Andrew W.K. emerged into pop-cultural consciousness in 2002 playing metal-flavored pop anthems like "It's Time To Party," "Party Hard," and "We Want Fun"—confusing fans and critics with his hyperactive, hyper-positive message of fun and good feelings. Plenty of people doubted that such a pure energy could exist, but if Andrew W.K. is an actor, he's amazingly committed: He's since released two more albums (2004's The Wolf and last year's Asia-only Close Calls With Brick Walls), and he recently began delivering his message of "pure fun" via public-speaking engagements. spoke—at length, as is his style—to The A.V. Club about motivational speaking and his slightly rejiggered, even more positive outlook on life.
The A.V. Club: You've been off the radar for a while.
Andrew W.K.: It depends on how you look at it. Each of us has to have faith in our ability to understand what's going on with someone, but then also have fun with those perceptions. Over the last two years, I've been thinking about that idea and how it relates to me: What's my perception of others, what's my perception of myself? How had I been operating and how will I now operate with what I'd like to think is an increased awareness? Not just an awareness of what's going on around me, not just attempting to perceive more, but to perceive more about what I'm perceiving and to think about how I think. I came from a place where I felt more closed off, and felt more averse to what I considered "the other." There was my life and then there's everything else that isn't my life. The meaning of life is to have the question, "What is the meaning of life?" I decided to be as open as possible, to be more open than I ever had been, and not see things as disassociated from me. I began questioning a lot of beliefs that I built up in my mind, and came up with the album Close Calls With Brick Walls, almost subconsciously, through that, examining what limitations I've built. Maybe it doesn't have to be that hard. Maybe there isn't some threat that you're working away from. Maybe it can just be one total expression, and maybe the same feeling I'm trying to get across in the music is the same feeling I'm trying to get across when we're having a conversation and the same feeling I'm trying to get across when I'm walking down the street. It's just one total expression, and I thought about it as an expression of joy.
AVC: Do you get down? Or have you worked yourself to a place where you're a constant expression of joy?
AWK: Bad feelings or pain or death are not… We're not working our way against inevitably falling into that. It's something that's there to offset our other experiences, to create a dynamic so that we can appreciate beauty and joy and pleasure. It's the experience of the in-between that is life. So when there have been moments of being down, I would think, "Here I am talking about not feeling bad and eliminating these feelings, so why do they pop up?" I was just reinterpreting the whole thing and thinking that maybe these feelings I thought were bad were really good, and the change is not to cancel out sensations or emotions, but to love all those sensations and emotions. Which isn't to say you're going to be reveling in melancholy, just to not take it all so seriously that it becomes doubly upsetting. To allow those feelings to pass, to savor them as a sensation and to take the power of our judgment and keep it from immediately judging ourselves for feeling bad… It's about embracing everything as the right thing to have happened, and never feeling guilty about something that happened, because you have faith that it was all part of this perfect story.
AVC: Is there a religious connotation to all of this? AWK: I've been trying to take in all different kinds of things and not get too formal about it. Originally I was very opposed to the idea of religion and judged people harshly that believed at all. I thought believing was very naïve. More recently, I've been trying to look at ideas or beliefs that I would've been against before. I want to be as aware as possible, so aware that I can see all the sides and see that any choice that's inflexible is just going to limit my ability to be aware. There was a time when I would get mad when someone said the word "God." I don't have more belief in God, I just have more belief in possibility, and more belief in that I'm not the only person who's right. No matter how hard I believe that my way is the right way, there's someone out there who feels the exact same passion for the exact opposite thing. And I have to reconcile that, otherwise I'm not seeing the full picture.
AVC: Is this something you can boil down into a lecture? Can you get to a point where you say, "These are my beliefs," or is it all about the process?
AWK: I think it's transitory. To think that these thoughts are heading toward some kind of conclusion is sort of the opposite of what it's felt like has been happening. Instead of refining and getting closer to some sort of ultimate truth, it just feels like it's opening and opening. Earlier, my inclination was just to have the one answer. There's A and B, and one of those is right for me, and I'm going to go through the whole alphabet until I find the two letters I can relate to—why one of them is wrong and why one's right. There's something undeniably appealing about that, but what's been exciting about this has been that by turning inward and by focusing more closely on what previously seemed small or unimportant, there's been an opening up. Maybe I would say: Whatever you think is, is. That's one way to boil it down. But boiling it down and reducing it is not the point. The security we get is satisfying on one level, but it takes us potentially further from the true glory of a lot of these feelings. It's about letting go of that need to understand.
AVC: So you're doing this lecture series in New York. Should they be called lectures?
AWK: That's a good question. Although I've been rambling, and I appreciate you letting me do that, it has been a conversation to some degree. But I've been wanting to make these lectures interactive, so that it's not me talking to people, but all of us speaking with each other. Rather than speaking from some point of authority, it's more exciting for me to give these lectures as one person who's been interested and excited about ideas creating an opportunity for other people who are excited to get together and collaborate and brainstorm. Maybe presenting it as a lecture is an easier way to let people know it's going to be talking and not music. Ultimately I want it to be a creative collaboration where I'm getting just as much out of it as anybody else; otherwise I wouldn't want to do it at all. It's not to teach people things or give them something that I have. It's an even exchange.
AVC: How did the speaking thing come about?
AWK: NYU asked me to come and talk just for the sake of it. When they set up the lecture, I said, "Is it a music thing?" and they said, "No, it's going to be called 'Andrew WK talks about whatever the hell he wants.'" I was very thankful for that freedom. I was imagining maybe 50 people would show up in a classroom environment, but they ended up moving the lecture to the Skirball Center, which holds about 900 people. I've been in situations where people have said, "All that matters is when you do a song. Nothing else matters, not what you say, what you look like." And I understood that and listened to it for a fair amount of time, but became more and more stifled and bored and resentful that the way this business was explained to me was that you could only do one thing. That didn't seem true for me. It isn't just one thing. It's not taking away from music to do talking. It's not replacing something, it's letting it grow and evolve so it's just one expression.
AVC: Will you have time to do all that?
AWK: Absolutely. I've been doing more than I've ever done before. When the focus is on doing exactly what you want to do, when you focus on what feels good and you follow your emotions and put all of your energy on that, you're going to get way more done!
AVC: Is this the definition of "pure fun" you've talked about?
AWK: Do you think it makes sense to call it that? I hadn't thought of that as a way to represent this. Maybe I'll explain it that way from now on. "Fun" is when you're having fun, but "pure fun" is when you've decided to have fun and you set it up so that you could. And "love" is different than "total love." "Love" is where you love a song or a certain person, "total love" is when you love all things, including stuff that you don't like. You love that thing you don't like for the ability it gives you to not like it, for the experience it gives you. You have total love for things you don't want to do, because it gives you the choice to do something different, because it creates diversity and dynamic and contrast. It's the appreciation of all those choices, and having total love for all the diversity in the world that we can then choose from to build our own story.
AVC: So would it be accurate to call you a motivational speaker? AWK: If that's what someone wanted to call it, sure. I used to get more hung up on those kinds of terms. Like someone would call the music I play heavy metal, and I'd say, "Can't it just be music?" But it's silly for me to get hung up on those qualifications. I didn't even like being called positive, because it took the ideas down. I just wanted it to be about feeling good. All they are is ideas or thoughts; that's all anything is. Once you've come to that, it takes some of the pressure off. It's just what one person thinks. If someone gets closer to this by referring to it as motivational, that's great. If someone gets further away, then I wouldn't want them to think of it as that. So I don't tell anyone what it is or what it isn't.
AVC: When did this change in your thinking happen?
AWK: This year, I really made an effort to eliminate any fears I had about a total opening up, and any reservations I had about what I was capable of or what I should do. I want to be completely open. From that choice—of setting aside fears, or not making choices based on those fears—that has felt really fun. Anything I could think of doing, I could do. If your goal is to feel good all the time, that's just as valid a goal as wanting to open an ice cream shop. These things that felt the best to me—I was being told they were the worst things to do. And I thought that maybe that proved that they were the best things to do. That's what started the ball rolling into being off the radar, then coming out from this other angle. I just needed to get to a place of perspective. There are those times in your creative existence—whatever you're doing—where it can help to jump off the cliff, so you can appreciate how high the cliff is. And then if you're going to climb back up or swim to a new place or realize when you land that there's even a bigger cliff… Or maybe you realize that instead of jumping down and falling you're flying up, and you realize you were upside down the whole time. I'm trying to get these new perspectives.
AVC: There will always be people who doubt your sincerity, though. Does that bother you?
AWK: It used to hurt my feelings. People would say I'm not real, or that it's a bunch of bullshit, or that it's pretentious. But when I was focusing on that frustration and focusing on people that don't like it, that just made more bad reactions pop up. I haven't gotten a negative reaction for a long time that I've directly encountered. I'm sure there's people out there, but maybe there's not! If I believe there are people out there like that, it just helps there be people out there like that. I think that the person who has the harshest things to say might be the person who can relate most to it. People who have criticisms of that sort are revealing much more about themselves about their feelings than they could ever hope to reveal about what I'm saying. They're really doing an elegant exposure of their souls. There were times, just a few months ago, when I would've thought most of the stuff I'm saying now is bullshit. But that's the exciting thing, being able to change that much, to be able to contradict yourself. How long are we going to hold on to ideas that we had 27 years ago or 10 years ago? What kind of person do we want to build? What pieces do we put in? What programming do we run on? It's growth and evolution, and we need to go through those dark times—there's no reason to regret things you did then that you would never do now, because it's change.
AVC: Do you ever rest?
AWK: Yeah, for sure. At felt at times in the past more overwhelmed by what I thought was a really intense schedule. I would be exhausted because the things I was doing weren't what I really wanted to do. But I realized that I wasn't the victim of outside forces or circumstances. I used to think, "You have to be working very hard, and the only way you can tell you're working very hard is how worn out you are." But with these changing beliefs, I can say it's very easy to do the things you want to do, and the way that you can tell you're working hard is that you have lots of energy, and when you never feel overwhelmed or anxious or stressed out. That was really contradictory to me, but it was such fun to play with. Mark Twain had all these things figured out in really eloquent ways. He said, "I never worked a day in my life," because he equated work with doing something you didn't feel like doing.