REM, Christine and the Queens, Marilyn and more – our favourite interviews of 2016

The Guardian music team pick their most rewarding encounters with musicians from the last year

• More on the best culture of 2016

REM by Michael Hann

I had a startling October, during which I got to interview Bruce Springsteen and REM. The former was the one I had been waiting for – the chance to talk to the man who had soundtracked my early middle age. But the latter turned out to be the one I felt most deeply about. REM were one of the most important bands of my teens and early 20s – in my memory, at least, I fell asleep every night listening to either Murmur or Fables of the Reconstruction on headphones. I was awfully nervous about meeting Michael Stipe, not just because his music had meant so much to me, but also because so many latter-day interviews had turned out to be cantankerous affairs. In fact, he was delightful. You’re never going to mistake him for Peter Ustinov – there are no anecdotes beginning, “So, Zsa Zsa Gabor and I boarded the Orient Express with a case of very fine whisky, a pair of budgerigars and one passport between us… ” – but he was engaging and engaged company, forthright and as honest as a rock star will ever be. Before I travelled to the States to speak to him, my 16-year-old daughter had asked who I was going to meet. I told her. “Oh, they’re cool,” she said. I pointed out she had barely listened to REM; “Yeah, but people know they’re cool anyway.” I repeated that story to Stipe. “Cool? From a 16-year-old?” he said. “I’ll take that.” Then – to my astonishment and delight – he went hunting through REM HQ for memorabilia to sign for her. I have to admit, I was on the brink of tears. Rarely has an interviewee confounded me so completely.

Jamie T by Rachel Aroesti

Although I was an early Jamie T devotee, one thing I completely failed to pick up on as a teenage indie enthusiast was the way he wove the topic of anxiety into his music (you’d think the name of his debut, Panic Prevention, might have been a clue). Before I met him, I looked back at past reviews and interviews, and was reminded that it wasn’t just me – at that time so many things connected to mental health were simply glossed over by a confused public. Even if Jamie Treays didn’t know why he’d decided to bravely confront such a stigma, it was fascinating to hear how he’d done so in the face of a dismissive and largely unsympathetic response over the years – as well as how he now seemed determined to call the shots in his career in order to look after his mental health.

Bon Iver by Laura Barton

Bon Iver
Bon Iver … red line fever. Photograph: Cameron Wittig

There’s something very special about interviewing an artist over the course of their career – as if every few years you pick up the thread of a conversation and simply carry on. I think it can result in something quite unusual in terms of illumination and honesty, and bring a broader perspective on a musician’s career. I’ve been fortunate enough to have just such a long-running conversation with Justin Vernon since his debut in 2008. This summer in Minneapolis I met him again to discuss his third record, 22, A Million, and the despair, love, determination and fierce friendship that led to its making.

Tony Conrad by Ben Beaumont-Thomas

As social media calcifies debate into entrenched positions and Spotify sells your moods back to you, raise a glass to Tony Conrad, an artist who never let himself be neatly packaged up. In perhaps the last interview before his death in April, after suffering from prostate cancer, he reflected on a life that took in everything from giving the Velvet Underground their name, to meeting his wife dressed as a mummy for an erotic underground movie – and the creation of masterful drone music. Most important to him, though, was a project highlighting children’s academic achievements on local TV. “It wasn’t art, it wasn’t social service, it wasn’t teaching – it was nothing!” he said joyfully. “My whole life project, my whole art, had gone down into some kind of black hole.” We need more like him: people who grow in the cracks of a consumer culture, and split it apart.

Patti Smith by Tim Jonze

Whenever I get the chance to meet a rock’n’roll icon – and how could you possibly describe Patti Smith if not as a rock’n’roll icon – the initial excitement swiftly dissolves into anxiety. As I start to read up on them, the stomach knots usually increase: Patti Smith used to scream obscenities in the faces of boorish hecklers; she slept in graveyards; she took on the entire rock patriarchy. By the time I arrived at this interview and realised that, owing to a mixup, I’d kept her waiting an hour already, I accepted that we were going to be in for a testing time. Imagine my surprise then when she took me arm in arm, apologised for the delay to my day, and began rhapsodising about the Peter Pan statue in Hyde Park. She was warm, maternal and extremely generous with her time – but she did take a minute to angrily admonish a group of people loitering nearby who were talking too loudly, which reassured me that this really was the correct Patti Smith I was talking to.

Christine and the Queens by Laura Snapes

Christine and the Queens
Christine and the Queens … total candour. Photograph: Matthew Baker/Getty Images

Over a two and a half hour lunch with Héloïse Letissier in Paris this August, we shared a very un-Parisian bottle of sparkling water. But when we parted ways – Letissier to a blood test to assuage her hypochondria – I felt drunk on her. I took a cab to Place des Vosges and walked aimlessly until I emerged from my daze a few hours later. Even though she was the one being grilled, Letissier makes you feel seen. “You are introverted as well,” she observed kindly, which might have knocked me off-guard if she hadn’t said it to a writer friend of mine a few months earlier. Not that she’s manipulative: Letissier is eloquent, intensely intelligent and warm with it. I’d read more than 300 French press clippings (and as many in English) as slightly anal interview prep. There’s always the danger that there’s nothing left to know when you go that far down the rabbit hole. But given Letissier’s total candour and apparent ability to discuss anything incisively, I could have talked to her for three times longer.

Madness by Simon Hattenstone

I thought I could cope with the full Madness. No way, said the publicist, two is more than you can handle. He was right, of course. An hour of Suggs and Kix talking at you in a Camden pub and you feel battered. Great fun, mind. Wonderful stories (if at times I wondered whether they indulged in the old poetic licence) from the Nutty Boys. My favourite bit is their nostalgia for the good old days when you got hit on the head with bicycle chains, which made me smile (not that I’m advocating it). And Suggs’s tale about seeing Amy Winehouse just before she died had me welling up.

Marilyn by Alexis Petridis

Like anyone who’s read Boy George’s autobiographies, I approached interviewing Marilyn with a degree of caution. Before, during and immediately after his brush with early 80s fame, he sounded like a bit of a nightmare: he happily described himself as “vile”. Furthermore, he’d subsequently spent decades in drug-addled seclusion. But I was also fascinated by him, not least the fact that, 30 years on, he looked like a very modern kind of pop star: more famous himself than the records he made, a bigger star than his commercial success suggested. He turned out to be a dream interviewee: charming, funny, self-aware, unflinching in telling his extraordinary story. The subsequent piece went viral: at one point it was the most-read thing on the entire Guardian website. “How would I know if people were still interested in me?” he snorted when I asked him if he was surprised that people still cared, 32 years after he’d last had a hit. “I was locked in a fucking room for years, taking drugs and watching Alien.”

Teenage Fanclub by Jude Rogers

The story of Teenage Fanclub is not a drama of epic proportions – if you’re looking for whiteouts and breakdowns, take your snarl elsewhere, sunshine – but a loving, gently evolving story of a band who’ve been together their whole adult lives, writing beautiful songs and taking their fans with them. Being asked to write about what a band means and feels to people was a particular delight; music’s often about the image and the narrative, of course, but it’s also about the endorphin surge when those chords start to chime. In the commercial-success stakes, nearly-men TFC will always be. For those of us who love them, that’s enough.

Little Mix by Michael Cragg

Little Mix
Little Mix … hair today. Photograph: Tim P. Whitby/Getty Images

Little Mix are a very modern pop band. Formed on The X Factor and born and raised under the scrutiny of a social-media world, they should, like their peers, be media-trained to within an inch of their lives. Brilliantly, almost miraculously, they still have absolutely no filter, which makes interviewing them a complete joy. Some parts of our chat – conducted over a heated game of Popstars Top Trumps and covering a stolen lamb shank, RuPaul and Syria – proved too scandalous to print, which is how I wish all pop-star interviews would go.

Richard Ashcroft by Dave Simpson

I first interviewed Richard Ashcroft in Wigan in his pre-supernova Verve days, when journalists dubbed him Mad Richard because of his tendency to offer such pronouncements such as “I can fly.” Nowadays, acid and grandiosity have given way to family life, wealth, sobriety and battles with depression, but he didn’t need more than a couple of mineral waters to turn back into Mad Richard. I’m sure his estranged former bandmates will have their own views on how superstardom affected him, but at least for a couple of hours in a pub on a sunny afternoon, he seemed to cherish the opportunity to become his old self.

Phil Collins.
Endearing … Phil Collins. Photograph: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images

Phil Collins by Dorian Lynskey

I had pursued an interview with Phil Collins because I was fascinated by his story. What I took for granted at the time now seemed like a very peculiar journey: one of the most admired drummers of the 70s becomes one of the biggest, most unlikely and, eventually, most divisive stars of the 80s, before entering an uneasy retirement. His career was extreme even though his music wasn’t. Many veteran stars are too smooth and complacent to be rewarding interviewees, but Collins is one of those unfortunate souls in whom minor slights take up far more headspace than major achievements. I found his intense vulnerability very endearing.

Barry Hyde by Harriet Gibsone

An interview with Barry Hyde, whose stark and elegant portrayal of bipolar disorder was the heart of his solo album Malody, was the piece I received the most feedback for. It was a feature I was proud to have been part of. Hyde, known by many as the frontman of the buoyant Sunderland art pop group the Futureheads, was open and articulate about his experience of mental-health problems, from his false awakening in the Arizona desert to his diagnosis and the trauma of the years that followed. Although keen not to be presented as a crusader, his message to men similar to him, men from Sunderland, or any working-class town who might not be expressive or open about their feelings, was a pertinent antithesis of the usual copy-shifting promo we normally encounter.

Contributors

Michael Hann, Rachel Aroesti, Laura Barton, Tim Jonze, Laura Snapes, Simon Hattenstone, Alexis Petridis, Jude Rogers, Michael Cragg, Dave Simpson, Dorian Lynskey and Harriet Gibsone

The GuardianTramp

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