How Nardwuar Became One of the World’s Best Interviewers

His insane interviewing style has scored him sit-downs with everyone from Mikhail Gorbachev to Cardi B.
December 29, 2018
11 mins read

The thing about Nardwuar is that he might be immortal. He could tell you he was in his 30s or 80s, and you would believe him either way. Much like strolling through the hallway of an isolated mountain hotel and seeing Jack Nicholson immortalized in a decades-old photo, pick a point in recent history and Nardwuar’s smiling face will be there. It’s the result of a career trajectory that has allowed this one particularly intrepid journalist to pinball from the Cold War to Kurt Cobain to Justin Trudeau to Cardi B.

It’s the only explanation for how someone who is a visual amalgamation of a 19th century golfer, Tom Baker when he was on “Doctor Who” and the Disney character Goofy, could have scored interviews with some of the world’s most fascinating and sought-after subjects. It’s the only explanation, really, for how someone like him could exist.

At this point, human history has divided itself into two: There is before, and there is after. First, there was darkness, and then there was Nardwuar.

Although he was given the name John Ruskin at birth, it’s hard to imagine he came out of the womb as any being other than Nardwuar. Or more precisely, Nardwuar the Human Serviette, the name he adopted in 1986 as a DJ on CITR in Vancouver, the radio station for the University of British Columbia. The origins of his alias, he once explained to the CBC, was the result of a random word he had idly invented one day, which he thought would translate well as a “dumb stupid name, just like Sting!”

His father was an engineer, but his career path has followed that of his mother, a journalist. She hosted a local interview show in Vancouver, called “Our Pioneers and Neighbors,” where she would mine the backstories of the city’s residents. It’s not difficult, then, to pinpoint the origins of Nardwuar’s current interview style.

Nardwuar’s modus operandi is this: If there’s something he can learn about you, he will learn it. He’s made an enduring career off of being invasive.

Give Nardwuar half an hour to rummage through the Pentagon, and he could probably come up with solid evidence for the existence of extraterrestrial life. He could find proof that the moon landing was faked, that lizard people are secretly running the world and that Tupac is still alive. He could probably take down a few foreign governments while he’s at it. In other words, Nardwuar is a wizard at research.

He’s a ballistic missile of an interviewer. A play-by-pay of a typical Nardwuar interview:

“Who are you?” Nardwuar will ask the artist, politician or comedian he’s speaking to. It’s the way he’s opened every single one of his interviews.

“How do you know that?!” The questions start to burrow in deep as Nardwuar shows off the bounty of his extensive research. He unleashes questions about the beginnings of his subjects’ careers, relationships with early mentors or childhood hangouts. Nardwuar has famously avoided revealing his research methods, but the lengths he’s gone to learn about an interviewee’s life, and the bizarre questions derived from it, have received mixed reactions.

To sample a few: Chance the Rapper nervously puffing on a cigarette and saying that he knew he would be asked “freaky ass questions” when Nardwuar brings up a plot of land the rapper owns in North Carolina. Former Vice President Don Quayle spouting nonsense to avoid revealing the fact he doesn’t know the current prime minister of Canada. Mikhail Gorbachev retracting from the microphone like the Iron Curtain when Nardwuar takes the mic and asks which world leader wears the biggest pants.

“How much money did you spend on all these gifts for me?” Cardi B gawks after Nardwuar hands her a gift he thinks she’ll like: a record by a female rap trio called Hoes With Attitude. Going hand-in-hand with his extensive research, Nardwuar peppers his interviews with gifts for his subjects, something he thinks they’ll like or a relic from their past. He tried to give Henry Rollins a Power Bar when the Black Flag singer was known for being particularly jacked. He stunned Snoop Dogg with an original copy of “Smokefest” 1996. It is unknown how much money Nardwuar spends on all these gifts.

“You have, like, two more questions and we’re done,” a visibly irritated Henry Rollins once told Nardwuar after rejecting his Power Bar peace offering. Because it could come off as extremely creepy when a stranger appears to have learned every single thing about your life up to the present, people have abandoned interviews by cutting them short or physically removing themselves. A clip from his interview with Lil Uzi Vert made its rounds on the internet when the rapper got freaked out by the depth of Nardwuar’s questions and literally ran away from the interview.

He’ll sing “Doot doola doot doo…” before returning the mic to the guest. His signature call-and-response jingle he’s used to close every single interview since his CITR days. If they’ve made it all the way through, he’ll get the response he’s looking for: “…Doot doo.” Or at least some variation of it.

Nardwuar has a knack for throwing whoever he’s interviewing off their axis based on his signature one-two punch of bizarre journalism: the obvious depth of research that goes into every question and the earnestly exaggerated enthusiasm in which he asks it.

You can tell that nearly everything that has contributed to Nardwuar’s longevity as a music journalist stems from the idiosyncrasies he’s attached to his character. In the precarious interview with Henry Rollins, Nardwuar presumably switches into his persona just as the camera starts rolling, prompting Rollins to respond: “Oh, I see. You’re a character now.” But still, Rollins acknowledges the obvious effort he’s has put into preparing for the interview, in the obvious effort he’s placed in learning about his subject. His questioning is intense and can come off as creepy, but it’s always apparent that Nardwuar worships the art of interviewing.

Despite clips from his interviews regularly going viral and being picked up by major music publications, such as his video with Lil Uzi Vert, Nardwuar has never broken through the boundaries of the mainstream. He’s said in the past that he’s sent off tapes to MTV and the roster of late-night talk shows, but they’ve all gone unanswered.

The Nardwuar character, in his vintage clothing at million-a-minute style questioning, has proven to be a hit in the deep corners of the internet, where audiences have essentially deemed him a god of interviewing. But on mainstream television, where celebrities swan through and answer a preselected menu of the same set of questions, Nardwuar would simply stick out too sorely.

Nardwuar, the wacky uncle of music journalism, is niche, but he was always meant to be. To this day, he continues to do his show on CITR on Fridays. Surrounded by the students that make up the station’s staff, he says this is how he’s been turned on to some of the newer talent he’s interviewed. Although the Nardwuar brand has expanded and has been aided exponentially by the advent of YouTube where he regularly uploads his interviews — his channel currently sits at over 870,000 subscribers — Nardwuar’s appeal, and the sizable audience he’s been able to carve out, has always been in just how crazy in-depth his questions are. Nardwuar is one of the world’s best living interviewers because he cares very, very much.

As long as people continue to have noteworthy achievements, capture the public’s interests and have backstories waiting to be researched, Nardwuar will be there. As long as the world continues to turn, Nardwuar will be there, with a list of questions and a couple gifts he thinks you might like.

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