"Is this dude for real?"
That's the common reaction most people have upon seeing "guerrilla journalist" Nardwuar the Human Serviette for the first time. It's a fair question. Dressed like a thrift-shop Thurston Howell, in garish '70s menswear topped with a floppy plaid golf cap, and speaking in an excitable, Canadian-accented squeak, he seems, at first glance, like a prank designed to test the patience of his celebrity subjects, most of whom are musicians.
But the further one travels down the Nardwuar rabbit hole—trust me, watch one interview, and bid the next few hours of your life farewell—the more apparent it becomes that this isn't a joke. Rather, it's a magic act: Watching his guests react as he pulls out obscure bits of trivia from their pasts, often in the form of rare records, you'd think they'd just witnessed David Blaine levitate off a street corner. "How do you know that?" is the near-universal response. The eccentric, slightly obnoxious demeanor is Nardwuar's sleight of hand, a distraction to set up the big reveal—that this strange little creature is actually some sort of goofball savant.
[See his top five greatest interviews here.]
Still, though: Is he for real? Well, if Nardwuar is a character, then the guy who plays him is a Method actor. Born John Ruskin, he legally changed his name to Nardwuar the Human Serviette—the etymology is basically total nonsense—in the late '80s, and to hear him tell it, the only separation between the person behind the mike and at, say, the grocery store is a few degrees of angst.
"I'm always sort of on edge," says the 45-year-old from his beloved hometown of Vancouver, B.C., sounding exactly like the overstimulated squirrel he does on YouTube. "But especially when the interviews start, I get excited. I'm always constantly thinking when I'm doing an interview, 'I better ask this! I better ask that! I may never get another chance again!' When I'm shopping, I'm nervous trying to figure out stuff, but it isn't as life-or-death, because I can always go back the next day and figure out which tomato brand to buy."
Anxiety—or, more acutely, the fear of sucking—is pretty much the sole motivation driving Nardwuar's career. The son of a journalist and historian, he began interviewing bands in college, for the University of British Columbia campus radio station. Back then, he had a burgeoning interest in punk and garage rock but little ingrained musical knowledge. Like the rest of his shtick, his obsessive research skills developed out of the worry that someone, somewhere, is not being entertained, and is going to call in to let him know. That feeling has never left him.
"The minute you're not nervous is the minute you should probably quit," he says, "because it means you don't care."
Over the years, through his appearances on the MuchMusic television channel, Nardwuar has wrangled that nervousness into an effective journalistic device. And make no mistake: Nardwuar is a journalist. His interviews are oddly revealing, less for what the artists say to him than how they act in his presence: There's something uniquely humanizing about watching hip-hop hardasses like Waka Flocka Flame and A$AP Rocky shift from being confused and dismissive to genuinely humbled when presented with an artifact from their pre-fame youth. In other cases, run-ins with Nardwuar have brought out some true ugly sides: Sonic Youth, the paragons of alt-culture, turned into art-school bullies around him, pulling his shirt over his head and breaking a rare 7-inch.
Even while being physically accosted, Nardwuar hardly wavers, powering through with a determination to never "leave questions on the table." That commitment to his craft helped make him a Canadian cult hero in the '90s. As his profile's risen in the Internet age, he's also become something of an ambassador for the Vancouver music scene, playing high-fructose pop punk with his band, the Evaporators, and touring with Andrew W.K. and Franz Ferdinand.
But his success hasn't come without sacrifices. By Nardwuar's own admission, he doesn't have what most would call a "normal social life." After all, researching Flying Lotus' entire family tree takes time. Whether Nardwuar is "real" or not, itâs all heâs got. And that, he says, is fine with him. He uses a Latin term to describe the path heâs chosen: volenti non fit injuriaââto a willing person, injury is not done.â
"A guy told that to me when I was organizing a punk gig," he says. "If people jump in the pit, that's their own decision. If they get hurt, it's their own fault. I believe that's the thing with journalism, too. The minute you say, 'I'm going to be a journalist,' you're going to get hammered in the pit, aren't you? You're going to get beaten up. You're going to get embarrassed as a journalist. You're not going to have a life. I've made that commitment. If I want to have the other things that other people have, then I don't jump in the pit. But Iâve done it.â
SEE IT: Nardwuar and the Evaporators play the Know, 2026 NE Alberta St., with Thee Goblins and Red Shadows, on Friday, Sept. 27. 8 pm. 21+. Call venue for ticket information. The show will be followed by a presentation of Nardwuar's best interviews.