The art of partying: An interview with Andrew W.K.

Andrew W.K. stopped by the Vaudeville Mews in Des Moines this past may. — photo by Zak Neumann

Andrew W.K. w/ Straight Up

Blue Moose Tap House – Sept. 19 at 9 p.m. ($18-20)

There’s a moment in a recent Andrew W.K. interview with WatchMojo where the rocker — famed for his high-energy stage presence — is asked if he ever plans on slowing down. Without missing a beat, W.K. launches into an endearing sort of non-answer about how he “should still be going strong” into his 80s. It’s almost quaint—the kind of answer you might expect from a musician whose party reputation precedes him. It’s not until he starts talking about aging-yet-active musicians like 77-year-old Lee “Scratch” Perry that it starts to sink in: W.K. has spent a lot of time thinking about this particular question, and he’s dead serious.

This display typifies W.K.’s “never stop partying” mystique, which continues to drive in crowds more than a decade after the release of I Get Wet. The 2001 release divided critics, who couldn’t seem to agree on whether tracks like “Party Hard” and “She is Beautiful” were incredibly good or just plain awful (Pitchfork actually re-reviewed the record a decade later as a sort of mea culpa, raising its score from a .6 to an 8.6 out of 10). The album is thick with overdubs and light on technical flair, yet its unabashed emphasis on unrepressed emotion and chaos-meets-euphoria sensibility has kept critics talking and fans engaged.

W.K. leaves his mark backstage at the Vaudeville Mews in Des Moines. — photo by Zak Neumann

At its core, the aura of W.K. is divisive. His boundless sense of energy and “party hard” mantra is no stage act, but rather, a core component of the musician’s attitude toward life as a whole. This remarkable, almost cartoon-like consistency has mystified those who’ve attempted to pinpoint where the mythical Andrew W.K. ends and Andrew Wilkes-Krier (as he’s known privately) begins. To better understand the ethos that is Andrew W.K., however, it’s best to start with a trip back to southeast Michigan in the early ‘90s.

“There always has been a real radical, intense musical spirit there. Just a radical cultural spirit in that part of the world for whatever reason, and I was hooked on that excitement and stimulation as soon as I was able to find out about it,” W.K. said. “I started to find out about these people that were doing things that I had never really heard about—making sounds I’d never really imagined were possible, and sort of just living their lives in really thrilling exciting new ways that I wanted to be around and learn from.”

W.K. found out about Pete Larson’s Michigan-based label Bulb Records around the age of 14 and immediately latched on. He was most enthralled by Couch, a two-piece featuring Larson and James Magas.

“I’d just never heard music like that and had never really seen something that worked that way,” said W.K., who was taking classical piano lessons at the time. “I was intimidated and amazed and titillated and tantalized and frightened and inspired all at the same time.”

Though W.K. was born in California, he spent most of his youth in Michigan before moving to New York in 1998 at the age of 18. — photo by Zak Neumann

For a teenage W.K., the experience was eye-opening and “one of the most important musical experiences or encounters I ever had,” he said. W.K. saw well-traveled musicians like Larson and Magas as mentors who seemed to harbor “secrets of the world.”

“Once you get such a huge rush of those kinds of feelings, sometimes you can go for years without having a feeling like that. You get hooked on it and don’t want to let it go, so I just followed it as far as I could, and I don’t think I’d be talking to you about anything right now if it wasn’t for getting to meet those people at that time,” he said. “I think I was probably very irritating and very annoying, but these people were patient enough and kind enough to deal with me and allow me to hang out.”

W.K. spent the next several years in Michigan, splitting his time across nearly a dozen different bands before moving to New York City in 1998.

Then, after some involvement with both Bulb Records and Hanson Records, W.K. partnered with Island Def Jam to release I Get Wet in 2001. The album’s cover featured W.K.’s bloodied face along with the wide-eyed rumor that Andrew had achieved the effect, in part, by smashing himself in the nose with a brick (a rumor which turned out to be true). The controversial image paired with the album’s unapologetic glorification of partying would solidify W.K.’s image as one of the 21st Century’s most iconic headbangers. “Party Hard” became an anthem, regardless of what the critics had to say.

W.K. has given lectures at New York University, Yale University and the University of Wisconsin, among others. — photo by Zak Neumann

And then something incredible happened. W.K. never stopped partying. Partying became more of a metaphor for the musician, who achieved some sort of zen-like state through his meditations on the subject. It might seem shallow out of context, but W.K. is eloquent, articulate and typically sports a giant, somewhat disconcerting smile plastered across his face. He’s a sort of Bill and Ted character if you took away the PG rating and slapped on about 100 IQ points. At its most basic level, his message is one of unflinching positivity with a bit of existentialism thrown in.

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“Pretty much since I moved to New York, which was 16 years ago, that’s when I sort of gave myself over, so I’ve not felt in control really since that time,” he said. “Maybe that first year, from [age] 18 to 19, it was sort of a back and forth debating on if I should let go and give in to … however you describe it—your destiny, or faith or powers that be—to allow them to pull you where you’re supposed to go.”

For W.K., this New York transition was part of a greater realization that, at least in his own experience, things rarely end up as anticipated.

“I just did everything as it seemed I was meant to do, and sort of gave up that kind of decision making process, or sort of the idea of having a plan or goal of your own and realizing that that’s maybe not even just futile, but actually you’re working against the best interests of yourself,” W.K. said. “There’s no way I could have predicted that my life would have gone in this way, and I think it’s a little arrogant to assume that any of us could think that we’re in control when it comes to that.”

“So many goals and dreams have come true, and I never would have expected them to come true in the way that they have, and I never could have organized these things formally to happen in this way,” he added. “It’s a humbling sort of experience, you know, you realize, ‘Wow, I guess it’s not really all up to me.’”

If it’s ever difficult, or perhaps even tiresome, to live up to his own party-animal reputation at all times, W.K. doesn’t seem to mind. “The only times its been hard is when I was doing things I wasn’t meant to do, and that’s usually real obvious and usually real rare,” W.K. said. “Otherwise, you’re just so far from a place where you have any right to complain or any reason to complain that you sort of are just in this elated state all the time. You get physically drained, but you’re still elated. It’s like the feeling you get after having an orgasm or something.”

Though W.K. has spent most of the last decade putting out a variety of music, including a fully instrumental piano album titled 55 Cadillac, he’s still a sucker for soaking up new, borderline-masochistic experiences. Earlier this summer, he broke a world record after drumming for 24 hours straight in the heart of Times Square as part of a collaboration with the O Music Awards.

“I just didn’t really think too much about it and just said, ‘Well, I’m going to do it. What’s the worst thing that could happen—I pass out or something?’” he said. “The things I thought would be hard about it were easy, the things that I thought would be easy about it were the hardest. I thought sitting down would be easy for 24 hours. Sitting down became the most painful.”

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