Image by Lia Kantrowitz

In Conversation with the Guy Behind the Internet’s Favourite Celebrity Interviews

Dan Ozzi

Vulture writer David Marchese talks about how he gets Quincy Jones, Erykah Badu, and Julian Casablancas to let their guard down and open up.

Image by Lia Kantrowitz

Preparing to interview David Marchese is a daunting task. Normally, the New York-based writer is on the other side of the recorder as the contributing editor at Vulture and New York, whose In Conversation series has gotten a lot of attention in recent months for Marchese’s in-depth interviews with high-profile subjects like Quincy Jones, Erykah Badu, and Julian Casablancas. These extensive discussions typically last for 90 minutes with an added 30-minute follow-up, and Marchese meticulously prepares for them, spending hours researching his subjects, combing through everything he can find, and memorising pages of potential questions.

Even on the internet, where everyone is talking at all times, the quotes Marchese elicits from his subjects are striking enough to break through the noise, often becoming newsworthy enough to make headlines. If an artist’s name starts trending online, there’s a good chance it’s because of something they told Marchese. So what to ask the asker? We sat down with Marchese at the New York offices for our own In Conversation with David Marchese.

Noisey: How important is that first question in an interview?
David Marchese: I think the first question is pretty important. I would say for me, knowing how much time I have for the interview, it’s less important than knowing I have 15 minutes or something. So the first question, I don’t really put that much pressure on it to necessarily yield something that interesting, but it is a nice ice-breaker. It’s almost more for revealing personality than it is about getting a great answer.

Do you have an agenda when you go into an interview? Your conversations seem natural but are there topics you keep in the back of your head?
Totally, yeah. I come in with anywhere from three to five pages of questions that I’ve narrowed in advance. And they can range from fairly specific to more general questions about subjects. But I do have in my head the whole time that those are things I’d like to get to. That doesn’t mean that I do get to them, but they’re things I know I want to cover. And I find after the interview when I’m going over the transcripts, I have usually gotten to most of it. It’s a balance of covering that stuff and also allowing the conversation to move in its own natural direction.

In my head I always think of an interview as a flowchart. If they say yes, I’ll go one way. If they say no, I’ll go another way, but either way, I have a strategy to get to the question I want to get to. Is that how you think of it?
Yeah, there are instances when, ahead of the interview, I’ll think about something I want to raise and then also think of places to go depending on what I think their answers to that question might be. But I do think, even more than that, I am more focussed on listening to them in the moment, and trying to respond to what they’re saying. I think generally the person you’re talking to has some sense beforehand of the things you’ll want to talk about. So these things are going to come up, particularly if there are sensitive subjects. They’re not gonna be surprised that you’re gonna wanna talk about that. I do think being able to respond in a human way demonstrates that you’re actually listening to what they’re saying, and is going to yield stuff that’ll be useful.

On those sensitive subjects, do you have a strategy for cracking them when you’re getting PR answers?
I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s a strategy but you can ask similar questions different ways and I’ll try to do that. I often find something that tends to work is that you say to someone beforehand: “Look, I know you might not want to talk about this” or – and this is truthful, not just emotional manipulation – if you preface a difficult question by saying, “Look, this is a difficult question for me to ask,” I do think that often results in the person entertaining the question in at least an honest or more serious way than if you just spring it. I think it’s just natural human behaviour in conversation that people do sort of mirror each other a little bit. So if you demonstrate some vulnerability, I think that’s often reciprocated with vulnerability.

Pulling back the fourth wall a bit, sometimes going into an interview, especially a high-profile interview, a publicist might either explicitly or implicitly tell you that certain topics are off limits. Is that a deal-breaker for you?
Yeah, I don’t agree to interviews with limitations. That actually just happened this week where there was somebody I was setting something up with and the publicist said that certain subjects would be non-starters, and I said, “Well, then I can’t do it.” And they came back and said, “You can do it anyway.” Something that I find works sometimes in that situation is when you remind the publicists that the interview subjects have the right to say they don’t want to talk about something, and that’s treating them more like an adult than saying beforehand, “You can’t raise this.” They don’t want to talk about it, they don’t have to talk about it.

A lot of the people you interview are people who have been being interviewed for, in some cases, decades. Is it daunting to feel like you have to hit them with something they’ve never talked about before?
It is. In the case of somebody like Quincy Jones, he’s been giving interviews for 50 years. Going back and reading all the interviews, you do find that people develop their answers to specific questions. If you go back and read interviews with Quincy Jones about Michael Jackson, you’ll often see that he says the same sorts of things. And that’s common for anybody who’s been interviewed a bunch of times. So I think, in those instances, I do consciously try to think of questions about those certain subjects that haven’t been answered before, or I look for things that maybe they’ve raised but haven’t answered ancillary questions about it. An example would be, again with Quincy Jones, he’d talked before about difficulties recording “We Are the World” where he said there was some issue with someone coming up to him beforehand and saying the rockers don’t like the song. But he’d never actually explained in any sort of detail what was the problem or who was coming to him with the problem. So I asked him about that and he had this interesting story where he pinpointed Cyndi Lauper as the problem, and was able to go into it in depth. So looking for those things, maybe there’s a question behind the question that he hasn’t answered.

When you’re interviewing Quincy Jones or somebody super-famous, is there a weird thing in the back of your head where you feel the need to impress them?
No. I used to feel that a little bit earlier on in my career. But there is that moment with somebody very famous where you see them for the first time, and you’re like, “Oh, cool, there’s that person whose music I’ve heard a million times or has made me laugh a million times.” And it’s cool, you know? And there is that sort of little moment of disconnect or something. And in those times, like, Quincy Jones’ house was this amazing palatial house with his awards and there’s pictures of him with Oprah and Muhammad Ali and it’s like a museum of Quincy Jones. Also, this funny thing happened where I was waiting for Quincy Jones and Steve McQueen was just there. And I was like, “Oh, I guess Steve McQueen has an appointment with him after?” It was sort of surreal. So there is that moment of disconnect but it goes away for me as soon as I start talking to somebody. The thing that got me out of that was when I interviewed Lou Reed in 2008, 2009, something like that. It was probably one of the first longer interviews I’d done with someone who was really a hero of mine. And he was just… his reputation is not unearned. It was such a difficult interview. His temper would raise, and he’d be sort of belittling, and nice moments too, but it was really difficult.

Is that crushing?
It was hard, but something switched in the middle of it where I very consciously had the realisation that I thought, “Well, this is actually not about me. He’s just who he is.” I don't think there were any questions I could’ve raised that would have softened him in any way. And I just realised in the moment that this is an accurate reflection of what this interaction is and that’s fine. In some cases, maybe it’s better if there’s tension in an interview, more so than if I’d just found some way to suck up to Lou Reed. And then after that, I had no more concerns about whether or not the person liked me or was impressed by me. But I always want them to feel like I know their work very well and am taking them seriously. But in terms of liking me or impressing them, I don’t care.

That’s a very strange dynamic in interviewing somebody. You can go into it sometimes with this false sense of familiarity where you’ve been following somebody’s work for years and you maybe even love it, but this person has no idea who you are. Sometimes it’s jarring to sit down with someone when there’s such a difference in background knowledge.
Yeah, but to them, you’re just Interviewer Number Six. But there is a disconnect that happens there. This is not based in anything other than a hunch, but I do find that over the last six months or so, I’m getting the sense, sometimes from the interview subjects themselves, sometimes from the publicists and managers, that they know the In Conversation franchise. They obviously don’t know me, but the subjects, I think, are coming into the interview knowing that there’s going to be some expectations about what the conversation is gonna be, which I can only think is helpful.

You don’t think it adds an amount of pressure?
For them?

No, for you. Like, “I’ve heard about this great In Conversation series. This better be the best interview I’ve ever had.”
That hadn’t occurred to me before. Maybe now it will.

Sorry.
But I almost think – and I’d never put myself on this level – but you know when people do a Terry Gross interview, or they do Howard Stern or something, the subjects know the nature of that interview? It’s not a 15-minute junket interview. I think they have some understanding that there’s going to be a level of intensity to the conversation that they have to participate in. I do always say to the publicists or the managers that the subject has to be both be willing to have a wide range of conversation and ideally want to have it, otherwise this is not gonna go well.

A lot of your interviews read almost like a therapy session. I imagine not everyone is open to that sort of thing, especially with a stranger. Do you ever have any difficult subjects who just don’t want to open up?
Yeah. You know, the interview itself basically turned out fine, but I’d done an In Conversation piece with Bernadette Peters and she was very nice and insightful about her work, but there was a level of personal revelation that she was not willing to go to. And that’s fine, I respect that. It makes the interview less of a satisfying read, but you do occasionally get people who can talk about their work or talk about their process but don’t really want to talk about their personal lives. But sometimes it’s the other way around – you’ll get people who are OK talking about their personal lives but are not good talking about their work. You just go where the conversation allows itself to go.

I remember reading that David Lynch one you did. That one seemed rough.
Yeah, he’s somebody who... my sense is that he doesn’t want to give you anything that could then colour somebody’s interpretation of his work. So he’s just not gonna say anything personal and he’s not gonna say anything about his work, which is gonna make the interview very hard. That interview was relatively short, but I think it was funny because you could tell there was this unstoppable force/immovable object dynamic. There was something entertaining in that.

Do you see interviewing as a service or can it be an artform in itself?
That’s a tough question. I wouldn’t say that I’m any sort of expert on the subject of interviewing as a whole. But when you say “service,” what do you mean?

Well, I think about Nardwuar, who calls himself the human serviette, but I think what he’s done with the interview format is truly an artform. He’s taken something that’s been done for hundreds of years and puts enough of his own spin on it that you can identify a Nardwuar interview. And you mentioned Terry Gross, and you can pick out her interviews or a Howard Stern interview. I think interviewing, when done well and with enough personal style, can be its own form of art.
Yeah, that’s a tough, big question. Nardwuar is somebody who’s almost bringing this whole performance art to the interview. I don’t want to sound pretentious, but it feels like more of a craft. There are skills you can develop to help you get better at it, and there are strategies you can use that you can be fairly confident will result in something interesting or worthwhile. Something about calling it an art feels a little lofty to me. It doesn’t naturally feel correct to me, but that’s not to say that for other people it wouldn’t rise to the level of artform for them.

Sometimes you’ll have these very long, in-depth interviews that need to be taken in context, and you hand it over to the blogosphere and they break it down to these soundbites where it’s like, Julian Casablancas Hates Seinfeld. And everybody’s like, “What the fuck! Fuck Julian Casablancas!” How does it feel to have your work stripped down like that?
I have no illusions that that’s not how the internet works. I know they will be stripped in that way and maybe not presented with as much context as I would like. But I think, overall, I’m glad there’s enthusiasm for the pieces. And anything that demonstrates that enthusiasm is something I’m happy and grateful for, but there is a downside that has made me feel bad in the past. The one that comes to mind is the Erykah Badu interview I did, where she had this quote about seeing the good in Hitler. She was making an argument and did it in a slightly crass way and wasn’t as judicious as she could’ve been with the example she chose. But in the interview, it was part of a larger conversation that, in context, clarified what she was trying to say. And I don’t think you could’ve read the whole thing and your takeaway have been that she’s anti-Semitic. But then of course, the thing that spread everywhere is that Erykah Badu says she can see the good in Hitler. I felt very bad about that.

Do you think that in the subject’s head, if they start trending on Twitter because of that, does that sour them on the experience of being interviewed by you? I know with Quincy Jones, I saw Rashida Jones saying, like, “Uh, actually, my dad didn’t mean a lot of that stuff.” Do you think it makes them remorseful to have had the conversation with you?
I don’t know what they think. I would hope it doesn’t. I would hope there’s an understanding that the interview that the subject and I had is a separate thing from the way the internet exists online aside from the interview itself. I don’t think Erykah Badu or Quincy Jones would say the interview itself was unfair or was even negative. I would assume they would say the way it was picked up was negative. I also have had similarly remorseful thoughts about the reaction to the Julian Casablancas interview. I felt like he really took a beating. And I do think it’s this funny thing where it’s like, isn’t it better to have people go into interview and tell you what they’re actually interested in, and what they actually think about something, and what they’re passionate about, and talk about things in an unfiltered way rather than be very cautious in their words? But then when they do the former, they get slapped online.

It makes people really hesitant to do interviews. I think the quality of online journalism goes down so much because we keep lowering the bar and that’s what artists are expecting now.
There’s this funny sort of paradox where everybody wants to read an interesting interview but then people can respond so negatively to them. And also, I do want to make clear, I’ve done dozens and dozens of longer interviews, and there’s really only been about three that have resulted in negative blowback from the person. By and large, they’re win-wins. I hope that the people who put interviews together never lose sight of that fact. Also, I certainly never go into an interview or conduct an interview thinking, “Oh man, how am I gonna position somebody to step in it?” That’s never part of my thinking.

What makes for a successful interview?
It’s very simple. It’s based on a feeling. I can never be 100 percent sure if someone’s actually being honest with me or just conveying an illusion. When it feels like the conversation is honest, and the subject is telling me what they really think and feel about something in an insightful way, then it’s a successful interview. If it feels like they’re giving canned answers or not actually engaging with the questions in a meaningful way, then I feel like it’s a waste of time. Obviously the interviews are cut down and edited and obviously I’m aware of the answers when I’m editing that are likely to get the most play online. You could imagine somebody saying, “Why don’t you just cut out that stuff?” In that instance, I feel like I can’t because my obligation is to present the most interesting stuff to the reader. It’s not necessarily to make the artist look best. So I’m culpable in the editing process when I don’t cut out stuff that could be problematic. But I just feel like my job is to present these pieces in the most honest way, and that doesn’t always align with the way that’s going to make the artist look the best. But again, we’re talking about a very small number of interviews.

How does it impact your view of an interview you’ve done if it goes viral? Especially if it’s going viral for the wrong reason, like the Erykah Badu thing. Does that affect how you look back at your interview in retrospect?
It can. I’ve had very mixed feelings to when things have gone viral for what could be classified as negative reasons. I’m human and the subjects are human, and you don’t like to see anybody be subjected to negative criticism. Who likes that? No one. It makes me feel bad to make me feel I’ve played a part in causing shit in someone’s life. That makes me feel bad and I regret that. But realising that feeling has really made me pay less attention to how things play out in the online world. In a selfish way, the more people that read my work, the better that is, and I feel proud of my work and stand by my work. But it’s like, you can’t get too high if a piece does really well, and you can’t get too low if a piece has negative connotations.

It’s like a drug. It has a weird effect and I think it impacts the way a lot of people cover things. I’m thinking specifically about that Babe dot net thing about Aziz Ansari. That writer was quite young and that article got so much attention. When you hit peak internet like that, it can impact how you cover things going forward. You’re chasing that dopamine or something, and you need to separate yourself from that feeling.
Yeah, the day an interview of mine is published, I’ll pay attention for a little bit that day to try and get a sense of whether or not people are reading, but then I very consciously try not to pay attention after that, just because it very rarely results in positive feelings. But it works both ways. I remember last September or October, I did an interview with Sarah Silverman that I thought was a very good interview. I thought the content of it was really interesting but it really wasn’t read by a lot of people, and it was a bummer for me, because I thought the stuff she was saying deserved a bigger audience.

Did you mention this because you know I’ll now have to link out to it?
[Laughs] No. I should’ve been that devious but I wasn’t. But the only thing you can really control is whether or not you did a good job and feel the piece was up to a certain standard. So that piece, I was proud of it, and it doesn’t mean less to me that not a lot of people read it. And the Quincy Jones piece doesn’t mean more to me because a lot of people read it. The only thing you can ultimately have control over feeling good or bad is whether you feel you did the best job you could.

Something I think interviewers are being forced to think about more and more is: Is an interview an endorsement? For example, thinking about the Louis C.K. interview you did back when the allegations about him were rumours on the internet, if he wanted to talk about that now and open up about it, would you interview him? Or is that enabling?
Oh I would totally interview him now. I actively wish I had more opportunities to interview people whose behaviours or philosophies I disagreed with, both because I’m interested in hearing people explain more about the things they do or the things they think. There are a lot of artists who I think it’s fair to say are a little further right politically than I am who I really want to interview, just because you don’t get to hear from those perspectives as often. So no, I don’t think it’s an endorsement. I think it would be an endorsement if the interview was all about endorsing those ways of thinking. But that’s not the kind of interview I would do.

But say you interviewed Kid Rock about his political aspirations, and that legitimized him and attracted people who would support him and he then ran for Senate. I mean, that’s what happened with the fucking President. We treated it as a joke for too long and then it became a reality.
I know what you’re saying. To take Kid Rock as an example, I don’t think an interview with me or any serious interviewer in general would legitimise him or delegitimise him. I do think there would be value in hearing him talk about the world in a serious way. Now, if you’re asking me, would I interview the lead singer of an explicitly neo-Nazi band, I don’t know the answer to that question. Maybe I would find that too difficult to wrap my head around or figure out a way to do that in a way that I think would have value. But that’s nowhere in the league of what Kid Rock is. Kid Rock is someone who has political beliefs that are in the spectrum of widely held political beliefs in this country. So I’d be very eager to interview him. But I’m sure you could get to somebody who I would just feel like, this is not somebody who deserves a microphone.

Do you do your own transcriptions?
Often I do. Sometimes I send them out. It’s usually a function of time.

I think it’s a good learning penance you have to do as a writer. I’ve learned from hearing my interviews back. And also, I think when you’re transcribing, adding a comma or ending a sentence in a certain way makes all the difference in translating the conversation to text.
Yeah, I think that’s true. If you have the time, it can’t hurt. Time is not always a luxury I have. I don’t know if this is something you have too, but I often find listening to my own voice on playback so painful.

The worst.
Like, “Oh my god I can’t believe how much of a dope I sound. Why am I asking such convoluted questions or mumbling?” So now what I do to help with that is I set the playback to a slower speed so my voice is not as recognisable to myself, which I find makes that process a bit less painful.

When I’m listening back to an interview, the thing that frustrates me is when I hear a question perfectly set up, it’s a softball and I’m not swinging at it. I start yelling at myself. “What are you doing? Ask the question! Ask it now!”
Totally. Or when you just realise you weren’t explicit. You asked around a question or there was an answer that in the moment had an obvious follow-up and it just wasn’t obvious to you in that moment. But I’m lucky because in my interviews, I get a follow-up, it’s part of the deal.

Are people exhausted after your interviews?
I haven’t found that. People know it’s part of the deal. I have a sense that people generally felt the first interview went fine, so doing a second interview, I would hope, isn’t looming like a dentist’s visit or something. Because the truth is, if they didn’t like the first interview, they could just say, “I’m not getting back on the phone,” and what am I gonna do?

What’s something you wish you knew about interviewing earlier?
There’s a few things. I think, related to what I said earlier about Lou Reed, just disregarding the whole matter about whether an interview subject likes you. It just doesn’t matter. Sometimes an interview where the subject doesn’t like you can be interesting in its own way. So losing that insecurity about: Does this person like me? would have been helpful to get to earlier. Also, I think learning to memorise questions, which I do, rather than read off notes, is helpful just in terms of developing some sort of intimacy. And also that there’s nothing wrong with challenging people on their answers. Asking someone what they mean or to explain their answers doesn’t mean you’re being combative or difficult. I think there’s the fear early on that if you push back on what someone’s saying, they’ll shut down.

It’s like getting a squirrel to eat out of your hand.
Yes. But I actually find the opposite, that people are intrigued or sometimes even welcoming to explain themselves further.

What’s the ideal interview setting?
Physical setting? Just somewhere alone and quiet. I don’t want other people in the room because I think that’s distracting and makes people self-conscious about what they’re saying, both me and the subject. You don’t want there to be a lot of noise or things going on in the room. Just a place where the person’s comfortable – someone’s home, their hotel, you just want them to be comfortable.

The night before big interviews I sometimes have stress dreams that I’m running late or my recorder doesn’t work. You have any horror stories about something going disastrously wrong?
I wouldn’t say there’s a ton of horror stories but I want to say I was with Joe Perry of Aerosmith, this was something like 13 years ago, just when I was starting to do journalism. I did an interview with him where I didn’t press record. And then afterwards, you’re like what the fuck? There’s that panic and feeling in your stomach. I think we just had to lose it. There was nothing I could do about it. As a result, I almost always bring two recorders to a session. But then on a lower level panic, I’m really bad at directions. So I try to get to the location of an interview very early because I know there’s a good chance I’ll get lost along the way. But when I was on my way to interview Jimmy Kimmel for the magazine, I think this was last October, I just could not find the location. It was on some street where the building numbers were not clearly marked and I was running around. I thought I knew the street. I was asking people for directions and they didn’t know, I was calling my wife and asking her to tell me on a map where it was. I was running late and it was a hot day and I was starting to sweat, and I was thinking, “Am I really gonna not fucking be on time because I couldn’t find it?” I finally saw a crew member wearing a Jimmy Kimmel crew laminate and asked them and he pointed me in the direction. And just feeling that panic of how am I not finding this address? It’s the dumbest reason. I just had to explain that I wasn’t nervous, I was just running around like a fool.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Dan Ozzi is on Twitter.

This article originally appeared on Noisey US.