It's minutes before his show at the Biltmore Cabaret in Vancouver, and backstage, Andrew W.K. has shrunk into a corner, meditating the way an athlete might prepare for a race.
The singer, who shot to fame in 2001 with his chart-topping major-label debut album I Get Wet, merges hair metal with a do-it-yourself punk-rock credo. The major-label days are behind him, but Andrew W.K. continues to tap a lucrative market with a string of his hits picked up for commercials, soundtracks and sports-team theme songs.
These days, he performs solo and karaoke style, spitting out an interactive show that is more performance art than concert. On this Vancouver night in late June, the one-man party is launching the first show of his solo Canadian tour (which has since taken him to Calgary, Saskatoon, Edmonton, Winnipeg and tonight plays Halifax). He is a down-to-earth dude with a message about keeping it real as he delivers his hit songs with juvenile titles such as Party Til You Puke, It's Time to Party, Fun Night, Not Going to Bed and, of course, his theme song, Party Hard.
He hits the stage, playing keyboards and trying temporarily to calm an audience that can barely be restrained by a couple of security guards. They have already been revved up by Vancouver underground musician and Much Music TV personality Nardwuar, who crowd-surfed in faux-fur mukluks and commanded the 400-strong sold-out audience to sit down on the floor. The presence of Andrew W.K. has them too wound up to obey.
"I never thought I'd say this before, but we need to just take the energy down a bit," he tells them. But within minutes of launching into his party-hearty hits, the mostly male crowd has spilled onto the stage and swallowed him up. Only his beefy vocals can be heard in the pandemonium. It is amazing that no one gets trampled. Later, his Twitter update will describe the show as "off the hook."
Andrew W.K. (born Andrew Wilkes-Krier) is one of the few artists who have enjoyed mainstream success while holding on to artistic credibility with the punk and metal indie crowd. And Wilkes-Krier says he feels a particular solidarity with Canadians, who've proven receptive to his frenetic solo performances.
That kinship with Canada is also why the one-time major-label artist leapt at the chance to release an EP with Nardwuar, who's known for his off-the-wall interviews with musicians. Wilkes-Krier was a long-time fan of Nardwuar long before he got his own shot at fame.
"Maybe it only exists in my head. I just have this belief that Canada has this magical feeling to it. ... I guess I have a lot of good associations going back to when I was very young," says Wilkes-Krier, 30, who grew up in Ann Arbor, Mich., a short drive from Windsor, Ont., and was weaned on a diet of Canadian children's shows such as Mr. Dressup and The Friendly Giant.
When performing, Wilkes-Krier wears his trademark white T-shirt, white jeans and white Air Jordan shoes. The T-shirt has blood on it, but it's only a graphic image - the 30-year-old broke through in 2001 with the I Get Wet album-cover photo that showed a torrent of clotted blood running from his nose and onto his shirt. The image has been used ever since, symbolizing Andrew W.K. the way the big, sloppy tongue logo represents the Rolling Stones. In fact, when unbloodied and not wearing his white uniform, Wilkes-Krier goes unrecognized, even when milling around outside his own show.
"I definitely wanted to have that bloody-nose cover and I chose that photo because it seemed like something people could latch onto right away and probably relate to," he explains. He adds that he is not a fighter, even though at 6-foot-3 he often towers over the crowds that swarm him. And they do swarm him - he invites them to do so. It's part of the performance.
Earlier in the day, Wilkes-Krier and Nardwuar (and his band, the Evaporators) performed together at Neptoon Records. The store was packed tight with fans and music bloggers, with curious onlookers peering through the windows. The singer stayed for an hour and a half after the show and signed autographs for every one of his fans.
It's put to Wilkes-Krier that a project with wacky music-journalist personality Nardwuar is hardly a money-making endeavour.
"I don't know if every decision is based on money," he responds. "There's value that isn't related to dollars and comes from a spiritual value, an emotional value, a historical value. There's the value of experience ... Most of the time I base it on instinct and my instinct told me to do this without looking back.
"My main goal is to give people a feeling of excitement that they can take with them and put towards whatever they are interested in life. I just don't want to limit it. I have made an effort to not divide things into the realms of independent or commercial ... it's just energy and there's lots of different ways to get it out there."
Wilkes-Krier has branched out during his time in the spotlight. He is the host of a new Cartoon Network TV show called Destroy Build Destroy, in which kids blow things up. Based in New York, he is also a motivational speaker, a successful nightclub owner, the owner of the Skyscraper Music Maker record label and a music producer who's worked with the legendary reggae artist Lee (Scratch) Perry. He plays with various bands, while continuing to record as Andrew W.K. He also plans to tour (and release an album) as a solo piano instrumentalist in the fall - which might be his most challenging project to date, considering that his fans expect nothing short of chaos from his shows.
When he discusses his approach to his career, he sounds more spiritual than business-minded. And he can afford to be - his party-themed songs continue to be picked up for soundtracks, ads and, in 2008, an enormous ringtone hit in the Japanese market. Such licensing has enabled him to do the small projects.
"I'm very grateful to have all these opportunities and do what feels good rather than having to think about how this will affect my reputation," he says. "That's unfortunate for anyone out there. We want to make decisions based on how we feel, and not how we think other people are going to feel about it."