Q&A: New York magazine’s David Marchese on viral Quincy Jones interview

Music producer Quincy Jones at an event in Los Angeles, California last November. Photo credit: Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images for Spotify.

Quincy Jones doesn’t care what you think. At least, that was my biggest takeaway from David Marchese’s recent interview with the music legend. Marchese, a contributing editor at New York magazine and Vulture.com, sat down with Jones for a wildly entertaining conversation in anticipation of his 85th birthday—plus an upcoming CBS special and a Netflix documentary—discussing everything from Ringo Starr’s drum skills (or lack thereof) to supposedly (very doubtfully) dating Ivanka Trump. It’s an unexpected, delightful, and outrageous conversation with someone who doesn’t give a damn. It went viral as soon as it was published. So far, over 1.5 million people have read “In Conversation: Quincy Jones” at Vulture.

Marchese spoke with CJR about how he prepared for the conversation with Jones, his go-to interviewing techniques, and what didn’t make the published piece. The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

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If my opinion counts for anything, your interview with Quincy Jones is the definition of perfect. How did it come to be? How much time did you spend with him?

I have a recurring feature I do for Vulture and sometimes in the magazine, called “In Conversation,” which are these big, longform Q&As. I aim to do two a month. I have a running list of people I’m reaching out to. Quincy Jones was someone I’d originally emailed in May of last year, and then his publicist and I had some discussion, and he wanted something to run a bit closer to Quincy’s 85th birthday, which is March 14. It had been in the works for a long time.

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The request we make for these pieces is the same for everyone. We ask for a 90-minute conversation with the person wherever the subject is comfortable. Then we’ll do a 30-minute-or-so follow-up on the phone, mostly to get clarification on certain things, or if certain answers were a little vague, or if there was a subject matter I should’ve dug a little deeper on. I spent a little more [time] with him since he seemed to enjoy the conversation. It was probably closer to two-and-a-half hours.

Instead, the first thing he said was that Michael Jackson allegedly didn’t give songwriting credit to other people that he may have owed them. That’s where he immediately went.

 

The conversation with you and Jones pretty much broke Twitter. Was there a moment in the interview where you thought, “Damn, I’ve struck gold”?

I don’t know about striking gold. I was thinking about it more in terms of does it seem like he’s telling me interesting things he hasn’t talked about before, or saying them in a different way? The difficulty of interviewing someone who’s had a notable career for more than 50 years is that they’ve done a lot of interviews and told a lot of the same stories. There was a moment when I felt optimistic that I was going to get good stuff from him. I had asked him what I thought was a fairly innocuous question about Michael Jackson—“What is something people don’t understand about Michael Jackson that you understand?”—thinking he would say something like he was a better songwriter than he gets credit for, or that he was gifted on the bass. Instead, the first thing he said was that Michael Jackson allegedly didn’t give songwriting credit to other people that he may have owed them. That’s where he immediately went. It was so clearly an unguarded response. When he said that, I felt I was going to be able to get more unique information from him. That was 15 minutes into the interview.

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I was also impressed by how you were able to keep up with him. He dropped so many references, but you seemed to know exactly what he was talking about most of the time. How much preparation went into this interview? And is that standard for you?

It’s a bit of an optical illusion. In preparation for an interview, you read a lot about them and a lot of other interviews with them. When you read enough, you see that there are things they’ve referenced before. A good example of this is in my interview with R&B singer Erykah Badu from a couple weeks ago. In multiple previous interviews, she had mentioned this social psychologist named Irving Janis who came up with theory of “groupthink,” and in our interview, she said the name Irving Janis, and I said “Oh, groupthink.” If I hadn’t been preparing to interview Erykah Badu, I would’ve had no idea who Irving Janis was. I’m educating myself on the things the interview subject knows about. It looks like I know more than I do. It’s not like I had that fact laying around.

The other aspect of it is I’m interviewing people who I have affinity for. If you put me in the room with Julian Schnabel or something, and he were to mention ’80s visual artists, it’s very unlikely I would know what he was talking about. When it comes to a jazz musician or comedian, that’s just the subject matter I’m interested in.

 I’m educating myself on the things the interview subject knows about. It looks like I know more than I do. It’s not like I had that fact laying around.

 

There was a whole lot happening in your interview with Jones, from the secrets of Michael Jackson to his relationship with the Clintons to his joke about Marlon Brando and the mailbox. What didn’t make it in? What’s your process for determining what stays and what goes?

I think that piece ran at about 4,200 words, which is a little shorter than those pieces tend to run. The raw transcript was probably 13,000 or 14,000 words, which is also a bit shorter than those tend to be. So a ton is cut. Part of [what goes into deciding] what’s cut is whether the person has talked about the given subject before in a similar way. If that’s the case, I’ll definitely cut it. In this instance, the decision about what to cut was helped by the fact that a week before my piece came out, there was a pretty comprehensive GQ piece. It was kind of drag, because he told them stories he told me. There was a not-insignificant amount of overlap. The vast majority of stuff that overlapped with the GQ piece I cut. Then there’s stuff that was interesting but doesn’t fit in with the other subject matter. I want it to flow well as a reading experience.

Because he’s sort of an outlandish storyteller and says this salacious stuff, some aspects of that were a bridge too far for me. This is kind of like the PG-13 version of what the conversation was actually like.

 

I can’t imagine what the R or NC-17 version is like. Something else I appreciated was the structure and pace of the Q&A. What’s your process like for that?

I try not to alter too much of the natural shape of the conversation. I would hope the interview with Quincy gives a sense that he was getting increasingly comfortable with me and saw that I understood the references he would make and was interested in the same thing. I did want to preserve that sense of momentum, a sense of developing conversation. I do think about that. In the course of an interview, I ask questions based on the notion that it’s my goal to get the person comfortable enough in the moment that they will be honest and open with me. Sometimes, I find the way to do that is asking questions that might not read well on the page, or even necessarily yield the most interesting answers, but are intended to help the interviewee get to a place of comfort with me. I cut most of that stuff out. The written interview is often not starting from where I sat down and turned the tape recorder on. It’s starting from a place where I felt I had established a certain rapport with the person I’m talking to.

 

He throws you a lot of curveballs in the interview, like when he interrupts you to ask your astrological sign, which is a very Pisces thing to do. How do you stay focused?

If you’re in the moment, just responding to another human being, and they say a curveball, you just go with that instead of being flustered. I think of them as colorful opportunities. The digressive stuff is often what reveals more about somebody’s way of thinking or speaking or interests, rather than straightforward questions. I can recognize when they’re happening. That’s not to say I always have good responses when someone throws a curveball, but I think I do understand that it doesn’t mean things are going off the rails. That helps with the focus.

The other part is preparation work. I have a fairly systematic way of preparing and committing to memory areas of questioning or even specific facts. Things the interview subject has done that I basically have memorized, and I know are floating around in my mind. Mostly through practice and other intentional methods, I’ve gotten fairly good at calling up those lines of questions or subjects in the moment. When someone veers off, I’ll have in my head, that oh, this is sort of connected to this other thing I wanted to talk about.

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You’ve talked to Jones and Erykah Badu within the past month. They’re both Pisces, and you’re a Pisces. Why don’t you like talking to other signs?

Every other interview I’ve done has probably been with people who aren’t Pisces. They just happened to mention it in their interviews. Maybe the truth is I should only interview Pisces from now on because it’s worked out so far.

Maybe the truth is I should only interview Pisces from now on because it’s worked out so far.

 

But really, those were both kooky, wonderful, and revealing interviews. How do you get mega-famous people like them to open up?

They’re really good examples of the ideal subject. I’m not in their minds, but they come across as unfiltered and willing to be honest in response to whatever question they’re asked, which is usually not the case. For various reasons, people don’t want to say what’s really on their mind to a stranger, knowing it’s going to be available for others to read. They didn’t have those filters. I wish everyone was like that. They, in particular, were so good.

There are some tricks I’ve learned over time. They’re just ways of making other human beings feel comfortable in the moment. At this point I put conscious effort into practicing, and I’ve had the opportunity to practice enough. I think people can tell my questions are coming from a place of sincere interest. I’m never trying to spring a gotcha on someone. I’m never intentionally leading someone into tricky territory. I am sincerely interested in them as people and I think that comes across.

 

Final question: Where can I find the unedited audio or full transcripts? Is something like #ReleaseTheTapes going to trend?

I hope not. I would certainly never feel comfortable putting out audio or the full transcript. I know some people don’t think of interviews as pieces of writing, but in many ways, they are. I don’t think people would post drafts of their profiles of someone, or show the editor’s edits. He did say lots of other good stuff. It will be up to someone else to ask him those questions again and have them released out into the wild.

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Meg Dalton is a freelance journalist and audio producer based in Connecticut. She's reported and edited for CJR, PBS NewsHour, Energy News Network, Architectural Digest, MediaShift, Hearst Connecticut newspapers, and more. Follow her on Twitter: @megdalts. Find her on Twitter @megdalts.