I’ve been doing interviews with bands since I was seventeen years old. Over the years people have asked my advice in how they can do their own interviews.
Most recently I interviewed Tom May from The Menzingers. Their tour manager, Scotty Bell, is a good friend of mine and wrote me telling me that Tom thought the interview was great and that my questions were “really gonzo-esque and off the wall.” Scott was thinking of interviewing bands and asked me for tips.
As with the other, people who has asked, I wrote him a couple of thousand words about my process. I’m never sure if those e-mails ever make sense, but I wanted to take a little time today and write a little bit about my process and show you how it plays out.
Before I get started, a lot of the tricks I use come to me naturally. I’m dyslexic, and what that means is I don’t think in a normal linear way like most people. I think backwards, sideways and upside down, while normal people think left and right. The stuff I do, I’ve been doing since my senior year journalism class. The other talents I honed by just doing interviews. I have also been told by many of my friends, and ever since the ripe age of 14 years old, that I should have been a shrink. A lot of my “talent” comes from a natural curiosity towards the human condition, the rest of it comes from research, research, research.
When I first started interviewing bands, the internet was still in its infancy. While there were plenty of interviews to find through a quick AOL or ALTAVISTA search, there is not the sheer amount that there are today with all of the blogs, magazines and podcasts out there in the world. Go ahead and Google BAD RELIGION TRUE NORTH INTERVIEW JAY BENTLEY. You’ll find a half a dozen or more interviews with Jay about the newest album. You’ll probably find that most of them are terrible and full of stock questions.
My approach has always been, do a ton of research and FIND OUT WHAT PEOPLE ARE NOT ASKING these artists. These guys get hundreds and thousands of interview requests over the course of their career. They’ve answered all the questions over and over and over again. They are tired of boring stock questions. They want and crave something different. I try to give that too them. My style has been described as “benign weirdness,” by Punknews.org contributor Bryne Yancey, and it is all on purpose. I want to give the artists a different experience. Does it always work? Not at all, but I’ll be damned if I don’t give it my all.
The absolute worst question to ask any artists is, “What are your influences?” It’s boring, it’s lazy and these guys have answered this question a hundred thousand times. I like to ask people about their earliest memories and the things that grabbed them in their youth. Isn’t that the same question? No, what we get to with the earliest memories question, is further to the artist’s root. We get them to open up to their earliest memories and a time before they built the defenses and well rounded answers they host in their arsenal. By getting them to talk about this younger time, we can usually find something different and special that no one else has. Also, but talking to them about that time period before their guards have been hoisted, we get them to open up and drop many of those defenses.
I could go on for DAYS about questions not to use. Again, try to be your own person and interviewer. Develop your own personality and own it. You can use bullshit stock questions, even I have my arsenal of bullshit stock question. What I do with them is to use them sparsely and reword them, while mixing them in with the bizarre shit I come up with.
I’m actually more interested in the person writing that song and I think that by knowing more about the character of an artist can open you up and show you more of the hidden meanings behind the songs. So I focus more on the people and their character than the songs. Still, this is a piece about selling this iconic band’s new album to the masses, so we have to take time and deconstruct more of this album, but more on that early.
With this interview, the goal of this is to sell TRUE NORTH and BAD RELIGION to the world. It’s less about Jay Bentley’s early life and early career. I’ve got a 1,500 word count cap, and even thought this piece eventually appeared on the website as a 3,000 word interview, it’s the best of both worlds. It’s both about the character of Jay Bentley and it is also about the new album TRUE NORTH.
These are not rules, but rather the guidelines I use to make my interviews work. Again, find your own voice and style and stay away from bullshit questions. Above all else, RESEARCH, RESEARCH, RESEARCH and think to yourself, “WHAT ARE THEY NOT ASKING?”
I’m probably full of shit, but let’s get into dissecting this interview.
Thanks again to Lisa Root for having faith in me and assigning this fantastic interview to me!
Or if you would rather read the interview without my comments, you can read it at: http://www.ampmagazine.com/54670/bad-religion-bassist-jay-bentley-talks-about-fatherhood-the-bands-earlier-albums-and-how-they-translated-into-this-new-record/
So Jay, I’ve got to admit, I’m a little freaked out to talk to you today. Bad Religion was one of the more seminal bands of my youth. I can’t really believe this is happening, ya know? So I was curious who would freak you out to interview?
I like to open up the interviews with a personal statement and view point. I like to make an ass out of myself in most situations, but in a loveable way. My buddy Bryne Yancey wrote a press release for the show and described me as having a “benign weirdness.” That is not on accident. I want them to know this is going to be a different experience and I want them to know I am a fan. I make a “gentle” ass out of myself on purpose. Plus, Bad Religion and Jay Bentley really are heroes of mine. By telling him I’ve been following them since I was 16 shows him I am aware and knowledgeable of the band and their career. Also, by opening up with this question, they not only see that this is going to be a different kind of interview, it gets them thinking again about their childhoods and their heroes, taking them back to a simpler time. It gets them to open up, and relax those built up walls.
I can imagine it would be a surfer or skateboarder since you probably know all the band guys.
Yeah, but I know all those guys too! I grew up with Jay Adams, Tony Alva and all those guys. I was at Reseda Skatercross, and that was the beginning of all of that as far as I can remember. Skateboarding sort of had two separate lives. There was this sort of beginning, sort of Logan Earth Ski, and if people today would have seen the boards we were riding, they would go, “You guys are out of your minds!”
By mentioning his early skateboarding and surfing influences, he knows that I’ve done my research and I know my shit.
The second wave [was] when Tony Hawk came in, and that was really when it exploded and got so much bigger than anybody would have ever thought. So I don’t really think skateboarding guys would have really freaked me out. I don’t think anybody would freak me out, to be honest! [Laughter]
You know, actually there is. Brett [Gurewitz] and I are huge ELTON JOHN fans. [Laughter]I know it’s kind of weird. A few years ago, I had an opportunity to meet him and I’ve always had this theory that when you meet people who you really like, there is a potential that they will be dicks and then you won’t like their art anymore. So I didn’t want to meet him and so I just didn’t. Then a few months ago, Brett posts a photo with his arm around Elton John! I was like, “You are such a dick. How was he?” “Oh he was SO nice!”
Here we go, we just got Jay to open up and tell us that him and Brett are huge Elton John fans. I’ll bet you can not find that information anywhere else about these guys! We’ve all got guilty pleasures and we’ve just uncovered Jay and Brett’s by asking a simple question of who he would be freaked out to meet, and that is in regards to myself being a little freaked out to talk to Jay!
Who have you met that’s been a dick?
[Pause] Nobody really. I’ve seen people at their worst, but I think the thing is, I understand why people get the way they get. I don’t like it, but I understand why you are smashing things up. You’re frustrated, angry and a baby, but that doesn’t make things cool. I kind of put myself in their shoes and go, “Alright, I get it.”
This is just a simple follow up, but you get Jay talking about an aspect of his life that no one else touches on and gives you a unique insight into his life on the road.
Congrats on your newest child. This is your third kid, right?
It’s my third! I’ve got two older boys and now a daughter. 21, 19 and 9 months old!
If you follow my interviews, you’ll know I LOVE talking about children. Why? PARENTS LOVE TALKING ABOUT THEIR KIDS. Plus, reading through the thousands of pages of research you have done, you’ll know that these artists mostly answer questions about the music. They don’t get asked often about their kids, and having kids CHANGES EVERYTHING. So talking to them about their kids is another way to get them excited and opened up!
You just got your other kids out of the house. How scary is it to have a brand new newborn?
It’s a girl and it really is a different thing. You might think, “A baby is a baby.” For some reason, there is a different thing about a girl. Boys are sort of rough and tumble, “Let’s just go do crazy shit!” With girls, it’s like “Come on, let’s go smell the flowers!” It’s a different mentality.
How does having kids affect the direction of your life and work in the band?
Years ago, when all of us started having kids, we sat around and said it really changes sort of the purpose of why we do everything. All of a sudden it’s not about us, it’s about our kids. It didn’t really change the art or product of the band. It just sort of changed why we did it, but it didn’t really change the band too much. With that being said, Brett told me recently, “I learned something a year ago. Don’t write Bad Religion songs with an acoustic guitar in front of your baby.” [Laughter]
I want kids, but the idea of having kids scares the CRAP out of me. Again, kids change everything. How does having kids this late in the game, change Jay and the other band members lives, approach and songwriting?
You do not write the lyrics, but what kind of effects do the kids have on that aspect?
I know what the guys are writing. We talk about it, and I think that sometimes for Greg [Graffin], having kids sort of allows him that outside perspective of “I remember what it was like to struggle like that,” and “when you are a kid, and have no clue what to do.” I think Greg has written a couple of songs from that perspective. We talk about everything and it has got to be insanely difficult. That has happened. As far as writing something personal to your kid, I don’t think that has happened.
This is just more simple follow up and follow through. I usually already have a lot of follow up questions written down and in my head. I do this by rehearsing the interview with myself. That works its way out to me interviewing myself. It’s role play, but I’m the only one role playing. I’m sure my neighbors think I’m crazy sitting in my apartment talking to myself, but by anticipating the answers I can move and shape the interview and on my own find more fascinating ways and places to take the conversation. This is another one of those ways. We have Jay talking about how Greg tries to write from the point of a younger adult and uses what he sees in his kids to do that. What other Bad Religion interviews touch on that point of view? NONE!
What do your kids think of their “rock star” father?
I don’t know. I’ve always kind of felt like their friends think it’s cool, but I’m the guy who says, “Take the trash out! Make your bed! Do your homework!” I’m just a dick dad! [Laughter]
Are they fans of the band? Or did they rebel and go some completely different way?
They like the band, but it’s not their musical tastes. My youngest son is really heavily into rap. My oldest son is super heavily into heavy metal. And that’s fine. I’m like, “You guys find your own path. Music was generated to fill the hole in your soul. So whatever it is you find that makes you feel good, there you go!”
Again, more follow up. More kids, and more fun. It’s simple, but it’s informative and continues to open Jay up. Hes laughing now. He’s joking and he’s having a good time!
In my research, I found a video interview of you with a very nice set of grey hair! How did it feel to get that first grey hair?
[Laughter]Nothing really! I guess it just happens. I dyed my hair for a long time, just all kinds of colors and black. I got tired of that and that wasn’t that many years ago. Maybe eight years ago or so. So I shaved my head and let my hair grow back. That was when I was really like, “Whoa! I’ve got a lot of grey hairs! Oh well, whatever! That’s cool.” [Laughter]
This is the ultimate follow up. Jay is in late 40’s. Punk rock is not an old man’s game, although that is opening up more and more with all the reunion tours and older bands still around and kicking. Still, we roll straight into this segment and instead of our right asking him about his age, we make a joke and ask a question about his faboulous grey hair. (Also I like the spelling of GREY as GREY as opposed to GRAY, and I think BR’s GREY RACE album has a lot to do with that.
You guys have had 30 years of rock with Bad Religion. How does time affect the writing process? Do you go in thinking that this might be the last album you’ll make?
That’s not really a thought. When we go in to make a record, the thought is, “This is going to be the best record we’ve ever made.” We’ve all said if you’re not going to make the best record you’ve ever made, then why would you make it? I’ve been a part of records that were good, that were bad, and I’ve been a part of records that were actually indifferent. To make records now at this stage in our career, there is no reason to make something that you don’t think is the best thing you have ever made. Obviously that is subjective, and once you have made the record and sent it out on its own path, people could say, “This record sucks!” and that you are no good anymore, but that is not why we do it. We go in and think, “Oh man! This is great!” Being together for so long gives you sort of a map of how you do things, and I don’t want to say efficiently because that sounds to scientific. We know how we work best. We’ve learned over the years and we go in to make a record and if we spend too much time, we are going to fuck it up. It just keeps getting worse and worse and worse. At the same time, when we made Suffer, we recorded and mixed that record in seven days. We are never going to be able to do that again. We sort of talk about it, but we’re not going to be able to do anything in seven days. It’s just not going to happen. We’ve kind of learned how to get the best end result that we want, without everybody just sort of either forgetting what it is that we’ve done or you play it so many times that you suck the life out of a song. With this record, Brooks [Wackerman] had a small window where he was off tour with TENACIOUS D, and told him, “Come on out here! Let’s make a record!” Then all the guitars went on and then the singing and everyone was happy. Then Brett mixed it and everyone was happy. And okay! We’re done!
Again, I’m not the biggest fan of asking specifics about albums. I’m more interested in the character. With this I manage to tackle both. Remember we’re here to sell their new album, but at the same time we’re trying to introduce the audience to the people behind the new album. Since we’ve already worked on Jay by talking about his heroes and his children, he’s open and he’s talkative. He’s more than happy to tell me about his approach and process when going into the new record. Everything is done for a reason, and is meticulous in it’s approach even if you can not see that.
I like that I can put on any Bad Religion record from any point in the collective and, no matter how different they are, they all have that Bad Religion feel. Whether you’ve heard it or not, it is a Bad Religion album. Is there a formula? Or is it just the chemistry you get when dumping you guys into a room?
Sometimes there is something that you can say sounds like this and sounds like that. We have 240+ songs, so obviously some songs are going to sound like those. There are only so many notes you can play, and obviously you are going to start repeating things. With that being said, I think that what happens with us is, if you were to bring in a song from any other artist… If Brett brought in a DAVID BOWIE’S “Man Who Fell To Earth,” because I’ve seen NIRVANA do that… If Brett brought that in, by the time we were done with it, it would sound just like Bad Religion! It wouldn’t sound anything like David Bowie at all! [Laughter] People would be like, “What the hell is that? Oh, that’s just Bad Religion.” We kind of strip it all down and play it at a reckless tempo, where it almost feels like it is going to fall apart. The guitars are just turned up and Greg has a very unique voice, then Brett and I go [sings background vocals to me followed by laughter].That’s kind of what happens!
First off, I shit my pants when Jay started singing to me! HOLY SHIT! Haha. With this line of questioning, I’m again talking about the process, but with the phrasing of the question , we’ve got him talking about how they mesh together. It’s about the people and less the process. Again, I’m more interested in the PEOPLE.
In a past interview you talked about how people have a tendency to not like the albums upon release. I’m embarrassed to say that I didn’t like New Maps of Hell or Dissent of Man when they were first released, but when doing research, they blew me out of the water! What makes your albums growers, and not show-ers?
Not to brag, but maybe because they are good! I think they are good records. When Brett left the band in 1994 and we went and recorded The Grey Race, I listened to that record and I said, “This will be the ultimate sleeper.” People won’t get this, maybe forever, but this is a really great record. There is something about that record, to me, that was the ultimate, ultimate sleeper. [Laughter]So I’m still waiting for people to go, “Oh man! That’s such a great record!” The only reason I say that, it isn’t really scientific, it is a little bit more anger. When we recorded Suffer, the general consensus from all the press was, “This is the greatest record ever! You’ll never top it.” We were really fucking angry and we went in and made No Control and they went, “WOW! This is the greatest record ever! You’ll never top it.” Well FUCK THEM! We went in and did Against The Grain, and while we were recording it, Brett almost had a nervous breakdown because he was so focused on it being better than No Control or Suffer that he almost wasn’t paying attention to the Against The Grain record! He was listening to No Control or Suffer and going, “Fuck this has to be better!” He finally said to us, “Hey I’m freaking out. We just need to make records and not worry about whether people or how people compare our materials to our old materials. It seems like we can’t win.” That was how we started thinking that no matter what we did, the people are going to think it’s not as good as this and we can’t be caught up in that because that can really destroy you.
I let him know I did my research, this instills confidence on both of our parts. We follow it up with me apologizing for not initially liking their last few albums and now loving them. This is a true story. Even now as I’m typing this I’m listening to Dissent of Man and it is far better than the first few listens. So what happens here? We’ve got him opening up very candidly about the band’s frustrations. We’ve got Jay telling us how much he LOVES The Grey Race. We’ve got him talking about Brett’s breakdowns when recording those earlier albums. We’ve got him telling us how they grew up and stopped worrying about the critics and learned to love the album.
With this I have to point back to the begging of the interview. We might have had some version of these comments without the earlier questions about his kids, grey hair and Elton John, but because we got him to open up so personally about his personal life, we’ve not got him opening up to us about the professional life.
Why work with Joe Barresi (PENNYWISE, QUEENS OF THE STONE AGE, New Maps of Hell & Dissent of Man) rather than just have Brett produce it yet again? Does that help break the mold?
Brett mixed this record, which is what was happening in the late 80′s and early 90′s. Brett was producing and mixing the records and I think what happened was that it was just one too many hats. “I’m a songwriter, I’m a guitar player and I really want to be involved in the songs, but I don’t want to be involved in the intricate details of where the drum mic goes. I don’t want to get caught up in guitar amps all day long.” So [we brought] in someone else to be part of that and who is totally fascinated with the process of recording, which is Joe. Joe loves the process of recording. He’s just a true studio dog. Having him in there, that opens Brett up to sit and listen to the music as it’s developing, and have ideas about directions for ways the music should go and not be worried so much about the sound that is going to tape. And to be honest, to have a guy like Joe who has done a jillion records, you can look at him and ask, “What do you think of this?” and his opinion is super valid.
Honestly, this was a bullshit question. This is one thrown in there because again, we’re here to help sell the new album. We do get some nice insight into why Brett no longer records the band and some more insight, but if I had to edit this interview down and had to cut something out, the above piece would have been dropped first.
Let’s talk about the actual record. I like that the song “Dharma and The Bomb” comes out of nowhere with this weird little song that has such a different and distinctive sound. Where did that come from?
It’s probably my favorite song on the album. Brett was still writing that in the studio while we were recording. He was still kind of finishing that up. It was something we were all really excited about. It has a surf vibe to it, and that’s something we haven’t ever really done. As he was writing it, the concept of the song changed twice. It finally became “Dharma and The Bomb.” He and Greg were sitting there talking about lyrical ideas, and I’m just sitting there thinking it’s brilliant. It’s only a two minute long song, and it is the greatest thing ever! [Laughter] Other than that, it’s an odd Bad Religion song, and I don’t mean odd in a negative way, and I like it. It’s one of my favorite songs ever. It’s Brett singing and one of the things Brett wanted, and this is the studio magic stuff, one of the things Brett wanted was a California surf kind of dialect. Greg is from Wisconsin and he doesn’t have that [mimics California surfer] “Hey, dude! What’s up, bro?” That’s just not in Greg’s thing. So Brett was like, “Fuck! What am I going to do? I guess I’m just going to sing it!” You can hear it when he sings, [mimicking Brett’s surfer voice:]“Stoked to watch all cre-ay-shin” [Laughter] He was so surfer on that track, and that’s right. That’s it!
Dharma is the strangest BR song ever written. It’s wonderful, it’s different and I love it. I know it will be the most talked about song off the album, but at this point I could not resist the urge of asking. It’s half truthful wanting to know what the song is about and half bullshit so we could talk about the new album.
Am I crazy, or did I catch some “I Dream of Jeannie” references in the lyrics?
Yeah! There is! When it comes right down to it, it’s kind of about terrorists having a dirty bomb and India having an atomic bomb. [Laughing] Oh, here’s a cute little song about terrorists having a little dirty bomb in a suitcase. Awesome! [Laughing] I remember when we got the song tracks all down, and everything was done. The sequencing was done. The mixing was done. I got my first copy and I called Brett, I think “Dharma and The Bomb” into the next two songs in a row [“Hello Cruel World” & “Vanity”], may be the best few minutes of Bad Religion I can remember hearing. [Laughter]
Super simple follow up. In my notes for the interview, I simply had the words, I DREAM OF JEANNIE written down. I didn’t know how to form a question behind it, but this is where listening to the subject comes in. We had the perfect opening and we get a little more depth to the song and the people behind it. Plus we have Jay laughing every few moments! He’s having fun! He’s enjoying this!
After all these years and all these changes in the world, why are people still attracted to Bad Religion?
At this point, I will just defer to the word “tenure.” [Laughter] I think that if you just stay around long enough, people will like you. “Oh, you’re not going to go away now, are you?”
What I mean is more like, you can give a disenfranchised kid a copy of All Ages and he could probably get sucked into the songs and to him, it is still relevant.
I think that as punk rock became… I don’t want to call it “mainstream,” although it is. The word that almost always comes to mind is that it has become a part of the fabric of society. It is no longer a fringe art. It is just something that people don’t fear. It’s certainly nothing like what it started out as. Maybe we’re just a part of that fabric. As long as we keep making records, and as long as we keep going out on tours and speaking our minds and having a good time doing it, we’ll be a part of that fabric. You always wonder when it all ends, how long will it be before you just vanish. In my life, and watching ten and twelve year olds, and you watch a big question mark appear above their heads when you mention THE BEATLES and say, “I’ve never heard of them.” You wonder, how long afterward will it be before people say, “I don’t know who that is,” about us. [Laughter]
We’re wrapping things up. An interview should be like a book, movie or song. It should have a beginning and middle and an end. For me, this is accomplished by writing out all my questions before hand, and then reordering the questions into a train of thought that allows for the proper flow and function. It helps the interviews be a pleasure to read, and not a pain.
With the first question I asked about why people are still attracted to BR, I did not get the answer I was looking for. Instead of moving on the next question, I describe my feelings to him and get Jay to open up even more for us. It’s important to follow up, follow up and follow up! It’s all a part of the listening. I’ll be the first to tell you I’m not the BEST listener. Often, I’m thinking of the next question and how to phrase it in the moment, or trying to remember an idea I had while the subject was speaking. So I don’t often listen, but I try my hardest to calm my ADD addled mind and listen to the subject. I get a lot of flack for my drinking on the podcasts, but the booze calms me down, chills me out and gets me to listen. I’m not recommending you get drunk, but it is one of those tricks that often works for me. Or if you are an avid listener you’ll have heard all the times they went disastrously.
After all these years, when you step out in front of a crowd of thousands and thousands of people, do you have to pinch yourself?
I always get nervous. I’m always humbled. I walk out and I look at people having fun and singing the songs. I can’t believe they know the lyrics. [Laughter] I remember the first show we played, we were opening for SOCIAL DISTORTION. We had six or eight songs. We played them and people were dancing. They weren’t singing the songs, because they didn’t know them. They were dancing and we finished. People were yelling, “Play them again! Play them again!” So we played the same six songs again, and that was really cool. That’s how it started. Every time I go out on stage, I’m the luckiest guy in the world.
I could list this as a bullshit question, and it is, but this is one I am generally interested in. When preparing these intereviews, I try to put myself in their shoes as much as I can. I try to wonder how they handle the world around them. Plus this is a great ender and a great sound bite. “I’m the luckiest guy in the world,” is the perfect ending to any interview, but I had one better up my sleeve…
What is your “true north”?
For right now, my true north is paddling out on a surfboard. Even if the waves aren’t that great, I can just paddle out and sit in the water and watch the pelicans and the dolphins go by. I feel at peace and at one with nature.
And with this question we end the interview. This is not only about the album, and touching on the name of the new record, but we also get more insight into the man that is Jay Bentley. When I asked him this question, I thought for sure he would say something about his kids, I was expecting that and that would have been the perfect call back to the beginning of the interview, but regardless. This is a good move and a good call back to the album of the same name.
Jay was an excellent sport, and I loved and cherished every moment with Jay. Sadly, I’ve been turned down for my interview request for the April 10th show in Denver at the Fillmore Auditorium, but I’ll live. I’ll always have this interview.
I hope reading through this gives you an idea of my process and can help you out if you want to tackle interviewing people. These tactics can work in any situations. I’ve use a lot of this stuff on first dates.
Also, this stuff is not full proof. This is just works for me and “benign weirdness.” Find your own route. The best advice I can give you is to RESEARCH, RESEARCH, RESEARCH and find your own path.