Nardwuar vs. Courtney Booker or Why Should I Consider Majoring in History?
Nardwuar the Human Serviette is a national treasure, or at least a provincial prize, or at the very least a metropolitan marvel. One thing is for sure – hyperbole is never out of place when describing him. “Exceptional,” “excessive,” and “egregious” are all apt adjectives for his outsize personality and guerilla interviews of musicians, politicians, and sundry artists and celebrities. But Nardwuar is no shock jock DJ or “offbeat” media personality of the month. What has distinguished his long career (now spanning more than 20 years) is his infectious curiosity and enthusiasm, his quick wit, and above all the depth and creativity of research that he conducts in preparation for every interview – research that typically leaves his interviewees either bewildered and charmed or offended and outraged. In either instance, a window into the subject is opened that few other interviewers are even able to see, let alone crack.
As will become apparent in my interview with him transcribed below (conducted on 2 September, 2011), Nardwuar’s mind and mouth run at a breakneck pace. As Dave Watson has memorably put it, “Think of gears moving at different speeds. There’s a bump when they meet, and they either mesh or instantly ricochet off each other, spewing teeth. When you meet [Nardwuar], he’s going at his speed and you’re at yours. Then the clutch pops and, well, different people react differently. The second time, you have a better idea of what to expect.” Before I even have a chance to turn on the tape recorder, Nardwuar and I are somehow already talking about his Wikipedia entry, and to what extent the information found there is true. The transcript picks up in the middle of that conversation.
Courtney Booker: But you were a history major at UBC, yes?
Nardwuar the Human Serviette: Yes, never let the truth get in the way of a good story, as they say. But yes, I did take history. I’m not sure if it was a major or not. [As I later confirmed, Nardwuar did indeed graduate with a degree in history in 1990, with a particular focus on Canadian and U.S. history] I took historical archaeology – that was one of the courses, with Diane Newell, who did the history of canneries and stuff like that. And I did a project, a historical, archaeological project on the Lions Gate Bridge, which is in Special Collections, I think, but it might’ve been taken out by now. But it basically was me going to Lions Gate Bridge with a hammer and chipping off some of the bridge and rock samples. They didn’t ask me to do that, but I thought it would be fun to include it in the project. I also went through all the archives and Xeroxed tons of information about the creation of the Lions Gate Bridge. And made a video, too. So that theoretically should be in Special Collections, if it hasn’t been thrown out. And that would’ve been from the late ’80s to early ’90s.
So how would we find that?
Well, it was supposedly stored in Special Collections, and it would be in Historical Archaeology. Dianne Newell was the instructor. They said that it would be stored forever and ever in Special Collections, which is a line I’m sure a lot of the students are given. So that was a report I did. It even had a video. So if you go there, you can even see video of me standing on the Lions Gate Bridge talking about the Lions Gate Bridge. So there is some hard evidence that I was involved in the History program at UBC.
Now, basically, when I came to UBC, my dad wanted me to be an engineer. So I tried to take engineering courses, and I think for some reason I got into economics or pre-com; I guess his idea was that I could do pre-com and then go into engineering. I’m not sure what it was. But for some reason it was commerce. But I basically pretty much failed out of everything to do with economics. So the second year I somehow survived. I was able to take some history courses, and I kind of switched doing more history courses instead of math courses, which I failed both semesters, both terms. I failed one – when they say you fail one, you can always supplement the exam, so I went to the other one, and failed both of them. It was pretty scary. I remember going to my dad and saying dad, this is really hard. And him saying, “God, this is hard. You want me to try to write the exam for you? I couldn’t even write the exam for you, this is so confusing.” It was really, really super hard. So I ended up taking some history – one of the courses was Historical Archaeology. And then a few years later another course was a history course; at the very end you could write an essay on anything you wanted. And I picked the Kennedy assassination, because of a show on CiTR called “Radio Free America,” hosted by a guy named Dave Emory. It was a show originally from KUSF in San Francisco, and it was rebroadcast on CiTR on Sunday nights between 10 and 12. They would talk about all sorts of great conspiracies. And I would be at home listening to this and eating cheese and crackers. I was fascinated by it. And one of the conspiracies was the Kennedy assassination. Dave Emory was a disciple of Mae Brussell, who was a famous woman. She was a housewife – “just a housewife,” as they said back then – just a housewife who went through every edition of the Warren Commission, every sort of edition, every sort of report, and was the first person to go through it and point out all this weird stuff – because a lot of people said, you know, the Warren Commission, the assassination of John F. Kennedy, we don’t believe it. But they didn’t actually check the evidence, which actually gave more reasons why they shouldn’t believe it. The researchers didn’t think to look right in the actual report. The actual report has a lot of interesting things in it that led to even more conspiracy theories.
So Dave Emory was a disciple of Mae Brussell, or, as he called himself, a “Brussell Sprout.” He took her teachings and put them on the radio. So I would be listening to CiTR, because I was then doing, and I still do, a show on CiTR – I would come home Sunday nights, and on CiTR they were playing “Radio Free America,” and I was like “Oh my God. This is great.” I told the instructor about it, and he said, “Why don’t you do a report on the Kennedy Assassination?” I also took another course where we played hacky sack – it might’ve been in that actual course, as well, where we played hacky sack. So I think I played hacky sack, and wrote something about the assassination of John F. Kennedy – ah, to get into UBC back in the ’80s. I think I got in with a C+ average. So things were pretty fun – hacky sack, and the Kennedy assassination, and eating cheese.
Do you remember who taught that course?
It’s funny how I don’t remember the professor who gave me the opportunity to play hacky sack and write something on the assassination of John F. Kennedy, but I do remember a course that I took on BC History with Professor MacDonald. Is he still doing stuff?
He sure is.
That was pretty amazing. I also remember another professor by the name of Peter Moogk. Is he still around?
He retired just a few years ago.
He had written a book called Vancouver Defended, all about Vancouver during World War II, and how in Vancouver they had places so that we could defend ourselves against the Japanese if there ever was an actual invasion. I thought it was pretty fascinating. How I learned about this was my mom, she had written a book in 1970 called Gastown’s Gassy Jack. It was the first book, with Raymond Hull – he co-authored it – about Gastown’s Gassy Jack. So she would always haul me over to the meetings of the North Shore Historical Society, when I was younger, when I was in high school, and one of the people that came, that spoke at the North Shore Historical Society, was Dr. Peter Moogk. So when I came to UBC, I just had to take his class. He wasn’t talking about that stuff, but I just totally loved it.
So you had something of a background in history.
Yes, and MacDonald, he talked a lot about the social implications of history. It wasn’t sort of the folksy stuff. The book my mom wrote was kind of like a pamphlet – it was kind of a fun thing. So it was quite interesting to get exposed to the social aspect of it as well. So I did get into some interesting stuff while at UBC – the Kennedy assassination, Vancouver Defended, Lions Gate Bridge, and the social aspect of history. I remember I also did a report on Moodyville as well. Moodyville was a settlement across from Granville where Vancouver was first settled. Gassy Jack was the first pioneer in Vancouver, and they named Vancouver Granville first, and then they changed it to Vancouver. It was called Gastown and then it was called Granville – but it really should have been called Gastown from then on. Vancouver should have been called Gastown. Across from Gastown was Moodyville, which was on the north shore. Moodyville was where the sawmills and stuff were. So I actually did a project on Moodyville. I think it was actually for Professor MacDonald.
Also I put on a gig with the punk rock band Fugazi, who used to be Minor Threat, and we called it a “Moodyville Moo Moo.” It was 20 years ago this past summer that I put it on. So the gig was “Nardwuar the Human Serviette presents a Moodyville Moo Moo.” It was me presenting the gig. I organized it. Some other gigs that I presented had local themes and names associated with them, too. And my band The Evaporators played.
So it kind of all centers around CiTR. I come to CiTR, and I choose my project because a guy on CiTR plays a radio show on the Kennedy Assassination. I decide to do a gig, and the gig is named after Moodyville because I learned about Moodyville through the North Shore Historical Society that my mom took me to when I was younger, but also when I was at UBC here – the local history that was being taught by Professor MacDonald.
I love that you not only make references and connections to Canada in your interviews, but that you do this Canadian memorialization with gigs as well. It’s been twenty years since the Fugazi show?
Yes, it was on August 19th, 1991, and so – isn’t that 20 years now? Yes, it’s almost 20 years exactly. What stands out about that show is I remember having to rent 800 dollars worth of portable toilets, because the guy in charge of the North Vancouver community rec. center said, “We have you by the balls! If something goes wrong here, you’re gonna wreck gigs for kids for years to come.” I said, “What do you mean?” And he said, “Well, if this fails, we’re not gonna allow any gigs for anybody.” I was like, “Oh my God!” Then he said, “But if you buy 800 dollars worth of toilets, we’ll feel a lot better.” That’s basically what they said. They didn’t actually say it in that tone. But I was like, “Why?” Because they wanted to have it run properly. And one of the things was, they had to have proper toilets. Enough toilets. But it was in a giant hockey rink! So I bought the toilets – I’m like, “Everybody’s gonna use the other toilets.” No, we have to use these toilets. And sure enough, nobody used any of the toilets. So that’s my lasting memory of that gig.
This was when you were an undergraduate?
Yes, we organized that. It was probably about 3,000 people who came to that gig. And the next time Fugazi came to Vancouver, they had to have Perryscope, which turned into Live Nation, put it on. So it was just me and people from CiTR – my friend Grant Lawrence from the band The Smugglers – putting on that gig.
Switching gears a little bit, what is your favorite history book, broadly defined? For instance, Lester Bangs’ Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung is certainly a history book, as far as I’m concerned.
Well, I have to say my favorite book is actually my mom’s book, Gastown’s Gassy Jack. Now, for books that have been written after that, or magazines, I would actually pick a fanzine called Ugly Things from San Diego, California, which is put out by a guy called Mike Stax. He puts it out basically about once or twice a year, and he’s been putting it out since 1983. It was like Mojo magazine before Mojo magazine. It’s totally detailed, and it explores all sorts of unheralded people from rock ‘n’ roll. For instance, they did a huge profile a few years ago on the band The Monks. The Monks were a band from Germany in the 1960s who were American servicemen. They shaved their heads, and they had totally wild, crazy, primal sounds. Nobody had found out about what The Monks were up to in the twentieth century – well, actually at all – since the ’60s, but Mike Stax tracked them down. He went to their house in Minneapolis and banged on their door and discovered them. He did that with a whole bunch of bands, and he’s been doing that all throughout the years. So every time you get an Ugly Things mag, it’s just filled. It comes out once a year, and it’s thick. It’s like double the size of Mojo, and it’s filled with great stuff. I would urge anybody interested in the history of rock ‘n’ roll to check out Ugly Things. They have a website, too. So that’s my number one inspiration because it’s still going, and it talks about all the great stuff in rock ‘n’ roll. The most recent one had stuff on The Kinks and Van Morrison, too – like, early stuff that you wouldn’t actually know about – and other sorts of bands, even The Misfits. It’s a great scholarly approach. And it’s funny, too.
I liked your allusion to The Monks. It makes perfect sense to me as a medievalist. Now, more broadly still – and I know you’ve kind of answered this next question in everything that you’ve already said, but – clearly your study of history, or at least your interest in history, informs your interviews, or the way that you do interviews. Can you speak a little about that? I’m not talking about the formal study of history, though it could be that; rather, I mean your reading and your interest in the past in terms of bands and music or whatever. How does your thinking about the past inform the way in which you go about conducting your interviews?
Well, it’s not so much the past, as it is the present – as it is who I am around. For instance, I would urge anybody interested in radio, music, or history to join CiTR, because you learn so much. For instance, during my show today Lloyd came in, and he just presented me with a CD from 1992 of “Rock the Vote.” And it makes you think, like, you’re doing a show, you’re doing a great show with Eugene Chadbourne or whoever, but there’s always something extra that can be added. And I think that’s what CiTR taught me, and that I appreciate – you can always dig deeper. Like in history. You’re doing an interview with Eugene Chadbourne, and you’re doing your radio show, and there’s always some way to make your show better. It’s always neat that people have some different ideas, and I think that’s what is so great about CiTR, the people you meet here – they give you ideas, like they bring “Rock the Vote,” that’ll add to your show. And I think it really does add to the show.
The same thing with callers that phone in. At commercial radio stations, a caller phones in, and the DJs laugh at the callers. People who phone in here, we respect their opinions, we want to hear what they have to say. And also, if they say something like, “Man, you suck,” we take it to heart, and then try to improve. I love it. It keeps you on your toes. There’s always something happening. There are people like yourself, Courtney, dropping by, ready to interview. You gotta be on your toes. Because the minute you think you know everything is pretty much the minute you should quit. Because you don’t know everything. There’s always something new to actually learn. There’s always something new. And somewhere to dig deeper. There’s always another lead to follow up on. Just like in history.
So that’s how it all kind of came around, and why I believe CiTR is just great. It’s a great influence. When I was doing my radio show, I was listening to other people do their radio shows. When I was younger, I thought, “Oh, I’m doing the best show.” And I’d hear somebody else’s show, and I’d be like “Oh my God!” And then I heard Dave Emory’s show, and it would be mind-blowing – “Oh my God, he’s talking about the Kennedy assassination!” But then I would meet somebody else who would say, “Nardwuar, that’s pretty cool, but did you ever hear what Paul Krassner said – you know, that guy Paul Krassner, a 1960s radical?”
That’s what I really love about CiTR, and organizations that are of an independent nature. There are always people throwing stuff out like that. You can follow that lead and see how far it takes you. And you can learn something new. It’s just so awesome to take all that in, and apply it. If I can do a show, anybody can do a show.
Given what you’ve just said, how do you determine whom to interview? If the field is wide open, if you can always learn from all these different sources, how do you winnow them down? How do you choose?
Well, because I do a radio show every week, I can’t choose. I just kind of wait and see what happens! Alan MacInnis, who does a great blog in Vancouver called Alienated Vancouver – he says, “Hey Nardwuar, do you want to interview Eugene Chadbourne? He’s coming to town. I’ve got his contact info.” Ok, sure! Alan just thought I might be interested, and just told me. The week before, the band The Jolts, they approached me. So it’s just basically people approaching me, or I see somebody coming to town, and I think, “Hmm, that would be an interesting person to talk to.” So there really is no rhyme or reason.
When the election was on, I thought, well, it would be interesting to try to go out and meet some of the candidates. I did a quick little interview with Michael Ignatieff, and tried to get him to do this 1960s game called “The Hip-Flip,” where you flip this little flipper, and I was able to do that. But how I was able to do that was not through an official press accreditation. I had to go to a town hall meeting, and I had to run up in the middle of the town hall and get him to actually do the Hip-Flip and answer these questions. I wasn’t able to get in the back door, like the regular media does. And that’s what kind of gets me angry sometimes – not the regular media itself, but how they don’t realize how lucky they are. You hear people doing their radio show, saying, “Ah, it’s the weekend, thank God.” No! You should be lucky you even have a job! You should be lucky to be on the air! At least you’re in the entertainment industry. These reporters going, “Yeah, the election’s coming up. I’ve gotta cover the election.” What? You’re complaining about covering the election? I would love to have your access! I’d love to not have to wait in the town hall meeting, like I did to get to Stéphane Dion, to try to get him to do the Hip-Flip. I never got him to do the Hip-Flip, because the Hip-Flip game was taken from me by some person who thought I wasn’t trying to use the Hip-Flip to hip-flip. They thought I was going to do something else with it. In fact, the person was whispering in my ear, “You’ve got the Hip-Flip game. We’re going to take that away.” I said, “Why?” They said, “That’s a game. That’s stupid.” I said, “What do you mean?” They said, “You’re here at a university. Do university students do stupid stuff like that? You’re in the media. You’re going to embarrass yourself.” I didn’t turn to the person, but I felt like saying, “Listen, the minute you join the media, of course you’re going to get embarrassed. The minute you’re at university, of course you’re gonna do stupid things. You gotta go for it. Being complacent really sucks.”
So that’s how I kind of do my show. It’s a haphazard, slacker’s way; I just think, “Well, maybe I’ll interview this person just because they’re coming to town.” Generally, it’s whoever is coming to town. But whenever I’m presented with an opportunity to interview somebody, I’ll interview them, because everyone has a story to tell. The interviewer’s job is to make the interviewee exciting. You can never say that somebody is boring. There’s always a story there – just like with history. And that’s how I kind of got into that, because my mom, she did a show called “Our Pioneers and Neighbours,” and she would interview local people. I would come home from school going “Oh, no, my mom’s on channel 10!” The reason I would say that was because at school people that day would say, “Hey, I saw your mom on TV.” And I would come home and say, “Oh, God, my mom’s on channel 10 today. I’m gonna get teased tomorrow!” She just interviewed people. I called the first record I put out “Oh, God, my mom’s on channel 10.” That was the name of it. It was a compilation record. But my mom inspired me, because I saw her interviewing these people, and she could get great stories out of people, and they weren’t celebrities. She always said, “Everybody has a good story.” People in history know that. And you can extrapolate that information.
So, students, you may think when you’re doing your history project that you’ve been assigned to interview some boring people – No! There’s always something really interesting. For instance, somebody might ask, “The Lion’s Gate Bridge – Why did you do a story on the Lion’s Gate Bridge?” This was before the big renovation and stuff. I was able to track down an actual bridge worker, who actually worked on the Lion’s Gate Bridge. That was the interview I submitted to Special Collections. Maybe it’s still there. Maybe it’s not there. Maybe the VHS has deteriorated. But it was neat being able to interview an actual bridge worker. And then be able to go to the bridge and rip off some of it. Actually, I didn’t have to rip off some of the bridge. The bridge was falling apart! It was pretty scary.
That leads into my next question. You just said that you were able to track down this bridge worker. Now, many people, many students know you through the internet – say, by watching some videos on You Tube or even through your website. That is, they’ll have found you by either Googling or using the internet. And so they use a computer. But you’ve been doing your interviews prior to the wide accessibility of the internet. You’ve been doing this kind of detailed research, this style of interview, for a long time. For example, when you were working on your historical archaeology paper, in order to tell another part of the story that no one has really heard, you somehow found this bridge worker. So I’m curious about your research style prior to the internet, and how it has changed – if it has changed – after the internet became a widespread, standard research tool.
Well, first off, it was about going into the stacks at UBC. That was amazing. You would just look through the card catalogue, and you would run to try to get to the book before the other person. Or try to find the book that maybe somebody hadn’t found in the stacks, and maybe hadn’t thought of. It was about being able to go to Special Collections, and see the archives they have, and Xeroxing a whole bunch of stuff that hadn’t been Xeroxed before – like the actual documents. So it was fun to be able to do this project, because I didn’t have to write a lot. I could just do a lot of Xeroxing! And for the bridge worker, remember I was a member of the North Shore Historical Society. I asked the Society head, and he knew somebody who had been a member, who knew somebody that worked on the bridge. So I was able to interview that bridge worker.
So it was just through basic contacts, which still happens today. You meet somebody on the internet, and they may not know the answer, but they’ll give you a lead, and you follow up. They may not be on the internet, but you can actually still contact that person. Also, when you talk to the person, it’s a lot easier than asking them questions on the internet. Because a lot of times people feel entitled when they send questions to somebody. Doing interviews on the internet is like writing an essay. You have to write the essay. It’s really hard to write the essay, because you have to answer it. But I find that sometimes when you just talk to people, it’s a lot easier. So a lot of times I might find a contact on the internet, but then I’ll say, “Well, can I give you a call?” And then I just talk to them. And that’s where the real information comes out. It isn’t necessarily the tidbits – there are a few tidbits on the internet that will lead to stuff – but it’s just talking to the person, or them giving a lead. So there are still many leads that can be found without the internet.
When you interview people, one of the things you like to do is bring out objects and pass them to the person and have them reflect upon them – usually something either from their past or that in some way relates to their current interests or career or whatever. Could you talk a little bit about the role that objects play in your interviews?
Well, that’s mainly for video interviews, when you’re there in person. So if you’re there in person, it’s fun to bring out records, for instance. And that basically started from being at CiTR radio – you’re playing records, so when you go to interview somebody in person on video, you usually just bring the records to ask them about. Because a lot of times at CiTR, people would write notes and stuff on the vinyl records, so you’d bring it to the interview, and go, “Why did somebody say this is the best, weirdest thing they’ve ever heard? Look at what a DJ wrote.” It’s fun to actually show this stuff to people. But it’s not ‘show and tell.’ Instead, I’m basically trying to ask them about records or stuff that I see that seems interesting, but that’s hard to explain over the phone.
But most of the interviews are in person on the radio. I did interviews in the beginning just on the radio, but then afterwards I did them with video. Actually the first interview I did was with video, but you do the interview with video, and then you can take the audio for CiTR, and you take the video for TV, cable access, or the internet. You can transcribe it. So it’s good.
When I started bringing the video camera, I remember being in this room right here, and getting a phone call saying you can go interview Pierre Berton. I also remember interviewing Pierre Elliott Trudeau in Room 207–209. He was just there talking about his memoirs. Somebody had told me that they remembered when they interviewed Margaret, she had said that the only way she was allowed to listen to rock ‘n’ roll music at 24 Sussex was out on the deck. That Pierre Trudeau made Margaret sit on the deck, and made her wear headphones – there was a long cord that went all the way to the deck, and Margaret was out there. So, of course, when I interviewed Pierre Trudeau, I was able to ask that little tidbit that I had learned from hearing another interview that somebody had done – that somebody had actually told me.
With Pierre Berton, when I interviewed him, I asked him, “Hey, just out of the blue, have you ever used hallucinogenics?” He said, “Well, not unless you count pot. But I only smoke pot when I’m having a fun time.” I’m like, “Oh my God!” And then years later, of course, he said it on the Rick Mercer show. He said the exact same thing. He was ready to say it all these years, but nobody had asked him, and then there he was saying it to me right then and there. In this particular room, I also remember getting another phone call from Pierre Berton – because after I interviewed him I thought, “Well, I might as well ask him if he’ll do liner notes for a record I put out by a band called Thee Headcoats, because they did this song called ‘Louis Riel,’ to the beat of ‘Louie Louie.’” So I said, “Would Pierre Berton do the liner notes?” And they said, “Well, ask him.” I sent out a fax, and he phoned me and said ok, he’ll do the liner notes. I got a phone call right in this room saying he’ll do the actual liner notes! So that’s the research skills there.
Looking back at Pierre Elliott Trudeau after all these years, I could’ve also brought a record “Go Go Trudeau” by Les Sinners, which I once showed Jack Layton in an interview. I could’ve held up the record and asked Trudeau about it. Usually a lot of the stuff I’m playing is in vinyl form, so that’s why I could actually bring it. So that’s how that kind of came about – because it just made sense. When I talked to Sonic Youth, I wanted to show them a record by a band called Prisonshake that spoofed them, but they destroyed that record, as well as another record that I brought to them. You can see it on You Tube.
In your early interview of Nirvana, you mention the Doukhobors, at which point Krist Novoselic suddenly drops his antics and, seeing that you know something about them, becomes seriously interested in the interview (at least momentarily). Were the Doukhobors common knowledge to a resident of BC back in the early ’90s, and/or was this something you learned at UBC?
Again, learned from my mom, who loved history, and wrote books, and did lots of articles, and wrote for the Ubyssey, and that sort of thing. And also having a Russian background in my family helped. My mom was born in Toronto, but her parents were born in Russia, and my great-great grandfather was the best shot in the Russian army, way back when. There are a few neat family artifacts, including stuff given to my great-great-great grandfather from the czar of Russia and things like that. I think they were all just peasants. I think he was just the “best-shot peasant” – because he was the best shot, he got that type of thing. So I guess having the Russian connection made my mom interested in Doukhobors. It was quite a big issue back then – now, I guess, it’s the polygamists, right? Not to compare the two, but it was more in the news. Doukhobors were big news. So I think even as a kid growing up, and I think also me being of the same age as Krist Novolselic, we both probably gravitated toward that. I know he has a background in that sort of stuff. Still, growing up, it was like a big thing – just like D.B. Cooper. Remember D.B. Cooper? People all know D.B. Cooper from the Northwest, so I guess it was kind of a shared interest in a Northwest thing. So that’s why I brought that up.
Ivan Avakumovic, now an emeritus history professor at UBC, is an authority on the Doukhobors. Did you ever have any courses with him?
Maybe my mom took a course with him. My mom also took a course – I’m not exactly sure if it was in history – but she had Allen Ginsberg as a Teaching Assistant. He was up here in the 1960s or early ’70s as a Teaching Assistant. She wasn’t as hip as everyone else. I think when he walked into the room, the first thing he said, right off the bat, was, “I smoke pot!” or something like that. Everybody in the class roared, but my mom was like, “Oh. . . . Ok.” She was a bit older than the other people there, because she had gone back to school. That was kind of cool about UBC – that you could have Allen Ginsberg as a Teaching Assistant. Of course, which is right up there with you, Courtney, because there’s nothing cooler than doing a recording on this Portavision TV-cassette deck-AM/FM thing! This is pretty amazing. That’s just up there with having Allen Ginsberg!
On that note, I’ll wrap things up. Do you have any advice for prospective history majors? Or for prospective CiTR radio volunteers? Not that they’re mutually exclusive. . . .
Well, if I can do it, anybody can do it. Just come on down to CiTR and find out how easy it is. It’s fun to be able to discover the little tidbits that are out there. An analogy between CiTR and history and commercialism and all that sort of stuff is that on a commercial radio station, they just play the songs. They don’t really talk about them, they don’t give any enrichment. [Adopts stereotypically bombastic DJ’s voice] “Coming up on this next segment, here’s a song about a band that got caught in a toilet bowl.” And you’re like, “That sounds interesting.” And then when they come back from the break, do they ever talk about that toilet bowl thing on commercial radio? No! They cut right to the song. But on CiTR we like to give enrichment. We like to tell the story. It’s not just like telling the name of the band. It’s about giving something a little bit extra. And I think that’s the same thing with history.
The advice that I would give is: whatever you’re doing, don’t just do it and then leave it. Try to get that information out! What’s the point of getting the information out? Well, the internet never forgets. The stuff you put out there will always be out there. So no matter how insignificant it might seem now, in a few years it could be big. An example: I interviewed Lady Gaga, and eight months later she was on the Larry King Show. She was the first person to go from Nardwuar to Larry King in eight months. It’s fun to be able to discover these little tidbits, and tell people stuff. When you’re on CiTR, you have the chance to be able to expose people to things. And when you’re doing your research papers, you have a chance to be able to expose the world to your discoveries, these little tidbits. Why do the boring stuff? Now, there’s nothing wrong with playing the name of the song, or writing a book full of information. It’s important. There’s nothing wrong with commercial radio. They do good. But what’s the point of aping something that’s already been done? That’s what I would say to the students. If you want to write a book, make it a special book. Don’t make it just like all the other books that are out there. You might go, “Well, all the books have already been written.” No! There’s always something new that you can get. And if you can’t do it right off the bat, then just keep thinking about it, and you’ll eventually do it. It’s true! Everything in music has been done before, but there will always be some new twist on it – you mentioned Odd Future [earlier, during the tape break]. People are offended by them, but then again NPR will do something on them, or The New York Times. It’s really weird how all that kind of comes about. That’s basically what I would say. If I could do a radio show, you can do a radio show. The interviewer is in charge of making the interviewee exciting. In other words, the researcher is responsible for making the person they’re researching interesting as well.
Also, your enemies are usually your friends. How does that work? Well, in a way, your enemies often times tell you what’s wrong with you. So, if they’re your enemies, and they’re telling you what’s wrong with you, that means you are friends. They’re your friends, because your friends tell you what’s wrong with you. So, welcome criticism! Your true enemies won’t say a thing, but if somebody criticizes you, that’s good. Take that and learn from it and try to improve yourself, and then shoot it right back at them. It does hurt, and it’s not pleasant, but it’s great to be able to get the feedback. And that refers back to what I was saying when you’re on CiTR – somebody phones in and goes, “Nardwuar, you suck, you suck, you suck!” Ok, well, how can I improve myself? It’s good; you’re on your toes. You’re always trying to do better for your show the next week. As opposed to just sitting down – again, the minute you’re not inspired is the minute you should quit.
So I would advise you – if you don’t like history, get the hell out! Give it a chance, though. But if you don’t like it, why continue on with it? Get the hell out of there! I’m stupid, though. I keep on with stuff that I’m doing, even though I’m not supposed to. Remember I mentioned that I failed out of math, economics, the first term, the second term, because I thought I would be able to pass the supplemental thing. I should have got the hell out of there. With respect to radio, if you don’t have a passion for it, there’s no reason you should keep doing it, because then you think you know everything. If you think you know everything, you should quit, because there’s always something you’re going to learn all the time. That’s the great thing about campus radio, or about doing research – there’s always something new, there’s always some new lead. If you’re not excited by that new lead or whatever – you’re like, “Nah, I don’t want to follow that,” or “Nah, I don’t want to play that band” – well, then you should just totally quit what you’re doing because you’re not offering anything else.
So I would just say if I can do it, anybody can, and that it’s great that you’re at the University of British Columbia, because there are so many great things. Like I said, Allen Ginsberg was a T.A. And Vancouver also has something – I can mention LSD, too, because that ties into marijuana. I think the “Johnny Appleseed” of LSD was from Vancouver. There’s lots of great stuff in Vancouver for counterculture, in fact for university culture. In punk rock people often said New York or London is number one. And then maybe Los Angeles number two. And then Vancouver number three, because we had that great punk rock scene. So it’s pretty cool to be up there. We were ahead of San Francisco – maybe not Los Angeles, but still right up there. But for counterculture in the 1960s, Allen Ginsberg and all that sort of stuff, people have said for the hippie movement it was San Francisco number one, and Vancouver number two. I think that’s why we attracted all sorts of neat stuff. So it was neat to be a part of that. And then people think, “Well, how is that relevant – you got hippies, you got punk rock.” Well, what about hip-hop? Vancouver, believe it or not, as I mention in a lot of my interviews, is the ground zero of hip-hop, with The Incredible Bongo Band, the record Michael Viner’s Incredible Bongo Band. Michael Viner, yes, he was American, but his album, The Incredible Bongo Band, was recorded in Vancouver with Vancouver session cats. And that record, The Incredible Bongo Band, is the most sampled record in hip-hop – Afrika Bambaataa and all those people acknowledge that. So people in New York sampled that in the ’70s, and that helped birth hip-hop. It’s like the ground zero for hip-hop, that record. And Michael Viner’s Incredible Bongo Band was recorded in Vancouver!
So Vancouver is the home of punk rock, hippies, and hip-hop as well. There are all sorts of neat little stuff that one can tie back to Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. William Gibson, too. He started in the States, but he did come here as well. I take credit for people . . . I think Odd Future are Canadian because Tyler the Creator’s mom is Canadian. So that’s good enough for me. Even if she’s only half-Canadian . . . Hell, even that guy who is naked in movies who is living in exile from the States, he’s Canadian, because his wife is Canadian – Randy Quaid. I consider him Canadian.
If any students are interested in sitting in on my radio show, like you did, Courtney, they’re more than welcome to. You can tell them about sitting in on my show – putting headphones on and seeing what happens.
It’s great – chaos in motion, but everything turns out well in the end.
Yes, do it yourself. Because that’s the great thing about CiTR – I guess in summary – at CiTR you’re not a DJ. At most radio stations you’re a DJ. You’re told what to do. But at CiTR you’re a writer, you’re an operator, you’re a producer, you’re in total control. You can do whatever you want. Now, in the United States of America, there are seven words you can’t say on the radio. But in Canada, we can say every single one of those seven words, as long as it’s within the proper context. A lot of people will hear that and say, “You can’t say ‘fuck’ on the radio.” Yes you can! We’ve said it on CiTR many times. But we say it within the proper context. And you give a warning before you do that. Commercial radio stations in Canada could say the word “fuck,” but they’re afraid if they have the word “fuck” and they talk about it, they’ll lose advertisers. But at CiTR we don’t have a lot of advertisers, and our advertisers are cool with what we do, so we can get away with it. So that’s the cool thing – you’re in total control at CiTR. And I would also say to history students that that’s the cool thing about being a researcher. That’s the cool thing about writing a paper – you’re in total control. You’re a writer, you’re an operator, you’re a producer. You can do whatever you want. You can find information and shape it to the way you want it to be. It’s great to be able to do that. There’s nobody telling you what to do. I guess there are certain guidelines, but it’s neat how you can go deep and find this information.
That is what’s exciting about doing history, writing history.
Malcolm Gladwell wrote that famous book, where he talks about how you need 10,000 hours, ten years, to get good at something. Well, to him I say, “Ok, I agree it takes 10,000 hours or ten years, but I would actually multiply that by five.” My dad told me the first fifty years are the worst. My dad actually was a lecturer, part time in the 1960s and ’70s, in the engineering department at UBC. So he did it as well. And that’s where he met a lot of people, too, and went sailing with them. He met a lot of people at university who were interested in sailing. It’s a great place to meet people. In fact, one of his students, I remember, sailed with us, and on the boat he said, “Hey, there’s this word out there called ‘Googolplex,’” And I said, “Googolplex? What the hell is that?” And years later, what happened? Google! I guess it was a word out there, but if only I could’ve run with that! If only I could’ve run with that! So I guess basically what I’m saying is, “Don’t listen to what I’m saying.” What I’m saying, students, is I once got a pre-release tape of Green Day’s Dookie. You know, Green Day’s million-selling album. And I listened to it here, and what did I hear on it? How did I judge that album? I actually thought that it didn’t have any hits on it. It’s generic. And was I right? No! I was totally wrong! So, in other words, please don’t listen to what I’m saying. I can’t even pick a hit on a Green Day album! Now if you listen to it, it’s full of hits. And I can’t even run with the Google! That would’ve been amazing! A few years ago, I remember some guy said to me, “Hey, Nardwuar, we’re starting a company in Vancouver called Electronic Arts. Maybe you’d like to work with us, and do some voices for video games or something like that? We’re even having stock options and stuff like that.” And I’m like, “Video games? Those are stupid!” Aaaaaaahhh! Electronic Arts, Google, and Green Day! Maybe don’t listen to what I’m saying. As Dave Emory said, who inspired me to write that essay about the Kennedy assassination, “It’s all food for thought, and grounds for further research.”
Well, that’s about it. Thanks again, Courtney. Keep on rockin’ in the free world. And doot doola doot doo. . . .
BONUS: Click below to hear Nardwuar recite the early medieval poem copied below, written by Alcuin (d. 804), the great court scholar and counselor of Charlemagne, to Einhard (d. 840), another famous courtier. Alcuin playfully refers to Einhard (who was rather short) with the nickname “Nardulus,” which is both a diminutive form of Einhard, and the diminutive name for the spikenard, a plant with a powerful fragrance. In each case, the N/nard’s humble exterior is contrasted with and shown to belie its tremendous spirit.
Alcuin, Poem 30.2, On Einhard’s Small Size
[Ed. Ernst Dümmler, in Monumenta Germaniae Historica: Poetae Latini Aevi Carolini (Berlin, 1881), 1:248; trans. Paul E. Dutton, Charlemagne’s Courtier: The Complete Einhard (Peterborough, 1998), 2.]
There is a small door and a small inhabitant in this temple.
Do not spurn, O reader, the nard, [though] small in size,
For the nard with its spiked shoot gives off a tremendous smell:
The bee [also] bears outstanding honey to you in its small body.
Notice that though the pupil is but a small part of the eye,
It rules with firm authority the actions of a vigorous body.
So that little Nard himself rules that whole house on his own.
Steadfast reader, say [with me]: “O little Nard, you small man, be well.”