At first, almost all of Andrew W.K.'s concerts were conversion experiences. Touring in support of his 2002 debut disc, I Get Wet, he encountered crowds that weren't quite ready to surrender to his effervescence. The album boasted some of the year's most triumphant choruses, but it also seemed to reek of target marketing. It felt like the old beer-commercial bait and switch: Instead of popping a tab and immediately being immersed in a world of amorous women and die-hard friends, disillusioned drinkers would still be alone and depressed in their basements. Instead of encountering an absurdly friendly rock star who really cares whether his fans have a great time, cynical concertgoers at the Beaumont Club last October expected a calculating, image-conscious performer who would go through the motions and shake a few hands before retreating to his tour bus.
What they got was a genuine populist who encouraged hundreds of fans to share the stage with him, then stood outside on a chilly night chatting with his new followers and letting them hug him for warmth. When he returned to the region in December, playing the Granada, W.K. enthusiasts didn't wait for an invitation. Almost immediately, spectators swarmed the singer. Throughout the set, W.K. and his bandmates bounced between bystanders, never chiding them for crowding their space. In less than two months, the word had spread: This guy is the real deal.
In July, he came to town again, playing with the Warped Tour. This time he faced a fresh challenge: Would politically aware punks, the type who worship Bad Religion and other anti-establishment acts, take to an artist with such a party platform? Apparently so; W.K. inspired more dancing than any other artist at the Verizon Amphitheater stop. He also unveiled a few selections from his September release The Wolf, on which he'll be focusing at this week's Bottleneck gig.
Given that W.K.'s reputation has spread so rapidly, the club promises to be packed with full-fledged fanatics who appreciate his work on a variety of levels. But even at this point, a few holdouts might believe his act is too good to be true. At least W.K. hopes so.
"It's only natural that we're protective of our brains, and things have to prove themselves before we accept them," he says. "I consider it my responsibility to prove to people that this is something they can trust, even if it takes years. There always will be challenges, and I never want to get too comfortable. I want there to be people who don't like it that I can try to get to like it.
"I value and appreciate those who believed from the very beginning without questioning it," he continues. "That's very, very awesome. Great thing happens when people come with good expectations and have those expectations met. But if everybody liked it or nobody cared, then it wouldn't be as exciting to hear somebody say 'I really liked it.'"
Like many musicians, W.K. hears that a lot. Unlike the majority of his major-label peers, he's quick to respond with a heartfelt thank-you. On the home page of his Web site, awkworld.com, W.K. answers ten questions, some of which are more compliments than inquiries. Each reply is signed "your friend, Andrew W.K." Perhaps even more important than the quality of the correspondence is the quantity. Scroll to the bottom of this section, and you'll see this: "1-10 of 347."
Because his fans see him as more pal than idol, W.K. gets gifts such as mix tapes, poems and demo CDs. "I try to save everything I get," he says. "It's a wonderful thing to have people want to make you happy. They just paid money to see us play, and I want to thank them, and here they are thanking me again. It really moves me. The fact that other people are counting on my music makes it way easier to get up in the morning. It gives me reason to be alive. That might sound really heavy or even corny, but it's absolutely true."
Many of W.K.'s sayings mix the heavy, the corny and the sincere in fascinating ways. Take "It's always more fun to like things than to not." On one level, it's an absurdly obvious assertion, but it has ramifications that aren't immediately apparent. For example, it explains why W.K. advocates the unironic embrace of anything that could be called a guilty pleasure.
"No guilt," he declares. "How awful. If you feel bad about liking something, then you don't really like it."
Although he's careful to establish that there's no wrong reason for enjoying his music, he also clarifies a few misconceptions. Occasionally, W.K. gets depicted as a throwback to hedonistic '80s hair metal or a premeditated reaction to an overpoliticized music industry.
"This is not a return to the good old days," he says. "And this is not about saying any other bands are doing things wrong. I think bands like Bad Religion are great, and it's important that they exist. We're not trying to make groups like that go away. This music is not a reaction against anything. It's just what we sound like when we're excited. I do what I do not so that other people will do it but because I think it's the right thing for me to do. Whether someone is talking about politics or singing about how much fun it is to dance, the passion is there. As long as people are doing what they love, they have a strength and freedom that's going to allow them to do good things. We're all just trying to find some kind of meaning in this life, and accomplish something while we have the chance."
On The Wolf, W.K. sticks to his established formula: Take a simple yet fiendishly catchy piano melody, cut to a full-band reprise of the hook, add an anthemic chorus about some form of frivolity. Lyrically, his output can be summarized neatly by the album's second track: I want to have a party/You cannot kill the party/Long live the party. There are also more three-word phrases than a teen-movie marathon: "Tear It Up," "Give It Up," "Never Let Down," "I'm Totally Stupid," "Really in Love," "I Love Music." Most amusingly, there's this charmingly awkward approximation of Muddy Waters' "I Just Want to Make Love to You" and 50 Cent's "In Da Club" chorus: I don't want to make life/And I don't want to make death/I don't want to make love/I just want to make sex.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, W.K.'s bad/mad, cry/die couplets occur late in the creative process. "The focus of my songs is on musical notes," he explains. "That's where I start from. The lyrics describe how I feel from listening to the melody. The way I feel is so incredible, so what am I going to do? Well, I'm going to use every instrument and every piece of recording equipment I can to come close to that overwhelming power that it's giving me. This music is put together to achieve unmitigated, unabolished physical pleasure. These songs are made to inspire excitement."
Though still immediate and energetic, The Wolf challenges listeners a bit more than its predecessor. The riffs aren't quite as rudimentary, and the piano parts hint at his years of practice. (He started taking lessons from University of Michigan music students at age five.) "There's more that these songs are asking us to try, but I hope the people who love this stick with me," he says. "We have to think of why we don't like something or why we don't want to do something, and if it comes down to fear, that's something that's so easy to eliminate. I see a great conquering of fear in what this music is doing."
Unlike at most major club shows, where barricades are the rule, fans need not fear the wrath of security guards if they swarm the stage at an Andrew W.K. show. The rush is as spontaneous as it seems; W.K. doesn't warn staffers beforehand, which has occasionally led to problems.
"They're going to do what they're going to do," he says. "Because it's so clear that people are enjoying themselves, even the security guards will be smiling and having the time of their lives. It's a situation where people are really excited and happy and not trying to fight with the staff or with each other. A few times people have gotten very angry, and that was upsetting to me because they took it really personally. Most of the time, though, it's clear that it's a loving thing."
W.K. fans will have no trouble getting close to him while he's performing, but he offers no specific tips about how to meet up with him after the show. "All I can say is, I'll always be there," he says. "It shouldn't be that hard."