AUSTIN, Texas — “I didn’t want Andrew W.K. to be just about music. That was never the point. The point was for Andrew W.K. to be more about a feeling.”
Andrew W.K. seemed to be feeling pretty good about himself as he made that grand statement in the hotel room he would call home for four days in March. He was in Austin to play six shows — including his first full-band rock gigs in five years — launching a would-be comeback during the South by Southwest Music Conference.
Wearing his trademark white jeans, white T-shirt and long, greasy hair, the hyperactive and verbose but disarmingly polite and well-spoken singer/producer/TV host said his SXSW stint was a “reintroduction to rock” that includes his summer co-headlining dates on the Warped Tour.
“It’s been a long time coming, but it feels like the right time,” he said.
Perhaps you don’t remember Mr. W.K. (Andrew Wilkes-Krier, age 31). If not, then you must not be one of the college students who’ve attended his motivational speaking lectures in droves in recent years. And you must not pay attention to music in movies and TV, since his brand of anthemic, chest-beating pop-metal has appeared in movies such as “Old School,” a dozen-plus video games, and commercials for Target, Coors, Hotwire.com and scores more.
And you especially must not be one of the 6- to 11-year-old boys who have rated his so-stupid-it’s-brilliant Cartoon Network TV show, “Destroy Build Destroy,” their demographic’s No. 1 show in its time slot. The show pits two teams of youths against each other to: 1) blow up vehicles, 2) rebuild other vehicles out of the rubble, 3) then blow it all up again. Watch out, PBS.
Even those who remember Andrew might have forgotten that he came to the Twin Cities to record some of his breakthrough 2001 album for Island/Def Jam, “I Get Wet,” enlisting help from local producer John Fields and guitarist Jimmy Coup. The exuberant record and its all-or-nothing singles “Party Hard,” “She Is Beautiful” and “Ready to Die” earned a polarized reception, from a four-star review in Rolling Stone to a miserly .06 out of 10 rating at Pitchforkmedia.com (Pitchfork came around and ranked “Wet” among the best albums of the decade).
“It was an intense time (2001-2002) and an intense record, and Minneapolis is a big part of the fond memories I have of all that,” Andrew said.
After touring heavily through 2004 behind his second album, “The Wolf,” the Michigan-bred madman’s rock career hit the skids — partly because of his own ambitions to explore other projects, and partly due to a weird and even fantastical legal battle involving the singer, Island/Def Jam and a mysterious Svengali entity named Steev Mike, who legend has it invented everything about Andrew W.K. The dispute stalled the U.S. release of Andrew’s third album, “Close Calls With Brick Walls,” which finally came out in March paired with an outtakes CD, “Mother of Mankind.”
SXSW crowds — some of rock’s most cynical audiences — reacted with surprising rapture to Andrew’s live shows. They featured a backup singer in Jane Fonda-like aerobics mode, nonstop stage dives and air kicks from Andrew, plus zealous banter such as, “If we’re going to die tomorrow, what we do tonight really counts!” Love him or hate him, it was good to have him back.
Whatever the real story behind his hiatus from rock, you can’t help but be intrigued by what all he did in that time. Other projects included stints as a solo piano man (he’s classically trained), hosting duties for MTV and DirecTV, and opening his own nightclub, Santos Party House, a punky lounge near Chinatown in Manhattan.
Here’s what he had to say about all that, and more.
—Diversifying in general
“It wasn’t about scaling back the rock shows, it was just about not wanting to tour full time. It’s good to get out there, but it’s easy to get caught up in it so that’s all that you do: Record an album, tour, record, tour. I wanted to enlist different methods of entertainment to get across that feeling that is Andrew W.K., different projects that would tie in with my experiences touring, such as opening a nightclub with my friends. There’s no way I could’ve done that if I was touring all the time.
“The beautiful part to me is I don’t have to give anything up now. I can do this, and then try that, and then go back to this.”
—Becoming a motivational speaker
“I never said, ‘OK, now I want to give self-help lectures.’ NYU came to me in 2005 — right when I stopped touring — and asked me to do a lecture. I figured it’d be just me talking about the music business in a small classroom. They said, ‘No, we want you to just talk about whatever you want.’
“They ended up moving the lecture to a 900-person auditorium, and it was packed. We ended up having a four-hour discussion. I say ‘we’ because it really was a conversation, but it stayed focused on this idea of generating excitement. The audience members I talked with afterward, we all seemed to walk away from it with this same energy and sense of possibility. So I did more after that. It was very similar to how I feel after a concert.”
—Hosting “Destroy Build Destroy” on TV
“I love the atmosphere of television. When we first started making music videos and playing on TV shows, I loved seeing all the production, all the trucks and lights and people, all there to make a very disposable thing — images on a screen that disappear.
“On top of that, I got this crazy rush out of doing this show that is really absurd by design. I mean, it’s teenagers and explosives. That’s really what it is (laughs). I love that atmosphere. And I love the age of the target audience, 9-, 10-, 11-year-olds, because it’s like they’re not yet young adults and they still have that sense of wonder of kids. There’s a level of enthusiasm and curiosity of life that goes away when they get closer to being teenagers.”
—Explaining Steev Mike
“It’s not one person. It’s a group of people I worked with from the very beginning. They were like consultants, and they preferred to remain behind the scenes. Agreements were made that I would agree to be in the spotlight and they would not, and we all agreed to keep certain things private. Very literally, there were confidentiality agreements. I and everybody I work with thought it would never come up or become a source of conflict. Now, I understand that when you don’t talk openly about certain things, they can become more of an issue. If you keep secrets, it leads to confusion. There is a lot I’ve agreed not to talk about with that, but I will say that there has been lot of exaggeration in this whole thing.”
“We did the whole tour in 2003. The year before, we did Ozzfest, which was also fun but not like Warped. The longer I’m in this business, the more I appreciate the Warped Tour and what an accomplishment it is, to last as long as it has lasted (16 years) and present so many amazing bands in one day. It’s total madness, which I like.”