A Rational Conversation is a column by editor and writer Eric Ducker. Every week he gets on iChat or Gchat or Skype or whatever with a special guest to examine a subject that’s been on his mind.
Stand-up comic Marc Maron has been doing his highly successful podcast WTF from his Los Angeles garage since 2009. The format is usually an hour-long, one-on-one conversation, and his guests usually are drawn from the comedy world. In February of 2012, however, Maron featured pop genius Nick Lowe as his guest; in subsequent months, more musicians followed, including Jack White, Wayne Coyne of The Flaming Lips, Carrie Brownstein of Wild Flag and Sleater-Kinney, James Mercer of The Shins, and Craig Finn of The Hold Steady. This week, he posted his interview with Fiona Apple. Here, Maron discusses what’s behind this increase in musician guests, and how he approaches these episodes differently.
Eric Ducker: You’ve been having more musicians on the show recently, starting with Nick Lowe. How did that come to be?
Marc Maron: The guy who directed the video [for Lowe’s “Sensitive Man”] asked me to be in it. Then I hooked up with Nick Lowe and was very excited by the possibility of having him on; when he was out here, we just sort of made it happen. The fact that he played “The Beast in Me” in my garage far transcends any of my expectations in life. That was pretty amazing.
ED: Had you been looking to broaden the show beyond comedians?
MM: We’re very comedy oriented, but from the beginning there were shows where I have talked to writers, as well as people like Henry Rollins and Todd Hansen. As time went on, I realized some of these music guys might be into doing it, and that we could figure out a way for them to play in a very stripped-down fashion. I don’t think it was that much of a stretch.
ED: With the artists you’ve had on more recently, did you approach them, or has it gotten to a point where they’ve started approaching you?
MM: With Wayne [Coyne], I was going to Oklahoma City, someone on Twitter said I should go interview him, and I thought that was a great idea. I tweeted at Wayne and his tech guys listen to my show, so between those few things happening, we set it up. I had one night in Oklahoma City: I landed at the airport, and within an hour Wayne was over at my hotel, talking in my room. Doing Craig Finn and Nick Lowe and Wayne sort of opened doors to more musicians. Musicians aren’t always the easiest interviews, but I think those interviews put something out in the world that this might be a good place for musicians to open up about stuff, if they’re capable of doing that.
ED: How hard was it to get Jack White? He’s known for not always being the most interested in doing interviews.
MM: It wasn’t that hard. I was going to Nashville, I knew he was a comedy fan, and some of the same people who were involved with The Shins are involved with Jack. We lucked out in that he was doing, relative for him, a lot of publicity for Blunderbuss. I was very nervous, but I find I do better with musicians, much like with comics, where we’re kindred spirits or have similar musical tastes.
ED: With a lot of your interviews with comedians, your starting point is your personal relationship with them as people. With your interviews with musicians, however, the starting point is usually your personal relationship with their music. Is it harder for you to start that way?
MM: It is, because there is a little more on the line. There’s no common language of living the same life for a long time. I have played music for a long time and I’m a fairly obsessive fan of some music, but it is different. I’m a little more fanboy-ish around musicians. But with Craig Finn, the Boys & Girls In America album really resonated with me, and I like the way he writes. From his songwriting, I could kind of glean that we had something in common. With Jack, we had the blues in common. With Mercer, I had Albuquerque in common. Nick Lowe, you can talk to him about anything – he’s like the history of modern pop. But it is different, because it starts more as an interview than as a conversation. Most of the shows are not interviews, they’re conversations. With musicians I sort of have to establish myself, because they’re not used to what I’m doing. They’re used to being interviewed.
ED: You mentioned earlier that you don’t think musicians are the easiest people to interview. What do you mean by that, and why do you think that is?
MM: I don’t know that I’ve interviewed enough to say that I know the answer to that. The ones I’ve interviewed, I’ve generally had a pretty good time with them. Artists of any kind generally, given the opportunity, like to talk about themselves. But with music, a lot of times, there’s a bit of a mystique to it. These are artists who can actually step aside from their work a bit more. They live in the songs. I really assumed that when a songwriter writes a song, that he’s talking about himself. It was a big education for me when Nick Lowe told that even though he wrote “The Beast in Me” for Johnny Cash, that his intuitions about there being something inside of you that is that beast weren’t coming from his own experience. Songwriters can distance themselves from their songs; I don’t know if comics can do that as much.
ED: Then there’s the question of whether you would want to talk to comics who can distance themselves that much from their material.
MM: Well, I still know what’s under there. And with Jack White, I think after talking for an hour we got into some genuine conversation about him. What you come out from that interview knowing is that he’s very hard on himself, that he’s very hard-working, that he has a tremendous respect and awe for what he’s messing with, and that he’s got a pretty good sense of humor.
ED: In your interviews with other comedians, you get the sense that they’re either very familiar with your show, or that they’ve at least heard about it. With the musicians, do you get the sense that they know what they’re getting into?
MM: Not really. To be honest, my entry into the music world is through handlers – outside of Wayne, which happened sort of organically. I don’t know if James Mercer had listened to my show at all. I know that the people around him listen to it, and that maybe his friends listen to it. There’s not that sense of familiarity, except with Wayne, where there was an immediate sort of comfort. I don’t know if that has to do with the way he is, but there was something that clicked almost immediately. I recently interviewed Fiona Apple, and she’s a big fan of the show, so I guess it’s sort of a random thing. The weird thing is that I do have a lot of musician fans. I get a lot of emails from dudes in bands. There are bands that listen to the show while they’re travelling as a group in the car. That’s very flattering to me, because I always wanted to live that life. And I think that’s what I bring to a lot of these interviews: my own inability to rise above my fears early on to really pursue music in a real way.
ED: Is your curiosity about the musician lifestyle center around the recording aspect or the touring aspect?
MM: It’s just that music is so amazing. Music is magical. You can go back and listen to a song over and over again at different intervals through your entire life and have a different experience, or the same experience, with a song that is visceral and real inside of you. That’s an amazing thing. I’ve done some playing and singing in public over the past few years after overcoming some of my own fears around that, and it was completely gratifying. It’s the most revealing thing. It was my biggest fear in the world to sing in front of people. I don’t know how you do that without it being so vulnerable. I’m amazed at these guys. Rock stars are astronauts to me.
ED: You interview some comedians who are more famous than the musicians you have on, but because you’re part of the comic world, do you not have to go through handlers as much as you do with musicians?
MM: Going through handlers is never that effective. In the music world, having the outlet of WTF is exciting for them – the format and the visibility of it. A lot of people aren’t up for doing an hour-long interview. I think it speaks to the body of work that I’ve been generating that they want to do it. And I’m glad that I’m on their radar. With comedy, I’m usually one or two people away from almost any comic. It’s easier to go through friends or reach out directly. And if they say, “Yeah, I’d like to do it, but you have to go through so-and-so,” then I’ll do it that way. There are a couple publicists who bring me people that I would have never thought of, but because I’ve been in comedy for 25 years, I know these publicists as well. But I don’t usually have to use them as much. Comedy is a world I’m living in.
ED: It’s interesting to hear interviews you’ve done with comedians where the subject you connect over the most is music. I’m thinking particularly about the Killer Beaz interview.
MM: That was an interesting thing, the Skynyrd connection. Beaz is sort of an interesting cat. He’s been around forever, but he’s not a hugely respected comic in any way. He’s a road dog, but he’s very specific. I was happy to find common ground.
ED: Are musician interviews something you’d like to do more of?
MM: Absolutely, I love doing them. To address what I was saying before, I think with musicians, and especially rock stars, there’s a mystique intact. Comics’ egos are a little more fragile in the sense that the mystique for a comic is their persona on stage, and usually it’s not that far from their guts. Sometimes with rock stars and musicians, part of their magic is their mystique. How much of that is genuine, and how much of that are they going to keep intact during the interview? Are they going to be difficult for the sake of being difficult? I don’t know if those questions come up with comics. Musicians don’t have to talk at all. In approaching them, it’s a little more challenging. If I could interview Thom Yorke, there’s always the question of, “Do I want to interview Thom Yorke? He’s such an interesting, dynamic, freakish talent – if I talk to him will I realize he’s just a guy?”
ED: You kind of make it a thing that you don’t usually do research before your interviews. Do prepare for these interviews with musicians differently?
MM: I’m not in the music press, and I listen to what I listen to, so I want to make sure I’m at least familiar with the full range of their work. Sometimes that doesn’t necessarily make a difference, but out of respect, I want to make sure I’m on top of stuff. And I’ve made mistakes before. I had Dave Alvin in here, whom I love, but most of The Blasters stuff I listen to is from their greatest-hits album. I thought they had two records, so when I was talking to him, I said, “You guys made two fucking great records.” And he was like, “I’d like to think we made three.” And I didn’t even mean that as a shot. Just to protect from myself from moments like that, I try to do a little more research.
ED: As someone who’s part of the music press, I know that sometimes engaging with the music itself isn’t our primary preparation for interviews. Instead it’s reading articles or websites or press releases to know the backstory and the career narrative. Often we don’t engage with the music enough. Your approach is probably more common sense, but sometimes I don’t think we do it enough.
MM: With Jack, my obsession early on in my life with blues music and that weird haunted feeling you got when you heard Leadbelly or Son House or Robert Johnson for the first time and how baffling it was – I shared that with him. To go from there was interesting. I was very insecure with that interview when I left it. As with any interview, afterwards I was like, “Why didn’t I go a little deeper…” But what I’ve grown to realize about interviewing in general, especially in the format that I’m in, is that whatever my needs were that were met or not met in the conversation, I just have to let that be and let go of it. The truth is that the people who are going to listen to an hour of a conversation with Jack White and who love Jack White are going to love it.
ED: And the truth is that there’s hardly anywhere else available where you can listen to Jack White talk for an hour. It’s interesting to hear a conversation with him develop over time.
MM: And it was interesting to be in his environment. When he said categorically that he didn’t like triangles, I thought that was the greatest thing ever.
ED: What musicians would you like to talk to in the future?
MM: I’d love to talk to Iggy Pop. I just heard that John Darnielle from The Mountain Goats loves the show and wants to talk, so now I’m getting up to speed on him. It’s actually fun, because when somebody like him is interested, I start listening to more of their music and I’m like, “How did I not listen to this before?” He lives in North Carolina and I’m going down there, so maybe I can hook up with him. I had Mike Doughty on recently; we have to put that up. We go way back – he used to do my Air America show. Sometimes the guests let me play with them, and that’s a perverse thrill. Dave Alvin let me play with him, and so did Mike.
ED: What’s your etiquette in seeing if you can play with them?
MM: I was certainly not going to ask Nick Lowe, and I wasn’t going to ask Craig Finn. Dave Alvin and Mike asked me. I would never just pick up my guitar and start playing.