Andrew W.K.: The Cream Interview | Nashville Cream | By Adam Gold | Photo by Tom Owyoung
So in this week’s Scene, we ran a (hopefully) humorous make-shift Q&A with party-rock flag-flier Andrew W.K., based on an excellent, wildly popular advice column he writes for the Village Voice‘s music blog. But we also did our own interview with the man. In it, he talks about partying, self-help, being a motivational figure, how Andrew W.K. conspiracies took an emotional toll on him and what to expect at his one-man Exit/In show tonight.
Check it out!
So I was reading your advice column, which is a great read by the way. Does it feel like an enormous responsibility when you’re responding to those people, just in the sense that they get pretty personal with their questions, and they’re asking for advice on some pretty serious life decisions?
Yes, yes. Going back a little bit here. I remember really very early on at shows or after shows when I would meet people who were starting to find out about what I was doing, or this whole party phenomenon. Right away, people looked to me, for whatever reason, for feedback, for advice, for sometimes just to have someone to listen to them. And to talk about things, so it wasn’t even to give them the answers or a secret for anything, but to give them someone to talk with. I was really surprised by that, really blown away actually. Especially because it’s something that, I didn’t put myself out there as being someone that had any kind of authority or knowledge or expertise about anything.
Was part of it just being really accessible to people?
I guess so. I think that happens with anything that makes you feel good. If someone is giving you something that cheers you up. You do develop a bond with that thing, that person, that feelings itself. And I understand that for whatever reason people were associating me with those good feelings, that I felt very obligated and privileged really to be looked to for that, even if I wasn’t the right person or qualified, I still do the best I can every time anyone asks me anything. To say “what would help me if I was in that situation?” And sometimes I’m very good at relating very directly, but even most of the time when I can’t relate at all, I just try to … I honestly think about what my parents would tell me. Or if I was imagining the smartest person in the world, what would the think about this? … So it really isn’t coming from me so much. It’s coming from that global collective consciousness, sort of higher mind that we all have access to, if we just calm down and think outside of ourselves. I try to not really think about it in terms of my own self, I try to think about it terms of what maybe something like god, what would they say. It’s usually very basic. 99% of the time, anything that I would ever say or offer anybody is something that they already know. I’m just reminding them not only of what they already knew but also of what I already knew. So I’m also I’m cheering myself up through them, and the people that write in are cheering me up, giving me a chance to get in touch with those ideas and those truths and elemental parts of being human that really are inside of us whether we pay attention to them or access those tools often, they are there, when we most need them.
When you’d have people coming up to you in person, and they’d share something really personal and ask about it, would that ever feel strange? Would you feel put on the spot?
There were definitely some math questions that I’d have no ability to answer, I usually encourage them in those situations to ask a math professor or look it up obviously, like in a book or on a computer. But sometimes there are answers that you can’t get from somewhere else, and that even if I don’t have, just talking about it with someone is the answer. The unanswerable questions that don’t have a simple yes or no kind of answer are sometimes not meant to be answered, they’re just meant to be experienced as a problem. And then to also to realize that you can move forward perhaps without the most satisfying kind of resolution to it, but just that it doesn’t have to stop you either. So I’m not here to solve someone’s problems, I’m just there to be the person that can help them party throughout the problem.
People have an expectation based on your public persona when meeting you. Do you have to get in a certain head-space similar to that of going on stage when you’re meeting fans?
No not really. It’s actually very similar to the music. For example if for whatever I”m physically tired or had an injury or something like or just got in some really awful news, and I have to go play a song, the song itself takes over, and I learned that a long time ago when I used to think like “how am I going to go on stage after that phone call I just had” or “how am I going to sing these songs and get this energy while I have a 104-degree fever.” But once that music kicks in, something much bigger than me takes over. Some force that I don’t really know what it is, but I am familiar with what works to get that force in me. And the music is one of those things that just, I could feel like I was about to die, and when it’s time to party kicks in, it’s just this power surges from down below and up through me, and that takes care of it self. And it’s not like an out of body experience, it’s more like getting even deeper into your own body, in a weird way, it’s like a feeling of being superhuman, like it’s the greatest time of your life, even if other things aren’t going so well, just having brief rinses of that kind of euphoric excitement, and enthusiasm is enough to help carry on through the more painful parts of life. And that’s the same with meeting people or anything that I do, first of all is a privilege to do, and because of the nature of this particular venture, it’s all focused on partying, the nature of it being about getting cheered up, about trying to feel better rather than worse, that is fantastic for me, because I’ve been surrounded by people who are also interested in that feeling, who are trying to cheer themselves up, who are all like a big team together trying to make a good feeling in the world, so it’s not hard to have your spirits lifted, much the song, where if I’m doing any of this stuff, I’m constantly being lifted up. That’s why I wanted to do it, because I, like so many people, have struggled with bad feelings, and figured there’s got to be something I could put my time into and spend my life doing that was about not feeling bad and helping other people not feel bad either.
I noticed in one of the advice column responses you gave on the subject of hair and physical appearance, you said you actually don’t like having long hair. It made me wonder, since you’ve had the same appearance for so long with the hair and white clothes, do you ever want to cut your hair, or to change all that up? Or in a way do you feel like you’re too tied into that now to change?
What I don’t like about having long hair is the attention that it gets from other people when I’m just going around day to day, and people have all kinds of ideas about what a person is based on how they look, which is fine, and some people actually go out of their way to have aspects of their appearance that attract that kind of attention, but I never liked that before or now. I always liked to be able to be very quiet in the midst of moving through the world, and not draw that kind of attention for no reason, but again it does look better to me. This is how I’m supposed to look and I realize that. It is how I am meant to look, and that’s such a strange thing too, also to realize I have some friends who are bald who wish they had hair, but even they realize that they look their best when they’re bald. That’s how they were meant to look. So that’s my beef with that. But actually when I was saying that too it was just sort of a practical thing, with your hair getting in your face, and tangled, and practical things day to day it’s easier to have short hair. But this is how I’m supposed to look and that’s that. Since Andrew W.K. started, I’ve never cut it or had it short, and almost have forgotten what that would be like, so it’s something I just don’t wrestle with anymore.
When Andrew W.K. started, did you expect it to last this long and to morph into this motivational, inspirational persona? Do you feel like that ever overshadows what you want to do with the music, since the persona itself gets so much attention?
No I’ve been trying to make efforts to really not be seen as a musician the whole time. While still of course being able to put out records, of course the easiest thing to do to not be perceived as a musician would be to not make music. But I just didn’t want it to be focused on that. I just saw so much of that already existed. Which is great, that’s a good thing. But there’s only one person, there can be a million bands, but there’s only one Santa Claus, you know what I mean? I was just much more interested in using everything I could, and music really is the most effortless direct and effective way of getting to that feeling that my goal is to generate, my main interest is either creating it out of thin air or amplifying that feeling, music is the most effective, but I want Andrew W.K. to be that feeling, not the music. The music is part of it, and everything outside is sort of the opposite, I’m more excited when people can think of me and get that feeling than when just thinking of a song or just thinking of a lyric, or just thinking of a part. All of it counts, and any way that someone can get to that feeling through anything, not just what I’m offering, but in the world in general, is a valid path. I just didn’t want to be tied down to any one thing except being myself. So Andrew W.K. was the idea to be able to do anything.
Did I think it was going to last thing long? You know when I think back to those times, it wasn’t that long ago. I guess 14 years ago, when I really started working on it, part of it was so overwhelming to think about doing anything for more than a couple of days with it, especially in those early days, I mean playing one show was the most challenging and intense thing I’ve ever done. Recording one song was just completely overwhelming, let alone trying to think of recording dozens of songs over many years. But at the same time I was thinking … I mean if someone had said, “Are you going to do this for the rest of your life?” I would have said, “of course.” Otherwise what’s the point of even bothering to start with it? And it made me very depressed when people would say “oh you’ll probably try it for a few months then you’ll move onto something else.” But that’s what’s been exciting where It’s like a tree really at this point. The trunk was that initial inspiration to feel cheered up, to make the feeling of happy power, and then all the branches, some bigger than others, are the outgrowth of that trunk. And the roots are all the experiences I had before to occurred to me to go on this adventure. But I think the tree is going to keep growing and growing and growing and always stay true to its trunk and then by default its roots. You know the roots are there to make your vision, and then once you have your vision you can hopefully let that take you anywhere, everywhere without ever losing sight of it. It’s impossible to lose sight of a vision because by its very nature its a vision.
What’s your take on the conspiracy theories surrounding Andrew W.K. Are you ever amused by it?
On the best days, I don’t know if I’d say amused, I’d say confused, more. But on the worst days I was really angry, I had time where I was just depressed and exhausted by having to grapple with people’s accusations, even getting to the point where I was doubting my own sanity, like maybe, sort of going through every possible way of thinking about it and way of thinking about it, which is basically just people saying things about you that either aren’t true or are grossly exaggerated, but have also never even met you or talked to you, or barely have. And that was a very strange experience and still is. It doesn’t emotionally affect me as much as it used to. I just try to tell people to focus on the stuff that matters and ignore the rest, and do the same myself. It’s all very confusing.
But in a way isn’t it a testament to what a singular thing Andrew W.K. is. There really isn’t anything else like it in Rock ‘n’ Roll or pop culture.
Well thanks very much. Yeah, maybe so. I don’t think the people that believe these things would look at it that way. But there’s always a way to interpret someone else’s lesser behavior in some kind of flattering way if you want. To me it was just someone who thought it was too good to be true so they were trying to poke holes in it. With anything you can, if try hard enough, if you force and make the hole yourself. Someone will be able to bring you down if they want to hard enough. And of course you let them. But at the end of the day to me it was just people taking things the wrong way and just, when it first came out, because a lot of people worked their way up over many years, it appeared, at least to many people, that my appearance on the scene was very sudden and out of nowhere. And because of some true things, that really are part of my history, they took them and exaggerated them and used them to jump to other conclusions. My own head just starts spinning even thinking about it. But I’ve actually met some of these people now over the years, and some of them have changed their mind, some of them have even apologized. They didn’t say that they didn’t believe what they believe, they just apologized for maybe being so personal about it, and then other people are actually genuinely frightened of me because they associate with me with sort of grander, more complex problems in the world that I’m supporting or feeding into. At point you just have to pick and choose what you spend your time on.
Switching gears a little bit since the show you’re doing in Nashville on Friday is a solo show — I’ve actually seen you do a solo show before, a few years ago at South by Southwest …
Do you remember which venue?
It was outside, in the back of a venue that I don’t think is even there anymore. I think it was like the Brooklyn Vegan party or something. Voivod also played and it outdoors, it was freezing cold outside. You improvised a Seger-esque song about a small dog.
I actually do vaguely remember something about small dogs, because also today, which is a good omen that you brought that up, I just posted a photo of me with a small dog, and my advice column this week is about small dogs.
That’s quite serendipitous.
It’s an omen.
As far as the solo shows go, how do you go about harnessing the power of the full-band rock show and the experience of joy all that is supposed to convey? Is it a different process when you’re doing it by yourself and you have to fill the room with just your personality alone?
I actually try to do the opposite of compete with the full band shows. First of all, it’s important for me to say, playing with my band still remains a true pleasure in every regard, we have shows coming up, great festival shows, in couple months we still play together on tour. But it’s also still important to me to not abandon playing by myself, or in this reduced capacity in terms of on stage — because that’s how I started. I started alone, or with like, one other person. I guess going back to that trunk, that tree, I used this example before. I want to keep that part of the tree alive. It’s made me a much better performer and singer keyboard player and just better at doing all of this by just taking those kinds of risks. With the band I have all those other people to create energy that I can rely on. And to have the songs stripped back into the keyboard, where they were written, makes it very much more personal for me. And I get a lot of power from it. There’s something very specific about … it’s like me and whoever else is in that room. It’s our time. And it’s not so much a presentation as it is with a concert. I feel like I am in my bedroom, where I wrote these songs, and having all these friends with me singing along with them. It’s more exposed, it’s more vulnerable, but there is potential there for those truly magical moments when you pull energy out of nothingness and do it together, as a group. It’s like a team effort. This shows really are a team effort not just all the people on the stage, all the people that are in that space with me in the club in the venue.
Is it more of a party in that sense?
Absolutely. I think in that way it just cannot be mistaken for anything else other than a party. It’s not me playing for you, it’s us playing together, like playing in a game called having fun while you’re alive, and we all win. It’s like the greatest thing you can do. So I’m very bonded with the people there because I feel like they’re also taking a risk, and they’re my band, that night. And the audience members, and who’s on stage, that’s completely dissolved. I’m an audience member watching them perform for me just as much the other way around. It endears me to everyone and to the music in a way, and getting to play keyboard. I’m really focused on that. The songs emerged from that instrument. My first musical experience before hearing any music are the keyboard and piano, so it’s all just very wrapped up in what this thing is made out of. It’s important for me to stay close to.
It always seems to me when you talk about partying or are singing about partying, it’s about a kind of a broader thing, a broader concept of celebrating life, like partying as a form of transcendence or something. Am I on the right track?
For sure, but at the same time, the broad, wide quality of it is also very narrow. It’s simplicity. It’s one word that is broad enough and yet simple enough to allow for all this stuff, for whatever a particular person finds partying to be for them. And that’s why it was always important for me to not tell people too much about what they should specifically do, but just to say, everything about anything. And you can just figure it out for yourself. It’s more of a feeling than it is an activity. It’s more a state of mind, a state of your soul than it is a particular action or pursuit. It’s trying to be glad that you’re not dead and really being aware of that.
In terms of the literal definition of the word partying, what would a night of partying with you actually entail? How do you actually party when you party?
hat’s the whole thing, though. You can’t break the word off of itself. …. Celebrating life. Like when people say, “No, let’s talk about REAL partying.” That is real partying. It’s not something you do on Friday night cause the work week’s done or on New Year’s Eve or your birthday, of course those are great moments to party, too. But if you’re celebrating those moments, why can’t you celebrate the moment right now of not being dead? There’s always a reason to party instead of dividing our life up into reasons to be excited and happy and then all the rest of the time, really cutting down and diluting our awareness of the miracle of existing at all, all the time. The whole idea of this party mindset is that you can party every day all day. In whatever shape or form that it comes. Even if you’re an advanced partier, even not partying can be a form of partying. It all counts, instead of trying to break it up into certain activities, or certain ways of having fun, just like you have fun on one day then another day you do something different. It all is allowed. The only thing I would say that’s not really good is keeping someone else from having a party the way they want. Don’t hate anybody you know.
Say you’re DJing a party, what is your ultimate party song? What is the greatest party song of all-time, besides any of your own?
Just music. Like all the songs in the world. They’re one big unbroken song. And you just hear different portions of it when you play them.
But you don’t have a go-to, ultimate-moment-of-joy song?
No that’s too hard. That why I said it’s all music. When you like an album all the way through and someone says “pick one song, what’s the best song on it.” They all blend in together. The whole thing feels like listening to one long song. And people say that you have to pick one. No I don’t! I get to like all these things. I don’t have to break the world up into favorites, top ten lists, what is the best, what is the worst. The whole thing can be your favorite thing. That’s the mode. And it’s a little more intense, it’s a little more overwhelming. And there is a satisfying sort of control about breaking things down and singling things out as the best, but it’s like who’s your favorite friend? is that really necessary? Who’s your favorite parent? What’s your favorite movie? There’s just too much stuff to love. You hope that you have too many favorites to pick one. I’m definitely guilty of that.