Josh from Indiana and Steven from Delaware couldn’t have been much older than 18, if that.
“We drove three hours just to see him,” they beamed, dressed in the standard issue white jeans, white t-shirt and runners that all Andrew W.K. faithful sport, long hair - all the better for head-banging - under baseball caps. Josh’s had ‘THRASH’ scrawled under the peak in black texta. They were staying in the boondocks of New York, and had come to the Kimmel Centre at NYU to see their hero give the keynote speech at CMJ Music Marathon (a college radio music festival and conference) in 2009.
As we stood on Washington Square S., waiting for the doors to open, I asked them about their hero, and mine, Andrew W.K. They had been fans for years, and loved “AWK’s” dedication to partying hard (note: this doesn’t necessarily mean what you think; more in a moment). They were excited to hear about his new live music venue, Santos Party House, despite their not being of legal drinking age. Josh - the wide-eyed embodiment of American young manhood - explained that he was “going to bootcamp” next year; joining the army. I wondered aloud if he’d be allowed to listen to Andrew W.K. in the barracks. “They’ll make you cut your hair,” I said, half joking.
He lifted up his hat and, with it, his wig. “They already did.”
* * *
I first discovered Andrew Wilkes Krier in Q Magazine compilation CD back in 2001, when his debut album I Get Wet was released. The song ‘Party Til You Puke’ - an ear-bleeding explosion of demented enthusiasm - was the most exciting (and most bracingly stupid) thing I’d heard in ages, and I soon devoured the album.
A classical prodigy from Michigan, he made (and makes) big, loud music - which could loosely be termed metal - that celebrated “partying”. In the Andrew W.K. parlance, partying means, yes, getting wasted (see ‘We Want Fun’, a favourite of the Jackass crew), but also striving for happiness and a sense of personal fulfilment. “The Party” isn’t so much an event as it is a state of being.
When he toured Australia, in 2002, he played Melbourne’s Hi-Fi Bar. By the time the night of the gig rolled around, ticket sales had been slow; nobody really knew how to “sell” him - the posters of I Get Wet’s album art, featuring Andrew with a streaming blood nose, didn’t help - and promoters were handing out free tickets to skater dudes on Swanston Street.
When he and his band - comprised of metal gods like guitarist Jimmy Coup - took the stage, the crowd was so densely populated by freeloaders and industry types it was a solid wall of crossed arms. By the time the show finished, two thirds of the crowd was on the stage, getting piggybacks from Andrew, and the show eventually entered into myth. Having “been there” in 2002 became its own currency, and many of us reunited when he played again in 2007.
Speaking to Andrew via phone ahead of his Big Day Out commitments this summer, I told him of the legend of “the Hi-Fi show”.
“I was not aware that it had this mythic status,” he says, earnestly. “I’m happy to hear that people remember it at all!”
If his response seems disingenuous, perhaps it’s because he is more aware than anyone of the polarising nature of the Andrew W.K. phenomenon. His music inspires intense love as much as it does deep disdain, a circumstance he is at peace with. “You know, I’d rather that people had never heard of me than had heard me and had no reaction. You want to connect with people, that’s the whole point - and connecting with them in any way counts. My ideal is that they feel good, but if it generates anger or hatred, that can have positive effects - in a roundabout way - despite its being seen as a ‘negative’ reaction.”
In many cases, Andrew has found that his most strident detractors often become his biggest fans, and it’s a thought process he encourages. “That, to me, is almost more satisfying than the person who has loved you from the beginning and never had any doubts. It’s a great challenge to overcome someone else’s doubts and work with them until they get to that state - a raw type of happiness, a pure joy at being alive. I provide a certain way to get to that state, and if I can get people there, it’s a very meaningful type of work to be involved in.”
It was that desire to connect that led to, in the mid-part of the last decade, Andrew W.K. becoming less a musical project than a multi-platform mission. His distance from music was also due, in part, to contractual dramas that left his ability to embody the “Andrew W.K.” brand in doubt; he refers to that period as “intense and gruelling”. It saw him taking on everything from advice columns (Your Friend, Andrew W.K.) to motivational speaking. (From personal experience, his motivational work at NYU in 2009 was enough to make Tony Robbins look like a sullen pessimist.)
“I would meet people who, often, had never heard my music but saw something on TV that I did, or read an interview that they related to,” he recalls. “I don’t want people to have to like everything I do if they can still get the main message - that feeling of joy, excitement, potential, possibility - I wanted to get every mode I could to get there. Words and talking are just as good, and better, for some people as far as getting them into that state of mind.”
He is aware that his music - which has also encompassed jazz and instrumental arrangements but, for the most part, deals in thundering guitars, synths and drums - is not to everyone’s taste. “There are people, who tend to be older than me - usually my parents’ age - who just don’t like ‘loud music’ in general. And I want to be able to communicate with those people! I don’t care if they don’t like my music, I consider it a real accomplishment to get through to anyone, and that’s my main focus.”
What’s most moving about Andrew W.K. - as a person, as a phenomenon, and musically - is that, beyond the focus on “the party”, he speaks directly to the outsider, to the confused and downtrodden. It’s no surprise that his music is hugely popular with teenagers, who so often feel alone against the world. (He also presents Destroy Build Destroy, a loosely ‘educational’ game show, for Cartoon Network.) The song ‘Never Let Down’, from 2003’s The Wolf, is the greatest power ballad you’ve never heard: “Even if you can’t stand up,” he sings, while a heartbreakingly triumphant guitar solo rings out, “I’m a friend by your side. You’re never gonna be alone!”
He can sing it because he’s been there, too, more than once. “I’m grateful that I had bad times or hard times, because I learned a tremendous amount from it. And I’m still here!” he enthuses. “When you’re ready, the universe responds. Again, it’s very humbling and it makes me very thankful of the chance to do this.”
* * *
Josh from the NYU gig emailed me a week ago; he’s currently in Kandahar clearing roads from IEDs and he’ll be in Afghanistan for the rest of the year. “I wish I could meet Andrew W.K. again,” he wrote.
Heavy metal is no stranger to warzones - Slayer’s ‘Angel Of Death’ was famously used to rev up soldiers during Operation Desert Storm - but there’s something comforting knowing that Andrew W.K.’s music, so full of joy and optimism, might be being blasted from downtown Kandahar. And I know that, wherever he might be, Andrew is right there with Josh, and it’s all just part of the party.
“Once you go through the ordeal,” he told me, “it makes it not only a lot less depressing or frustrating, it actually makes you a lot more grateful that you get to learn these lessons.”
It’s time for him to go, but he offers one last thought before the call ends. Typically the last minute of an interview is space for a last-chance album plug, or hollow rock star truism. Instead, Andrew says: “Thank you for your kindness. Party hard, always.”