Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Hollywood Days and Night(mare)s: A Leading Question

“Hey, New Guy,” HUSTLER’s then-music editor, Tom Farrell, called from his office down the hall.  “Do you want to go do a band interview for me on Monday night?”

It was my first assignment for Larry Flynt’s flagship smut rag.  I’d been on staff in the Beverly Hills oval-shaped (some say vaginal-shaped) building at Wilshire and San Vicente for only a few months.  Tom had been the first officemate to invite me out for lunch, and had done so not less than twice.  We chatted about music and his run-ins with KISS over the years.  He’d lived in Japan as a kid, picking up the language as the son of a U.S. serviceman.  While he wasn’t one to let someone else get in a word edgewise, he was perceptive enough to realize that I was interested in getting my feet wet beyond my “official” duties as the HUSTLER copy editor.  I was a writer, after all, and this would be my first chance at a national—rather than regional—byline. 

(Tom called me New Guy for my first three months on the magazine.  Then he was fired.)

The assignment was simple enough: Go to the Avalon Theater on Vine St. in Hollywood to interview the band Sparta and then watch their performance. 

A band I’d never heard of and knew absolutely nothing about.  In those mid-aughts I hopped onto MySpace (remember MySpace?????) to listen to some of their cuts and did as much digging as my research-hungry and curiosity-prone mind could on the upcoming release of their new album, Threes.  I spun Threes many times leading up to the interview, read the lyrics, read the liner notes, sought out nuance and thematic arcs in the album. 

Satisfied that I was prepped, I made my way to the Avalon one late November Monday in 2006, tape recorder and notepad in hand.  I’d mostly only ever done phoners with architects and general contractors for a construction mag and then some occasional set visits for movie-related articles gratis.  This felt new and exciting.  And also, scarily like I was out of my depth. 

I phoned my contact, who met me at the backstage gate and led me upstairs to a private area in back of the house.  Lead singer/guitarist Jim Ward was ushered into the room.  A slim, genial fellow from El Paso, Ward greeted me warmly.  If I was, to quote Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous, “the enemy, a rock writer,” Mr. Ward certainly didn’t show it. 

Setting my tape recorder on a table between us, I settled into what I could only guess was my best reporter’s pose and mode.  Pressing record, I began by date- and time-stamping the interview…ya know, for posterity. 

I’d taken standup comedy class a few years prior.  My teacher, Bobbie Oliver, always said put your best joke as your opener and your second-best joke as your closer.  While I wasn’t trying to make Ward laugh, I was desperate to show him that I hadn’t spun the CD once an hour prior, that I had actually put some time and effort and thought into this assignment.  And so I led with the most ostentatious—one might say pretentious—question on my printout list, one I’d carefully crafted and rewritten for days leading up to this.

“I really like this album.  There’s a duality to it, like there’s a relationship that’s ending but simultaneously there’s a hopefulness about it.”

To my immediate delight, Ward’s eyes beamed and his voice quickened.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah!” he enthused.  Then, the most amazing words a cub reporter could hope for: “That’s interesting, I don’t think I’ve ever heard anybody quite put it that way before.”

Rock stars and other celebrities endure the same tired questions over and over and over again.  (Have you ever noticed that when a star is promoting his latest film, he’ll pretty much follow the exact same script and reiterate the same answers verbatim from talk show to talk show to talk show in the week leading up to release?)  What I learned that day was the ultimate value of coming into an interview with something as close to original as possible.  Find a fresh angle.  That and do your homework ahead of time.  The more prepared, the more informed you are about your subject, the more interested you will seem to be in the interviewee, who will then almost certainly open up with better, more revealing, answers. 

I knew ZERO about Ward, his band, their album.  In the days leading up, I made myself a self-professed expert, such that I could discuss individual tracks in detail as well as the album’s overarching themes and connections to the band’s work at large. 

And, sure, a little ass-sucking goes a long way.  But in this case, I wasn’t blowing smoke up his.  I genuinely did—and do still—like the album.  It was crafted in the lead-up to the 2006 midterm elections, when much of the country was at odds with the Bush Doctrine.  My interview with Ward was conducted not long after said midterms, when the Democrats took over the Senate (one of the cuts on Threes is even called “Taking Back Control”). 

One of the most amazing things he said was that he actually felt sorry for Donald Rumsfeld in the wake of his resignation as Defense Secretary following the midterms.  “I naturally cheer for the underdog.  It just felt like the tide had turned so much that I felt bad for him.” 

(Note: I am writing this eight days following the 2014 midterms.  Flip the script and the players, and the same could now be said for Mr. Obama and Mr. Reid.  The script never changes, only the cast.) 

From that lengthy interview I got 450 words in HUSTLER’s April 2007 music section…published in December (it’s best not to ask), which you can read below (apologies for pasting in the text below the image, which is difficult to read). 

Eight years later, on my way to interview Foxcatcher director Bennett Miller in D.C. yesterday, I tried to apply the same principal of leading with a killer question.  That story will follow after my article is published in The Washington Times in the days ahead. 

Or, to quote the close of The NeverEnding Story, “But that’s…another story…”


Tom Farrell, who gave me the Sparta assignment, died a few years back.  I never saw him again after his firing, but I’ll always be thankful for that little push he gave 28-year-old me.  

Listening to Threes, Sparta’s sophomore
release for the Hollywood
Records label, you’re not sure
whether you’re being gently lulled to
sleep or jolted awake for battle. The El
Paso quartet finished out 2006 with a
headlining tour to promote the album,
which vacillates thematically between
expectation and anxiety.
“It’s about my life in a weird way,
both fiction and nonfiction,” says singer/
lead guitarist Jim Ward. “I sort of live on
the edge of hope and desperation, and
that’s the cocktail that makes me an
artist. I do my best to destroy everything
around me, and then I work so hard to
keep things together.”
The songs “Atlas,” “The Most Vicious
Crime” and “Without a Sound” convey a
palpable sadness—a sense that a bond
is ending.
“I was in kind of a dark place,” Ward
continues, “and I wrote songs [thematically]
in the form of a woman or a relationship.
I felt that that way people could
relate to what I was [going through].
‘Atlas’ is about my hometown—if I made
my city a woman. Sometimes I feel that
the city deserts me.”
The affable Ward, who pens a column
for an El Paso alternative newspaper,
cautiously praised the Democrats’
midterm victory. “Now we better do
something with it. We better! You have
to realize that the way the rest of the
world sees our country right now is diabolical,
fucking diabolical.”
Although a harsh critic of the Bush
Administration,Ward expressed sympathy
for the President when former Secretary
of Defense Donald Rumsfeld resigned.
“I’ve said a lot of mean things about that
guy [Bush], but I naturally cheer for the
underdog, the one that everyone else is
mad at. It just felt like the tide had
turned so much that I actually felt bad
for him. It was a weird feeling.”
—Eric Althoff