“It’s Like Hair Dye for Your Soul”: Talking Philosophy, Buddhism, and Depression with Andrew W.K.

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A couple of months back, Perfect Pussy singer Meredith Graves published an essay wherein she recalled a meeting with Andrew W.K., and the striking difference between Andrew W.K. the performer — loud, flamboyant, fond of partying — and Andrew W.K. the person. Graves suggested that his party-centric persona was about hiding unhappiness, rather than expressing it. At the time, this struck me as a rather unfortunate misreading of what the idea of Andrew W.K. was all about. But whether you agree or disagree with Graves, her piece was just the latest installment in a long history of theorizing about what Andrew W.K. means. The best person to talk about this, of course, is Andrew W.K. himself, which is why I was delighted to get the chance to have lunch with him in New York last week.

It turns out that one meets Andrew W.K. for lunch at Odessa, an Eastern European institution on Avenue A most often visited after 2 AM and under the influence of perilous quantities of alcohol. He is, in fact, in the midst of a publicity push for a popular liquor brand. And more interestingly, he’s smart enough to realize that Andrew W.K. is a valuable brand in itself: a recognizable aesthetic (even today he’s in his trademark white T-shirt and jeans), a sense of what that aesthetic represents (partying!), a sense of continuity and consistency. “I don’t like using the word ‘brand’ usually to describe what I do,” he tells me. “But with that question in mind: I’m a brand too!”

He also speaks about how advertising fascinates him, which perhaps isn’t entirely surprising given how much of the Andrew W.K. project is about image construction. “I like things that you can identify and say, ‘That’s this thing,'” he explains. “When I think about people I like — Trix’s rabbit, the Lucky Charms man — those are appealing characters to me. I don’t know exactly why. Or even something like Mickey Mouse. You know, it’s reliable. You can turn to it time and time again. And it provides you a consistent offering. It’s very vast in that, but it’s sort of a doorway, an entry point. You can go to this door to get at this certain thing and go to this certain place.”

There have always been people who’ve dismissed the whole idea of Andrew W.K. as being contrived, accusing his persona of being “fake” and even suggesting that multiple people have played the role. The thing is, though, that the man himself has never been anything but forthright about the fact that, yes, Andrew W.K. is a performance. Today, he describes the idea as follows: “In Times Square, or in Las Vegas, for example, there are these very flashy, bright signs and entryways into a casino or a movie theater or a business or a place, where they want you to come in. So I wanted to create something that was loud and clear, so you could say it cut through everything, or maybe it adds to the noise, but where you say, ‘Oh, if I go to this thing, this is what I’m going to get.’ I wanted that thing, that once you walk through that — that maybe a very tight door, a very specific door — that you could really go anywhere. If I was going to do something, it should be able to be about everything. And that’s a tall order, but I figure I might as well try to go for it.”

In other words, the entire Andrew W.K. project — the music, the shows, the parties, the aesthetic — was a vessel for an idea. I’ve written before about how you can trace a distinct and coherent philosophy underpinning pretty much all his work, and joked that someday someone will write a PhD thesis about him. As it turns out, though, they mightn’t need to, because Andrew is writing a book himself: The Philosophy of Partying, due out some time next year. “It’s the most challenging thing I’ve ever done. It’s not about my life, it’s about life, in general, and that’s just a big topic,” he observes, laughing. “So it’s the culmination of everything…. [and] it’s been overwhelming in ways that I never, ever would’ve expected. It’s like, ‘Well, I’ve been writing this advice column… it’ll just be like a thousand advice columns!’ But it’s not. It’s like one giant — it’s not even an advice column, it’s not even advice, it’s sort of beyond or before advice. At least that’s what I’ve tried to do, and sometimes it seems very embarrassing. Why should I have even thought of doing this, because I’m not very educated in the traditional sense? And I don’t have a lot of experience talking about this stuff that I’m trying to talk about. But I think everybody does [have] an experience with being alive, so [I’ll] work with that and hopefully people can relate to it.”

A decade and a half into his career, Andrew describes his philosophy in very simple terms: “To have fun before you die.” Put like that, it sounds like unconstrained hedonism, but it’s more than that. Returning to the theme later, he explains that it’s about seeking and perpetuating joy: “When I had moments of feeling really good, I could either think this is a fluke, it only happens once in a while — but even if it is, is there a way to have that happen a little more than once in a while? And is there a way to have it happen even a little bit more? What if I made my whole mission to feel that state or be able to manipulate that state to your real power? Or maybe trying to pursue feeling that way all the time? I [was] really angry and depressed, and [I thought], ‘There’s gotta be a better way to feel.’ And I figured other people are probably experiencing some of that as well.”

Which brings us back to Meredith Graves. She’s not the first to observe that, off stage, Andrew W.K. is quiet and reserved and often rather downbeat. Of course he is. You don’t devote your life to trying to conjure joy if you wake up every morning feeling great; you just go out and feel great. It’s those of us who don’t feel great every day who have to spend time formulating strategies to cope. In the past, he’s been pretty open about having suffered from depression, and in fact, the entire process of Andrew Wilkes-Krier becoming Andrew W.K. was rooted in the experience of dealing with depression.

“[Sometimes people say] that Andrew W.K. is not actually really cheerful, and it’s all a big show,” he sighs. “But that’s the whole thing, the show is to try to cheer myself up! It began very much about a personal thing, actually… [What] I thought was really interesting about some of those debates was the idea that someone who’s focusing on a cheerful state of mind should naturally be cheerful. In fact, it’s the exact opposite. The person who needs to be cheered up, needs to be cheered up! And they’re gonna develop those skills, like someone who has dark brown hair doesn’t need for their hair to be dyed. It’s like hair dye for your soul. To bring it from gray into vibrant, chocolate brown. Or whatever color you have in mind. Someone had to invent that. If there was no need for it, then there [would have been] no need to invent it.”

“I have met people who are just inherently cheerful,” Andrew continues. “It’s amazing, it’s baffling, I’m in awe of them. In some ways they do understand what I’m trying to do, they just don’t see why it’s so hard, maybe. But for me, it has been hard. It gets easier, like so many different tricks that can get me out of a bad mood, but I think that was all part of what I was meant to do. I was meant to go through all those viewings and grapple with them so I could be motivated to have a mission in life.”

He returns often to this sense of having a mission, and how all his experiences have led him to the point where he can share his ideas with the world. “As someone who did feel [depression] — and still has — it’s only become more important to me to stay close to that joy. I’m not hiding the fact that I’ve had these struggles. I’m actually very thankful that I’ve had these struggles, in a way, because they inspired me to do this,” he says. The book is the latest installment in a strange and fascinating career arc — the unexplained legal troubles that hamstrung him for much of the 2000s, the motivational speaking, the advice column, and all the rest. Five years ago, the only other time we met, he told me that the legal issues had been largely resolved — but there’s still no new Andrew W.K. album. Why not?

“Since we talked,” he says, “there were some really frustrating times. It was actually a really big transition for me: [I thought that] after [the legal issues] were resolved, all the things that I wanted to do would just fall into place. What was much more confounding and frustrating [was] to see that [the newfound freedom] made no difference at all. The things that I had wanted and planned on doing, they almost became an obsession because I couldn’t do them… it was like, if you were sick for a long time, you would think of all the different things you were going to do when you were well, [but] once you’re well, it was like it wasn’t that you didn’t want to do them, it’s just that things didn’t line up. It made it seem like all along I wasn’t meant to do those things. And now that I have the freedom to, I still can’t. Or, not that I couldn’t, but that opportunities came along, of all different sorts, that I never would have predicted, that seemed very clear that I was meant to do these things.”

There’s an idea in Buddhism, I venture, that a lot of unhappiness comes from grasping at things, and once you stop doing that, you’re free to let life take you where it will. Andrew nods in agreement, and says, “It seems completely contradictory, though, when you have such a drive, to think that you can be driven and drive yourself forward without doing those things, without saying, ‘OK, now I’m going to do A, B, C, D, E.’ And I’ve seen a lot of people that I really respect seem to be clearly doing that, and I would urge that them to consider that maybe they’re not planning it as much as they think. Or maybe it just works different for different people. But the more I relinquish control, and also backtracked and realized maybe I wasn’t ever in control as much as I thought, the more exciting life has gotten.”

And partying is kind of about losing control anyway, right? “Exactly. It’s like controlling the act of losing control. Or feeling at home within a very confusing and perplexing place.”