Schtick vs. Substance: The Very Uncomfortable Nardwuar Interview with Ian MacKaye
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.