There are some things you should know about Nardwuar, the Human Serviette (aka John Ruskin), before watching him on YouTube. For one, he’s Canadian, and damn proud of it. He’s the frontman for punk rock band the Evaporators. He’s 49 years old and has a penchant for plaid suits, golf caps, and long hair. He’s an encyclopedia of information and has interviewed everyone from Jay Z and Courtney Love to Carly Rae Jepsen. He signs off every interview with “keep on rawkin in the free world and doot doola doot doo…” to which the artist is meant to reply “doot doo” (they don’t always). Then, he freeze-frame poses with his mic propped and mouth agape while he stares at the camera; his subject, usually, stares at him.
That escalated quickly, right? This will all make sense after your first couple of Nardwuar videos. Or maybe it won't—I’m not sure it’s meant to make sense. But ask anyone who’s watched hours of his interviews (okay me, ask me), and they’ll tell you, once you get past the caricature, you’ll see: He’s one of the most impressive music journalists out there.
It’s easy to dismiss Nardwuar as a joke, and some artists do (see: Kid Cudi, Sonic Youth, Travis Barker). Then there are others who not only respect him but are blown away—and almost humbled—by his insane ability to unearth the most personal details about an artist. So personal that Tyler the Creator and Jeezy accused him of being with the Feds. Meaning, he has access to tidbits about a person’s life that the general public wouldn’t. The most common phrase uttered in a Nardwuar interview? “Yo, how the fuck do you know this?" But no, Nardwuar is not with the Feds. He’s just really, really good at what he does. He’s been doing it for 30 years, after all. He hasn’t always been great, but he’s spent a long time getting there.
So, leading up to the celebration of his 30th anniversary, we chatted with Nardwuar over the phone from—where else—Canada, in an attempt to figure out how he managed to render Pharrell speechless and bring Questlove to tears. See what he had to say, ahead. And, yes, though I was interviewing him, he ended the call with his infamous “doot doola doot do…” To which I replied “…doot doo," because I am no fool.
You have a very unique interview style—how would you say it's changed over the past 30 years?
I'm still learning as I go along. I guess I haven't perfected it yet because if I've got it down, it's time to probably retire. I would say the difference between the earlier shows and now is I oftentimes pad the questions a bit more. I don't go in for the heavy questions right off the bat, as I used to.
I know you started out by sneaking into establishments and backstage at concerts. Do you think you have a little more pull now in terms of getting celebrities and musicians to talk to you?
Not necessarily. For Nirvana, I waited like two days, and Courtney Love snuck me backstage. But recently, for the Kendrick Lamar gig, I interviewed D.R.A.M., but afterward, I was hoping to talk to Travis Scott or Kendrick Lamar, but I was stuck just waiting outside the venue like I did 20 years before for Nirvana.
So to set up those interviews, is it mostly word of mouth? I know that Pharrell helped you get the interview with Jay Z…
When I do contact people, oftentimes I say to the artist, "Can you say I am legit?" The artist may think that I am legit, you may think that I am legit, but the manager doesn't think I am legit. So I have the artist talk to the manager and tell them that I am legit. Oftentimes, when I interview somebody—like when I interviewed Drake—afterward, Drake knew that Pharrell hooked me up with Jay Z, so Drake hooked me up with Lil Wayne. That was pretty amazing. He actually had the phone—Lil Wayne's manager, Cortez Bryant—and said, "You should talk to Nardwuar." He kind of had to be my publicist, almost my agent. And not everybody will go out on a limb like that.
What is your researching secret?
Well, Taylor, how many articles a day do you do?
Two to three.
So how many is that a week?
About 15 a week! I usually do my radio show once a week. So, I do one week [of researching]. I'm pretty sure if you only did one a week, you would get the same amount of research [done] that I do. In other words, it's not that hard to do it. Most people are too busy—like yourself—to delve into a subject, or too lazy. But it's right there. It's not that difficult for people to find.
Where do you start?
I try all sorts of stuff. For instance, when I talked to Busta Rhymes, I was like, "Oh, Busta Rhymes, he’s interesting, why don't we go to eBay and type in his name?" And I typed in "Busta Rhymes" in eBay, and it turned up one of his gold records was for sale. So I asked about the gold record of his that was for sale on eBay. So I try everything.
How do you go about searching for those rare records that you are giving out?
Luckily, in Vancouver, we have Beat Street Records, we have Neptune Records, we have Red Cat Records, there’s a whole bunch of record stores; oftentimes, the records aren't hard to find. So I can just walk into the store and get that record. And a lot of times, if the record isn't available, I will get the poster, and sometimes the poster is pretty cool. Like, for instance, I have a Jimi Hendrix poster from 1967 all ready to give to an artist that loves Jimi Hendrix. I guess if it was California or New York, those stores would be kind of picked over. But in Vancouver, the collector's junk isn't.
You've been doing video and radio for a while, was there a point or a moment in your career when you knew that you had something special going?
I think YouTube really helped get my interviews out there. Before, I put them on cassette, VHS cassette, and then I mailed them to people. And also, I put them to record, you know what a hassle that was? To get your interviews, put it to record, then press up the record, and then mail out the record? That didn't happen very often. So when YouTube came along all those years later, I was, like, all these interviews that I had on cassette or on record, I could put on the net!
There’s this saying that you should never meet your idol because they usually end up disappointing you. Was there anyone who let you down?
I guess, I'm, like, so nervous and so into the interview, that I don't ever think back. For instance, behind that door is Marilyn Manson. So I run to do the interview and then I run out. I don't have time to converse with the idols in a fan sort of way. The interviews can't really be described as an interaction à la meeting your idols. But usually, when I talk to people, it's kind of like, I have some questions and then follow-up, and then move on to the next question. I guess I haven't had time.
I have been upset when people have attacked me. For instance, I did a lot of interviews with hair metal cheese bands. In the '90s, punk was popular. It was kind of like Green Day. It was Rancid. You know, punk was really popular, but all these bands, like Poison, and Warrant, and Skid Row, they used to be metal, but they weren't popular anymore, 'cause they weren't punk. So, for fun, I interviewed them. But, as it turned out, it wasn't fun interviewing them because Sebastian Bach of Skid Row smashed the tape that I was using to film the interview with and stole my favorite Tuke skull cap that I was wearing. The tape also had interviews with George Clinton on it, and he stole my favorite Tuke that my godmother had given me.
Is there anyone that’s left you starstruck?
I have been scared. For instance, at the Clinton-Yeltsin summit, I was really scared to speak to Bill Clinton. As it turned out, I was kicked out of that summit because other members of the media were like, "Ugh, kick out that guy with the hat—he's an idiot." It wasn't the security people, it was other members of the media. So I was totally scared of what I would ask Bill Clinton. So, some of the bigger interviews I am totally scared. But then, for the interviews, even talking to you, I'm scared. I'm always scared.
Yeah, I feel the same way about doing interviews.
But that's good! Because it shows you care. Right? In other words, it's good to be scared because you realize it is important, or you care about it. So many people don't care, and that is like traditional media. They don't care they got the interview with Snoop—you know, whatever, I can waltz in the interview, and I don't have to come with questions. No, it's good to come up with questions. It’s good to be scared. The minute you go, "Ah, what the hell," you should quit, you know, it doesn't matter.
Are there any other journalists or people within media that you look up to in terms of their interview style? I read something about Arsenio Hall…
Well, for Arsenio Hall, I was inspired by him because he didn't ask questions that I wanted him to ask. Like, when he was talking to Sharon Stone, she mentioned she was in a bunch of movies that she was embarrassed by—I wish he followed up with Sharon Stone on what movies she was talking about. I was like, "Oh my god, he should follow up!" So, that kind of inspired me in that respect. And then the other thing that inspired me was a lot of magazines and fanzines. For instance, there was a great fanzine out of San Diego called Ugly Things, and there was a great fanzine magazine out of New York called Kicks Fanzine. They might do an article on the band The Who. Everybody knows the band The Who, but they might talk about the bassist of The Who's record collection and what records he has in that collection. I love that!
You’ve interviewed Snoop Dogg every couple of years now, starting in the early 2000s. Is he your favorite person to interview?
I think, in person, he is pretty much my favorite person to talk to. On the telephone, I had an interesting conversation with Iggy Pop. It was only nine minutes, but it was amazing. And political, I talked to Canadian prime minister Jean Chrétien, which was amazing, and I got him to do the Hip Flip, this weird 1960s game, kind of like Twister. You put a pole between two people and you flip a flipper in the middle. It's a crazy game, and I got him to play it.
Snoop, though, I've talked to him about nine times since the year 2000, so it is pretty amazing that he makes time for me. In fact, even the last time I talked to him at SXSW this year, I waved my hat and he motioned me back, which was great because a lot of the people don't go the extra distance.
Is there anyone you want to interview that you haven't? I know that Barack Obama and Kanye West were on your list, has that changed at all?
Well, Kanye is still on the list. Obama has been replaced by Trump; I tried for Obama for years and got nowhere. Trump did come to Vancouver about three years ago, and somebody actually phoned me up and said, "Would you like to talk to Donald Trump? He's doing a press conference." But I said, "Oh, I guess I'm too busy." So I think after that occasion, I'm like, "Oh my god, I screwed up big time not talking to him." But, I guess he is on the list, and also on the list is kind of the rock 'n roll pioneers. For instance, Little Richard is still alive, I would love to talk to him. I feel like I have to talk to them before they leave this earth. There isn't much time left.
If you were to get an interview with Trump, do you have questions in your head that you would want to ask him?
Well, I would try to get him to do the Hip Flip, and I do have a Trump file. I had some Trump mints from his campaign. I think they were called "Trump Embarrass-mints," so I would love to show him some of the merchandise that has been accumulated, and I have a Trump mask. So I guess aside from the Hip Flip and the promotional items for his campaign, I would look through mags, etc., and probably find something. Actually, I think Trump had some Canadian connections, too. I think his grandfather lived in the Yukon of Canada for a bit. So I think I might throw that out there too. There would be a lot to ask Trump.
For Obama, I had a great picture from Ebony magazine. I think it was in the mid-'80s, of him being a person to watch in Chicago. I would have loved to show that to him.
It seems like you have an eclectic taste in music. What's your favorite genre to listen to?
When you do a radio show every Friday, I guess you can't discriminate. At first, it was sort of only mod, or psychedelic, or garage, or punk music, or punk musicians that I would interview. Then it became anybody. I would talk to cheese metal, then my friend turned me on to funk, and then another friend turned me on to rap.
For myself, like when I go to that treadmill and go for a run, etc., I guess I like high-energy '60s garage rock. I like bands like The Chocolate Watch Band. I'm listening to them, I'm listening to The Seeds, that sort of underground 1960s garage, "pump-up" music for the treadmill. You know, to be healthy.
Where do you shop for your clothes?
A lot has been at garage sales and Value Village, but lately, a lot has been at Burcu's Angels in Vancouver. They have all sorts of stuff. In fact, Burcu recently, well I guess in the past year, got a shipment of Versace. I thought I would never wear Versace, but it was all vintage '80s Versace. And so, I actually got some of it, which was amazing.
Have you worn it during one of your interviews?
Yes! I believe I wore it during my Wu-Tang Clan interview, and I think The Chef looked at my jacket and looked at my shirt and was like, "Where did you get that?" He couldn't believe it, it looked like a bumble bee. It was amazing.
When you look back at your three-decade career, what are you most proud of?
I’m grateful that I still have a heartbeat. You know, I wake up every morning with a heartbeat. I'm here. I'm just happy that I've been able to do it for so long and there's still many people to talk to.
When I was in the hospital a while back, people responded and helped me out by saying, "Get on with it! We need you to do interviews!" That inspired me. So I guess when people help me out—that makes me proud. Even some people that I interviewed would bring me brownies and bring me food and, you know, they're famous, but the food is great. So, that kind of makes me proud, like somebody deemed me worthy enough to bring brownies to.
In honor of the anniversary, CiTR will be broadcasting 20 straight hours of Nardwuar interviews starting tonight.