Since 1986, John Ruskin has legally been known as Nardwuar the Human Serviette. In 1987 he started a weekly radio show on CITR college radio in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada and has since conducted around 1500 interviews, both on and off camera, with some of the world’s biggest musicians. He’s eccentric, to say the least – he dresses like a 1980s golf pro and boasts an interview technique that has caused equal parts confusion, anger and appreciation over the years. However, underneath the seemingly zany presence lurks a seriously passionate music fan and someone who does astute research – and it is this juxtaposition that often makes his interviews so entertaining.
Time and time again people don’t take Nardwuar seriously – they either wish to end the interview or simply become dismissive or antagonistic. But gradually Nardwaur will charm them into submission. This approach has created some incredible interviews over the years: his research left Pharrell utterly speechless whilst it caused Slipknot to walk off mid-interview. He’s asked Iggy Pop and Henry Rollins about their penises and become a personal favourite interviewer of Snoop Dogg. Dave Rowntree of Blur, meanwhile, managed to put in one of the most horrifying on-camera interviews ever committed to tape with Nardwuar. Trying to sum him up in words is tough though: “I have a hard time explaining myself to myself, so I can’t imagine people trying to explain me to others,” as the man himself explains…
Do you have any criteria for interviewing people? Do you have to like them/their music?
“Everyone has a story. Initially it had to be a punk, mod or garage band or I wouldn’t do anything with it and then I changed a bit and started including cheese metal bands and then I got into rap and noise rock. So I started out just covering punk, mod and garage. However, when you’re doing a radio show once a week you realise that you can’t have such a narrow focus, you have to expand. I remember someone once asked if I was interested in speaking to Alanis Morissette when she had just come out and I was like ‘I don’t want to speak to her.’ But now looking back that would have been hilarious interviewing her. Another example is Radiohead, who were playing in a tiny gig at the Railway Club in Vancouver – there was actually a fight there that night, the band got into a fight – with maybe only 40 or 50 people in attendance. I could have gone down there and done an interview but at the time I was like ‘why do I want to speak to Radiohead? Forget it, that’s not garage.’ Looking back I was stupid – I should have done it. So right now is there any criteria? No, as long as it has a pulse I’ll do an interview.”
You always bring lots of gifts for your interviewees. How does that work? Do you have a budget for such things?
“There’s no budget at all. How it all started was that at CITR there was a record library and you’d interview the bands in the record library, so in the middle of an interview I’d say ‘have you ever heard this band?’ and then randomly pull out a record off the shelf. Then when it came to me doing interviews outside of the radio station I was like ‘Shit! How am I going to show them that record?’ I would then bring a record with me to show them. Then I started interviewing people like Snoop Doggy Dogg who started stealing the records from me that I brought with me! So, if someone wants something bad enough I will let them have it and I buy a few people records as gifts in the hope that will make them not want to steal other records that are mine or I have borrowed. The stuff from my collection, I’m not bringing to give them, I’m bringing to show them.”
Does finding the records take a lot of time, effort and research?
“Vancouver has a lot of great record stores, so I’ll just go to a record store. All this stuff is really simple – those records that I bring to show people, anyone can find if they want to find them it’s just they’re too lazy and I’m not too lazy, I just go and do it. So it’s really not hard to find the records.”
There are always nice surprises and musical revelations via your interviews. I never in a million years thought I would discover the Free Design [1960s NYC pop group] via a Tyler, The Creator interview…
“I’m honoured that you got into the Free Design. That’s one of the whole purposes of me doing interviews is to expose people to stuff they haven’t heard before. It makes me so happy to hear that people get turned onto stuff that way. It’s the same for me too, every interview I’ve done I learn about new music. That’s why I keep doing interviews because the minute you stop learning is the minute you should quit – I just love it.”
You’re a very passionate person and put a lot into what you do. You’re only human, there must be days you’re feeling crappy or not in the mood. Is it ever a difficult thing to do these interviews?
“If I didn’t want to do interviews I would quit, so for me the interviews get me through the day. If I’m feeling sick or something the interview is the light at the end of the tunnel.”
There’s a real historian-like element to this process for you, isn’t there?
“Yes, there’s so much more to document. Brian Wilson is coming to Vancouver soon and I’ve been trying for years to get an interview with him and want to do an interview with him so badly but I don’t know if I’ll ever get the chance to and then if he passes away – hopefully not, touch wood – I’ll have missed that opportunity. There’s all these people out there, these legends like Chuck Berry and Little Richard, if I don’t get to ask them these questions it will never be documented. The stuff I’m asking may have been asked before but perhaps never in that way and I would just love to try to be able to get that history out there.”
Some of your biggest and most successful early interviews, such as with Courtney Love and Kurt Cobain, were guerrilla interviews with you sneaking backstage and doing things on the spot, uninvited. Do you do many guerrilla interviews these days or is it all arranged properly?
“I still try and sneak in and do stuff although I try to think ahead and see how it will turn out. For instance when I spoke to Snoop Dogg in 2013, I waited six hours to get close to him. I then suggested doing it in his trailer because of the light, so you need to plan. There’s no point waiting around for hours to do something in the pitch black and get something really amateur-ish. For me, I like the idea of trying to plan ahead a bit more than just sitting outside and waiting. I waited 10 hours to interview Courtney Love once and it never happened. It was in the pouring rain. She even said from the stage ‘is Nardwuar here?’ and I was outside waiting at the back door. They just got in their bus straight afterwards and left. I followed her bus halfway to the border hoping they would stop at a gas station but that didn’t happen. That was 1999 and after spending all those hours waiting I was like, ‘I’m not sure I want to do this anymore.’ That same night Fugazi were playing and I think I should have just driven there and done an interview with them. I like to plan and go through the proper channels now because I’d rather be told no then to wait in the rain.”
Does everyone know who you are these days or are you still able to take some people by surprise with your style and approach?
“I just do what I do, I don’t over-think it greatly. I am honoured when people want to be interviewed by me or when they help arrange another interview for me. Like when I interviewed Drake he set me up with an interview with Little Wayne and Pharrell hooked me up with Jay Z too. When I go into an interview I don’t go in with any preconceived notion about anything because you never know where you stand. You also don’t know if the artist does know you and then their press agent says just before the interview ‘this guy’s an asshole’ – that’s happened before – and that then changes their entire demeanour. So I don’t think it matters if they know you or not.”
You’ve interviewed a lot of very difficult people over the years but you always seem to manage to persevere. Who has come the closest to de-railing you in an interview?
“Sebastian Bach of Skid Row stole my toque [hat], smashed the tape I was using to do the interview and threatened to beat me up for fun and as a result of that I now wore a tam [another type of hat] because he stole my toque and the same thing happened with the heavy metal band Quiet Riot. They thought I was making fun of them and they grabbed the camera and smashed the tape, which completely derailed me. The conversation gets derailed when the tape is lost or destroyed, if the tape is rolling and I still have my question cards – although people have ripped up my question cards – I’m going to go to the end and nothing is going to derail it. Nothing throws me off other than when people destroy my personal stuff.”
The camera rolling is a form of security too I guess?
“Exactly! When we had cameras and tapes smashed by Sebastian Bach in 1994, there were no back-up cameras or cell phone cameras. If that happened today at least someone would get a picture of Sebastian stealing my toque or smashing the tape, there would be some documentation. Cameras are your friends.”
Is there anyone who you would never interview again because it’s gone so badly?
“No, it’s happened that when I first interviewed people they hated my guts. When I first interviewed Jelo Biaffra [Dead Kennedy’s] he hated me. Fifteen years later, in 2004, he was releasing my band The Evaporators, on his record label and releasing my DVDs. First time I interviewed Courtney Love in 1991 she hated my guts – I thought I would have nothing to do with her but I won her over and the next thing you know she help set me up with an interview with Nirvana. I would say if someone hates you keep on at them, eventually you’ll get a chance to win them over.”
Courtney Love did seem to genuinely hate you. In that interview  that you say you won her over, she starts off by saying “I hate your guts, you’re such a fucking pig”. Why did she hate you so much?
“In 1991 I did a phone interview with her and she just didn’t like the way it went. Then it ended and I went home. I got a phone call later that night from someone and apparently she was saying she was going to pull the Vancouver gig unless I showed up. My friend said she wanted to talk to me, so I went down to talk to her and watch the show but she didn’t really say anything. I then interviewed her again in ’93 and managed to win her over with some Player’s Light cigarettes.”
Have you tried to interview her again more recently?
“The last time I spoke to her was July 5th 1995 and I’ve been trying for the past twenty years to do another interview. I’ve never been able to get another interview with her and I have tried over and over and over again.”
Is calling Nardwaur a character accurate? How much of what we see as viewers on camera is the same as who you are at home and with friends?
“Nardwuar is just a dumb, stupid name like Sting or Sinbad. When you have a radio show you’ve got to have a radio name. As for myself, I would say I’m pretty much the same person, whether I’m on the air or off the air.”
I found it odd to hear you get really nervous doing interviews as you project such confidence.
“Oh, I still totally am [nervous]. I project confidence because I’m scared and because I’m scared maybe I’ve found out a few answers ahead of time but I’m scared as its going on and that’s what propels me to do stuff, it’s good to be scared. I think when you’re not nervous it’s bad, it shows you don’t care.”
Can you tell us about some of your favourite British artists and interviews?
“One that immediately pops to mind is with Alex [Kapranos] and Franz Ferdinand. I interviewed them in 2004, it turned out great and then I’m watching the TV and they’re being interviewed saying, ‘We want to come back to Canada and tour with Nardwuar’s band, The Evaporators’. Which was incredible, I couldn’t believe it! So I got on the phone and tried to contact their management but they were like ‘Yeah, yeah, whatever’. However, I managed to hook up with them through Friendster – remember Friendster?! – and get their phone number and eventually we opened up for them in New York and Montreal. At the Montreal gig Lou Reed came and Lou Reed had a plus one on his guest list. You know who Lou Reed had as his plus one? Who do you think of when you think of Lou Reed?”
I would guess Laurie Anderson, his wife?
“A British guy.”
“Yes! That was his plus one! Lou Reed and David Bowie.”
Did you meet them?
“Sadly not. I was out in the crowd trying to find us a place to stay for the night but the dudes from my band, who were backstage, saw them walk right by them. Is that not the most amazing thing ever? Can you think of a cooler pair to be out there? So, thank you, Alex from Franz Ferdinand.”
I have to bring up the Blur interview. It’s so incredibly difficult to watch but I understand Dave Rowntree has now apologised to you and even keeps a copy of that interview with him on his phone to stop him from ever taking drugs again?
“Ba boom! That interview happened in 2003 and the apology didn’t happen until 2011. In the apology he mentions that he reached out to me afterwards but he never reached out to me. I never heard anything. In fact the record company was mad at me but through the genius of YouTube – as there was no YouTube in 2003 – he was forced to address that issue.”
It’s difficult to watch…
“And you’ve only seen the edited version. The other guys, Alex and Damon, they were okay but it was just Dave and I never understood what happened but then he was running for office [as a Labour MP] in England it got posted on a message board and Dave had to respond. The Internet never forgets! It is upsetting and it was in the back of my mind for years and people would come up and go ‘you’re an idiot’ they didn’t know the full story behind it so this idea that I’ve been vindicated all these years later is awesome. It has happened a lot, people from record labels not getting the full story. Like, I interviewed Beck in 1994 and he didn’t like the way the interview was going and told me to fuck off. He’s the one that told me to fuck off and I got banned from interviewing anyone on his record label for many years.”
I read that your dream interviews in the 1990s were Bill Clinton and Neil Young and now they are Obama and Kanye West. Is that still the case?
“Oh, I have a whole file on Obama of things I’d like to ask him. Obama is my dream interview. I’ve been trying for years. When he leaves office there is probably more of a chance of it happening. For a sitting President it’s pretty hard to say “Hey, make time for Nardwuar Mr. President”. And, as I mentioned before, Brian Wilson and Little Richard are big ones.”
Thank you, Nardwaur.
“Thank you, Dan. Doot doola doot doo…”
“Thanks so much and keep on rawkin’ in the free world.”