Zen and the art of party maintenance, with Andrew W.K. | Detroit Metro Times | By Fred Thomas
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.”