I thought I knew everything but I don’t know everything: Arthur vs. Nardwuar

Nardwuar the Human Serviette has been a fixture in Canadian media for over 20 years.  He has interviewed literally hundreds of musicians including Weird Al, Snoop Dog, Robb Zombie, Beck, Kurt Cobain, Lemmy Kilmister, Flavor Flav, Fat Mike, Henry Rollins, Iggy Pop, Ice Cube…the list goes on.  He conducts his interviews dressed as some kind of acid-trip-golf-caddy-man-boy and tends to ask questions designed to put celebrities off their guard.  He also applies this technique to his less common (but no less inspirational) political interviews.  He infamously asked Mikhail Gorbachev which world leader wore the biggest pants.  Years ago he embarrassed Jean Chretien by exposing an official lack of sympathy for pepper sprayed student protestors.  When he next met Mr. Chretien, he convinced him to participate in a 60’s party game called the “Hip Flip” (which you really have to see to understand).  He has also “hip flip”ed with Paul Martin and the late Jack Layton. Although Nardwuar has had positions with major Canadian media outlets, such as Much Music, his most consistent role has been a college/community radio slot at CITR in Vancouver B.C., which he keeps to this day.  For his fiercely diligent support of independent and alternative Canadian media, Arthur gives Nardwuar two signs of the devil way up. We reached Nardwuar at his home in Vancouver for an enlightening chat about punk kids, prime ministers and not knowing everything.

*interview conducted by Trent drop out and media junky Andrzej Banas.

I was recently looking at your video with the “Evaporators” and the song “I Hate Being Late (When I’m Early)”. There are a lot of records sprawled around the studio at the radio station, specifically the sliders, the germs record, GG Allin, who chose those records, were they placed there specifically because they get more screen time than the “A Wild Pear” album (split 7” w/Nardwuar’s band “The Evaporators and Andrew W.K.)

N: What’s interesting about that is the song is about me going to CIRT radio and being late for my radio show and yet I arrive early for my radio show, and the show that I always make go a little bit long is Tyler’s radio show. Tyler is the DJ who does the show “Radio Zero” right before me. My show is supposed to start at 330, his show is supposed to end at 330, but I am always late so I say “can you go another 10 minutes” and “10 minutes late Tyler don’t care” is one of the lyrics for the song, like, I Hate being Late (When I’m Early). Like, I get to CITR it will be 3pm. I will be half an hour early and say “hey Tyler I’m here ready to start” and yet I will still end up being late. So when I shot the video I thought: “we will have to invite Tyler, whose show starts at 2 and ends at 330, so we can pretend we are going through what is actually happening so those are the records that he chose.

I was going through the history of yourself and I couldn’t figure out when you first discovered punk rock, did you discover it on Soundproof, or was Soundproof playing punk rock then?

N: That’s amazing that you know that. Yes, that is indirectly part of the reason I discovered punk rock. I was the president of the student council at my high school and I was in charge of organizing dances and kids at my school were pretty hip because they had been watching Soundproof, which was the local cable access TV show, which was pre-Much Music, and Soundproof was playing a lot of punk videos and so kids would go to me “hey get some of those punk bands to play the dances” and the punk bands that Soundproof played were local bands like the “Young Canadians”. I didn’t have cable so I wasn’t able to watch Soundproof so it was kids telling me about it.

I was looking at the “A Wild Pear” album and noticed that the packaging was really extensive and detailed. I find with digital media a lot of people say “I don’t have a record player”. Do you think more people will buy it because of the packaging?

N: Well I hope that people doing 7 inches really care about the 7 inches. It seems there is a lot of 7 inches coming out but there is not a lot of information on them. I love having the liner notes.  I remember back being a kid, buying a record and taking the bus home and, as I am walking up the hill to my house, thinking about the record that’s in my bag and getting to my house and eating cheese and listening to the record and reading the liner notes. A lot of records don’t have that information in them. So, I think that is a general trend not just with digital but even with CDs.

I was looking through your history and found information on something called “Nardwuar’s Day Off” which is a film that was made, do you remember this film?

N: Amazing that you dug so deep to find the 1986 production of “Nardwuar’s Day Off” which was actually a documentation of me heading to Expo 86 for the day with my buddies, and later on I ended up trick-or-treating a few years later at the guy who was in charge of organizing Expo 86, Jim Pattison, and I filmed that. So I spliced those two movies together, “Nardwuar’s Day Off” and “Trick-or-Treating at Jim Pattison’s house”, so it was like walking into Expo 86 and walking into Jim Pattison’s house side by side. I handed that in for my project at the University of British Columbia for my theatre film class and I remember I got 50 out of 100 and they said “totally unoriginal, could hardly be called a project”.

In the past 12 years you have been focusing a lot of your interviews on hip-hoppers, correct?

N: Yes, pretty much anyone who comes through town and is willing to do interviews, I will go for it.

Are there any lost Nardwuar interviews?

N: The one that is lost that I really regret losing is Depeche Mode. I did a phone interview with them and I lost it, which is really depressing. That was in late 80’s. Back then bands like that were not getting played on commercial radio or there were no alternative commercial stations to play them so they looked to college radio. There were many opportunities to interview bands like that because they were the only ones that played them. Then the alternative boom happened and they got taken up by that, but in the beginning they were big fans of college radio because they were the ones that supported them to begin with. I remember for that interview I wasn’t sure what to ask so I tape-recorded questions that my friend Adam had via his sister. So his sister tape-recorded all these questions, then I played the questions to Depeche Mode.

Have you ever got into an interview with someone and then didn’t know what to ask them? Do you have any that you regret? I read that you had an opportunity to interview the Pixies but you didn’t know who they were at the time.

N: I had an opportunity to see The Pixies but decided not to go because I thought they were stupid. At first I only liked punk rock and then I decided that metal was ok and then I decided that hip-hop was ok. I was very narrow-minded. As for not knowing what questions to ask, that happens in every single interview I do. Pretty much every interview I think “what the hell can I ask” and I always have trouble and I am always stumbling and making mistakes. That’s what keeps me going, because I think “ok I made a mistake and next time I won’t make that mistake”.

Is there anyone else that you would like to interview on your list? I think Kurt Cobain, Trudeau and Bill Clinton were the 3 people you wanted to interview and you completed 2 of the 3.

N:  My goal at one time was Bill Clinton, Kurt Cobain and Neil Young.  Neil Young I asked twice for interview and he said no, I got an interview with Kurt Cobain and Bill Clinton. Yes, I was removed from a press conference by other members of the media before being able to ask him a question. He was here in Vancouver last weekend and I tried to get an interview but nothing happened so I am still on the hunt for Bill Clinton, it has been 19 years.

Is Neil Young continuously turning you down or was he ignoring you?

N: No he turned me down twice. Like, I saw him and he said No, and then I saw him another time and he said No.

You have worked at major Canadian Magazines, with Much Music and the CITR since 1987. What specifically makes you stick with CITR? What’s the importance of the college radio system?

N: I can learn about bands like the Legendary Pink Dots. I learn something every time I go to CITR radio. I heard NWA for the first time on CITR radio, like, in the studio. It is a great place to learn and there are a lot of people who have done shows for many, many years. It is a great place to meet people and learn about music. The callers of CITR are unrelenting. Like they will call you up and say that you suck and you say like “thanks” and it keeps you on your toes. At other organizations people like hang up on the callers. Here at CITR someone will phone in and we say “how can I improve myself?” and they will say “fuck off and die” and I’m like “ok, I will note that.” There is nobody telling you what to do. At other radio stations you are a DJ and told what to do. At campus community radio you are a writer, a producer and operator and in total control and can do whatever you want. I had a friend who did the Noise Show who used to broadcast his heartbeat. I would walk into the studio and he would be lying across the board and have the microphone to his heart. And I was like “What the hell are you doing?” and he was like “Shut the hell up I am broadcasting my heartbeat” and you could barely hear it. And I was like “Ok, I thought I know everything but I don’t know everything”. Anytime anyone walks in the door of a college radio station they learn something.

What is your relationship with “i am OTHER”?

N: It is Pharrell Williams of the band N.E.R.D. and producer who has started up this organization called “i am OTHER” and he asked if I wanted to contribute and I said “yeh sure”. I interviewed him a few years back and he remembered me.

Is Pharrell still trying to connect you with Kanye West?

N: I have asked him a couple of times about that but unfortunately every time Kanye West has been unavailable. He hasn’t been doing interviews for the past little while. I am hoping that Pharrell or “i am OTHER” can hook me up with some American presidential candidates because I have been lucky enough to have interviews with Canadian candidates for Prime Minister.

 After your famous interview with Jean Chrétien you were blocked from prime minister interviews but then a few elections back you started again. You didn’t even have to cut your hair. Did they forget about you? Did they welcome you with open arms? Did any of the record labels forgive you after banning you from interviewing their artists?

N: Basically it was other members of the media so it was no problem getting into the events and I ended up going to a lot of events that were press conferences. One-on-one interviews are harder but at press conferences and campaign rallies everyone can show up. I did go to a campaign rally a couple of years ago, I made a mistake. A few weeks before the rally I did the hip-flip with Paul Martin. The hip-flip is this weird 1960’s game that is basically like twister. Prime Minister Paul Martin did it with me, and I was like “Wow. That’s cool.” Stephen Harper was in town when he was running for Prime Minister and I attended the rally and I went up to his publicist and asked to do an interview and they said “Yeah, sure”. I was like “I want to do the hip-flip” and they said “Well he won’t do the hip-flip but he will do the interview with you”. I said “well if he won’t do the hip-flip I won’t do the interview”. That was stupid. I should have done the interview and pulled out the hip-flip. Since then I have not had an opportunity to get anywhere near Stephen Harper. If you can get into campaign events early on before they become prime minister there is more chance you can get something. Since then when I showed up at events with Stephen Harper the media and his team have been like “Ok, remove that guy” which has become common practice.

Do you find people imitate you a lot? Is your style of interview mimicked? I would say about 300 people imitate you a year. Do you think that Hasbro owes you money?

N: It’s hard to tell if people are imitating you because I am imitating people. When you play guitar is someone imitating when you play guitar? There’s always somebody that is doing an interview and I am flattered because imitating me is basically people trying as hard as they can to do an interview and I hope that people are doing that. Is that what you meant by 300 people imitating me?

No. I would say there is 300 people imitating people, have you played the Hasbro game  Cranium the Canadian edition?

N: I am in there! Somehow. I am not sure how.

 I can’t think of any other person that has been on Much Music or Canadian radio that is an imitated person. That is impressive that you are a notable character enough to be in a board game

N: I am not sure how I got in there. It must have been someone who knew me who put me in there as a joke, because most people would have no idea who I am. Another story was told to me by [Canadian Metal icon] Thor. When he was on tour in Portland, Oregon. A guy came up to him and said “Heath Ledger based the Dark Knight on Nardwuar” and he was like “WHAT?!”, but I guess we will never be able to tell that. Lately I read something that Heath Ledger based it on Tom Waits but still, that would be the ultimate imitation if Heath Ledger copied me for the Dark Knight. I may have been copied, perhaps, in the movie “Joe Dirt” and the tagline was “keep on mopping in the free world” because I kept saying “keep on rocking in the free world” but still I am copying Neil Young.

Are you unhappy that you won’t be able to interview Snoop Dogg again?

N: I did try recently and it was the ninth time I have tried to interview Snoop Dogg and I have only interviewed him 5 times. So 5 out of 9 is not bad. The interview did not happen, a couple days later he changed his name to Snoop Lion, so maybe he didn’t want to do the interview because he wanted to wait for the announcement.

Would he be the first reggae artist you have interviewed?

N: I have interviewed Shaggy. I do wish I talked to Damien Marley, but I never got the chance. I went up to Damien Marley just for the hell of it and asked him what he thought about ska, because I love Ska, but he didn’t really have anything to say about Ska. I was hoping he would love Ska but I guess what is happening with Jamaica is that they don’t really like stuff that is old. They don’t like their parent’s music, they like what is happening now.

Do you think that artist’s perception of you has changed over the years? First the metal heads would come towards you and be mean to you, like steal your hat and be violent to you. Your last metal interview was with the lead singer of Opeth and he was smiling. Did you mix it up lately?

N: I don’t think too deeply about it, I just do what I always do and whatever happens happens.

Thanks for doing the interview Nardwuar.

N: Thank you Andrzej, and doot doola doot doot.

Doot doot.

*editors note: This transcription has been edited for length. listen to the full deal at the top of this post.

Watch/listen to all of nardwuars interviews here