Like An apotheosis of Party, the cover of 2001’s “I Get Wet” is, to many, the first and perhaps only image conjured up when Andrew W.K. comes to mind. His battered and serene visage stands starkly against the darkness. Blood is smeared from his nose down to his neck, crusted to wisps of patchy facial hair. His dark, greasy coiffure is the threshold that separates his face from the void, framing the evidence of brutality, bearing life-affirming blood and a strangely soft gaze that both reassures and menacingly tempts, “It’s time to party.” The album’s message is made apparent via a quick scan of the tracks: There is indeed, ‘It’s Time to Party,’ as well as ‘Party til You Puke,’ and the anthem on an album full of anthems, ‘Party Hard.’
Many people were quick to write off Andrew as a 15-minutes-of-fame-type celeb: shallow, raucous, and bro’d the fuck out. But since that first simple gesture of unrestrained intensity, Andrew’s career has developed into a complex oeuvre spanning more than a decade of work in various media, though it always winds back to where it started, with the desire to party, which is more often than not also a plea for understanding and acceptance.
Following his powerful and confusing launch into the mainstream, Andrew avoided being pigeon-holed by doing a little bit of everything: He’s gone on to record and perform a variety of styles of music, including J-Pop covers and improvised piano ballads; he cofounded Santos Party House, a Manhattan nightclub; he hosted the Cartoon Network show “Destroy Build Destroy” and still occasionally turns up on TV, most recently confounding the people over at Fox News; and he has toured as a public speaker, appearing at Yale and NYU. His weekly column in the Village Voice offers peace of mind to people who write in with problems relating to ideological family disputes, abusive relationships, road rage, and more. His Twitter feed is often punctuated with “PARTY TIP,” followed by advice that ranges from what kind of snack is best to sage self-help wisdom such as “Don’t ask for an easy life, ask for an incredible life and the strength to endure it.”
Andrew’s oratory style is something like a Zen Rumpelstiltskin, at once wholly profound while marked with the platitudes of a posivibes-spouting college freshman. All paths converge on the road of partying.
We spoke with Andrew about his wide ranging artistic output, how to deal with feelings of negativity and depression, and what exactly he’s going to do at the Baltimore School for the Arts on Sept. 4 as part of the Contemporary’s 2014 Speaker Series.
City Paper: You do so much. How do you explain what you’re doing to those who want to reduce you to a being particular kind of entertainer?
Andrew W.K.: When you list it out, it sounds like a lot of different things, but at least to me, it’s only one thing. It’s being Andrew W.K. and, within that, trying to generate as much joyful energy as I can for myself and for the folks out there who receive it. There are many different ways to get there and I feel like they all have their particular pros and cons. To some folks out there, music is the most direct, immediate way to get that feeling of excitement and physical energy. But then I meet people all the time who don’t necessarily like loud rock ‘n’ roll music, so they might say they read something I wrote or an interview I did and that connected with them. They could relate because they were able to extract some kind of excitement or motivating power from that particular offering. They’re all different tools or different means that all go to the same end, which is very raw energy. Very raw excitement. And I hope it’s physical as much as it might be emotionally or mentally. I hope you can actually feel it in your body.
CP: What is the process of moving from one project to the next, especially when those projects are so different?
AWK: I never really planned on doing speeches or lectures. I never planned on being a writer. It emerged out of the will to get cheered up and stay cheered up. But the best way to see how hard it is to do something is to do it and dive in. People have been generous to me and very forgiving and very patient and I’ve learned to develop these skills. Doing interviews is really helpful to express myself and my thoughts. Trying to explain your feelings or your point of view or what it is you’re after; doing interviews is a great way to develop that skill. I find it really thrilling to have someone’s attention; even if they’re paid to do it, or if they don’t want to talk to me, it’s very exciting. It’s a great opportunity to have someone’s undivided attention and really try to connect these thoughts for myself, even if no one else read it, even if it was only for me just getting to clarify and refine my ideas. People say that I’m too scattered but I don’t feel like I’m doing all that much at all. I’m not trying to do mathematics for example, or biology or chemistry or architecture. It’s all very simple to me. In the entertainment industry or the arts, whatever you call it, I’m just trying to really be someone people can turn to for a good feeling.
CP: It seems more complex than that, though. Do you cultivate this attitude through your experiences alone or are there other sources of inspiration?
AWK: For sure, there’s so much out in the world in general. Even things you don’t like can be very inspiring to see what not to do to get to the place you’re trying to get to. But really all of this is not so much about me, about my story, my experience, my relationships, my life. Or I’d prefer it not to be about that. It’s about that feeling that fortunately so many people relate to and also are pursuing it and creating for themselves. So it’s really a team effort in that way. We’re all cheering each other on, encouraging each other and building it together, building that feeling.
CP But pervasive positivity can be a kind of escapism. A way of ignoring why negativity exists, which can be socially irresponsible even.
AWK: That is a good point. It’s not a simple issue in that regard. I think that even within life as a whole there’s an entire spectrum of feeling. Sensations fall into all kinds of categories: some positive, some negative, and even feelings that we can’t necessarily sum up or describe that clearly. And they all count. They all have their place. They all are valuable. I think being alive is a positive experience in as much as being dead might be, you know, a negative. While alive, everything in a way counts for better or worse, even when it’s a painful kind of experience. We don’t want to have a one-dimensional life where we magically force ourselves to be in a state that doesn’t feel right. We want to feel all kinds of ways. To pull as much quality, worthwhile experience from those feelings as we can. So I totally understand there’s people who probably just don’t feel good and that even in itself is a positive thing. You don’t want to wrestle too much internally trying to feel a certain way, we want to feel how we feel and be like, that’s OK, and then keep moving forward. These aren’t easy issues but that doesn’t mean that we can’t keep going.
CP: It does seems to me that your music is implicitly acknowledging how bad things can get. Is the Andrew WK project born out of your own negative feelings?
AWK: I’ve been someone, like a lot of people, who has not felt so great all of the time. I’ve struggled with depression and just bad moods and felt like there’s gotta be another way to feel. I got glimpses of it. At some point, around 18 or so when I moved to New York, I thought maybe I could really just focus on that feeling all the time. Maybe that feeling is what being alive is. The meaning of life for me is to pursue it and manifest that feeling as much as possible.
CP: This lecture series is typically a conventional artist talk. How will you approach talking about your work since your life is your work and your work is your life?
AWK: Well, I’m not an artist. I mean, I do enjoy drawing and painting but I don’t consider myself an artist. I really don’t consider myself a musician either. I consider myself a person, a human, who is conjuring up a feeling. So out of respect for people who paint really really well and draw really really well and of course out of respect for musicians who play really, really complicated parts and all, I wouldn’t call myself that. So I’m definitely not coming as an artist or a creative person, I’m coming as a human who would like to hopefully just like to generate a good feeling in that room. I don’t have any particular thing I’m planning on speaking about, so I’m going to make it up as I go along. Just being in that room with people at that moment, it’s intense enough. We’ll see what happens.
Andrew W.K. speaks at the Baltimore School of the Arts on Sept. 4 at 7 p.m. as part of the Contemporary's CoHosts 2014 Speaker Series, hosted by Current Space.