« I’m only here for the free drinks »
For the purpose of what follows know that
Amongst my other activites I write articles for a monthly English language newspaper – mostly stuff about “how nice it is to live in France” – I do this partly for pleasure but mostly for the money.
My large small town of 70,000 souls in the heart of France plays host every year to an international rock festival – The Printemps de Bourges. When the festival had money, we got international stars in town – Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, U2, The Ramones etc etc. The one day the festival went bankrupt so we get less stars but we still have a week long music festival which has currently had its 39th outing.
Local stringer for a paper that no one has ever heard of living in a town with its own rock festival – For one week every year, I get to be a “Rock journalist.
Rock journalism, or at least my, small contribution to the genre. Over the ten years or so that I have been covering my local music festival I would say that the life of the rock and roll journalist can be summed up in the immortal words of Mr Jagger himself
« You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you just find, you get what you need. »
Were I working for Rolling Stone magazine, I’d have people to set up my interviews. No long hours on the phone talking to the army of press and PR people that surround stars, a small regiment of interns would have already done that for me. I’d just have to pull on a sharp suit, stride my way into the bar of some five star hotel and interview Paul or Mick or Elton over a glass of champagne.
I work at the raw end of rock journalism – part of the poor bloody infantry, the grunts on the ground – slogging my way round festivals trying to find the right person who will get me to the right person who will … I am part of the rank and file of « would be » rock and roll journalists who have managed to find some paper, magazine, or website who:
1) Are credible enough to write for – meaning that the site or publication actually has some readership and as such, the festival organisers are willing to give their journalists an accreditation.
2) Will guarantee to use what you have written and will hopefully pay for it.
Were I to continue with the military metaphor, a lot of us journalists are mercenaries – not quite the Dogs of War – but we don’t serve any particular cause or master. We like to call ourselves freelancers, though we are often nothing more than stringers or would-be hacks.
So, here is the truth on rock and roll journalism. There are those instantly accredited journalists from the national and international media who jet into a town they have never heard of to do a few interviews and then, there are the rest of us – about 99% who haul bag and baggage round the festival trying to get an interview or doing those interviews that the festival organisers have seen fit to give us – and here we come back to Mick Jagger’s first line – « You can’t always get what you want. »
As a stringer or a hack you want to interview the major stars, BUT those numerous PR people who surround the major stars look very carefully at those journalists and publications that are asking for interviews. Too small, too obscure, too specialised and you can say goodbye to your interview. If you ain’t from the national media, you’ve had it …
So, you get interviews with shitty bands, the festival small fry. Bands playing 45 minute « showcase » gigs in small venues. The bubbling-under bands who have been stewing away for years and who will disappear as soon as someone turns the heat off. You know the bands – those young hopefuls who sign for the three records deal on the strength of a good demo and some half decent live performances. They come up with the goods on the first CD and then – they fade away slow in musical pain on their following records.
I remember a couple of years ago, interviewing a UK band called the Noisettes. They were hotter than ladies’ silk underwear that you have left under the iron, whilst you go to answer the phone. They were hotter than a good curry after a night in the pub and … Well I never managed to get to them because they were protected by an army of « Hangers-on ». Then, they just seemed to disappear – at least they fell off the edge of my map. Oh, I would have sold my grandmother for an interview and then …
So, bubbling under bands. Well, what might be famous elsewhere might not yet have made it where you live. Quite a lot of the gigs at my local festival are of the « showcase » variety. Famous bands testing French waters.
I get this call from the lady at the festival who organises interviews with the national and international press. « Hi this is …. We need a translator. Could you nip over to the press centre and translate for the Revelsons ? »
Ok, being about the only English journalist working on my local festival, I regularly get called up for interpreting duties.
« The Revelsons … ???? Never heard of them. Yeah, I’ll do the translating, « and off I go to the press centre to track down where the interview is going to take place.
Interview room 7 – inside a diverse and disparate looking bunch of arty broadcasting types. Conducting the interview, a rather creased and crinkled blonde journalist with a voice like a sixty a day nicotine habit – rough.
« I’m here for the Revelsons. »
« Ok » croaks the phlegmy blonde.
And a few minutes later in pops a bowler -hatted chap, clutching a bottle of beer and wearing a slightly drunken grin. Turns out he is the drummer of a group called « The Rival Sons », and he is not drunk, he is just intensely laid back, but then he comes from California as do the rest of the Rival Sons. He is pleasant and gives articulate and erudite answers to the thought-provoking questions.
« What are your influences? » (Excuse me, but the answer too that is in the group’s press release. Why ask the question?)
« Do you like France? » (Well, he’s not going to say he hates the place.)
« Will you be playing songs from your new album in your show tonight? » (Of course he bloody will.)
The drummer talks about previous gigs on this « world tour ». The night before in Lyons they have played to a capacity crowd of … 350 people and « last week » says the drummer, « we were playing to an audience of 35,000 people in Brazil.
TILT – These guys are famous !!!! Back home, I trawl through YouTube – scores of videos, including performances on the BBC. They’re famous. But I didn’t know that before, and at the end of the interview, instead of trying to get my own interview, I’m talking with the drummer about his favourite French beers.
Take it in journalist terms. I write stuff that I can sell. My client is a national monthly English language newspaper where the readership has an average age of fifty. My paper’s main selling point is « how nice it is to live in France » – the paper is based in Monaco. My readers ain’t going to want to read about a shit hot Californian rock band.
I know what you are thinking. « Interview the band anyway and sell the interview to another magazine. »
So, the world’s shortest telephone conversations. I am ringing the editors of Mojo and the NME (this was some years back) – an exclusive interview with Placebo at my local festival. The editor at Mojo has a short ponderous and pensive snort. « Not interested mate. Why should I take an interview from a bloke I’ve never heard of on a festival I’ve never heard of with a band who I can interview in London next week? »
He had a point.
And a few words on drummers (and other musicians)
Well, the singer is the band front man. The writer of lyrics, the group’s in-house philosopher whose job is to make some sense however senseless, with unseeming words that don’t always rhyme and don’t always fit to the music. Of course never get a singer to write the tune – all your going to get is a two-chord melody that sounds like every other song ever written.
Improbable lyrics that actually fit the tune but shouldn’t – my favourite is from Toto and that FM AOR Classic « Africa »
The wild dogs cry out in the night
As they grow restless longing for some solitary company
I know that I must do what’s right
Sure as Kilimanjaro rises like Olympus above the Serengeti.*
Back at the musicians
The guitarist – this is the guy who always turns up the volume on his stage amp because he can’t hear himself play. By the end of the concert no one else in the band can hear what they are playing because the guitar is too loud. In the rock interview, the guitarist is always the one more bothered about his hair than the interview.
The bassist – « where’s the free beer? » Unless of course he is one of these funky bassists who just stares at you, his Raybans perched firmly on the end of his nose.
The drummer – from my meagre band experience, the drummer is always a bit of an enigma. Good drummers are hard to come by. First off, who actually wants to play drums (or bass for that matter) kids want to be singers and guitarists not drummers. A drum kit is a cumbersome piece of gear to shift around and it doesn’t have a lot of sex appeal, and besides, you never see the drummer on stage.
In the various groups I’ve been in I’ve gone through about six drummers – two were totally normal. My first drummer wasn’t very good and he used to come to rehearsals with his poodle. He left the group and started his own pizza business. Our second drummer ran the local record store and he eventually left town and left the band to become a hairdresser. The came a couple of normal drummers and then we finished off with a left-handed drummer who was also a manic-depressive.
In publicity and PR terms – well if a group are hungry for publicity, they will all turn up for any interview. If there are problems at the sound check, the band will send the singer and PR person. If the band couldn’t give a « paradiddle » about their PR, they either just don’t turn up, or they send the drummer.
I’m not down on drummers. I think that they are just a very misunderstood species. They are essential to the group but – well like when the Good Lord created our magnificent world, why the hell did He include the panda or the two-toed sloth?
Back to our philosophical friend – Mr Jagger. The rock and roll journalist can’t always gets what he wants, but some times – you get what you need – a good interview or a photo. It’s all a case of being in the right (or wrong) place at the right time.
Back n the mid noughties, on my rock festival, about to enter that place where ladies cannot go and who should I see coming out the toilets but – major French rock star « Higelin ». We have a quick chat, which makes up the core of my interview and what is more he poses for an exclusive photo holding a copy of my paper. I got a front page on that one.
Never mind the Buzzcocks – you should. Mid to late seventies UK punk band were playing at our festival. They got shoved out to the furthest stages and the interviews with local press or trainee journalists – well, I’m in a room with three trainee journalists who have never heard of the Buzzcocks. I’m the only one who knows them, and my interview turns into an hour-long chat that also makes for some good anecdotal copy. The most pleasant interview that I have ever done.
And then there was Ben Harper – a whole day translating for him because the usual interpreter hasn’t made it down from Paris.
There are of course those « unofficial » interviews you are lucky to get but never manage to sell – I prefer to call them friendly chats. My best was with the John Butler Trio. They had lost their PR lady. They were just sitting round in an interview room waiting for the journalist who was just late enough for me to grab ten minutes of « chat » – which in interview terms gives you roughly enough materiel to write a book. Well, I never managed to sell that one.
And of course the best interviews you never did. We are back in 2013. I have forsaken my rock festival this year and decided to head back to the UK for a week. One morning before breakfast, the phone rings. My local rock festival. « Erm could you spend the day with Patti Smith, she needs an interpreter for her interviews? »
Journalists are not unlike fishermen full of stories about « the one that got away. »
*Toto have never been my favourite band. In France they were huge with hits like « Hold the Line » and « Rosana » – for some strange reason though, the only Toto song that gets any airplay these days is « Africa » – perhaps the worst song they ever made.