Andrew W.K: The Life and Soul of the Party
Conventional wisdom would have it that partying is all about debauchery. Andrew W.K. respectfully disagrees.
Andrew W.K. was raised in Ann Arbor, Michigan. At age four, he began learning piano at the University of Michigan School of Music. His formal studies continued through high school, but along the way, he connected with rock ‘n’ roll in a way that would define the rest of his life.
Andrew W.K.: I wanted to feel better about life. And the thing that made me feel better, consistently and reliably, was music—and not just any kind of music, but a music that was focused on an extraordinarily kind of high physical energy.
In 2001, Island Records released his debut album, I Get Wet. But, for all its apparent violence and hedonism, buried inside the record and its hit single "Party Hard" was a deeply held philosophy. For Andrew W.K., partying is an attitude.
W.K.: The attitude is one of optimism, one of courage, one of, I'd say, humility. But most of all, one of gratitude, a celebratory enthusiasm for getting to exist at all.
AJC: Well, the intention is to liberate the people who are in front of you.
W.K.: You want to feel like being alive is a good thing. That's what I want to feel, without doubt. Or we push that doubt, like, that says “Maybe it wasn't good to be born, so far away, that it is just a mental consideration. It's just an intellectual exercise.” But the physical truth is that you wouldn't be able to feel this good if you weren't meant to exist in order to feel it. I want to feel that way, even if for just a glimpse. And then I can go back into the puzzling, and pondering, and debating whether I should have been born or not.
AJC: And that’s the “partying hard."
W.K.: That is, between those two states. If you can embrace that—the dichotomy—and see that entire battle, or that entire negative/positive wrestling match as being contained within a transcendent kind of beauty—that the whole thing counts—that's the triumph, I think. Now again, you can think this, but to actually feel that way, that's a daily effort.
AJC: If we accept that, to some extent, we're all going to all have valleys and mountains in order to have an understanding of the opposites, how miserable do you get versus how joyful you get?
W.K.: It's a consistent misery.
W.K.: An unjustified, irrational sadness that is so familiar. But you know, just these past few days, I was thinking, “Oh, it's lifting.” But then I think, “Well, I've thought this before.” There's a core feeling that I can almost taste, that's been there for as long as I can remember. So every thought was decorated with this type of dread that something really horrible was about to happen, that I couldn't figure out what it was. And something really horrible had already happened, and I couldn't remember what it was. But that was also a very motivating kind of feeling because I created an urgency, and I’d say a useful anxiety, that I was not at ease. So you had to do something to try to find peace. And so that's why I'm doing anything at all. Or maybe, you know, I'd like to think I would do things if there wasn't that bad feeling. But maybe that bad feeling is the best thing to ever happen to me, so how can I call it bad?
AJC: Well, there is that old idea that, you know, great art can only come out of great misery, right?
W.K.: Yeah, but I don't like that idea so I don't want to believe in these things because it romanticizes it, and then it seems to start to encourage it. I accept it. I accept it.
AJC: Have you ever thought about, well, either pharmacologically or otherwise medicating your way out of it?
W.K.: I've tried various things. I wasn't good at those too much, either. Nothing has worked better than partying. And nothing has worked better than music. That is the most therapeutic.
AJC: And does it happen every time you get on a stage, that you are lifted out of this?
W.K.: In a way.
W.K.: In a way.
AJC: There are degrees of it?
W.K.: Yeah, but I was just saying the other day that, I'd say, 99 out of a hundred shows, I feel like I had a bad show. But that one out of a hundred that is good, it feels really good, because I can tell that that was different than every other not-so-good show. And, of course, you ask the audience, and they’ll think that your worst show was the best show they'd ever seen you play. And they've seen you play 10 times, so it's not about you. It's not about what you might think. I mean, I'm a person engaged in something bigger than himself, hopefully. And so I don't get to decide what this thing is that's bigger than me. I get to decide about the part that I experience. But beyond that, it's not about me. It's about this feeling.
In service of this feeling, Andrew W.K. has spent the past decade sharing his ideas in public, giving talks at colleges that include Yale and Oxford. He's also been writing impactful advice columns for publications such as The Village Voice. But all this non-musical activity began quite by accident.
W.K.: I was asked by New York University in 2005 to do a talk and I assumed, wrongfully, that it was for a music business class or something related to my work in entertainment. And that it would be intimate and small and moderated and so on and so forth. It was then explained to me that they wanted me to specifically avoid, if I could help it, talking about the music industry and that it was a free-for-all. And I was really blown away by that—that anyone would want me to talk about anything, let alone anything anything. And so they put this event on at the Skirball Center which is a very large auditorium. And I don't remember how many people came but it was full. It went on for four hours. It never occurred to me to do this. And I thought, “Wow, I guess people really like this. I guess talking about partying can count, too. And then maybe people that don't like this blaring music would get that same feeling I'm trying to get out of that, just through words.”
AJC: But you do—and I don't mean to be sycophantic in any way—but when you do give answers, you give considerate answers. I read one of your advice columns in The Village Voice, where somebody was contemplating suicide, and I found your answer remarkable. You basically said, "I can't judge you on whether you want to live or die. That would be your decision. But if you do decide that you want to get out of the mindset that you're in, that is causing you to have these terminal thoughts, then here's a suggestion, which is you go out and do good to people you don't know."
W.K.: Oh yeah, that's right.
AJC: And I thought, “That's so perfect.” Like that in itself would be a good life philosophy for people, and it was one answer in one advice column for you.
W.K.: Being of service to something beyond yourself. That's been my answer, and in a way, I'm very lucky because I like this service.
AJC: But was there somebody that came up to you and said, “Andrew, if you're going to be content with yourself, you need to be giving rather than getting?"
W.K.: I don't know, maybe Paul McCartney and “The End” song? I mean, it's the oldest… These are truths, if there are truths at all. These sayings and these pleas that our better selves have left scattered along the history of humanity. It's the same story over and over again. Each time we think, “Oh well, it couldn't possibly apply to me now in this day and age.” But there are a lot of people that have worked really hard at trying to figure out what this thing is called “being alive,” that's getting to happen to us, or that we're happening to it. And it's worth listening to what they have to say. They've all said the same thing, which makes it really hard to ignore. I mean, you have to really bear down to block out some of these lessons. If you just quiet your mind… The way I wrote those columns, which is probably why I don't remember a lot of them, I would close my eyes and imagine I was the smartest, most advanced being in the world, and that I was asking them the question that that person was asking me. Like a wizard, basically. So I would just pretend I was this advanced and write from that point of view. But what's amazing is we—that pretending to be that smart or pretending to be that evolved—we all have, I mean, that's in there. It is. It really is. It just takes some kind of effort to let that dominate, rather than all my lower appetites, essentially.
And though his live performances are a far cry from the university lecture circuit...
AJC: Is it fair to say that there's violence in it?
W.K.: Yeah, it has everything in it. I'm trying to put… It is maximalism. There is a name for this approach, which is “Throw everything in there.” You can have an orchestra, you can have guitars, you can have piano, you can have singing, you can have a thousand people singing, and it's all gonna make it louder and better. That's like, “Well no, sometimes less is more.” Not in this case. I could do “less is more” in other areas of this work, like my clothing for example. But in the sound, more is more. And it's meant to inspire not just a mental experience, but a physical—a body—experience. And there is something in that interior, that mental and physical experience that points towards truth. I'm not going to be so bold as to say it is truth, but it's as undeniable an experience as I've ever been able to have, and I cherish those little moments of clarity in the midst of so much confusion in my life.
AJC: But, that said, you did make a record of simple—not simple piano music—but of you playing the piano.
W.K.: Yeah, noodling. Yes, that was noodling. And that was to contradict exactly what I'm talking about. And I'm happy that record exists. I've never listened to it since it was finished. But the way I came to peace with it while making it was, “Well, I've spent usually hundreds of hours recording an album, so now I'm going to spend two hours. I've usually pined over every part of every song. Well, now I'm not even going to make songs. I've had every overdub, every instrument I could possibly put on a song. Well, now I'm just going to have one instrument.” So, it was an extreme experiment with doing the opposite.
AJC: Did it change the way you thought about what your music could be.
W.K.: Nah, I don't know. It made me want to practice piano more.
Andrew W.K. may well be practicing piano more. But, as with everything he does, it will continue to be in humble service of the party gods.