Next up in the Q&A series is John Taylor, a supreme interviewer who I met through Kyla Gardner. I started following John on Twitter before I actually met him at a Chance The Rapper show last summer. Since then I’ve read several of his interviews, and I’ve been very impressed with what he does.
This Q&A will be a little different. I interviewed John via a Google Hangout and talked to him for a little over an hour. I transcribed some of the straight forward questions I had mapped out, but we ended up having a pretty fluid interview that moved from place to place with some incredibly interesting answers from him. So I’ve given a portion of our conversation in text, but suggest you listen to the whole thing when you’re able to carve out enough time. At the end of the interview the tables are turned, and John interviews me. This is something that hasn’t happened before, and I really enjoyed it. Listen as he talks about going from psychology to journalism, his special brand of poetry, Mexican food and much more.
My questions and or comments will be in bold while John’s are in plain text.
You interview a lot of people as part of your job, so is it weird being on the other side of questioning?
It’s different, it’s cool. I guess I know a little bit about it, so I guess I feel like I know what I should expect. But every interview is different for me.
When you go into an interview, how much preparation do you put into learning about your subject beforehand?
Anywhere from two days to a week. When I did the research for Chance I spent a whole week. I looked at every single Instagram photo. I watched every Vine video. I even found his personal Facebook, that took a while find, and then read through all the statuses. I watched every interview, I read every interview. I listened to a lot of the lyrics and picked up stuff from Rap Genius.
You always find out stuff in the interview you didn’t know from other interviews, but for the most part I’ll do as much research as possible. If it’s on the internet then I’ve probably found it.
Who’s been your favorite person to interview so far, and why?
I don’t know how to answer that one. I enjoy all of them equally, honestly. They’re all different. Some of them are really funny, and some of them are really poignant. Some of them are both. I don’t know, I like all of them really. I’ve never really had a bad interview. Probably the worst, the most difficult one I had was Emmy Rossum from “Shameless”, because I only had 10 minutes with her. And she was having a bad day. I was still able to salvage it.
Editing an interview for good content is a lot like sculpting or writing anything. You have to find all the parts that really resonate on a human level that make you laugh, make you wonder, make you think. For me, I highlight those, and I shrink it down a bit. Sometimes I feel like I’m making a Frankenstein. I’ll go through like 45 pages of dialogue and turn it into three pages. I look for a narrative in the conversation. Most conversations have a narrative, but I try to find a rising action, a climax and a falling action. The middle doesn’t matter so much as long as there’s a point in the middle that just gives punch. I know with any good interview you have to start off with a really great question and end with a really great comment.
You mentioned Vic Mensa. So staying with him and Chance, you interviewed Chance right before Acid Rap dropped, and you developed a nice rapport with him and Vic. This led to you getting me and some people into a SaveMoney after party. Is this the height of your interviewing endeavors, and did you feel like John Taylor the superstar?
I don’t know. I get to do a lot of cool stuff, and it’s most of the interviews I do. What’s really cool is I usually interview people I’m a fan of already, or I interview someone I have a really strong feeling about like they’re going to make it. After I heard Juice…I was like I don’t know who this kid is, but something big is going to happen. I don’t know how big or when or if…but the question of if was never a question in my mind. I read about him and went with my gut. My gut is usually right for picking people, not always.
A lot of what I do is really boring. It’s just back and forth with the publicists. A good one-third of my job is scheduling, and a good one-third is editing. The actual interview itself is a small part of the process.
Your glasses seem to be a big part of your identity, as well as your well placed hair. Would you rather leave the house with messy hair, or have to wear contacts instead?
Actually, I wore contacts throughout college. I’ve been thinking about getting contacts recently. I do feel like it’s become my character, like I have that Woody Allen syndrome. I can’t think of a single picture of Woody Allen I’ve seen without glasses. My roommate and his girlfriend were in the kitchen the other day, and she was drawing pictures of stuff. And I was like “oh draw a picture of me,” and it was just a face with glasses and it looked just like me.
And messy hair, how messy?
Waking up with bed-head, tossled and running to catch the train. No prep.
Well that was today actually. I’d rather have messy hair than no glasses. It’s kind of hard for me to see. I have negative two and negative four, and I have really bad astigmatism. It would be kind of nice to not have glasses, because I’m always adjusting them.
Are there any specific musical acts that you’d like interview or just go see right now?
I’d love to talk to St. Vincent. I know she has a new record coming out, and she’s coming to Chicago pretty soon. It would be pretty cool to interview her and see what she’s like. I know Lupe has a new record coming out, and there’s picture of him hang out with Chance. I think it’d be really cool to have Chance interview Lupe or vice versa. That would be really fascinating.
It could be like the Noisey interviews.
Yeah, that’s my favorite kind of interview to do. I love doing those.
There was one with Childish Gambino and Chief Keef, but it was kind of terrible. It was hilarious but awkward at the same time.
One of my favorite interviews I had was Ron Swanson interviewing Vampire Weekend. I couldn’t stop laughing during the entire interview. I asked him a question, and was like “Hey, if I make it through this entire interview without referring to you as Ron and call you by Nick, do I get a reward like one of your handcrafted mustache combs?” He paused and said “Son, your reward is zero punches in the face.” He never broke character. I remember when we started the conference call he didn’t know anyone was on the line and just said “Ernest Borgnine,” which is some obscure artist from the ’40s and movies. He had no idea anyone was listening, and he just said it because he thought it was funny, I guess. Yeah, he never breaks character.
I remember one of the interesting things you told me when I first met you is that you wrote for JET magazine. Do you still write for them?
I haven’t written for them in a while, but I still talk to the editors. I’d love to work with them again. That was a lot of fun.
What types of reactions do you get when tell people you did write for JET?
Everyone’s always shocked. I’m shocked, still. It’s really great pushing myself to write for different audiences. […] I know with JET that was really difficult, because even though I’m bi-racial I don’t come from the Black experience. And I wanted to respect that audience, and really find out what it’s like to write for that. I read a lot of Studs Terkle and started reading Malcolm X’s autobiography and just a lot of JET. Anytime I start a new publication I read as much as I can… [Disconnected!] Even though I do a lot of research, I try to go in with an open mind. I try to go in as blind as possible, like I’m learning about someone.
You get to ask Chief Keef, Lil Reese, Fredo Santana or Lil Durk one question a piece. What would you ask them?
I’d probably ask all of them where they’re coming from, like what they’ve been doing that day. That’s a good starting question for me. It helps a little bit for scene setting. Like where they’re coming from and what they have going on after, and that often helps.
Are you still living in Pilsen right now?
So, what’s your favorite Mexican restaurant out there, like a taqueria?
I really like this place called Fogata Village on 18th and Ashland. They have amazing mole. If you go there during the day, they have a buffet and it’s unlimited mole rojo, chicken and rice, and I’ll eat like three plates of it. It’s so good.
What’s the worst question I asked you during this Q&A, or what’s a question I didn’t ask that you wish I did?
I can’t really think of anything that was bad. I think you could have asked more about my childhood, or tap into what made me go into journalism.
I’ll answer it for you.
Well, I was five years old, and I was going on a field trip. I was home-schooled, and I was going with a couple other home-schooled kids. I was with my mom at the local news station in Jackson, Mississippi. There was this weatherman named Woodie Assaf showing us around the news station. All of the kids were kind of shy and didn’t really want to ask questions, and at the end of the tour, I don’t know where the hell this came from, I raised my hand and was like “Why do they put bad news on the news?” And he just turned super pale, and he was like “All kinds of things happen,” and I really caught him off-guard. I just remember that moment. I love that feeling of catching someone off-guard and getting a genuine reaction from someone rather than a rehearsed answer they’ve given a million times. Whenever someone’s answering something and they’ve rehearsed it, not always, you can tell they’ve answered it a million times and are going through the motions. Just very phoned in, no pun intended.