Some people are so influential that it’s hard to remember their beginnings. For Andrew W.K., the hard rock-meets-metal musician whose name takes on a meaning of its own, it’s sometimes hard to remember how his own life got started. When people begin idolizing you as a character instead of you as a musician, things get a bit out of hand. Life, to Andrew W.K., has always been a party – but there’s much, much more to it than that.
Turns out the dude with blood pooling down his face has a pretty big heart.
Before heading out on tour, he gave us a rang to chat before he takes the stage at Cuisine En Locale. After lots of talk about vegetables (the good ol’ days) and the taxing nature of performing nonstop, he gave us solid advice on the secret to happiness, the lasting impact of death, and the best way to deal with pay-to-play gigs.
And partying. We definitely talked about partying.
Your definition of “partying” isn’t the traditional Get Wasted And Lose Your Mind definition. Can you explain?
My definition is to lose your mind, but moreso it means to figure out what partying means to you. Don’t try to tell anyone else how to party. I don’t like telling people how to party—now, I offer ideas, tips, suggestions, yes—so to say, but you can’t command someone to party. They shouldn’t do it unless they want to. I never liked when people told me how to party, especially when I was younger and people told me I wasn’t partying or I was partying in the wrong way. The whole part of partying that seemed the most fun to me was that it was doing what you enjoyed as long as it didn’t inhibit someone else from doing what they enjoyed. To me, it’s sobering.
To those that want to get wasted, sometimes the best way to find your spirit and soul is to lose your mind. It’s not about escaping from things, don’t seek oblivion just to cancel out life, but actually to discover and find the center of life through the whole process of celebration, to actually go deeper into your existence rather than to run away from it. This is all part of the party adventure. You figure it out as you go. You make it up for yourself. That’s the beauty of being a human being with your own mind and your own heart and your own path in this party life.
I was straight edge for many years—
Yeah, me too.
—and it seemed like there was this hurdle to get over where I would do what you’re saying—open up, relax, have fun—but also sometimes it gets to a point where truly letting yourself go in the sense of releasing your mind became impossible because of stress and pressure I put on myself. If someone reaches that point—they want to push themselves to seek more and be happier, but they feel like they’re hitting their own mental roadblock—how should they move past that?
Perhaps the roadblock is meant to be there and rather than trying to go through it, try to go a whole other direction. I don’t think letting go is always the right idea. Sometimes it’s good to respond to the pressure. There’s all different kinds of phases or deals. The point isn’t to remove the challenges to make everything easy. The point is to develop a strength to face them head on and run into the roadblock, not make it vanish. Don’t try to go over it or around it, but go through it. Know that the experience of going through it, even if it’s uncomfortable, helps.
A lot of times we think partying is about life being easy, but I really feel like partying is learning to enjoy the things about life that aren’t easy, finding a type of overriding happiness that goes beyond emotions, beyond what we think of as a cheerful feeling, into a sense of meaning. Being able to extract valuable inner character-building experience from those ordeals, from the challenges, knowing that life isn’t supposed to be easy and maybe some of the best parts of life happen when we face the hardest things. We’re very hard on ourselves often by having expectations of how we’re supposed to be, how life is supposed to be if it’s “good”, looking around at others and thinking their lives are better than ours. Each person’s life is their own. What we want to do isn’t to have a life of total relaxation or low stress, but you want to have an intense, significant, and full life. We want to develop the strength to withstand it, and not only that, but appreciate it and master it. If someone wants to play an instrument, they know that it can be extremely hard. We want to become a person who can go through all of that, go through all the practice and the difficulties and the tedious bits that make it annoying, to become a better musician and, in your eyes, a better person not just because we can play that instrument, but because we went through all that struggle to get there.
Absolutely. Looking at expectations like that, there’s this idea of you as a brand now. It’s not necessarily bad, but you’ve become an object instead of a human being. There was this essay Meredith Graves from Perfect Pussy wrote about how you’re very different onstage than you are offstage, as every other musician is, but how seeing that difference in person was striking.
I did read that and some of it was a bit over my head. It’s quite advanced. I felt like I had to become better at reading to fully get that essay. It was very intense and passionate. She’s obviously an extraordinarily smart person and seems very nice.
It seems like fans of musicians, of actors, of any entertainer, feel disappointed when the person they’ve connected to doesn’t identically match this character they’ve come to know. Why is it okay to not feel obliged to be this same copy of yourself at all times that you are onstage?
I don’t know. I don’t usually think about things quite at this level so it’s a challenging question. I think in her article she wrote about how I was waiting quietly in line at the passport immigration line, and that’s just because, well, in my experience, it’s not a good idea to be anything but quiet and orderly when going through customs.
In preparing to play the show, I was getting ready to go onstage by stretching and stuff. This type of music is very physical, so it’s almost like a sporting event, which I’m sure she can relate to as well. There’s no way to know what someone is thinking or what’s in another person. You never really know anyone, unfortunately. Everyone is a mystery unto themselves. I don’t know what expectations she wanted me to fill, to live up to them or not. If I was crazy and screaming in the passport line, she would have been mad at that: “I thought he was supposed to be a nice person and now he’s going insane at immigration.”
I try to live up to my own expectations of what I think I’m representative of. I’m trying to represent a feeling of energy, excitement, and goodness not just for others, but for myself. I devote myself to a particular physical sensation that it’s good to be alive. That’s my personal quest to make myself feel better about life. It’s a very puzzling thing since it involves others. I’m always Andrew W.K. I don’t know how I can’t live up to that; it’s automatic. Right now on the phone, I’m trying to be professional and kind so I can help you with your job and you can help me with mine. If I were to go like [loud, maniacal screaming], it may not help achieve those end results. There’s certain modes of action for each time of your life. I choose to be Andrew W.K. at all times of the day, but that image can change depending on the scenario.
Thanks for answering. That seemed somewhat tough.
It was, but it was a great question. Like, my bass player has a lot of hair all over him and she mentioned that in the article. He hadn’t shaved in a while. He felt very self-conscious about that. It was the first time I’ve ever seen him where — well, it wasn’t like it hurt his feelings, but he is quite hairy on his arms and shoulders and back. She described him very well and talked about how she tries to look very good often and the discrepancies between those two appearances and what they suggest. It actually motivated him to shave more and manicure his body a lot more. That was something really good that he took away from that article as well that was totally unexpected for him.
Separate from that article, do you feel any societal pressures in 2015 that you may not have felt five or ten years ago?
Nah, probably the same pressures of existences. They may present themselves in different filters, but I imagine that’s just a condition of living. There’s an overriding intensity that you have to face or you run away from; either way, you’re grappling with it, with what it means to be a person. You try to do your best within that by using the pressure in a way that is motiving that create compassion, gentleness, and kindness along with a humbleness. The most natural response to press—at least it was for me—is to lash out, to complain and criticize and push things away. That’s endless. You realize deep down inside that it may be emotionally stimulating or a short thrill, but you realize it doesn’t stop. The way I tried, like anyone else, was to replace those attacks in their early stages with empathy and compassion and a kind of illogical love, a love for the things you hate, the most challenging thing of all.
Much of your work as an advice columnist for the Village Voice responds to questions of love like that. What’s it like from your view getting to speak on that topic?
Thanks for asking about that! Initially, it was a great privilege to be associated with the Village Voice, especially as someone who moved to New York relatively young at 18, but I even know of it before moving there. It’s only recently that people told me what their opinions or views are. To me, it was a great slice of New York City tradition of weekly newspapers. I get it to look at all kinds of stuff, even the ads. It became a ritual every Wednesday to get the Village Voice. To participate in that and respond to their invitation was a real high point for me. I was very, very moved by that opportunity. Of all things to do there, to do an advice column, is crazy. I have to thank Brian McManus who was the music editor at the time and invited me to do that. He put me on the cover, for crying out loud! What a dream come true. If someone told me when I was 18 that I’d be on the cover of the Village Voice and answering people’s questions about life, I would have told them to get lost and stop lying to me. Then I’d probably ask how they’re able to see the future.
It being an advice column specifically, it was a chance to dive headfirst into life. Actually, it’s very much like what we’re talking about now. Of course, as it always goes, the things that people are writing in about are things that I’m thinking about, too. It was a great chance to bond with people in our confusion and wonderings. Being able to pull some kind of clarity deep within myself or our collective selves was crazy. Writing this column has made me a better version of myself, the only type of improvement that really only matters. Thinking about other people’s problems has made me more aware of my own. I’m in no traditional terms trained to be an advice columnist. I’m not an authority on anything except partying, but fortunately that seems to apply to a lot. Hopefully people get something out of it.
Is there any specific question you’ve been asked or story you’ve been told that changed your perspective on things?
I try to go after the more intense questions. I don’t know why. I guess I find them more stimulating so they’re easier to write about with a curiosity. I get a lot of questions about dating and about work. I find myself more often going back to questions that unhinge me and snap me out of whatever I’m in. The ones that have the most impact on me are ones like this 30-year-old woman whose aunt just dropped dead the other day from a brain aneurism out of nowhere. She had health issues, but nothing that would have alluded to this sudden death. That changes everything. I think about that all the time not just to get perspective on my own problems, but to remember the fragility of life on every level, to feel compassion for those going through that type of loss, and to admire their strength and courage to go through that at all. It changes you in ways that are difficult to describe. It makes you more of a human to observe those things, especially because it’s easier to not fill your mind with that. It’s sad that it makes life better in some serious, indescribable way to be able to fill it with an awareness of that type of suffering.
What was the most surprising advice you’ve given someone, in that you were surprised it came from you?
I have to think. That’s a great question. Hm. Probably questions where the person has every reason to lash out in justified anger and trying to move past that, to go deeper in until that anger and frustration is replaced with this illogical love. Some forgiveness doesn’t make sense. Someone whose whole family turned against them because of their sexuality or someone whose mom made their life very difficult is moving back to care for her in her old age, people who have the opportunity to rise to this higher level of being but have every reason to not do it. Encouraging them to do it is hard. I’m struggled with that, with things like rage, those instantaneous feelings that we get the biggest kick out of reveling in. There’s a true physical rush of pleasure that comes from giving into them. It’s almost like the feeling you get when you eat food when you’re really, really, really hungry. There’s an undeniable, shallow, quick feeling that can turn uneasy shortly after in realizing it wasn’t the best way to deal with those impulses.
When people write in with these issues, I want to tell them to yell, “Screw you!” and never talk to them again because they have every right, but I know that’s not best. I try to imagine what the best person in the world would do, this idealized, best, strongest, wisest, most loving thing we wish we could be a fraction of, reacting. The more you think about it, the more you realize that person is inside of you. It takes developing the strength to be it. I hope that’s the main thing someone takes away from my column. Anything important a book could tell you, anything important that you could ever learn from someone else about the real truth, capital T, is already in you. That’s the strangest thing about being a human. Somehow, we already have this knowledge. It still doesn’t feel like you because it’s the best possible version of you, but we can strive to become that. They’re in this state of perpetual understanding. We can’t fathom that. We can only imagine what it would be like to be that person, but that imaging could be the first steps we take to living a better life.
It’s similar to someone seeking out a therapist or close confidant where the advice they seek the most isn’t something they didn’t know. The difference comes in the phrasing. You hear it in a way you haven’t before, and that, for one reason or another, clears the air so you find resolution.
It’s like giving someone a mirror to see it clearly.
It never occurs to us when we do have these answers that we could actually follow through on them. Sometimes we might think that voice is totally wrong inside of us. We look around us and we see the world operating differently than the voice is describing, so maybe that voice is crazy and we should live without that kind of integrity. If we support each other, we can see that it’s possible. It’s not even what we should do, but what we must do to survive, thrive, and move forward. We can’t be victims of our own weaknesses.
Weaknesses are a very intriguing thing because in many ways they make life seem more dramatic and fun like a movie with all these crazy dilemmas and drama. There’s enough hardship in life without that. When the real shit hits the fan, those weaknesses bring us down instantly. It won’t just be fun and games and nonsense to keep us distracted. We’ll wish we had this strength more developed. We can develop them in the quieter moments, in the easier moments, to practice being strong, even in trivial interactions like driving or dealing with people in the office. Day to day life is the testing ground. We really have to do good. We can be polite in line at the grocery store or friendly at the airport. Those are all little tests if we’re strong enough to be a good person, and many of us will think that we’re not. Some days you blow it. Every ordeal, every annoyance, every inconvenience is a test to see if we are strong enough.
One of the biggest tests is to define what happiness is. A lot of people struggle to come to terms with what it means when you are happy and how to tell if you’ve “reached” happiness.
You’re very mysterious. I was thinking about all of this exact thing last night. We’re on the same wave.
Well, you know, we’re all supposed to strive for this “pursuit of happiness”. The moment where we allow our own weaknesses to attack us most pointedly comes when we want to be happy but tell ourselves we can’t. We view it as a ladder where happiness is the top bar, the goal, instead of happiness as a fluid, fluctuating thing.
That’s a great way to put it. There can be a happiness present even in moments of sadness. Every experience in a way is a positive experience purely because you’re existing. Even all the suffering within existence is somehow worst something and can be used to create some kind of good. It doesn’t have to be meaningless. We’re not trying to get to a place of happiness. The whole experience of trying to get anywhere is a happiness. When you watch Lord of the Rings, there’s no moment at the end where they roll the credits and you go, “Yes! Finally!” and feel your best. The whole movie is epic and happy. That’s why you watch the whole thing. It sure was a brutal experience with many challenges and ordeals, yet they made it into each next scene. The story is a joy in its moments of triumph and downs. Looking back, you always realize that all along, that was it. You were trying to get somewhere that you were already at.
There’s a booking company here called Keynote which often enforces a pay-to-play rule for openers at their shows. Acts need to sell a certain amount of tickets in advance to ensure that all of those involved down burn a hole in their own pockets. Some people are fine with this and others, especially recently, are trying to shine a light on why this is awful. Your show was almost one of these.
I looked into it and our show is just a regular show. I picked the opening bands myself from the ones that submitted and I’m very excited about them. They’re all getting their own fee for playing. It’s not a pay-to-play show, but I am very familiar with them and have done some in the past. Sometimes they went well and sometimes it left me feeling taken advantage of and ripped off. I have a lot of respect for bands that are against this. I know both sides. I have a lot of understanding and compassion for those who feel taken advantage of. That’s a very bad feeling.
It almost seems inevitable, not even in this decade, that any bands starting out will play a show like that because certain cities don’t have a guarantee that more than four people will turn up. Did your own local scene do this? What were your musical beginnings like?
I took piano lessons early on. The first show I ever did was around 13-years-old at a school event. I can’t even remember the first show I got paid any money. It never occurred to me to even think about money. I was so excited to play. I played for free at almost all the shows because it was a chance to be at a real venue. I was just one person playing by myself a lot of the time. I didn’t have a lot of expenses. I played keyboard and bass stuff with some synthesizers.
It wasn’t until the very late ‘90s where I would get enough money, around $100, to pay for the cost of actually doing the show or cover the bus tickets. My expenses were low, though, because I wasn’t five people. When I was in high school bands, we had more people and I can’t recall the money situation because we all had other jobs. All my money went into doing it because that’s what I wanted to do. Of course, I didn’t want to lose money, but I was never in this to make money. But I did always spend all my money on new instruments or building something for the stage. That’s my joy of life, sometimes for the worst. I’ve been accused by those in charge of managing my money that I need to not put all my money back into music, but like… what else am I going to spend it on? From 2000 to 2006, every penny I made was spent on touring.
I have friends who are very conscientious of money and they’ve done very well in that regard. They won’t play a show if they don’t make a certain amount of money, even if they want to. They’ve created rigorous standards. Sometimes I thought maybe I should be like that, but it’s very hard for me to say no to a show. I do them for all different prices because I’d rather play than not play. Each person decides for themselves as they go and you should be able to change your mind if you want. Being a successful musician and being a successful businessman are two very different things. A musician could not even play an instrument, but they make millions of dollars. Is that success? Is that the right way? Who knows. The best way to know if you’re successful is to follow your heart. The instinct of what’s right for you will guide you towards your goals.
Have you read BJ Novak’s new book, One More Thing?
Oh no, but I saw that! The one with the handwritten cover and it’s plain white?
Yeah, it’s a bunch of short fiction stories, most of which are comedy.
Okay, yeah. No, I haven’t read it, unfortunately.
There’s a two-page story called “The Girl Who Gave Great Advice” and it says how everyone comes to her seeking advice and she always tells them the same thing: “What does your heart think?” For the most part, that solves most everyone’s questions. Those who still feel conflicted ask again and she says, “Oh, well what does your brain think?” It’s comical in that the advice is simple from afar, but the fact that everyone has gone through that and knows it’s how you make most decisions incredibly important.
Those are two very powerful sources of intelligence and definitely have their strengths and weaknesses. The polarities help you separate your dilemmas. I get why that’s funny, but it’s also very helpful.
These bands that are conflicted over Keynote’s pay-to-play system feel like a system is being used against them. When someone feels that way, in any context, what advice do you have for them to not let that happen – to either not feel used or to not let themselves be ruled by a system they oppose?
I would say don’t play those kind of shows. Don’t do that kind of deal. Don’t agree to do something you don’t want to do. There’s other ways to play. Put on your own shows. That’s what we used to do and that’s why everything was so low pressure. Play shows in houses and basements that may not be the best houses and basements, so you realize other options have more. We usually didn’t even know how to get shows. It can very much feel like the world’s against you or things are aspiring to hold you back. You can try to fight those things or remove yourself from the battle. I would hope that no one feels so limited that it comes down to playing a show you don’t want to play or do nothing. Hopefully there’s at least another option, some other kind of show or some other activity you can put that kind of creative energy. It can’t be bad once you’ve agreed to do it. Don’t spend time being upset about the thing you chose to do. Do what you want to do and take responsibility for it. It’s a slippery slope to constantly be fighting, especially in an industry where reputation is important, so you have to choose your battles. Be respectful, never give up, and keep on partying.
ANDREW W.K. CUSINE EN LOCALE, 156 HIGHLAND AVE., SOMERVILLE. 617.285.0167. FRI 8.14. 8PM/all ages/$23. CUISINEENLOCALE.COM