In journalism school, they teach you that every reporter has his/her own interview style — some play dumb, some are aggressive, some flirt. Canadian journalist/punk musician/O Music Award Nominee Nardwuar’s interview style transcends all the usual suspects, however. If one were to call his journalist persona anything, it would undoubtedly be “Mad Genius.”
Born John Ruskin, the interviewer now known as “Nardwuar the Human Serviette” is famous for his off-kilter personality — he often dredges up the most obscure tidbits about his subjects (baby pictures, buried recordings, odd hobbies) and begins each interview with the question, “Who are you?” He ends every conversation by singing “doot doota loot doo…” to which you must respond “doot doo!” (I know because this happened to me).
A veteran journalist, Nardwuar has been interviewing celebrities on his radio show on the University of British Columbia radio station CITR 101.9 FM for more than 20 years. He also has a show on WFMU and conducts tons of video interviews, which he posts to his website.
Following his nomination for the Beyond The Blog Award, the O Music Awards caught up with Nardwuar to find out more about how he got his start and how he deals when interview subjects strike back. Despite his out-there personality, Nardwuar actually has some pretty solid advice for aspiring journalists — hence the “genius” part of the aforementioned moniker. Check out the Q&A below:
Sorry I was out there, I was actually buying MiniDV tapes, if you can believe it or not, for my videocamera.
Oh, nice. You still use tapes?
Yes, still do. Actually I just got it a couple of years ago and it’s kind of strange that they seem to have phased them out. I’m kind of just surprised now that it’s hard to get them [tapes]. They used to be at your convenience store and stuff. I’ve been using them for quite a long time. I used to rent videocameras from 7-Eleven, so they’ve always had equipment there. I’ve always had the cutting-edge equipment from 7-Eleven videocameras.
Cool! So I’m interested to hear how you started interviewing people.
My mom had been a writer and wrote a book about a guy in Vancouver, BC, and his name was ‘Gassy Jack.’ You kind of go like, ‘Gassy Jack? Did he fart a lot?’ No! He was pioneer, a settler for Vancouver and he talked a lot, so they called him ‘Gassy.’ Gastown’s Gassy Jack was the name of the book. My mom was interested in local pioneers. And then she was really interested in local history, so she would always drag me out to her historical association meetings as a young kid. I was always going to historical association meetings and serving coffee to all the members. My mom also had a cable access show where she interviewed local pioneers. It was called Pioneers and Neighbors. Local people who were pioneers or local people that were neighbors. She talked about history and that sort of stuff.
I was sort of influenced by that because I saw her on TV, so I just became interested in doing writing and journalism. So when I got to the University of British Columbia one of the first places I joined was the student radio club, CiTR, UBC Radio — and I’m still doing a show on CiTR, UBC Radio. My mom kind of kickstarted me for that whole thing, because she had been involved and interviewing people. But the interesting thing was she wasn’t interviewing celebrities and stuff like that — she was interviewing local pioneers and neighbors, and they had a story, too. So she kind of taught me that even if you’re not a big star, there’s always a story out there and there’s always a story even if you are a big star, too.
So who was your first interview?
The first interview I ever did was actually when I was in high school. I was president of the Student Council in high school — actually, it was called the Student Congress — and I was in charge of getting bands to play dances and stuff. I knew nothing about music, but the kids in our school were hip and they were down with the local punk scene and they kept saying to me, ‘You should get this band to played called the Young Canadians.’ And I was like, ‘Why should we get them?’ And they were saying, ‘Well, they thank our high school in the linear notes for their record.’ So I was like, ‘No way!’ So I tried to get this band the Young Canadians, but unfortunately they had broken up and they had formed a new band called Poisoned. Not ‘Poison,’ but ‘Poisoned.’ So I got Poisoned to play the school dance.
I was given only a certain amount of money to get the band and they wanted $1,400 to play the dance. And guess how much I talked them down to? I talked them down to $1,398. Because I thought it looked better and the teachers would think, ‘Wow! It’s not $1,400, it’s $1,300!’ Really, $1,398. So they played our high school for $1,398.
So I thought, ‘Well, they’re playing our high school, this is kind of historic. I want to interview the lead singer Art Bergmann of Poisoned who was in the Young Canadians and I want to ask him why he thanked our high school in the linear notes!’ So that was the impetus for the very first interview I did and it was actually on September 26, 1985. And it was with Art Bergmann of the band Poisoned. I videotaped that interview. It’s not on YouTube or anything; I’m probably saving that for the Nardwuar documentary that I’m working on. But that was the very first interview. And then it was a few years later before I did interviews weekly on my radio show on CiTR.
From there, you’ve interviewed a ton of bands.
Pretty much whoever passes through Vancouver, BC. As I mentioned, doing my radio show — every Friday on CiTR between 3:30pm and 5pm — you can’t really be picky. Who’s coming to town? So at first, yes, it was just punk bands — I was just interested in punk, that’s it. If you’re not punk, I’m not gonna do anything. And then my buddy was saying, ‘Man, you know metal is kind of fun.’ And I was like, ‘No, metal is not fun.’ And he was like, ‘No, metal is hilarious. There’s some hilarious bands out there like Warrant. Like Danger Danger. Like Enuff Z’Nuff. These hilarious metal bands. Not only hilarious, they’ve kind of got catchy tunes. Do an interview with some of them.’ So I did and those were really fun.
So I was like, ‘OK, I’m only doing punk and metal.’ And then another one of my friends was like, ‘You know, rap if kind of fun. You should do some rap interviews.’ And I was like, ‘No, I don’t want to — I don’t know anything about rap.’ And they were like, ‘OK, Snoop is coming to Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. He’s shooting a movie called Bones and he’s doing interviews. Why don’t you do an interview with him? He’s doing a movie with Pam Grier.’ I’m like, ‘[Stutters unintelligibly] Snoop Dogg?! I’m scared.’
I think that’s what motivates me to do these interviews. Every interview I do, from the first one that I did to the very last one that I did, I’m always scared. And I think because I’m always scared, I’m always looking for information. So it’s like, ‘I’m going to speak to Snoop Dogg. I don’t know anything about him! I’m scared. Wait a second… Snoop Dogg loves comedy. He loves 1960s comedy. I wonder if he likes comedian Redd Foxx, because my friend Diane has a Redd Foxx doll. Maybe I’ll bring this doll to the interview and show him to Snoop!’
So I brought it to the interview and kind of broke the ice. Snoop wanted to buy it from me. And all these years later, now I’ve done like five interviews with Snoop Dogg. And a lot of people comment, ‘Oh yeah, Snoop… Isn’t that the interview where he stole your Redd Foxx doll?’ I couldn’t give it to him, because of my friend Diane. So I got into interviewing rappers.
Then there were elections happening in Canada, so I got involved in interviewing the Prime Ministers and the people running for Premier in British, Columbia, Canada. Then Mikhail Gorbachev — ex-leader of the free world — I always go ‘Keep on rocking in the free world’ to everyone I talk to in honor of Neil Young. So when Mikhail Gorbachev came to Vancouver — the ex-Soviet leader who helped to bring down the Soviet Union, IE make it a free world — I learned some Russian and I said to him, ‘Mr. Gorbachev, of all the leaders you’ve encountered, who has the biggest pants? And [says a Russian phrase], which was, ‘Keep on rocking in the free world.’ The translator said, ‘Sorry, I didn’t understand your Russian.’ And as for ‘Which of the leaders had the biggest pants?’ Gorbachev smiled. I think he understood the question, but he didn’t let on and they cut off the mike.
So basically, I’ll interview anybody. Whether it’s a politician — whether it’s a porn star! Whether it’s a band, whether it’s heavy metal, whether it’s a writer, whoever is passing through town.
So you’re always very, very prepared. Eerily so. What’s your process for getting ready for an interview?
At CiTR Radio there used to be a clippings file where somebody at CiTR — the music director — had clipped out articles on bands anytime they appeared in the newspaper. I used those for years and years. It was so interesting, getting this information. And then somebody threw out the clippings file. I couldn’t believe it! But also I would talk to people around the radio station. Like if I was going to do a rap interview, then I’d talk to the rap people. Or I’d talk to the metal people. And then also I’d feel scared so I’d be like, ‘I’d better go to a record store and listen to some music. I better buy some more magazines and look for information there.’ So there’s kind of a general rounded approach to covering all the different aspects.
And then thinking of other stuff. Like when I was talking to some Canadian politicians, I was like, ‘I wonder if they’d want to do this game called The Hip Flip.’ And what it is is this weird 1960s game like Twister where you put a pole between two people — two people face each other and there’s a pole between their bellies and there’s a little flipper on the pole and you flip this flipper by hip flipping, moving your stomach. ‘So I was like, I have this toy around the house, maybe I’ll bring that to the interview!’ And I brought it. I actually got the Prime Minister of Canada to do the Hip Flip. I’m hoping one day to be able to get Obama to do the hip flip with me. So some stuff, I just throw it against the wall to see what sticks. You do the research, but other times it’s like, ‘What the hell, let’s bring this Hip Flip game.’
That’s so interesting, because usually people have the same five questions that all the other journalists have. I really liked your Grimes interview at SXSW — how you brought the button from her mother’s political campaign.
Yes, her mom ran for office in Vancouver here.
How did you find that out?
That was in the paper and she got like I think 30,000 votes — Grimes’s mom, that’s pretty good, aye? So it’s kind of like that information is out there that most people don’t want to talk about. To me, I find that interesting.
I’ve seen some interviews where people don’t really understand why you’re asking those questions. How do you handle it when someone snaps at you?
Well, first off — you were asking about the questions and some of the information — during my radio show every week all these years, people phone up all the time saying, ‘Man, you suck,’ or ‘Man, you’re good,’ or ‘Get this off the air.’ They’re not afraid to tell it like it is. At a lot of commercial radio stations a caller will phone up and then they’ll rebel against the caller, the people. DJs hang up on callers. They don’t respect the callers very much, do they? But I’m on CiTR. When you’re on CiTR, you’re always on the alert. Even though I’ve done my show for years, people are like, ‘When did you get a show?’ I’m like, ‘I’ve been on for years!’ You’re always getting challenged, and I love that. You always have to be on your toes to try to find those little tidbits of information. So that’s what motivates me in that respect.
The purpose of CiTR is to expose people to stuff they haven’t heard before. There’s no point of asking questions that other people are asking or playing music that other stations are playing. There’s nothing wrong with those questions — I love basic questions and top 40 music — but why should I explore those avenues when other people are doing it? So I try to provide something else, and that’s the whole theory behind CiTR Radio.
So when you’re doing your show, it’s never like you just go and you sit down and you relax. I’m always thinking that people are watching. So I’m thinking that people like yourself, Brenna, are going to be watching the Grimes interview and are going to be going, ‘He’s talking to Grimes? Oh, yeah, didn’t Grimes’s mom run for council in Vancouver? And he didn’t ask that! What an idiot!’ So I’m just thinking that you’re sitting there thinking that, because that’s what the listeners in Vancouver who have been listening for years would think. People have yelled at me afterwards like, ‘You had that person and you didn’t ask that question?!’ I have the chance to be able to share my stuff to the world and people are going to be sitting there watching it and they’re going to want answers! So that’s why you have to dig deep and get the information. So I try to get all the information that I can, put it on little notecards, ask the questions and after I finish asking the questions, get the hell out. So to answer your question regarding when interviews don’t go so well.
So I assume you keep the hardest question for last.
See, that’s where I’m always learning. Every time I do an interview, I learn something. The minute you think you know everything is the minute you should quit. It took me quite a few years to learn stuff like that. There’s that guy Malcolm Gladwell — he has that book that says you need 10 years, 10,000 hours to get good at something. Well, my dad told me the first 50 years are the worst. I’ve been doing my show 20 plus years. If I had given up after 10 years… It’s taken me a long time. So you just basically have to hang in there in what you’re doing and eventually if you just hang in there, you’ll be able to get through everything. It used to be that I would begin with the hardest question first, now I sort of build up to that. I learned that the hard way and you can witness some of that on the Internet.
If you don’t want to deal with people, do some other thing. When you’re a journalist or doing interviews, there’s this Latin term: ‘Volenti non fit iniuria.’ And basically what that means is if you go to a punk gig and there’s people in the slam pit and you jump in the slam pit, you’re probably gonna get slammed. So the same thing with journalism. If you become a journalist, you’re gonna get embarrassed, you’re going to meet rude people. So if you don’t want to get embarrassed and you don’t want to meet rude people, don’t do it!
So you’ve had the radio show for such a long time. When did you start putting interviews online?
I was lucky, I was doing my radio show in 1996 and a guy phoned me from the Vancouver film school and said, ‘There’s something called the Internet, we want to make a website for you.’ And they started my website in 1996, which is sort of wild. Pre-Google and everything.
Image courtesy of William R. Jans