Andrew W.K.: The Wolf Howls!

One of my more memorable interviews was with Andrew WK. Sometimes writers get those interviews that are like pulling teeth (Fefe Dobson, your interview was as bad as your music!) where subjects are so despondent that they can’t even handle talking about themselves, which is hilarious because most ‘artists’ love to talk about their accomplishments. Then there are those interviews that only come around once in a great while. The type that pretty much write their own story. The amount of material from these interviews is overwhelming but well worth documenting. Andrew blessed me with one of those interviews I’ve only been able to get from certain people like Gared O’Donnell from Planes, Chad Smith from RCHP and Ian Mackaye. Andrew’s ability to navigate communication mediums such as TV with Your Friend, Andrew WK, a sort of Dear Abbey for todays youth that aired briefly on MTV2, as well as music and spoken word engagements, give Andrew’s message plenty of avenues to be disseminated to all regions of the world. His positive outlook on life and his music are endless and inspiring, and his dedication to his fans is astounding.

In fact, the dedication his fans have to him is even more colossal. The first-ever “Andrew W.K. Fan Convention” was a sweeping success in the city of brotherly love (Philadelphia) and made Andrew realize how important his music is to the people who make it possible for him to continue.

“It is continuous for as long as it is going … and it will keep going always—while I’m alive, and it will keep going as long as you are alive, because that’s what this is made of. THIS IS MADE OF YOU AND ME AND EVERYONE ELSE WHO BELIEVES IN IT, AND EVERYONE ELSE TOO. And we can keep it going, and we can keep it moving and spreading,” says Andrew W.K., in reference to the music and community of which he has become an integral part.

Andrew was born in California and raised in Michigan. He began playing piano at 4 years old and hasn’t stopped since. By the age of 18, he was living in New York City, soaking up the sights and sounds of the Big Apple, writing and recording his own material and playing small venues and coffee houses up and down the Eastern seaboard. As with most artists, the arrival is second mostly to the journey—and how Andrew got to where he is today is best explained in his own words. An eloquent and well-spoken man of 25, Andrew took time out of his busy schedule to speak with themusicedge.com about his origins and his strong belief in music education.

On Music Education
“From what I understand, the topic is something I’m very excited about and believe in. I was talking to my mom about this interview just five minutes ago. We were discussing this very problem and other problems that schools face with their funding and how school boards don’t have the means to get anywhere near the funds they would need to keep the schools in shape, let alone school music. And it’s because people don’t want to pay taxes. People’s priorities on what they should spend money on become very skewed, and at the end of the day, there is no money left to pay taxes to schools for arts programs.

“What’s even more frustrating is that the federal government won’t step in because it’s not important to them either, and what is important to them is never music or art, which, in my opinion, are the most important things. I don’t remember much of what I learned in junior high and elementary, in terms of the actual academics. At that age, it’s a chance for you to find out what you like about life. To not even have that chance to discover something like that is just terrible. I feel people should be ashamed of themselves for being so confused when it comes to funding for what it all can ultimately be good for. School is capable of so much, even if it is to introduce someone to music and have them say, ‘You know what, now I know I don’t ever want to play music.’ At least you’ve learned something.

“There are people out there—geniuses out there—virtuosos probably who never even knew they could create music. Like the great composer/pianist Charles Ives (a more modern composer), who is considered to be one of the greatest of all time. What’s interesting about this guy is, he had been a millionaire through his own means, just an incredibly successful man who had amassed this fortune. Then, in his 50s, he retired and got into music and ended up being this genius, and I don’t think he ever knew it. So think of all the young people who just don’t even know about music and never got into it or never sat down to play an instrument—it just kills me.

“To me, the pursuit of music, the pursuit of writing, the pursuit of painting, anything for the creative mind, is the best thing that humans have that sets them apart from animals. We can create things simply for the enjoyment of doing so, something that no other animal can do. I think it is our saving grace. It’s what keeps us sane. I cannot imagine a world where music doesn’t exist. I probably wouldn’t be able to exist. I talk about it with my friends all the time, that if we had a choice to go deaf or blind we would chose to go blind, simply because at this point we’ve seen enough to have a memory and a database in our brains that we could visualize and apply to any situation and visualize what we are not seeing. But to not hear those tones again or hear that chorus again or feel that drum beat, it would be devastating. I can’t imagine what that would be like. It’s really a fantastic thing to think about. It makes me very excited that I have been able to have had so much music in such a concentrated dose, and I hope it just continues exponentially.”

Those First Few Steps
“I started taking piano lessons right after my family moved to Michigan when I was 5 years old. I was born in California and lived there the first four years of my life; my dad was a professor at UCLA and got an offer from the University of Michigan. I never really asked them why they wanted to move, I think they were just tired of L.A. and wanted to set up a new life in a different climate in a different town with different sensibilities. Ann Arbor has a more Northeastern vibe, and it’s a fantastic place to grow up, in my opinion. Southeast Michigan is a great place to grow up and talk about music! I mean, this town is ridiculous. For the population that the town has, you’d never guess … Providence, Rhode Island, is the only other town I can think of that has a similar concentration of creativity going on. And I was so lucky to be around that. I feel pretty strongly that if I hadn’t grown up in Ann Arbor, I wouldn’t be where I am today or talking to you about music at all.

“So anyway, I took piano lessons at a program that was offered through the University of Michigan Music School, which is a great music school from what I understand. And my experience was fantastic. They had a program called the Pedagogy Program, which the very premise of it is fantastic. It wasn’t until recently that I understood what the program was and why it was so cool. The basic idea was that anyone can teach young people piano, but what they did was they had graduate students—they’re very advanced piano students who chose to pursue music education—[who] could in fact teach kids how to play piano while they were students themselves. There is probably no better way to learn something from someone who is actively involved in it for his or her own passion. The president of the program was an older woman named Mrs. Smith, who, as far as I know, wasn’t a student at that point, but she had the spirit of a young person an over-the-top character.”

There is a pause during this time because someone has rung Andrew’s doorbell. He says, “[This] is very unusual because I live in this bizarre, amazing place, which is more or less an apartment building, but I’m the only one that lives in it. There aren’t any walls in it. I live right in the heart of Manhattan, but at night, I’m pretty much the only one on the entire block. It’s a one-in-a-million find. I can make as much noise as I want.”

Andrew continues, “Anyway, [Mrs. Smith] was very unique. She was very exciting to me. She was kind of the grandmaster of the whole thing, and, for all I know, she was the one who came up with the program in the first place. She was definitely a strong supporter of the program and having people in their 20s passionately teaching piano to kids. There was nothing better or [more] thrilling than having a teacher sit down and play me the piece they were rehearsing for a recital or even going to see the teacher at the recital. I would go and get all dressed up, and it would have a tremendous effect on me. It would be a very intense event. One of the women who had the greatest impact on me was a Japanese-American woman named Tamoko, who was a strikingly beautiful and confident woman and probably had an impact on me as far as what I would think of as attractive. The other woman was a very tall, almost Annie Lennox-looking woman who had this exaggerated style of playing that was amazing to watch.

“For example, if you watch someone like Horowitz, he sort of just sits there looking at his hands like, ‘Oh, I can do this,’ and that is what makes him so fantastic is his ability to be removed from the whole emotion of it while playing. But this woman would lean real close to the keyboard, almost so that her nose was touching and then sway way back so that she was arched up towards the ceiling. I remember several lessons where she brought me to tears out of my own frustration and anger and feeling disgraced and discouraged, because they were intense lessons. It wasn’t just someone being like, ‘Oh, it’s okay Andrew.” She would say, ‘Andrew, why haven’t you done this? Why didn’t you practice this? You should have done this!’”

The Beginning of the ‘Feeling’
“It was my favorite thing and least favorite thing to do at the same time. The first time I remember ‘feeling’ music, Tamoko (after a few years of taking lessons) played some piece she had been working on, but I remember sitting and watching her and having complete physical sensations running through my body. These chills, these Goosebumps, this electricity and butterflies in the stomach, and I thought, ‘Wow, that’s cool,’ and I didn’t really know what to make of it at the time. But then it happened again when I saw her or someone else play or listened to music that was that emotional, and I said, ‘I think that feeling happens to me from listening to music; I think it happens when I hear music that I really like.’

“There were a couple of times where we took school trips to see orchestras play that I noticed I would get that feeling again. At that point, it was definitely more noticeable at live performances. I mean, I would have hints of that feeling from recorded music, but there was something about seeing people play, seeing their efforts and the emotion they put into playing—especially an orchestra, to see a group of people making a concentrated effort to make this music was amazing. It became very clear to me at that early age that this was something I wanted to do. It seemed very important, and, in fact, nothing else seemed as important as pursuing that feeling as much as possible and eventually trying to make something that would make other people feel the same way. To give you a physical reaction like that that is completely uncontrollable by something that isn’t based on a thought or idea. This is before I was ever listening to rock songs that were based on a thought or a lyric or songs with stories or [a song that] had a video to accompany it or had some visual stimuli—it was just tones, it was melody, on the most simple and pure terms, it was just music for the sake of music. With no message, no story and just the thought of, ‘Do you like the way this makes you feel?’ And the answer was, ‘Yes!’ And that’s all I needed from music.

“As the years went by, I would get into rock music and all different kinds of music. The lyrics and the meaning were just an added bonus, and it didn’t really matter to me what they were about or who they were coming from, as long as I liked the melody and the music itself. That has always been the priority of the music I make—not necessarily in a literal way, but quite often a literal way. To make songs about how great music is. In fact … I am always striving to make a song about how great the song that you’re listening to itself is. To sing words about the melody and how it makes you feel. I always write the music first and then try to find words.”

Writing Lyrics
“After writing and playing and recording a song for days and days, if not weeks or months, by the time I need to write words, I have so much inspiration simply due to the melody that I’ve played so much and fallen in love with, and I’ll just sing words about that or things that that melody makes me feel one way or another. Or a lyrical theme that would deserve to be in the presence of such a powerful melody and use it to amplify, picking a very powerful topic and use the two together to make it very powerful. That is when rock music is the most powerful, when you can have a lyric that is very strong on its own and a melody that is very strong on its own, and you put them together where they don’t fight against each other but join up as one to really drive the point home.”

Andrew is the very representation of the music fan that became a famous musician. It is a well-known fact that Andrew stays late after every show to sign every autograph of every person who waits for him. An interesting fact about Andrew is that after moving to New York at the age of 17, he traveled the city, wide-eyed and excited to be living on his own in a giant metropolis, finding inspiration in each thing he encountered and person he met.

At the age of 21, Andrew released his first EP, played several one-man shows (armed only with a CD player, keyboard and microphone) supporting the Foo Fighters and played the Belgian Arts festival. Upon returning to New York, Andrew formed his band that consists of five like-minded, positive individuals; Donald “D.T.” Sardy (drums), Jimmy Coup (guitar), Gregg R (bass), E Payne (guitar) and Sergeant Frank (guitar). That same year, Andrew signed to Island Records!

Though his most basic inspiration came from classical piano, he was a devout fan of metal, especially the band Obituary. Through the randomness and pure luck that has blessed Andrew over the past eight years, a friend of a friend had a contact with the drummer of Obituary. Taking a chance and a page from the book of positive thinking, Andrew sent drummer Donald “D.T.” Tardy of Obituary a letter and a demo with the intent of seeing if the metal mogul would be interested in joining Andrew. Lo and behold, two weeks later, D.T. called Andrew on the phone and said he’d be interested—and from there, the rest is pretty much history.

As always, Andrew’s drive and passion for music can be translated into the way he lives his life. He plans on taking some time to try and go back to school to study more piano.

“Recently I had the pleasure of meeting some music students from Boston’s Berklee School of Music, and it made me think about going back to school. But I’d have to get a private teacher to get my audition up to par. I’ve got a good grasp on the fundamentals, and playing live has helped me improve tremendously. I understand music more and more every day, and it keeps getting more exciting. I just think what I can learn if someone could tell me things and teach me new things. Hanging out with the students at Berklee was so exciting—they could answer every question, and they reveled with me in my enthusiasm for Bach and the way his music works. It’s as great as music gets, as great as any human accomplishments.”

If you have an opportunity to see Andrew W.K. live, please do so—it’s a non-stop party, and he always invites everyone to join in the fun while he’s on stage!

PT II; The Wolf Howls

The first time anyone steps on a stage it can be an exhilarating and altogether horrifying experience at one time. Though Andrew has done his time by touring the world and supporting two full-length records, I Get Wet (2002) and The Wolf (2003), the ease of stepping on a stage hasn’t always been a walk in the park. He still gets nervous before every show – even now.

The First Piano Recital
“We had a yearly recital. There were two big things I would dread every year with these piano lessons because I took them from the time I was 5 until I was fourteen. One was practicing every single day for hours and a group lesson twice a week and a private lesson twice a week. The private lessons would sometimes be at the music school or at the teachers houses. Its funny because most of these teachers lived at the student housing and most of these teachers would jam a piano into their tiny apartment. It was there whole focus, it is very beautiful to think about and I get emotional just thinking about it now.

“Like I said before I recently had the pleasure of meeting with some students from a music school (not a day goes by where I don’t think about going back to school for music) and what was interesting was that I never went to college and I graduated a year early from high school because I worked very hard to get out early so I could be done. After a year of sort of just doing various things in Michigan I moved to New York and visited NYU and I was also accepted into the Chicago Institute of Art but decided not to go there against some better judgement and against my parents better judgement – to not go to school and see what I could do on my own. What I was talking about with this student was how exciting he must be to be going to school there especially for piano and what he said was, ‘its funny that you say that because everything we are working for and learning – you know most of our goals are to do what you are already doing.’ So that was very interesting and I never thought of it that way. Its cool that we both want to do it all. Clearly we were both satisfied and felt very fortunate and lucky, very lucky to be doing what I am doing. I’ve been lucky to have opportunities. No one can make anything happen one way or the other really, I mean I guess it does happen, but that’s not what has happened here, ultimately I’ve been incredibly lucky and have found my way into amazing opportunities and have been afforded the chance to prove myself.

Trying is Succeeding
“Some people will go their entire lives without ever having a chance to prove themselves. Like if they have a dead end job or if they have a life that doesn’t allow them an opportunity or if they don’t have a chance to grow or change or a chance to express themselves or show themselves or let alone the rest of the world that they’re capable of great things or are capable of trying at least. [Not sure how to word the previous, kind of stream of consciousness-y]That’s all I want to do is try. Succeeding is trying. I feel so blessed (in the most basic universal sense of the word) to have opportunities given to me where someone says, ‘okay Andrew you want to do this, try it,’ and not only did I try it but I said, ‘not only am I going to do the best job I possibly can, but I’m going to do it in honor of all those people who don’t get the chance, in honor of all those people who have worked at this ten times longer than I’ve even been alive (well twice as long). To say watch what I can do. And it goes beyond music, ‘To really have a chance to live while you are alive,’ as Bon Jovi and Max Martin wrote in that song “Its My Life.” So I feel I still have enough time to go back to school and do all those things I really want to do.”

The Two Things Most Dreaded
“I want to go back to the recital thing we were talking about earlier, I never finished my thoughts. There were two things I dreaded every year; one was the end of the year recital which took place spring and the other was a state wide music competence test. I can’t remember what it was called – the SCT’s or something like that but it was just dreadful. It was a two day event in Ypsilanti Michigan (which is right next to Ann Arbor) at Eastern Michigan University’s Music School. You would go in and they’d have all these pianos set up in a room and you’d play for strangers – these judges and they were usually these crochetty old women and men and they wouldn’t say anything. They’d just write your scores down on these sheets of paper and say, ‘Thank you,’ and you move on to the next one. You’d go and play scales for someone and do this and that and then you’d take a written test and oh my god the night before I would be laying in bed wishing that it would be canceled. I was so miserable afterwards. Usually I would do pretty awful. The one scale I always had trouble with was b flat minor scale they’d have me play. But I really credit all of those recitals and experiences where I would just practice myself into a frenzy of tears and frustration where I would slam the piano closed and swear to never play again – I must have really terrified my parents. But I refused to stop at that point, it had become like a battle. In the front of my mind I hated it but obviously in the back of my mind I wanted to do it I wanted that feeling of excitement once it was done no matter how badly I had done.

“That is what I got hooked on was the whole rush of the experience. It ended up going and turning into less of a fear and more of an excitement. I strongly strongly credit those early recitals for giving me confidence for performing or being in front of crowds in general. Again, that is what I think is so fantastic about music is that it enriches your life and your personality and your education in ways that are far far beyond music itself.

Playing Live Now
“I still feel a lot of the same ways now when its time to play a concert but I’m so familiar with them that I use them and embrace them. There is a part of me that can’t imagine we have to go play a concert for the 400th time and there is part of me that says, ‘maybe we won’t have to play.’ Every moment of the day is building up with anticipation – not dread – but the strongest anticipation you could have before it becomes dread, and at the same time someone could say, ‘you could cancel it,’ I would never in a million years do that. That’s how I get myself psyched up. The day that I’m not nervous before a concert is the day I know I’ve lost my passion for it. I’m not scared, I’m excited and I’m trying to prepare my mind for the show. Especially this music, its not casual where we just go up there and jam, I envy those types of bands. It would be so amazing to just go up there and stand behind a bass or a keyboard but the thing about this music and what makes it so incredibly amazing and rewarding is the challenge and adversity. I talk about that with the band and everyone is just dead at the end of the show and we really thrive on that. I judge myself by the way I feel at the end of the show. If I don’t collapse at the end of the show then I know I’ve done something wrong and I get frustrated with myself. It all comes from taking each concert on its own as treating it as one opportunity. If I don’t give my all for one then what is the point? Why did I put myself through all that? If you don’t come to go full out why do you come at all? Having that early recital experience and dealing with that kind of intensity and pressure makes this all seem a lot easier.”

The Future
Andrew and the gang are playing several festival dates this summer and are currently planning on a headlining tour in the fall. He is busy working on material for the third installment of his discography, a follow up to 2003’s The Wolf. Keep an eye out for Andrew in the months to come and if you have any questions for the Wolf that weren’t answered here, feel free to write to him at his website, he answers fan mail regularly and always takes the time and special care to make sure his answers are sincere.

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