RIFF doubled in readership in 2017, and as editor-in-chief, so did my workload. As one of five people running our humble little publication on a day-to-day basis, while planning as far out as free time allowed, I often felt like we were learning how to run a business on the fly. I still feel that way. But I’m a journalist first.
One of the reasons I helped found the publication was to make the judgment calls about which artists and music should have a light shined on them. To that end, I could never pass up on opportunity to interview someone who interested and intrigued me. Looking back now, I do the math and realize I (as of this writing) conducted 65 interviews of 10 minutes or longer in 2017. That’s 15 or so more than the previous year and nearly 30 more than the year prior. That doesn’t count the roughly 20 interviews by email. Each interview required hours of research. I learned a lot, is what I’m trying to say.
Some of those interviews end up blurring into one another. BottleRock Napa Valley is a good example. I seemingly spent more time talking to artists than watching them perform. The second day of the fest had 10 interviews. But then there were others that were memorable for various reasons. Here are some of my favorites.
Below, you can also listen to a playlist of all the artists I interviewed this year.
I like unique voices, and I like even more when I meet the artist and hear that same voice in conversation. It assuages my fears that the singing voice is an act and not who the artist really is. I met up with Angelica Garcia in late January prior to a show at the Independent. We spoke about her stepfather’s faith and their relationship, the culture shock she experienced after her family moved from Los Angeles to rural Virginia and her love of a well-crafted country song.
The following month, I spoke to the man referred to as the Father of Italian blues: Zucchero. The Skype call broke up on a couple of occasions, and I couldn’t always tell what the he was saying, but the the great musician didn’t only communicate with words. The delivery itself was full of passion. I learned a lot of history from the man who’s recorded or shared the stage with the likes of Miles Davis and Eric Clapton, and was even transported back in time to Zucchero’s first time in the U.S., which happened to be in San Francisco. Images of the first skyscrapers that he had ever seen and the best pizza that he had ever tasted—humorous for a man from Italy—filled my head.
File my March conversation with Adrian Young of Dreamcar into the fanboy category. Young is, of course, also a member of No Doubt—one of my favorite bands from the time I was in middle school. I have stood up against barriers outside clubs waiting for him and his bandmates to walk in or out in the past. And here I was, talking to him man-to-man. Young told me the new band made him feel like a teenager again. Well, talking to him made me feel like one as well. And as a bonus, after my stories about Dreamcar ran, guitarist Tom Dumont (also of No Doubt) shared it, and quoted me. What more can I say?
In May, I invited Jax Anderson (Flint Eastwood) over to help paint a hallway in my house. Jax passed my “beer test,” in which I decide whether I have enough in common with an interviewee to spend time with them outside of the confines of a business exchange (the interview). We spoke a lot about Michigan, where she’s from, and how my family spent a few weeks in the area after my daughter was born and we adopted her. We spoke about how she was able to bootstrap not only her music career, but also start a music studio for her community in the process. I came away extremely impressed by that.
Later that same month, musician-producer Daniel Lanois made me break through the fourth wall in a story by writing about myself. We picked up our conversation, which has now spanned nearly a decade and several phone calls and face-to-face interviews. I had no choice, after hearing his response to me asking him about his day: “Busy as hell, and I’m mad as hell,” Lanois joked. “I’m trying to get work done, and I get interviews thrown at me. Aren’t you supposed to be writing a novel by this time, Roman? What the fuck are we doing, talking about night clubs and reviews?” Lanois is another musician I grew up admiring, at first for his work with U2, and later as I expanded my tastes, for his own imaginative creations. He’s always a great conversation, and I try to glean as much as possible from him each time.
Then came BottleRock Napa Valley. Like I previously mentioned, the festival kept me busy enough to not catch a complete set by any artist. Out of the dozen-plus interviews I had, more than a handful stand out, but I’m trying to keep the length of this list manageable, so I’ll pick out only four.
Noah Gersh and Jamie Reed of Partybaby were a comedic tandem during their conversation with me, with Gersh playing it straight and Reed being wacky. We covered much more than is reasonably expected over the course of 30 minutes, and the guys didn’t deflect from any of my questioning, even when it was about their decision to leave their previous bands (Portugal. The Man and Thirty Seconds to Mars).
Patricia Jetton (Hirie) and her manager-husband exhumed a calming sense of welcome during the short time we had together. We were chatting inside a crowded bingo hall at the Napa Valley Expo that was converted into a media center, but I get the feeling that Hirie would just as well have invited me and photo editor Alessio Neri into her home for some tea.
Electronic crooner James Hersey was way funnier in person than his ballads of heartbreak and crushes let on. We reminisced about his time growing up in Austria and an appreciation for classical music and his wayward ways (he’s broken a few hearts by running away from problems, I found out). He was, like, super-tall, and he sang into my recorder when I had to step away for a minute. In the picture below, I tried to put my arm around his shoulders. It went around his waist instead. James Hersey passes my beer test. So did the members of Judah and the Lion, who at first blew me away with one of my favorite performances at Bottlerock, and then, as a band, gave me some extremely thoughtful answers to my questions: about music, faith, about music and Nashville and about earnestness in music. I’ve had a handful of interviews this year where it was clear the artist was trying to get through the day. This was not one of those.
In June, I got some quality time with Phoenix prior to them taking the stage at Live 105’s annual summer concert. Technically, my interview was with Christian Mazzalai and Deck d’Arcy, but prior to that, I got to hang around with the entire band and watch them get mentally ready to play their new album for the first time. The record, Ti Amo, was one day old at the time. We spoke about how the band went about making it, as well as the world around them, their love of Burt Bacharach and Dionne Warwick and their first time in the Bay Area. Following the interview, I stepped outside to none other than one of my favorite groups, Franz Ferdinand. The two groups merged, reminiscing about something or other, and I got to watch and join in that conversation as well. The interview turned into two pieces, the second of which was for RIFF.
Just five days following that experience I got to reconnect with three members of one of my favorite groups: Mandy Lee, Etienne Bowler and Will Hehir of Misterwives. Disclosure: The interview was supposed to be for another publication and not for RIFF. The other publication went under just as the piece was supposed to run. I could have really written a nice feature out of it, but the other publication wanted a Q&A, so I decided to keep it as-is and kind of regret that now. The three were outgoing, open and friendly as always, and talking to them is like talking to old friends. But here’s the thing: That’s what it felt like the first time I ever interviewed the group. Later this year, I’d bring the entire family, including my two 3-year-olds, to see Misterwives in Oakland. The band had invited all of us, and made time to hang out of my wife and kids after the show, even though Mandy was suffering from some clear foot and back pain.
On to July, where early in the month I hopped on the phone with former San Francisco resident BrownMark of The Revolution, Prince’s most famous band. The bassist (who’s real name is Mark Brown), unflinchingly walked me through the initial moments, days and weeks he and his bandmates went through upon learning of the legend’s death in 2016, and how they decided to tour without their leader. Then he shared a few stories behind the songs with which so many people grew up.
At the end of July, pretty late in the evening, I had a phone call scheduled with Josh Legg (Goldroom) to preview his set at Outside Lands. I don’t listen to a lot of electronic music, and by that time of day I was pretty beat from a full day of phone calls and writing. So while I felt prepared to speak to Josh, I certainly didn’t feel “ready.” My wit wasn’t very sharp, so I honestly didn’t expect a good story to emerge from the interview. Josh more than made up for it with his story about nearly dying the previous month. He’s a good storyteller, is what I’m trying to say, and he provided me with more than enough for a story I was proud of. He later thanked me for it, but I think he deserves some of the credit himself.
Then just before Outside Lands I met up with lifelong musician Ben Lee and his partner, newbie musician Josh Radnor. The duo (Radnor & Lee) had released a couple of singles up until that point but were still flying under the radar. The show where we met hadn’t publicized the lineup, so even here some people couldn’t place Lee and Radnor, a screen director, producer and actor. Now, I’m a big How I Met Your Mother fan, so it was cool having Ted Mosby talk to me. But it was even cooler getting to know both of the people in front me and learning a couple of their quirks.
Two of my favorite interviews this year took place at Outside Lands, for different reasons. MUNA has been one of my favorite bands over the last couple of years. The evocative pop trio writes songs with important messages to which many can relate, and does so while carrying a flag for several groups of people. I’ve spoken to them before, by phone and email, but this was the first time we could all sit down together and get down to specifically what the band members want to accomplish and what’s it’s like to accomplish it. I also got to tell them how awesome it was seeing them stand up to Trump on national TV.
Then there was Warpaint. I spoke to singer-guitarists Emily Kokal and Theresa Wayman, who are from the same hometown as me (if you couldn’t tell by the majority of hats I’m wearing in all of these photos, it’s Eugene, Oregon). The three of us made a burrow under some cypress trees in Golden Gate Park and talked about going to competing high schools at the same time, their music (of course) and more.
Fast-forward to October, where, in my conversation with Nicole Atkins, the New Jersey singer-songwriter transplanted me to a San Francisco diner where she and local Chris Isaak wrote one of her new songs. We talked about a lot of things, from her alcohol addiction to Isaak to falling into a sinkhole and nearly breaking her butt. But most of all, she completely sold me on her vision for herself and her music. If she’d have asked me to sign a petition, I would have done so on the spot.
Exactly one week later I spoke to Max Hershenow (of MS MR) and singer-songwriter Alex Winston about their new duo, Post Precious. While the conversation largely focused on their anxieties over the major label music business and previous bad experience, I was impressed how the two had persevered and had created new missions and goals for themselves, which they were determined to accomplish on their own.
That thread was picked up two months later in my talk with Nashville musician Chelsea Lankes. It turned out Lankes, like Winston, also had some dreams dashed by the industry. After considering her options and what she wanted in her life, Lankes was determined to start over on her own terms. But the kicker from this interview for me was that I came prepared to talk about her new single, about a brutal break-up, and Lankes came prepared to tell me that since that break-up occurred, she found love, reignited her passion for music, and was newly married.