Nardwuar the Human Serviette is a squawky voiced, tartan-wearing Canadian who knows more about his interviewees than they do. The man previously called John Ruskin uses his encyclopedic knowledge of music to shock, impress and enlighten. His unorthodox approach includes asking his targets who they are, giving them presents and freezing in a wide mouthed grin until the camera shuts off. This pulls the humanity out of media-trained celebrities who are usually surrounded by yes-men and unprepared for the baffling torrent of obscure questions and non sequiturs. Pharrell thinks it’s the best interview he’s ever had, Alice Cooper hung up on him, Kid Cudi left mid-way through and Snoop Dogg invited him to his house.
The controversial Canuck also works as a guerilla journalist and has questioned several world leaders, including former Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrétien who said he didn’t know what pepper spray was, instead claiming “for me, pepper, I put it on my plate.” Finally, Nardwuar plays in several bands, hosts a show on campus radio station UBC CiTR and has more interesting stories than the bible.
After months of trying to pin Nardwuar down for an interview, I caught up with him at Vancouver skate shop Antisocial before his band The Evaporators performed. A group of veteran punks in their 30s and 40s chatted as he rushed around setting up merchandise while wearing his trademark Scottish cap. I watched him while looking for anything that would signal a difference between his on-camera persona and the real Nardwuar. Although I didn’t come much closer to unraveling his true identity, he was a genuinely nice guy, doubled his interview time with me and spoke in rapid-fire mode at all times. We chatted about his research methods, this infamous interview with Blur, Sean Price imitating him, the freeze technique and Canadian rap. — Jimmy Ness
What interested you in music journalism? I heard Sound Proof, a punk and new wave video show, had a lot to do with it.
Yes indeed, thanks for remembering that and thanks for the shout out for Sound Proof! That was a TV show on the North Shore where I lived. Unfortunately, I didn’t get cable, but a whole bunch of other kids at my high school did and they would always say there was some cool stuff on Sound Proof. I was able to actually get videotapes of episodes and was able to check it out. Finally, I actually participated in Sound Proof and that’s when I started doing a lot of interviews.
I couldn’t do Sound Proof until I volunteered at the local cable company though, so I had to volunteer filming council meetings and if you film council meetings then you were allowed to help out with Sound Proof. You had to do some community service, but I was so bad at filming council meetings that I started to laugh and the camera started to go up and down so they said “okay, you can go help out with Sound Proof.”
Around the same time, I got involved in UBC CiTR Radio [University of British Columbia’s campus radio station.] So I was doing a radio show and I was doing the radio interview thing, and then I started doing the video thing. So I decided I would film the interviews, take the audio for CiTR and take the video for stuff like Sound Proof.
Journalism is in your family too. Your mother was a history teacher, but she also wrote a book about a Vancouver bar owner and hosted a television show.
Yes indeed, thank you for digging so deep into the archives. That’s amazing you know that. Well yes, my mom was a member of the North Shore Historical Society. She would drag me to all her meetings, so as a young child I would attend these meetings where all these local writers got together to talk about local history. I got into local history and then as I got into Punk Rock, I got into Punk Rock history. So it all sort of came together. My mom was doing stuff on local Vancouver history so I thought why not do stuff on local Vancouver punk and that got me interested in the roots of punk.
How did you get into other genres?
At first it was only punk rock. I would only interview punk bands and people said to me “hey man, metal is kind of fun why don’t you get involved in metal?” So I was like ok I’ll try metal. And then people were like “you’re stupid to only do punk and metal, why don’t you do rap?” and then I got into rap. And then people were like “there’s electronic music, why don’t you do electronic?” While I was at CiTR UBC radio, there were all different DJs there playing all different genres of music and they would come up to me and go “you’re so stuck in your ways.”
So I guess it was the influence of other people at CiTR UBC Radio, where I still do my show. Also when you do a radio show once a week every Friday, you can’t really discriminate. You eventually run out of punk things to talk about so you’ve got to do metal or you’ve got to maybe interview some politicians. So I think part of it was people telling me. But also having a show once a week you’ve got to interview everyone and you can’t just stick to the punk.
I heard you actually collect and create scrapbooks for artists you’d like to interview?
In the olden days anything that was in the newspaper about punk rock I would clip it out and put it in a clippings file. So I do a similar thing if someone’s coming to town. I open a file on my computer and I jot down information thinking maybe one day this person will come to town and I’ll have all this information ready. Or I dig through my files and stuff that I may have collected previously.
How long do you spend researching an artist? Do you have a team that helps you out?
I do my radio show once a week on CiTR, so generally during that week I have one interview and I think about that interview. That doesn’t mean I spend the whole week doing preparation for that one interview, but I do think about it that entire week. And sure around a radio station, I’ll go like “hey, I’m talking to this ska band called The Toasters from New York City, anything I should ask them?” or “what do you know about ska?” So yeah I do always run things by my friends as well.
How much of Nardwuar is a persona, and how much of it is who you are in real life?
Well every time I get on stage I do get excited and I jump around and I sing in The Evaporators crazily and when I do interviews I jump around and do interviews crazily. So I do get excited once I get on stage, once I’m doing interviews or once I do my radio show. Generally, I kind of think about it in the sense of when you go to a rock and roll gig.
I always was inspired by people like Jello Biafra of The Dead Kennedys. He gets up there and he jumps around so I figure when you have the chance to be able to do your music, jump around as well. I guess you can concentrate on singing, but maybe do it secondly. The same thing when you’re doing an interview. Also you should go full out, because you don’t have much time. You’re only limited to 20 minutes or 10 minutes or whatever so you gotta go in there, ask your questions and get the hell out! But if I had four or five hours, sure I’d love to just sit back and relax. Generally, it’s because I get excited, I get nervous and when you get nervous, you get pumped up and you gotta go fast, fast, fast!
So am I!
What about your clothing, your name etc? Do you use this stuff as a special tactic to draw the real personality out of your interviewees or did that just kind of happen by accident?
Well Jello Biafra of The Dead Kennedys is called Jello Biafra [a combination of the brand name Jell-O and the short-lived African state Biafra.] So I thought I could be called Nardwuar, the Human Serviette. So everybody sort of had fun names like that. As for what happens I don’t really plan anything. If it happens, it happens. I don’t really think of it as what you’ve described, I just kind of go and do it because every interview is different. So you go to an interview thinking it’s going to go this way and it never ends up being the way you think it’s going to turn out. So I just keep doing it because I just love it!
During your interview with the band Blur in 2003, drummer David Rowntree throws away your glasses and constantly physically intimidates you. Was the worst interview you’ve ever had?
Well that wasn’t the hardest interview I’ve ever had or the worst because the tape survived. When I interviewed the heavy metal band Skid Row and the heavy metal band Quiet Riot, they didn’t like the interview so much that they destroyed the tape from the interview. So I would say the Blur interview was a success. First off, because the interview happened and the tape survived. Years later actually, Dave of Blur apologized to me because quote “he was on cocaine.” It took him eight years to apologize to me but he actually did… so we can blame it all on cocaine.
[You can read Dave’s apology to Narduwar here. He says he keeps a video of the interview on his phone to remind him to stay drug free.]
I read that you’ve previously been banned from interviewing artists on labels like Geffen and Warner?
Yes, because when I interviewed Sebastian Bach of the hair metal band Skid Row and he destroyed the tape I was using for the interview. He stole my favorite Tuque, that’s why I wear this Tam [Nardwuar’s traditional Scottish hat.] He [Bach] was on that record label, so the people from that record label said “you can never talk to anybody on that record label ever again.” It lasted a few years and then well here I am back. I just interviewed Ed Sheeran the other day and he’s on Warner.
Do you read a lot of music journalism and is there anything about contemporary music journalism you don’t like?
Oh I love the music journalism that I read. The only thing I would say is make more online blogs printable, so you can actually read them, like on the toilet. But I love reading what other people do because I know what not to ask and it’s fun reading interviews so I can get little tidbits here and there. Every interview that is done, even if it’s for a mainstream top 40 outlet, I’ll listen or read it because sometimes there’s tidbits of information out there. So I love all writers. I love all interviews and I get information from them all as well.
You were booking gigs for a little while yourself, but I heard you stopped because they were pretty disastrous. One of the craziest ones was the show at St David’s United Church, can you tell me about that?
Yes. Thank you again, amazing you’re bringing up these relics from my past. That was put on by a guy called Grant Lawrence, he’s my friend. He was in a band called The Smugglers and he managed to get a hold of the church, it wasn’t me. I was co-presenting with him because his mom knew people at the church, and we hired some skinheads to do the security. They did a good job, but unfortunately at the end of the evening they stole the money because they were working the door and they stole the amp for the church organ. So the next day when the people showed up for the church there was no amp to project the organ, that was sort of bad. Plus after the gig we didn’t go into the washrooms to clean them up and we later found out there was shit on the walls. I learnt quite a bit from there. After you do a gig, you should clean up.
I learned kind of the hard way because I thought you just leave. But then I learned when we left the parking lot – it was covered in beer bottles and stuff like that. The gig was a band called The Gruesomes from Montreal and they totally inspired me too because they covered a lot of bands in their set. Like they would cover obscure 1960s bands from Montreal and I was like “wow there’s cool obscure 1960s bands from Montreal?” That got me into ‘60s Canadian punk so that gig was a big turning point for me in 1988.
Did you see Sean Price pretending to be you while interviewing Pharaoh Monch? There was also someone dressed like you in Korn’s Twisted Transistor video.
You’re one of the few people to actually acknowledge that. I say to other people, “hey man I was in the Twisted Transitor video” and they are like “NO!” So thank you for acknowledging that. I am really there. Although, they never told me. They got a Nardwuar lookalike there.
How do you feel watching that stuff?
Well I was honored because Sean Price has a song that goes like “SHUTTHEFUCKUP!!!!” Kind of like the Juicy J song and I think that’s amazing. Pharaohe Monch, just to have him reacting to a fake me was out of this world. I just could not believe it, like this is Pharoahe Monch. I would love to speak to him myself. I guess I did it right there. So it was just something that I don’t think will ever happen again. I was just totally honored.
You’ve interviewed everyone from Jay-Z to Iggy Pop. Do you have many names left on your interview wish list?
Well, originally it was Neil Young, Bill Clinton and Kurt Cobain. I spoke to Kurt Cobain. I’ve tried Neil Young twice, failed both times. I guess I could try again when he comes to town in the next few weeks. Bill Clinton I’ve tried, but didn’t get close to him and was escorted out by other members of the media. It wasn’t like the authorities or anything. It was other members of the media saying “get that guy out of here, he’s Nardwuar, he’s going to cause a disturbance.”
So I really would love to do another presidential United States of America-ish interview with another political figure. I’ve interviewed some of the other prime ministers from Canada, but I’ve never interviewed a president that’s been in office. I’ve interviewed Gerald Ford, ex president of the USA, but I’d like to do some more presidential ones. So those are pretty much on my wish list still. I guess I’m still kind of hoping for Neil Young, but still Bill Clinton. Also if we bring it into the 21st century I would still like to speak to some of the legends of rock and roll like Little Richard or Jerry Lee Lewis. People that may be passing away soon. Hopefully they don’t, touch wood, but I’d like to speak with them because all this history is dying and you have to document it before it all disappears.
Do you personally find time to listen to music and what are you enjoying at the moment? Any rap?
In Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, there once was a rap artist who I’m still listening to called MC Terror T. I still listen to her and I listen to old school Vancouver rap. There was a group called EQ, which was one of the first groups that ever came out of Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. So I’ve been listening to some of the old stuff. As for other groups I do my radio show every Friday on CiTR, so there’s tons of music to listen to and I listen to CiTR as much as I can to find about new music. I’m constantly looking for it because I have no idea where to find it myself, that’s why I have to have CiTR direct me on where to look because all the different shows play at night and I can find out what I like.
I basically don’t know much at all. I have to find out what goes on, it takes a little while to find out. Yes even when I’m doing my radio show, as pathetic as it sounds, it takes me hours and hours to figure out what music to play. It’s so difficult.
At the end of every interview you completely freeze in one pose and stop blinking completely. Tell us about this technique.
I have no idea how the hell that happened. I think it happened originally because I was having so much fun that I didn’t want the interview to end. So I was like “ahhhhh!” I was just having fun. I don’t know how it happened!
You always mention Vancouver in your interviews. I just asked you about rap music and instead of talking about American music, you bought it back to Canada. Why do you love it so much?
I guess it goes right back to your first question, my mom. She was in the historical society. When I got into music, I got into local music and I love local scenes. However, if I was in Seattle I would be obsessed with the Seattle rock or rap scene, like Kid Sensation from Seattle or Criminal Nation from Tacoma. Anytime I go to a different city I’m interested in the local scene.
Looking back at your career, you seem to be a big advocate of the D.I.Y ethic when it comes to releasing and promoting music or even doing your radio show?
Yes because to begin with nobody would put on a gig for my band The Evaporators, so the only way to put on a gig is to put it on yourself. Same thing when you do a radio show. You’re doing the radio show, you have to program the music. I was doing my radio show for a little while and I was like “won’t it be cool to put out a record?” So I was inspired by a band in Vancouver called No Exit and they put out the first punk LP in Vancouver and I was given a copy of that record and I thought they can put out a record and they did it totally low budget.
What they did was they took the first Clash record and put their faces over the guys in The Clash so it was kind of a play on the first Clash record, it was totally do it yourself. So I thought I could do a record label, so Nardwuar records started in 1989. Then I thought I can put out a DVD, I can put out a CD and they can have Nardwuar t-shirts. So it started I guess because I saw other people doing it and also in Vancouver in the 1980s, I was inspired by the people that put out records. Because in Vancouver, people were like “ok we’re in a band let’s put out a record!” In other cities, they are like “well, we will put out a record but I don’t know if I want to put out an LP because I want to wait for the big major label deal.”
But here, there was no big major label deal to actually help you out, so you had to do it yourself. And a lot of things with the gigs too – there’s no place to play, there’s no place to do an all ages gig. I wanted to go to the bars, but I couldn’t go into the bars because I was too young, I looked like too much of a nerd. I could have grown a beard, but I still looked like a nerd. I still am a nerd now so I wasn’t allowed in there. You had to organize your own all ages gigs. If I lived in another city, it might have been different. There might have been a regular place to put it on, so you might not have had to do that but it’s different here in Vancouver. That’s why some of the best music is in Vancouver because people work hard. If you can do it in Vancouver you can do it anywhere in the world, because it’s so hard.
Do you have any advice for people looking to pursue music journalism?
I heard Green Day’s Dookie album and I didn’t hear one hit. I had no idea. In other words, my ideas are probably different and totally wrong compared to other people. So I’m trying to learn myself. I’m still trying to get to the top of the rock pile. But I would say what has helped me in my opinion has been being part of a community organization. You mentioned right at the beginning, Sound Proof. The local cable company, going right down there and volunteering for the local video show. Volunteering at CiTR UBC radio, the local campus community station. So I would say that in everyone’s town there usually is a local cable access TV show you can volunteer for or there’s a local campus community station and if you can volunteer and hang out at those places then you’ll learn a hell of a lot about journalism and you’ll meet so many people. I’m still learning. In fact, every time I show up to do my radio show I learn something. I always say, the minute you think you’ve learned everything is the minute you should quit.
What are you hoping to achieve with your career? I know that you were rushed to the hospital with a brain hemorrhage in 1999 and once you came out you felt a lot more determined and focused.
Originally, it was to be pool side with Heather Locklear. However, that’s dating me a bit so I will update it. To be poolside with Heather Graham. Roller girl from Boogie Nights, right? Not Heather Thomas, but Heather Graham. I guess my goal still is to get my own show. I didn’t have my own show on MuchMusic, I was a freelance contributor but I’d still love to do my own show. I guess also, like you say, after being in hospital your goals change and right now actually I’m just happy when I wake up in the morning and I have a pulse and I can breathe. So my goal is to get through the day as you get older.
Well thanks so much and Doot doola doot doo…