Friday, Feb. 13, 2009

The Worst Interviews I've Ever Conducted

By Evan Rytlewski
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Count me in the "Joaquin Phoenix was faking it" camp. Though Phoenix convincingly displayed the eerily detached, flat affect of a patient in the early stages of schizophrenia, he hid behind the same thick, black sunglasses as so many bluffing poker players.

Phoenix's instantly infamous "Late Night" interview probably struck a chord with entertainment writers all over, though, conjuring memories of interviews gone awry. With less whimsical results, so many of us have played the David Letterman role at one point or another, trying to pry answers from contemptuous, non-responsive subjects. It's uncomfortable.

A great interview with a musician is a natural high: Little else is more satisfying than having a lively, insightful conversation with an artist who loves their craft. The Flaming Lips' Wayne Coyne, for instance, was so gracious, so eager a participant in my interview with him last year that he literally thanked me for helping him brainstorm new directions for his next record. Now that's a good feeling.

A bad interview, though, can feel as prolonged, humiliating and painful as a death trap from the Saw films. Here are five of the worst that I've had to endure (or, worse yet, make someone else endure).

5. Margaret Cho
Funny thing about comedians: They're usually not very funny when you interview them. That proved especially true for my interview with Margaret Cho, who proved about as jocose as a Noam Chomsky policy lecture. In the nearly half-hour we spoke, she made exactly one joke: a fleeting, accidental pun.

4. Pharrell Williams/N.E.R.D.
Given his hundreds of production credits, Pharrell must have enough money to single-handedly bail out the U.S. economy, or at the very least a couple of preferred states. But his commitment to his vanity project N.E.R.D. is so complete that, instead of spending his morning sleeping in or catching brunch with Jay-Z and a carload of supermodels, he was stuck on the phone talking to me. Needless to say I didn't hold his interest very well, and as I grew more self-conscious my questions only turned drier. He answered each with an implied sigh, until he stopped answering them altogether, leaving his bandmate Shay to handle the formalities. "Hey, P, you still there?" a panicked Shay asked from his line, realizing that Pharrell had abandoned him. It was a dick move on Pharrell's part, but I can't say I blamed him: It was every man for himself.

3. Isaac Brock/Modest Mouse
Isaac Brock is on the shortlist of songwriters whose brain I would most love to pick. Sadly, though, the Modest Mouse frontman wasn't much in the mood for a long, in-depth discussion about his craft. For that matter, he wasn't really much for talking about anything. He mumbled terse, barely audible answers to a few questions, challenged the premise of a few others, and all in all kept a hostile distance. "This guy utterly hates me," I kept thinking.

2. Neko Case
Though she was ostensibly more polite than Isaac Brock, Neko Case was no less combative when I interviewed her a half decade agoin fact, our interview stung that much more because she wrapped all of her counter-answers in a disdainful smile. I'd heard she was a difficult interview before, but never believed it until I witnessed it first-hand: She tore me to shreds.

1. Mac Lethal

How do you conduct an interview with someone on an ideological crusade against interviews? The answer, of course, is you don't even bother-and I wouldn't have, had I know of Mac Lethal's aversion to them, but this C-list rapper never told his own publicists about his anti-interview crusade, so they twisted my arm into doing a phoner with him. Bad interviews happen every couple months, but I've never engaged in one so personal (or, for that matter, obnoxious). Mac Lethal and I fell into an infuriating cat-and-mouse game, with him hanging up on me and me calling him right back. In the end, the showdown between his high horse and my less ideologically romantic need to make deadlineso I could, you know, keep my jobended in a draw. He' still a dick, I'm still employed. Somewhat ironically, he ended up endorsing the story I wrote, but that doesn't change my opinion of him: I really, really hate Mac Lethal.
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