The Intrepid Human Serviette Understands The Importance Of Being Interesting
Ten autographed photos hang behind the lunch counter at the Tomahawk Restaurant, a wood-panelled temple of kitsch-cool in North Vancouver. Famous for its Native-obsessed décor, the Lower Mainland institution has hosted celebrities from the Rolling Stones to Rod Stewart since opening its doors in 1926. Pierre and Maggie Trudeau stopped by once but left when told they'd have to wait for a table like everybody else. Later in the '70s, a greasy-haired kid named Bryan Adams toiled away in the dish pit.
You won't find any of the aforementioned on the Tomahawk's wall of fame. Instead, the framed and signed shots are from the likes of MacGyver's Richard Dean Anderson, stone-faced Canuck comic Leslie Nielsen, and broadcasting veteran Terry David Mulligan. It's the picture on the far left that stands out the most, though, and not just because it's of Nardwuar the Human Serviette in the hospital. Taken shortly after he suffered a cerebral hemorrhage in 1999, it's the only one in colour. That's somehow appropriate, seeing how the 35-year-old guerrilla interviewer, celebrated rock 'n' roll frontman, MuchMusic personality, and terminally curious man-child favours clothes of the retina-searing variety.
Twenty feet away from that photo, Nardwuar sits at a table, dressed down in jeans and a striped long-sleeved shirt. On his head is a plaid tam, and across the table is his mom, who, in contrast to her only child, radiates an almost-serene sense of calm. At Nardwuar's insistence, all three of us have ordered his favourite item: the Skookum Chief, a volleyball-sized house specialty that comes with onions, lettuce, tomato, ground beef, grilled Yukon bacon, an egg, cheese, a wiener, and Tomahawk special sauce.
Over the past 17 years, Nardwuar has ambushed everyone from heads of state to porn stars, punk-rock icons to conspiracy theorists, cheeba-dazed rappers to former child television actors, demanding answers to things he is convinced people need to know. Famously, he's asked Mikhail Gorbachev which world leader wears the biggest pants, Crispin Glover if he owns a coffin filled with tar, and Sean Lennon whether or not masturbation was frowned upon by John and Yoko. He's enraged Ernest Angley by asking him if he can cure the summertime blues, been physically assaulted by bands ranging from Blur to Skid Row, and pressed Elijah Wood on whether or not it's true the cast and crew did a shot of liquor each time a Hobbit cried during the filming of The Lord of the Rings. Almost every one of the hundreds of interviews he's conducted starts with a signature question: "Who are you?"
THERE'S NO EASY answer to that query where Nardwuar himself is concerned. He's a lot of things: an amateur history buff, a devoted son, an obsessive musicologist, a stubborn only child, a university-radio DJ at CiTR, a walking thrift-store explosion, a Canadian patriot, a strong candidate for Ritalin, a Vancouver music-scene legend, and a sometimes-paranoid worrier with no shortage of superstitions. The one thing that's immediately obvious is that he doesn't consider himself anything special.
"Someone once asked me what my dream category on Jeopardy! would be," he says, his mouth full of Skookum burger. "I was like, 'Menu items at the Tomahawk', but I'd even get all those wrong. I'm not one of those guys who can play a song back the first time he hears it or do a great interview on the spot. I have to work at it. I come from a family of losers."
The genius of Nardwuar is that you'd never know that. Since 2000, he's been a fixture on MuchMusic, making him a budding Canuck pop-culture icon. He recently fulfilled a long-time dream when Ripple Rock, the new album by his band, the Evaporators, was released on Alternative Tentacles, the legendary label owned by former Dead Kennedy Jello Biafra. Over the years, he's been offered a blowjob by Courtney Love, told to fuck off by Beck, and described by Michael Moore as a prime example of what happens when you drink too much coffee. His Web site (www.nardwuar.com/) reputedly receives a million hits each month.
Nardwuar argues that none of this is a result of godsent talent. "The thing for me is that I don't ever get discouraged just because I'm bad at everything. I'm an example of how, if you have the desire to do something, that it's possible to just go out and do it. And then it's a matter of sticking with it long enough and trying as hard as you can."
With that, Nardwuar the Human Serviette inadvertently answers the question "Who are you?". He's an average, if a bit strange, guy who's been too stubborn to give up.
Grant Lawrence, frontman for veteran Vancouver garage kings the Smugglers, says people always want to know the same thing: "What's Nardwuar really like?" As someone who met him in kindergarten, Lawrence has a better idea than most.
"I don't believe there's a switch that he turns on and off," he says, reached at the CBC, where he works as a producer. "When I turn on MuchMusic, I see the same guy doing the interview with Blur that I talk to on the phone at night when he's bitching about the new garage-rock revolution."
Most people are convinced Nardwuar the Human Serviette is a character, a sartorially challenged creation famous for two things. The first is obscure questions rattled off in such rapid-fire succession that his subjects have no time to bullshit through the answers. The second is his voice, a seemingly designed-to-grate marvel that sounds like Gilbert Gottfried being dragged across a chalkboard.
Nardwuar has long denied that such affectations are an act, and those who know him concur. "Take his effusiveness, for example," his mom says at the Tomahawk. "That really is an extension of his personality."
The burning desire to know things--whether or not Henry Rollins's joy prong really is shaped like a soup can, or if Rush once opened for the New York Dolls--is something picked up during his childhood.
"My mom used to do a local TV show on Shaw cable," Nardwuar says. "She probably did hundreds of interviews where she had to come up with questions."
His mother (whom the Human Serviette still lives with, and whose name he insists, for a variety of unfathomable reasons, not be used) interjects: "I'm quite interested in local history. I would interview people and get them to talk about their lives on the North Shore. Frankly, though, my style was a little different from his."
Nardwuar jumps back in with: "What my mom taught me, basically, was who, what, where, when, and how. She also taught me that everyone has a story--you just have to find it. And, most importantly, she taught me that it's the interviewer's job to make the interviewee excited to be there."
Chris Nelson, who shoots Nardwuar's MuchMusic segments, says Nardwuar's greatest talent is the way he's able to do just that. "In an age when everyone understands the power of PR and marketing and where they control how they spin their artists, he subverts that entire process," he says, on his cellphone. "He gets away with things that conventional interviewers don't because he looks the way he does and sounds the way he does, and because he does more, and better, research than most people ever think to."
You don't truly appreciate how much work Nardwuar puts into things until you've seen him in action. It's a rainy Saturday night, and he's shown up at the Commodore to talk to an Ontario punk band called Jersey. He's done five hours of prep work--phoning friends, and friends of friends, surfing the Net, and poring over fanzines for information on a group virtually unknown outside its hometown of Burlington. As Nelson turns on the camera, Nardwuar begins with "Who are you?" There's no mistaking who he is--dressed like an Australian's nightmare, he's sporting his tam, tartan bondage pants, grey cross-trainers, and what appears to be a psychedelic, camouflage-patterned blazer. He then proceeds to prove why he's among the best--and certainly the most underrated--interviewers in Canada.
By the time he's done, he's linked Jersey to everyone from Nickelback to Avril Lavigne, produced artifacts the band's members are known to covet but can only dream of owning (a rare copy of an old Dayglo Abortions album, a fanzine called Soap 'n Spikes), and dredged up junior-hockey stats to dispute bassist Johnny Lubera's frequently quoted contention that he was once scouted by the NHL. At least four times during the questioning, a band member shouts, "How the fuck did you know that?"
Nardwuar gets his biggest reaction, though, when he turns the mike toward Lubera and asks, "Didn't you almost have to get your hand amputated after fighting with one of your friends backstage?" Afterward, the clearly pissed-off bassist says that next to no one knows about the incident, which he isn't proud of.
"In most interviews, you get asked the same things over and over," Lubera says after the Serviette has departed. "I don't know where he found that stuff out about me. I'm the furthest thing away from a celebrity, but now I know how they must feel when they are confronted by things from their past. I wanted to smack him."
AS MUCH AS he loves obsessively digging up dirt on others, Nardwuar argues incessantly that there's no reason his real name--which he stopped using in 1986--needs to appear in print. He notes that Iggy Pop is never referred to as James Osterberg, and that no one ever writes that the Cramps' Poison Ivy Rorschach was christened Kristy Wallace. Taking this one step further, he also insists, as noted, that his mom's name not be revealed. At one point, he asks the Georgia Straight to call her "Cynthia". She's somewhat puzzled by that and suggests instead that she go by "Nardwuar's mom".
Such idiosyncrasies don't stop with name games.
"I don't know if you know this," Lawrence says, "but Nardwuar and his mom both pray to a higher, unseen power, and they call it the White Light. There's a doorway in their house between the kitchen and the dining room. Whenever Nardwuar leaves the house, his mom will say 'White Light'. Nardwuar will then say 'White Light' and touch the wood around the doorway nine times in sets of three in a specific order. As he's walking out the door, he'll say 'Eck', and his mom will reply 'Eck'. It's like listening to a couple of dolphins. They have this incredibly deep, odd relationship."
Asked about this, Nardwuar confirms that truth is sometimes stranger than fiction.
"White Light--I think that's from Star Wars or something like that. Anyhow, I always pray to a wooden door frame, and also to a lucky chestnut. You know how those who begin the day singing end the day crying? When I'm on the treadmill at the gym, I won't start singing to myself until after 12 noon. If you drop a fork you get a phone call from a woman, if you drop a knife you get a phone call from a man, and if you drop a spoon it's bad luck. Also, if you whistle you're calling upon the devil. All the little things we're supposed to be superstitious about completely freak me out."
He suggests, however, that Lawrence has confused eck with something else.
"What we're doing is mimicking my cat, Cleopatra Von Fluffenstein. She'd dead now, but as she got older, she couldn't meow. Instead, she'd go 'Uhhhh'. So when I come into the house, I'll go 'Uhhhh' in honour of her. I loved Cleo. She's actually used as the catalogue number for Nardwuar Records--the new Evaporators album is Cleo12, and the free 7-inch inside by Thee Dublins is Cleo13."
Released on CD, vinyl, and, like past Evaporators recordings, on fabulous 8-track tape, Ripple Rock is a tip-off to Nardwuar's fascination with B.C. history. (Following a long string of nautical disasters, the provincial government literally blew a giant chunk of stone called Ripple Rock out of the water near Campbell River on April 5, 1958.) Although no one's going to confuse the singer with Kurt Cobain, the album in many ways provides a personal window into his world. It is, of course, a strange place. The hyperactive, organ-fuelled "Addicted to Cheese" finds him screeching "Chunks of Cheddar make me feel better". The crash and bash "I Feel Like a Fat Frustrated Fuck" is self-explanatory, and it's best not to think too much about the guitar-frayed stomper "(I've Got) Icicles on my Testicles".
The album unleashes a veritable torrent of great garage-splattered pop songs, but characteristically, Nardwuar, who sings and plays keyboards, describes himself as an utter failure as a musician. He argues that the real geniuses behind Ripple Rock are Evaporators bassist John Collins (whose full-time gig is the New Pornographers), guitarist David Carswell (of the Smugglers), and drummer Scott Livingstone. "I'm totally uncoordinated. I've never been musical, and I'm still not musical. I don't know any chords, and whenever we do a gig, the other guys have to put stickers on the keyboard so I know where to press."
It's likely he's exaggerating, but that doesn't change the fact that Ripple Rock, the band's third full-length, is as fun as it is infectious. From the horn-infused "Get off the Treadmill" to the sing-along anthem "I.D.N.M.F.T.T.M.W.M.F.A.", it's strong enough to secure the Evaporators a place in the Vancouver underground-music scene's hall of fame, right next to the now-legendary groups--the Pointed Sticks, the Subhumans, the Modernettes--that convinced Nardwuar in the early '80s that anyone can form a band.
Or host a radio show on CiTR, which the Human Serviette has done on Fridays since 1987. Or stage their own gigs, which the Evaporators will do at the Brickyard on February 14 and at the all-ages Mesa Luna on February 17. Or evolve from DIY guerrilla interviewer to MuchMusic featured player. (His recent one-hour special, Nard Wars, drew a whopping 120,000 viewers, even though it had aired twice before. Coldplay's much-hyped Intimate & Interactive performance on Much attracted an audience of 40,000.) Or pursue a dream, whether it's one as simple as founding a record label or something altogether bigger. And for all he's done, Nardwuar isn't finished yet.
"Ultimately, I'd love to have my own television show," he reveals. "I'd come out, do a song with my band the Evaporators, and then slide behind a desk and just sit there asking questions."
If that sounds about as unlikely as Tom Green making it in Hollywood, then consider the tenacity of the person. Nardwuar's mom likes to tell the following story: long before his picture went up on the wall at the Tomahawk, her son was a member of his high-school track team.
"I remember this one particular race," she says, back at the North Van eatery. "All the runners were in, but there was no Nardwuar. They finally started packing up the meet and he still hadn't come in. And then, just when people were leaving, he came running in. The chairs and tables were gone--so was the finish line--but I admired him for sticking it out."
He continues to do that to this day. If Nardwuar the Human Serviette has learned anything over the years, it's that self-described average guys can't be quitters. Once he sets his mind on something--whether it's grilling Iggy Pop about his cock or getting Jean Chrétien to utter the immortal line "For me, pepper, I put it on my plate"--no one's going to tell him it can't be done.
"If you ask what are my goals, well, of course, my own TV show," he says. "But if that doesn't happen, I'm going to keep doing interviews. I love talking to people and learning bits and pieces and facts about them. Everyone has a story. And I love getting those stories out."