I meet Sven Schumann and Johannes Bonke at Katz Orange, an upscale organic food spot tucked away in a former brewery in Berlin Mitte. The cool but classy setting matches the allure of my interview partners: The two friends wear jeans, cashmere sweaters and, presumably, carry the most enviable address books you can find in the German capital. As the founders of the sophisticated online magazine The Talks, Sven and Johannes have conversed with the greatest – from Yohji Yamamoto, Marina Abramovic to Patti Smith, Sofia Coppola and David Lynch. Who else to ask about the art of interviewing if not these two masters of their craft?
Ella Wolf: This is a nice place. How important is the location for an interview?
SS: The setting is hugely important, but unfortunately you can’t always control it. A hotel room, for example, is not ideal. The more comfortable the person feels, the better the interview.
The list of interviews on The Talks reads like a who is who of the cultural industry. How do you get a hold of these people?
SS: We have worked for other magazines before and established good connections. Quite soon after the launch some big names like Patti Smith and Mick Jagger were already on it, then it got easier to convince others to say yes. Now it even happens quite often that PR people contact us and want us to interview someone.
The people you portray come from a range of fields spanning art, design, film and entrepreneurship. What do they have in common?
JB: As the title The Talks already suggests, we publish interviews with some sort of substance. We really want to focus on people that A) we like and B) have something to say.
“It’s about what you do in your field. It must be something special.”
The Talks features, for the most part, incredibly successful and influential figures. Why not portray emerging or undervalued artists?
SS: At the beginning it was a conscious decision. We knew that this is how to get the attention of a large audience. Over the last year, it’s become less about being famous, but more about what you do in your field. It must be something special.
You’re looking for the next game-changers?
SS: Or for people who have changed the game in the past.
That would be my next question. How come you mostly portray artists or other important figures at the end of their career path?
SS: Because it’s nicer to talk to older people. They already have their established careers – they’ve done it all, seen it all. Therefore, they are not afraid of saying the wrong thing. Once they agree to talk to you, they are actually willing to talk. That’s the most important thing.
JB: Older people can also give you some sort of life lesson, especially if you start interviewing at a very young age, say early 20s, like we did. Learning about different life philosophies – for me that’s what I’ve always liked most about doing interviews.
Don’t you ever feel like you want to rebel against that sense of established wisdoms?
SS. Only if people suck. It happens.
JB: It can indeed be really productive to ask provocative questions to get into a dialogue instead of a Q & A. But once you’re on The Talks, it usually means that we like you and respect your work and want to hear what you have to say.
SS: With a few exceptions. (laughs)
I’m interested in the interview as a form of creative production. Would you say that your part in the interview is to a certain extent a creative or critical practice?
JB: What is important to me is that I have the feeling that I portrayed the person right. It is a big danger that when you have a certain idea in mind of how the person should talk, the whole thing becomes more about yourself than about the person.
Does working on your own format instead of working for a magazine allow you to be more experimental?
SS: Of course, that was the whole idea behind it. Magazine interviews always have to be short because they need space for advertising. Even the content of your writing needs to make the advertisers happy. Magazines are about promoting – The Talks is about something different.
The Talks is sponsored by Rolex.
SS: Yes, we have one sponsor and they are amazing. Rolex are the perfect partner in the sense that we don’t specifically need to produce editorial content that makes them happy. They just want us to continue what we already do.
JB: They understand what makes The Talks special. It is actually rare to find a partner like that.
”If you get to the level of an Anthony Hopkins, luxury is not important anymore.”
Talking about Rolex, I would like to ask you about the idea of luxury, which seems to be an important element in the worlds of the people you portray. What does luxury mean to you?
SS: Once you get a taste of it, there are obviously some benefits that come with luxury. But in the end, the real luxury is to have time and to be able to spend it the way you want to.
JB: It is part of the beauty of being an interviewer that you meet so many different people, from entrepreneurs to artists or musicians with their entourage. There is always a big fuss around lifestyle and what it means to have money. The more you get a sense of all the drama around it, you realise eventually that luxury might not be as important as it seems. If you get to the level of an Anthony Hopkins, luxury, fame is not important anymore. It’s about the substance of life.
The Talks as an online platform incorporates Audio samples and an App. Is it a conscious decision to stay purely digital?
SS: Originally, the idea to stay online had to do with the fact that we had no funding. It also allows you to be more flexible. In print you have to deal with printing costs, you have to schedule months in advance, it’s an entirely different procedure! The audio samples are one way of taking advantage of the digital, something like this would be impossible in print. You read the interview differently if you know what the voice of the person sounds like, it conveys so much of the personality.
JB: The App was just a natural extension of The Talks being visually driven with a very clean layout and clean functions. The fact that a lot of the people already read The Talks from mobile devices motivated us to make that experience even better.
Can you elaborate on the aesthetic of The Talks? It’s very classic, a lot of black and white.
SS: The visual language is super important. It needs to look good and it also needs to allow you to concentrate on the content. This is also why we said no to advertising for such a long time. We didn’t want to have flashy, colourful banners. The visual experience is supposed to be constant.
Have you become better interviewers over time? Is it possible to learn to ask the right questions?
SS: Definitely! The more you do it, the better you know when to wait until someone has finished and when to interrupt. In some ways you also manipulate people to talk about the certain topics you want them to talk about. You get much better at that over time.
JB: The more experience you get, the more you can also cross-reference to other subjects. An interview, just like any conversation, becomes better if there are two subjects who both have something to say.
Is it possible to think of the collecting of interviews as a sort of archiving, an ensemble of knowledge?
JB: What is beautiful about the form of the interview is that the preproduction consists out of a lot of research. You have to dive into an unfamiliar subject and sometimes you discover aspects of a field you have not been interested in before. You gain knowledge by trying to come up with questions that someone who might know about this field would find interesting as well. In that sense, it is about building an archive, but as a natural process.
Do you ever fight about who gets to interview whom?
JB: Not really. We know each other pretty well and have similar interests and tastes. Except, Sven likes soccer and I don’t.
Having discussed place, I would also like to ask you about the relevance of timing. How long is too long? And have you ever interviewed someone multiple times?
SS: I’ve met some people over and over again. Also to have time in between to think about what I still need for the piece. The length of the actual conversation is super important. If it’s too little, you’re rushing, but if it’s too long, it’s a pain to edit in the end. Ideal is between thirty minutes to an hour.
Do you have a signature question? One thing you always ask?
SS: I don’t, because I hate reading the same thing. It’s already difficult enough to not repeat yourself when there is an online archive where people can read your interviews.
JB: Less a specific question, but one theme that repeats is the idea of how you stay who you really are, even after years of fame and publicity. The idea of not getting distracted by the overload of external input is fascinating to me.
Have you ever experienced any great failures?
SS: Sure, sometimes you piss someone off right at the beginning with a wrong question. Or you just don’t get along.
JB: I had a devastating experience interviewing Lou Reed. I was 20-something and he was just being an asshole to me. He disliked press in general and in his opinion I was just too young to ask serious questions. It can be cruel!
Are there still any dream interview partners?
JB: The list always changes. You read something or you meet someone or you see a piece of art and that inspires you to look into new areas. The list of inspiring talents will hopefully never end!
“In a city like London The Talks would not have been possible.”
Many Central Saint Martins students in their final year ask themselves what to do after art school. From your perspective, what are the pros and cons of realising your own business?
SS: I was actually never employed. I never wrote a CV and hopefully will never have to. It also had to do with the economic situation in Berlin. When we came to the city 10 or 12 years ago, it was really affordable, you didn’t need to make a lot of money to have a good life. In a city like London or New York The Talks would not have been possible. But then again, there would have been other possibilities. The most important thing is to find out what it is that you want to do, and then look for the opportunities to pursue that, whether as an employee or by starting your own business. As long as you have a clear idea of where you want to go, you will find people to give trust or money. If you don’t really know exactly what it is that you’re looking for, then enter an environment that might allow you to find out in what area to specialise. Just don’t spend five years of your life making copies and coffee.
JB: Doing my own thing was the only option for me, because for me there is no separation between personal interest and business. But there are others who feel ready to enter a big company and work their way up the hierarchies. As tacky as it sounds, the answer is usually already in you. After uni, it is the biggest challenge to listen to that voice inside you and not be polluted by all that noise coming from the outside.
Words by Ella Wolf
Photography courtesy of Sven and Johannes