Most every musician has been asked a silly question during an interview.
And most every reporter has asked one.
Bob Hallett has heard his share of the former, and may even be guilty of the latter.
Hallett, of course, is a founding member of Great Big Sea. He is also a former writer and editor with The Newfoundland Herald, a position he left to devote attention full-time to the band. (And hes a great writer, so I suspect silly questions were a rarity.)
Clearly, it was a wise move. Great Big Sea, in my view, is the best band in this provinces history, and probably the most commercially successful as well. The band embarks on ridiculously long tours to support every album, and have probably spent half of the last 15 years on the road.
In Canada, the band can sell out 7,000-seat arenas in many cities, though venues in the United States are somewhat smaller. I interviewed Bob Hallett early in March, while he was on the road somewhere in the heart of America.
This week we did a 300-seat club in Bloomington, Indiana, an 800-seat theatre last night in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and for the next two nights well be at the House of Blues in Chicago, which is 1500 seats. By any standards, at risk of sounding immodest, thats really good in America for a Canadian band thats so far off the media radar its not funny. In our case, its just by pure touring. Thats all weve done the last 10 years, spent six months a year in America playing for 20 people, then 40 people, then 80, people, then 160 people. Its a difficult way to build your career, but it works.
Part of that audience-building process involves media print, radio and television whenever you can get it. Prior to rolling into a town, the bands publicist will seek out interviews with the local media, as a way of raising awareness and boosting ticket sales.
Hallett has lost track of the number of interviews hes done over the years. I wouldnt say its in the thousands, but definitely its in the high hundreds, he said. The supposition that myself and my colleagues take is that this is a two-way street. Obviously they are trying to get a story that is somewhat interesting. At the same point in time, we are trying to achieve publicity for our own commercial products. We have our agenda and they have theirs. Its not entirely altruistic. They arent there just to learn about the real Bob Hallett theyre there to get something interesting for their television / radio / print thing. And were trying to achieve publicity. Now, often, those ends are the same. Sometimes theyre not, so you have to take a different strategy, depending on what youre trying to do.
Before getting to the downsides and irritations, I asked what impresses him about an interviewer.
Generally, theyve actually read some of the stories that are already out there. Vast amounts of stuff are available on the Internet, which wasnt the case even five years ago. So the result (of such research) is that they go Okay, well, hes been asked this a question a million times so chances are the answer is going to reflect that. If they do ask a common question as they often have to but they find a slightly more novel way of doing it, that will result in a slightly more novel answer.
And what, besides research, separates the good ones from the bad ones?
I dont mind being asked the tough questions. I dont mind being put on the spot. Thats their job too. What bugs me is when people have done no research at all and just go right to the clichs. I cant tell you the number of times an interviewer started off with, Well, Ive never heard of your band before, but I just got this record, and youre like, Well, why are you calling me? Why didnt you spend five seconds on the web site at least? My opening move now is more like vague hostility as opposed to cooperation.
That said, Hallett understands that not all reporters are able to devote substantial research time to their story.
You have to realize that the average interviewer is not the entertainment guy whos got five cool stories to do in a month. This is also the sports reporter, financial reporter and the city guy, and hes got to fill a page of entertainment on Thursday morning. So you cant be an asshole about it. Youve got to be realistic. These guys arent working for Rolling Stone for the most part, so you cant attack them for not wanting to do an in-depth personality piece. You have to give people the benefit of the doubt.
And, yes, he has been subject to more than a few annoying, hackneyed questions.
Ive been asked, What are your influences? Tell me about kitchen parties. So you guys have known each other a long time. And then some questions that are so ridiculous you dont even know how to answer them, like, Is Newfoundland music an influence in your stuff? and we go, wow. It is our stuff. Or, I hear by your accent youre Irish. Well, no. You know, you always have to be polite, though it depends on who it is. If this is a guy from a major daily, and hes obviously had time to research the subject or should really know better, then your answer can reflect that. But if its a person from a weekly in the middle of nowhere, you cant be churlish in those situations.
Halletts views on this are tempered, and perhaps his patience fortified, by his own experience as an entertainment writer.
I did this before so I have a sense of what its like to be on the other side. And often when I was as The Herald trying to talk with some guy in Hollywood or whatever, Im sure I was the 23rd of 27 interviews that day, and the guy from Newfoundland was just yet another irritation in a long day. Most of those people were polite to me, so Id rather be polite to people too.
One recurring thorn in the bands side has been use of the word Newfie a pejorative term for them but one that is used commonly often by fellow Newfoundlanders.
We fought hard against use of the term Newfie from day one, but often weve done ourselves no favours, Hallett said. And attempts to take the high road and avoid clich always end up with everyone talking about it. Instead of talking about the new album, you end up having a debate about the term Newfie. Weve sort of given up, not because our opinions change, but were just not going to win this battle. There are people out there who are always going to be comfortable with this term. Were not.
Sometimes the band bites its tongue at use of the word; other times, they are compelled to take a stand.
Interviewers do get short shrift. Dude, if youre starting off with a Newfie joke, then you havent read anything about this band. Im offended, and you should probably stop that line of questioning now and we could have a good interview, or its going to be a real short one. But, you know, once a month we still get one. It never entirely goes away. And it still mystifies us because we have no problem wearing Newfoundland on our sleeves. Its not like were trying to disavow that. Our whole musical world is built on traditional Newfoundland music. But we reject the clichs and that often puts us in an uncomfortable position Hes comfortable with it, Im not. And were not. But again, you find yourself defending the fact that youre offended, which is kind of hopeless.
I asked if the band is treated differently by interviewers, when touring outside Canada.
All the clichs stop, Hallett said. Those things are entirely in Canadian media it never happens in the U.S. We dont have the same media profile here either, so a lot of the stuff we do tends to be smaller and more focused. The result is you dont have to wade through 15 years of band history to make a point. In Canada, having survived this long you become one of the Canadian Institution Bands, where the critical musical media whatever that is in Canada these days just doesnt take anything seriously: Aw, youre just one of those bands, like Tragically Hip and Blue Rodeo, that just put out records and lots of people go to see you play, but they suck. That seems to be the subtext: You should go see these cool bands, not these old guys. In America, we dont have to deal with that at all. Every gig is a new territory in many ways. And its often very refreshing because we dont have to deal with clichs about Newfoundland, we dont have to defend the seal hunt, none of those subtext conversations get in the way of talking about the band or talking about the music.
You have to admit: playing the House of Blues in Chicago is pretty cool. And its just one of many high points the band experiences on a tour like this. I asked if the bands success outside Newfoundland is being noticed and reported by the media back home.
A few media people do. But the short answer is no, theyre not very aware of it. But I dont blame them for that. This is not important to our narrative there. When were doing media in Newfoundland, generally were talking about shows there, or new records. Thats the context or lens through which its viewed. What were doing in Chicago or New York or Boston is curious, but Newfoundlanders are interested in Newfoundland, as a rule. Those stories probably have more weight in Ontario, where American success means a lot to the Toronto media. In Newfoundland, I dont think thats necessarily the case. I know Im making a sweeping generalization, but as a rule Newfoundlanders are very inward looking. The Newfoundlander making good on the mainland is an interesting story, but its not a news story about Great Big Sea. Theres nothing to be said there.
And, because he likes very much to come home and live a normal life, Hallett has no problem with that.
Great things have happened to us down here. Well be laughing, saying we just did this thing, and nobody in the world knows about it. Meanwhile, well go home and play a show, and the story will be about the fact that the lineup for the coat check was too long, or something like that. Those are the kinds of conversations you are having about your career! But we like to live there too, and for that reason. We like to be able to take off our rock star coat when we get off the plane.
If you want to read more about this subject, check out Bob Halletts latest blog item, which seems to have been inspired, at least in part, by our conversation above. It is incredibly funny, contains many nuggets of truth, and is far more entertaining than this entry. (Hey, I always call it as I see it.)