Andrew W.K. on the Evolution of Partying, How Fear of Failure Inspired His New LP
“I’m partying harder than ever,” Andrew W.K. assures Rolling Stone during a recent phone chat. “It’s synonymous with living.” On Friday, the perpetually amped artist will release You’re Not Alone, his first new album since 2009, but the record isn’t exactly a comeback. Since his prior LP, 55 Cadillac, he’s kept busy penning countless advice columns, launching his own “Party Party” political platform, hitting all 50 states on his “Power of Partying” motivational speaking tour and playing balls-to-the-wall shows.
Musically, You’re Not Alone is vintage Andrew W.K., stitching together patches of punk, glam, rock opera and unbridled pop on the back of a sweaty white-denim vest. On “Total Freedom,” a nod to Eighties power ballads, the artist rises from the bottom to the top of his vocal range to dramatic effect. In a compelling twist, three interludes feature only W.K.’s dramatic speaking voice, delivering life-affirming mantras. On “The Feeling of Being Alive,” he notes, “Life is very intense, but that doesn’t mean it’s bad. Understanding this is what partying is all about.” Speaking to RS ahead of the album, he delved into the double meaning underlying You’re Not Alone, and shared how the party gods have shaped the latest chapter of his life.
You’re Not Alone is your first proper album in nine years. What took so long?
This album emerged completely from chaos. The traditional sense of planning, goal-setting, organizing a schedule, of pushing towards a specific outcome, it was as far from that as it could possibly be, but still came into being. The earliest songs on here I’ve been working on since 2005. In a good way, there was never an intention for it to take this long or for to take what would be described as “a break” from recording or anything else. This was not for a lack of desire. It was almost that the more that I desired and schemed and lusted after making an album, the more elusive it became.
The party gods would interfere, usually in very entertaining and exciting ways. They’d thwart my efforts to record. Sometimes the best things that have happened to me over the past 10 years happened when I mapped out three months of nothing else but recording. And then some amazing opportunity that I would never had the guts to dream up for myself would be presented to me. I had to ultimately respect that. You can’t want an amazing life and then resent it when it happens to you. Destiny has very little to do with what you think and what you want to do and even what you might like. I can’t imagine what [this album] would’ve been like if it’d come out six years ago. It wouldn’t have been what it is now. The whole side of my mind that has opinions about the work is in a small compartment set way in the corner of day-to-day life. It still speaks up and has lots of criticisms and lots of judgements and lots of doubts, but it doesn’t have much to do with what I’m assigned.
You’re Not Alone is one of the most comforting things you can say to a person. What does the title mean to you?
That seemingly straightforward and quite timeless sentiment has two equally valid interpretations. Each one is almost the exact opposite of the other. This seems to run through the album in general. Each song presents one perspective that is quite uplifting and life-affirming. Then there’s an exact mirror image, an inversion of that, which comes from the same exact phrase, the same concept, just flipped. As you described it, it sounds very supportive and an antidote to loneliness. “You’re not alone” can be a great thing to hear when you’re feeling quite despondent and alienated from the world and yourself. But if you’re someone who’s been completely overwrought with the intensity of life and the world, getting some space to be alone can be one of the things you crave most. Even if you manage to get in a car by yourself and go on a drive, you hear a voice coming from the back seat of the car that says, “You’re not alone.” That can be a very unsettling feeling, the exact opposite of comforting.
“Ever Again” mentions a trip to “the dark side” and then a triumphant recovery. Is that song autobiographical?
This one is more aspirational than it is personal. Certainly not as much as others, but I have struggled as much as a human does. These are themes that also find their way into the creative work of humanity, and I’m no exception. The ongoing effort to rise above one’s self. To triumph over weakness is a variation on the light vs. dark story. While I hadn’t intentionally gone into these songs or the album with that as a theme, it seemed to be in everything. it’s dramatically and emotionally thrilling to think about conquering the outside world. The mind likes to have something to push up against. But at the same time, part of the lesson is that we’re embracing these ordeals. Not resenting them, not wanting to crush them or destroy them. But to use them. These pressures that are weighing down on us. If we reorient ourselves, we can put ourselves in front of those pressures, be propelled by them, and find them quite useful. That’s how the diamond comes out of the coal, from incredible pressure.
“Total Freedom” sounds like an anthem for the disenfranchised. What inspired that one?
That song emerged out of a nightmare I had in the final days of the recording process. We were in a very rigorous schedule of odd working hours, mainly working around the clock. I attempted to take a nap at one point after reaching a delirious state of exhaustion – which is actually a very productive way to work sometimes. This nightmare was an anxiety dream centered around some sort of personal catastrophic failing – a failure so severe that I’ve undone my life once and for all. There’s no coming back from it, but it’s never clear what it was. The nightmare begins in the immediate aftermath. I’m meeting with my manager and we’re saying our goodbyes. I was apologizing to him because it ruined his life, too. As we’re saying “So long,” this song comes on the imaginary radio in this dream. It’s just playing somewhere in the distance. I remember specifically we were on a waterfront in some anonymous Northeast town and it’s quite cold outside. Very barren, vacant lots and a cold, almost frozen river going by. I was just struck and humiliated by the song because it was so fantastic in the dream. It sort of drove the nail into the coffin of what would’ve been my life in music.
I asked my manager, “What is this song?” He said, “Oh, this is a new single by this supergroup. I’m surprised you haven’t heard it.” I said, “This is really amazing.” I said, in total frustration, “What’s wrong with me that I couldn’t write a song like this?” Why can’t I do this? Why do other people have what it takes to do this? What’s so flawed with me that I can’t?” He said, “Well, I guess it’s just not what was meant to be for you.” And he walked away. Then I woke up, and still remembered the song. …
“All the work is coming from how I wish I felt, compared to how I actually felt.”
I remembered all those words and the chords and the structure. It was all so vivid. Such a lucid dream. Disturbingly lucid. I was actually very glad when I woke up. It was an awful, awful feeling. I called my manager still in that half-awake, half-asleep hallucinatory state and told him about it. He said, “I think you should go record it.” I recorded it quickly and sent it to him. Just the piano and vocals, so he could confirm it was worth pursuing, and he said it was. So I did. I was quite swept up in this phenomenon of the dream actually paying off. I didn’t stop to judge too much whether it was good or bad, or whether I liked the song myself. I felt very obligated. I had to pay respect to that event. In the end, I had no opinion on it.
How do you put a song together when it doesn’t show up in a dream?
With a lot of the work, you’re presented with a vision. You don’t think up these things. I wouldn’t say I dreamed it up. They occur, and it’s up to me to carry them out. You take the action to manifest these interior experiences. I try to imagine what the greatest song I could ever write would sound like, and then try to do it. It’s working in a kind of instantaneous way, but the labor is quite the opposite of instantaneous. That flash of feeling comes from something that’s fully formed. At least the feeling is complete. This music is quite focused in a rather narrow way on trying to generate this emotional power. Just pure, raw feeling. It’s so intense that it moves from the mind and the heart into the body itself. You get those chills, you get butterflies, and you want to put your arms over your head and scream out in pure euphoric, painful joy. Every song, every bit of work, is trying to tap into that or manifest that or conjure up that kind of sensation.
What’s behind the motivational speech interludes on You’re Not Alone?
As it pertains to those three tracks on the album, all of those things are what I’m saying over the past couple of years, that’s what I would say to myself. Those were the most ongoing states of mind that I was attempting to internalize and keep in the front of my outlook. Those are the pep talks I’m giving to myself. As I’ve said earlier, the only way I’ve been able to generate the motivation necessary to do any of this work or make an effort to apply myself to anything is coming from a deficit of these feelings. It’s not as though I have it so I can give it to others. I don’t have it, and that’s why I need to make it for me first. Not in a selfish way, but in a desperate sense. All the work is coming from how I wish I felt, compared to how I actually felt, to this day.
Where did you get the idea to actually include these pep talks on the album?
The idea of including motivational speaking tracks on the album never would’ve occurred to me. If it had, I would’ve eliminated the idea extraordinarily quickly out of fear. So I consider it a miracle that someone else suggested this idea. Karen Glauber, one of my managers, said it would connect everything, and show the cohesion of all these efforts in focusing towards that horizon line of empowering sensation. I listened to her, but my own human doubts were loud and screaming. I put off recording these until the last possible second. We were in the mastering studio. The album was done, done, done, done, done. We had a half hour left before the album was finished. And I said, “OK, let’s set up a microphone and I’ll record these.” The mastering engineer, Gentry Studer, said he had never set up a microphone in his mastering studio ever, but he did. I recorded them as quickly as I possibly could. I didn’t want to listen again. It was too painful. As you can tell listening to the album, and all of my music, it’s layer upon layer of upon layer upon layer of powerful sound. I’ve got to create this wall of strength and joyful power that I can stand in the midst of. To strip that all away, to just silence and this voice, was challenging. But it wasn’t about whether I wanted to do it or not. Even with all those doubts. That feeling, that instinct, was very clear. My goal now, more than it’s ever been before, is to do every single thing that the ultimate final layer of instinct tells me to do.
Last year, you added a taco-shaped guitar to your live experience to go along with your pizza-shaped guitar. Should we expect more?
Each one seems so unlikely upon its imagining, the inception of the idea. Once it is finally done, it seems like there’s no way it could possibly happen again. Now that I’ve had it happen twice, you prove to yourself that dreams really can come true. I do have some ideas for others. I wouldn’t dare be so greedy to assume that of course they could happen. It’s really thanks to the ESP guitar company, which has been indulging me and putting so much incredible craftsmanship into making these things possible. Yeah, I’d love to make more. I don’t know if it would necessarily be another food item The party gods present me with these ideas and my side of the deal is to make it. We’ll see what they want next.
You’ve been championing this lifestyle for close to 20 years now. How has the concept of partying evolved for you during that time?
Life changes, and thus partying changes, and what it means to party evolves as well. It grows. You’re expanding your capacity. Partying is equally vast. It’s a conscious decision to look at life – despite all the evidence to the contrary – as an incredible event, and therefore to be grateful for it every day, and celebrate it every day. People celebrate Friday nights, holidays, birthdays and other special events. So being alive must be the most special event of all – we’re partying about having been born and not having died yet.
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