Interview: Andrew WK

[This interview appeared in Popshot.]

Andrew WK was gracious enough to talk to us on the opening night of his headlining tour. Contrary to a lot of the “he’s so crazy” press he gets, Andrew is a soft-spoken, generous guy and a pleasure to talk to. He seemed happy to talk about anything. And, as you’ll find out, he is so focused on giving a good interview that his answers are detailed and elaborate.

He’s on tour now, so go see him.

Where are you right now?
I’m in uh…

Lancaster, Pennsylvania?
Yeh, Lancaster. Exactly.

My dad grew up in Lancaster, PA.
Oh wow, are you serious?

My grandmother still lives there and I’ve actually been to that club where you’re playing tonight.
Are they Amish?

Oh no.
I just thought maybe that would have been cool. It’s a beautiful town; I think it’s fantastic. And yeh, we’re playing at the Chameleon… it’s a great place. We’ve played here before and I’m glad to be back again.

So tonight’s the first night of a new tour?
Second night, basically. But our first headlining show. Somewhere down the road… I believe on May 30th, we’ll be in Nashville. That’ll be the first time I’ve ever been to that town.

Do have a lot of time to explore the cities you go to?
You know it depends. It depends on what kind of stuff I’m doing. Sometimes if I do radio interviews or certain kinds of interviews or things that would require me to travel, then I’ll get a nice car ride. Someone will take me, drive me to that place and I’ll actually get to see around.

I look out the window on the bus but of course, I try to walk around. Whether you’re going to grab a bite of food or a piece of meat, or a candy bar or a bottle of juice, whatever, you can go for a walk at that point too. But it’s true a lot of times I’m very busy with eyeballs stuck to a page kind of work. You know what I mean, like eyeballs mashed onto a page… really focused, dilated in. And so I don’t get to go outside when I’m really working on that. That would be like computer work, paper work.

I’ve been reading up on a bunch of press kit material and you come off as kind of intimidating in a lot of interviews…
Oh really?

I don’t know. I think everybody plays up this “he’s so crazy” aspect.
Oh really? Wow that’s weird. I didn’t know I came across like that. That’s wild.

Just intense, maybe.
I’ll have to be careful. Well, I remember I did this interview with this nice woman. Everything was fine. I remember really wanting to explain a few things and be real clear. And you know, I was in kind of a weird mood or something. But I wasn’t looking at her when I was talking. I was looking straight ahead, or kind of closing my eyes. Really thinking about what I was saying, you know. When the interviews being recorded I try to plan out each word — I’m not doing it so well right now — but if you asked a big question, I’d really want to make myself clear. And she thought it was really weird that I wasn’t looking at her when I was talking. And I thought it was weird that she thought that was weird. That I thought she might have been weird and that’s why I wasn’t looking at her. But that wasn’t why. I was just really focused.

I just make it good. I’m trying to make it good and I’m focused on that. So don’t mistake focus for kind of weird, intimidating vibe.

When I’ve seen you in press appearances and stuff like that I’ve never gotten that impression. I just thought it was funny how every music writer seemed to write up this “his music is so intense and he’s such an intense, zany guy.” One of my favorite things I’ve ever seen you do was MTV sent you to live with a black sorority for a couple of nights.
You actually saw that?

My girlfriend and I saw that and loved every second of it.
I’m glad you liked that.

It probably made both of us life-long fans.
We got a TV series coming up now you know. If you liked that show, hopefully you’ll like this. It’s a similar idea except first of all, it’s a video show, so we still play videos. They’re not videos that I choose, but it’s on MTV2 and they’re known to be just a video channel … there’s not like shows really. We didn’t want to break it up too much. The first episodes will start in, we hope, late May. Late May the series will be started. Then cut up with videos that I didn’t choose … they’re just cool videos or whatever videos they want to play.

Then it goes on to letting us deal with people. That’s not even the show. The show is called, Your Friend, Andrew WK. When I say deal with people, it’s basically an advice show. And people can write in to me — anybody can write in, submit a question, or a problem that you’re looking for advice on, just say hi, ask anything, whatever. Then I will either type those questions up and let them scroll across the screen for my answers. Or read them on the air. Or I will go and we’ll take the whole camera crew and go film at the person’s house. And show up and try to help them there. That’s what the show’s about.

And that’s really what this music is about too. The music wants to help you out. I want to help you out. We want to help you out by making you feel great. I want you just to feel saturated, soaking, dripping with pleasure and happiness and satisfaction and all the things that will fill up and quench the thirst created by frustration and intimidation and all that stuff.

That was one of the things I wanted to talk to you about was there’s obviously this real positive vibe in your music, and everything you talk about is passion and having fun, living life and that kind of thing. But a lot of the interviews, at least the past stuff that’s in the press kit alluded to you were very angry as a teenager and stuff like that. Do you think you just hit a wall and turned a corner and went “I’m going to enjoy life”?
Yeah, yeah, like a hit a wall. Walking pretty fast, you know what I mean? Like, not running, but walking at a good clip, where you’re moving your arms, and you’re breaking a sweat just walking. Walking pretty fast, head on, into a wall that I didn’t even see. Then I backed up a few feet and did it right again. Just walked right back into it. I’m like “What is this thing? This is some kind of wall.” I was like whoa. This wall has a little corner over there, I can go right around it. I think that’s a good description.

And in terms of what you’re using that to describe, I would say that I think anybody, well, yeh… Anybody given the opportunity to experience life will be making choices. And eventually you can just choose to stop thinking about things in certain ways or choose to start thinking about them in different ways. And choose to start feeling differently about your life cause sometimes… I remember after I would be so angry all the time, I would feel bad, feel kinda sickly, just crummy, you know what I mean?

I think as time goes by — and I’m still young, so I know there’s still a lot to learn — when you’re fifty, you’re still young because you know you could potentially live another fifty years — I just knew an old woman who died at 101. Isn’t that insane?

You didn’t want to get stuck in things, so keep challenging yourself. And I think I’ve just been very fortunate to have a lot of good people around too — my parents, my brother, and all friends — and all these amazing people I meet everyday now that were strangers yesterday, but now I know ’em. And it’s just that’s made me feel cool. And it’s made me look up to people that have been able to teach me really good stuff.

At the same time, I didn’t turn some magical corner and oh yeh, now I’m great. I’m still messed up and have all kinds of problems just like anybody. [I] feel the same way and think the same way as most people. I just try to do whatever I can to not let them hold me back. Nobody can stop you more than you can stop yourself. You can always try. Nobody can stop you from trying. And I always will think of that.

Well yeh, I might not be able to do this all the way, but I at least got to try. And I’m going to focus not on the final destination, or some particular end result, but just focus on working as hard as I can right today on it. And go to bed that night and get up and do it again. Take it one day at a time and that allows you to be really blown away and appreciative and thankful for anything that happens because you’re not really expecting it.

Have you always been this focused on everything? Have you always been this diligent about pursuing things?
Yeh I think so. Yeh yeh, pretty focused. But this is definitely… I’ve done lots of stuff that didn’t amount to anything and given up on lots of things before they’ve gotten finished and sometimes given up on ideas before I ever really started them. And it usually seems to work out for the best. It’s odd. In some ways I’m disappointed that I didn’t try certain things, but a lot of times I look back and be like, you know I’m glad I didn’t try that because I was able to do this.

I like to think that everything you do or don’t do works out in the right way. And the fact that I’m here talking to you or doing any of this at all is a sign that things were made in the correct order… choices were made that resulted in the right things. Just very very lucky to be focused on anything.

A lot of people work on stuff and they deserve to get opportunities like this. I don’t deserve it any more than anybody else.

I think it’s really interesting that you keep citing making good choices. I think there’s such a perception of successful musicians in our society that it just fell in their lap, or fortune favored them or something. It doesn’t seem to me that enough people emphasize the work or making good choices.
That’s the one thing that to this day, nothing gives me greater pleasure than to work. It’s hard to say work. It’s like I enjoy it. I can’t call it work. Work is something that you don’t want to do. It’s the thing that gives me the greatest pleasure to sit and record music for 24 hours, to just play piano, to talk to you about this. It’s an honor to even get to talk about this. But for sure the only way that I’m able to have done anything was just from hundreds and hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of hours spent doing this over something else.

So, “You know what, I don’t want to go out tonight. I can’t hang out. I’d love to. I really would love to hang out but I’ve got to do this tonight. I’ve got to get this done.”

And I would sit there and I’d be frustrated. “Gosh you know it really would be fun to go be seeing that movie with all my friends, but, you know, it’s going to be really fun too when I finish this song and really glad that I can then go see a movie tonight knowing that I did that.”

There’s some famous saying that “judge your success not by what you accomplish but by what you sacrifice to get there.” Isn’t that interesting? It makes me think, do they mean that in a way of it’s good that you sacrificed or do they mean it like, maybe you sacrificed too much. Like you can say like someone who spent all their life away from their family simply working to make as much money as possible… And then looking back to judge that: was that a success based on the money? This saying tells you to not look at it as a success because he sacrificed his whole family for nothing. For what? You know what I mean. But maybe on the other hand… it’s bizarre. It’s a two-sided coin, that saying.

As I’m thinking about your music and being positive and things like that, there’s a lot of negative energy in music and I get the feeling that the people who are making it are not thinking about it in terms of choice and hard work.
That’s an interesting way to look at it. I agree with one thing you said which is that people feel like they don’t have a choice, like they are trapped. I think that’s not their fault though. Anyone who feels differently than me, if someone’s sad and angry, how would I hold that against them? I’m so glad that… I’m so lucky that I’m not in the circumstance that would make me feel trapped. Who knows what that guy’s gone through, you know what I mean? I should be sympathetic for him, if anything, that he feels trapped and upset.

And anyway, I think that emotional music like that is important and great and I love it, you know what I mean? I think music is for all emotions. Whether they’re happiness and celebration, or sadness and grief, or loss, anger, frustration, confusion. All that. There’s room for all of it.

And I don’t make this music to go against any other. Absolutely not. Absolutely not. It never has been. Because some of my favorite music from day one, always, has been very aggressive, very energetic music. People are pissed off and they’re talking about it, and singing it, and yelling it. That music gets me thrilled.

Thing is, the result of almost all this music whether it’s angry or sad or frustrated or whatever, it always makes me feel better. Makes me feel good. I get a good feeling. And when I get a good feeling, I feel happy. And that’s what’s so great about music is that the end result, without even trying, is always positive. And I don’t try to make positive music. I try to make music that feels good.

I can’t stress enough that I never start making a song based on “God, I hate all this music out there, it’s all so crummy and bummed out, I gotta make some happy songs that’s what people want.” I never think that way. I don’t believe in that. Because that’s making something that’s supposed to be happy out of a reaction of disgust and small-mindedness. If there’s room for me then there’s sure as heck room for everybody else. And they deserve to be there as much as I do. And I have the utmost respect for anybody doing what they want to do for whatever reason they might want to be doing it. That’s their reason. And I would hope they would give me the same respect in return.

You anticipated my next subject which was that there’s always some accomplishment, kind of irony in that people making this sad or angry music — it does make you feel good.
I think it’s amazing. That’s what proves how powerful music is. You could have lost a friend, had a friend die, listen to a song about that and still feel comforted and consoled. Beautiful…

Whose music do you think makes you feel that way? Who fills you up with that positive energy?
Oh, wow. My first girlfriend, she had this great dog named Barney. Just a real, lovable big dog. The whole family loved him. He was a real sweet dog. Not the most discreet or intellectual dog, but a very nice dog. I remember he got sick at one point and then a couple days later he died.

For some reason it really freaked me out. I don’t know why. I mean, I do know why but I was surprised at myself at how upset I got. And I listened to this tune called “Thanksgiving” by George Winston on Windham Hill Records, I believe… It’s a ground-breaking solo piano record. Just amazing. And that song especially. And I just sat there and I think I just cried.

But that music made me feel really good and I loved the way it was making me feel and able to appreciate that moment of sadness but also almost enjoy it. It made me love life. It makes you love life. It amplifies everything. It amplifies and electrocutes and juices up the picture. It supes up life.

Music is like a life-enhancement device that just improves the intensity of pretty much every experience. And complements and enhances every emotional experience. That’s why they use it in movies. Because they can intensify what you’re seeing on screen to such degree in how you receive it and how you feel about yourself.

On The Wolf, a lot of the emotional territory that you cover… it got a little deeper than I Get Wet. Was that the plan all along?
No, no, no, no, no, no. It became the plan but those songs. More than well over half of that album, the new album, The Wolf, were songs that were written before I Get Wet, or sometimes during it. Songs that I could have put on I Get Wet just as easily.

But I did it, because yes, like you’re saying, because I wasn’t prepared for it kind of. And I felt like they were too intense. In some ways that sounds silly, like, wouldn’t you want to hit everybody with the most intense thing right off the bat? I was like no, this thing is like a wild, crazed, snarling sharp thing … just like a monster … and if the whole thing just jumped out at once, you’d get so freaked out you’d like run away. But if first you can see it for a few minutes in a cage and kind of catch a good vibe on it, then you can like pal around with it and it’d be fine. And it can even do freaky, big scary stuff that might scare you before but now that you’re really familiar with it, it wouldn’t freak you out so much.

So I think I saved those songs now so I was better prepared to obtain them, to use them, and to perform them as best as possible. And absolutely the experiences that happened from the first album influenced the choice to go through with the songs, write a lot of lyrics around the second album The Wolf and as well as some new songs that expressed the amount of excitement and amazement that total mind-blown feeling. Feelings that have come from what’s happened on our first record and just life in general, things just expanding and getting better.

Is that sort of what the title means to you, The Wolf, this is finally the snarling monster?
It meant nothing. No. Oh that’s wild that you said that. Maybe subconsciously, but I didn’t think of that. No initially, it just meant nothing. It just meant literally, a wolf’s a cool thing, you know. That’s what I thought. I used to make a magazine that was called Wolf… Wolf-Slicer actually. It was about slicing up wolves and stuff. And I’ve always thought they were cool. So I was like, oh that’ll be a cool title.

But absolutely it took on greater meaning. Maybe just what you said, which I hadn’t thought of before, but also one thing I really noticed about this music is that from the very beginning it was always, you know, it’s made by one dude. It’s one guy’s name and I am writing all of this music and singing all of it and recording most of it. So, you think, like it’s this singular vibe. That’s the thing. It totally has like a group feeling and all the music from the very beginning even though it was one guy making it, all the lyrics were singing about we and us and this big group — which wolves can travel in as a pack. Wolves are very strong as the lone wolf, but they also benefit from the strength of a pack, as in a wolf pack. And I think this music inspires both independence and confidence but also complements and encourages companionship and the feeling that you’re not alone and the feeling that something that you believe in, loves you and loves you back, and wants you to be part of that group. And it’s a group where no matter who you are or what you do, you being you is accepted because no one is judging you except the music. And the music will always pass good judgement and love you. Because it’s superhuman. The music isn’t human. It doesn’t fall prey to shallow insecurities and weaknesses that keep us from liking one another. The music is strong enough to like everybody. Way stronger than I am. So it helps you enjoy ourselves and encourage you to do the same. That’s what the Wolf is like.

I was going to ask you to talk about how the songs are written in your head, it does come from one guy, but it does seem to be universal.
I hope so, man. I want to feel like you’ve never heard it before but you’ve known it all along. I want it to feel like it’s the song you wrote in your dream when you were writing a song. And you haven’t heard since that one dream. I want it to feel like the music that you were always waiting to hear. You know what, I’ve been so honored and amazed for some people to say it does feel like that to them. This one guy said, this is the music I always wanted to hear, I just didn’t realize it. Or this one guy said, this is what I always knew was possible I just didn’t know how to find it. Gosh, that is like one of the greatest compliments someone could ever give to me. That’s when music is truly a magical, alternate dimension, just like a new reality and it can make life seem so incredible and the possibilities so endless. I love it! I just love the way music feels. It feels so good.

I think a lot of people I know have had that reaction to your music. Where they hear and there’s just this instant connection with it.
That is so awesome. All it’s made for is the feeling. There’s no other statement. There’s a lot of things it’s talking about. But if there’s one thing it’s trying to say louder and clearer than anything else it’s look at how great something can be just on the way it makes you feel. Not what you’re thinking about it, not what you have to say about it whether this or that, not the thoughts that it inspires, not what the person who was making it was thinking, not what the lyrics are thinking, but how it all makes you feel. Physically feel. Not oh I feel happy or oh I feel sad or oh I feel cool about this. I feel good. I feel moved. I feel a physical sensation in my legs. My legs are quivering. My spine is tingling. My eyes are watering. My heartbeat’s racing. I’m getting cold chills. That kind of a feeling from being so moved and physically affected by the scientific frequencies in music. That’s what this is trying to do, you know?

I’m working on the third album right now. After this tour I’ll start working on it more. But I got a couple songs already. A bunch of songs.

Is it the same direction?
I can’t even think of it in terms of a direction or a choice. I never have been able to. And I still can’t. When it comes to this, what this is… that’s why this is not even a kind of music to me or like, I’m doing this right now or whatever. When it comes time for me as a person, no better or worse than anyone else, just as a dude, when it comes time for this dude to make a song, the song sounds like these songs. That’s what happens, you know what I mean. It’s not sitting down and thinking about what kind of album to make. That’s the thing is I just know. Even if I didn’t even like the music, I would say, no, this is the music I need to make. This needs to be made and I need to do it. So I don’t even have a choice in the matter. I’m obligated to this feeling. This feeling even above the music. The feeling that the music creates. The feeling itself is counting on me to make music that brings it into people. Check that out.

How do you write most of your songs? Are you sitting at a piano?
Yeah, piano. 99% piano, it starts on. But then once I go to the guitar, sometimes a lot of stuff will change. It develops. I just [got] a cool guitar too. Another cool wooden guitar. It’s all wood. On the back it doesn’t have a covering over the inner… where the springs are for the strings coming through. I thought that was cool cos it wasn’t even made to have one. Anyway, yeah, when I take it to guitar, I will add a lot of new parts and I’ll change the song structure and then when I go to the singing, I’ll change stuff again. That’s the best way is to keep working on it and keep working on it and keep working on it. I know it’s also really cool to do spontaneous tunes, where you just go. But I just work on ’em and the more I work on them the better they seem to get. It’s hard for me actually to stop and say they’re done.

Was recording The Wolf similar to recording I Get Wet?
Totally different. Totally different.

Yeah, because for the most part the stuff on The Wolf. 90% of that was recorded in one place. But I Get Wet was recorded in four or five different places.

Did that change the environment? Was it a little looser or more laid back?
Oh yeah, it just took a lot of time to do I Get Wet. The Wolf took me a lot less, like one quarter of the amount of time. And this new album’s going to take me even less.

Do you think that shows in the music?
Oh gosh, I don’t know. It would be funny if it got worse the less time I spent on it. But I think I’m just way better at recording now, since I do a lot of the recording myself. I think it’s just I’ve gotten way better at recording and playing and… knowing what I want to do. What I also think is… I still spend a lot of time. I spent still hundreds of hours recording The Wolf. Hundreds and hundreds and hundreds. It was made in six months. Of constant work. Constantly. Like down to the wire. We almost didn’t make it. And then still mixing. You know what I mean, it was a long time. But I Get Wet was made pretty much off and on over the course of two years.

But anyway, yeah, I can’t wait to record the next one. I’m trying to make it even more exciting. And even more, just completely… you feel completely enraptured. You feel completely soaked. Like flattened against the wall with satisfaction and fulfillment. Like something so great has happened and now you’re just reveling in the afterglow.