In the weeks that followed the March 2002 release of I Get Wet, 23-year-old Andrew Wilkes-Krier went from obscurity to omnipresence, becoming a media darling while making high-profile appearances on MTV and Saturday Night Live. A grinning populist with a stash of instantly ingratiating, wildly overdriven dance-metal songs–including the unstoppable single "Party Hard"–W.K. was alternately hailed as the savior of a depressingly dour rock world and dismissed as either a sideshow or an elaborate gag. But he's clearly dead serious about his music and its potential to inspire a world in need of passion and commitment. Shortly after the release of I Get Wet, W.K. spoke to The Onion A.V. Club about faith, strength, energy, the power of music, and the story of his life.
The Onion: What was your childhood like?
Andrew W.K.: Very good. Very solitary. Very fulfilled. In the neighborhood we lived in, there weren't a lot of kids. I started taking piano lessons real young, and I always had projects, so I was really entertained. I was a real serious kid, real intense, and there were a lot of things I was doing by myself that I took seriously, like organizing little pieces of paper, cutting out things from magazines, and filing them away. I'd set up these huge spread-out projects on my floor. I'd cut out those ads in comic books for, like, a million different T-shirts. I'd cut out each one of those designs and line them up. Stuff like that. Really intense, very serious, lots of drawing and planning things and working on things and looking forward to things. I lived in my own world, all the while taking piano lessons. The University Of Michigan had a good music school, and for part of the piano program, the advanced students would also teach. So you've got these enthusiastic piano teachers who were doing it because they enjoyed it. That was how I started music, and that's real important, because music to me wasn't… It wasn't like, "Hey, dude, you should get into music. Check out this tape." It wasn't, "Hey, you should play guitar so you can be in a band." It wasn't seeing something on TV or hearing somebody on the radio. It was based on literally just melody–just music without any other stuff attached to it. I ended up getting a very basic affection for music as it is. That's something that I guess is unusual, not that there's a right or wrong way to get into music. But music wasn't limited to what my friends showed me or thought was cool, or what was on TV; it was all that and more. I could like any song by any band as long as I liked the melody, because there's no right and wrong when it comes to what you like. And I was just so fortunate to have parents who encouraged me to try things and do what I wanted. If you don't like something, you can always change your mind, but at least try. They were very supportive and unconditionally involved, and you can't trade that for anything.
O: You mentioned that you like things regardless of what anyone thinks. It's weird that Rolling Stone did a thing on you as part of its "Cool" issue, because it seems integral to your work that you don't care about being perceived as cool.
AWK: That was interesting. What is cool? I say something's cool if I like it. So is that what's cool? I don't know. Cool is something that you allow yourself to do, and when trying is involved, sometimes it isn't the same. I'm happy to be thought of as cool, but I never was cool. Everyone thought I was this complete moron and complete dork for the majority of my school years. It's interesting, though: I was a loner kid who was very intense and serious and dorky and kind of nerdy and weird, but while I was given a hard time, I was never picked on the way other kids were. It's almost like there was an unspoken kind of respect, of "You know what? We're just gonna let you be, because you're doing your own thing." People didn't bother me. I mean, I did get picked on a lot in junior high, but I just dealt with it. I had my own little world where nothing could hurt me or bother me too much. I always had this place to return to. That's something I still have to this day, and it's just inside me. I guess people can find things like that in food, or in buying things and stuff like that, but if you can find it within yourself, you'll always be okay. So anyway, I was drawing a lot, drawing comic books and other things, all the while always playing piano. I would play piano for hours each day, practicing my scales and other things we were working on. We'd have these recitals at the end of the year, but all the while, I was making up my own songs from very early on. That's real easy to do on piano, because you have so many different sounds you can get out of it. You have that sustain pedal, and you can make it sound like a big, echoey place. I thought that was the coolest thing when I first started playing pianO: I remember banging away on it with that sustain pedal held down the whole time, because it sounded like it was in a huge cave. I ended up getting a digital keyboard, which was so amazing to me–excitement to the point of delirium. I would sit for hours and hours playing stuff. That was when I started recording. It would be real basic songs, and I would sing and make up the words as I went along. In junior high school, with this keyboard, I recorded a whole tape called The Mechanical Eyes. I drew this cover, and my mom and I went and made color Xeroxes. And this one guy who played guitar used to come over, and we'd play together, and we considered it a band, but the idea of playing shows was unheard of. Eventually, we did form a real band with a drummer. That progressed, and when we started high school, we played a few real shows at this amazing place, this Unitarian church basement. It was a whole big thing where all these mind-blowing bands played and really changed my life. Seeing these weird, crazy punk bands that I couldn't even believe existed. I don't really know how they were able to play at these… The shows didn't last long, because there was always a lot of violence, and stuff would get broken, and the police would always come. I never imagined something could be so loud, that there could be screaming like that, and that they could be making this intense noise. I can't even describe how exciting and important it was, and from that moment on, I just became obsessed with these bands around my town. They all quit or got kicked out of school and were living in their own house at 15, 16, or 17 without their parents. Just living, stealing whatever they needed. All their equipment was stolen from other bands. The whole thing was so intense, so violent, so chaotic. I would just hang around on the outskirts hoping they wouldn't yell at me and tell me to leave and make fun of me. Which they did, but I couldn't stop hanging around. There are so many stories. When I was 17 or 18, I had a buddy who lived downstairs in this basement apartment. He had windows right on sidewalk level, and we piled a bunch of speakers into his windows at night. We had a real PA system this time, and we'd turn it up to 10. We'd plug the keyboard in and I'd just tape down as many keys as I could with books and tape. We completely underestimated how loud it was going to be. People from five blocks away were coming out of their houses thinking it was Armageddon. Within minutes, it was surrounded by police cars. It sounded like a gas line was exploding. We ran in the back, and the whole apartment building had crowded around his door, pounding on his door. We ran to his door and said, "Oh, sorry, I don't know what that was," and shut it off, and then split up for half an hour. There were a lot of other things happening at this point. There was a lot of mail fraud, forgery, vandalism, lots of stealing money from jobs, lots of stealing from places, like going into a bookstore, stacking up 20 books, and just walking out. I was basically just doing bad things. I had worked really hard to graduate high school a year early, and I spent that last year making fake gift certificates and putting them in envelopes. I'd forge a cancellation over the stamp to make it look like it came from Los Angeles, and then I would send it to somebody I knew, hoping they would take the gift certificates and try to use them and get arrested. It was really intense and bizarre, very solitary, and not spending a lot of time with friends. I was very angry, and I didn't care what people thought of me. I didn't care if what I was doing was bad or hurting people's feelings. I would feel bad about it just enough to not do something so crazy that I would go to jail, although I got close many times, and some of my friends did go to jail. My parents were very, very concerned. They only know probably about a quarter of the stuff I did. I ended up stopping all this stuff gradually, because all the while, I really, really loved my parents, especially my mom. I didn't love her more, but she really expected things of me. I knew that I had disappointed her already. They had me seeing all these child psychologists, and were very concerned that I was crazy. I ended up stopping because I knew how disappointed she would be if she knew all the money I was stealing, and how the reason I would get fired from a job wasn't because they had too many employees. I didn't care what someone thought of me, only what she thought. That was enough to stop, and now, looking back, it was for myself, too. So I had the good fortune of learning my lesson in the 11th hour rather than in the 13th, so I could still make the right decision when it counted. There is still so much we're leaving out, but we could sum it up as being… The best description would be calculated, intensified chaos and a solitary existence, yet with many amazing people around that I consider my friends. Then I moved to New York, not knowing a single person there. Not knowing what I was going to do, but it felt like the culmination of everything, from the piano lessons to all the hours spent working on mindless things, to all the dangerous stuff, to all the bands, to all the music, to all the wide world of options that were always present. It was culminating into this growing sense that I was going to bear down and start doing something. I didn't know what it was going to be, but there was a sense that I had to start making the most of each day. Like, I don't want to be sitting down for a minute. I used to just walk around the city for hours, just because it was better than sitting at home. But I had very little money. There was a lot of walking 80 blocks to work so I could save a dollar. Cooking everything at home if I could, and stealing money at that point, too. But there was definitely this excitement in the air. There was this sense of, "Wow, what can I do today to make the absolute most of this day?" That continued on, and I was always recording and becoming more focused on making songs and playing piano. I had this broken 3-track that I brought with me from Michigan, and I was getting better and better recording on that. That's when I decided that I was going to put all my energy and time into one thing, just to see what would happen. I didn't have any one plan. I just wanted to have something I could do every day, so I decided to make the most exciting songs I can possibly make, and to do everything I can to serve them and further their existence, which included playing shows, recording songs, making flyers, anything. I saved up all my money and borrowed a bunch of money from my mom to buy a computer that I could record on, and just kept working. I was playing shows, and all I could really do was play keyboard. I could kind of play guitar at that point, but it clearly was not my ideal situation. My ideal situation would have been to be in a band, but I knew I could play a show. I would be frustrated out of my mind, but I'd say, "Don't be a wimp." I used to carry this card in my pocket that had a list of things that I would think of and try to hold in my mind. The first one was "Don't be a fucking wimp." That took care of almost every situation I was in. If I was feeling depressed or whiny or discouraged, I'd pull that card out and say, "Don't be a fucking wimp!" That doesn't mean I'm not allowed to feel sad or have human emotions. But take a look around. Look at how good my life is. Don't be a fucking wimp! Snap out of it! Another one was "Never let down." Again, that's just to never stop trying. Life is too short. "Life is short," that was on there. This might be my one chance to do this, so aren't you going to make the most of it? It's better to regret what you've done than what you haven't. I say "No regrets," period, now. No regrets, no guilt, no embarrassment, no shame. Another one was "You'll only live once," which is tied in with that. And "No fear" was huge. However, I've updated that, because it's impossible to have no fear. You'll always have fear, but it's facing the fear. Someone who has no fear is not nearly as brave as someone who has fears and faces them. I believe everybody has fears, and to deny them is just putting up more walls. So all these things were just getting… The songs are what saw everything through. The shows I played were always like, if you had 50 people at the show, that was fantastic. That was a huge success. It was frustrating, though, because these songs were supposed to be played by a band. That's how I'd always envisioned it. I put ads in the paper to try and meet people, but that didn't work. Whenever I'd play a show, I'd talk to people, and I'd ask people on the street. If they looked cool, I'd say, "Do you play in a band, and would you want to?" That never really worked out. I ended up gradually meeting people who did help, and I'd make tapes and CDs of my songs and pass them out and put my phone number on them and just do everything I could. It eventually paid off with meeting people who helped me put together a band. I'm just so fortunate now to have this amazing band. I couldn't imagine a nicer bunch of people. They're kind, outgoing, hardworking, dedicated, responsible, smart… In every way, they are the perfect band. They're all at a point in their lives where they just want to do something the best they can, and know that the more they put into it, the more they'll get out of it. So I started recording in New York and continued in L.A., Michigan, Minnesota, and Florida. It was a lot of different people and a lot of different places, but all very necessary. There were a lot of engineers, and that's what we needed. The songs were good to go. We just needed all the best equipment and the systems to make them sound like they should sound. It was very work-intensive, to the point where some people didn't really enjoy working that way. It's very tedious, and it involves fine-tuning and stacking, where you're looking at each song under a microscope and every split second is important. There are no coincidences. There's no accident, like, "Oh, wow, that was cool. Let's keep that." Every melody line is composed of like 40 sounds combined. I did not want it to be the sound of a guitar and drums and bass playing. I wanted it to be the sound of the song playing, so you just hear one big, massive instrument grinding out this song. You can imagine it sort of all coming from one enormous source, where you just hear an infinite expanse of a million things all happening in perfect unison, all laid out in front of you. We spent so much time so that you don't hear thousands of hours of work. That takes thousands of hours of work, I believe, to achieve that. It's like a movie: When you're watching a movie, you're not thinking of the millions of dollars and thousands of people and lights and every other thing happening to light that conversation scene in a bedroom. I wanted to make satisfying songs that did exactly what you wanted them to do and did it again and again, and just kept paying off. That didn't punch you in the face, but instead just gave you a big, firm handshake and a hug. Instant gratification. Also, living a solitary kind of existence and having been hassled by people that I didn't feel similar to… It's very interesting, because I know a lot of people who feel left out, so the first chance they get, they want to leave someone else out and perpetuate that feeling. The people who didn't like me or didn't want me around, I always wanted to bring those people in. I wanted to make something that they would want to be part of. I wanted to make something that would make them happy about me and themselves and us. That's one of the most important things here: that nobody is turned away and nobody is left out and nobody is judged based on how they look or what they like or what they don't like or even why they like it. There's no wrong reason to like my music. There's no wrong reason to like anything. This music is freedom. It allows anyone else the freedom to do whatever they want, and it accepts that unconditionally. And it continues to just want to make you happy. All you need to know is, "Do I feel this in my stomach? Is this running through my veins? Does this go up my spine? Does this blow my mind to pieces? Does this affect me?" That is real. That is physical evidence, and you don't need to question it, or even understand. That's why I would never question why someone liked this or why someone's smiling or why someone is happy. It could be for one of a million reasons, some that people think I would think are bad or against me. Life's just way too short for me to qualify and quantify how this can make someone feel. Music, above all, is huge and magnificent and so much bigger than me or any one person. Someone says, "What if someone thinks you're just some kind of stupid joke?" And I say, "I don't care. I want to make them happy. If that makes them happy, if that's what puts a smile on their face, so be it." It's for everybody, for every reason. It's easy to get closed in. Somehow, for some reason, it's gotten cool to not have passion about something. It's gotten cool to be distant and detached from things, to have a seen-it-all, done-it-all, been-there-done-that attitude about things. No wonder people are tentative about believing in something: First, they're wondering if it's going to let them down, and second, they wonder what people are going to think of them. Which I only can attribute to the amount of information that's available and the things that are expected of people, and the way people are judged based on what they decide. It's just human nature, but being passionate takes courage, and the more you believe in something, the less possibility it has of letting you down. The more you believe in it, the more it becomes your own. I just hope people have the strength to still give things a chance, and to say, "You know what? This isn't too good to be true. Maybe I haven't seen everything." It's easy to be overloaded sometimes, but I hope that we can look up to things in awe and not have to have everything at our feet. I hope that we can be amazed and excited and inspired by something without having to have everything figured out and put in our pocket. There's no one setting any limits on what you can enjoy, how you can enjoy it, why you should enjoy it, or what you should do except yourself. I look at what I have here as a miracle–that we're alive in the first place–and thank God for every breath I take, whoever He is or whatever it is. I'm doing this on behalf of everybody, on behalf of the thousands and thousands of people who've directly affected my life, on behalf of the millions that don't get a chance to do this, that don't have these things that I enjoy, that have to work just to get food. Even the saddest day is a miracle for me. When you have food, when you have a place to sleep, when you have friends and family and general health and safety, you have no right to complain. You're living life, and at that point it's up to you what you're going to do with it. Never concede this life, you know what I mean? I'm going to make all that I can of it for everyone else. This is not a return to the good old days. This is not a reaction to things that are bad now. It's not, "Things suck and we need to make them good again." This is forging ahead into uncharted territory. This is about working hard and inviting everybody into an unending, inexhaustible source of strength and energy. There's no rules, no limits, no, "Oh, you're giving too much of yourself away. You've got to take it easy." No! I'm doing fine! If we could make one person happy that day and I knew I could, why would I not do that? One guy in Europe asked me this question, and it was a really good question: "If you could change one thing in the whole world, what would it be?" And immediately, the first thing I thought of was to preserve all the forests and all the animals and all that. But then, that would cause a whole slew of problems. Imagine how that could backfire. Well, okay, at least I could wipe out poverty and hunger and disease. Well, again, you'd have huge population problems and more money problems created because of that. These huge ideas were just creating other huge challenges. All of a sudden, I just thought, "Well, you know what? If I could make a difference, or mean something, or change for the better the life of one person, especially a young person, even if it was just to make their day better… That is completely within my reach." It's within the reach of everybody to do something on a daily basis that helps anybody. Which makes somebody smile instead of frown. Which makes somebody feel better rather than worse. You know when you really like something, and you know that that thing you really love loves itself and loves you? It's a total bummer when you love something and go up to the person who's working on it, and you say, "God! This is so great! I love this so much!" And they're like, "Eh. Thanks, but it's no big deal." When someone comes up and tells me that they love the music, I yell, "Me, too!" And we just hug. It's that feeling that the people playing those songs are loving them just as much as you are while you're dancing, and that you could be up on that stage and playing those songs just as well. That is the point. The uncharted territory is that there is no line to be crossed. You don't have to hold back. This is our time. We have not lived and died yet. It has not all been done. It has not all been seen. I'm not religious. I never have been. My parents aren't, but we're not anti-religious, either. We were always just brought up with a very open understanding of who we were in a bigger picture. There was never any need to create a sense of guilt or shame. Oh, God. There's the other thing: No guilt! The idea of a guilty pleasure? That's as mixed-up to me as calling somebody a poseur. "You don't like this for the right reasons like I do." How awful. And the idea of, "I'm so ashamed for what I like." If you feel bad about liking something, then you don't really like it. Anyway, religion just puts up a bunch of walls that I don't need, but I have so much respect and admiration for those who have true passion and belief and dedication to having faith in something bigger than them, and look at it for inspiration. I have nothing against it, but at the same time, I think there's something to be wary of–for me, just in my opinion.
O: Who else do you like in music today?
AWK: I like tons of stuff, really. Lots and lots of songs, because above all I like melody and rhythm. If it has that, especially if there's some sincerity and honest hard work and genuine passion put into it, I'm there. I love it. I just look at it as freedom: I have the freedom to like so many things and be excited about so many different things on all sides. A great song is that friend that will be there in the morning. You put it on first thing and it sets the day straight, it organizes things in your head, it makes you happy, it's comforting. And then you get home at night and it's there to put you to sleep. It's right there smiling and waiting for you. The minute you turn your back on it and don't want to listen to it, it's still there waiting for you. The minute you come back to it, it's there with open arms, never in judgment. And that's what this is, and that's what I am, and that's what we're doing. We will always be there. I will never let people down. I promise I will always do what I can. Have the faith to believe in this, and I will, too. In a world of confusion and pessimism, we can maintain some sort of clarity and truth.