Party Perspectives With Andrew WK

Andrew WK and I – 2015

It took my eyes a few minutes to adjust from the dim bar lights to the bright late afternoon sun. Eyes are weird like that. Even though I had spent a chunk of the afternoon watching AAA baseball, 30 minutes slugging down three Hamm’s in a dimly lit tavern can wreck everything.

It was tough to see and to get my bearings. I was blinded, I was kinda drunk and I was a little nervous. It was especially tough for me because I was trying to take this call. I’m not much of an interviewer. Never have been. It’s never been my desire. In the back of my head, I always worried it would be the Chris Farley Show. Also, my forte has always been talking about myself, so trying to have a conversation with someone I revered and respected and then trying to corral their POV seemed like a task I was not equipt to deal with.

But this was Andrew WK.

I have turned down a surprising number of interview requests in my time as a blogger and even my time lately as just a guy with a domain name and email address. When the offer came up, I knew that I had to take it. Not because I felt like I had a unique insight to his life and his career, but mainly because I knew I’d regret not taking fifteen minutes to talk to a hero of mine.

In my head, it was going to go one of two ways: I’d either get my shit together and charm him or I’d figuratively shit my pants. Maybe literally. Hamm’s doesn’t play.

My phone rang an unavailable number and I excused myself and ran outside. I paused to answer as a semi truck thundered by and cursed myself for not finding a quieter place, but this felt more appropriate to my style. I wanted it to be two old friends hanging out, talking about music and life.

Except it wasn’t just an old friend.

It was Andrew WK.

***

Let’s go back nearly two decades. I was 21 and in Toronto for Wrestlemania 18 in 2003. Rock vs Hogan. Live and in person.

While we wandered the city the nights before the big event, there were bus ads and billboards with a man with dead eyes and a bloody face. Andrew WK’s debut album I Get Wet was plastered all over town. It seemed like such a Canadian thing. Some rando with a bloody face that I’d never heard of was going to make waves in this country like the Tragically Hip, or something.

Saturday night, our bellies full of Hard Rock Cafe (touristy, I know, but it was in the same building where Bob Dylan met The Band), whisky, Molson and, eventually, cheap chain pizza, my friends and I stumbled back to our hotel right next door to Maple Leaf Gardens. We flipped on the TV as we tried to keep our insides in and our head on a pillow in case we passed out. There on the Canadian music channel was the video for “Party Hard”.

It was this swirl of guitars, piano, strobes, slam dancing, white jeans and a t-shirt, screams, chants, thumps, bumps, blood and joy. I was mesmerized. I woke the next day a little hungover (21-year olds are indestructible) and wondered if it was all a drunken fever dream. When I got back to Iowa, I bought the album and played it all the time. The simple but cheeky lyrics, the thunder, the piano, the harmonies, “Ready to Die”, “She is Beautiful”, “I Love NYC”, each track was a beautiful world of escapism where nothing else mattered but the party. No laws, no rules, just jubilation. I found myself happily shouting lyrics that wouldn’t be far removed from The Purge movies, like some sort of deranged maniac or brainwashed cult member. Nothing sounded like that album and, most importantly, nothing felt like that album.

Like a lot of artists of that era, though, I fell off. I didn’t buy The Wolf. I was unfamiliar with the controversies and the issues that followed until fairly recently. But Andrew WK remained this sort of sherpa in my life, popping up to guide and uplift. He’d show up on Jackass or Aqua Teen Hunger Force. He’d host a show on Animal Planet with cute critters or he’d pop up on MTV2 being delightful. He was always there when needed; a bright shining light in stained white pants.

It helped that my wife loved him, too. He was this thing we shared. He was this connection we would always have that others just didn’t understand. We spent a beautiful night together for the I Get Wet 10th Anniversary tour in Minneapolis. Just weeks after our son was born, we crammed into a tiny club in Des Moines to see just he, a keyboard and a dancing partner we dubbed Meatwad because he danced just like the meatball detective (they were detectives, right?). We laughed and texted each other when he’d appear randomly about various forms of media like he was a beautiful, big bicep-ed Beetlejuice whose name had been said a third time.

My wife and I both have our stressors. We both battle mental illness and we both are anxious and worried a lot of the time. But here’s a guy telling you life doesn’t have to feel this way and then showing you it doesn’t have to feel this way. Forcing you, gently but with reassurance and support, to just let go and we’d listen. He was an avatar of a more carefree way of life and an embodiment of the actual joy she and I have around each other when we’re just allowed to be.

It’s been harder and harder to just be.

***

My first question for Andrew I thought would be an easy one. I asked him since it had been so long between albums, have these songs been building up or was it more like once you knew you were making this album did you then start the writing process? Are there older songs that don’t fit in to your current mindset that you’d changed or adapted?

Only, I didn’t ask that, exactly. What I asked was, “So, it’s been a long time between albums, what made you want to put one out now?” Brevity was my goal, but the reality was it was a big ol’ fart noise and I knew it the second it left my lips.

“I mean, it wasn’t like we wanted to wait twelve years between albums, it kinda wasn’t my choice. I would’ve loved to have released it sooner than twelve years.” I stammered a bit trying to save it but just couldn’t get the words right, so it just came out as a monosyllabic string of consonants.

To his credit, Andrew was polite and answered appropriately but my ears were hot with embarrassment from fucking up the very first question.

I took a deep breath. A school bus roared by while he was trying to answer which again forced me into being more apologetic.

I had blown it immediately, but it was fine. I kept telling myself it was fine. Even while he spoke, I just repeated that it was fine. I was fine. It was fine.

***

The thing about Closet Witch, who opened Andrew WK’s show at Wooly’s, is that they are undeniable. I would say their style of death metal is not something that the masses really appreciate (quick aside: not a metal guy. I’m sure some of you who are reading this and who are familiar with Closet Witch are silently cursing me for blowing their proper sub-genre. I am using death metal as a stand-in for my own ignorance. Please forgive me.)

However, they’re just so…gorgeously loud. It’s a beautiful thunderclap of screams and passion and destruction. Like how a building implosion can be really artistic and poetic.

The entire band deserves kudos, but lead singer Mollie Piatetsky’s charisma and presence is what makes this band something more than just screams and beautiful noise. She moves with passion and ferocity, but also grace and elegance. Her dance interludes, where she sways gently to the grinding guitars in between guttural release, literally remind me to breathe again before shocking myself back into maniacal happiness and euphoric rage.

They were an excellent choice for an opener and I’m glad for all of their success.

I caught, like, seven total words.

***

At one point during our talk, I mentioned to Andrew WK that I first discovered his music at Wrestlemania and really analyzing it, both Andrew WK and professional wrestling have a lot in common. They’re both physical and sweaty. Both theatrical and loud. But there’s deeper meaning.

At their core, they’re about good versus evil. The good guys in professional wrestling aren’t always perfect, but the best good guys always try to do what’s right. They attack evil, they lift up, they inspire.

That is the crux of Andrew WK’s art. Every note played and every key struck is with the intention of fighting the evil that dwells within. Even if just for a moment. That’s what wrestling does; it gives you moments where you can see yourself in these larger than life characters.

The other way that wrestling and Andrew WK intersect is that they seemingly don’t get to be anything other than how they’re publicly portrayed. The Undertaker is The Undertaker all the time. He goes to a restaurant, he’s The Undertaker. He goes on TV, he’s The Undertaker. He calls some loser with a blog who’s inexplicably at a bar at 3 pm on a Tuesday, he’s The Undertaker. He rarely gets to be some dude named Mark.

I wondered if it was that way for Andrew WK. As we spoke further, it was clear there was more to being “Andrew WK” and being Andrew WK.

***

The group behind me made up a solid chunk of my crew for the night. The guy in the bandana and the guy in the hat were in their mid-forties. Bandana had waist length dreadlocks and had the confidence of a mid forties white dude with waist length dreadlocks. Hat was a little more subdued, but kept up. He was a conversationalist and a thinker. Bandana was promoter and an entertainer. Despite their different personalities, you could see why they’d be friends. There was also one more guy with them who looked like he could be Andrew WK’s stunt double. He was tall and younger than the other two and also had a bit of a shy streak.

The guy in gray was wearing a shirt that said “Wisconsin Law”. He was a nice dude who seemed to be too clean cut to be in an eventual mosh pit. The blonde was probably too attractive for any of us, but was really friendly. She was the type that didn’t demand attention but attention had a way of finding her. She was also the main reason Wisconsin Law was so close to the stage. Girls that pretty do what they want sometimes, and often there’s a nice, simple dude just trying to keep up.

I go to most shows by myself now. I used to do stuff like this with my wife, but not much anymore. It’s tough and it’s expensive to find a sitter plus suddenly you’re paying for drinks for two, two tickets, two dinners.

Money dominates our lives anymore, or rather the lack of it. What used to be filled with inside jokes and discussions of music and shows are now filled with what needs to be paid and how we’re going to pay for it. It’s filled with being parents. It’s filled with attempted jokes that don’t land like they used to. It’s filled with tense silence. No fights, no arguments. Just tension.

I was at the Andrew WK show because I loved him and his music, but I was also there to feel things again. I wanted to be in the pit smashing into complete strangers while I screamed the lyrics to songs that have kept me afloat for nearly two decades and new songs that when I first heard them made me feel like Will Hunting being told “It’s not your fault.”

I wanted the rush of being in a tangle of bliss. I wanted to share a moment with a group of complete strangers who had at least one thing in common with each other: the party.

That’s what an Andrew WK show brings. It’s 90 minutes of sweat and dancing and singing and smashing. But it’s also 90 minutes of camaraderie, of family. Of being with people and around people. Feeling their sweat and their body heat; their literal energy. You share glances and smiles and hugs. You shove people, because they need that, and sometimes they fall down, but you always pick them up when it happens.

***

The sun ducked behind some brief cloud cover which helped my eyes stop stinging. An old man in a Cubs jersey unbuttoned halfway down his chest stepped out to have a smoke. Traffic had slowed down enough that I could hear the conversations of people walking by. We had a momentary lull in our conversation while I got my bearings a bit and Andrew caught his breath. He knew how to fill dead air which was dope because I was bad at questions.

I took a deep breath and asked, “How are you always so positive and motivational? How do you keep you spirits so high all of the time?” It wasn’t just a question that I wanted to ask to get a good story, though. I was truly baffled. I don’t know how in the face of, I dunno, life, he could maintain his ability to be on a higher plane. A party plane. A place full of joy and happiness.

“Seriously, though, how are you always so positive?” I reiterated. And then Andrew WK said something to me that I should’ve expected. It was the simplest and easiest answer and yet, I was blindsided.

“I’m not,” he said matter of factly. There was a brief beat and he continued, “I mean I’d like to think I’m a positive person but it’s just not possible all of the time. That’s just life, you know? Bad things can and do happen and I don’t always handle them the way I should.”

It was amazing to me. I looked at Andrew WK and I saw someone above me. More enlightened, more understanding. The truth is, he was merely a person. A human. Trying to figure out how to get through life. He gets into this a bit with the spoken word track “The Feeling of Being Alive” on his newest album, but the tone on the call was different. It felt less like a motivational speech on his album and more like a real person talking about real feelings and real thoughts.

“I just know,” he continued, “that bad times don’t always last. In fact, some of the worst moments I’ve had on the road, things that felt like the end of the world at the time, have turned into some of mine and my bandmates best stories. I know that good times will come again.”

***

This is Amanda Lepre. She is one of the three guitarists in Andrew WK’s band. She’s also a really gifted singer-songwriter on her own, but man can she shred. She plays big notes, with a big heart and a big smile and big hair to match it all. She was as mesmerizing to me on stage as Andrew. Just her movements and facial expressions, but mainly just an infectious joy.

This is Dave Pino. Dave is another guitar player in the band. He has a little different style to him. He comes across a little more stoic. A little more stable. He is also super nice. While I hung out with my new friends outside after the show, the band unloaded past us. Everyone was very nice, but Dave actually ducked into the bus and told us to wait so he could hang out. Brought us all personalized guitar picks and even took a moment to work on his craft project (he’s really into handmade puppets) and show it off a bit while chatting with us.

There were the three guys from my group (Wisconsin Law and his lady friend had bailed by then) and a couple of guys waiting to get their albums signed by a very slow moving Andrew WK. Dave didn’t have to hang out with us, but he did it anyway.

Anyway, Dave and Amanda play to Andrew’s right. They play off each other and feel like a pretty cohesive team on that side.

As coincidence has it, my wife and I are also Dave and Amanda.

Amanda and Dave were two people who shared a connection and shared a common thread, Andrew WK. They shared in the ups and the downs. They shared those moments when it was hard to be positive and they shared those moments when they could look back and understand what the bad times contributed to their current stasis. They shared moments of joy in the madness and they shared the triumphs of overcoming setbacks.

They shared life.

***

I ended up waiting outside with my new friends for two hours after the show. We joked at how long it was taking Andrew to come out, but the reality was I didn’t care. It wasn’t about meeting him, shaking his hand, getting a picture, it was about the new bonds formed even though with a gun to my head, there’s no way I could tell you any of their names.

An older man set up a high powered telescope and was asking for tips to take a turn looking at the 7/8th full moon. I gladly took him up on it because it’s nice to remember just how small our world really is.

I found out that three of my new friends were in a Foo Fighters tribute band called Fresh Fighters. We talked about the Andrew WK stunt double’s fitness routine and how he worked to lose nearly 85 pounds. We talked for awhile about life and art, and Des Moines with the members of Andrew WK’s band and with each other and just generally had an enjoyable time.

I could’ve left at any time. I didn’t care about meeting Andrew WK at that point. I wasn’t an autograph seeker or photo hound. I was just a guy who realized what I needed on that night was people.

***

“It’s nice out,” she said, “let’s go for a hike.” The kids were at my sister’s unexpectedly, so it was just the two of us. We drove to a hilly city park that makes you nervous about being lost, but in reality if you just follow the trail or just point yourself in one direction, you’ll be fine.

We hopped out into the late summer sun. It was one of those perfect weather days where the white clouds keep the sun in check and the breeze shoots through enough air to not get hit by the lingering Iowa heat.

We tromped through the woods and made small talk. It was nice, but there was lingering tension. It felt a bit like when Bob Sugar fires Jerry Maguire in the Restaurant. Let’s go somewhere nice, outside of our normal setting, so that something unpleasant can be said.

After a little ways, we finally broke through the tension. She mentioned that she hasn’t been happy, hasn’t been focused. She’s let things go too long without saying things. She cleared the air on her feelings.

There wasn’t a lack of love or a lack of friendship, but our connection came so naturally that when it came time, after 18 years, where we needed to put some work in, we had been avoiding it. It was time to stop avoiding it.

I was still a little shaken about the whole endeavor so I maybe didn’t react or open up the way I should’ve. I retreated. I was insular. This wasn’t a surprise.

That’s been my biggest part of our struggles. I shut down. I am not good with adversity. I take every setback as an existential crisis and not a dragon to slay. I think “why me?” and I don’t realize it’s “why everyone.”

Even worse, once the bad is passed, I just go right back to living my life. It’s like emerging from a storm cellar after a tornado and instead of seeing all the destruction around you and preparing for the hard, life-changing work, you go inside and turn on the TV.

It’s a selfish way to live. Instead of fighting battles together, as a unit and a family, I fight myself. I need to fight for everyone, understand everyone and realize that bad times don’t last, they harden and they sculpt and they change you, but they eventually go away. You get to decide what person you want to be after that, and hopefully it’s a better version.

There’s a line in my wife’s favorite movie(s), The Lord of the Rings, where Sam says “(T)here’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo. And it’s worth fighting for.”

There’s some good in my life, and it’s worth fighting for.

***

I made a joke while we were hanging out outside that Andrew WK probably likes to get away from his all white tee and jeans uniform once he’s off the clock, so he probably throws on a multi-colored plaid button up just to get a change of pace.

Andrew WK walked out of the venue in cotton workout shorts and a plaid multi-colored button up. He was kind and soft spoken he signed multiple autographs and took pictures. I was the last to get his attention. I got a picture and thanked him for the show. I told him it was the fourth time I’d seen him live and how big of a fan I was.

I didn’t tell him we had talked on the phone a few weeks prior. I didn’t tell him that his album, music, personality, and being is something I have loved for years and how his mere existence had been a bond shared between my wife and I. I just said thank you and let him get on the bus.

I wanted to tell him more, but I didn’t. I think sometimes he just wants to be Andrew. I figured I owed him at least that.

***

The last thing we talked about on the phone was taco pizza. Andrew WK is known for having a guitar shaped like a pizza and a guitar shaped like a taco. I told him about how a gas station in Iowa makes a delightful taco pizza, and asked which he preferred, taco, pizza or taco pizza?

“Oh! Gotta be taco pizza, right? Combining two awesome things is totally a party!” He said.

“Maybe for your Iowa show you can make a double-necked taco pizza guitar? Like the dude from Cheap Trick!” I said.

“Yeah Rick Nielsen! I could do a Rick Nielsen thing!” he said with a little laugh.

He didn’t end up doing a Rick Nielsen double guitar, but he did play a set full of greatest hits, new motivations and allowed a group of people to become each other’s plus ones to the biggest party of the year.

He also reminded me that I’m not alone. That we’re all trying to survive and the things worth fighting for need that fight and when things get low, you need to fight harder.

Amanda and I are doing a lot better. We’re focusing on our finances and on each other a bit more. I’m excited. If there’s anything worth living for, it’s the party. And there’s nothing more party than real love.

Advertisements