The narrative of Andrew W.K. has changed in ways no one would reasonably expect after first seeing him on MTV singing about partying while banging on a piano dressed like a wide-eyed thrash metal kid from ’83. After the release of his debut I Get Wet, an album of “party rock” universally loved by fans of feel-good tunes inspired by rock’s most primordial elements, critics expected Andrew W.K. to be either quickly forgotten or start some movement of dumbed-down rock that would inevitably lead to the stupefying of the human race.
But Andrew W.K.’s schtick was different than that of some two-faced corporate rock star whose public persona was engineered. Andrew W.K.’s haters looked foolish when it became clear how earnest the Manhattan transplant is. His epicurean philosophy isn’t a put-on; it is who he is.
After his second record, The Wolf, W.K. took that worldview into a number of different projects. He started holding lectures, which turned into impromptu Q&A sessions, and he became something of a motivational speaker. He opened NYC hotspot Santos Party House. Then, last year, he started a competition show for children called Destroy Build Destroy on Cartoon Network.
All this time, a number of Andrew W.K. records were released, but almost all in Japan due to murky contract issues. Now, one of them, Close Calls With Brick Walls, is finally seeing a stateside release, packaged with the rarities compilation Mother Of Mankind, a set that is acting as the harbinger for a big 2010 for Andrew W.K. With the pace of his output, I wouldn’t be surprised to see another record before the end of the year, even though he’ll be on Warped Tour this year—marking the first time his full band has done a U.S. tour in several years.
Andrew W.K. spoke with The Aquarian about all of the above, but as you’ll read, that lively philosophy came as the reaction to a mischievous past that he’s talked about sparingly before, and it has permeated the myriad of projects he’s been involved with.
Tell me about this issue of Close Calls With Brick Walls that you’re doing? Why was there not a release in the US until now?
Well, that’s a very simple question to answer. There were circumstances, agreements, contracts. Stipulations that made the release in Asia make a lot more sense. Then, fortunately, a fair amount of time after the fact, we were able to negotiate a vinyl release and get away with that in the US. It just took this much time to organize our business—I take responsibility for it—for me to get things in line, so that we could get a traditional worldwide release. There’s a longer story but that’s the basic.
It seems to be that there’s something of a relationship between you and Japanese culture. You did the Gundam Rock record about a year ago, and the year before that you did the Japanese cover record. Would you consider yourself a Japanophile?
No, but I would certainly like to be considered an honorary one. I don’t feel like I have enough true knowledge or experience or understanding to really declare that of myself. I’ve met people who are truly passionate about Japanese culture, either they lived there, moved there, or might as well live there. I’ve just been very grateful to be embraced in a very earnest way since we first had the opportunity to put music out over there.
Gundam Rock actually came out just a couple months ago in September. That, to me, was sort of the pinnacle of my experience in Japan in terms of being invited by the Gundam people themselves to be the person to record the rock album version of their songs to celebrate the 30th anniversary.
I actually did have the opportunity to visit Japan when I was 13 years old with my family. My dad was invited to teach over there. So he went over for two weeks, and it really was mind blowing and extremely meaningful to me to be able to then travel there again and to do music and to do Andrew W.K. and then to have it go so well. I feel like it is sort of some kind of amazing manifestation coming off of that initial trip when I was 13. [That 17 years later] I would be recording an album for the Gundam Corporation to celebrate their 30th anniversary is just very mystical and strange to me, but exhilarating at the same time.
Do you remember watching television in Japan when you were 13?
Yeah, I’d see like the advertisements. To be honest, my familiarity with manga and anime has been lesser particularly because there is so much. It’s a very vast amount of material to navigate through if you’re someone who is just getting into Gundam or Japanese animation. There’s so much cartooning, there’s just a lot. There’s a lot of everything over there, there’s so much culture.
I was just curious if you were like a huge Astroboy fan or something like that.
I like it as much as the next person, but out of respect for the diehard fans I can’t put myself in that category. For example my A&R guy, the guy who I’ve worked with for all these years, at Universal Music in Japan is now the president of the whole division. That’s how I’ve been able to do a lot of these things because we have this huge believer in the company who I’ve worked with since the first time. I remember the first time going there with him, walking down the street and we’d have to stop and he’d have to get out of the taxi because he’d see a vending machine with a new Gundam figure that he didn’t have yet. [Laughs] And he would put money in and buy the toys until he got the one that he didn’t have. He might have duplicates of ten of them, but he said that’s fine, it’s good to have duplicates cause then you can trade them and he keeps some of them unopened and he keeps some on display, and he has a different display at his office. So, that was the first time I had seen that kind of fandom and I learned a lot more about it. I was also very fortunate to have some very close friends back in high school in Ann Arbor, MI, who were very tapped into the Japanese culture and music scene and kinda gave me a primer.
So, I did have a lot of interaction before the first time I went there and that’s something I haven’t talked about a lot actually, cause I got in a lot of trouble in Japan, around the age of 17 or 18. I had started a record label when I was 16 and released some music by some very extreme Japanese, fringe musicians. But I blew it, basically. Just because I was so young I became overwhelmed and I was in a situation where I had agreed to release something by a specific artist who was much older than me. At this point, we were doing everything through faxes. All his shit went through faxes, which was really shitty. All the artwork was being sent as these huge, three-dimensional, pieces of paper collaged together. So, all the text was printed out on a high-resolution printer and then cut out of a piece of paper and placed down on a bigger piece of paper that was a template. We weren’t even using the computer to layout artwork. It was very intense music that some people would just describe as noise.
This person had worked with, I’m not saying his name out of respect. I’ve apologized to him before in the press in Japan. This person has specifically cursed me out in the credits of other albums that’s he’s released because of what happened.
He was an engineer who was very successful, inventing a type of barber chair or dentist chair, adjustable chair, amongst many other equally diverse, but commonplace objects. But his main interest was this music that he did. So when he was preparing artwork or any of his communications, it was all done on the level of an engineer, with precision. On top of that, he was translating into English, just putting in a huge quantity of time to facilitate and do favors for me on top of all this effort. So, after I released one thing by him and then when I supposed to release the next one, with this huge piece of artwork that was sent flat, you couldn’t even roll it cause it was all glued. So it showed up at my house in this huge box and then I basically got cold feet, or ran out of money, or decided that I didn’t want to do it, and this was a very specific feeling where I could feel that I was being bad. I could feel this feeling coming on; where you have a devil on one side and an angel on the other. I was listening to the devil and I decided that I wasn’t going to release the album and then he faxed back to me, very upset but keeping his cool like: ‘Okay, just please immediately return the artwork.’ And I just threw it out. [Laughs] Can you believe that? It was just unforgivable… Just truly dark. It wasn’t even just out of laziness, the amount of effort to put it in the box and ship it would have been a matter of ten minutes. It was a deliberate, aggressive maneuver for no reason. This guy had been nothing but nice to me.
And at this age I was engaged in a lot of behavior that was coming from this part of myself, which was about not being nice. A lot of times [I was] causing people to have a big crisis or bad experience. I was doing a lot of mail fraud, counterfeiting, forgery and vandalism. Very malicious vandalism, like putting limburger cheese into the heating vents in apartment building lobbies or smearing into the carpet. Just terrible, very nasty, pointed mean things.
Yeah, it was just awful and I felt just terrible about it for many years. Stealing, lots of shoplifting from anyplace. I had, at some point around that same time, I had formally given into that element. It didn’t go well and I needed to find another outlet for those feelings. Then I started feeling that maybe I could direct that energy into a way that doesn’t hurt other people. Maybe I could actually totally flip that energy and really make it into something really good and productive. The time it would take me to forge a check or make a fake cancellation on a postage stamp, I could do so many other things that might be really nice to someone, or make a really good vibe out in the world. It all culminated when I got in trouble with the police for mail fraud.
Would you say that was ’98, ’99?
So, a couple years and then you started recording I Get Wet?
Yeah, I moved to New York. I wanted to having something to work on that was bigger than me and something that I could lose myself in and that I could be a part of that didn’t have anything to do with me the way I was before. It was just coming up with a different way to think and feel and making your work all about it.
So is that impulse what has generally driven Andrew W.K.? I mean, to say that it’s your only project would be almost insulting at this time since you’re also a club owner, television show host, lecturer, producer…
Well, it’s all under the umbrella of Andrew W.K., so that’s what keeps it sane for me.
Would you say that that is what drives you, not only for the music, but also for your other endeavors?
Yeah, well what drives me really just goes back to initial feelings and experiences you have when you’re real, real young; maybe four, five, six or seven. The first time you discover what you like in the world, the first time you hear music and it feels good. Everything is kinda trying to get to that point, trying to feel like that as often as possible and trying to get it to feel new like that again. That’s the overriding feeling; to be in that state of wonder and joy and reveling in the glory of experience. I guess that’s sort of my life goal just as a human and as a person.
I’m just grateful to have these opportunities and just change my mindset; I realized that it could be done. I didn’t really know if it was possible but I tried it and it worked. Then I thought maybe you could do that with all kinds of stuff. Maybe if you think about something enough and focus on it you could make anything happen. I thought it used to be a crazy idea to think that whatever your dreams are could come true, but I just decided to start believing and when it works enough it’s just encouraging to make you go out and go for more. It involves, I guess, taking risks and kind of pushing and doing more than you thought you could. I kind of believe that you’re never given more than you can handle. Subconsciously, I never think that we take on more than we can. If you find yourself with opportunities and you want to take them, I say take them. It’s just so much better to try and go for more, I think. I just think about that idea that I could die tomorrow. You want to go out blazing, just going for it, you know?