Andrew WK, let’s all just agree from the off, is awesome. Not awesome in the sense you might use to describe a sleep you’ve just had or a cupcake you ate or a gif of a baby falling off a tricycle, but in the actual dictionary-definition sense of ‘Being extremely impressive, or likely to inspire awe.’ To be clear: Andrew WK started learning classical piano at four years old, wrote one of the greatest party albums ever at 21, and has since become a motivational speaker and written two years’-worth of advice columns in Japan that were collated into a book called I Will Change Your Life. He owns a nightclub that is widely considered to be one of the best in New York city. He recorded one of the most moving love songs of the last decade. He (partly) inspired the title of this website. He is awesome in a way that shames 90% of uses of the word.
Andrew, you wrote Party Hard and It’s Time To Party over a decade ago, and just recently you wrote an incredibly well thought-out defense of partying in the Village Voice. Have you really had this party-philosophy for all that time, or is it something you’re constantly working on?
I’ve definitely developed methods of trying to explain it, thanks to people asking me. To me it seemed very inherent – in fact, that was one of the things that drew me to this idea of very pure fun was that everybody would understand it, that there was no explanation necessary. But it seems that despite – or perhaps because of the simplicity involved, some people were more skeptical or doubtful or even more confused. And that requires me to find ways to explain something, no matter how simple it may seem to me or other people. I’ve figured out more about it myself thanks to people inquiring. For me…I think young people always struggle with very bad feelings for a while, I know I did, and I was looking for very direct and potent methods of cheering myself up. And that whole mindset, this idea of partying and celebration of good feelings, devoting yourself to that as a lifestyle, a cause or a mission, just made sense to me.
Part of what really worked about it was just how one-dimensional it was – just the idea that you should spend time with things that make you feel better, on projects, and fill your mind with cheerful energy. And despite that, some people are…I don’t know if they’re puzzled by it, they just haven’t realised that you can pursue those things in good faith. That somehow, you’re sacrificing some sense of either intelligence – people think it’s stupid – or that it’s not a noble pursuit, that you should be devoting your time to things that they deem more worthy of energy. But, in my experience at least, I was very unsuccessful at doing almost anything else if I was in a bad mood. So the most important thing to me was getting in a state of mind where I could function, and then I could do whatever it was. But I wasn’t much use to anybody, especially myself, when I was feeling depressed, you know.
Just to be clear: by partying, do you mean getting drunk and dancing, or just doing things that make you happy more generally?
It includes those things.
It doesn’t really go beyond or fall short of any definition. It’s very open. So really, it can be drinking and dancing for someone, it can be entirely different for someone else. If you’re saying what’s the main mindset, I think then the mindset is just…having a mindset at all. Partying to me is almost like a game of thinking – the framework of this party state of mind is just stepping back one degree in perspective so that you can consider your thoughts, consider your state of mind and the world and your place in it from a bit of an abstract distance. And with that distance and that perspective, have a greater appreciation for it. Sort of like an awareness in general that…you’re most likely not going to live forever, I would say definitely not, but who knows how technology will advance in these coming years and what options it will give us – but a respect and admiration for the fragility of, of everything. For the temporary conditions that we’re in, for better or worse. And think about the urgency that creates. And I think that lays a foundation on which you can build. It’s very easy to get caught up in thoughts and feelings and situations that distract us from very simple truths. In fact, it could be that almost all of our pursuits in day to day life take us further from the core experience which, by its very nature is a very happy, positive experience. Trying to regain some awareness of just the basic miracle of being alive is a great place to start.
That is an amazing answer. So, with that in mind, are there things you still struggle with? Things you have to work on?
I have to work on everything, like everybody else. Or maybe not – I always feel like everyone has the same feelings as me, but then I meet some people that don’t ever seem to feel too angry, or don’t feel too sad. They’re like real angels, these people. I used to really envy people like that – I still admire them tremendously, and beginning to spend time with people like that has been really very joyful. But…I’m not sure it’s possible for me to learn to do that, I think some people are just born like that. The first feeling I always had waking up in the morning wasn’t a good feeling, it was a feeling of sort of…dread, and being overwhelmed by life, and being scared of everything, just angry and depressed. All those negative feelings, I’ve felt and continued to feel, I just try to deal with them in different ways and use them in different ways. I think in fact, a lot of the feelings that most people define as negative are some of the most motivating feelings, but sometimes not for the best. You can be pushed and driven by anger, competition, petty jealousy, by low-level feelings – and if you use them like a fuel, to burn and rid yourself of them that way, that’s fantastic. But if they consume you and become your mainstay, then they burn you up. It’s a constant battle, but there’s a lot of energy to be extracted from all those feelings. So…I’ve made peace with them. Sometimes I have to summon up those feelings, because that will make me dance harder on stage, bang my head harder…and in that sense, I don’t think they’re good or bad, they’re just feelings. We can’t really define them as good or bad – they’re just these surges of energy, and I really mean physical energy, and we can harness them however we want. Sometimes feeling too good isn’t really that great of a thing – that’s the game that you play with things like drugs or anything that gives you an immediate good feeling – it’s like, why would you bother doing anything if you can just do this and feel on top of the world effortlessly? Every feeling has its place, and it’s about trying to make the best of them.
You mention people that are effortlessly cheerful – do you think there are things that everyone else can learn from their approach to life, or is it just a natural, brain-chemistry thing?
Well, I definitely think people are made in different ways – but we also have great power to change who we are. Just thinking about thinking is a very powerful thing, having self-awareness – as far as we can tell, we’re maybe the only creatures that have it, at least to this extent. And one of the great things about it is that we can consider ourselves – not just our surroundings and what we’re faced with, but we can consider the very phenomenon of being able to consider things at all. That loop is quite thrilling, and can be really overwhelming too, but ultimately it gives us this chance to consider ourselves abstractly, and when you do that you can make adjustments. It’s not necessarily easy – it takes practice to rewire how you think, but it’s definitely possible.
So is just sitting and thinking something you try to do every day? What do you intentionally make time for?
I don’t have so much of a routine beyond eating and using the bathroom. Not having a routine has actually become the routine to a degree, so I’m very used to it, I’m hooked on that variety, the dynamics of an ever-changing schedule. But…I think thanks to all the travelling, there’s a lot of time in travelling that’s exciting and very stimulating, but there’s also a lot of quiet time, open space where you can just sit and think – whether you like it or not. I enjoy those times and appreciate them now more than I ever did before. Sometimes I would think ‘Oh this is really boring, taking this train ride, sitting at this airport, but those times I think are special to me now just to sit and be, and have an excuse, a free pass, that there’s nowhere else that I could be. People can say ‘Oh, you could be getting work done,’ but I’ve actually learned that I’m not very good at getting other work done while I’m touring or travelling. I have friends that can record an album while they’re touring, they multitask – I envy that, I really thought that I could or should be able to do it, but then I realized that I just can’t. So maybe I’ll write a song in my head, but usually I just appreciate that time to just exist.
It’s interesting that you mention thinking on planes and trains. There’s a guy [it’s Alain De Botton] who suggests that the crawl of scenery past windows actually helps trigger new trains of thought.
Oh, absolutely – but at the same time, sitting in a room just to think is very intense and definitely worth doing. It’s almost that it’s so intense that it’s hard to do, it actually takes practice, and I haven’t really done a lot of that – I guess that’s what people call meditating. But if you just sit and think as its own activity, instead of ‘Oh, I’m going to run around the block or go shopping or learn this piano part,’ you go, ‘I’m just going to sit and think about this thing,’ that’s great. And I think there’s this real misconception that the idea of meditation is to sit and not think about anything. That’s just one type of meditation, that’s a type where you intentionally work to achieve a state of non-thought. Which, it’s possible, but that’s like the most advanced…maybe 0.1% of people will get to that level. But it’s just as worthwhile to take something and think about it as hard as you can, whatever it might be. Think about cake, think about an elephant, think about yourself, think about some person – and really think about it, every aspect of it, as hard as you can. Meditating on something is very worthwhile.
Okay. Speaking of thinking of people, can I ask who inspires you personally?
…I don’t know. Everybody, I guess. I can’t really think of anyone in particular that’s more inspiring or less inspiring…I’m trying to think of a time when thinking of someone’s allowed me to call upon strength I didn’t otherwise think I would’ve had. I remember hearing about how Michael Jordan played a basketball game with a full-blown fever – and thinking about that during a moment where I felt physically down, and sort of that…but no, not anyone in particular. It’s the collective power of the human spirit to push itself past its own limits – you know, you really can identify a limit and then push past it. It’s an almost frightening moment when that happens, but it’s also exhilarating because you realize – wow, where does this stop? I think we’re all connected in that regard, and we can all influence each other. Especially when it comes to perseverance and commitment rather than particular abilities and physical attributes. I might never be able to slam-dunk a basketball as well as Michael Jordan, but I can certainly tap into his commitment, his wanting to go as far as he can. I can find that in pretty much…in humanity as a whole. There’s this incredible desire to push forward.
Wow. Okay: do you think this sort of joyful, party-centric way of thinking about things could be more common?
Well, I think it probably is, but not many people have the opportunity or the circumstances to pursue that – partying – as their main ‘thing’. I was definitely told ‘You can’t party as a living, that’s unrealistic, you need to get serious.’ And for whatever reason, to go with this thing that I was told was a ludicrous concept, I was like ‘No, I’m going to make this my whole thing, I’m going to make this feeling my thing. It’s not going to be a career in a certain field – although the entertainment industry certainly lends itself to it – I just wanted to be…I guess I wanted to be like a Santa Claus, this thing that you could really count on for a certain feeling. And I know people think about Santa Claus as relating to toys, but really the toys are just a means to an end. They’re a means to a joyful, cheerful feeling. And…initially it started as me wanting to cheer myself up, but then I realised that what made me even more cheerful was being able to get other people cheered up, and that it was almost like this perpetual motion bouncing back and forth, creating this joy-zone that occurs in each of us, but also between us in this mutual space that we both occupy – like at a concert, for example. And when I realised that I was like, okay, this is what I want to do – and when it became clear that I was able to do it well enough, that gave me some real encouragement to stick with it. And…yeah, that’s my thing, I want to be in a state of joy, and making joy. That’s what I’m supposed to do, I think.
HOMEWORK: It’s a multi-stager! If you haven’t already, listen to I Get Wet, Andrew’s seminal album of party/workout classics. If you have, try Close Calls With Brick Walls – or, if you’d like something different, Japan Covers, which Andrew talks about in the next part of this interview. Take 5 minutes today to sit down somewhere and think about something – anything.
Thanks to Andrew WK, who is awesome (and to Charley, for setting up the interview). Come back on Wednesday for part two, in which Andrew chats about the 10,000 hour rule, flow, Gundam, and how to be happier. And party/drink/work/dance/live hard!