Free At Last

In September 2009, Andrew Wilkes-Krier – the man known to the music world as Andrew WK – penned a piece for The Guardian in the UK. Under the headline “I Am Finally A Free Man”, Wilkes-Krier celebrated the release of his first album in four years – a series of piano pieces called Cadillac 55 – with 500 words that alluded to a series of legal problems that had derailed his career over the past decade.

It was the latest chapter in one of rock’n’roll’s strangest stories. The music world is full of artists whose on-stage personas have been separate from their real-life personalities, but even so, the question of where Andrew Wilkes-Krier began and Andrew WK ended has been a vexed one over the years. Almost as soon as he emerged with his 2001 debut I Get Wet, the rumours started: Andrew WK wasn’t a real person. He was an actor playing a role. He was the face of some sort of major label conspiracy. There was a shadowy figure called “Steev Mike” behind it all. Or something.

The rumours only got weirder as the years passed: the current Andrew WK was a different person to the first one. In fairness, Wilkes-Krier’s occasional cryptic pronouncements on the subject didn’t help. But now, after a decade, Andrew Wilkes-Krier is starting to talk about the whole strange business. Sort of. And the truth – or as much of it as he’s able to reveal, anyway – is both far more mundane and far stranger than anything you might read on the internet about brainwashing and the Illuminati.

Sitting down with Inpress at his favourite burger joint in midtown Manhattan, dressed, as ever, in his white jeans and white t-shirt, Wilkes-Krier says, “I’ve avoided talking about a lot of this stuff over the years, because I didn’t find it to be crucial to [the message] I was trying to get across. I’ve gone through denying it, ignoring it, pretending to be responsible for it, denying the whole thing ever happened… I figured that people would focus on what really matters, or on what I hoped they’d find interesting. But I’ve realised that you can’t really decide what people are going to focus on. You can’t tell people what to think, and to a large degree, you really have no control over anything. You barely have control over your own life.”

He delivers the last sentence with a sort of rueful resignation – there’s nothing bitter in the man at all, but you certainly get the impression that the last few years have been a trial. He’s as charismatic and open in person as he appears on stage, coming across as courteous, charming, engaging and remarkably generous-spirited; there’s an air of weariness about him, though, an abiding melancholy that seems to counterpoint his naturally sunny disposition.

But anyway, the facts. Andrew WK’s last record (discounting 55 Cadillac, of which more shortly), Close Calls with Brick Walls, was released in Japan in 2006, but otherwise only got a worldwide release late last year. Over the past five years, he’s been working mainly as a motivational speaker, playing the occasional one-off gig and doing the occasional remix, as well as helming a TV show called Destroy Build Destroy. This career shift, it transpires, has not been entirely down to him.

Exactly what happened is something that will ultimately remain between Wilkes-Krier and a series of parties with whom he’s been involved in some sort of legal conflict for the latter part of the last decade. But this much is clear: there are unnamed people who have been involved with the Andrew WK phenomenon since the start, and somehow, at some point, Wilkes-Krier’s relationship with those people went very, very sour.

When he penned the piece for The Guardian, Wilkes-Krier did so in the belief that he’d finally found a way to circumvent the legal strictures that bound him. He released 55 Cadillac on his own label, Skyscraper Music Maker, which was apparently incorporated in the UK as a legal measure to avoid litigation. But as it turned out, this didn’t fly – as evidenced by the fact he was forced to change the name of the label to… Steev Mike.

“Throughout the negotiations,” he says, “one of the main stipulations that we fought back and forth about was that the label name had to be changed to Steev Mike, which to me was the most blatant… There was no reason to do that, other than… I felt, other than to slap me in the face and say, ‘You don’t have this, and this is not your thing.’ They said, ‘We don’t want people thinking that you’re getting credit for something that we should have a piece of.’ And I was like, ‘Why do you care? It’s a name.’ They said, ‘We don’t care about getting credit, we just don’t want you to get credit.’ Even that name to me is full of painful associations and bad vibes, and something I’d like to not be out there. So [to have that as the name of the label] was very aggressive and just very dark. A very dark vibe.”

But still, in the end, he relented. “In a way, I’m glad that [the legal fight over the label] happened. It had to do with me handing over a lot of things, and finally letting go of… really of matters of pride and ego, wanting to have credit for things that I felt like I deserved, and saying, ‘You know what? Who cares? If I can keep working and be at peace, I’m willing to let go of those things.’ And I think things are better now than they ever were. I may have less power in some ways, but I think it’s better for the big picture. It inflamed everything, but because it did, it also allowed us to resolve everything once and for all.”

And this is as specific as he’ll get about the whole situation – except to confirm, for the record, “There’s only been one Andrew WK,” and that he’s not mind-controlled by anyone. Phew. Exactly who he’s been in conflict with will remain a mystery for one simple reason: Wilkes-Krier is bound by a confidentiality agreement. He can’t say who they are. This also seems to explain his roundabout answers to various questions he’s been asked over the years.

“There’s a very small group of people – really just three people – who have chosen to be anonymous,” he explains. “When they asked that in the beginning, it seemed like the smallest, littlest, least important detail you could imagine. But as time went on, for various reasons it ended up becoming a bigger deal. I guess it’s just the nature of keeping a secret – it makes people assume there’s something suspicious. But it really isn’t. My guess is – and even this I maybe shouldn’t say – the majority of people wouldn’t even know who they were.”

Things seem to have gone bad between Wilkes-Krier and his unnamed collaborators around 2005. “[That you have no control over your life] was made very clear to me over the last five years, when things really got crazy. A lot of seeds that had been planted blossomed into strange and potentially deadly plants,” he says of that time. “Kinda like Venus flytraps. Meat-eating, life-sucking plants.”

The results of the conflict were dramatic. For a start, there were no Andrew WK records, obviously (apart from the Japanese release of Close Calls With Brick Walls), nor were there Andrew WK tours. Wilkes-Krier says that as a result of recent developments, he’s been able to book some shows: “In 2010, we’ve had all these new freedoms. We played at South By Southwest, and now we’re going to Japan with the full band, and looking to book full US and world tours for 2011/12. Just to be able to be playing with my band again is a huge deal.”

Inpress asks if we can imply from this that he was prevented from touring. He hesitates, then says, “It… it depends how you look at it. I’d rather not get into the specifics of what happened with that. We were playing one-off shows pretty consistently, but in terms of being able to tour as Andrew WK… That was something we had to work out.”

It also seems that his shift into motivational speaking wasn’t entirely voluntary – at first, anyway. “There was a moment there where I had a choice to make about what direction to go in and what to do. It got to a point where I was advised that giving up music would be for the best. I’ve never really talked about it, and it wasn’t said that specifically, but…”

It was implied?

“Yeah. It was like, ‘Hey, this New Age thing, this is what you were meant to do, and it was always the whole thing, and we were just setting it up for this.’ It was a very disillusioning time, and a very upsetting time.”

However, as it turned out, he was good at it. And he enjoyed it. “I realised it could be an effective way to generate some excitement and joy, much like music could. So then I felt a little better about the whole situation, that even if it was forced upon me in a way, and I didn’t think it was going to work, it actually did. And it opened up all these doors. So once again, this terrible thing that happened ended up opening my horizons, and now I get to have one more thing that I’ve done in life. Ultimately, now, that’s how I’d advise anyone on life: to accumulate experience, to take on a vast array of experience, so as a whole person you can reflect and say, ‘Hey, I got to do all these different things.’ You can’t take that away, no matter how crazy or bad a decision it was.”

This is a theme to which Wilkes-Krier returns over the course of our discussion. It’s easy to be cynical about his party-centric positivist philosophy, but talking to him, you get the impression that if nothing else, it’s something in which he truly and honestly believes. He never once shies away from taking responsibility for his problems – indeed, if anything, he seems to over-compensate, suggesting at one point, “I take responsibility for a lot of it in that none of it would have ever happened if I didn’t make the choices I made. For that reason, I’m the cause of the whole thing.”

Indeed, there’s a strange Luke Rhinehart vibe about him at times; when we discuss his early years in Ann Arbor, Michigan, he talks a little about a philosophy he adopted in his youth. “I always wanted to think that I was in charge of my life and my destiny. But throughout life, I’ve realised that contradicting my impulses can be a good exercise: specifically going against my instinct, going against everything I believed in and stood for… testing myself, I guess, to see what would happen. That’s how things developed to a large degree, to even allow me to move to New York and start this whole thing.” But, as he also acknowledges, “ That’s how I get myself into these crazy situations.”

Toward the end of our discussion, Inpress apologizes for dwelling so much on his legal troubles during this interview. He interrupts before we’ve even finished the sentence. “No, it’s OK. It feels good to talk about it, in a way. That’s the thing, though: I don’t see them as troubles. Everyone is tested by something, and I would be a very lucky man if this was the extent of my tests in this life, because really it’s been nothing but a series of twists and turns on a very strange road, and I already have friends who have dealt with much worse than I have.”

And finally, things are looking up. “Almost all of [the drama] has been resolved. Almost everything that’s been holding us back has been resolved. I was always confident that things would work out, and that everything was happening for a reason, and to make the most of it, and to keep partying throughout. That was my motivation, and that fortunately kept things alive and brought us to where we are now. I think now things are better than they’ve ever been, and that gives me a lot of optimism and enlightenment for the future.”

We discuss his plans for the future – as well as the aforementioned tours, a new album is on the cards – and by the end of our interview, it’s hard not to form a view that this is a man very much more sinned against than sinning. But, as ever, Wilkes-Krier refuses to feel sorry for himself. “There was a feeling of waiting for things to get back to normal, and then realising that they never would, and that it was silly to keep thinking like that, and better to realise that nothing being normal is the new normal. Everything being out of whack is what I should get used to.

He chuckles ruefully. “And I almost have found a home within that chaos. That’s what feels natural now, and if things are too routine or predictable, it starts to feel chaotic.”

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