May 11, 2015 - 7:27 PM
TORONTO - Every year at South by Southwest — a packed desert playground for the famous, the hip and the corporate — a minor stir rises up around a middle-aged Canadian man with a nasally voice, a tartan tam and a microphone.
Nardwuar the Human Serviette has become an Austin attraction because the Vancouver native has a gift: when it comes to conducting celebrity interviews, he simply stands a pom pom above the rest.
He's elicited off-kilter candour from the diverse likes of Iggy Pop, Katy Perry, Geddy Lee and former U.S. president Gerald Ford. He's recently shown particular aptitude for sparking fascinating discussions with hip-hop stars, including Drake, Lil Wayne, Jay Z and Pharrell Williams, who marvelled: "This is one of the most impressive interviews I've ever experienced in my life."
In every case, Nardwuar bombards his subjects with meticulously researched with gifts, non-sequitur queries and references to obscure pieces of personal trivia.
Some respond with wonder, some with bemusement, and a dishonourable few with quick-boil irritation. Regardless, Nardwuar always keeps cheerfully singing his tune.
Hisinterviews have lived on MuchMusic, on VHS tapes shared by fans, and on the albums recorded by his band, the Evaporators.
He's now found a hugely enthusiastic audience on YouTube, where he has more than 300,000 followers. At South by Southwest — a fertile ground for his artist encounters — he's flocked by selfie-seeking fans and increasingly in-the-know musicians.
It's beginning to seem like everyone's a believer — except, perhaps, Nardwuar himself.
"For me, I never feel good about an interview," he says. "So many people, they don't care about what they're doing because they think they know what they're doing.
"I'm nervous and I'm always thinking it didn't turn out well, so I'm always striving to do better."
The 46-year-old guards his secrets carefully, only conceding that he maintains files on potential interview subjects, and that the vinyl he wields comes from his personal library and that of the CiTR campus radio station where he's worked since October 1987.
Still, Nardwuar graciously took The Canadian Press behind the scenes of some of his most memorable celebrity encounters:
After a stunning six interviews, Nardwuar built a special rapport with the G Funk rapper.
But he was so nervous before his first encounter with Snoop in 2000 that he broke the ice by playing show-and-tell with a friend's Redd Foxx doll — and the Doggfather's perpetually clouded mind was blown.
Nardwuar resisted Snoop's overtures to buy the doll, but when the rapper became equally smitten with a piece of vinyl by boogie group the Whispers, Nardwuar eventually relented.
The record had belonged to a friend, who was furious. Now, Nardwuar usually brings things the guests can keep.
When the grunge gods wheezed through Vancouver for two nights in 1994, Nardwuar wouldn't be denied.
First, he and a friend hid in Nirvana's dressing room bathroom, standing on toilets until they were discovered by security (who did not buy Nardwuar's claim that he was the president of Sub Pop).
He returned to the PNE Forum later that day to interview the Butthole Surfers. He ran into Kurt Cobain who declined an interview but accepted a cassette of Nardwuar's past chat with Courtney Love.
The next night, Nardwuar returned to face quick rejection from security, who remembered his little Sub Pop fib. Just as the situation veered into hopelessness, he spotted Cobain and Love wandering past and called out.
Love recognized him.
"I listened to that tape Kurt gave me last night," she said. "You have to learn to edit your interviews better!"
The Hole singer then persuaded security that Nardwuar was her cousin. Minutes later, he was backstage chatting with Nirvana.
It was one of the last interviews Cobain would ever conduct.
BLUR/SONIC YOUTH/SKID ROW
Finally, three bands whose mean-spirited bullying of Nardwuar only left a black eye on their own reputations.
In 1991, Sonic Youth's Lee Ranaldo and Thurston Moore smashed a seven-inch record Nardwuar had brought as a gift and wrenched his shirt over his head while he shouted in distress: "You idiot!"
Eleven years later, he interviewed a more sedate edition of the band, but a still-aloof Ranaldo claimed cooly he had "no recollection" of the prior incident.
Blur drummer Dave Rowntree was equally belligerent in 2003, yanking off Nardwuar's hat and glasses.
Eight years later, Rowntree ran for political office and was asked to account for his behaviour. He blamed his cocaine habit and claimed to have personally apologized, which Nardwuar says never happened.
Of course, someone who self-identifies as Nardwuar the Human Serviette has a thick skin — just as long as the camera is rolling.
So he reserves special enmity for Skid Row's Sebastian Bach, who followed up a testy interview in 1994 (during which he stole Nardwuar's favourite toque) by destroying the tape.
Since then, Nardwuar only does heavy metal interviews by phone, arguing: "It's more safe."
"People have got mad at me from Day 1, so it's nothing new.... If something's going bad and it's being documented, who cares?" he reasoned.
"As long as the tape is documenting what's going on, YouTube will preserve it, and people will be held accountable."
So this one was different from Nardwuar's usual, unusual formula.
In 1997, he attended a press conference during the APEC summit in Vancouver, where another reporter sized him up and scoffed: "You're just going to ask some stupid question."
Humiliated and motivated in equal measure, Nardwuar went home, shaved his head down to the moss, knotted a tie around his neck and returned the next day prepared with a tough question for then-Canadian prime minister Jean Chretien.
First, Nardwuar asked about student protests against APEC.
"Do you think, Mr. Chretien, if you were say, 40 years younger, that you too would be writing punk songs and protesting against APEC?" he asked.
Chretien replied that "in a democracy, people protest." He did the same when he was a student, he said.
Nardwuar pressed, referring to the use of pepper spray on those same protesters.
"Does mace equal freedom? Would you have been maced yourself back then, Prime Minister Chretien?"
"I don't know. This technique did not exist in those days," began Chretien, before issuing one of his most infamous quotes.
"For me, pepper, I put it on my plate."
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News from © The Canadian Press, 2015