I think this column is morphing into more of a “my favorite Roman stories” list, but what still holds true is that memorable interviews still lead better stories. I tell the RIFF staff, which includes more college journalism students than ever, that in today’s world where blogs are king, what increasingly sets journalists apart is their level of commitment to preparation. I personally interviewed about 60 musicians so far this year, and each interview required at least two hours of reading what everyone else has written about them to find what they’ve missed. You’re welcome, all of our competitors, for all the time I’ve spent on your websites.
Despite my best efforts, I’m the first to admit my writing sometimes isn’t perfect. But here are my most memorable interviews from the past 12 months, all of which led to stories I’m pretty proud of.
Below, you can also listen to a playlist of all the artists I interviewed this year.
I began January by interviewing one of my favorite musicians: Alex Kapranos of Franz Ferdinand (for another publication). I’d gotten to know Alex a bit over the years, first as a fan and then a journalist. This was a phone call before the release of the last Franz record, and I asked a lot of questions that I was personally invested in—primarily centered around the departure of guitarist Nick McCarthy. We spoke for nearly 45 minutes, and Kapranos answered most of my questions. And then, less than three hours later, I no longer had my recorder. It’s a long story. We had to do it all over again, and luckily for me, the band and its management played along.
But just a few weeks later, I had another near-miss. Alessio Neri and I were driving into the city during SF Sketchfest to interview “Jessie’s Girl” rocker Rick Springfield, who was recording a podcast at the festival, when we ran into a Women’s March. It took more than an hour to go 5 miles, with the GPS futilely informing us “30 minutes; 45 minutes; 48 minutes…” I ended up doing the interview in Alessio’s car from a mile away, and it still worked out because Springfield was a great storyteller, sharing his often entrancing stories of touring in Vietnam during the war, and writing on a movie set in San Francisco. Alessio got some photos right before Springfield had to rush off back to the airport.
In February I got to catch up with Kimbra. I’d spoken to her a few years prior, and apparently that was enough time to briefly forget that Kimbra is an extremely fast talker. And she had a lot to talk about. In that time, she’d left her life living in a somewhat remote suburban farm in Los Angeles for New York, wrote a new album and started contributing to a charity that helped women become self-reliant in Ethiopia, even taking two trips to the African country herself.
Later the same month, I interviewed Aussie singer-songwriter Amy Shark and her dog. The interview was initially going to preview her Noise Pop show, but we decided to hold it a while longer until she returned at BottleRock. I loved how engaged she was in the conversation, her willingness to speak frankly about her previous disappointments, and how it felt good to prove her naysayers wrong, eventually. This interview was by phone, but we did get to meet up this fall, alongside photographer Gary Chancer and writer Mike DeWald, who spoke to her for a RIFF Radio podcast. I learned something new about her when she said she recognized me by my voice; something that she was good at picking up quickly.
May is synonymous with BottleRock Napa Valley these days. At this festival, I spend almost as much time talking to artists as seeing live music. That has its pros and cons (which cons? Well, besides missing performances, the interviews can turn into a bit of a conveyor belt if I’m not careful). I literally spend hours between April and May staring at a spreadsheet of not only who plays on what stage, but how that’s balanced with interviews and what happens when anyone is five minutes late. Two years ago, I had 10 interviews in one day. Five of those were one right after the other, and the first one was late, which made the rest of my day extremely difficult. Luckily, my experience was much better in 2018, with at least one artist being willing to chat before gates even opened.
Most of my interviews were interesting, but I’ll highlight a few of them. A conversation with Matt Maeson quickly spiraled into how the mainstream artist is guided by his faith at a time when many gospel artists are trying to distance themselves from that label. Maeson also had some gritty stories about living at the bottom, and how that affected his family. I shared laughs with Oregonians Flor (that story runs early in 2019) and COIN. With the former, I caught the guys in good spirits right after their set. Let’s just say that were very deftly able to riff on communism and elicit narcotics. COIN, meanwhile, had me from the vintage U2 shirt and tattoo of drummer Ryan Winnen.
With Liz Huett, I tried to avoid the most obvious line of questioning (her apprenticeship and friendship with Taylor Swift), and instead find out how being adopted has affected her outlook on life. She told me that eventually, she and her mother want to start a support service for those who work in the adoption field. With Caitlyn Smith, I talked about kids. I have two. She had one and was about to have a second (Lewis was born Nov. 10). I love talking to people of all types, but I appreciate being able to connect with them over shared experiences. It helps me feel not old.
Not last or least was Martin Johnson, better known as The Night Game. The first story here is how excited editor Chloe Catajan was to photograph Johnson, because she was a huge fan of his previous band, Boys Like Girls. But that’s a story for her to share and not me. (Everyone gets starstruck from time to time). But anyway, we had a fun conversation, and Martin remembered me because he came over to chat with me and my family a few months later when he saw me before a show. I think my 4-year-old was equally starstruck and fell in love with The Night Game’s sound. He even tossed her a setlist!
Let’s fast-forward to July, when I hopped on the phone with Tim Booth of English alt-rock band James, a band that’s huge in parts of the world but whose commercial success in the U.S. has fluctuated a bit. He spoke about his desire to make a record that looked for hope amid the current society, which is becoming more dystopian by the week, running out of money in the process, and not having enough to tour the U.S., despite the band’s significant following here.
I had a handful of interviews at Outside Lands, but the majority of them felt rushed, through no fault of the musician. The media tent at the festival is located in a public area, which means as soon as you go outside, fans are wanting to take pictures with the person you’re trying to usher in and speak with. Arts here seem to have less time available then BottleRock, so if they show up five minutes late, that’s five minutes you’ve lost. But a couple stand out. I spoke with Irish singer-songwriter Dermot Kennedy before gates opened on the first day, which meant I got plenty of time to ask him about how his mother took a college entrance exam for him, and how he competed with dozens of other guitar-wielding amateurs for the chance to jam with his idol Glen Hansard on Christmas Eve in Dublin.
And with LP, I felt like I was able to quickly cut through the clutter of what others like to ask her about, to get right to the heart of her music and what’s important in her life. Granted, we only had 12 minutes together, and because I asked so many different questions, this ended up running as a Q&A. There was no singular thread that was able to carry an entire feature. Still, and I think she’ll agree on this, we were able to get deeper in that 12 minutes than others can get in a half-hour.
In September, I spoke to another one of my favorite people in music, Jean Philip-Grobler of St. Lucia. I’ve gotten to speak to Jean before the release of each of his records, so I feel like I really understand the progression for his music. It definitely doesn’t hurt that he’s a pleasant guy to get along with, and I’ve gotten to know his wife Patti and his bandmates a bit in the last few years, but especially him. He still passes my “beer test,” which just means that I think we could talk about something other than music and still get along. I brought my whole family to his band’s show the next month where my kids got to watch his soundcheck and then run around in circles because the floor was so empty before doors opened. If this show didn’t end with Jean nearly breaking his ankle and having to be helped off before the encore, it would have been one of my favorites of the year.
Speaking of October; that month I got to take my daughter to see her favorite artist (yes, a 4-year-old doesn’t have to be obsessed only with Disney princesses). That would be Alice Merton, who I interviewed a day earlier, and whose story you will get a chance to read early in 2019 when she returns to the Bay Area. We spoke about everything that has happened since “No Roots” became a global smash, and how she has adjusted, as well as some of the insecurities she still feels as she becomes more comfortable in her chosen career path. Before her concert, she spent quite a bit of time with my daughter, listening to her sing her favorite song, and then even bowling with her, which required a lot of patience because my daughter had never bowled without a ramp for the ball.
Follow Roman Gokhman at Twitter.com/RomiTheWriter.