Zen and the art of party maintenance, with Andrew W.K.

The last time I saw Andrew W.K. perform, all I really remember was the horse heads. Last August, I got a text from Andrew saying he'd be playing a solo set in Pontiac in a few days as part of something called Rock the Mitten, and I was on the list if I could make it. Sounded great. What I didn't know was that the event was put on by the Michigan Chivers, our state's chapter of an online community I was unfamiliar with, dedicated to intensity, partying, possibly charity? The vibes were generally friendly, but it was clear these folks were here to rage in a way I'd never quite seen before. An uncommonly high percentage of the audience was wearing plastic horse heads; there was a nine-foot Robocop handing out shots; and most of the people there were wearing identical T-shirts that bore a caricature of Bill Murray's face, circa 1981. Andrew eventually took the stage a few hours late, following a seemingly spontaneous live painting exhibition, playing solo keyboard versions of his party anthems with backing tracks, and a live dancer who he sometimes joined to teach the thinning crowd basic two-step routines. This wasn't your run-of-the-mill "epic party" pseudo rave, nor a bunch of why-be-normal types living it up after a long work week. The whole scene was legitimately surreal and got weirder as it went.

As a good friend, occasional musical collaborator, and fascinated fan of Andrew's for the past 20 years, I've excitedly watched him go from recording the sound of breaking panes of glass in his parents' basement to becoming an international icon for positivity, partying, and self-love.

Today we're talking on the phone about how intense and strange that night last summer was, and about a night the year before when he played a last-minute show at Ann Arbor's tiny "metal frat" (yes, a fraternity started by metal heads) that was so random it seemed like it had to be a hoax. We're talking about his advice column in the Village Voice, where he addresses questions that range in emotional scope from "How Do I Make My Family Understand That I'm Transgender" to "What's Better: Nachos or Tacos?" For an hour or so we're talking about everything from growing up in a strange and beautiful punk scene to his rise to fame with an endorphin-dripping style of music that channeled all of his negativity and euphoria at once. We're discussing his various TV shows, books, touring with Black Sabbath and Marky Ramone, pissing off the dude from Dexy's Midnight Runners, and his upcoming return to his home state to headline a night of the Metro Times Blowout, and how all of these various efforts and experiences become one singular, almost pre-ordained feeling.

I met Andrew Wilkes-Krier sometime in the fall of 1995. We were both music-obsessed teenagers finding our roots in Ann Arbor's inexplicably bizarre underground music scene of the time. Instead of the occasional big-name concert in a sports arena or summer music festival most kids our ages were attending, we took part of a loose community of local bands that threw shows several times a month in rented churches, basements, and other unconventional spaces. Born out of a punk ethos that splintered into all varieties of a-musical noise, the bands were abrasive and intense, and the energy at the shows walked a thin line between playful absurdity and violence.

"During a lot of those shows, a lot of that time, I felt very afraid," he says.

Andrew and I were both in bands that played these gigs sometimes, but the feeling of newness and excitement surrounding the scene felt bigger than simple participation. We were absorbing a spectacle. Acid-tripping noise kids performed in loin cloths or clown costumes, cartoonish fights erupted between skinheads and rockabilly kids, grad students argued philosophy with bums, naked people darted around, teenagers were screaming for no reason, and some of the most amazing music we'd ever see was happening in shadowy rooms in this sleepy Midwestern college town.

"I don't really remember judging any of it. It was sort of this blank almost trance-like state, where we didn't even really talk about what happened," Andrew says. "After the show like, 'Oh, my god. Did you see when this happened or that happened?' Maybe there was a bit of that, but it was sort of like we took it all for granted in that there was no way to change it because it was so overrun and it was so intense. It was so foreign. By design, it was strange. I mean the M.O. was trying to blow everyone's minds, including your own. But for someone who didn't even realize that's what was going on, it was even more mind-blowing in that you didn't even know it was supposed to be mind-blowing."

When he was 17, Andrew moved to New York and got famous. The redlined melodic party metal of his 2001 Island/Def Jam debut I Get Wet held echoes of the over-the-top intensity of those Ann Arbor house shows. When he broke his leg and did shows anyway, headbanging in a wheelchair or performing on Saturday Night Live with laryngitis so bad his vocals sounded like a braying hound, it also mirrored the willful ridiculousness of those early times. I asked him just how formative those weird Michigan shows had been for him.

"I didn't have a lot of other experience to compare it to, so I didn't see it as strange — this is just what you did. Certainly the people that I was surrounded with in this realm, this circle of friends, this community — even the older folks that were part of that social circle, they didn't think it seemed very strange, either. So there was no way to judge it or contrast it and compare it to anything else. It wasn't until going on tour in a traditional capacity years later that all these things were revealed to me as being quite unique, if not very bizarre," he says.

"So much of those early experiences for me, from 13 to 17 — it was so primal for me, and so fundamental, and it was really the building of a foundation with a bunch of shows and music with a sort of life and understanding how things could be. This to me was being around teachers and mentors and really being educated about the world through these experiences. And not just learning about what kind of sounds I liked or what kind of people I want to interact with, but just sort of having the opportunity to be a person in the midst of the experiences. I think that overall, years later, those times just sort of set in as the default way you do things. Because of the shows I saw at that age, it just became very second nature to say, 'OK, when you play a show, go all out. When you make music, it should be really intense. When you wanna present yourself, you should try to be something, I don't know, kind of intense yourself.' And all those things were learned just because that's what everyone was doing and there weren't really other options presented. It just is what you do."

Polarizing and saturated, I Get Wet caught the world's attention, and the next several years were spent with nonstop touring, videos, new records, late night talk show performances, and all the regular things that musicians do when they're blowing up.

As the years wound on, however, he seemed to be presenting less new music and more refractive elements of his larger-than-the-sun party persona. A motivational speaking tour. His own record label and studio that included production work with Jamaican dub legend Lee "Scratch" Perry. A TV show where kids destroyed things. Sitting in with neo folk troupe Current 93 or playing piano for Will Oldham on Conan? A book in the works called The Party Bible? Andrew seemed to grow into a distinctive personality more than a rock star, but was still inextricably both. I'm wondering if making music has somehow taken a back seat to all the other facets of a career that now seems more about a presence than a product.

"I don't think of it as a lot of different things probably because it would feel a little overwhelming to think of it as all these varied projects or tasks. It's really just one work that has different parts to it, I suppose. It was achieved through different means, but the end is always the same. Which is hopefully this feeling. Which is hard to describe. It's a hard feeling," he says.

"That's why you have to do it through all these different ways because if you could describe the feeling in a way that was truly understandable, you could just feel the feeling and hopefully I can get to that feeling in different ways. It's just me trying to exist, really. And trying to figure out how to feel good. I don't really have any plans. That's something that, for better or worse, I stopped doing a while ago."

So there's no way to know when a new record would materialize, then?

"For the last three years, I would say, 'OK, this summer I'm just gonna go in a studio and I'm just gonna record.' And then, Black Sabbath would invite me to be their DJ, on their tour, playing my favorite heavy metal songs every night all across North America. So of course I'm not gonna say, 'No, no, no, I don't wanna do that, or I can't do that 'cause I have to record this album,'" Andrew says.

"There's a deeper sense that this kind of opportunity is so out of nowhere and makes no real, logical sense that there must be some reason that this is happening. And plus, I've recorded an album before: I've never toured with Black Sabbath. So then, time goes on, I try to clear out another block of time to record an album. And someone will say, 'Hey, do you want to be the host of this kids' TV show where you blow stuff up, like a game show, but you're using dynamite and tanks and blowing up school buses?' And I would say, 'Well, here we are again.' And I would do it. And at first, there was this sort of frustration. It wasn't a real negative frustration, because again, I was so excited about these opportunities. They weren't something I would have thought of to do. I never in a million years would have said, OK, 'Here's my plan for this year: I'm gonna make this kids' game show, and then I'm gonna become an advice columnist, and I'm gonna go do these lectures, and then I'm gonna work on this musical project with Marky Ramone, and we're gonna tour around the world ...' You know, I never even would have had the nerve to think of those types of things. And so there just sort of had become this sense that maybe I was just meant to do. I can look back and say that never, never, ever would I have imagined the majority of things that have happened happening, going back 15 years ago when this was beginning. There was too many of these exact same sort of illogical, improbable types of good fortune and opportunity were happening even from the very, very, very start. Of course, I was there working, but it's been harder and harder and harder for me to take credit in that type of deliberate way, that 'I made all this happen,' and that I planned it all out and that's what I'm continuing to do."

In a really roundabout way, this talk of fated fortunes makes me think about a story Andrew relayed to me a few years back about meeting Dexy's Midnight Runners' songwriter and vocalist Kevin Rowland. "Do you remember this?" I ask.

"Yes. Yeah, I think about it all the time," he says.

When introduced to Rowland, Andrew nervously offered up a compliment on his band's 1982 megahit "Come On Eileen," saying something along the lines of "You wrote a really amazing song, you should be really proud." Rowland stone-facedly replied, "I actually wrote a lot of songs, not just the one you know."

"I was really trying to express to him, not 'Hey, that's a great song,' or 'Good for you for getting this hit song,' I was saying that there's something completely magical about that song that's a huge achievement, that goes beyond what most people do in their entire lives, in any field," he says.

"It'd be like going up to Einstein and saying, 'Hey, you really did a great job on that E= mc2,' and he's like 'Oh, well, I had a lot of equations.' I was really surprised. It made me think that he didn't really like the song that much. That he resented that song — that maybe even he was perplexed at how he was able to make that song and that it was this sort of mystical experience that couldn't be pinned down. I just felt a sense of sadness that a person could be held down by something so beautiful."

I'm wondering how many times he's experienced a similar moment with well-intentioned kids approaching him with kind words for "Party Hard," the most visible hit of his dozens of recorded songs.

"'Party Hard,' that's like my national anthem. It's a perpetual living fuel cell for me. It started everything, it's continuing everything that I came to do. So I worship that song. I'm completely baffled by it, perplexed by it," he says. "There's no logic to how any of this has gone, and I feel like that song really sort of sums all of that up. I don't feel like that song even belongs to me. It feels like a thing I got to take part in that has allowed all of these things to happen. So I feel like I didn't create that song — that song created me."

An appropriately exuberant response, but isn't there a shred of angst when responding to a detractor writing in to his advice column simply asking him to "eat shit and die" or in reading a poorly researched article or two that have cropped up suggesting that the entity we know as "Andrew W.K." is little more than a job created by a record label that's had multiple actors filling the role over the years? If Rowland was destined to be the "Come On Eileen" guy by powers outside of his control, does Andrew feel any grief living in many people's eyes as a cartoon character with a perpetually bleeding nose?

"I'm very thankful for it, anytime anyone can recognize anything at all that I've offered. You know, if they say, 'Oh, you're the bloody nose guy,' 'Oh, you're the guy that wears all white,' or 'Oh, you're the Party Hard guy' — any way that they can identify this thing at all. Just to be in the sphere of being on the map is a huge deal. So I just feel very lucky, very thankful," he says.

"As far as people saying 'You don't exist,' or 'It's all a fraud,' or something like that — if someone wants to go very deep with what I am offering, it can potentially ask a lot of that person. And I think that part of that experience is best encountered with an element of doubt. And that can be a painful and upsetting thing for that person and for me. It's not really pleasant to take away that sense of certainty and security, but life in general is best approached, it seems, with some sense of doubt. Even when it's not that fun to feel that way, it has a tendency to enrich it, in the end."

So from being a curious teen at lawless basement shows to becoming an entity so superhuman seeming some would question his very existence, the thread that keeps running throughout our talk is how little personal control Andrew has on any of the amazing experiences that make up his life.

"I think all along, I've been at the mercy of some larger force — I don't know exactly what it is. It's the force of a lot of other people being involved that want things to happen. And that's certainly been an aspect of it, there've been a lot of people involved all along, in anyone's life, especially mine, that have helped facilitate all of this kind of experience," he says.

"But more and more, it seems that there's this sense of — I'm here to do what I'm being asked to do. And especially when people get involved, for example, with the advice column, when you're literally being asked, when you're being turned to in that way, it gets very clear that you have an ability to offer something very directly to someone. I just turn myself over to it, more and more and more."

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