Born to Be Alive

By now, you've seen this image everywhere: a greasy-haired, fucked-up, metalhead-looking kid with blood pouring out of his nose and running over his mouth and chin, and a worn, yet somehow gloriously undefeated look in his eyes. Maybe you were jarred awake one recent Sunday night, in the middle of 120 Minutes, and found yourself staring—in amazement or disgust—at that same fucked-up mug, attached to a tall, lean body adorned in sweat-soaked white jeans and T-shirt, banging his head like it was 1985 and commanding you to "Party Hard." Or maybe you've read the already legendary interview in NME, where he's quoted as saying, "This is not a fucking game. This is as real as death," and where he attempts to prove his authenticity to a roomful of journalists by repeatedly cutting open his face. And perhaps you've made the following assumption: Andrew W.K. is just another fame-starved, no-talent punk who thinks that—with the right shock-value gimmicks and a mammoth hype-machine behind him—he can pull one over on everybody, act out his adolescent fantasies, and snort cocaine off of strippers' tits in the back of his limo all the way to the bank. Not such a far-fetched idea—it's happened before, hasn't it?

But Andrew W.K. hasn't always had such a large audience for his antics—and he didn't always have Universal Music Group's bank account behind him, either. In his teens, he played drums in several obscure punk and metal bands in Detroit. When he was 18 in the late '90s, he moved to NYC, where he gave new definition to the term "odd job," working for a year as a bubblegum-machine salesman, among other things. At a time when the '80s had not yet become "hip," and when thrash and glam-metal were nothing but a faded joke-of-a-memory, Andrew had long since stopped his clock, ignored the FM dial, stayed true to his teenage record collection, and worked hard at evolving his sound without the interference of outside influences.

It was during that time that he wrote, played every instrument on, and recorded what was to become the adrenaline-fueled, over-the-top, loud-as-fuck, anthemic speedmetal-powerpop-punk EP Girls Own Juice. Bulb Records, a tiny Michigan indie best known for avant-garde puppetmaster and Drum Buddy inventor Quintron, had the foresight to release it in 1999, and then the equally incredible Party Til You PukeEP the following year, but have you ever heard of them? Perhaps you were one of the lucky few who caught Andrew on "tour" back then—at a local Starbucks, equipped with only a CD of his recorded music blasting through a boom box behind him, a keyboard, and microphone through which he sang/screamed, Karaoke-style.

Reclaiming party music from the Coup
photo: Danny Clinch/ Island Records
Reclaiming party music from the Coup

But how did he get from Starbucks to MTV, a hit single in England, and a top-10 album on NME's year-end critics' list? Well, it doesn't hurt when Dave Grohl somehow gets a copy of your tape and flies you out to California to open up two shows for the Foo Fighters. W.K.'s one-man show floored the sold-out crowds there, and as a matter of fact, Mr. Grohl couldn't write melodies half as catchy.

None of that really matters now, though. W.K.'s message and his music are all about living in the moment anyway, and at the moment he's touring behind an album that could rouse even Ozzy to kick the camera crew out of his house, grab a bottle of Jack, peel out of his driveway, and head out on a quest for the nearest kegger. After one listen to I Get Wet (out for months now overseas, due March 26 here on Island/Def Jam), you'll swear you've heard it before . . . but somehow, you've never heard anything like it. Sure, AWK's influences are blatantly present—Quiet Riot, Misfits, Billy Idol, Slayer, Queen, Ministry, even Prince for Christ's sake—but nobody has ever fused these sounds in quite the same way. "Party Til You Puke" starts off like a sped-up, new wave version of "Let's Go Crazy" before exploding into a chorus that carbon-copies Fear's "Let's Have a War." "Party Hard" could be "Dancing With Myself" until Andrew's WWF vocal outbursts (multi-layered and with effects, as always) kick in and the guitars carry it off to Survivor-wrestling-the-Ramones-on-crystal-meth territory. AWK's relentless keyboards (he's been playing since he was four) and the furious rock energy of his new backing band (death-metal veterans Donald "D.T." Tardy, formerly of Obituary, on drums, guitarists Jimmy Coup, E. Payne, and Sgt. Frank, and bassist Gregg R.) on songs like "She Is Beautiful" and "It's Time to Party" make your chest swell with adrenaline and euphoria.

W.K. supposedly stands for "White Killer," his father having allegedly named him after a serial murderer when he was born. I don't buy it, of course, but I like the idea. And it would be naive to think that "White Killer" isn't aware just how seductive his publicity campaign is. But it's a moot point, because what separates Andrew W.K. from the scores of other acts that mainly write about partying and girls, from all those bands that have referenced the '80s of late, is that, unlike most of them, AWK convincingly keeps his tongue far away from his cheek. "Guilty pleasure" isn't part of his vocabulary. Whether he means it or not, you believe him when he sings, "We do what we like and we like what we do." His music has nothing to do with parody or nostalgia; it's more like re-creating your first orgasm, or Christmas Eve as a kid, or skipping school. It's about remembering how, the first time you heard Twisted Sister's "We're Not Gonna Take It," it seemed to shift the chemicals in your body, and you couldn't stop moving, and you felt ecstatic and lucid and strong and couldn't get enough. Andrew W.K. isn't trying to take music back there; he's simply trying to bring that feeling up here—and it's working.

 
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