Editor’s Note: This is the fourth in a series of “How I Got That Story” interviews featuring the winners of the 2005 AltWeekly Awards. First-place entries are collected in the book “Best AltWeekly Writing and Design 2005.” Melissa Maerz began her freelance music-writing career at the Ithaca Times in Ithaca, N.Y., while she was attending Cornell University. After college she spent several years in various freelance jobs and eventually became the senior arts editor at City Pages in Minneapolis, where she worked for five years.
Last February, she bade farewell to her readers at City Pages, opening her last column with the line, "When the ink hits this page, consider me dead." She now works as associate arts editor at Spin Magazine in New York City.
The three articles that won her a first-place 2005 AltWeekly Award for Music Criticism include two reviewing band performances at Twin Cities clubs and a third that recounts a 3,300-mile road tour she took with the Minnesota rock band Friends Like These. That road diary of hope and disappointment is titled "Why Don’t We Do It on the Road?"
How much reportorial distance can you keep when you’re in a van with a band of musicians for days on end? Do you even try?
I think most journalists would say a band should never be your friend. Publicists are not your friends; the people in the band are not your friends; you’re not in this business to make friends. But it’s hard not to have some sympathy and grow warm feelings for people when you’re in a van with them for 10 days. I tried to not see Friends Like These as my friends, but I definitely felt a lot of affection for them. Also, I made sure that when I quoted them I wasn’t writing stuff that they wanted off the record.
I’d much rather spend a lot of time with somebody and really get to know them for a story because it gives you so much more background than spending 20 minutes on the phone with someone when they’re really guarded. I think it gives you a sense of what people are like and what their story is.
Did the tour turn out as you and the band expected?
I really admired how optimistic they were and how passionate they were about their music, but on the tour they learned that when you’re just starting out as a band, you’ve got to work in a different way. Both the band and I were really surprised that it didn’t go as well as we hoped. In the past, they’d broken even on tour, and I think the fact that they actually lost money that time around was tough for them. Plus, the venues were a lot worse than they’d expected. When you get to the point where you’re deciding whether to open for a band that’s billed as "a trailer park musical" or just not play at all, it’s pretty disheartening.
How do you decide what to leave in or take out of an article?
Before we left Minneapolis, I told the band that if they wanted anything off the record, they had to tell me then and there. In an interview, it’s different because you’re spending a small amount of time together, and the subject knows that everything’s on the record. When a reporter’s spending 10 days with someone, the person forgets sometimes that everything he says could be published. So I told the band ahead of time. I think that was good. You don’t want to be reminding people constantly, "This could be on the record," because they’re going to censor themselves and not be who they really are.
How do you incorporate your opinion of an artist in a review without sounding preachy if you like them or cruel if you don’t?
I try to avoid the cruel part by not writing reviews of relatively unknown artists who I don’t like — it seems ridiculous to give people another reason not to hear a band that they’ve never heard of in the first place. Bigger bands are fair game. But if I’m going to write a negative review of a bigger band, I focus on specifics: which parts of which songs don’t work and why. I think cruelty usually comes from sweeping generalizations, and if you eliminate those, you get more critical and less cruel.
As for too preachy, I think enthusiasm is generally pretty contagious and inoffensive. So I just try not to use the second person (for example, "You should go out and buy this record!"), and I try not to set up straw men to fight against (for example, "A lot of people don’t like this kind of album, but those people just don’t understand the fundamentals of — whatever").
How do you get people to talk about something they are reluctant to discuss?
Overall, you want to be honest with people and ask questions the way you want to ask them. But if you’re trying to get something out of somebody, there are two good ways. Sometimes you can pretend you know something that you don’t if you want the person you’re interviewing to admit it. And sometimes you can pretend that you know less than you do, so they’ll tell you more. By being silent sometimes and just letting someone talk their way through something, you can get some really great stuff.
People have very different ways of being good interviewers. I think I’m just learning that myself. The best thing is to have a method that works for you. One writer I like, Neil Strauss, just wrote a book. He went to classes where men who have dated a lot of women teach other guys how to make women want them. [Laughing.] He talks about how he often uses these tactics when he interviews people. You want the person you’re interviewing to respect you and be intrigued by you and tell you things they wouldn’t tell other people, the same way you would with a person you’re dating. I don’t use that method at all, but it works for him, because he’s a fantastic writer and interviewer.
What’s the point of music writing?
[Laughs.] I’m still trying to figure that out. I guess ideally the writing helps to tease the meaning that someone might have not seen there before out of an album or song. If you tell the story behind the music, or you tease the meaning out of a song, you can help somebody relate to that song better. I don’t know if I believe that music can save your life, or anything like that, but finding art meaningful is an important part of life. Music journalism at its best can help people do that.
What advice would you give beginners in the music-writing field?
Read as much music writing as is humanly possible. That’s the way you develop your own voice and decide what you like and don’t like. And be aggressive about marketing your work. A lot of young writers are afraid to pitch to publications because they’re afraid they’re not good enough or don’t have enough experience. But don’t make that decision for the publication. What’s the worst that can happen? You pitch to them, and they tell you you’re not good enough or that you need more experience, but at least you’ve pitched to them.
Derek Schleelein is a freelance writer who lives in Ithaca, N.Y. He was a 2005 fellow at the Academy for Alternative Journalism at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. He has written articles for the Detroit Metro Times, the Chicago Reader and the Ithaca Times.