There's very little middle ground with Nardwuar the Human Serviette. This plaid-clad Canadian DJ, musician and celebrity interviewer has been causing havoc for more than twenty years. His interviewing style is usually to ambush a random musician or celebrity, and begin firing away questions in an earnest, squeaky voice. In between absurd, Ali G-like queries, he'll suddenly hit the interviewee with an obscure fact, a rare record on which s/he played, or an anecdote about a live show from years earlier. It's an approach that people manage to love and hate at the same time, and he's been doing it since Mulroney was the prime minister.
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Nardwuar has experienced a career resurgence of sorts lately: WFMU has begun broadcasting and podcasting a slightly edited version of his radio show, and rappers have latched onto his odd style. But he's also cultivated friendships with certain musicians over the years. This week, at least one tried to break through the character with uncertain success, making for a fascinating listen.
The interviewee: Dischord Records owner and all-around punk legend Ian MacKaye. The occasion: a seminar given by the Safe Amplification Society, a Vancouver-based local all-ages group. Nardwuar has interviewed MacKaye at least once before, at a 2001 Fugazi show in the Vancouver, B.C. suburbs. Nardwuar begins the interview with a couple of questions about Jimi Hendrix bootlegs, of which MacKaye is a collector. Soon, however, Nardwuar begins asking him for his memories of an August 1991 Fugazi show in a North Vancouver hockey arena. This was one of the first Canadian Fugazi shows, and Nardwuar helped promote it. MacKaye immediately recalls the venue name and date. Nardwuar rolls tape of the show, and Ian recalls that the sound wasn't so great.
This sets Nardwuar off. "I remember you almost made me cry, Ian, because you were mad it was a hockey rink." Ian explained that yes, the sound wasn't so great, and that was frustrating, but he was never mad at Nardwuar personally. Fair enough, but Nardwuar will not let it go.
You see, Nardwuar has some grievances. For one thing, when Fugazi played in Vancouver later in the 1990s, they worked with another promoter. When Fugazi returned in 2001, they played a different hockey rink, also booked through someone else. Also, Nardwuar apparently had to pay for $800 worth of port-a-johns at his show, and some local scenesters had warned him that he'd ruin future punk shows in Vancouver if he screwed this up. Somehow, Nardwuar had convinced himself that Ian was upset with him, personally, this whole time.
MacKaye, typically a loquacious interviewee, doesn't quite know how to respond. Clearly he hasn't thought about any of this since 1991. He becomes more and more incredulous as Nardwuar refuses to stray from this uncomfortable line of questions. "Did we not play the show? And did we not write you a thank you note afterward?" MacKaye asks. "I feel bad if you've lost any sleep at all about this."
This goes on for ten minutes. Finally and mercifully, they change the subject. There's some interesting conversation about the Washington, D.C. go-go scene. MacKaye discusses his experiences with licensing Minor Threat t-shirts for films, and addresses the many takeoffs on Minor Threat's "Salad Days" seven-inch sleeve. This is the positive side of the Nardwuar approach: sometimes, his sheer badgering can result in good stories.
Finally, Nardwuar's ready to wrap it up. He asks Ian if he has anything else to say. And this is where Ian snaps. "How many times have we done this...four? Three?" he asks. "What I don't like is personas. I feel like we were having a conversation, but then as soon as we started the interview, you went into a different character. It just makes me uncomfortable. I mean, I think of you as a friend, but it makes me feel like I'm now a part of your play."
"How can I improve myself, Ian MacKaye?" Nardwuar asks. (It's not clear if he's genuinely asking this or if he's being sarcastic. I'm thinking the latter.)
"I guess the question is: what is the aim here?" MacKaye demands, gently but firmly. "What are you trying to elicit? Are you curious, or is this more about you? Are you interviewing because you want to know something, or this is your schtick?
"I think you are a very serious fan, and I think you have discovered a vehicle in which you are able to engage with people," MacKaye suggests. "You've been doing this for a long time now, but at times, it makes people feel uncomfortable. For me, I think if we sat down with a cup of tea, we could talk. And I think I would prefer that than a guy with a camera."
"But would I be allowed to record it?" Nardwuar asks. "I enjoy the personal nature of it. However, I'd feel bad because I couldn't share it with others."
"Maybe the way you could share things is letting that exchange develop within you certain thoughts and activities," MacKaye says. "That's not lost time. That's well-spent time!"
"But when you do a radio show, the listeners demand and want such information," Nardwuar responds. "'You went out to dinner with Ian MacKaye? What did you learn? Can we hear the tape? How dare you not share Ian MacKaye with us?' I think it's kind of spoiled."
Think about that. If he's unable to play a tape of it on his radio show, thereby associating himself with the artist, he'd rather not bother. MacKaye is again caught speechless. "I...don't agree with you," he finally says. "I'm a fan. I was interested in this one bit you did about your mom. That was clearly something that had a big effect on you. That's interesting to me, as opposed to 'Check out this doll! Check out this thing! Check out this record!' That's a different story."
"Well, I appreciate your honesty, Ian," he responds. He does his usual sign-off, complete with "doot doot-a-loot-doot," but he's laughing nervously. This is not the direction either of them expected to go with this interview. Cue exit music. Cut.
This whole exchange left me a little shaken, and made me think about the nature of music fandom. Very few of us become music fans because we are well-adjusted, secure people. In fact, record collecting is often the province of the obsessive, the neurotic and the hopelessly nerdy. Like Los Angeles DJ Rodney Bingenheimer, Nardwuar has combined this sort of obsessive fandom with an eccentric, outsized persona. It's undeniably successful in its own way. But every time a Jay-Z or a Snoop Dogg indulges him, it pushes him further and further into that plaid straitjacket. And when someone who proclaims himself a genuine fan and friend calls him on it - and that someone happens to be one of the most honest and ethical people in the music business - it's not clear that he realizes the huge, huge favor he's just received.
But perhaps MacKaye was just the person to do it. After all, he's the one who wrote "Screaming At A Wall" for Minor Threat. "You built that wall up around you/And now you can't see out/And you can't hear my words/No matter how loud I shout," he sang in 1981. 31 years later, here he was again.