Cameron Sparkes has been interviewing skateboarders for more than a decade and he can certainly attest that it’s a trickier business than it sounds. Chatting with skaters is always a bit of a potluck, and it’s a gig that doesn’t necessarily get easier with time, age or experience. Each person is a new challenge: a unique and (hopefully) interesting character with their own quirks, stories and reservations.
Sparkes reckons he’s got somewhere between 50 and 100 interviews under his belt, having questioned the likes of Tony Hawk, Christian Hosoi, Austyn Gillette, Ryan Sheckler, and even his childhood hero Rhys Grogan – just to name a few. I’m on the other end of the spectrum: just finding my feet in the business of interviewing skateboarders for print. So, with an aim to learn the tricks of the trade, I picked Sparkes’ brain about the art of the interview. Slipping into anecdotes about Hosoi’s meth addiction, Matty Dillon’s sexual escapades and The Birdman’s furious media liaison, Sparkes proves to be a pretty damn good storyteller himself. He provides an education that I think we can all benefit from. Here are seven things Sparkes knows about convincing people to spill their guts.
As told to Nat Kassel. Photo by Mark Barber.
SOMETIMES QUESTIONS AREN’T NECESSARY
Christian Hosoi was a funny one because I think I only spoke twice during the interview. Christian – being a former methamphetamine fiend – out spoke me! I don’t know anyone who can do that. I was using my phone to record the interview and, about halfway through, someone called me and it stopped the recording. I tried to get Hosoi to pause like six times, but he just kept talking. I eventually interrupted him and said, “Sorry, Christian, I just need to start the recording again,” and he was like, “Oh, that reminds me of a time when I was on tour and…” It was pretty funny. I mean, obviously it was an interview about Christian Hosoi, but he was really stoked to be talking about Christian Hosoi.
PEOPLE TEND TO FREAK OUT
It doesn’t matter who it is, people tend to freak out when they’re getting interviewed. Even Rhys Grogan, who’s like my best friend in the world, who I’ve known for my whole life. I rocked up to interview him at his house to find that he’d been drinking red wine for the entire day. At that time, he was living by himself and he’d just been alone, stewing over the fact that he had to do the interview. I’d been working, and it had been a really hectic and horrible day. I got there and he opened the door and he had a bottle of wine in his hand and he was like, “This is my fourth one!” I was like, Oh man, this is not going to work at all. He ended up coming through, but he kept forgetting what he was saying mid-sentence or he’d just stop and go, “I love my brother Robbie.” Having to transcribe interviews like that is pretty challenging because you have to piece it all together.
STRANGERS OVER FRIENDS
I think my first interview was with Chima [Ferguson]. I expected that to be relatively easy because we’re friends, and I figured it would be easier to talk to a friend than a complete stranger. It definitely wasn’t. When it’s a friend of yours they’ll give you a “you-already-know-the-answer-to-this” kind of response, or they won’t go into detail because they know you’ve already heard that story. You’re constantly asking them to elaborate on things and it can be pretty tedious. Either that, or you’ll ask them about a situation that’s a bit embarrassing and they’ll be like, “Man, I don’t want to talk about that, come on, you should know better than that.” You’re like, “Nah, it’s funny,” and they’re like, “No, it’s not.” It’s always a bit weird when you see your friends seize up while they’re talking to you. It’s almost like they lose a bit of trust [laughs].
DON’T HOLD BACK
One of my favourite interviews that I’ve done was with Matty Dillon because he literally didn’t hold back or censor anything. He just went on about this sexual rampage in New York City and all of this stuff about girls and partying. He didn’t care how incriminating it was, or the potential ramifications of his responses. Some of the things he said were so gnarly. I triple checked it with him. I was like, “Are you sure you’re cool with this being printed? Because once it’s printed it’s done, it’s in circulation.” I think that went completely over the top of his head. It was pretty sick. [Ed note: we had to edit the shit out of Matty’s interview to avoid a lawsuit].
WATCH THEM GROW
The first time I interviewed Bjorn Johnston was when we were both in our mid-20s, single, and going on a bit of a rampage. We did the interview at his cousin’s house, and she overheard it and came downstairs and was like, “You two should be ashamed of yourselves.” It was funny, but years later we did another interview and it was all about him maturing as a person and as a skateboarder. It was a lot more about his love of motorbikes, photography and the things he was doing outside of skateboarding. It was cool to see him come to a bit more of a mature outlook on life.
DODGE THE MEDIA LIAISON
I interviewed Tony Hawk at the Big Day Out music festival in Sydney. Mark Barber came to take some photos and Riley Blakeway came to shoot a video of it. We’d arranged with the media liaison to do the interview in a certain spot within the festival but then, sure enough, 10 minutes before we were supposed to do it, some heinous Australian band started playing and we couldn’t hear anything on the audio. We moved about 10 metres away, behind a small fence that muffled the sound, and waited for Hawk and his entourage to rock up. As soon as the media liaison saw that we’d moved, she just started blowing up, going absolutely mental, calling us every name under the sun. She was calling us “stupid little kids” even though Mark Barber’s like 40-something and Riley and I are in our 30s. I just remember Riley being so disgusted and looking down at the ground, deeply offended. I was just laughing about it. Anyway, Tony Hawk rocks up looking either hungover or jetlagged or a mixture of the two and he hadn’t seen what had just happened. We started doing the interview and the media liaison lady was still there standing about five metres away, loudly complaining about us over her radio. About halfway through, I had to stop the interview and say, “Can you either turn your radio off or move away?” Because we could hear her on the audio and we weren’t going to get another chance to interview Tony Hawk... The Birdman was cool as a cucumber, really laidback and had a good sense of humour about it all. I love him.
SO, WHAT MAKES A GOOD INTERVIEW?
It’s just about honesty. If there’s a situation or a story that’s a little bit eyebrow-raising, then you should definitely encourage the person to tell that story. Capture the reader with how exciting or horrible or funny it was. It’s about trying to get the person to share that emotion and have it come through in the words.