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Life ISN'T always a party: An interview with Andrew W.K., grandfather of 'party rock'

Posted by Alex Pearlman  March 29, 2012 05:46 PM

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andrew wk.jpgBy Ryan Hadfield

The concept of “raging” is hardly novel in the music industry. The ‘70s saw bands wink to audiences while they tried living up to Led Zeppelin’s legendary status in the recreational department of being rock stars. ‘80s hair bands were more straightforward with their agendas and displayed as much in their outlandish music videos, but it was tough to take anything seriously when seemingly every band had man-perms. The ‘90s were perhaps best known for the rise of rap and hip-hop, but a “[Forget] Tha Police” countered every “Gin and Juice.” In short, all of these artists were partying excessively to fulfill an image or, worse, run away from their problems -- a guise that comes across as morose rather then uplifting.

Then, in 2001, Andrew W.K. happened. His album I Get Wet had one requirement: that listeners soak in the convivial tone. There were no caveats to songs like “Party Hard” and “Party ‘Til You Puke;” the anthems didn’t represent anything other than their literal meanings, and that transparency was refreshing. W.K.’s music became immensely popular back then in that respect, but only recently have acts like LFMAO, Flo Rida, and Breathe Carolina capitalized on his precedents by conveying an incessant will to party -- and party hard.

“The world has opened up and encouraged it more,” W.K. said before his sold-out show Wednesday night at Paradise Rock Club to celebrate the 10th anniversary of I Get Wet. “When I first started out 12 years ago, it wasn’t as cool to talk about having fun and have four on the floor beats. These things come in waves and go in waves.”

And after all these years, W.K. still just wants to party. I know this because the hat he is wearing reads “Party Hard.” He appears rugged -- perhaps tired -- donning protective sunglasses like the kind you would see a 75-year-old woman wearing in a Boca Raton retirement home (mind you, we’re in a dimly lit bar on a cloudy day). He’s in great spirits, but as I found out from the musician/motivational speaker/television host, the platitude “Life is just one big party” is a fallacy. It’s never that simple.

***
Way back when, W.K. was selected by an ambiguous group of people before I Get Wet was released to promulgate the persona of a great performer and wild partier. In general, fans are often skeptical of a musician who’s essentially a method actor procured by handlers, and in this case, that weariness was exacerbated when rumors spread that the person performing as Andrew W.K. at the start of his rise was not the same individual portraying him now. (I realize this is all very Face/Off meets Bourne Identity, but bear with me.)

The Internet meme was specious, but W.K.’s manufactured persona wasn’t. The truth is, hired musicians and constructed acts occur quite often in the entertainment industry, and if anything, W.K.’s frankness on the matter makes him more authentic than those who perpetuate one persona but behave differently (see: Gibson, Mel). However, the inconsistent nature in which W.K. addressed the rumors further sullied his image. His team advised him to deny, then had a change of heart and told him to promote the confusion. The indecision confounded fans more.

“I’m back into ignoring [rumors] again,” he said, “and hoping people don’t care how we do what we do or who’s involved, but just focus the end result.”

andrew wk paradise show boston.JPGRegardless of the controversy, the arrangement worked well in the beginning; W.K’s first single, “Party Hard,” was a hit. But the good times soured following the release of his second album, The Wolf, as W.K.’s animosity towards his contractual obligations to represent the brand grew.

“The situations I got into were contracts I had signed and agreements I made with certain people that I didn’t fully understand when I signed them,” he said. “But I was much younger back then, and I don’t hold it against myself. It was frustrating, but I was earnest in my desire to make my dreams come true, and I just didn’t fully realize what I was necessarily getting myself into at times.”

W.K.’s dream had transformed into a nightmare. Much of his material recorded from 2005 through 2009 was held up in post-production, so he went rogue and released an improvisational piano album entitled 55 Cadillac on his own label that he created in London.

“I was just trying to get these people off my back. It did not work,” he said. “I thought it was a loophole I had found to solve a personal business dilemma…but I was mistaken. I was very confused throughout most that time.”

Frustrated, the now-32-year-old artist said he wanted to spread his mantra of having fun through an avenue other then rock music because his cacophonous sound ostracized a large segment of his potential audience. He found solace in motivational speaking gigs at prestigious schools like Yale and NYU and appearances on various television shows like Cartoon Network’s Destroy Build Destroy, the premise of which is to blow up an unusable structure (e.g., a wrecked car) with a high-powered explosive, then use the wreckage to build a vehicle.

Those distractions were all fun, but W.K.’s musical career was still on hiatus. Someone had to blink -- and that someone was W.K. himself.

“You don’t always want to make a sacrifice,” he said. “You expect to have your cake and eat it, too. When I realized I wasn’t able to do that, at first it was painful and frustrating. Then I realized I had already been given so much and had so many blessings, the least I could do is work to promote what we are promoting.”

Today, W.K.’s life is simple: He’s embarked on his first headlining tour in seven years. And when I drew a parallel between his attempt at a career resurrection after all the PR wreckage to the reconstruction of a vehicle on his television show, he cocked his head in revelation.

“That’s interesting; I haven’t looked at it that way before,” he said. “That’s great though. You’re just trying to do the best work all the time and embrace the adversity and the blessings as much as you can -- find some kind of power in those ordeals and do your best to get through them while maintaining some semblance of integrity. And I feel very fortunate to be working at all.”

Writers have compared W.K. to Lady Gaga -- neither ever breaks character -- but personally, I don’t subscribe to the connection. Gaga represents individuality (although somewhat altruistic) and a propensity to be weird for the sake of being weird (which is, well, weird). If Gaga is Joaquin Phoenix, W.K. is Charlie Sheen. When I asked him about this comparison, he cut me off.

“All great people,” he said (even Sheen, apparently). “I don’t expect anyone to be anything than what they are except for at that time. Finding out what people are really like is exciting.”

The ironic aspect of that answer is that I’m not sure if I met the real Andrew W.K. in that bar. Was it a performance? Probably. But more jarring and intriguing is the fact that I’m even pondering that uncertainty in the first place.

Photos by Uncensored Interview (top; Flickr) and Ryan Hadfield

About Ryan -- Ryan Hadfield is a writer for WEEI.com, predominantly covering the Boston Celtics and hosting a media podcast. He is currently working on his first book, The 25th Year: 12 Months of Suspect Choices and Strange Events. Follow him on Twitter @R_Hadfield.

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