Not long ago, Andrew W.K., the bloody-faced headbanger whose hits include “Party Hard” and “Party Til You Puke,” turned up on National Public Radio to wax poetic about the universal life force of J.S. Bach. His reflections, as it turned out, were merely a buildup to the real shocker: that he was about to hit the road with a string quartet.
“Party Hard”? J.S. Bach? Theories, anyone?
Here’s one: W.K. turned 30 in May.
But there is another possibility to consider. Namely, that this headbanger, who studied classical piano from age 4, actually believes what he professes: that the walls between musical genres are not always inviolable. That both headbanging and Bach can lead to the “overriding joy” that W.K. has identified as the goal of his music since he hit the charts a decade ago.
“At the core, you’re trying to get to that sensation,” he says. “And the things that are the riskiest, the craziest, are the ones that hold the most promise in life. So for me, it’s a no-brainer to get involved with this quartet. Maybe they’ll raise me up to their level, and it will all work out.”
Not that he’s giving up the heavy metal: “It’s not about leaving what you did; it’s about adding to what you do.”
This isn’t the first time musicians have crossed over from rock toward classical: Think Sting and his Renaissance lute obsession. And it’s not the first time classical players have moved toward rock: Think the Kronos Quartet, flailing away at “Purple Haze.”
Still, it seems incongruous. This is the same Andrew W.K. who hosts “Destroy Build Destroy” on the Cartoon Network, a show on which kids, basically, blow things up. On the other hand, it is also the same W.K. who says, off the cuff, that listening to Bach “is like seeing a Persian rug being designed before your eyes: all these patterns and shapes and colors that present themselves to you, and you can interact with them. You could almost hallucinate, listening to that stuff.”
Andrew Wilkes-Krier (his given name) was born in Palo Alto, Calif., and raised in Michigan, the son of a committed stay-at-home mother and a law professor father. The L.A.-based Calder Quartet is a much ballyhooed Gen Y group, the American string quartet to watch, by some accounts. W.K. and the string players gave their collaboration a test run last November at Le Poisson Rouge, a hip Manhattan music spot.
With W.K. singing and playing keyboards, they ran through some of his hits, like “I Get Wet” and “I Love NYC.” They worked up on-the-spot improvisations, something new for the conservatory-trained string players. And they collaborated on a robotics-infused piece by Christine Southworth, one of the Calder’s favorite living composers. W.K. even played some Bach.
They wrapped things up with more of his hits: “It was packed, it was crazy,” remembers Jonathan Moerschel, the Calder’s violist. “And I think it was on ‘Party Hard’ — all these people were running up on stage. And someone threw a beer can, and it hit Ben’s violin.”
Not a problem; the can was empty, and Benjamin Jacobson’s instrument was unscathed.
“We actually got a review in Metal Edge magazine,” Moerschel says, laughing. “I think the last line was, ‘It was really strange, but it pretty much ruled.’”
Known for its Haydn and Mozart, and for its collaborations with living composers including Thomas Ades and Terry Riley, the Calder wants to stay loose and liberated, its members say. They want to venerate Beethoven while reaching out to new sounds and new audiences: The group has also performed with the Airborne Toxic Event, the indie rock band, on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” and the “Late Show with David Letterman.”
(You can see videos at www.calderquartet.com.)
For Andrew W.K., the answer to “why” goes back to his early piano studies, when he played Bach and Mozart and plowed through exercise books, “an ordeal,” he says, “that paid off endlessly.” Because he discovered “these feelings, these chills. I realized that music could make you feel a certain way, could make you high.”
He is talking by phone from New York, where he and his wife, Cherie Lily, a personal trainer to celebrities, live in a midtown high-rise. And where W.K. owns a popular nightclub, the Santos Party House, where Mick Jagger, Beyonce and Lady Gaga have gotten down on the dance floor.
He continues, “I didn’t like practicing, I really struggled with sight reading, and I broke away.” But he kept searching for the “high” in music — while playing in punk and metal bands in Michigan during high school, then moving at 18 to New York. He worked as a parking lot attendant and a gumball machine salesman, then headed to Florida, where he found the musicians he needed. He opened for Foo Fighters in 1999 and got signed by Island Records.
From the start, lots of observers thought his music was garbage: W.K. was “orchestrating mini-riots for 15-year-old boys and girls,” said the Washington Post.
Was he going for the money or the joy? You decide: Check out his 2001 video of “Party Hard” on YouTube. There he is in his signature get-up: white T-shirt, white jeans, white Air Jordan shoes — and a bloody mouth. (That’s not real blood, by the way. It’s just his insignia.)
Whether you vote for juvenility or genius, one thing is undeniable: the energy. W.K. says the reckless energy in the music, along with the very concept of “partying,” is a route to that “overriding joy.”
Which he says he experienced in New York last year with the Calder. The performance “did seem to be hanging by a thread — like balancing the world on a pin. You don’t quite know what’s going on or what’s happening next, and you can imagine how that’s intensifying things for the audience. And you wonder,” Andrew W.K. says, “if you could apply that to day-to-day life — live your life as an improvisation. I want to get really good at following that feeling.”