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A Conversation with Andrew W.K. on Mental Health and How Music Keeps Him Sane

When I Get Wet landed in record stores in the fall of 2001, listeners didn’t know what hit them. A buzzsaw of head-banging intensity, shouted vocals and hyperactive power chords, the debut of singer-songwriter Andrew W.K. felt like the sound of the craziest party ever. But because W.K. kept his lyrical themes so simple — song titles included “It’s Time to Party,” “Party Hard” and “Don’t Stop Living in the Red” — it almost seemed as if a conceptual artist had devised a brilliant parody of the rock-till-you-drop lifestyle.

Far from it, however.

In the last two decades, the 38-year-old musician, born Andrew Fetterly Wilkes-Krier, has been nothing but honest about his need to find spiritual release through anthem-ready arena rock. Yet his mission isn’t confined to just music. He’s also spent time writing an advice column for The Village Voice, answering reader questions that touched on depression, relationships, grieving and discovering one’s purpose. These were serious inquiries, and W.K. answered them with touching candor, speaking openly about his own depression and being an ally to his readers. (He often closed his responses with “Your friend, Andrew W.K.”) At the same time, he’s done motivational speaking tours and even tried starting his own political party. (“Could we make a political party that put partying first and politics last?” the musician said at the time. “I thought it was time to try.”)

Amidst all that, though, W.K. has faced his share of setbacks. Alongside lifelong battles with, as he describes it, “feeling really bad,” he was embroiled in years of legal issues that kept him from putting out new music. (When the disputes ended, he celebrated with the release of 2009’s 55 Cadillac, an album of piano instrumentals.) And now he’s back with You’re Not Alone, which finds him tapping back into the super-charged rock euphoria of I Get Wet, albeit from a wiser, more enlightened perspective. The songs still shake the walls, but he’s moved away from just partying to speaking more overtly about how music (and partying) can help us feel alive.

And for W.K., that’s not a metaphor: As he tells MEL during a lengthy interview, music is the power source that’s sustained him during his darkest moments.

It’s not just his fans who have responded to his soul-saving rock ’n’ roll either. Last month, the American Association of Suicidology named the musician its Person of the Year. The organization’s head, Julie Cerel, explained, “Andrew’s message resonates with the field of suicide prevention in that he encourages people to use their capabilities to create a life worth living.” W.K. acknowledged the award in a heartfelt statement that read, in part, “My story is a familiar one: from a young age, I felt consistently uneasy in the world, and thus began an ongoing search for something to quell the sense of wrongness inside of me. I was lucky enough to discover a life’s work which not only transmuted my darker tendencies into something brighter and more deserving of my energy, but also allowed me to amplify and share that quest with others.”

Not that the darkness has completely left him. Early on in our interview, he admits that the negative voices he often hears were affecting his ability to answer questions about his music and his ambitions. Nonetheless, he’s thoughtful and inspiring company, unafraid to dissect the parts of himself that make him anxious.

What follows then is a frank discussion of depression, self-doubt and the ways in which music can help people — especially the artist making it. But our chat wasn’t all about mental health and staring into the abyss: W.K. also sounds off on why he’s always wearing white; whether he considers himself the Tony Robbins of rock; and why every song he writes is a love song.

Congratulations on your American Association of Suicidology honor. How did you find out you were receiving it?
I found out about it pretty close to the formal public announcement, which was only a few weeks ago, and I’m still processing it. I’m obviously flattered and humbled but primarily surprised — shocked, really — that an organization made up of medical professionals, psychologists and esteemed scholarly figures who have devoted their life to rigorous engagement with this social crisis chose to associate themselves with me, someone who has no medical training and no familiarity in any traditional sense in this field of study.

But certainly I’m familiar with the intensity of feelings and emotions, and I’m very happy to accept the award on behalf of music itself and musicians of all stripes, because I feel like that’s how I relate to the lifesaving, life-affirming and life-force feeling that [is music].

You’ve been very upfront about your struggles with depression. It’s refreshing to hear someone be so forthcoming about that and not worry about the stigma that it still carries in our society.
I hadn’t thought about it in those terms — I wasn’t aware that there was a stigma. I also don’t know much about the diagnostic side of what’s called mental health. Even the term “depression” is a clinical term — I just thought it was feeling really bad. So out of respect for people who have been diagnosed with it, I should say I’ve never been diagnosed by a doctor. I just felt what I would call “bad” most of my life, up to this very moment.

If there was a way that I could completely free myself of this feeling — actually, I don’t even know what that would be like. I can’t even imagine not having this lingering sensation inside. I’ve gotten more and more used to it.

What prompted you to start talking about these feelings publicly?
I was encouraged when other figures — especially people who I wouldn’t have expected to feel a similar way as I have — came forward to talk about this, specifically Terry Bradshaw. He’s a gregarious and intense guy, and successful in just about everything he’s done. He’s so extroverted and animated in his work in sports and television that I was really struck by him talking about the fact that he feels different ways. I realized, “Wow, if that had this really powerful impact on me, maybe someone else out there…”

I just assumed everyone kind of understood, but then I realized, “Well, I didn’t assume that about him, so maybe people shouldn’t assume that I feel great all the time.” In fact, quite the contrary: To me, it’s obvious, ’cause I’m inside [me], but sometimes you just want to put it out there for other people, with the hope that they’ll connect and say, “Hey, I relate to that feeling, too.”

Overall, I think some of these stigmas are natural. I don’t want to feel like this — I’m not proud of it, I’m not ashamed of it, I don’t really have an opinion about it. I mean, I’m not proud that I’m the height I am or wish that I was taller — it feels, to an extent, a fact of nature. But [feeling bad] is something that I do have some ability to influence, thank goodness. There’s times when it seems impossible to imagine feeling another way, but then I’ll remember, “Well, I came out of a feeling like this that maybe lasted three or four days and then eventually did go away or changed a little bit.”

I don’t know: I’m so ill-equipped to think about it past a certain point.

You say you don’t have any scientific background in mental health, but do you think that’s why people listen to you — you’re just honest and speak directly from your own experience as a layperson?
Maybe so. The only way I can think about it is to not think about, essentially. The more I think about this topic — the more I think about this line of conversation or even this side of the work I’ve done — the more conflicted I feel about it and the more negative I feel about it. But that’s in my mind — that’s coming from this introspective, self-critical, analytical, very overwrought or at least very distraught stream of inner dialogue. It’s a cacophony of rage, brutal frustration, confusion and inability to make heads or tails of these things, and that’s going on the whole time.

But there’s something, fortunately, that runs beneath that and above that, which is coming from my heart that says, “I should do this, and I don’t need to have an opinion about it. I should talk about this. I don’t need to feel good about it — this is what I’m supposed to do. It’s not my concern what it means or what impact it’s gonna have or anything like that.” That’s the only way I can operate — or do anything.

I’m so anguished about my work that at some point I have to eliminate myself from it. I have to just do what I feel like I’m told to do by this intuition, against what seems to be my better judgment, my rational mind or my doubts, fears and frustrations.

Today has been a real ordeal for me in that regard, because I’ve been feeling extraordinarily frustrated and unhappy with how I’ve been describing even what we’re talking about now. That begins to become a vicious cycle too, because the more I try to talk about it, the more frustrated I get at my inability to express myself properly. And then I begin to second-guess what I said, and then I think back to what I said earlier today [in other interviews] and can’t believe that I’m messing up again in the same way. And then I get frustrated — I get sidetracked by these thoughts — and it descends into madness. I have to, at some point, set all that aside and still do the work.

But, you know, these are quality problems to have — that’s not lost on me.

I get that: It’s hard to put aside the self-critical side of your brain, the part that always wants to do better, and just trust that it’s going okay and be in the moment.
I’m glad you can relate — there’s some genuine comfort in that. I don’t know what it is to not live in the present moment. That concept is very puzzling to me — I don’t understand how anything cannot be happening in the present moment. I also fully relate to what you said about walking this tightrope between wanting to improve and studying what you’ve done and also [being] this kind of happy-go-lucky, just-do-your-best-and-let-it-go person.

I think actually accepting confusion is about the best place I’ve been able to get to. I’m always going to feel confused to some degree — I’m not going to find this elusive clarity where everything is going to make sense. The further I go into life, the less clear and distinct things become.

I wonder if it’s also becoming okay with the idea that there are some struggles that you just never get over — they’re always going to be part of you.
It’s a paradox — to make peace with not being at peace.

You said music has been a lifesaving force. What was your first memory of music?
Before I ever heard bands or owned albums, there were piano lessons. I don’t have any childhood memories that are separate from piano. There was always a piano in the house that my dad was playing. I was fascinated by that, as a child often is fascinated by whatever their dad’s engaged in — especially when you see your father concentrating on something. By age four, I started playing in earnest by myself, and by around age five, I started formal, traditional piano lessons. Those were the first experiences with all these feelings — I was fascinated with the piano as an object, as this machine and this tool that could make these sounds. There was a visceral response.

My piano teachers were graduate students at the University of Michigan Music School, and they’d play something for me that they were working on. That’s the first time I encountered this soul orgasm of music — these chills and butterflies in the stomach and this physical shift that changed the way it felt to be alive. The first time it happened, I probably was a little taken aback — my brain hadn’t even processed this type of experience. The synapses were probably just connecting for the first time to fire the neurons and for sensations like this to be felt. But once I realized that this wasn’t a fluke — that you could go to music again and again and have the same experience, or even more intense versions of it — I was hooked.

I realized there really was something in life that was similar on a subconscious level to the love that I felt from my parents and something as primal as the nourishment that you would get from food and shelter. There was a benevolent source in the heart of music that was desperately trying to communicate to me and give me that feeling that proved to me that life had an inherent goodness.

When did the switch get flipped to make a career out of it?
It wasn’t until age 18 or 19, after I moved to New York City and a lot of personal ambitions all crumbled very quickly, that destiny revealed my path to me. On one hand, it was a surprise, but on the other — in an almost underwhelming, kind of obvious way — it seemed like, “Of course this is what I’m supposed to do, because this is what I spent the most time doing anyway.”

What were the personal ambitions that crumbled?
I moved to New York specifically for a job with a fashion company called Comme des Garcons, which is a Japanese, almost experimental clothing company that’s been around for a very long time, since the late 1960s or early 1970s. When I was 15, I wrote a letter to the designer, this woman named Rei Kawakubo, and said I wanted to work for her company. Amazingly enough, they wrote back and said, “Well, if you’re really serious, contact us in three years when you’re 18 and we’ll give you a job in New York.”

My main ambition was to be a fashion designer, and that lasted about two months before I was fired. I was quite devastated. I thought that the way life worked was you developed interests, you define a dream for yourself, you set goals based on those dreams and you push toward that dream on the horizon. It never occurred to me that your dream can dream you and pull you toward it.

There can be this feeling of a letdown — there’s so much pride that comes from the sense of being self-made and [believing] that you designed your life, you had these plans, and you made it happen. But for me, it’s almost been the exact opposite: All the greatest things that have ever happened to me were things I never would’ve had the nerve to dream up. And once I turn myself over to that — I mean, here I am 20 years later, and none of it was ever a plan that I could’ve imagined for myself. It was all the work of forces that I don’t understand.

So with your new album You’re Not Alone, there’s no design at all?
I’ve been struggling for months now talking about the album — I’m even struggling just personally to try to understand how this all happened. Part of that struggle is I don’t like describing it — I don’t know how I did it, and I don’t know how it happened. In the midst of it, as we’re recording, it doesn’t feel like some mysterious process — it seems straightforward and focused. But once it’s all done and I look at what happened, there’s this sense of cohesion that I know I didn’t plan and I didn’t even know I was executing. For better or worse, it’s just spontaneity — but a real protracted, tedious kind of spontaneity.

Many people think of spontaneity as this quick, kind of impulsive, rapid-fire type of execution. But you can work spontaneously in a slow-motion style, and that’s what this album was. There’s material on here that I’ve been working on, in one way or another, since 2005 or 2006. There was no way through the circumstances surrounding the recording process — some of the ups and down and uninteresting contractual complications and business stuff — to make it cohesive. It had to emerge out of chaos.

The only thing that was consistent was these bursts of physical effort, but I didn’t know what that physical effort was necessarily going toward. I just liberated myself of having to know where it was going, to know where a song was headed, to know what the song was even about. I completely turned myself over to that intuition, because what’s the worst-case scenario? You finish this burst of effort and it’s not good? Then you can let it go.

Even though it’s very scary, I have faith in following that impulse and that strange, foggy subconscious emotional spark and keeping my eye on it and tuning out all those doubts — all that mental noise. I mean, I can’t actually tune it out — it’s going on the whole time — but I still just put one foot in front of the other and do the work. It seems like, as long as you do that, you’ll get something out of it that will be something.

Some of the initial reviews have described the album being aspirational or inspirational. I assume that’s intentional on your part?
Well, the only idea — the only concept, if I even dare call it a concept — since Day One with all my work was to try to conjure up this essential kind of energizing feeling. And that’s first and foremost for myself — to make me want to stay living, to try to find ways to access that benevolent power that I felt from those early years first hearing those piano teachers play. How can I stay close to that feeling? How can I make more of that feeling? How can I amplify that feeling? How can I share that feeling with other people? But always first is, “How can I feel that so that I don’t want to die?” It’s like food — it’s an essential fuel for life. That’s the goal, so every song is an attempt to get to that place and to make that feeling.

There are many ways to describe that feeling — it’s beyond definition. That’s why I end up resorting to these kinda hazy descriptions, like a life-force feeling. But the feeling is motivating and inspiring and creates a sense of optimism and hope. There’s all kinds of emotions that you can attach to it, but it transcends emotion for me or even subverts emotion. It’s the feeling of life having meaning without necessarily knowing what that meaning is.

You’ve been called a “rock ’n’ roll Tony Robbins” because of your motivational speaking tours, and You’re Not Alone contains these spoken-word interludes that are like little pep talks. I know you’re doing all that for your audience, but I also feel like those are for you — like you’re talking to yourself because you need that.
That’s an extraordinarily accurate way to describe it. I’m coming from a severe deficit of these [positive] feelings, which is why I have to make them. If I felt great, I don’t think it would occur to me to do any of this work — I’m not proud to say [this], but it probably wouldn’t have occurred to me to make other people feel great. I’m in a desperate, strange, emotional [place], but at this point, I’m almost perversely thankful for that, because I would’ve never otherwise been motivated to try to change the way I felt.

But I’m preaching to myself. The whole Andrew W.K. experience is basically me looking in the mirror saying, “Come on, Andrew, cheer up.” I’m presenting it in a public forum, but I don’t think it occurred to me that other people would feel it the same way. You hope that anyone else will get anything out of it, but you dare not dream of that either, ’cause you can be very disappointed. But even if one other person gets that feeling from it besides yourself, you got a surplus of good results.

I Get Wet was so sincere in its unabashed desire to party that a lot of people — me included — weren’t sure if it was a parody. Did that surprise you?
To me, this is all so straightforward, because I’m so close to it. My strategy has been, the more intense I can make this [music], the more people will see what it is. You want to grab someone and shake them by their shoulders and say, “I’m just trying to make this great feeling.” But it’s very confrontational, very intense, to grab someone sonically and get in their face. That’s a bit overwhelming, so it’s completely understandable that people could be taken aback — or they have to protect themselves from something coming at them very hard.

It’s a distancing mechanism to question things, to doubt things — I do it with myself. [Some] people have to have time to contemplate [what I’m doing], although there are those people that, for whatever reason, are courageous and strong and don’t have to question this. Not everybody wants overwhelming experiences, but I want to be overwhelmed. What snaps me out of that mental spiral of confusion and despair is to be overwhelmed by pure feeling that’s so strong that it’s stronger than my doubt — stronger than my flaws — and it takes me into that perfect space of truth that I can’t fully apprehend or digest. I can just revel in it.

I think it’s the purity of the experience you create that can make people uncomfortable. We live in a society that’s cynical and suspicious of sincerity — and your music is nothing but sincere.
It’s okay — skepticism is healthy, and it’s a necessary attitude to use strategically in a complicated world. It’s healthy for people to question [my motivations] because it also forces me to develop my somewhat limited abilities of trying to explain what I’m doing. I’m very thankful for the people who have that skeptical eye, but I think that skepticism for the sake of limiting intimacy is unhealthy and sad — it’s a tragedy. When we equate a kind of detached sophistication with intelligence — or emotional intelligence — we’re really depriving ourselves of joyful, spiritual experiences that we deserve to have.

We’ve come to know the “Andrew W.K. look” as the white T-shirt and white denim jeans. Was there a strategy behind that?
[In my work,] there may have been inspirations or motivations, but those are often just to get me out the door. So, with the clothing, I just noticed [white] showed up better in photos. But is that really the reason why? I don’t know. The bloody nose [on the cover of I Get Wet]? That was a striking image. Was there something I had in mind? Not on a conscious level.

I’m interested in analyzing that side of the work to some extent, but it involves that mental side of things, where my second-guessing and my doubt can overtake my ability to muster up the physical energy necessary to carry out the work. I have to be careful. It’s easy to look back and interpret a lot of decision-making and find exciting interpretations, but I don’t even know if any of it matters.

The celebration of partying has been so central to your work. You’ve said in the past that you’re not necessarily talking about literal partying — it’s almost more of a euphoric mindset. I’m curious how this “partying” philosophy came to you.
Being the person who’s never been quite sure if being alive is a good thing, I wanted to find some mindset that forced me to think, Well, maybe I don’t know if life is good or not, but I can decide to celebrate it as though it is a good thing and that it was good to be born. So my attitude is, “It’s all one big celebration, whether it feels like that or not.”

But you have to have some mode of operation — some deep, internal, fundamental mindset. I wanted to make one that was as approachable and as inviting and as fun as possible. Even if life isn’t what we would define as “fun,” it’s still an ideal that I’d like to strive for.

In between albums — or when you were dealing with legal issues — how were you able to find an outlet to keep in touch with that joy?
I never formally took a break or stopped recording, or stopped playing piano or stopped playing shows. I will say, though, there were times when I wasn’t at my best, and aggressively so — [I had a] full commitment to going into my worst. I’d done that a few times over my life, where I either gave up hope or I was tricked into thinking that the worst I could be was somehow the answer. And I gave myself over to that [sentiment] with more fervent enthusiasm than I’d ever done before.

That lasted for many years, and maybe I just [needed] that final test to show myself that that wasn’t the answer. Of course, I already knew that, but sometimes you have to experience it to really drive the point home.

When it got really dark, how did you turn it around?
There was one point when I realized I possibly wasn’t going to be able to do this work anymore ever again — you know, that I could fully fall into that abyss and let go and that would be it. But I felt a sense of guilt: I’d had all these incredible opportunities and all these amazing people give so much to me and give me so many chances. I had this life that was so spectacular, and I was going to throw it away for nothing — out of laziness or weakness, or out of spite to destroy it intentionally. It’s malevolent and sinister to take a beautiful thing and crush it — I’ve always been very susceptible to that. My life has been trying to find ways to subvert those impulses and redirect that sadistic urge toward a positive outcome. It’s really just turning lead into gold — the very age-old story of trying to become worthy of your own life.

Like a lot of people, I loved your Village Voice advice column. Did you feel anxious knowing that readers were turning to you during their darkest moments?
Well, the questions were anonymous — I didn’t know the person, and I didn’t even have their name. So that was helpful: It just presented the question as a question about life that I could relate to. Not to say that it took away the reality of that question actually being from a real person that has a real life that’s dealing with real situations and real problems. But approaching it in a very detached way was necessary.

Basically, I’d imagine, What would the greatest human being in the world say? If I could put myself in the highest mind that I have the capacity to reach, what would emerge as an answer? It was an enjoyable but challenging and deeply rewarding exercise. I realized that I myself and everybody else does have a higher mind that exists if we quiet all those irritating and nagging voices that are distracting us from what would be the right thing to do and the right way to live. It doesn’t mean we’ll always be correct, but there is this sort of upward trend toward some point of invisible perfection that we can at least inch toward. I’d imagine, What would my mom say? Or, If I was to talk to a wizard, what would a wizard tell me to do in this situation? But this is a very traditional exercise, giving yourself access to the best part of yourself and trying to live from that point of observation and action.

You’re not a guy who writes many love songs. Why is that?
I mean, they’re all love songs in my mind. They’re all love songs about life, about partying, about music. Pure love defies our ability to attach it to a certain dynamic. That’s the ultimate — the love of reality, the love of god, the love of all things that we can — and can’t — fathom.

I’m probably biting off more than I can chew, but to me, that love is the feeling that a great chord change gives. Love is what you’re feeling when a drum-fill hits you that certain way. Love is the feeling that makes music come to life in your soul, but it’s not romantic love in the traditional sense. I mean, romantic love is a reflection of that. This highest form of love — it’s not able to be understood or described, but it is able to be experienced, and music is one of the ways to get there.