Andrew W.K. is best known for his single “Party Hard” from his 2001 album I Get Wet, but really, he’s one of the hardest working people in show business. The guy puts himself fully into all he does, particularly his music, be it the party rocking variety, classically-inflected piano pieces or making noise and exploring the avant-garde. In advance of his show at the Marquis Theater this Sunday, we spoke with the multi-talented musician about his background in experimental music, growing up in Michigan, how he became the bass player for Current 93 and he gave us his take on working with the legendary producer Lee “Scratch” Perry.
Westword: How did you get connected with the noise/experimental world in Michigan? You recorded on one of the early Wolf Eyes EPs.
Andrew WK: By the time I recorded with them, that was when I had moved to New York, when I was eighteen. I went to high school with those folks. They were my childhood friends, basically. We had grown up together in Michigan. At age fourteen or so, I met Aaron Dilloway. He lived in Brighton at that point, and I lived in Ann Arbor. By the time I could drive, around age sixteen, we were able to hang out a lot more.
Then Aaron moved to Ann Arbor, and Nate Young had been living in Pinckney, but he went to high school in Ann Arbor with me. Another gentleman by the name of Twig Harper also went to my high school. One of my teachers was a gentleman named Pete Larson. He was a teacher in my high school, but he was the one that ran Bulb Records, and had been doing so for many years. So it all just related to that part of southeast Michigan and growing up there.
A lot of people don’t get into that kind of music until a little later in life. What got you interested in that sort of thing?
These were the most interesting people in school, and it was a very interesting school in general. On top of all of that, these were the most far out people in school. Even though they were just teenagers, they seemed to have a lot more experience. Some of these older kids in high school were already living on their own in their own house without their parents — just living a free and mind blowing life, almost an anarchist approach with very little rules and total freedom.
With a lot of drive and motivation, they really did whatever they wanted to do, and that was a very inspirational role model to follow. So I was just very excited about how productive they were and how radical their thinking was. That was just a tradition of that part of the country.
The Midwest, or at least that part of southeast Michigan, especially Ann Arbor, had this very far out, sort of psychedelic radical mode of life that rubbed off on everybody in one way or another. I just kind of hooked on that feeling of newness and having your mind blown. Once you get really into that feeling, you want search out more and more new mind blowing experiences.
It seems like you’ve been doing that ever since.
I’ve tried. I was fortunate to have all these great mentors.
When you did that Japanese pop music covers album, Ippatsu Shobu — Covers, was there a particular rhyme or reason behind the covers you did, or did someone suggest some or all of those choices to you?
The label, Universal, that I’ve worked with there consistently, the guy that began as really sort of my project manager, when he was quite young in the company, he kept moving higher and higher until he was the president of the entire international division of Universal Japan. He got very excited about the idea of introducing me more and more to domestic Japanese entertainment. So he taught me about a lot of Japanese pop music.
It’s interesting, going back to Pete Larson, the class that he taught at my high school was an Asian Film Studies class. He had lived in Japan before, and was very interested in Japan. He ended up marrying a Japanese woman, as well. So he introduced me to a lot of Japanese culture, and I’d been interested in it through him and through other people before I had a chance to go there as a musician for the first time.
So it had kind of been building up for a long time. It was just sort of one of those kind of destiny kind of things. For whatever reason, I was meant to spend a lot of time there and work very deeply there. Thanks to Kimi, the gentleman at Universal, who introduced me to all these other songs and stuff, that was a very challenging and rewarding process.
You’ve done work with To Live and Shave in L.A.. How did you become connected with those guys, who, despite their name, are, or were, based out of Florida?
Same situation. I think I was around fifteen years old, and there was a house a few blocks away from my high school where Aaron was living. We’d already been to Tom Smith’s first 30-Minuten Männercreme album, and he’d reached through various people, including Jim Magus, who was in a band at that point called Pouch, and now lives in Chicago performing as Magus. Jim first told me about To Live and Shave in L.A.. We heard that Tom Smith was coming to Ann Arbor to record with us, basically — this group of people that lived in that house and also went to my high school, et cetera.
So we recorded with him, and I met him then. He was extremely nice. I was simultaneously intimidated by, and scared of, him, and fascinated by him. The recording was eventually released. It was called “The ‘Rose’ The Vehicle of Miss High Heel.” I played some drums and some organ. It was a whole bunch of people playing together. Tom recorded it, and edited it later. He’s very good at editing and post-production, as well. Ever since then, I guess I’ve been friends with him for twenty years exactly.
He played at Rhinoceropolis in April, 2007, and asked some of us to do camera work for the show. I don’t know what happened with it, but it’s out there somewhere.
Oh, awesome. Thank you for that.
How did you become associated with Current 93 and then go on to play bass with that band?
Well, I’d heard about them for years and years, but for whatever reason — I think it’s because they had so many albums — I was getting sort of overwhelmed by even trying to get into whatever it was that they were offering. But I was always fixated on their aesthetic.
Even before having heard any of their music, they had a strong presence, nonetheless. It was just sort of one of those situations where you realize almost subconsciously that there’s going to be some encounter with this entity; you just don’t know how or when. But there was a sense of foreboding about this Current 93 phenomenon.
Years later, when I moved to New York, and I was nineteen or twenty years old, this girl I was dating was coming to town. She’s a really amazing musician herself named Rosa Perkins-Meyers. Her main band is Zeek Sheck. Really a genius artist in every regard. I was spending a lot of time with her, and she went to visit this other friend of hers, and I went along. I remember being in a very bad mood and not wanting to go hang around at this person’s house I had never met before. So I was sorting of sulking around and being kind of a jerk.
Then she was talking to this guy, who was her friend, and we were in the living room, and I was sort of fixated on this music that had been playing since we had arrived. It was this song that had been playing, and I realized it was not changing. It was a song that went on and on and on. It was sort of a trance, loop-like feeling.
Eventually, I was so blown away by it I asked, “What is this?” He said, “Oh, it’s Current 93. Have you ever heard them?” I said, “No, I had no idea that this is what they would sound like.” Ever since then, I became obsessed with all their music and trying to find that song again. It was actually a song called, “Where The Long Shadows Fall,” which is more easy to get now of the seventy odd releases they’ve done.
Over ten years later, my friend Matt Sweeney, who is an amazing guitar player — I’ve been friends with him in New York pretty much since I moved there — he was very helpful and kind to me in many ways. He ended up getting in touch through Will Oldham with David Tibet. It just doesn’t make any sense.
So many of these situations, the more I think about how they came about, seem so unlikely; it really feels like fate or destiny reaching in to make these things happen. I told David through Will or Matt that I would like to be in the band. And he said, “Okay.” Next thing I knew, I was flying over to Austria to play with them at this festival. It was unbelievable. Will was playing at the same festival. Then I ended up playing piano with Will at that show too, which was really exciting.
How did you get into the process of being the cultural ambassador to Bahrain, and what would have been your duties?
The week I was supposed to go, they canceled the whole trip after about a year of planning. But the cancellation was the most intense part of the whole experience. It ended up becoming a big national news story just about not letting me go. It wasn’t Bahrain that canceled it; it was the U.S. State Department.
I think a high enough ranking person saw a photo of me once it was announced I was going and then withdrew the whole project. It was very confusing and frustrating, since we had been working on all the details for over a year with going through all the background checks and arrangements and all that.
They already had a program that had been going on a long time where they brought over artists or musicians or just other cultural figures to talk with students and not so much perform; they didn’t really want me to play shows, but to represent the positive cultural freedom America enjoys and to create a good impression on the young people of Bahrain. It was just a very thrilling opportunity.
I think the guy at the State Department that we contacted had heard about the motivational speaking I had done and how I had done similar self-help, positivity seminars and work like that, so he wanted me to bring me over as a representative of that kind of attitude. But again someone saw a song title of mine, or, like, the bloody nose, and thought it was inappropriate.
I think they thought it would all just go away once they canceled it. But the cancellation actually ended up making it a bigger story. What was nice is that even though we didn’t get to go, I think we achieved a lot of dialogue, and a lot of people were brought into a cultural discussion, even without going on the trip. Maybe there was a threat to my safety or the safety of others in general at that point. So I just have to assume it was all meant to be. Maybe I’ll get to go someday.
I told Pete Larson, from Bulb, the whole story, and he has politics blog that he runs, and I did a really long interview with him about that actual incident. So just search Peter Larson, Andrew WK and Bahrain, you can probably find his blog write-up about that.
What was the nature of your involvement with the Lee “Scratch” Perry album Repentance, and what did you learn from working with him that has stuck with you, if anything?
I’m still learning from that experience. I’m still processing that experience. It happened in 2008 or so. It’s still unfolding in my mind. It was life-changing and an enormous experience being in his presence, let alone watch him work and facilitate his music. I’ve never been around a more potent creative master.
He’s really a magician and an artist of the highest order. I think he’s at the height of his powers now, even compared to when he was younger. I think he’s even more advanced in ways that even he doesn’t understand, with all due respect. He’s just tapped in. There’s no blockage at all between his spirit or his vision and what he’s able to manifest, and he just does it so effortlessly. So yeah, I’m still learning from that. It would change everything.
What specifically do you feel changed?
Just that there shouldn’t be any compromise in fulfilling what you were meant to do and doing it with complete commitment and focus at all times and continue to remove any obstacles or walls that are around you or within yourself to allow the vision to come forth.
And that it’s always a constant process — that you’re in this creative state at all times. Everybody is. And to really be aware of it and really harness it and amplify it as much as you can. It’s a lifelong journey. There were a lot of abstract strategies that he would take just to be aggressive in upsetting a situation for the better. That doesn’t always need to make sense as you’re proceeding as long as the result makes sense.
When you were working with him, did he ever tell you why he brought you in on that production and what is it that you did?
I just facilitated whatever he wanted to do, whether it was playing a part or recording a drum loop or editing. I was just there as a servant. I can’t believe that it happened. I remember when I told Tom Smith I was going to produce the album, and he said, “How can you produce an album for the greatest producer that’s ever lived?” I said, “That’s a very good question. I’m just going to do whatever he tells me to do.” He’s producing reality, you know what I mean? He produced me into being in his painting at that moment. I was just a manifestation of Lee Perry himself. That’s how I felt. I was just completely absorbed by his vision. That was an amazing thing to be.
There’s a band that used to come to Rhinoceropolis to play periodically called Sightings, and they mentioned that you had produced one of their albums, Through The Panama. What attracted you to working with those guys?
Again it was a very unlikely but a very natural relationship. When I first moved to New York, I had no place to live, and I was looking for an apartment. A mutual friend introduced me to this lady named Kate I had met a few times in Ann Arbor, and she had moved to New York, and she said I could stay on a cot, like a small bed, in her living room. Her roommate was Mark Morgan, the singer and guitar player from Sightings. So I ended up living with them; it was supposed to be for a week, but it ended up being many months, much to the dismay of Mark and his roommate.
One, I was a really bad roommate, in that I would clean up the house and reorganize it, without any consideration that maybe they didn’t want it reorganized. Or clean out the refrigerator and throw away a bunch of food that was perfectly fine and they were trying to keep, but I thought it was rotten.
But I was trying to do good, and Mark eventually learned to appreciate me on some level, and we were able to become friends, and that was around the time he formed the band Sightings. I think I helped come up with that name, and we worked on early fliers. We were very close friends. He was my best friend in New York for many years. Eventually, I offered, “Hey, I would like to produce an album for you guys.”
And that album is excellent.
Thank you. They’re an amazing band. Definitely the best rock band from New York, in my opinion.
You’re one of the few people with a fairly wide audience to be visibly involved in the fine arts, experimental music, pop music, pop culture and numerous other things. Do you approach your various activities in a fundamentally different way despite the obvious specific differences between all of those things?
I just wanted to be able to be this guy that could do whatever. That could do anything or everything and it would all make sense or tie together at least because it was this guy doing it. And it’s worked out that way thanks to a lot of people’s generosity and support and a lot of very lucky opportunities.
I just liked the idea that if I could somehow make a really basic person or make myself very sort of stand-alone somehow or simple and not really associated with anything except being Andrew WK, then Andrew WK could do anything and it would somehow make sense. Or maybe it doesn’t make sense, but I saw a lot of my friends and a lot of people I admire somehow not have the unilateral freedom of movement to do whatever they wanted to do because it didn’t tie in.
Even with my early days with record labels, there was this sense that you had to just focus on doing one thing. You can’t do multiple things because you spread yourself too thin. So I said, okay, the one thing I’m going to do is be Andrew W.K., and within that, Andrew W.K. can do whatever he wants.
I thought that was sort of that spirit of, again going back to, my idols in high school, they could do whatever they wanted and they designed it that way. There was no restriction, there were no rules, there were no boundaries. It was just a complete explosion of excitement, inspiration and possibility. I just really harnessed that idea and I wanted to live like that.
It seems you have a lot of drive to do so many things. Is that drive related to what you just said?
I guess just being very aware of how unbelievable it is to have these kinds of opportunities, or to even have any motivation to do anything is a very special gift in itself. I just feel very lucky and very thankful for all these unlikely occurrences that have led to whatever it is I get to do. So I guess a lot of the motivation comes from not wanting to take any of it for granted, not to waste any of it, not to be lazy.
You never know when it will all end, or everything could change, and you just want to make the most of all of it, and just do the best that you possibly can. I feel like I’m representing the dreams of a lot of other people too that have given their energy, not to me even, but to this way of looking at the world or this kind of spirit of excitement, joy and intensity. So I feel like it’s a team effort, and I have to hold up my end of the bargain.