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 youíve been enjoying and a sentence or two about each one?
Andrew WK: Oh, umm, Hatebreedís Perseverance. I really like that record. I like it Ďcuz itís 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 doesnít do what you donít want it to do so itís ultimately very satisfying and not surprising. It doesnít need to impress me because it already has impressed my by how it doesnít need to impress me. You know what I mean?
I like that Bootsy Collins anthology. I got that, and itís been excellent. I like the commitment to doing something. Most of the things like that Ė same with the Hatebreed Ė itís a commitment. Itís like ďThis is what weíre gonna do, and weíre 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 weíre gonna do this! And weíre gonna give the best we can, and become really good at doing it.Ē So, I like that.
I also like the Nema cd (Bring Our Curses Home). Itís not new, itís been out for a few years, but itís really good, and Iíve 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 wouldnít go on a tour without?
AWK: Well, I donít really bring anything to listen to on tour. But, theyíre in my head, you know. But thereís 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 havenít heard the whole thing yet, but I heard some early versions years ago. Yeah, I know heís 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. Thereís a couple of other Couches, but this is the one from Michigan, the REAL Couch. They were very life-changing. And it represented Ė both those bands (and there were other bands too) Ė a time when I was in high school when things really started getting mind-blowing. I was seeing things Iíd never heard and hearing things Iíd 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 Iím 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 Ė I didnít realize it before Ė but I really liked those big groups cheering and chanting and call-and-response, like (singing) ďPortly boys bounce! Every last one of Ďem!Ē and there was ďPorrrtly p-pooortly p-Ē and then ďThe PORTLY BOYS! THE PORTLY BOYS bring it back!Ē It was just this group of overweight dudes who werenít gonna take any crap. And they were good-natured, that was the thing. I think thatís probably the most misunderstood thing about that Ė and about this now. Itís very good-natured. Theyíre not angry, theyíre just dedicated. Theyíre not fighting against, theyíre fighting for. And there will be more of that. Thatís just part of what we do. Music thatís 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 didnít work, so I had to make a different side to it. It was an all-tape label, so Iíd 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 donít 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 Iíve decided is the best for creating the excitement that weíre 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 didnít want to fight it. I donít 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 theyíre still doing what theyíre doing. Itís 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: Itís a pretty neat way of going about things.
AWK: Yeah, it really is. The only frustrating part about it is that youíre ultimately held back. The whole design of it holds you back a bit and Iíve often wondered if that was, like, keeping things on a certain level for fear of failure. You know, ďweíll keep it small because if it doesnít do well, whoís gonna care?Ē You donít really set goals; itís kinda non goal-oriented. Itís just doing it for the sake of doing it Ė which is very awesome and exciting Ė 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 ďYou tried and you failed!Ē But you couldnít fail if you didnít try.
Sam: Well this gives the chance to try and try and try as many times as you want.
AWK: Exactly, itís 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 youíve 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 didnít want to tour anymore; it was too hard. And it is hard. Thatís the one thing thatís very difficult Ė thereís no money. I donít even know how they would tour. Weíd have to figure out a way to get them in a position where they could even start to be able to tour. Thatís why most of the tours weíve 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 placesÖ
AWK: Right. But itís 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 ďlook, itís just gonna be a matter of time,Ē 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 donít hold it against them, but I definitely had to go out and do it by myself and it wasnít gonna happen any other way. I still feel like thereís so much to do. We havenít even tapped into whatís yet to come with this. I donít 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 weíre just getting the foundation done on which to build and thenÖNo oneís seen anything yet Ďcuz thereís so much to come. And I mean that in terms of other bands and touring and recordings and everything thatís yet to come. A lot of people felt like I changed and abandoned things, but nothingís been abandoned. Itís 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 youíve put out so far?
AWK: Itís not different, itís just more. Itís a lot.
Sam: Do you think people will be surprised by it?
AWK: I hope, but I really donít know. I didnít think people were gonna be confused or freaked-out by this first thing. I thought it was really simple, and thatís 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. Thereís a lot of things that were left untouched that are gonna be touched and Iíve 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 itís just a matter of time. And I have that patience to wait until itís ready or until weíre ready to do it. And itís not like putting it off because of doubt. Itís the opposite: itís putting it off until weíve built the groundwork on which to erect it.
Sam: So youíre 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 donít 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 donít have to worry about figuring out what it was: ďIs it this? Is it that? Whatís the deal?Ē Thatís just our nature as people anyway. Weíre curious. We wanna know and we donít like not knowing. Itís that feeling of being out in the void. We wanna be in a very specific place in our thoughts and our enjoyment. Iím the same way; everybody is. But I thought Iíd made it clear enough that people could just say ďok, this is this and I like it,Ē or ďok, this is this and I donít like it,Ē 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 weíve been on tour for 10 months now. And thatís another thing. Iím not gonna say itís hard. Itís definitely up to me. Anything is possible. Anyone who says: ďOh, I canít keep up with thisĒ or ďI canít exercise because of this,Ē or ďI canít find time to do this because weíre on tourĒ Ė It might be more challenging, but itís all doable. It took me time to understand where the center was in all this. Iím in a different place every day and operating under different circumstances every day. How do you make order? You just demand it. You say ďIím going to go to the gym today.Ē You have to take that step, and thatís just the same with keeping up with all of these things. I admit that the things that I havenít kept up with Iíve made the choice to not keep up with them. But anythingís possible, and while itís challenging to not have a center from which to operate, it still can be done. And thatís one thing where I know itís just a matter of time and Iím just prioritizing based on the timeline. And again, itís just so exciting. This next album, Iím gonna open up the door a little more and a lotís gonna be seen.
Sam: Have you recorded any of it yet?
AWK: I have recordings but I donít know if Iím gonna end up using any of them as they are now.
Sam: Stuff that youíve done all by yourself?
AWK: Yeah, I think Iím gonna re-record a lot of it.
Sam: And thatís 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 Iím just gonna start from scratch. Iíll 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, Iím very happy. I couldnít ask for a better situation. It could be so bad and instead itís so good. They give me a lot of trust and responsibility and they do the things that I donít know how to do and I do the things that they know I can do, and I couldnít ask for a better situation. Iíve heard so many horror stories. So many people said ďNo! Itís gonna be horrible! Itís a big mistakeĒ, but all I saw was this amazing opportunity. And I look at it as just the beginning, that weíre building something here. Itís sort of like a Robin Hood thing. People say ďTheyíre exploiting you and theyíre stealing from you,Ē and it seems like nobodyís stealing from anybody more than Iím stealing from them. There are so many things that I wanna do that Iím 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 thatís gonna be how it is. I know theyíre gonna turn out better that way. And I donít want people to give up on me and know that it hasnít even started. And all of the places that Iíve come from and all of the things Iíve done before this are still as prevalent and still important. Itís 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, itís crazy. I was just thinking about all of the things that I really wanted to do today and I was planning everything and itís 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 Iíll concern myself with sometimes are just absurd and I never forget it. The whole thing is mind-blowing and overwhelming in the best way. Itís made me a better person than I ever could be. I couldnít have done these things before and thereís things that Iím going to do that I couldnít do before. Weíre so lucky and so thankful and itís 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 donít they get to? Itís not fair. And I donít feel guilty, but I wanna make sure that I donít 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 youíve used your celebrity? You seem to spend a lot of time making people understand what youíre doing and making people realize that youíre 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 thatís what we get to do. And I think itís 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 donít think of myself as a celebrity or as being very famous because most people donít 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 thatís how it works. Itís an even trade. The amount of time that theyíre 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 canít 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 wasnít made to be listened to by me alone in my room, itís 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 ďThatís my friend. Isnít that cool? Thatís my friend in a magazine.Ē And I would be excited about it too if one of my friends were in a magazine. And thatís what I hope can be. Thereís no limit to where we can take that premise. That truth can be taken so far, and thatís what Iím saying eventually will be. And there are just so many lines waiting to be crossed with this thing, and itís really just about having as much fun as possible and not about money or status. Itís 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. Iím 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 theyíre 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 managementÖ
AWK: Iím 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. Iíve yet to take those steps that I really want to and we donít have that money to do those things. Right now all we can do is to do this at all. But itís 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 ĎDid I use this day to somehow make someoneís life better?í Even if it was my own. Thatís whatís 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 weíre capable of a lot. Human beings are capable of the best and the worst, and I think itís time we start siding towards the better. And we will. Thereís a whole young generation of people from all countries that are gonna take living to another level. Otherwise I donít know what weíre gonna do. Iím hopeful.
Sam: Well, my last question was gonna be to ask if youíre burning out at all, but it seems like the answer is pretty clear already.
AWK: Hah! No, Iím definitely not. Right now itís like the last month of high school. That delirious excitement of knowing that a big chapter has been written. I feel like ďgosh, I canít wait to do this! I canít wait to record the next record!Ē And knowing that these are the last concerts weíre gonna play this year, more or less. We finish this at the end of November, then Iím gonna go start working on the next record. So Iím just looking forward to so much of that. Itís 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. Weíre 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 Ė I feel weird saying it, but I really mean it Ė that I hope people have as much belief in me and in the music as I have in them. Whether itís this music or somebody elseís, I hope people can just stay passionate about things because itís all we have: believing in stuff. The attitude of ďIíve done it all, Iíve seen it all, nothing impresses me, I donít care, Iím over itĒ Ė thatís so weak, and itís so afraid. Thereís no reason to be afraid. Thereís so much to be afraid of, the last thing we should do is be afraid, you know what I mean? Itís 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 oneís been more pessimistic and jerky than I have, but weíre 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 thatís what this music is all about. It might sound cheesy or corny or whatever. Have the courage to say ďno, itís true and Iím gonna see it as thatĒ and not have to put it down to keep it safe. Weíre really thankful and we know how lucky we are and how crazy this is and weíre not going to take it for granted and weíre not going to waste it and weíre 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