The Golden Rule: An interview with Andrew WK
Over nine months after its release, Andrew WK's I Get Wet is still among the most polarizing conversation-piece records of the year. Although much of the initial hype has died down, Andrew WK's militaristic work/party ethic and great-guy attitude has shown no signs of weakening. So much so that many of those who were initially disbelievers (including, perhaps, Andrew WK himself) have come to realize that WK's Party Hard dogma was one founded on sincerity rather than novelty. His undying love for his fans is manifested in the most genuine form: the donation of his time. This past summer, following a show in the UK, Andrew WK spend upwards of four hours speaking and hanging out with every single fan who was interested in talking to him. On another occasion he traveled to the house of a particularly fervent fan where he met the fan's parents and ate a meal in his kitchen. He keeps a book of addresses of each fan that he meets, and takes care to write to every single one of them.
Surprisingly enough, Andrew WK is not a manufactured commodity, nor is he a lucky hack. His musical background is extensive and his involvement in various punk and underground scenes is thorough. Indeed, many albums on which he has appeared (including the first made under the Andrew WK name) were released on Michigan's noise-punk-rude Bulb Records, with whom Andrew WK still maintains an apparently good relationship. Andrew WK gladly took another chunk out of his busy schedule this past October to speak with Dusted's Sam Hunt prior to his show at Chicago's Vic Theater.
Sam Hunt: So this was originally supposed to be a top ten list from you, but it kinda turned into this interview instead. But do you have, off the top of your head, a few albums that you’ve been enjoying and a sentence or two about each one?
Andrew WK: Oh, umm, Hatebreed’s Perseverance. I really like that record. I like it ‘cuz it’s real simple and to the point and just really, really heavy and I like the singing; and the drumming, I really like the drumming, and the riffs. It always does what you want it to do, and doesn’t do what you don’t want it to do so it’s ultimately very satisfying and not surprising. It doesn’t need to impress me because it already has impressed my by how it doesn’t need to impress me. You know what I mean?
I like that Bootsy Collins anthology. I got that, and it’s been excellent. I like the commitment to doing something. Most of the things like that – same with the Hatebreed – it’s a commitment. It’s like “This is what we’re gonna do, and we’re gonna do just it as best we can. We might not be able to do these things and we might not try to do those things, but we’re gonna do this! And we’re gonna give the best we can, and become really good at doing it.” So, I like that.
I also like the Nema cd (Bring Our Curses Home). It’s not new, it’s been out for a few years, but it’s really good, and I’ve been thinking about it for the last couple of days.
Sam: And what are a few records that have really been influential to you or that you wouldn’t go on a tour without?
AWK: Well, I don’t really bring anything to listen to on tour. But, they’re in my head, you know. But there’s a record called 30-Minuten Mannercreme by a band called To Live and Shave in L.A.
Sam: Oh yeah, we just ran a big feature on The Wigmaker in Eighteenth Century Williamsburg.
AWK: Awesome! I haven’t heard the whole thing yet, but I heard some early versions years ago. Yeah, I know he’s been working on that for a long time. But Tom Smith, when I was very young, was very exciting and important and groundbreaking.
And, also Couch, this band from Michigan. There’s a couple of other Couches, but this is the one from Michigan, the REAL Couch. They were very life-changing. And it represented – both those bands (and there were other bands too) – a time when I was in high school when things really started getting mind-blowing. I was seeing things I’d never heard and hearing things I’d never seen. It was all why I am now able to do this.
Sam: Was this around the time of the Portly Boys?
AWK: Yeah! That played a big part into a lot of the music now that I’m doing. It was all just change. It was songs that were real call-and-response and big groups cheering.
Sam: What were the Portly Boys, exactly?
AWK: It was me and a bunch of dudes from Michigan, none of whom are in the band now. But I realize now – I didn’t realize it before – but I really liked those big groups cheering and chanting and call-and-response, like (singing) “Portly boys bounce! Every last one of ‘em!” and there was “Porrrtly p-pooortly p-” and then “The PORTLY BOYS! THE PORTLY BOYS bring it back!” It was just this group of overweight dudes who weren’t gonna take any crap. And they were good-natured, that was the thing. I think that’s probably the most misunderstood thing about that – and about this now. It’s very good-natured. They’re not angry, they’re just dedicated. They’re not fighting against, they’re fighting for. And there will be more of that. That’s just part of what we do. Music that’s written for more than one person to sing is really exciting to me.
Sam: There was also a label you ran called Rockside BK, right? Was that at the same time?
AWK: (laughing) Yeah! B.K. stood for Bestial Knives, which was the initial thing, but that didn’t work, so I had to make a different side to it. It was an all-tape label, so I’d make the list of tapes first and then if somebody ordered a tape then I would record the album, so it was definitely a challenge. There were a lot of bands on it. There was a band called Haunted Elegance, there was a Portly Boys thing. Those were things that actually got made because people wanted them. There was a thing called To Beg, there was Stormy Rodent and the Malt Lickers. God, I don’t know if I have any of those anymore. There were some really good bands. Hugs, I think, was a band.
Sam: What kind of music was it?
AWK: It was like noisy grindy hardcore. Some of it just was noise or just good songs. Some of it was Portly Boys-style call-and-response. Some of it was a little more minor in its musical scope. A lot of stuff now is written in the major scale, which I’ve decided is the best for creating the excitement that we’re trying to do. But back then the minor scale was a little more at my frontal lobe. It what was coming more readily, and I didn’t want to fight it. I don’t wanna fight against stuff anymore, I just wanna fight for.
Sam: There are a lot of tape labels and CDR labels still going on now, a lot of it is still in Michigan. Do you still follow much of that stuff?
AWK: I know a lot of those people, so I just always assumed that they’re still doing what they’re doing. It’s an easier way to make recordings on a minimal budget and not have to worry about cost. It was always just about getting it done
Sam: It’s a pretty neat way of going about things.
AWK: Yeah, it really is. The only frustrating part about it is that you’re ultimately held back. The whole design of it holds you back a bit and I’ve often wondered if that was, like, keeping things on a certain level for fear of failure. You know, “we’ll keep it small because if it doesn’t do well, who’s gonna care?” You don’t really set goals; it’s kinda non goal-oriented. It’s just doing it for the sake of doing it – which is very awesome and exciting – but a lot of times I would find that those people (me, included) had a lot of hang-ups about really trying something that was harder because then somebody could actually say “You tried and you failed!” But you couldn’t fail if you didn’t try.
Sam: Well this gives the chance to try and try and try as many times as you want.
AWK: Exactly, it’s very low pressure. You can really do it for the point of doing it which is just to have songs and cheers and things.
Sam: Did you keep up with any of your old Detroit bandmates and friends like Wolf Eyes and bands like that?
Sam: It seems like mostly what you’ve been doing now is playing on double-billed tours and festivals and stuff like, but could you see yourself doing a headlining national tour with a bunch of Bulb bands or something like that?
AWK: I would love to do something like that. I wanted to have Wolf Eyes tour on this tour, but I heard through the daisy chain that they had just finished a tour and didn’t want to tour anymore; it was too hard. And it is hard. That’s the one thing that’s very difficult – there’s no money. I don’t even know how they would tour. We’d have to figure out a way to get them in a position where they could even start to be able to tour. That’s why most of the tours we’ve done now have been bands that have support from their label or they have a record out that they can make support their own tour and break even.
Sam: Or play smaller places…
AWK: Right. But it’s just a matter of time. A lot of my old friends from years ago who I was telling this to...if you go back a few years I was telling them “look, it’s just gonna be a matter of time,” and they were very doubtful.
Sam: This is when you first started doing Andrew WK stuff?
AWK: Yes. They were very doubtful and very skeptical. And I understood that and I still do and I don’t hold it against them, but I definitely had to go out and do it by myself and it wasn’t gonna happen any other way. I still feel like there’s so much to do. We haven’t even tapped into what’s yet to come with this. I don’t mean that in terms of magnitude, I mean it in terms of depth. I closed the floodgates and held back so much stuff to simplify it and get a foothold so that we could stand and start to build. Now we’re just getting the foundation done on which to build and then…No one’s seen anything yet ‘cuz there’s so much to come. And I mean that in terms of other bands and touring and recordings and everything that’s yet to come. A lot of people felt like I changed and abandoned things, but nothing’s been abandoned. It’s just been put in storage until I could build a house big enough to bring it back into.
Sam: So do you have stuff on the pot and ready to release?
AWK: Oh boy. Yeah.
Sam: And is it totally different that the stuff you’ve put out so far?
AWK: It’s not different, it’s just more. It’s a lot.
Sam: Do you think people will be surprised by it?
AWK: I hope, but I really don’t know. I didn’t think people were gonna be confused or freaked-out by this first thing. I thought it was really simple, and that’s all I wanted to do was to make it really clear. But it still really baffled people for some reason. And I understand why that would happen. There’s a lot of things that were left untouched that are gonna be touched and I’ve not turned my back in any way on any friends or any things that I once valued. I value them more now than I ever did before, and it’s just a matter of time. And I have that patience to wait until it’s ready or until we’re ready to do it. And it’s not like putting it off because of doubt. It’s the opposite: it’s putting it off until we’ve built the groundwork on which to erect it.
Sam: So you’re surprised that people were as confused as they were.
AWK: I guess just coming from where I grew up in high school and the things that I was surrounded with, which to me were crazy and weird and intense, I had gotten used to that. So I can only imagine what it might seem like to people who didn't know about that. Like when I imagined first discovering these things or being shown these things, it was very crazy. So when I decided that I wanted to do something that was really trying to include as many people as possible, I decided that I wanted to really streamline it and focus it. I don’t want it scattered and confusing, I want it to be clear and ready-to-go so that you can take it, know that it is what it is, and just enjoy it. You don’t have to worry about figuring out what it was: “Is it this? Is it that? What’s the deal?” That’s just our nature as people anyway. We’re curious. We wanna know and we don’t like not knowing. It’s that feeling of being out in the void. We wanna be in a very specific place in our thoughts and our enjoyment. I’m the same way; everybody is. But I thought I’d made it clear enough that people could just say “ok, this is this and I like it,” or “ok, this is this and I don’t like it,” but it still seems like people were baffled by the whole thing.
Sam: Do you read your press?
AWK: Sometimes. When I feel like I had a good talk with someone or they had good questions or I know the writer then I try to read the article. I just end up missing a lot of it because we’ve been on tour for 10 months now. And that’s another thing. I’m not gonna say it’s hard. It’s definitely up to me. Anything is possible. Anyone who says: “Oh, I can’t keep up with this” or “I can’t exercise because of this,” or “I can’t find time to do this because we’re on tour” – It might be more challenging, but it’s all doable. It took me time to understand where the center was in all this. I’m in a different place every day and operating under different circumstances every day. How do you make order? You just demand it. You say “I’m going to go to the gym today.” You have to take that step, and that’s just the same with keeping up with all of these things. I admit that the things that I haven’t kept up with I’ve made the choice to not keep up with them. But anything’s possible, and while it’s challenging to not have a center from which to operate, it still can be done. And that’s one thing where I know it’s just a matter of time and I’m just prioritizing based on the timeline. And again, it’s just so exciting. This next album, I’m gonna open up the door a little more and a lot’s gonna be seen.
Sam: Have you recorded any of it yet?
AWK: I have recordings but I don’t know if I’m gonna end up using any of them as they are now.
Sam: Stuff that you’ve done all by yourself?
AWK: Yeah, I think I’m gonna re-record a lot of it.
Sam: And that’s what you did with I Get Wet, right?
AWK: Yeah, but a lot of it was just older recordings that I just worked on for another six months. This new one I think I’m just gonna start from scratch. I’ll probably use elements of parts of other stuff that I recorded.
Sam: Are you happy with Island as opposed to the smaller labels that you used to work with?
AWK: Yes, I’m very happy. I couldn’t ask for a better situation. It could be so bad and instead it’s so good. They give me a lot of trust and responsibility and they do the things that I don’t know how to do and I do the things that they know I can do, and I couldn’t ask for a better situation. I’ve heard so many horror stories. So many people said “No! It’s gonna be horrible! It’s a big mistake”, but all I saw was this amazing opportunity. And I look at it as just the beginning, that we’re building something here. It’s sort of like a Robin Hood thing. People say “They’re exploiting you and they’re stealing from you,” and it seems like nobody’s stealing from anybody more than I’m stealing from them. There are so many things that I wanna do that I’m going to do. One of the hardest things for me is patience. Like, I wanna do 20 things right now. But I know that they would be even better if I did two of them right now, one of them tomorrow, and the rest of them over the next year. And that’s gonna be how it is. I know they’re gonna turn out better that way. And I don’t want people to give up on me and know that it hasn’t even started. And all of the places that I’ve come from and all of the things I’ve done before this are still as prevalent and still important. It’s all just yet to come forward.
Sam: What kind of things did you do before you were able to do music full time? Is it weird to think of yourself as a full-time musician?
AWK: Yeah, it’s crazy. I was just thinking about all of the things that I really wanted to do today and I was planning everything and it’s an early all-ages show today and I was thinking, like, God, I remember when I used to have 15 minutes for lunch and that was it. I am so lucky. The things that I’ll concern myself with sometimes are just absurd and I never forget it. The whole thing is mind-blowing and overwhelming in the best way. It’s made me a better person than I ever could be. I couldn’t have done these things before and there’s things that I’m going to do that I couldn’t do before. We’re so lucky and so thankful and it’s so unfair. Why should we be able to do this compared to other people who have worked as hard and much longer with equal amounts of vision and determination; why don’t they get to? It’s not fair. And I don’t feel guilty, but I wanna make sure that I don’t waste it and that I use it as best I can. And I really want it to be a non-profit operation, which it is now.
Sam: Are you happy with how you’ve used your celebrity? You seem to spend a lot of time making people understand what you’re doing and making people realize that you’re not totally bullshitting them.
AWK: I just want it to be a friend thing. The best way for me to do that is just to spend time with people, and that’s what we get to do. And I think it’s exciting that we get to do that. It was a choice I made awhile back when I decided that I wanted to keep this as close to people as possible. I don’t think of myself as a celebrity or as being very famous because most people don’t know who I am. But just the fact that anybody cares about this at all is enough for me to care about them an equal amount. And that’s how it works. It’s an even trade. The amount of time that they’re going to put into this, I will put back into them. Something as simple or as actual as waiting for me after a concert...I will be there until they need to leave. There are very rare circumstances when that can’t happen. And I want them to realize and to feel like they are an important part of this. As important as me doing this in the first place. This music wasn’t made to be listened to by me alone in my room, it’s made for them. For us. This is our thing. And if they see me on TV or in a magazine, I want them to say “That’s my friend. Isn’t that cool? That’s my friend in a magazine.” And I would be excited about it too if one of my friends were in a magazine. And that’s what I hope can be. There’s no limit to where we can take that premise. That truth can be taken so far, and that’s what I’m saying eventually will be. And there are just so many lines waiting to be crossed with this thing, and it’s really just about having as much fun as possible and not about money or status. It’s about using those things to have more fun. I think about Bill Gates. Think about what he could do! He could buy up all the remaining rainforest. Done. He could change countries. I’m not going to get too much into these things because I know so many people do a lot, and a lot more than I do. But it baffles me when you see a celebrity talking about their involvement in one cause or another and yet they’re wearing $500 shoes and being driven around by chauffeurs.
Sam: Or like Bono flying around Africa in his private helicopter teaching the world about debt management…
AWK: I’m not going to give Bono a hard time because he does a lot and I have a lot of respect for him and like his music. But I can only imagine, exactly, I really can only imagine. I’ve yet to take those steps that I really want to and we don’t have that money to do those things. Right now all we can do is to do this at all. But it’s exciting to think of what can be done when you put everything else aside, and when nothing else is as important as just helping. It starts with the principle of the golden rule, and it continues with me thinking ‘Did I use this day to somehow make someone’s life better?’ Even if it was my own. That’s what’s gonna save this race, is if we just step it up a notch and stop thinking about ourselves so much. And I do it. I think about me more than anybody else, of course. I know we’re capable of a lot. Human beings are capable of the best and the worst, and I think it’s time we start siding towards the better. And we will. There’s a whole young generation of people from all countries that are gonna take living to another level. Otherwise I don’t know what we’re gonna do. I’m hopeful.
Sam: Well, my last question was gonna be to ask if you’re burning out at all, but it seems like the answer is pretty clear already.
AWK: Hah! No, I’m definitely not. Right now it’s like the last month of high school. That delirious excitement of knowing that a big chapter has been written. I feel like “gosh, I can’t wait to do this! I can’t wait to record the next record!” And knowing that these are the last concerts we’re gonna play this year, more or less. We finish this at the end of November, then I’m gonna go start working on the next record. So I’m just looking forward to so much of that. It’s a significant sign of it continuing. There are some bands, like Hatebreed, who toured for FIVE YEARS on their first record. And that was actually one of our ideas was just to do this forever, or to wait a lot longer to do another record. But this is not going away, this is going to continue. I wanna do another record every year, or every two years tops, and just keep it going. We’re only getting stronger and smarter and better. And the more it grows, piece by piece, the more insignificant I feel in the best way. I wanna make it clear – I feel weird saying it, but I really mean it – that I hope people have as much belief in me and in the music as I have in them. Whether it’s this music or somebody else’s, I hope people can just stay passionate about things because it’s all we have: believing in stuff. The attitude of “I’ve done it all, I’ve seen it all, nothing impresses me, I don’t care, I’m over it” – that’s so weak, and it’s so afraid. There’s no reason to be afraid. There’s so much to be afraid of, the last thing we should do is be afraid, you know what I mean? It’s all gonna end at some point. Hopefully not in our lifetime and it quite possibly could end tomorrow for all we know. And because of that, you should just live without fear. Like more than you dislike. Try to challenge yourself in that way. No one’s been more pessimistic and jerky than I have, but we’re all trying to just get better. Let people get better! Let people improve and change their minds. Let it go. Let the past be that. Let the future be unwritten and be more patient. I know we can do it, and that’s what this music is all about. It might sound cheesy or corny or whatever. Have the courage to say “no, it’s true and I’m gonna see it as that” and not have to put it down to keep it safe. We’re really thankful and we know how lucky we are and how crazy this is and we’re not going to take it for granted and we’re not going to waste it and we’re gonna use it as much as possible to benefit as many people as possible.
For more information about Andrew WK visit www.andrewwk.com.
By Sam Hunt