Saturday, August 3, 2013

On Nardwuar aka "pop music's best interviewer"

Anyone who knows me knows that I have had a longstanding interest in the work of an unusual interviewer with the equally unusual name Nardwuar The Human Serviette. Since the late 1980s he's been doing interviews with pop stars, punks, pitchmen, and politicans, first on campus radio and local cable access TV, later as a contributor to MuchMusic (aka Canada's MTV), and most recently on the self-serve smorgasbord that is YouTube. Largely as a result of being able to work around, as opposed to with, broadcasting structures, he has come to be known to a global audience, receiving an unanticipated career bump 20+ years after he first started doing his uncategorizable interviews for the campus radio station at UBC in Vancouver.

Search and ye shall find. Googling as one of the keys to Nardwuar's mid career success

Let's get this party started by directing your attention to this article, which appeared at in
Screenshot from recent story on Nardwuar for

July 2013. Maybe you came across it; it was pretty heavily shared on Facebook and oft retweeted. The sub-headline says it all -- "Pop music's best interviewer is a very weird Canadian guy on YouTube"-- and I agree wholeheartedly. While almost everyone else in the game has been concerned with things like having the interviewee(s) like them and/or think they're cool, Nardwuar has put all of those concerns aside in favour of the creation of his own category of media encounter. Why do things the orderly, predictable way when you can rewrite the rules and turn the experience into a combination obstacle course/antiques road show of musical history. He's been at it for over 25 years, but it's only since his work has been made available to a broad, global audience on YouTube that things have really been notched up to the next level.

Nardwuar at a glance:

When I read the Slate article I was immediately struck by the extent to which the writer 'got' him, in a way that very few journalists have in the past. Having read dozens of profiles of Nardwuar over the years it soon became clear to me that this was the most insightful one I'd ever read. "Wayward erudition"?  Exactly. "His most effective journalistic tools: deep research and pure joy"? A chinwag to that one too. "A kind of creatively sublimated obsessive compulsion"? Yeah, probably true.

Search engines being what they are, I googled the article's writer, Mark O'Connell, and in short order found his Twitter account, and his website, from which I learned he had been doing post-doctoral work in literature at Trinity College Dublin, and was also a journalist who had written for publications ranging from The Observer and The Independent to the New Yorker online. He also penned Epic Fail, an eBook (and it's only two bucks) about this cultural moment's interest in things so bad that they're kind of good. I dropped Mark a line, complimenting him on the acuteness of his observations in the Slate piece, and next thing I knew I was asking him for an interview for the blog. I am happy to report that he agreed and what follows is that Q&A.

Hello Mark, Thank you once again for writing such an incisive article on Nardwuar, appearing just 1 day before his birthday as well. What a great gift….at least as good as something he would pull out of his literal bag of tricks. Here are my questions for you…and feel free to answer in bullet points, phrases, emoticons…whatever you like. So...what prompted you, a post doctoral researcher in English literature based in Dublin, to write this article?

Actually, I'm no longer a postdoctoral researcher; my bio on Slate is pretty out of date these days (thank you for reminding me). But I'm a fan of a lot of the music that Nardwuar focuses on in his interviews. I kind of grew up listening to a lot of the people and punk bands that Nardwuar interviewed in the early part of his career. Like Jello Biafra was a pretty monolithic figure in my cultural landscape as a teenager, as were Nardwuar's fellow British Columbians Nomeansno, so I was sort of peripherally aware of Nardwuar for quite a while before I really started watching his videos on YouTube. And I'm quite a big hip-hop fan (although by no means an expert), so I was kind of intrigued to discover, a few years back, that Nardwuar had sort of reinvented himself as this outside figure in the rap scene. And there was something about the dynamic between Nardwuar, who is such a product of US punk culture, and a lot of the rappers he interviews, that I found really interesting. And he keeps improving all the time. I just decided to write about him because I felt like I hadn't seen much appreciation of what he does in the mainstream media. It's also very fun to write about something you're really enthusiastic about for a readership who generally isn't familiar with it. I also felt like he'd had a few great moments recently - like the Questlove interview, and the most recent conversation with Pharrell Williams – so it seemed like as good a time as any to write about him.

My work looks at things that come from outside of industry structures that are able to find a home within new industry structures, so Nardwuar is a textbook case. He started out trying to get noticed by broadcasters and networks but was always relegated to small or unfortunate time slots and generally passed over in favour of the more ‘commercially attractive’ hosts/presenters. What are your thoughts on this new phenomenon we’re seeing – of people who could only have come from outside of industry (no network exec would ever have dreamt up Nardwuar) finding audiences by going direct to fan? (Or is this niche entertainment for a niche audience, that just happens to be global, and accessible via platforms like YouTube, Twitter, and blogs?)

That's a really interesting point, and I'm kind of disappointed now I didn't work that side of things into the article. Nardwuar's always embodied the punk DIY philosophy and the work ethic that goes along with the most successful examples of that; when I think of Jello Biafra's "Don't hate the media, become the media" slogan, it's hard to think of a better example of that in action than Nardwuar. But the extent to which he's benefitted from a structure provided by a massive world-encircling corporation (i.e. Google, which obviously owns YouTube) to faciliate that DIY project is kind of interesting in itself. More power to him, I say. Nardwuar's success and visibility is purely due to the fact that he's incredibly good at what he does, and that people like watching him, not because some network exec decided he should be on TV or whatever, and that's unambiguously a good thing. I don't think he would really work on TV anyway, because the audience would be too broad and scattershot – online, his audience has found him, or he's found his audience, which maybe amounts to the same thing. Yes, I suppose he's pretty much the definition of niche appeal. But who's to say a niche has to be small? (Except maybe the dictionary.)

You use the phrase 'counterintuitively attractive synthesis' to describe Nardwuar’s on air persona. I agree with this characterization…so much in his case is about defying our expectations, and ‘negative charisma’, the tension between the can’t look/can’t not look we all are familiar with from scenes of motor vehicle accidents. Do you think that with the online success of people like Nardwuar, Bryan Stars (, Wade Holland (aka W of, that we may be seeing a shift away from the polished cool of the conventional media personalities and toward something less ‘formed/shaped’? (You use the phrase 'aggressive uncoolness' in your piece in Slate and to me it is precisely that, combined with the swagger and gangsta’ness of people like Snoop, Waka Flaka Flame, Juicy J, L’il Wayne that makes it work. When Nardwuar did his first interview with Snoop in 2000 I told him that if he was in the US he would probably get shot for trying to do interviews like that one. How wrong I was.)

I'm not sure, really. I guess I'd be sort of reluctant to see Nardwuar as indicative of anything other than himself, because he seems to me to be such a unique figure. He's a one-off; it's easy to imagine people being inspired by him, but difficult to imagine anyone else doing what he does. There's definitely an element of the 'negative charisma' you mention in some of the more awkward of his interviews – usually from early on in his career. But, for me at least, the appeal of Nardwuar is almost purely in how incredibly well informed he is on his subjects – but look who I'm talkting to here! – and in the contrast between his awkward geeky persona and the people he's talking to. That's really interesting that you said that to him about the Snoop Interview, given what a turning point that seems to have been for him. But who could have predicted that turn?

To me there’s a grand irony in the fact that the job of broadcasters and networks is to pair up talent and content with audiences. And what we have, and poetically so in the case of Nardwuar, is a person for whom the removal of the broadcasters, not their blessing, was the key to reaching a critical mass. Any theories on the changes we’re seeing in what people actually want to see on platforms like YouTube, and what broadcasters/network executives think people want to see?

This isn't so much a theory as maybe a restatement of what you've just pointed out, but yes, it seems to me that Nardwuar is a prime example of a situation where the removal of gatekeepers has worked out well for the relationship between talent/content and audience. But at the same time, it was gratifying to see how many people reacted to the Slate piece by saying that it was their first exposure to him, and that they'd instantly become obsessed with watching as many of his videos as possible.

You told me in an earlier email that your early exposure to Nardwuar was probably pre-YouTube, going back to the days of zines and DVDs (or maybe even VHS tapes?) In those days he tended to focus on punk, garage, and 60s-inspired bands, whereas his recent ascent can be directly correlated to the way he clicks with rappers/hip hop artists. Why do you think artists from this genre resonate so well with the Nard-world?

Actually, I was thinking about this quite a lot while I was working my way through the highlights of Nardwuar's career for the piece. I think maybe part of it has to do with the fact that the kind of person Nardwuar is would be much less familiar to the rap interviewees than to the punk bands he started out interviewing. So there's that frisson of, I don't know, otherness, that adds an interesting tension to the set-up. But I also thought – and this could be completely, utterly wrong – that maybe the reason Nardwuar clicks so well with a lot of the hip-hop people he interviews is that so many rappers and people involved in hip-hop are so well-versed (no pun intended), so completely saturated, in rap history, that they're particularly well positioned to appreciate the depth of his knowledge. The whole culture of crate-digging, of being a scholar of the history of the music, seems to be quite central to hip-hop. The interview with Questlove was a really strong example of that for me. Because it didn't seem like a conventional popstar/interviewer dynamic so much as two music historians having this joyful exchange of their knowledge.

Thanks to Mark O'Connell for writing the piece in Slate and for doing this interview.

And thanks to Eclectic Method for this 2 minute crash course mashup of Nardwuar interview moments:

1 comment:

  1. In the many years that I've been following Nardwuar, I've only once failed to be impressed by him. His style is far from being one-dimensional; he can adjust when he has to, and the results are almost always the usual brilliance. Like when he interviewed James Brown, he did away with the clowning around and showed some somber reverence for this legend. And it worked. James Brown was impressed, and so was I. However, Geddy Lee is another legend, but Nardwuar chose to be outrageous, and Geddy wasn't into it. At first I thought Geddy was being a sourpuss, but then I concluded that Nardwuar should have toned it down as he did with "Mr. Brown". I would love to see Nardwuar interview some of the elder statespeople of music (sorry, Henry Rollins doesn't count, but what a coup that second interview was with him), but Nardwuar vs. Neil Young, for example? I just wonder if it would work.