As difficult as this might be for his legions of admirers to process, there was a time when Nardwuar the Human Serviette wasn’t an endless fountain of obscure pop-culture trivia.
“In high school, I was president of the student council, and I knew nothing about music, but the people that I represented did,” the celebrity interviewer, beloved Vancouver icon, and plaid-clad antifashion horse says, interviewed over brunch at North Vancouver’s Tomahawk restaurant on a recent sunny summer afternoon. “So I would carry around a notepad and write down all the bands that they wanted to play our school.”
The future Nardwuar—who back then was known by the name he shares with a certain Victorian art critic—didn’t wait for his fellow students at West Vancouver’s Hillside Secondary School to come to him with their requests.
“Because I was elected, I would ask them ‘Who do you want to play the dances?’ ” he recalls. “They’d be like, ‘We want Rubber Biscuit. We like the Flunkees. We like the Villains. We like the MT Vessels.’ I would write all these bands down and then I’d go to the record stores and buy those records. That’s how I discovered local bands before I discovered Led Zeppelin.”
That early determination to educate himself about acts he knew nothing about, coupled with a bright-eyed curiosity, has served Nardwuar the Human Serviette well over the years. Today he’s become Internet-famous as one of the most idiosyncratic interviewers on the planet, his YouTube channel boasting well over a whopping half-million subscribers. His gift, as his legions of fans know, is his ability not only to hold his own with famous subjects—who’ve ranged from Jay Z to Katy Perry to Justin Trudeau to Marilyn Manson—but to actually impress and engage them once the camera is rolling.
Comedian David Cross once famously marvelled during a Nardwuar interview, “Man, that’s some thorough, in-depth, unnecessary research.” Except the funny thing is that the Human Serviette’s endless prep and appetite for obscure trivia are precisely what impresses his often high-profile subjects. There’s a reason that Nardwuar gets access to well-known and normally press-averse artists like Drake and Chance the Rapper. And there’s a reason that the famously prickly likes of Jello Biafra and the Melvins’ King Buzzo actually seem to enjoy the interview process when the Human Serviette is on the other end of the microphone.
If his student-council days taught Nardwuar anything, it’s that a little digging goes a long way.
Proving that some things in this ever-evolving city remain impervious to change, the Tomahawk still looks like a Gastown tourist shop on steroids on the day the Straight meets up with Nardwuar the Human Serviette. Walls and shelves are decorated with mini totem poles, carved First Nations masks, and vintage paintings.
Suggesting that—at least where his personal style is concerned—he’s no more interested in reinventing the wheel than the Tomahawk, Nardwuar is wearing his trademark screaming-red-tartan pants and famous tam, this offset by a retina-burning German soccer shirt given to him by a friend.
In a gesture that will be familiar to anyone who’s watched him grill thousands of celebrities over the years, the Human Serviette has arrived with a bag full of gifts: a vinyl copy of Nardwuar the Human Serviette Presents “Oh God, My Mom’s on Channel 10!”, a 1989 compilation featuring his band the Evaporators along with early interview segments with Joey Shithead and former American president Gerald Ford; postcards and flyers from the group’s four-decade run; and tickets to the Evaporators’ upcoming all-ages gig at the Hall at 1739 Venables.
As always, he’s got a lot on his ever-racing mind. The question of whether he should sell potato chips at the gig is a big one, his worrying tied into the fact that there’s a convenience store right across the street. He’s less worried about, but just as fixated on, ironing out the scheduling details of the upcoming 20-hour marathon he’ll be doing live at the University of British Columbia’s CiTR to celebrate 30 years of his Nardwuar the Human Serviette Radio Show.
And he admits that, after surviving a couple of serious medical scares over the past decade or so—including a stroke and a brain aneurysm—he’s got to the point where he’s taking better care of himself. Instead of ordering the Skookum Chief Burger (onions, lettuce, tomato, ground beef, grilled Yukon bacon, an egg, cheese, a wiener, and Tomahawk special sauce) he opts for the moderately less artery-clogging Yukon-Style Bacon and Eggs (five slices of Yukon-style bacon, two free-run eggs, hash-brown potatoes, and two slices of Klondike toast). Nardwuar is, evidently, well aware that there comes a time in life when you have to start watching your cholesterol.
As he digs in, he reveals that, when he finished high school and enrolled at the University of British Columbia, his father was pushing him to become an engineer.
“I got accepted to UBC with a C-plus average—I think nowadays you need an A-minus average to get in,” he recalls. “Everyone from my high school was going there, and the first day my friend John Berardino was there, and he was like, ‘Hey, UB40 and the Fine Young Cannibals are playing at the War Memorial Gym. Why don’t we go to that gig? I have an extra ticket.’ ”
University life evidently took some mastering for Nardwuar.
“He said, ‘Before the gig, we have to consume some alcohol, so let’s go to the Pit Pub.’ I went and said, ‘Um, I am not of age, am I allowed to order a drink?’ My friends were like, ‘What the hell are you asking that for? Get the hell out of here.’ ”
In a telling insight into Nardwuar’s ability to remember obscure facts, he continues the story with diversions including how the Pit Pub had at that time a giant surplus of French fries purchased from Expo 86 after the fair wound down. And how he left the Pit Pub and headed for a gathering that would change his life.
“It turned out that CiTR was having a beer garden before the gig,” he recalls. “My friend John went, ‘Why don’t we go there?’ I was like, ‘No. I don’t want to go to CiTR.’ I knew what CiTR was but I didn’t want to get involved, because I knew that if I got involved, it would cause me to fail like I almost failed in high school. But I went, and remember them—as soon as I walked in—handing me a membership form which they said I could fill out. I said, ‘What’s the point of filling it out—I don’t have the money.’ They said, ‘You can bring the money tomorrow.’ ”
The next day, out of guilt, Nardwuar did just that, starting at CiTR in September of 1986, and then getting his own radio show in October of 1987. That show would provide an early platform for the interviews that he’d eventually become famous for.
Most artists get on the phone expecting to talk about their latest album. Instead, Nardwuar would famously grill Iggy Pop about the size of his cock. He’d confuse Alice Cooper (who once recorded a song called “Hey Stoopid”) by attempting to start with “First off, hey stoopid, who are you?” And he’d confound Beck to the point where the alternative wunderkind finally muttered, “You know…just fuck off.’ ”
Over the years, his legend would grow, Nardwuar sometimes pissing off those who didn’t grasp him to the point of near violence (Skid Row and Blur) and palpable disdain (Lydia Lunch), and becoming a favourite of those who did (Snoop Dogg, with whom he’s now, after multiple encounters, basically on a first-name basis).
As his legend has grown—following years on MuchMusic, he’s picked up crazy momentum on YouTube, which has done wonders on the front—it’s got to the point where climbing into the ring is something of an honour. (Having the likes of an amazed Tyler, the Creator beaming while asking “What the fuck? How you know this shit?” evidently goes a long way.) Such encounters might explain why he’s able to crack the notoriously insular hip-hop world—his affection for which, once again, can be traced back to CiTR.
“I discovered rap at CiTR,” he says. “I remember somebody played me N.W.A for the first time, and I was like, ‘Oh my God.’ I literally couldn’t believe it. A lot of my prejudices about music fell away because of CiTR, and that’s why I recommend that anyone join their local campus radio station—you can learn so much.”
And that desire to keep learning is what’s made him an icon. Along, that is, with a personality tic that leaves him completely unfazed when an interview crashes and burns. (Even for Nardwuar, things don’t always go as well as encounters with the likes of Pharrell Williams, who once gushingly informed him, “Your research is second to none. Second to none. And I can only imagine that you probably do the same kind of research with every band that you interview. So that’s… It’s pretty impressive, man.”
What makes his interviews so memorable is, of course, the prep that goes into coming up with questions that no one else has thought of. And the reason for that prep, he suggests, is that he—even after decades of grilling celebrities—knows there’s only one way to go into a room.
“I guess the way that I work is scared,” he says candidly. “I’m scared talking to you. I’m scared talking to a brand-new band. I’m scared interviewing Lydia Lunch. There is no differentiating between a porn star or a politician. It’s good to be scared because it shows that you care. A lot of people aren’t scared, and because of that they do a bad job and bad interviews.”
He continues with, “A lot of people that I hold up as idols that I’ve interviewed—the Sonics, Joey Shithead, the Pointed Sticks—love press. They love joking around. So, in other words, everyone else that I talk to is just gravy for me. If they happen to respond negatively to me, then so be it. It’s like, ‘Bring it on.’”
And bringing it on is exactly what Nardwuar will be doing starting Thursday (September 21). First up will be his CiTR 20-hour marathon featuring classic interviews (“Mikhail Gorbachev, from Dennis Hopper to Wesley Willis to everything in between”) and, of course, the manic mainlining-sugar energy that’s been part of the Nardwuar the Human Serviette Radio Show since 1987.
That will be followed by an Evaporators all-ages show at 1739 Venables where—if there’s a garage-rawk God—classics like “Addicted to Cheese” and “Hot Dog High” will be on tap along with offerings from the band’s most recent release, the stupidly catchy Ogopogo Punk. Nardwuar will also be showing rare video-interview footage and sharing stories about a career that shows no signs of slowing down.
One of the most important things he can offer as advice? That’s easy: stay curious and always be willing to learn, something that even he occasionally has to remind himself to do.
“I’m constantly learning,” he says. “Someone once said to me, ‘We have a young country singer coming to town backing up Brad Paisley. Would you like to talk to her?’ I was going to ask whoever I was freelancing for at the moment, but they turned me down. And do you know who that young country singer turned out to be? Taylor Swift. What I should have said was ‘I’ll just go for it and do the interview anyways.’ But I didn’t.”
Live and learn.
The Nardwuar the Human Serviette Radio Show Marathon of interviews starts at 9 p.m. on Thursday (September 21) and ends at 5 p.m. on Friday (September 22). The Evaporators play the Hall at 1739 Venables on Saturday (September 23).