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Questlove on why all creatives must seek out boredom

Questlove says to not be in such a hurry to fill up quiet moments with distractions

Boredom and failure aren’t generally cited as two foundational elements for creative success. But they should be, according to Questlove. Regarded as one of the best drummers in the world, Questlove has also thrived as a director, author and podcaster.

Now he has partnered with The Balvenie Scotch whisky to create the new digital series Quest for Craft, launching today. Filmed at Electric Lady Studios, Questlove digs into the creative process with guests including punk rock icon Patti Smith, author Malcolm Gladwell, comedian Michael Che and legendary producer Jimmy Jam. Quest for Craft also features a scholarship program with the University of the Arts, Philadelphia. Questlove talked to The Drum about the video series, the many sparks of creativity and the power of boredom.

Tell me about Quest for Craft.

In my other platforms, like the Questlove Supreme podcast and the books I write, the common denominator is the fact that I have a curiosity for how people create. When Balvenie approached me about Quest for Craft, I felt it was something up my alley. It gave me a reason to see what’s under the proverbial hood as far as figuring out the creative processes of different people. This interview series is mainly made for people who are curious about the level of creativity, which is rarely brought up in traditional interviews. I’m glad to be allowed a platform that’s not just about asking celebrities, ‘so, who are you dating?’

Love the scholarship component.

Yes, they created this one-of-a-kind program to pursue a PhD in creativity. Part of me desperately wants to get into a time machine and go back to 1989 so I could be the recipient of this thing. It’s legit. We are going to reward a full scholarship to one deserving applicant. I’m going to play a role in the selection process. Hopefully it will catch on because I think that we take the idea of creativity for granted.

You have some great interview subjects. What will people learn from their stories?

Each episode has its own different highlight. The first episode is with Michael Che. The world that he lives in, more or less, thrives on the chaos of working at 30 Rock, which I call 30 Rock University. It allows me the best seat in the house to watch how things are made. One of my all-time favorite things to do is to go to SNL and watch the dress rehearsal, the meetings after the dress rehearsal, and then to watch the actual show. Watching them being quick on their feet... it’s that half hour meeting with Lorne [Michaels] and the entire production. Watching them just totally dismantle and dissect a bit and figure out in real time how to punch it up – that’s a level of chaos that not even musicians get into.

For Patti Smith, her journey was almost to the level of Forrest Gump. She used to work across the street from Electric Lady Studios and met Jimi Hendrix. He invited her to the opening day party of the studio. Talking to Jimi inspired her to elevate her poetry and eventually she got a deal and recorded at Electric Lady Studios because of that meeting.

Do you have a personal mantra when it comes to sparking creativity?

I tell people all the time that we have to embrace boredom. They’re always confused. They’re like, ‘wait, purposely get bored?’ And I’m like, ‘yeah.’ We now live in a time in which we can’t let 10 seconds of silence go by without trying to fill up the space with something to distract us. We have our phones to take that away.

I learned the [power of boredom], especially in March of 2020, when I was working on my Summer of Soul movie on a farm way upstate with none of my friends, my band, my music, my studio. Everything I loved, and hold near and dear, was an hour and a half away from me. All I had was silence and I didn’t know how bad I needed it. I used to make fun of all my friends who had cabins up in the woods and all that stuff. I realized how important silence and boredom is because that’s when ideas come to you. Quincy Jones once told me he usually gets his ideas somewhere between 11pm and 8am when the entire house is asleep and he is just alone with his thoughts. I tell people all the time that silence is golden isn’t just the cliché, it’s a way of life.

Do you have guidelines for yourself when you’re picking projects and partners?

My agenda is to promote creativity, which is not seen that much when you are reading articles. Celebrity sensationalism doesn’t focus too much on the craft, or the art of it all, because those things are seen as boring. For me it’s about [partnerships] bending to my guidelines when I tell them I want to talk about creativity. Pretty much that’s my guideline.

Is there something that marketers need to keep in mind when they pursue their creativity?

When you’re marketing something, oftentimes there’s a pressure to grab people’s attention in the first three or four or five seconds. And oftentimes quality goes down the drain. There are some things that you can’t rush or times you just can’t grab people by the collar. My level of maturity allows for a space where I’m willing to take time out to investigate, and see for myself what works for me and what doesn’t work for me. Not everyone’s like that. I decided to put myself in the position in which I can put the things out there that I would want. I would want someone to do a series like this to teach me ways to be creative. I had to learn what works for me by trial and error – and mostly by error, you know?

Yes, someone said to me the other day that if you aren’t failing, you aren’t trying hard enough. Does that apply to your craft and creativity?

Dude, up until maybe four years ago the idea of failing to me was like, I couldn’t take it. To be honest with you it really wasn’t until March of 2020 when I realized that failing is not an ‘F word.’ Failing is how you learn lessons. I wish there was another word other than fail because fail just feels like such a guillotine process, like, ‘well, it’s over for you.’ I’ve learned to welcome things that once had negative connotations like boredom and failing.

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