Andrew W.K.'s party power: "Don't mistake politics for life. Don't mistake beliefs for people"

Salon talks to Andrew W.K., party-hard ambassador, about the election, alienation and what it means to be alive

By Dan Mistich
Published September 16, 2016 10:59PM (EDT)
Andrew W.K.   (AP/Erik Kabik)
Andrew W.K. (AP/Erik Kabik)

Should Hillary Clinton be elected to the Oval Office in November, she’ll have the opportunity to right one of the wrongs that the State Department committed during her tenure as secretary of state. Forget Benghazi. Clinton would have the power to reappoint Andrew W.K., the self-described King of Partying, to the position that he was barred from taking in 2012 after the State Department deemed his image inappropriate for the role of cultural ambassador to Bahrain.

That foreign policy blunder hasn’t stopped Andrew W.K. from partying hard over the past few years outside the realm of politics — on his own accord, of course. In fact, Andrew W.K. will be doing his own kind of campaigning this fall. W.K. will refine his already-impressive oratorical skills for a trip around the country, billed as “The Power of Partying 50-State Speaking Tour,” to talk about this thing that we call life.

Salon caught up with Andrew W.K. by phone before he took his one-man show on the road to discuss how our current political climate affects his philosophy of partying, the origins of his speaking career and other ventures he’ll be involved with in the months and years ahead. The interview has been slightly edited for clarity.

You started your own "nonpolitical political party" called the Party Party. Now that the presidential campaigns are in full swing, are you paying attention to politics more these days?

Well, in regards to the Party Party and my speaking tour and my music work in general, I don't pay attention to it at all. But in regards to myself as an individual and as a citizen, I pay a great deal of attention to it.

The other day, I was asking my lawyer how we're supposed to go about our of daily life when there are so many issues, situations and circumstances vying for our attention — not just on a national and global level, but also on an immediate personal level — in our own day-to-day life.

And then even beyond the global, national and immediate daily concerns, we each have our own inner life, which is arguably even more complex and enough to consume nearly all of one's energy and attention without one even having to be a selfish or overly self-involved person. What are we to do? There seems to be a wrestling match between wanting to be as attentive and responsible and involved in the world as we can, but also the rather disillusioning realization that no one really has the absolute obligation to do anything much at all.

So I was asking him about this and he said, "If you're participating in civilization — on all levels — the level of a town, neighborhood, country or the globe, you do have some sort of obligation to be aware of that civilization, of that globe, of that community." It doesn't mean you always have the answers or even always have opinions about every single facet of reality.

And it doesn't mean you have to understand the complexity of every aspect of every issue. But it does mean that you make a rigorous effort to be thoughtful, conscientious and committed to your membership in this organization called humanity. You're essentially trying to be a good neighbor on both micro and macro levels. You're deciding to care.

I've often wondered if sometimes people choose to ignore or not participate and intentionally block out the issues facing the world as part of a larger effort to avoid paying attention to life in general — just sort of zone out of everything — even yourself. In a very real way, that's understandable.  Life is intense. Being a living person can be a blessing and also feel like a curse.

And sometimes I can almost find that level of willful or accidental ignorance admirable because it does take a certain amount of dedication and devotion to pull it off. And part of real liberty is having the freedom to even be free of care and the desire of knowledge. In a bizarre way, in this day in age it takes almost as much energy to not know what's going on as it does to be aware.

Because not only do you have to remain vigilant about your ignorance, but you also have to strive to maintain a high level of self-delusion in order to justify your perpetual decision to not open your eyes. I see both sides — or at least, I can understand both sides. I can understand not wanting to know about the world. It's overwhelming. It comes down to deciding whether or not to live in bad faith — to be part of the game but believe you can be part of it without playing it.

I also think of the amount of time and energy people have. How can I blame a single mother trying to raise three children for not having a grasp on the nuances of world affairs? Perhaps the attention she is putting into her children is more valuable to society anyway. Who am I to say? Who is anyone to say in a free society?

I certainly understand people's concerns about apathy. I realize that the powers that be or the people desiring power would oftentimes prefer people to be as out of the loop as possible. But it does seem that's the right of the individual, too — for better or worse — that they don't have to care about everything. How can you force someone to care about something? It has to come from their own heart.

Even if you wanted to care about everything, there's too much to care about, isn't there? It's a confusing dilemma. I think all you can do is what you really think in your heart is the best you can do for the world, whatever that is for each individual. That takes an almost horrifying level of self-honesty, dedication, and integrity. But it's a noble ideal to strive for. It will always be exceedingly complex. The people who attempt to oversimplify these sorts of complex puzzles only add to their swirling chaos.

Tell me a little bit about the upcoming Power of Partying tour. I understand that it's a speaking tour. For whatever reason, that carries with it the potential for a very different sort of audience. What will that be like for you? How are you preparing? What do you envision this tour will accomplish?

I've done, at this point, quite a number of speaking events over the last 10 years. Without this being a formal anniversary tour, I realize it was 10 years ago that I first started doing these lectures. It was 2006 when New York University [representatives] first invited me to give a free-form speech. At their urging, they wanted me to come and speak completely extemporaneously. They didn't want me to talk about the entertainment industry or necessarily focus on my field of work.

Instead, they asked that I talk about life in general, which was very exciting for me — for one, to have the freedom to really dive into the depths of these timeless puzzles, and two, to have someone interested not necessarily in my particular life, but in discussing this thing called "being alive" that we're all experiencing. That's how I started doing these lectures, and they've continued ever since.

I had never really imagined doing something like this before that first invitation, but it's been a real privilege to be able to interact with people on that "life" level. What I really enjoy is that it has given me access to all different kinds of ideas and perspectives that, for whatever reason, I wouldn't have had reason to encounter or consider. It's wonderful to be able to spend a lot of time just thinking about "What is life about?" and then get to go and talk about that with people.

There are obviously lots of people who don't like my music, who don't like rock music, who don't like loud music in general, who don't like going to concerts. But the feeling I'm trying to convey through my music is the same as I'm trying to express in these discussions. The whole point of all my work — whatever the medium — is to try to conjure up this type of energetic enthusiasm, a life-force feeling, a motivating optimism.

For many people, including myself, energetic and intense music is a very direct and efficient way to get that physical, emotional and powerful spirit riled up in your heart — just raw energy that makes you feel like you can take on the world and all its challenges.

For other people, reading or talking or just thinking is equally, if not even more, effective. So my main goal is to get that feeling by whatever means necessary. I myself wish to simply be a means to that end. And it's really exciting to think that the people who would have been left out of this because they don't relate to my music now have a chance to party with me in this other mode.

I really hope there are people who come to these lectures that would've never come to see me play music. I consider it a great compliment when someone says they don't like my music but they still get that certain energizing feeling from something I've done. I just want to be a representative of that feeling — that joyful and essentially indescribable sensation that tells you life is intense and mysterious but also very much worth living.

You've done this in other forms, too. You were the Village Voice advice columnist for a couple years. I imagine that would be an incredibly anxiety-inducing experience, to be responsible to so many individuals and their heartaches, troubles and experiences. Does that weigh on you at all? How do you process being a therapist for so many people in this informal capacity?

The advice column is all connected to this effort to keep working towards unleashing moments of that same euphoric energy. For as long as I can remember, I have turned to my work as a kind of method for feeling better about everything. Whether you call it therapeutic or healing or just sublimating, I realized that it was probably a good idea for me to do whatever I could to stay busy in activities that really focused on these good feelings about being alive. This sort of work fixated on a kind of vitality that gives you that strength to continue on, to face to the other parts of life that really can be very painful and difficult.

Having some sort of consistent mission that is bigger than just your own individual material achievement or some immediate self-gratification is endlessly valuable. To have some kind of cause, a purpose — something to serve — a drive like that can help bring out your best. And that sort of mission seems to work especially well when other people are involved, when you're part of a team.

I feel like a member of a team of people who are pursuing joy and light and energy and truth. And that we're promoting and defending that quest together. It really helps make my own problems more manageable when I realize this certain life-force feeling — this mission of feeling energized — is counting on me to keep going. It means I can't let my own weakness stand in the way of this more noble effort.

I did the advice column for two years straight, exactly — from New Year’s Day 2014 to New Year’s Day 2016, more or less every week. It's about a hundred columns, I think. And by the time I stopped, it just seemed like — not that I had everything to say, because I don't know that there is a finite amount that you can ever discuss — but it did seem like I was getting a lot of the same type of questions, and I would go back and read some of what I had written before and think, "There's something repetitive here. We already discussed this and now I'm just restating something." I was starting to see that happen.

So I just stopped it and it felt kind of like an album of songs or a collected series of pieces that made one statement. You can work on a collection of music indefinitely, and next thing you know you're working on it forever. But sometimes, you can just put an end to it and that gives it a dimension, a frame that allows it to stand on its own. I feel that, rather than me being an advice columnist as an ongoing profession, this was a piece of work unto itself, just like an album of songs. And hopefully like songs, they can be enjoyed more than once.

I never expected to be someone that another person would turn to for advice. But I think it happens a lot with singers and people in music. It happens a lot with entertainers in general because people get a connection to the feeling that that person is offering in their work, but it's up to that person if they want to engage and take that connection further. A lot of people work with the idea that their work speaks for itself and that's all they have to offer to the listener or audience member. And I totally understand and relate to that. I actually really like that approach, too. I still work within that mindset from time to time. You only have so much to offer anyone, even yourself.

But when someone comes up to you after an event and says, “Andrew, my mom died last month. What should I do?” Well, it was very hard for me to turn away from that. I thought, What would I want someone like me to do if I were that person asking for advice?

When someone reaches out to me, it's not necessarily because they want a perfect answer anyway. Sometimes they just want to reach out and all you have to do is acknowledge that reach and reach back. And you both realize that you're reaching out together — not only toward each other but reaching towards life and the unknown and confusion and doubt and hope. You're reaching out to the biggest thing of all: understanding.

So with the column, many people asked these questions which I had no ability to directly answer and sometimes could barely relate to. I really doubt I told them anything they didn't already know. Sometimes it was just the act of engaging with that person; you're kind of listening to them more than telling them anything. Even in you're talking or writing back, you’re still listening. Your answer shows that you're listening. Maybe you’re both listening to that best, strongest version of yourselves. That does seem to be somewhat universal.

I can close my eyes and imagine, “If I were the greatest, strongest person in the world, what would I do in this situation?” You think of the highest mindset you can imagine. And you try to write from that place. You try to riff from that point of almost superhuman intelligence.

It was extremely hard for me to pull that off, but it was a very humbling and gratifying exercise. In the advice column, I was trying to pull out my own best and take a shred of that to hold onto and keep in the front of my mind — hopefully in the reader's mind too — to carry the best version of ourselves more prominently out into our lives. I would think, Maybe someday if I get strong enough, I can actually live up to these ideas.

Everyone can engage with that inner dialogue, to reach out and into the highest version of their own imaginings. You can ask these questions of the best of yourself and answer them, too, not only as yourself but also as the greatest person you can imagine being. And then you strive to become it.

I want to learn more about your Party Party. This current presidential election seems very off the rails. Regardless of whether you're on the left or right or center, it does feel very alienating in a lot of ways to a lot of people. Was the Party Party started in response to that alienation?

I think the ultimate alienation is being alienated from your own self. Every other form of alienation is just a reflection of that — of being cut off from oneself, looking out instead of looking in. I have a relatively limited education. I have a relatively limited set of skills and abilities and experiences. But I try to ask myself daily, “What can I do with the small amount I have to offer inside me? Do I have anything to contribute?”

In this particular political climate, I think we owe it to ourselves to not mistake this particular area of activity for the actual total climate of human experience. Politics is not life: It is a way to organize and approach certain types of interaction with the world. The amount of attention paid to these particular fields of thought and endeavor can make the whole realm loom quite large in the atmosphere, when in fact it doesn't necessarily represent the whole of our country or of our world. It's an exaggeration. It's a distortion. It should all be taken with a large, almost boulder-sized grain of salt. Don't mistake politics for life. Don't mistake beliefs for people. Don't mistake your own opinions for your own self.

When it comes to addressing the often distorting realm of governmental politics, I think, “What could pure partying add here? Can we maintain the celebratory spirit in what might seem like impossible conditions? Can we find a way to keep track of our shared foundations, our humanity? Is there something crucial that is perhaps not being talked about in the midst of all these other issues?”

If we can remember why we’re excited about living and maybe focus a bit less on why we're upset and blaming those circumstances, maybe we can tackle all of these very valid dilemmas more coherently and have a better chance of solving them. If we approach our challenges with a sense of dignity and devotion to the mysteries of life, instead of an avoidance or frustration with these riddles, maybe these problems won't appear to have so much power over us.

When we’re resentful of the uncontrollable and confounding nature of being alive, when we don’t appreciate the inevitable challenges we are supposed to face and we turn against the unknown, it becomes an unjustified enemy. It is not an enemy. Like water, we thirst for some amount of essential mystery, but too much of it will drown us. Some amount of battling with the darker shadows of reality is beneficial, but too much wrestling will suffocate our spirit.

The fact that a huge portion of our daily experience is out of our control is something to accept — something to grow strong in the face of, not fight back at. All we can do is let it motivate us to grow and expand towards our most noble abilities. These sorts of existential anxieties will either bring out our best or our worst. I think most of us have experienced both extremes. If we're honest, we can see the results of our reactions for what they've ultimately contributed to our lives.

It’s OK to not have all of the answers. And perhaps if we had fewer answers and opinions about the unknowable and uncontrollable, we might be able to get closer to that indescribable joy of just being a person and see that this acceptance is more rewarding than trying to dominate and conquer reality. We should seek to conquer our own weakness, not so much the world at large.

Maybe some of these problems wouldn’t actually be problems if we faced them from the inside out, rather from the outside in. If everybody just did what they were truly born to do and put less emphasis on what everyone else was doing, then maybe a great deal of these conflicts wouldn't even exist at all. Or maybe they still would or new ones would rise in their place. What do I know? Very little.

From my experience, sometimes you want conflict because it seems like the only way to get charged up, to get motivated and inspired. I’ve seen this with myself. I want to argue and prove my point. And I get very passionate and energized. And after all my debating, if the other person finally breaks down and says, “You’re right. That was a good point. I guess I was wrong,” I feel sort of defeated myself, like maybe I'm dissatisfied that I won the argument because now I can't remain engaged in conflict, and I have to go back to my interior thoughts and face the terrifying truth of myself again. When I'm constantly arguing and debating and fighting other people and the world around me, I don't have to think about other things I'd rather not face — like my own shortcomings.

That seems very indicative of our political system — conflict for the sake of conflict.

Some amount of conflict is inevitable. Other times it's like a fight for the sake of the spectacle, like boxing. Boxers don't have to fight; they choose to fight. Even if we do engage in some battles for somewhat superficial reasons, that doesn’t mean that we need to lose touch with what lies beneath these efforts. All issues can be argued to be as important as all others if you're willing to make enough noise.

If we want to fight, we will find an unassailable justification for fighting. But we also realize, deep down inside, that the real fight is against oneself. Many of the outside battles are distractions from having to face oneself in the ultimate battle between your worst and best natures. I don’t want to lose touch with that struggle. Sometimes I can feel my relationship to the rest of the world making me a worse person. So one of the main reasons I’m going on this tour is for my own good — to restore my own faith in humanity and to face myself.

It’s hard to remain steadfast when there are so many forces taunting you, trying to get you to abandon your integrity. It's a lot easier to give in to your emotions, especially when there’s an adrenaline rush that comes from these inflamed sides that we feel pressured to take. I know that personally I'm just way too ignorant to really have total clarity or definitive answers to most things.

I think we all benefit from a kind of real humility and acknowledgement that our unavoidable ignorance is part of being human. The most ignorant people are ones that won’t admit that they’re ignorant. It’s OK to not have it all figured out. That's what keeps us growing and desiring to discover more. The minute we have all the answers, what point is there to our quest? That’s the one thing we all have in common. And people who claim that they have it all figured out are often the ones causing the most confusion.

So the Party Party and the speaking tour aren’t really political in the way most of us understand politics. This is all very consistent with the rest of your career. Of course, you did have a very brief foray into politics a while ago and there was some talk that you would be working with the U.S. Department of State. Did this idea for the Party Party grow out of that? Was it disappointing that the appointment fell through for you?

Back in 2011 a representative from the cultural department at the State Department had been discussing a trip with me going to Bahrain as a cultural ambassador. This came from them — they reached out to me and began the dialogue. It was all vetted over the course of a year — the background check and bureaucratic approval process. Then they booked all of the travel for me to go over there just after Thanksgiving in 2012.

Anyway, what I was told happened is that the second in command at the State Department saw a photo of me right before we were scheduled to go on this trip. And apparently this person decided that I was an inappropriate person to send on a trip like this — even though we had already gone through this yearlong vetting process. I guess the higher-ups had never looked at a photo of me. They probably my saw this guy with long hair and a bloody nose and saw that I talked about partying and puking and that my clothes weren’t clean. They went back and they decided that I wasn’t a good representative. After all that!

And, of course, it's all too predictable. You think, “Oh, that person has long hair. An older person that works in government doesn't look like him, so they're going to be against him.” And apparently that's exactly what happened. That's what was so exciting about it at first, that they weren’t stereotyping me and judging a book by its cover. But in the end, I think they probably did judge me based on my looks. And maybe they were right to do that? I don't know.

Maybe it was all for the best. I have to look at it that way. Bahrain has an abysmal human rights record, so maybe my visit would've somehow supported that darker side.

Anyway, the Party Party isn’t really a rehashing of that experience. But I have seen similar levels of red tape and the ongoing difficulties of trying to work with the U.S. government. For example, it's a lot harder than I realized to get on a ballot with a newly founded political organization. It requires on a national level hundreds of thousands of registered signatures.

We got several thousand people [to] sign up on our website when we first started the outreach, enough to at least show there was a genuine amount of enthusiasm. But to actually be recognized as legitimate by the federal government, that requires a great deal more. And I suppose it should. Maybe there's good reason for all the requirements. You really have to prove your worth in that area. But it also keeps things locked down and keeps our options perpetually limited.

Still, the overall response to the Party Party concept was extremely positive. In a way, I realized that we didn’t have to formally participate within the system in order to comment on the system or even impact the system. It’s the only party that doesn’t need to play the game in order to win. Maybe not playing the game is the only way to win in this sort of situation, contrary to what I was saying earlier about life and society. Governmental politics have gotten so divorced from the experience of day-to-day life that maybe the only way they can be revolutionized is from beyond their reach, from the bottom up, from inside each person.

I understand that you’re also writing a book. How is that going?

I have several books in the works. I actually just handed in the first draft of an autobiographical manuscript, my origin story essentially. I’ve been working on that book since around 2007 or 2008. It went through several different phases of development. We got a publisher — Simon & Schuster — and that happened around 2012 or so. I’ve been working on it ever since.

It’s been a slow process, but it's happening. I don’t know when it will be released. I’ve never made a book before. The reason it’s taking so long is because it's challenging for me to write about my own life. It takes much more effort than I anticipated.

As we've discussed, I talk about my own life pretty rarely, at least in things like the advice column or with music making. Personally, I find that talking about being alive in general is much more interesting than talking about my life in particular. That’s probably true for many people. But I have been encouraged by the publisher and my editor to make the book very honest and use my own personal experiences to illustrate some of these essential ideas.

It’s a strange thing. It’s kind of like doing an interview in reverse, in a way. You turn over control to yourself from outside of yourself. You do things you wouldn’t normally do, but giving up control makes it better. The final results are better. Just like giving your trust to a director if you were an actor. If you do what you do, you know what you’re going to get. If you do what a director wants, you’re going to go beyond yourself.

I'm trying to let destiny direct me. I'm trying to turn myself over to outside forces. But the odd thing is, those outside forces are accessed from inside yourself. You have to go inward in order to exceed yourself. Exceeding yourself — that's partying hard.

Dan Mistich

Dan Mistich is a culture writer currently residing in Decatur, Georgia. He has contributed to The Bitter Southerner, Flagpole Magazine, and many other publications. Follow him on Twitter at @drmistich or email him.

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