“I just don’t know what I do,” he says. The University of British Columbia cafeteria is quiet; the tone of his nasally voice—the loudest thing in the room—is thoughtful, honest. That famous tam sits atop his head of frizzy brown hair as he munches on a sandwich similar to an Egg McMuffin. A to-go cup of green tea sits steaming. “And I can’t really explain what I am.”
“I’m still trying to get to the top of the rock pile; I’m still trying to get there,” Nardwuar the Human Serviette says. “That’s why it’s kind of hard to comment on what I’m doing and what’s worked and what hasn’t worked, because I still don’t really know.”
Recognized for his unique fashion sense—plaid tam and plaid pants—his oddball questions (“There’s a new zine out called Stone Grass and they talk about this girl from Washington, D.C. that says she had sex with you and that your cock is shaped like a soup can…?”), and most of all, his ability to dig up the most obscure information about whomever he is interviewing (“Your mom worked at Good Vibrations. You did your homework at Good Vibrations, literally, didn’t you?”), Nardwuar has become something of a Canadian treasure. People love him, people hate him; but everyone knows him.
Over the years, Nardwuar has developed into his own category of journalist, combining theatrics with hardcore reporting. He always brings along props (CDs, album inserts, records, MiniDiscs, posters, pictures, dolls) to his interviews, finding ways to connect them to the person he is speaking with. As longtime friend and admirer Leora Kornfeld says, “I would describe [his work] as walking this razor blade edge between chaos, humiliation, scholarship, and vaudeville. It’s this circus-like event and you never know at any given moment which one is going to rear its head.”
Born July 5, 1968, in Vancouver, B.C., Nardwuar (who asked that his real name not be published) is known by many for his MuchMusic freelancing gig from the late 1990s to late 2000s. His music journalism career began much earlier, though, in 1987, when he began classes at the University of British Columbia and found himself addicted to the atmosphere at the student-run CiTR radio. A year later, he had his own show: “Nardwuar the Human Serviette” (the name “Nardwuar” is, he says, just “a dumb, stupid name like Sting or Sinbad;” “Human” came from a Cramps song called “Human Fly”; and “Serviette” came from the fact that “in the U.S.A. they don’t have serviettes, they have napkins”). Since then he has created an all-encompassing brand for himself, incorporating his video interviews, his radio show (which he still does every Friday at 3:30 p.m.), his punk band
“He’s good at digging up things that make most people go, ‘Holy shit, how did you know that?’” says Georgia Straight music writer Mike Usinger. “And you see that repeatedly over the course of his interviews. He’s extremely thorough and puts an incredible amount of work into finding these things. I don’t even know how he finds them.” When asked how he finds said information (his research time is minimum one week), Nardwuar’s answer is simply, “Everything is out there; it’s just people are too lazy to look.”
It’s an idea that resonates deeply with Nardwuar. He is forever second-guessing himself, endlessly conscious of how little he knows.
“I always get scared. I get nervous,” he says. “I think it’s good, because you’re nervous, you think you want to give up, but in actual fact it actually spurs you on to want to do things. So it’s, ‘Oh, my God, I know nothing about this person I’m about to interview. I’d better find some information on them.’ Whereas sometimes if you’re not nervous, you might be like those traditional journalists who are like, ‘Yeah, I’ve got an interview coming up at three. I’ll look at the bio maybe for a second, ask a couple questions.’ Because they are confident, they don’t look. But if they were nervous they’d realize how much they didn’t know.”
This need to keep searching, to dig deeper, is something that works to Nardwuar’s advantage, resulting in hilarious and insightful interviews.
“He’s got definitely a very unique persona,” says fellow CiTR radio host Tyler Fedchuck (whose show, Radiozero, airs right before Nardwuar’s). “Beyond just the superficial outfits that he’s got, he does better interviews than anybody, I think. His skill at digging up information on people that seems impossible that he could find is remarkable.”
Part of Nardwuar’s ability to commit so much research time comes from a deep curiosity about the world around him and a deep passion for asking questions to find out more. He strongly believes that working journalists should love what they do or should do something else. If you’re not looking forward to an interview, he argues, you shouldn’t be conducting it.
“I think that’s also why I get mad at those mainstream people; it’s like, ‘Yeah, I’ve got to do an interview,’ but it’s great!” he says. “If you’re not excited, then don’t do it.”
He longs for the access that the mainstream media gets for political interviews, and wishes those who had it would stop taking it for granted.
“I remember speaking to some lady and she was like, ‘Oh, an election is coming. Aw, I’ve gotta cover it,’” Nardwuar says. “And I’m like, ‘Oh, my God, you’re going to know when the candidates are going to be making their appearances, and you’re going to get the special press pass to do it? I’m just sitting at home on the internet trying to figure out when is somebody coming to town.’ But for the most part, the [mainstream] media, they just show up and it’s all there, they get all the press releases, all in the morning, all delivered right to their inboxes. And me, I was just totally hustling.”
Nardwuar has been able to interview many politicians (Jean Chrétien twice, Paul Martin, Jack Layton). In fact, his question about the use of pepper spray that he put to then-Prime Minister Chrétien at the 1997 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation resulted in a quote that was used by media outlets all over the country: “For me, pepper, I put it on my plate.” Nardwuar points out the media—and politics—are shifting.
“Now the politician might appear only on one show,” says Nardwuar. “But it would be on Stephen Colbert or Jon Stewart, whereas before they would only want the exclusive on ABC News or something. So I think it’s shifting slightly. So I’m not as jealous of the mainstream people now because there isn’t much mainstream stuff left.”
Forever the anecdote and information sponge, Nardwuar (whose mind is “like a steel trap,” says Fedchuck) is the media and the anti-media, the journalist and the fan, the insecurity and the confidence. As Usinger says, “Most of us don’t have the balls to dress up in a plaid tam and speak in a voice that sounds like a nail factory being dragged across a chalkboard.” And it rings true; Nardwuar is wonderfully weird, charmingly strange, and unafraid to let his freak flag fly. And it just so happens that it scored him a winning ticket—although he wouldn’t put it that way.
“If you think you know it all, you kind of get lazy. I’m always thinking, ‘There’s another interview happening, and I don’t know anything about it, and I’m going to have to figure it out really soon,’” Nardwuar says. “The minute I think I’ve figured it all out is probably the minute I should quit.”
Photos of Henry Rollins and Cults via Nardwuar.