After a nine-year break from releasing proper albums under his stage name, for reasons we won’t get into here, rock singer and performer Andrew W.K. kicked off 2018 with the announcement of a new LP You’re Not Alone. Released early last month, the record is a celebration of his personal quest to uplift and inspire listeners with the drama and intensity of his music and of course, through partying. mxdwn had the opportunity to speak with Andrew W.K. about his long journey as a musician, the mystical powers of destiny and what it meant to be named the American Association of Suicidology’s Person of the Year.
mxdwn: It’s been an eventful nine years since your last album, what kind of personal changes did you go through that contributed to You’re Not Alone?
Andrew W.K.: That’s a great question, I have to think about that. I suppose more than anything I now have a deeper conviction than ever before to use this chance I’ve been given to conjure up as much excitement and hopeful optimism that I can through music and my work as an entertainer and performer. I suppose I wasn’t always consciously aware of it but over the last nine or 10 years there were moments I grew very doubtful and very confused, very frustrated; not even just about my work but about life in general. It was only through losing contact with my sense of purpose that I was able to come back to it and ‘take the oath’ once again.
You know, I never officially quit and I didn’t even really take a break by any conscious methods. I’ve been active all those years, still playing shows and recording music but I definitely had lost immediate contact. I didn’t lose sight entirely of the vision but the vision had become so obscured with confusion, chaos and doubt that almost all of it became confused. I had to claw my way back into myself essentially and renew my vows to the party gods.
The great thing is that it’s only once you see the other side, the other possibilities, that you truly fathom an experience. You see the depth of your own depravity and what you’re truly capable of when you turn yourself over to your worst instincts, your worst abilities. It’s only now that I’m able to appreciate and devote myself that much more, even more than I ever have and I feel more focused and powerful. In many ways, more confused than ever but in the areas where I’m not confused, the clarity there is so astoundingly sharp that it helps limit the damage that can come from all the other areas of confusion. I may be uncertain about a lot in life but the things I am certain about, I’m 100% certain about. And I never felt that entirely before.
Photo Credit: Mauricio Alvarado
mxdwn: Back in February the American Association of Suicidology named you their “Person of the Year.” Was that a validating experience for you?
AWK: I was very surprised, very stunned because it’s such a professional organization. It’s not a music or entertainment organization, it’s real medical professionals – people who’ve devoted themselves to very scholarly study in this very intense psychological field. It didn’t so much validate my efforts, it validated the efforts of everyone who turns to music for the type of reliable uplift it provides. And it really showed me that it does count and it is all worthwhile effort. I mean it always felt like that but there are a lot of things any person can do in life, a lot of avenues we can go down, there’s a lot of professions we can choose and you want to feel like you’re doing the best thing you could possibly offer the world and yourself. So that was very encouraging and reassuring to say ‘Hey, here’s some people that aren’t musicians but they recognize that it’s not all in vain or wasted energy and that it can contribute to the goodness of the human spirit.’
mxdwn: A lot of what you do focuses on using positive energy to combat things that people deal with relating to mental health, do you consider that your mission as an artist?
AWK: No. That’s just one of the magical side effects of music, you know? And if someone does use that as a tool specifically, that’s fantastic. The more tools a person has for staying on target the better. I’ve never been able to combat a fight against my own weaknesses, I’ve just had to accept them. For me, just having a quest, that was the way I was able to not let the aspects of my personality deceit me or destroy me. I had to have some kind of mission that was bigger than just myself or my own interests, a sense of purpose, a calling. Even if someone else thinks it’s stupid, I understand but I just have to tell myself that. It has to be that dramatic for me, it makes me feel like there’s this incredible adventure waiting for me, counting on me to go out and rise up to the occasion, rise to the challenge and give my best. Otherwise, I won’t have the motivation and I’d succumb to all these flaws within me. So I don’t necessarily use music as a way, it’s just what I feel like it’s what I’m meant to do and when you feel like that it puts everything into perspective.
Photo Credit: Raymond Flotat
mxdwn: You describe your songwriting process as more sporadic and impulsive than other musicians. Do you consider music your main emotional outlet?
AWK: Nothing really works like music does to access a certain place of feeling. You can get there other ways but nothing gets there with the particular ethereal quality music has. There’s a mystical, mysterious elegance to music that is really incredible. When another experience in life takes you to that place of pure joy, it’s almost like an expression of what music does without any effort. Music is very unique in that regard. Most people I know who write music, it’s rare that someone applies one method that works every time. It’s really about creating those conditions in yourself and your work environment to induce inspiration. It’s about following the inspiration and striking while the iron is hot, following through when that idea comes to you. It’s true there are some very disciplined people who can sit down and wheel the music out of themselves from thin air, but even those people withhold to admit that they often get the best results when they least expect it and there’s nothing they can really do to command it to come. That’s always been mankind’s greatest desire is to command reality to bend to its will. There’s some cooperation we can have with nature and it can sometimes perform the way we want. But we’re much better suited to aligning our ambitious to nature’s laws and serving it. When music wants to come it will come, you just have to be patient.”
mxdwn: You said “Total Freedom” came to you in a nightmare, what was it like trying to make that song a reality?
A: There was a lot of doubt involved. There always tends to be, but that one, I had many dreams about songs before but they were never very good or I would forget them. This was the only time it was so coherent, so vivid, so lucid. I had a lot doubts like, is it any good? Is it worth doing? It was difficult because it didn’t come through the same process I’m familiar with, the song was just suddenly there. But I tried to just ignore all my doubts and hesitations and at least record it enough so it could be complete and then I could analyze it later.
I still don’t know how I feel about it, I don’t know how I feel about most things, but sometimes it’s more important just to do them and it doesn’t matter so much what I think. That’s part of the intuition, my mind will always be over-analyzing everything I’m engaged in, to the point where it’ll analyze it right out of existence. I have to be able to withstand that hyper-mental process and focus as much as I can on the emotional intuition that really drives and guides it and trust in that. Even if every part of me is saying “I don’t know,” there’s a deeper feeling that I should just do this work no matter what. But it can be very painful and not enjoyable at times.
Photo Credit: Marisa Rose Ficara
mxdwn: One of our favorites from the album is “The Devil’s On Your Side,” what inspired those lyrics?
AWK: Well, I suppose maybe going back to the first question, in those moments of real darkness and shadow where I had really turned myself over to that side of life, coming out of that spot you realize you’re better off for having gone through it. It helps to say that, to not feel completely shattered and guilty over all the bad things you’ve done or the bad experiences you’ve had. You’re trying to find value and meaning even in the worst parts of life. Even if that’s just being exceptionally optimistic or charitable about interpreting bad experiences, there does seem to be something to this idea of “the school of hard knocks.” It’s important to see as much of the spectrum of life as possible, even if you have to deliberately go there. Life’s gonna be intense and brutal for everyone, some more than others, naturally. For those that don’t encounter that side naturally, sometimes they have to go about it unnaturally. And in those moments, it’s only through the lesser things that you can appreciate the greater things. Even enemies or adversaries are really there to challenge us and to educate us, to introduce us to a broader spectrum of experience that we then benefit from. So I suppose I was just looking at that idea that the dark isn’t necessarily bad and there is value to it.
mxdwn: Your style is unique in that it ranges a lot, from punk to pop to glam. Who, if anyone, do you fall back on for musical inspiration?
AWK: Well most of the time I prefer to keep all of that private, it’s distracting for the listener. The things that people hear in my music are usually very different from what I would think it sounds like or how I would admire it as a music listener. Often times I find my personal taste in music has almost nothing to do with the music I make and the way it ends up sounding. I’ve realized for me, for this music, it’s best for it to be left up to the imagination of the listener. I don’t really want to steer them in any one direction. What you might hear in it, that can be for you and it might not be how I would describe it. But I don’t want to take that away from them because it’s so precious for someone to find anything they connect with in my words and that’s all I really want.
It can be very easy to be greedy and say ‘Well I want someone to like it for this reason; I want them to hear it like this; I want their minds to consider these things.’ But I don’t have that right and that’s why I try to limit my influence. Even though I have tremendous respect for so many musicians and could talk about them all day, it seems to me, for this particular feeling I’m trying to get across, anything I can do to not obscure the feeling itself, I don’t wanna be the voice that defines it.
Even talking about the songs, to an extent, gives it context. I noticed it too because I’ll talk about the bands that I’ve really been listening to and people are like, ‘your music doesn’t sound anything like that!’ and they get kind of insulted as though I think it does. I’m well aware that it doesn’t sound like, I don’t know, Obituary or Napalm Death – those are the bands I was listening to yesterday. But that’s just because, why would I even bother trying to sound like them when it’s already been done so well, you know? I’m trying to carve out this particular feeling using what I feel I have to offer. Really driven by keyboards, orchestral arrangements, piano, layers of vocals, very intense guitars and drumming. All those things have a purpose to try to unleash a certain type of intense emotional feeling that’s really stirring. And if it didn’t work I would use some other means to get there but for now, it’s been working.
Photo Credit: Pamela Lin
mxdwn: You mentioned using lots of different instruments and layers on this album, what was the recording process like?
A: Very solitary for the most part. I’d say 93% of the recording is just me putting on one instrument at a time, starting with the piano and playing with a click track (I work very hard on trying to get the exact tempo that works for the song, that can take awhile actually). The piano comes and then drums and the first layers guitar and bass, then more keyboards. I do the vocals usually towards the end. It’s a very tedious process, it’s not a lot of socializing or camaraderie, which I’ve really longed for at times. There was a portion during the mixing process that I did try to record with my band and we did get some great material from that session but I’m not able to always work in that environment. For some reason I have to be alone, that’s how it’s always been, how all the albums were made. Usually, it’s just me or me and one other person running the equipment and I just accepted that that was the process. Some of the material on the album I’ve been working on recording since 2005. Finally, all these pieces came together all around it.
mxdwn: So do you like recording, or is it just part of the work for you?
AWK: Everything is part of the work, all of it is equally enjoyable and equally painful. But if I’m being honest with myself, even in the depths of the most painful and frustrating parts of this kind of work, I can tell that I’m meant to do it, so it goes past enjoyment. There’s some meaning to it that transcends ‘Is this fun?’ and becomes a sense of purpose. And that’s about as good as life can get.
Photo Credit: Raymond Flotat
mxdwn: In the title track you say “make your dreams your destiny.” How do those lyrics relate to you and where you are in your career right now?
AWK: Well I can’t tell what’s to come but I can tell I haven’t made it yet. There’s a pinnacle feeling, a very distant peak that I can see on the horizon that it’s all aiming for and I’m getting closer. And I may not get there in this lifetime, but I’m certainly gonna try. Maybe I’m not even meant to get there because that’s what keeps me going. And as far as “make your dreams your destiny,” many of us, including myself, were taught that there is a certain way to structure your life. You’re supposed to come up with these goals and ambitions that become your dreams and you work towards. But really, destiny makes you. And if you can align your dreams with what you’re meant to do, if you can make what you’re born to do the same thing as what you love to do, then you’ve got it made. Every creation has a place and a purpose, like spokes in a wheel and there’s nothing more noble than following through on a contribution you were designed to make. I never wanted to be a rock singer or frontman or entertainer or anything like that, I wasn’t interested in that for most of my life. It just dawned on me that this is what was going to happen. And I can either fight it or I can try to embrace it and I’ve been trying to embrace it to this day. I’m still learning how to better serve that and let destiny take me where it wants me to go.
Photo Credit: Raymond Flotat