creative elements of jazz, where a lot of the work comes out of improvisation and it comes out of trying to bring unexpected elements into their work.
One of the other key themes that I can see across all the interview is the spirituality that informs what they do. And I don’t mean that in a religious or dogmatic sense, but in that the music is the purest distillation of their essence as a person. It’s the most truthful, pure and honest thing that they’re capable of doing and that their music reflects.
Given what’s going on in book publishing, why go to the book format?
First of all, the interviews in the book are extremely lengthy. They’re on average between 18 and 24 pages long or about 2000 to 5000 words. Strangely, readers of the web site said some of these pieces and this approach would translate to a long form book project. I’m also a physical media junkie. I have an iPhone and iPad and I’m on iTunes. I am very much into all the modern music technologies, but I am still a crazy vinyl collector and CD collector. My office is cluttered by more box sets than you can imagine. I probably have a collection of at least a thousand music books. There still is nothing as good as a book ultimately as a self-contained reading experience. The Web is a distracting environment to read content on. Even an iPhone or an iPad, because you can push one button and get hassled with a text message. But when you’re sitting with a book, it’s just you and the book. There’s a certain level of focus for the reader.
I’m still heavily influenced by people like Leonard Feather or Ira Gitler. There’s something interesting about the fact that long after Feather is gone, that that book still exists and can be found, maybe in a used bookstore. Someone’s going to buy it at some point and that knowledge is going to get transferred in that very old-school way. There’s something very charming and interesting that object that probably will continue to live long after we’re all gone. That’s one of the great things about books. I’m not sure a web link forty years from now to an article is going to be looked at again that far in the future.
Which jazz writers influenced you as you were developing and coming up in the world of jazz journalism?
Certainly, there’s Leonard Feather and Ira Gitler. And Bill Milkowski was one of those guys I read growing up, as kind of the jazz fusion journalism icon for everybody. Pre-web, pre-internet, it was his columns that were telling all the kids what was out there that was interesting in jazz-rock, which was the spearhead for many people like myself to get into jazz. Jazz-rock served as a bridge to pure jazz or straight-ahead jazz whatever you want to call it. People forget that when they call fusion the dirty F-word and don’t realize when they critique it that it can be a portal into all the stuff from which it originated.
When I was growing up in Ottawa, Canada, there was a journalist named Peter Hum at the Ottawa Citizen. I would voraciously read his stuff and now I’m in touch with him via Twitter, which is amazing 20 years later.
Whom do you enjoy reading now?
There’s a guy in Germany named Tobias Fischer who writes in English for a magazine called Tokafi. He covers endless interesting music from all genres. I find his work very interesting. Stuart Nicholson would put together interesting pieces for Jazzwise that resonated with me from an artist choice level. Brian Priestley is someone who, if I see his name, I’m going to check out what he has to say. Milkowski is still around. He did a 20-page feature on Tony Williams in a drum magazine. My colleague Barry Cleveland at Guitar Player magazine is a very fine writer and he’s always uncovering unique artists from all over the world in every genre of music. He’s become the avant progressive voice of that magazine. He’s someone I engage with all the time.
And John Kelman from All About Jazz whose vision of music is pretty expansive. His interests are highly complementary with mine. The way I find out about a lot of music is from other artists and who they’re following, such as with Vijay Iyer and Rudresh Mahanthappa, and some incredible recommendations come out of guys like that.
Which writers outside of the world of music do you admire and find yourself rereading?
There are people like Dave Eggers, who I love very much. There’s a recent book of his called Zeitoun, which talks about a Syrian painter who remained in New Orleans during Katrina. And it deals with racism, culture wars and surviving against the odds. He’s a fascinating author. I really love Eric Schlosser’s work. He wrote Fast Food Nation and Reefer Madness and he has a new book coming out called Command and Control, looking at the arms industry and how America has been brought to the brink of nuclear destruction on an occasion or two. A very interesting and provocative work that gives people pause to reflect on the silent constructs around them. Spalding Gray is another writer that I’ve always adored for his monologues. He’s got to be one of the great American storytellers of the last thirty years. His pieces like Life Interrupted or Spalding Gray’s America have a lot of resonance for me.
What are your feelings about the future of the print media (newspapers, magazines and books)? Is the sky falling?
The thunderstorms have gathered. The lightning bolts are hitting the ground. I think there’s going to be extreme further consolidation. I think absolutely that the energy and motion is going to mobile devices. There was a very interesting article in Wired this month about how the Web is dead [chuckles] and about how people are moving to these core systems of media, like the iPad and Android and the iPhone and having their media delivered within these app style modes. There’s no denying that that’s where a lot of people will be getting their information.
I think it means there will be less print magazines going forward. I think there will always be room for some print magazines. People still need that tactile feel and beautiful photography that you’re never going to be able to get with 72 dpi Web site. You can’t replicate that. As you’ve seen, there is more integration that’s going on between the print publications and their Web and mobile counterparts. There’s a sharing of links and contacts, ensuring that one medium is meshing with the other. With JazzTimes if you subscribe to the magazine, you get the digital version for free.
Right now in the physical music industry, you’re seeing box sets, vinyl and CDs that come with special packaging but that also come with download codes and exclusive web content bundled. I think the smarter print magazines like JazzTimes and Guitar Player are starting to do that. They’re looking at the communities on the Web to interact with the journalists and artists. I think it’s about taking an intelligent approach to how everything works together and creating these synergies. That’s how print is going to survive longer going forward. I don’t think the newsstand is ever going to go away, but I think it’s going to further reinvent itself.
What effect does all of that have on the state of jazz and music journalism?
The landscape is radically altered. I have a book coming out in October and I’ve been told that the user reviews on Amazon and the social media perspective for my book will be exponentially more important than the professional reviewers. I have a little bit of trouble believing that, because I would think that coverage in JazzTimes or The New York Times would have exponentially greater magnitude. But I’ve been told that for younger people that they would rather hear from other regular people. I find that very interesting, that allegedly the criticism or accolades generated from average people are more meaningful. That has a lot of impact on professional music journalists, when now they’re not only competing with other journalists and magazines, but with every single person that has access to a Web browser and that can blog or post a comment. A person that has 50 followers on Twitter could have one of their tweets be re-tweeted by the right person and suddenly get out to 400,000 people in twenty minutes. It’s suddenly a completely different universe.
Having said all that, I think that serious music aficionados still understand the value of a professional music journalist that has spent years or decades immersing themselves in music and knowledge, and brings all that to bear when they give their perspective to something. No one really knows where this is going. I think there will always be a value ascribed to the professional music writer. You’re starting to see the prominence of some Web sites show that. I think the blogosphere got so enormous and so diluted that people realized for their own sanity they couldn’t follow everything. That’s why web sites like jazztimes.com and allaboutjazz.com are starting to solidify as the core web destinations for the music.
What’s next as far as another book project?
I would absolutely love to do a second volume of Innerviews or even a larger scale book focusing on one artist or genre or movement. For now the main goal is to get this one out and get some traction. Putting a book out there is, I fully acknowledge, not going to be an easy task. I’m hoping that it’s going to resonate with some people and open up some new avenues. Hopefully, by the first quarter or second quarter of next year, I would have idea of what the next step in the print world might be. And the print world and electronic worlds are intersecting in the book world, with Kindle and iBook.