Innerviews' Anil Prasad, Interviewed
By Peter Hum
October 21, 2010
If you read my previous post, you know that I think very highly of music journalist Anil Prasad and his book Innerviews, which was released this week.
In a nutshell: Prasad, a 41-year-old Carleton University grad, is based in the San Francisco Bay Area and since the 1990s, he has been posting impeccable interviews with musicians of all styles to his website innerviews.org. Prasad is a buff of many musics including jazz, and his book includes interviews with Joe Zawinul, McCoy Tyner, Stanley Clarke, Ralph Towner and John McLaughlin (not to mention chats with Chuck D, Ani DiFranco, and Bjork).
My e-mail exchange with Prasad is on the lengthy side, but he has plenty to share, including advice for would-be music interviewers and his take on the health of jazz.
Are you from Ottawa? If not, where did you spend your childhood? How old are you?
I was born in Montreal. I spent my childhood split between Montreal, Toronto and London, Ontario. I’m 41.
When and why did you come to Ottawa?
I moved to Ottawa in 1989 to attend Carleton University. After living in London, it was a wonderfully cosmopolitan place to explore, with lots of great local culture—not to mention, a healthy amount of excellent live music. Additionally, Ottawa was close to Montreal, which enabled me to tap into the incredible Montreal jazz scene on a regular basis.
What were your studies at Carleton University?
I have an undergrad degree in Mass Communication and a Masters of Journalism from Carleton. My key professors were the late and much admired Paul Attallah, the Associate Director of the School of Journalism and Communication, and Chris Dornan, Associate Dean and Director, Kroeger College. Both were formative influences in terms of developing critical perspectives on media and journalism. Their “out of the box” thinking was invaluable in my development as a journalist, particularly when it came to seeking out alternate ways of engaging interview subjects, the value of deep research, and being fearless about approaching difficult or complex subject matter. In general, my Carleton experience infused me with a constructively critical perspective that still influences my daily media engagements.
When and why did you leave Ottawa?
While I was wrapping my Master’s thesis at Carleton in 1994, I was also working at Nortel. It was the early days of the Internet. I was doing marketing communications work, and I was tasked with learning how to convert content to run on the Web. No one knew how to do it. They gave me several thick manuals on HTML coding and said “Here, go figure out how this stuff works.” So, I did. My first test projects were to convert some of my music journalism work into HTML. This was before the days of HTML editors, so it was all hand-coded. I posted some of the material to the Web in its primitive state to test out the conversions. I figured a few dozen people might look at my writing. Several hundred readers flocked to it within a few days, and soon those hundreds turned into thousands. I realized I was onto something, so I packaged a bunch of my interviews into Innerviews and launched the first version of the site. It didn’t even strike me at the time that Innerviews represented the world’s first online music magazine. But as more and more readers made it part of their Web experience, and demanded refreshed content on an ongoing basis, it established itself as a de facto magazine in a completely organic way.
I left Nortel and worked for a Newbridge Networks-funded interactive television start-up called Televitesse from 1995-1996. While I was there, Netscape, the Silicon Valley-based company that helped pioneer the web browser, as well as the consumer Internet experience, got in touch with me out of the blue. It turned out there were some big fans of Innerviews at the company. They said “We want to fly you out to the San Francisco Bay Area and figure out what you can do for us.” It was amazingly vague, but it was during the dot-com explosion, when you could get a job just on the basis of a good idea. Intrigued by the opportunity, I took them up on the offer. It was the most atypical job interview ever. All they talked about was Innerviews and the ideation and motivation behind it. I left not knowing what they had in mind for me. Back to Ottawa I went. Two weeks later, I got a job offer from Netscape, with no specific job in mind. They said “We’ll figure out what to do with you when you get here.” I was young and brash, so I said “Why not?” They slotted me into a public relations position and had me serve as a consultant on their web-based entertainment offerings.
Moving to California created a significant springboard for my music journalism work. The San Francisco Bay Area is one of the world’s great musical hotspots. Everyone comes here. So, in tandem with the tech work, it provided an epic opportunity to expand the scope of Innerviews, in addition to providing fantastic freelance opportunities with the likes of Guitar Player and Bass Player magazines.
When and how did your passion for music develop? Do you play an instrument, and if you could be a musician on that instrument, who would you be?
It evolved mainly due to the influence of people working at record stores during my early teens. I would wander in looking for a Blondie release, and a wise record store clerk would send me home with a Kate Bush album instead. Or I would go in looking for Steely Dan, and get lectured by these guys about how I should listen to Weather Report, John McLaughlin or Montreal’s Uzeb instead to really appreciate where this jazz-rock stuff was really done well. It kept growing from there. There was almost a level of mentorship from the guys that ran these stores. They clearly saw a malleable, open mind. I quickly amassed a large record collection of the most amazingly diverse stuff as a kid, including progressive rock, electronic music, jazz and jazz-fusion, and avant-garde stuff. I still remember my friends thinking I was a nutcase for being so out of sync with the mainstream, but it really planted the seeds for my core interests as a human being today. I’m not sure kids are going to get a similar experience through iTunes or the blogosphere. To this day, I see similar encouraging and disruptive behavior in the record stores that remain. Long may they endure.
As part of hanging out in the record store scene, I also met a lot of musicians. I got invited to parties and jam sessions, and at one point, someone handed me a bass guitar. Something about it just felt right. I found I had an immediate aptitude for it, and proceeded to learn fretted and fretless bass. I played in various pick-up and party rock bands stretching into university just for fun. Eventually, the music journalism work took up so much time, that I decided to focus my energies on that side of the house. I think my strengths lie more in communicating about musicians as opposed to communicating music itself. Perhaps spending time with virtuoso bassists like Victor Wooten, Michael Manring, Alain Caron, and Tony Levin in the mid-`90s also convinced me that I better stick to what I do best. [laughs]
Having said that, if I could be a particular bassist, it would be Charles Mingus, minus his temper. The man was such a multi-faceted talent. He was one of the greatest composers in jazz history, in addition to being phenomenal on his instrument. I’m reasonably sure I own virtually every recorded note he ever released, and I’m a fan of every era of his career.
What are the milestones with respect to the development of Innerviews?
A key milestone was the New York Times running a piece on Innerviews in 1997. The reporter Matthew Mirapaul pointed to it as an example of where journalism was going in the future. Site traffic exploded and I’m convinced it helped create a significant readership, some of which continues to this day. It was an amazing and unexpected moment of validation. Shortly after that piece ran, I was in Boston, waiting in line to get into a concert. Several people in line broke out into a huge argument over an interview they had read with the progressive rock band King Crimson. They were verbally sparring over who was the most important member and driver of the band’s vision. I soon realized the whole scene was related to an Innerviews feature. I stood silent, slightly dumbstruck that this material, edited and published from my home office, was engendering such passionate discourse. It’s one thing to see people flaming in forums about web postings, but it was quite another to see it playing out in “real life.”
Another milestone was in 1998, when out of the blue, I received an email that said “Massive Attack would like you to interview them for Innerviews.” At that moment, Massive Attack was one of the most influential and popular acts in the world. Prior to that opportunity, interviews were things that I was pursuing. Suddenly, major record labels, publicists and artists themselves, were reaching out to me proactively. The group wanted to spend several hours going deep into what they were about, in a way they previously had never done. They said “we want to be interviewed by someone without an agenda, who can speak to us as if it’s a normal conversation.” It turned out to be a truly fascinating set of interviews, and a springboard to another level of artist access.
The year 2000 had another such moment. Bill Smith Studio, the graphic design firm behind legendary album covers for Led Zeppelin, the Rollling Stones, Genesis, and Kate Bush, said they were interested in redesigning the Innerviews web site as part of their push into the web design world. Out of nowhere, the music industry’s premier design firm was willing to give me tens of thousands of dollars of free design for next to nothing, because they felt the site was important enough to have in their portfolio as an example of a cutting-edge environment they’ve worked on. So, even though Innerviews is a non-profit site, it had world-class web design and stood out from the pack. Similar relationships have emerged to this day, with Andy Rinehart, a globally renowned web designer and musician, creating the look and feel for the current site. It’s a project he’s involved in more for love, than money.
A very current milestone is the recent launch of the Innerviews iPhone/iPad app. It was co-created with Tony Wallace, a fantastic Oakville, Ontario-based developer. Like Bill Smith and Andy Rinehart, he’s someone that’s passionate about the site and its content. He created a state-of-the-art reading experience on both the iPhone and iPad platforms, further extending Innerviews’ reach into these new, and increasingly important mobile devices. The app has proven to be a huge success, reaching the Top 40 of music apps worldwide, and even the Top 20 and Top 10 in some countries.
How many interviews have you done over the last decade and a half?
To date, I’ve done approximately 250 interviews. Twenty-four interviews are featured in the book. The majority were conducted exclusively for the book, while other pieces are extended, “director’s cut” versions of interviews that previously ran on the site.
What have you learned about interviewing over the course of Innerviews? How do you think your work has improved?
The key skill I’ve learned is to shut up and get out of the way. I focus on open-ended questions that allow a broad range of movement and interpretation. I try to use the artist’s current project as a gateway into broader subject matter. When I started, I was more narrowly focused on whatever was going on with the artist at the moment. Now, I pore over research material and back catalogs before talking to an artist in an attempt to excavate interesting nuggets for them to respond to. As a result, I think the pieces became more timeless as the site evolved. Also, I think as you get older, you realize that you’d like your work to have more permanence. An interview about a specific album or event may not have a lot of resonance years later. However, an interview that captures an artist’s thinking on musical and life philosophies is much likelier to have some value years later for readers.
My exposure to different types of music has also exponentially increased over the life of Innerviews, which has opened up a lot of cross-pollination when it comes to creating intriguing lines of questioning. I’m fond of throwing other artists’ quotes, sometimes from other musical universes, at interview subjects and seeing what happens. In terms of the writing itself — going back to my first point — I’ve also made more of a conscious effort to remove myself from the interviews. I mostly avoid talking about myself, or infusing personal anecdotes into the pieces. The interviews are about the artists. That’s what the reader cares about. They don’t care about what I observed on the train ride on the way to the interview, or the girl I was dating when I first heard the artist on the radio at age 16.
What is the basic understanding with an artist that you have before going into an interview? How long are your interviews typically? Do you do interviews by e-mail?
When artists agree to an Innerviews piece, they know the topic matter will be expansive and the conversation will be an extended one. I think it’s implicit that the artists come to the table with an open mindset and the knowledge that they have the freedom to ramble, and express their thoughts in as much detail as possible. They also know there’s a chance I’ll hit them with something unexpected, something from their distant past, or something that’s tangentially related to music. Lastly, I think they know they’ll be treated with great respect. There’s no bashing artists over the head with “gotcha” or untoward questions. I’m not interested in gossip or their personal lives. Every line of questioning is designed to flow back into their artistry, and I think it’s what makes them feel comfortable enough to really go deep in their responses. Interviews typically run 60-90 minutes. Most of the interviews are in person or by phone. I’ve only done a handful of email interviews. I really like the sense of interaction and spontaneity that’s the exclusive domain of two people talking in real time.
What are some of the broad insights that you have gained into music over the course of Innerviews?
A significant realization is that it’s a serious struggle to be a serious artist. There is very little that’s easy about the life of a musician. From the initial creative process to the release, promotion and touring phases, artists’ working lives are typically fraught with complexity. The building blocks that go into creating a piece of music and putting it into the world are many. I feel musicians deserve an incredible amount of respect for what they do, and they often don’t get it. Serious musicians are much more than entertainers. They’re communicators, and they’re revealing essential truths about who we are as people in their art. So, when I see musicians onstage giving it their all, I can fully appreciate what they’re doing in the moment, but I also have a real appreciation for the struggle it took to get them onto that stage to do what they do.
Why do you often ask musicians about whether spirituality informs their art?
That line of questioning is about getting to the core essence of the artists to understand their motivations and inspiration. I’m not trying to explore religion or dogma, by any means. Musicologists and scientists are great at deconstructing music into its constituent parts, as well as how it affects sensory and perceptual systems. And beyond that, there’s little information. So, I’m trying to uncover ideas that go beyond music as it relates to time signatures, harmony, neurons, and synaptic pathways by invoking spirituality. Often, the artist is caught off guard by the question. Lengthy pauses inevitably ensue, and the answers are always different and fascinating. Typically, the artists embrace the challenge of trying to distill what they do as it relates to “the spirit.” For instance, in the book, McCoy Tyner talks about how his church experience propelled his interest in jazz. Leo Kottke discusses how the guitar “cured” him by giving him a reason to get out of bed during a dark personal period. John McLaughlin explores the idea of music itself being the “face of God.” Even Ani DiFranco, an atheist, talks about her spiritual relationship to music in that it represents an altered state of consciousness capable of transporting her outside of her body.
Name one or two interviews that have stood out for you for one reason or another, and explain why they were exceptional.
Bill Laswell, a legendary bassist and producer behind albums by Herbie Hancock, Yoko Ono, Laurie Anderson, Tony Williams, and Pharoah Sanders, is one of my favorite interviews. In the book, he talks about how albums are typically “business receipts” reflecting the approval, objectivity and taste of the people and organizations funding them. He offered a perspective on what artists and producers deal with on a daily basis with an incredible level of honesty and detail. Laswell also dissected how world music collaborations have been affected in the post-9/11 environment, and the broader negative implications on art resulting from global political machinations. It’s totally fascinating, eye-opening stuff. Talking to Laswell was very much akin to pulling the curtain to get a behind-the-scenes view into the inner workings of the music industry and how artists have historically been at its mercy.
The interview with John McLaughlin in the book is another highlight, given his candor into how and why he reinvented himself in the `70s. He talks about breaking up the very commercially-successful Mahavishnu Orchestra so he could explore Indian music with a group called Shakti featuring tabla master Zakir Hussain. He delves deep into how he disappointed and alienated his fans and the whole music industry infrastructure surrounding him, yet felt it was something he needed to do because it was an area he wanted to give total focus to. He paints a wonderful portrait of his pursuit of new vistas and how his work helped pave the way for the world music revolution that came a few years later. He’s an example of a visionary, influential artist that’s often been many steps ahead of his contemporaries. McLaughlin really opened up in a way he rarely does in the interview, and it was a highly memorable and enlightening conversation.
How would you compare what's going on creatively and commercially in the jazz world with what you see in the other musical niches?
Contrary to popular belief, I am firmly convinced jazz is alive and well. I’m not talking about the “jazz industry,” which as we know, is in dire straits, just like the rest of the music industry. Rather, I’m talking about the fact that there is more creative music being made invoking the word “jazz” now than at any point in recorded history. However, you can’t look to corporate machinery to find it. Certainly, mainstream radio — and I’m including what’s left of commercial “jazz radio” — isn’t going to give it to you either.
So, listeners have to dig to uncover what’s new and interesting out there. The Internet is the key source of information. There are myriad sources of knowledge, including online magazines, forums, Twitter feeds, and Facebook pages that are like a fire hose of knowledge about what’s going on worldwide. There are also lots of fantastic jazz-related labels out there still making essential music, like Pi Recordings, ECM, Clean Feed, Lost Marble, and Motema. It’s all low-key these days. The responsibility is mostly on listeners to go out there and find the music and sources of information, but once they do, they will be richly rewarded. Everything I just said holds true for other genres as well. I think artists have started adopting a pragmatic and realistic attitude about getting their music out there, and it has opened up the creative floodgates. The general realization is their own artistic satisfaction is now the only guaranteed return available to them, so they might as well make music that’s uncompromising and true to their instincts. One can debate if that’s good for the music industry, but it’s certainly great for music.