In his 30-plus year career, Nardwuar the Human Serviette has been a disc jockey, lead singer of the Evaporators and, most notably, an interviewer with a true one-of-a-kind style.
Not everyone is a fan. Over the years, Nardwuar, who was born John Ruskin, has been interrogated by RCMP after a few attempts at interviewing politicians. He once asked former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev which world leader “has the largest pants?”
“A few times I got escorted out by authorities,” he said. “I was always questioned by RCMP but released, so everything was totally legit.”
Sebastian Bach, the lead singer of the heavy metal band Skid Row, once stole his toque during an interview.
During a phone interview, rocker Beck told him to “f–k off” and then hung up on him.
While some musicians may not have appreciated the squeaky-voiced interviewer with an encyclopedic knowledge of pop culture, Nardwuar has carved a niche for himself in the most unlikely of places — hip-hop culture.
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Wearing a tartan hat that he was given after his toque was stolen by Bach, Nardwuar has talked to of some of hip-hop’s biggest stars — Snoop Dogg, Pharrell Williams, Kendrick Lamar, Jay-Z, and Drake, to name a few — who appreciate his in-depth knowledge of their life and musical influences.
“This is the best interview I’ve ever done, by the way, in my entire life,” Drake said after Nardwuar presented him with an album by Graham Central Station, a ’70s-era funk band founded by Drake’s uncle, Larry Graham.
Pharrell Williams was so impressed by Nardwuar — telling him “your research is second to none” — that he helped him set up an interview with Jay-Z.
Questlove of The Roots said he thought Nardwuar could have “found bin Laden 10 years before” he was captured by US forces.
Perhaps his favourite interview subject is Snoop Dogg. Nardwuar has interviewed the rapper eight times and considers him a “modern-day Frank Sinatra.”
The rapper recently contacted him via Facetime, asking Nardwuar if he could help him find some O.J. Simpson memorabilia, figuring that’s exactly the sort of thing Nardwuar would know how to get his hands on.
According to Nardwuar, his exhaustive research stems from fear.
“I am so scared, I have to find out,” he said. “Most people don’t take the effort to find out. If they do, they would have amazing interviews.”
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Intellectual curiosity appears to run in the family. His mother, Olga, was a journalist who authored a book on Gassy Jack Deighton.
He doesn’t do his research alone, getting help from the “Nardwuar team” — which includes colleagues from CiTR, the campus radio station at the University of British Columbia, and staff at Vancouver’s Neptoon Records — to find obscure records and nuggets of information.
Throughout the years, he survived some health scares, having suffered a stroke in 2015.
His late-in-life success, he says, disproves the so-called 10,000-hour Rule — an idea popularized by writer Malcolm Gladwell — that posits it takes 10,000 hours, or about 10 years, to master a skill.
“I’ve been doing it 31 years,” he said. “Don’t retire. Keep fighting. Keep coming last because eventually, you will come first … if you stick it out, you will eventually come first.”
— With files from Squire Barnes