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An ode to Nardwuar, the greatest interviewer in music

As music critics – and interviewers in general – we can all learn a lot from Nardwuar, the Canadian-born musician-cum-interviewer whose high-profile, high-energy interviews have earned him a cult following worldwide. Not only does Nardwuar count Nirvana and  Jay Z among his interviewees, what’s even more impressive is the fact that artists themselves often seek him out for an interview. Nardwuar been featured on MuchMusic and various music publications, and his youtube profile contains hundreds of the most revealing, entertaining, and mind-boggling conversations in music history. Here’s the secret to his success.

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There is no such thing as ‘too much research’. Nardwuar’s distinct interviewing technique stems from his detective-like ability to gather precise and often personal information on his subject. No interview is absent of shock or surprise, as he matter-of-factly drops names of subjects’ childhood pets, favourite hangouts, ghostwriting projects…. the list goes on.

Reactions range from amazement to flat-out fear (the look on Drake’s face when Nardwuar produces matching “fucking red jackets with some zippers” [above] is priceless), but it’s proven to be Nardwuar’s calling card. In fact, the tactic is often successful in getting his subject to lower their guard and provide him with fresh information. Drake explicitly calls his interview “the best interview I’ve done in my entire life.”

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There’s a lot to be said for the pre-emptive strike. Building up to the deeper, more risky questions has its uses, but Nardwuar isn’t partial to the delayed approach. His first questions routinely catch his interviewees off-guard, jerking them out of their stock responses. Right out the gate Nardwuar gets Kendrick Lamar to confirm the story of how Tech N9ne helped hook him up with Dr. Dre, prompting Jay Rock to audibly clap from out-of-shot. Since the rapper likely sits through the same monotonous questions day after day, he remains understandably baffled (but impressed) by Nardwuar’s interrogative style throughout the entire interview.

Never underestimate the power of a candid interview. Reporters are often conscious of diverting attention away from their subject, however the reality is that to get something out, you have to put a little in. Nardwuar goes a long way in making himself approachable and personable, disarming them with his caricatured persona. After all, it takes a strong personality to make RZA chime ‘doot doola doot-doo, doot-doo’ – all while wearing a Tam o’ Shanter.

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A little flattery can go a long way. Nardwuar has turned gift-giving into an interview ritual, welcoming his guests with a topical present relating to their life (usually in the form of rare records). This in turn provides him with stock to invest in deeper, more probing questions. Asking Bun B to unwrap a Blowfly bobblehead doll, for example, made the rapper feel comfortable enough to give a comprehensive history of Southern hip-hop (he was also given some of the most sought-after LPs and 12″s from the now-classic Rap-a-Lot Records back-catalogue [below], not an easy collection of vinyl to find).

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Though it’s not advisable to give your interviewee a gift under normal circumstances, this particular tactic highlights the subject’s desire to feel like the main focus of the interview. When Bun B is then asked “What did you do on December 2nd?” it doesn’t sound half as creepy as it should – a reminder that, regardless of one’s subject, an interview is most insightful when it’s relieved of PR expectations and business-speak.

While Nardwuar’s guerrilla interviews have gone more than a little sour on occasion – most famously, the band Quiet Riot chased him and his crew down the street – my point is not that we should take his unorthodox style as journalistic gospel. Rather, for all his eccentricities he reminds us that an interview is quite simply a conversation.

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