An Interview with Rock's Greatest Interviewer, Neil Strauss
The writer who has made Lady Gaga cry and had Julian Casablancas try to kiss him talks about how he gets his subjects to open up.
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In his 2011 book, Everyone Loves You When You’re Dead, Neil Strauss lists some of the things he’s done in his life. He has: gotten wasted with Bruce Springsteen, made Lady Gaga cry, received Scientology classes from Tom Cruise, been kissed by Julian Casablancas, talked sex with Chuck Berry, flown in a helicopter with Madonna, and been told “fuck you” by Phil Collins. This, he explains, is his job.
His job is being perhaps the greatest pop culture interviewer of the age. For 20 years, Strauss has been bedding down and interviewing some of the biggest names in Hollywood and rock ‘n’ roll, first for The New York Times then Rolling Stone. David Bowie, Jonny Cash, Kurt Cobain, and Britney Spears have all opened up to him. He has written books with Marilyn Manson, Mötley Crüe, and Dave Navarro. That’s not all his famous for, of course.
These days Strauss is probably best known for his 2005 book The Game and its sort-of follow up The Truth, released last year. The former was a part-memoir-part-self-help-manual about seducing women. It referred to females as “targets” and introduced terms like “negging”—the act of undermining someone’s confidence in order to eventually sleep with them—into popular lexicon. The latter charted his own (apparently heroic) struggle to stop cheating on his fiancé. Along its way it revealed to the world his elderly father’s until then secret perversion: that he was sexually aroused by crippled women.
While both books had a positive message at heart—that happiness lies within one’s self, rather than in external factors—they, naturally enough, polarized opinion. Strauss has spent a lot of interviews since defending them. What he says is generally in the books, anyway.
Which is why, when we spoke, I was more interested in his day job. Mainly I wanted to ask was what it’s like to drink Jack Daniels with Vince Neil at eight in the morning…
Noisey: You’re generally considered one of the finest rock ‘n’ roll interviewers of all time. So, with that in mind, what would your advice to me be for interviewing you?
Neil Strauss: I mean, there’s a difference because if I’m doing an interview it’s usually a super in-depth one—like I’m with that person for a couple of weeks. But really my thing is just prepare. As much as I can reasonably consume of the artist’s output, I would consume. I read or listen or watch whatever their latest thing is and do my best to get a sense of whatever they’ve done in the past. I’ll read other interviews, and write down every question I can possibly think of. Then you need to start with just the right comments and questions to set them at ease, make them feel comfortable, let them know you know what they’re about. Setting the tone is key.
So, if I’m setting the tone here, what should my first question be?
Well… I don’t know. Because I’d have to do that preparation and think about it. I can’t just say something spontaneous.
Fair point. So, you judge me and then you can tell me how I do?
Alright, cool, I’ll rate you at the end.
Obvious question: your favorite interviewee ever?
Chuck Berry. I mean, this is one of the guys who invented rock ‘n’ roll. And he very rarely does interviews. I was warned I might fly down to meet him and end up getting five minutes. And it was really hard to win his trust but then, once I did—just talking—he gave me one of the longest interviews he’s done in 30 years or something. And we talked about everything. He opened up. Music and money and the past. We got onto sex and spent an hour talking about that. So just to sit there with a legend, having been invited to his house, having a conversation—pretty awesome.
I read that feature. He asked you to stay in touch afterwards. Do you become friends with people you interview?
Very rarely. I try not to. I don’t want to have that with someone who’s been a subject. My wife always asks me why I’m not pursuing friendships with the people who I wrote about and who liked me, and I don’t know. I just don’t. Maybe later if we cross paths again we might become friends but that’s it.
Let me flip it: anyone you interviewed who was a real wanker?
I don’t think anyone was a dick or anything but… Arthur Lee from a band called Love—he’s passed away now—he recorded one of my favorite albums of all time, he’s a legend. But pretty early on I said something and he got upset. I mentioned a song of his and I told him a friend of mine loves it and he always says he wonders what drugs they were on when they wrote it. And he just said there were no drugs, and then he hung up on me. And that was it. I felt pretty sad about that.
So, was that your worst interview?
Well, there wasn’t much material. But actually a bad interview can make a great article. If someone’s very cagey or doesn’t talk much, you still get to write it, and it can still make a revealing article. Like when I interviewed The Strokes. Julian Casablancas kept turning off my tape recorder and trying to kiss me. He didn’t say much so that was maybe a bad interview but it still made a great article. It captured something about him.
Along similar lines to kissing The Strokes, what’s been you most rock ‘n’ roll moment?
Probably everything I did while writing the Marilyn Manson book. You know, being part of the band, sleeping on their couches and in their hotel rooms, sharing hot tubs, all those things you think of—any rock ‘n’ roll moment you can imagine—I had while touring with Marilyn Manson. He’s really smart and funny. And he’s an instigator. He likes to instigate trouble. I remember Billy Corgan gave him his phone number one night and he was saying to me the next morning, “That was a stupid thing to do, he’s going to get a lot of prank calls now.”
What’s it like, bedding down with stars like that? What’s your day-to-day routine?
There isn’t one. I just try to roll with their routine and be as non-obtrusive as possible. I’m just there… observing, hanging out. It’s just really fitting in so they’re comfortable around you. And that’s different for Lady Gaga than it is for Mötley Crüe or Tom Cruise. The main thing is making sure you’re available when they’re ready to talk, whatever time that is. With Christina Aguilera, she got into bed mid-interview. I tucked her in when I left.
When you get that close, can it be difficult to ask the tough questions you need to?
Well, I just ask what comes out of curiosity. I never try and bust anyone, or show them up. I don’t think asking tough questions always means you get the answers you need because, if someone feels judged or criticised, they don’t open up. So, sometimes the tougher the question the more defensive the response, and I don’t want a defensive response. But… when I was young, my mom would confess all her problems in her life—like when I was too young to understand them; I’ve wrote about this in The Truth—and I think maybe that gave me the ability to be very empathetic and non-judgmental and just be able to receive. And I think that helps.
Do you enjoy every assignment you do?
Everything is fun in some way. But maybe my favorite ones were when I tried to go and find lost things or lost people—like artists who had disappeared off the radar. So, interviewing Charles Gayle, the free jazz musician who plays festivals in Europe but sleeps in the subway in New York. Or finding Gary Wilson, this guy who recorded this amazing album in the 70s when he was just 24 or something, that really inspired Beck and people like that, but then disappeared. I tracked him down to San Diego, living in an apartment without a telephone, working nights in a pornography store—then did his first interview in 20 years. So those. I like getting the story that no one has maybe more than interviewing the person everybody knows. You’re saying something new, something that hasn’t been told.
I also read you’ve turned down certain interviews with mega-stars…?
Well, interviews are hard work because of the preparation. I’ve turned down some because I didn’t want to consume the entire artistic output of someone who maybe I wasn’t a fan of. Like Mariah Carey. That would have been a lot albums and movies.
So did she personally request you?
I’m not sure if it was her or the magazine. Sometimes, if the artist is big, they might get a call on deciding the interviewer. Like Tom Cruise. He said he wanted to talk to me. I think he’d read something I wrote, and liked it. And… what’s his name? Taylor Lautner asked for me because he liked a piece I’d written on Zac Efron. But the funny thing with that was when I interviewed Zac I really liked him and we got on, and then I did this piece with Taylor and I was asking him a few harder questions and he was, like, “Wait, I thought Zac said you were nice,” and I was, like, “I am nice but, you know, my job is to ask these things.”
What’s the best quote you’ve ever got?
There was a line that actually Lionel Ritchie said to me which was about how he worked so hard and he got to the top of the mountain. He said, “Do you know what was at the top after all this success?” And I said what? He said, “Nothing—all that was there was all the experiences I had to get there.” I thought that was good wisdom. I put all my favorite quotes into Everyone Loves You When You’re Dead. I’m very proud of that book.
And, finally, how’s this one gone for you?
It was good. We covered a lot. I hope it makes a good piece.
Colin Drury did not try to kiss anyone during this interview. Follow him on Twitter - @colin__drury
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- neil strauss
- interviews about interviews
- Everyone Loves You When You're Dead
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