“A lot of the songs could be read in one way, but also in the exact opposite way and still be equally true..” hmv.com talks to Andrew WK
It has been almost two decades since Andrew W K first stormed into the UK charts with his hard-rocking hymn to hedonistic living 'Party Hard', but this week he returns with his first rock album in 12 years and with You're Not Alone arriving in stores this weekend, we caught up Andrew for a chat.
In a wide-ranging interview, we discussed some of the things he's been up to in the last decade or so, including writing agony aunt columns, producing a Grammy-nominated reggae album, and designing a guitar shaped like a pizza...
Before we talk about the new record, can we rewind a little bit and talk about some of the stuff you've been up to over the last few years? It's about nine years or so since your last album, right?
“Depending on how you look at it, I wish it was as clear as that, there were other recordings and releases, but the way I look at it is that the last full-blown rock album that I recorded, whether it was released traditionally or not, was in 2006. So that's 12 years by the way I'm counting it, and that was Close Calls with Brick Walls, which was then re-released in 2009 with a companion album of unreleased stuff, so everything was a bit skewed and disorienting. So this one's a bit more clear. New album, new songs, rock music.”
Most people probably think of you of being a hard rock frontman, but you've done an album of J-Pop covers, and then there was 55 Cadillac, which is a kind of free-jazz, instrumental album. Perhaps not what people would expect from you...
“Yeah, well that's what I'd always done, it was being a frontman and doing rock music that was the big change for me, that started around 1999-2000, that was when the whole Andrew W K undertaking, I guess, began in earnest. What's on that 55 Cadillac album is basically what I'd been doing since I was five or six years old, which is messing around on a piano for fun! I'd just never recorded or released anything like that. I mean I recorded things for myself, for fun, that's how I learned to record in the early days. I have a younger brother and he described it to someone as being what it sounded like in our house when we grew up.”
You also designed a couple of guitars for ESP, one shaped like a pizza, the other like a taco...
“Well, I gotta give them most of the credit for that, I mean they're the ones that actually built them, I just had a concept and painted it, they did all the real meticulous hard work.”
How did that come about, exactly?
“We had been working together thanks to the other guitar players in my band, especially our guitarist Erik Payne, he had been playing ESP guitars since day one, he's been in the band since 2000, and he was very adamant about the quality of that instrument. So we got closer with them and even though I wasn't really a guitar player, I always had a part in my show where I would play a brief solo before the song 'She is Beautiful'.
Where did the idea come from?
“I don't really remember how the idea for a pizza guitar came about, sometimes these ideas just appear inside of you fully formed, like the pizza gods themselves just shot it down like a bolt of lightning into my head and said 'Hey kid, do you have what it takes to make this happen?'. And I said 'No, I don't. But he does...' So I just gave it to them. The funny part is that they're a Japanese company with offices in the U.S., and they were a bit hesitant, because it was such an absurd idea and they're a really fancy guitar company. As is often the case when I work with other people, they elevate me, but by associating with me, I lower them. The story I was told was that ESP Japan had initially said 'Please try to talk him out of this.' But they were very open minded and very courageous.”
There's another pretty amazing fixture on your CV, which is that you produced an album for Lee 'Scratch' Perry. And it was nominated for a Grammy. How did you end up working together?
“He was nominated for a Grammy for the album, yes, and of course it was incredible. Any time spent in his vicinity, no matter how distant your orbit, is beneficial.”
I mean he's primarily known as a producer, so...
“Exactly! The first thing an associate of mine said was 'Andrew, with all due respect, how can you produce an album for the greatest producer who ever lived?' And I think that's true as far as being a groundbreaking pioneer goes, he's right up there even with someone like George Martin. But as esteemed as he is, I also think he's someone who is severely underrated. Many people are not aware of just how powerful his vision was from the beginning, before it was even possible to do things, he did them. He invented a whole style of recording out of thin air.”
How did you meet?
“I met him in Austin, Texas, for a TV programme that I was hosting interviewing musicians, and he was one of the musicians that I was getting to interview. I was extremely excited about that and also, as you can imagine, a bit nervous and intimidated. But I had a real strong feeling about it going in, almost as if I was anticipating, I could feel something meaningful about it and that seemed to be confirmed in the interview. And then a couple of months later I got a call from his record label asking if I wanted to help make the new album. And there was no hesitation at all from me. It had a deep impact, it was very inspiring.”
Didn't you also do an agony aunt column at one point?
“I did an advice column for The Village Voice and I had actually done an advice column in a Japanese music magazine for years, it ended up being quite wide-ranging, diverse questions about life. I had been doing some motivational speaking and a bit of writing, but it was another idea, another opportunity to do something that I would never have dreamed up myself. I mean, I would never have dared to say 'I'm going to make an album for Lee 'Scratch' Perry, you just hope that when destiny calls upon you just hope to have the wherewithal to accept these chances”
Does any of that experience feed into the title of the new album, You're Not Alone?
“The title was actually suggested by my manager, I would never have dreamed of that title, it wouldn't have occurred to me. He's never really had, and I mean this in a totally fine way, but he's never really had a strong reaction to any of my work, our relationship is not really based on that, I've never really looked to him for feedback on a personal level. But as I was working on this album it didn't have a title, I usually leave that until the end, but I had a good portion of the record done and shared some of the songs with him. He was listening to it while he was driving, and he had quite a powerful reaction to it, which surprised even him.”
In what way?
“We've been working together now for 12 years, and he said the feeling he came away with was this life-affirming feeling, all the things I had been going for, and he said 'I think you should call this You Are Not Alone'. At first I was a bit underwhelmed and I was like 'OK, well, thanks for the suggestion', but it kept sticking with me and I thought there was something about that title, it seems quite generic and a commonly said platitude even, but I was noticing that it had a darker, mirror image to it that I really appreciated, and that a lot of the songs could be read in one way, but also in the exact opposite way and still be equally true. You Are Not Alone was this idea that there's something there, and that can either be quite unsettling or quite comforting. It's also one of the key lyrical phrases on this song that we had been working in, that he hadn't even heard. So it kind of confirmed that song should be in the album, and that it should be the title track.”
You've been stockpiling material for the album for quite a while now, how old is the oldest song on the record?
“The oldest one is 'Break the Curse', the main verses and lyrics of that song have been hanging around since about 2005 or 2006. You just can't forget some songs, for better or worse, they won't let you go, and so you kind of go 'Well, OK, that's either a sign that it's really irritating or it's really good. I had placeholder lyrics for that song for years, I could never figure it out, but then all of a sudden it just came.”
And you're self-producing the album?
“Yeah, I would say with all due respect to everyone that I've worked with, it's always a team effort, but it's also always been whatever it takes to make it sound right. I've been very fortunate to have worked with incredible people, all of whom have skills that I don't possess and experiences they're able to draw on to contribute to the album, but the majority of it, for better or worse, is a huge amount of time where it's me by myself just stacking songs up.”
Has the way you recorded changed much over the years?
“I've never really recorded as a band, rarely more than one instrument at a time or one sound at a time, and it's quite tedious, but it's just the technique that has worked for this music. I do enjoy that technique, and I have tried other ways, but I just realised I was wasting a huge amount of effort and other people's time just trying to do this thing that I already know how to do. So at some point you stop experimenting, you don't need to try and prove anything to yourself.”
So finally, what are your touring plans for the new album? Are you doing any shows in the UK?
“Yeah, we're coming back in April. It's not the most extensive UK tour we've ever done, but I think we're doing about six or seven concerts with my full band. One thing I'm thankful for is that over the last few years we've toured consistently. If it seem like I went away, that's fine, or if people have never heard of me in the first place that's even more understandable, but in terms of keeping myself active I'm thankful that I've been able to keep doing that and getting better at what I love.”
You're Not Alone is available at your local hmv now, you can also find it here in our online store...