Wednesday, June 18

interview: mike powell (contributing editor at pitchfork)

Photo by Chad Wadsworth for a feature article on Parquet Courts by Mike Powell. 
Inspired by great writing (and in a sleepy anything-is-possible state) I emailed Mike Powell, who writes for publications like the New York Times, Pitchfork and Rolling Stone, to get an introductory idea about what he does and how he does it.

Could you introduce yourself and describe a typical working week for you?

My name is Mike Powell. I am a 31-year-old freelance writer living in Tucson, Arizona. A typical working week for me is about seven days long, but with shorter and more flexible hours than a so-called "desk job." I often wake up between 6 and 7, make coffee, and start working. Sometimes I finish as early as 2pm, sometimes 10pm. Sometimes I'll go and visit friends and work two hours a day-- something I can do if I load myself up in the ensuing weeks. It's a good schedule in that I can for the most part work whenever I want, wherever I want. It's a bad schedule for the same reason.

Have you ever read something that changed your life?

All the time, but I'm one of those people who expects change and to continue changing. My guess is you mean something that really, immediately changed the way I either wanted to live or how I approached life as it appears before me. Two things I can think of to this effect are The Hour of the Star, which is a very short novel by a Brazilian woman named Clarice Lispector, recently given a great new translation by a guy named Ben Moser. Another book is Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees, a book by the art writer Lawrence Wechsler synthesizing over 20 years of conversation with the California sculptor Robert Irwin. Also, all the novels of Charles Portis, which remind me that life is a chaotic and arbitrary and hilarious experience, and no amount of planning or expertise can control it.

How did you get to writing for publications like Pitchfork, Rolling Stone and the New York Times

Pitchfork was something I started writing for after an old website I wrote for called Stylus folded. I'd had enough going on there, clip-wise, that I could approach PF with some certainty that they knew who I was (they did). This was also around 2007, when the music-website game wasn't quite as cluttered as it is now. The Times was a place I started out at as a researcher, having come from doing some fact-checking at corporate magazines. A friend worked there as a web producer; the Real Estate desk needed someone to work on a project; I was young and available and not a dummy. Rolling Stone was a contact established through Twitter, actually. As much as I hate to admit it, social media works.

Could you describe your process when you interview or write a feature piece on a person or a band (like you did with Parquet Courts)? 

For Parquet Courts-- and in general-- I don't write down questions, per se. I try and trust that there are things that I want to ask about that, for the sake of stimulating interesting conversation, I'll ask. The more I interview-- and I don't do it a lot, to be honest-- the more I'm aware of the fact that saying, "oh, another thing I wanted to ask you was..." is a great way to get stiff and unusable answers. Better to just have a conversation, I think. That dovetails with the "comfortable environment" thing. If you only have 15 minutes to get up in someone's face and jam your questions in there, it's miserable for everyone involved. If you talk to someone like they're a human being they will likely respond like one. Given my temperament, this usually means leaning back, cooling out, letting people be. You can do this in a feature where you're "observing" people better than in a Q&A, but I still think that it's in general good policy to try and have a conversation rather than be going down a checklist, which makes you look like a census worker and the subject like a gumball machine or something.

Do you have any personal insight as to the purpose of being a writer?

As a reader, I want to be entertained and moved, in that order. As a writer, I try to provide an experience that I'd want as a reader.

On the complete off chance, I am about to move to Beijing - do you have any tips on navigating the Chinese music scene? 

Wow. Kind of a cool opportunity, I'd think. If you don't know the language, you can just follow your ear, with no preordained understanding about what you should/shouldn't be interested in. That said, the only things I know about China and music are the Paul Demarinis album Music as a Second Language, which incorporates Chinese opera, and an essay called "Formalism" by the author Dave Hickey, which also talks a little about Chinese opera.

Could you list three cool things to do in Tucson, Arizona?

Tucson is basically a college town in the middle of the desert surrounded on all sides by mountains and parkland, so: Lots of outdoor opportunities and plenty of air-conditioned rooms in which to drink beer, if you're into those things. (I am.) One thing I recommend in Tucson is driving to the edge of it, preferably on a road called Gates Pass, which at one point guides you up a hill at the top of which is a pretty incapacitating view of the desert just sprawling out infinitely ahead of you. Go in the middle of the day-- without the help of depth perception-- and can actually be a little nauseating. Past that are lots of good places to hike, none of which are secret or "unusual" beyond their intense, intense natural beauty. Go in April and you can see blossoms in colors you probably didn't realize existed in the desert. Also good is to walk around Barrio Viejo/Historico, which is rich with old adobe architecture and good pastel doors. Lots of good places to eat, too. But in general, Tucson is a city that I think benefits a domestic temperament-- i.e. the coolest thing to do in Tucson, as far as I'm concerned, is to stay home and cook with friends.

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