Nardwuar the Human Serviette Reflects on 30 Years of Campus Radio

Photo by William R Jans

by Yasmine Shemesh

Published in print and online in the September 2018 issue of BeatRoute Magazine

Nardwuar the Human Serviette is leaning against the doorway of CiTR Radio, drinking out of a water bottle. Adhering to the University of British Columbia campus station’s “no liquids by the equipment” studio rule, the beloved, fast-talking journalist — wearing his signature tartan tam and a yellow sweatsuit with the names of bands like the Beatles and Sex Pistols scattered over it — keeps his distance as he quenches his thirst and keeps his vocal chords malleable.

The studio space, now located in the newly built AMS Student Nest, is bright and airy, with wood panels on big windows that look out to a foyer and a wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling bookcase that acts as a digital library. On the counter beside the switchboard is a stack of records that Nardwuar plans to play later this afternoon on his weekly radio show. Included are I Am The Greatest, the 1963 spoken word album by Cassius Clay, before the boxer was known as Muhammad Ali, and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Total Body Workout, a campy 1983 compilation that has Schwarzenegger instructing fitness exercises over songs like “Burning For You” and “Don’t Stop Believin’.”

Nardwuar remembers his very first day as a host at CiTR, back in October 1987. Before that, he’d done announcements. The room looked a lot like this, he describes, with records strewn about everywhere. It was overwhelming. The following week, he decided he would do interviews. Much easier, he grins.

Over the next three decades, Nardwuar would interview everyone from Kurt Cobain to Justin Trudeau. His guerrilla approach and prodigious knowledge, frequently accompanied by gifts — rare records, obscure artifacts, often drawing a Canadian connection — make for an enthusiastic exchange that captures a side seldom seen of his subjects. He had a regular spot on MuchMusic and, now, has conquered YouTube. A historian and patriot, Nardwuar’s commitment to journalism, particularly at a local level, is incomparable. The campus station has been his home, every Friday, for the last 30 years. He’ll celebrate the milestone this month, airing a 20-hour marathon of career- and scope-spanning interviews, as well as with a gig where his band, the Evaporators, will perform.

“The purpose of CiTR is to expose people to thoughts they haven’t heard before,” Nardwuar says. “There’s nothing wrong with the traditional media, but what’s the point of us regurgitating back exactly what they’re going to say? So, we try to provide a different context. The same thing with interviews, etcetera. The purpose of CiTR is to provide an alternative to what’s going on and the reason I’m still here, still doing it, is that I learn something every time I come in here.”

The minute you know everything, Nardwuar adds, is the minute you should quit. Campus radio keeps him on his toes. He recalls one day, in 1989, when a man calling himself Henry 77 burst through the station’s doors and asked to speak on air. Nardwuar said yes. “He talked all about Fibonacci numbers and how familiarity breeds contempt, all this sort of stuff. He came out to the university to spread the knowledge that he had.”

Nardwuar studied Canadian History at UBC and graduated in 1990. His mother, Olga Ruskin, was also a historian and journalist, and a prominent influence on his professional life. She co-wrote Gastown’s Gassy Jack, the first book published about the notorious barman, and hosted a public access television show (inspiring the Evaporators’ first record, Oh God, My Mom’s On Channel 10!) where she interviewed figures from the North Shore. “She made these people, who seemed boring to me, very interesting,” Nardwuar says. “So, she taught me that everybody has a story.” Accompanying his mother to meetings ignited his interest in history — Vancouver’s, specifically.

Nardwuar’s vast expertise is one of the most compelling things about him. He is a brilliant musicologist and the effort he puts into his meticulous research is a testament to his professionalism and genuine interest. The reaction is usually a combination of amazement and respect. He presented Grimes with Emergency Room Vol. 1, a compilation LP from an underground music venue she frequented. To Pharrell, he gifted Carl Sagan’s Music of the Cosmos. There have been some who haven’t appreciated the intention. Sonic Youth, in a mean-spirited display, smashed the record brought for them as a present. Mostly though, Nardwuar’s method is not lost on his subjects — it is admired. Questlove was close to tears when he was given a rare issue of the periodical Roctober, which included an article on Soul Train’s early days in Chicago. The Roots co-founder was, at the time, penning a book celebrating its legacy.

“There’s some people, like Donald Trump or Kanye West, that I have files built up on. Every time I think of something, I jot it down,” Nardwuar says. “It’s continual, it’s a file. For other interviews, usually once a week [to prepare]. Anybody can do it, but they just can’t be bothered.”

Nardwuar politely excuses himself and, with water bottle in hand, returns to the doorway. He takes a few gulps and comes back to his chair.

What would he ask Trump, if he had the chance? “I know what I would ask him right off the bat,” Nardwuar replies. “I would say, ‘would you do the Hip Flip with me?’”

Jean Chrétien, Paul Martin, and Trudeau have all joined Nardwuar’s Hip Flip club, partaking in the 1960s party game where two players rhythmically swing their hips to rotate a flipper around a rod. Interviewing more politicians is double underlined on Nardwuar’s list of goals. It’s a long list. Despite all of his standing achievements, he humbly insists that he isn’t satisfied. He’s still scrambling, he says, and feels he has so much more to know and further stories to engage with. “It’s the interviewer’s job to make the interviewee exciting. In other words, after an interview, you might go, ‘that person was boring.’ No. That person wasn’t boring. You were boring in not bringing out that person’s flavour.”

It’s nearly time for Nardwuar’s show. He begins sorting through records, some of which have a Post-It stuck to the jacket noting the tracks he wants to spin. He picks up his iPhone and posts a tweet detailing which interview he’ll be airing. Today, Lil Wayne.

Apart from the new building, perhaps the biggest change at CiTR is technology. With the rise of the internet, there was fear that the web would kill the airwaves. The opposite, however, has proved to be true, especially in terms of accessibility and reach. “Now, I just can’t believe how amazing it is,” Nardwuar exclaims. “Like, for instance, we just give a tweet and we’ll tell to the world to tune in. We can send a picture of the record we’re playing. The show can be archived. People can listen live or it can be podcast. Used to be, commercial stations, we envied them because they were strong signalled and people could tune in, the music could be heard, but now we are equal, pretty much, because most people listen on the internet with those commercial stations. So it’s really exciting, the fact that more than 50 people can tune in. We can be right up there with everybody else.”

Nardwuar puts a record on the turntable and flicks it with his fingers a couple of times. He hunches over the switchboard to hit a few knobs and furrows his brow. Things were less complicated, he laughs, when there was a single on and off button.

“I wanted to show you this,” he says, leaning forward and thumbing through the photos on his phone. He stops at one of the Penthouse Night Club, with ‘Seth Rogan Drinks For Free’ lit up on the landmark strip club’s marquee. “This, to me, is an interview going well. This is the Penthouse in Vancouver. ‘Seth Rogen Drinks For Free.’ In other words, they saw my interview and they put this on their sign. I want this to happen all the time, for every interview.”

Nardwuar gets excited when he has the opportunity to speak with someone, like Rogen, who was also raised in Vancouver. There’s a kinship there, in understanding the things that are integrated into the fabric of local history. His favourite topic. Of course, Narwuar is very much weaved into it, too. His is a bright thread, distinguished by passion and sincerity.

“That is amazing, isn’t it? That is from a fucking interview that I did. I can’t believe that.”