A deep dive into the past and present of one of the strangest personalities to ever emerge from the country's media
There are some obvious questions about Nardwuar the Human Serviette. Like: Where did he get that name? How does he do his research? Is he really like that? How does a guy who dresses like a Scottish punk and hosts a community radio show at the University of British Columbia end up interviewing the biggest celebrities in the world, develop a friendship with Snoop Dogg, and earn hundreds of millions of views on YouTube?
The first one is easy. Sort of. As he told Pharrell Williams back in 2008, “Nardwuar’s like a dumb, stupid name, like ‘Sting.’ And ‘Human’ is from the band The Cramps, their song ‘Human Fly.’ And in the United States of America, you don’t have serviettes, you have napkins. So I’m Nardwuar the Human Serviette.”
But that’s about as personal as he gets in his videos.
Nardwuar has long declined invitations to appear on CANADALAND to discuss all of this and more. So we decided to Nardwuar Nardwuar — conducting a deep dive into his past and present by doing our research, speaking to those who’ve known and worked with him over the course of decades.
Listen to our episode, “Nardwuar: An Oral History,” published earlier this week.
The below has been adapted and edited from those interviews.
Mark Kleiner, former musician: He’s a bit of an enigma, right? It’s kind of impossible to pin him down, and that’s part of his appeal. But my experience of him has been relatively consistent, on air and off. It’s just that once the camera starts filming, it’s like the volume knob goes up a few notches.
Megan Barnes, childhood friend: I met Nardwuar on the playground of our elementary school. One of my earliest memories was of a public speaking contest, when I would’ve been in grade four and he was in grade six. He was outgoing and fun, and I think his speech was about his cat. I just remember thinking, “Oh, a speech about a cat, whatever.” But it was so good and so entertaining. And he won.
Leora Kornfeld, media consultant and longtime friend: We have to give props to his late mother, Olga Ruskin, who was a journalist in the 1950s. She then became a high school teacher, and got involved in cable-access television in the 1970s and 80s. I think he learned a lot from her, watching what she did with her show about pretty arcane North Vancouver history. She wasn’t doing it to pull in a big viewership, and she wasn’t getting paid. She was doing it because she loved to. I think that really instilled something in him that’s there to this day.
Kornfeld: Go back to the first interview he did when he was student council president in high school, in 1985 or 1986. He went around like Max in Rushmore, polling people on what band they wanted to play at their dance. And people said they wanted Art Bergmann and his band Poisoned. So somehow he got them. You see him sitting around with the band after, doing an interview. And Art Bergmann is extremely cool, about as cool as a rock guy gets. And then you see Nardwuar, who isn’t what you would call your typical high school class president. You watch him in that interview, and he has so much self-confidence, so much style. I mean, people call it swagger now. He knows exactly who he is. He’s not trying to be cool. He’s not trying to do a rock interview. He’s just being himself.
Barnes: “When he went to the University of British Columbia and joined the campus radio station, I think that was a huge shift.”
Bill Baker, co-founder of Mint Records: “At that time, he was just like a firecracker or spark plug or something, this unbridled energy that seemed totally unfocused but actually wasn’t. The CiTR program director was very skeptical that he’d be able to do a show. But after Nardwuar nagged him a million times, he finally let him have a show that was only one minute long. So Nardwuar would come on Friday afternoons for one minute. Getting him in there for that minute was easy. Getting him out of there after that minute was not so easy. So the show eventually progressed to be five minutes and then 15 minutes…
Kornfeld: I continued to listen to CiTR after I graduated, and also read Discorder, the magazine they used to put out. I started seeing things in it, written by someone with an unusual name, that were sort of from another planet. Things like interviewing bands but asking them what brand of soap they use. That was the whole piece. It was called “Soaps of the Stars.” Or there would be things like interviews with Gilligan from Gilligan’s Island, where he would go down to the boat show in Vancouver and interview Gilligan, and then pull out a picture of him with Nancy Sinatra on a movie set in the 1960s, and ask him if he was aroused in the picture. Blowing people’s minds in that way, which he is now legendary for. After seeing a few of those, I found his radio show. He had one of the guys from Depeche Mode on. And I remember he asked, “Alan from Depeche Mode, how many people have died at a Depeche Mode concert?” Again, I thought, “What an unusual question. I don’t know if it’s a good question. I don’t know if it’s a great question. And I don’t even know if that matters.” I really believe he’s created a new form of journalism.
Kleiner: He is so disarming. Early on, you’d have Beck or these other people who’d never heard of him. And they’d just get this interview with this guy with a strange voice, strange name, and sometimes hyper-researched or off-putting questions. And they didn’t know what to make of it.
Kornfeld: Also at the time, we were getting Nardwuar showing up at press conferences with people like Gerald Ford, like Mikhail Gorbachev. A lot of that had to do with the fact that it was early VHS camera days. Even a few years earlier, that affordable technology wasn’t there. So all of these things came together at the right time.
John Collins, bandmate in The Evaporators: “He was always packing his camera everywhere. But it was just going on a tape. The interviews would occasionally get shown on the local public-access station, which was a great show but had a limited audience.
Tom Harrison, former Vancouver Province music critic: “For many years, I was the co-host of the TV show Soundproof. It brought what videos we had into people’s living rooms. But this being the early days, there were some pretty bad ones. Nardwuar fit in quite naturally. He brought the irreverent interviews and a certain kind of recklessness. People got to see this character in action on a wider scale.
Jennifer Hollett, former MuchMusic VJ: I find as I watch artist interviews with Nardwuar, it tells me so much about the artists that I end up either liking them more or liking them less.
Collins: I always think of the Tommy Chong interview. The Evaporators went to play a festival in Alberta, and it turned out to be a total bust. They didn’t pay us. We were in the food tent, and Tommy Chong walked in, and Nardwuar was like, “Tommy, Tommy, can we do an interview?” And Tommy was really, really stoned. He was being interviewed by a strange person he never met before, but he was completely up for it. Some of Nardwuar’s really early interviews were sort of confrontational and not particularly friendly. But Tommy was unflappable and so kind, really, to be standing there and doing this. That was a bit of a revelation for Nard’s career.
Kleiner: Skid Row was in Vancouver recording their third album. Nardwuar’s interviewing Sebastian Bach, who’s been smoking a lot. He’s fairly high. Nardwuar asked a question like, “How did Michael ‘The Wag’ Wagener do such a great job producing you guys but totally fucked up with Warrant?” and Bach was like, “I’m not here to talk about those guys.” Nardwuar mentioned that the drummer from Warrant was now packing boxes at a warehouse. Bach called off the interview and stole Nardwuar’s toque off his head. We get turfed out of there, and Nardwuar starts freaking out that Bach has his hat. I go back into the studio to retrieve it and Bach says, “I haven’t seen the toque anywhere,” but at this point he’s actually wearing it. So we we organize a “Take Back the Toque” protest at the Town Pump, where Skid Row was playing as part of a children’s hospital benefit. I don’t know how many of us are there — eight, 10, 12 people? Bach doesn’t come out. It was kind of a sad event, and we never got the toque back. You know, we protested a children’s hospital benefit — it was kind of a lose-lose.
[In place of the lost toque, Nardwuar began wearing his signature tam.]
Collins: Opportunities would sort of pop up and then not be quite the right fit for him. Basically, nothing was going to be the right fit for him. It was so frustrating. You could tell people wanted to work with him, and he just wouldn’t see how it could work. Like, the MuchMusic thing was always a dream that seemed like it was never going to happen, because he would never be able to cope with even one tiny compromise or suggestion. It would just have to be his way or the highway. And then at some point, it just clicked — he was just doing it. He was not having an issue with anything that he couldn’t overcome. And that was massive, because he was going at 100 miles an hour when he hit MuchMusic.
Hollett: A big part of Nardwuar’s rise was MuchMusic. He’d been doing his interviews forever, but when he moved to MuchOnDemand, he started developing not only a larger audience but access to bigger names. Most people started knowing him more as a journalist and interviewer and not just as someone who was in a band and on campus radio.
Harrison: MuchMusic took a lot from Soundproof. So the idea of them poaching Nardwuar was not that surprising.
David Kines, former VP of MuchMusic: He just kind of showed up on air one day and was amazing. I do remember when I saw it, I was like, “What is that? That is weird and amazing and charming and unique, and he knows his shit.”
Chris Nelson, Nardwuar’s producer at Much: I had been a producer on a CBC TV show called Utopia Cafe and tried to persuade the executive producer to include a segment with Nardwuar. And he said, and I quote, “He is an irritating weirdo who will never be on this program.” When I had the opportunity to work for MuchMusic in Vancouver, one of my first calls was to Nardwuar, but he refused to work with me or for Much. He had had a stroke and was feeling like he didn’t want to come back. But in the same fashion that Nardwuar relentlessly pursues people, I did the same thing.
The carrot I dangled that eventually got him willing to do this was an interview with James Brown. Nardwuar shows up to it with a friend who was a rabid James Brown fan. And that person had brought some incredibly rare James Brown memorabilia. So we arrived, and his people were like, “Mr. James Brown was not aware that he had an interview scheduled today.” They took us to this tiny, windowless room at the bottom of the Queen Elizabeth Theatre. Finally, after about three and a half hours, this huge guy with an ironic nickname, like “Tiny” or something, shows up. And he was like, “Mr. James Brown will not be able to see you, so we will escort you from the premises.”
And Nardwuar, thinking very quickly, snatches all of the memorabilia from his friend’s arms and pushes it into Tiny and says, “Show this to James Brown and let him know that we’re serious about talking to him.” And Tiny’s just looking at this stuff and says, “Well, I don’t know.”
Nardwuar’s friend looks like he’s on the verge of tears. Nardwuar has basically taken all of the things the guy spent a lifetime collecting and put it in the hands of some indifferent bodyguard.
Soon, another guy comes to escort us out, but Tiny blocks our exit. He goes, “Mr. James Brown will see you now. He wants to know where you got all that fine stuff.” So we walked out. James Brown is rehearsing on the stage and calls Nardwuar over.
We recorded a 45-minute interview. The two of them just got along great. And as Tiny is walking us out, he goes, “The last time anyone spoke to James Brown for that long was Mike Wallace in the 80s. So congratulations.” And I think Nardwuar felt pretty good.
Steve Pratt, former MuchMusic producer: I kept trying to find as many ways as I could to get Nardwuar on the air. There were a lot of labels and PR companies that did not want him interviewing their musicians. He pulls out stuff that nobody knows about them, and he’s doing things that are going to get unusual reactions. It is not an interview that generates canned responses. So it always felt like a gift when somebody said yes, and it always turned into something wonderful.
Michael Moore was in town for the Vancouver Film Festival. Nardwuar put in an interview request and was denied. So he’s like, “Well, what would Michael Moore do? He would go wait outside Michael Moore’s hotel and stalk him. He would Michael Moore Michael Moore.”
So we waited outside the hotel and kind of ambushed Moore in the street. He’s like, “I can’t talk to you, I’m sorry. I’m on my way to another interview.” And Nardwuar was like, “Well, why don’t we come in the car with you and we’ll interview you on the way to your next interview?” So we all piled into this van, and Nardwuar starts interviewing him. We get to the location. He’s still interviewing him. We go into this set that another media crew has set up, and it’s all beautifully lit, and the crew’s waiting there. And Nardwuar keeps going with the interview. And we’re sitting in this other crew’s set, and he keeps going and going. The other crew starts getting super angry that we’re ruining their time with Michael Moore. And then a guy comes up to me, like, “Stop this thing. Get this guy out of here. You have no right to be here.” And I’m kind of grabbing the back of Nardwuar’s shirt and trying to pull him out of the set, but he keeps going on and on with questions. Eventually, these guys are in our faces and pushing the camera, and basically shove us out the door and slam it. The camera goes right to Nardwuar, who’s like, “And there you have it. Our interview with Michael Moore.” Totally seamless.
Then Michael Moore opens the door and walks out. He realized how bad it would look that Nardwuar was getting kicked out and these people were kind of roughing up the camera crew, so he came out and apologized, spent another five minutes with Nardwuar, calling him a national treasurer of Canada.
It was the quintessential Nardwuar, making a completely memorable, magical moment out of something that should have been nothing. Like, he just manifested it out of a “no.” And whatever that other crew got for their interview, ours was a hundred times better and more entertaining.
George Stroumboulopoulos, former MuchMusic VJ: It was always really funny when we would get the tape sent to us at MuchMusic and we were like, “Oh, shit, something went wrong.” We went, “Let’s watch this.”
Collins: Within five years, he was so famous in Canada that people would just yell “doot-doot” at him everywhere.
Hollett: He started getting really big bands through MuchOnDemand. He also evolved in terms of the things that make up the Nardwuar interview.
Kornfeld: It was his idea to have his own theme music, which they never did for anybody. People thought, “No, you’re not getting your own theme music.” He did it anyway.
Barnes: I think it was in the early 2000s. The Evaporators had just finished recording an album in Dave Carswell’s basement. So I was doing a bunch of recording for it, and then a couple days later, Dave called me back, and said that for Nard’s MuchMusic segment, they wanted a little theme song. So they decided to take the song “Nard Nest” and just change it to “Nardwuar.” And so I came back, went into the basement, yelled that for a while, and that was that.
Kornfeld: Now, it’s that theme on YouTube heard 200 million times.
Barnes: I’m just a regular middle-aged lady now. So it’s funny, because I work with a lot of people who are a lot younger than I am. After I’d been working with someone for a couple of years, somehow it was revealed that that was me on the song. The look on their face was just like, “What? That’s you?” I was like, “Yeah, that’s me.” So I definitely do get some cool points with younger people that I know.
Pratt: The first Snoop Dogg one felt like this turning point.
Nelson: It on the set of a movie called Bones. All I remember is that Snoop was dressed as a pimp in the 70s. I think his role was the ghost of a dead pimp.
Pratt: You could see the skepticism with Snoop in the first interview, and then the lights went on and he kept giving him all these crazy gifts.
Nelson: Nardwuar borrowed a Redd Foxx doll from a friend. And Snoop attempted to steal the Redd Foxx doll.
Pratt: By the end of it, Snoop was just like, “This is the best experience.” And you could tell he had this warm love for Nardwuar, as two people that you would never have thought would have connected like that in such a short period of time. It’s turned into this ongoing series of interviews and friendships.
Nelson: Snoop understood what Nardwuar was going for and was happy to play along several times over. Much looked forward to those interviews, as I suspect Nardwuar did. Because each time it produced another surprising outcome.
Collins: Maybe the seventh interview with Snoop was done in Austin, and it was a classic Nard experience. We went to a concert at 7:30, right after dinner, and we stood and just waited throughout this entire long evening of various rappers doing their showcases. And then Snoop played, and the show was over at 2 am. We got ushered outside the gates and then waited outside for another two hours. Probably at about 4 a.m, somebody came out of Snoop’s trailer and said, “Okay, Snoop will see you now.” And then a few of us went in and then the interview started in this small trailer packed with a few of Snoop’s friends, his wife, and us. It wasn’t even an interview. It was like watching jazz players get together after their gig when they go to the after-show and really let loose.
Pratt: There are certain types of artists, or genres of music, that don’t seem to appreciate him as much. And the hip-hop community has just totally embraced him. I think it says something about who they are and how willing they are to kind of be real. Whereas maybe some of the others don’t have a sense of humour or just take themselves really seriously.
Kornfeld: He’s got a lot of negative charisma, which can actually be a good thing, because it makes people remember you and understand that you are apart from the crowd. That’s what Pharrell really appreciated about him.
Kornfeld: A few years after their first interview, YouTube was doing premium channels, and gave a bunch of funding to Jay-Z and Pharrell and a bunch of other people. And Pharrell approached Nardwuar. I have personally been on a conference call with Pharrell, Pharrell’s people, and Nardwuar about that pitch. It was bizarre. And I got to tell you that Nardwuar wasn’t keen on it, because what’s most important to him is his vision, doing things in ways that allow him to have that creative control and keep his vision intact. So the idea of partnering with somebody else was a hard thing for him to say yes to. But Pharrell just said, “You do what you do. And I’m going to tell my people three words: whatever it takes.” That was the beginning of the world knowing who Nardwuar was.
Nelson: It’s because of Pharrell that Nardwuar ended up interviewing Jay-Z. It was at a music festival in Squamish, BC, and it was only like five or 10 minutes. But for Nardwuar, it was, you know… he had summited Everest at that point.
Kines: I went out to a music festival, Pemberton, outside of Whistler. Jay-Z was performing, and we got word that he wanted to talk to Nardwuar. We’re out there interviewing Coldplay, and someone from the festival comes over and says, “Jay-Z wants to talk to Nardwuar.” You don’t know too many interviewers that people request to talk to. And Nardwuar is one of those.
Kornfeld: In 2019, he got over 50 million views on his YouTube channel. He’s got 1.3 million subscribers. He makes enough of a living, but he’s a pretty low-overhead guy. If you want to call it a punk or do-it-yourself ethos, he only does stuff that he believes in. So as I like to tell people, he’s got to be one of the world’s most under-monetized brands. But even if he had a bunch of money, it’s not like he’d have a private jet and be covered in bling, and as he likes to say, be poolside with Heather Locklear. He wouldn’t do that. Whatever he has, he just puts it back into what he does.
Baker: He hasn’t had a traditional job that I know of since I’ve known him. And he’s managed to turn that into this.
Kines: I think he’s managed — I think — to make a living out of it, which is fantastic to see.
Hollett: I was doing research for a client about successful Canadian brands that had global audiences, and Nardwuar was on our list. So I reached out to him just to say, “Hey, I’m doing some research, and we’re looking at Canadian brands that aren’t just seen as Canadian.” I was asking some questions about his brand, and he was like, “I’m not a brand. I’m not a brand.”
Pratt: I’ve gone back to him a couple times since the podcasting universe has blown up and said like, “Would you like to put together a pitch to actually go to somebody big, like an international place to do a new show with some big guests?” And he’s like, “Well, I’m pretty busy with the CiTR show.” His loyalty is a hugely defining factor for him.
Kornfeld: I think he’s a fantastic role model. He tells people to go up there and ask for things that they want, to do it themselves. And he, in his self-deprecating way, is like, “If some loser like me can do it, anybody can do it. I’m scared every time I do this. If you’re not scared, you’re doing something wrong.” You can still break through if you do something that’s unique enough, that is completely outside any mold. You work really hard, you stay true to that, and you just realize that there is another way of doing it.
Kines: In a way, Nardwuar was one of the first kind of virally YouTube guys, producing these five-minute interviews. Nice, digestible chunks, but they were just so wild. People were like, “You gotta see it.” And that was way ahead of its time.
Hollett: He could be Lilly Singh. But that’s not him. The difference between Nardwuar and all the other “YouTube influencers” is he is so true to his values, to this 80s, 90s idea of being so committed to music and the scene and community and punk rock, that he would never just do something for money. Some people might look at that and be like, “What a shame. He could be a multi-millionaire.” And then other people look at it and say, “Wow, you’re the last one left in the world, you are so pure, we need to protect this.”
Next week on CANADALAND: After learning about our efforts, Nardwuar finally agrees to an interview.
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