It's not often that a musician holds a town-hall meeting.
Even less often is it to address rumors that he's not who he says he is—that he is an impostor of himself, not even manufactured, fake in the commercial, boy-band sense, but actually not a real man: the latest in a series of actors hired to play himself, literally everything about his name, identity, and presence, down to the last detail, not so much fabrication or concoction but trick.
That, however, is precisely what Andrew W.K. did last week at the Santos Party House, the split-level bar/concert venue he co-owns in Chinatown on Manhattan's Lower East Side, addressing 232 fans and curious observers seated in folding chairs before a small stage on the venue's wooden floor.
"Did you see the Tiger Woods press conference?" W.K. asked, backstage, about 15 minutes before he was scheduled to go on, thumbing nervously through his Blackberry in a small holding room. "That's what it's supposed to be" modeled on, he said. "Because it was very stoic."
As his assistant and a sound technician came in and out, taking directions for the event that was about to unfold, W.K. informed them that he was going to read a prepared statement before taking any questions.
"It's going to be awkward," he said.
And indeed it was.
W.K. staged this town hall, amid a recent wave of questions about his identity, on the day he was supposed to release his new double album, Close Calls with Brick Walls/Mother of Mankind, his first U.S. release in five years. But because of rumors that sprang up on music websites in late January that Andrew was not a continuous person but rather a series of different actors hired for the role, and because the double album's release was delayed a month by an issue with the CD casing, instead of a release party he held this meeting at Santos, open to the public (until it sold out) and dubbed "Ask Andrew W.K. Anything: A Night of Questions."
Andrew W.K. rose to prominence in 2001 with his breakout album, I Get Wet, featuring simple, guitar-, drum-, and organ-driven rock songs with lyrics almost exclusively about partying. (The album's first lyrics are, "It's time to party/Let's party/Hang out with yourself and have a crazy party/Hey you, let's party/Have a killer party and party," and it slides gloriously down the party hill from there.) He's hosted two TV shows: currently, a reality show on Cartoon Network called Destroy Build Destroy, in which teams compete to build machines out of the wreckage of explosions, and a 2004 series on MTV2 called Your Friend, Andrew W.K., in which Andrew answered letters from fans seeking advice and traveled to help them with problems.
In 2004, he fell out with a former associate, and a dispute ensued over who owned the rights to his name and image, and who should get credit for inventing it. As a result, W.K. couldn't release his own music in the U.S.—until now.
That development appears related to the new rash of speculation that W.K. is not a person, but instead a character played in public, on albums, and onstage by a series of actors. In recent years, he has performed free-form motivational lectures at universities, and it was during one of those speaking appearances, in London in 2008, that Andrew W.K. said himself, cryptically but directly, that he was literally not the same person that he was before.
"I'm actually not Andrew W.K.," he said. This video of the performance, uncomfortable to watch at times, spawned the current questions.
"I'm not the same guy that you may have seen from the I Get Wet album," he said nervously, offering it as a confession. "I'm not that same person, and I don't just mean that in a philosophical or conceptual way, it's not the same person at all. Do I look the same as that person?"
In an interview before that speaking engagement (included in the video clip above), W.K. told Tom Hannan of Britain's RockFeedback, "I thought it would be more interesting if my secret history was revealed after the fact rather than as a precursor."
"Andrew W.K. was created by a large group of people, almost a conference of people, and they met, and I was there, and we talked about how we could come up with something that would move people, and it was done in the spirit of commerce, it was done in the spirit of entertainment, which usually goes hand in hand with commerce, and I was auditioned alongside of many other people to fill this role of a great front man, a great performer," Andrew W.K. said on stage. The video was finally posted by RockFeedback in December, and that's when the rumors kicked into full gear.
Andrew would later recant, seemingly in panic. He tweeted, on Dec. 29, that he was "forced to say this stuff," and he posted a long statement to his website denying the conspiracies of his origin.
Exacerbating these rumors is the fact that Andrew W.K. says he made promises to former managers and producers that he would never reveal their names. He's given a series of interviews this year in which he hasn't been able to answer some straightforward questions about his identity. Speculation has mounted that Dave Grohl had something to do with creating him. Through it all, Andrew W.K. has insisted that he is a real person—and that it's not out of the ordinary for a musician to work with managers, producers, and creative partners in writing music and crafting an aesthetic.
"Yeah, a town hall," he told me a week and a half before the event, when I suggested to him over the phone, having heard about it, that the night could carry the feel of a political town-hall meeting.
"That's where I got the idea from, really...either at the White House press conferences, or press conferences in general, or athletic press conferences, but also those town-hall conferences where it was very open and it wasn't just limited to press people and people inside the inner circle, but that anybody could come and ask whatever they wanted," W.K. said. "I'm finding that being present is the most respectful and the best thing to do in a situation where someone has a question for you."
Before last Tuesday, Andrew W.K. had told me that he didn't know what to expect of the event—"I really don't know. I have no idea," he'd said—and last Tuesday night, minutes before he was scheduled to take the stage, it appeared he still didn't.
As the lights dimmed and Andrew came on stage, walking up to a lone chair in a lone spotlight, set up almost as if he was about to be interrogated—which, in a sense, he was—W.K. appeared, seeming quite nervous, and delivered his opening statement with many pauses and some apparent emotional difficulty.
"Good evening. And thank you for joining me. Many of you in this room are my friends," Andrew said as the audience clapped, before stopping to compose himself.
"I understand people want to know who I work with and who I work for," he said later in the statement, pausing to take a long drink of water. "But please know that, as far as I'm concerned, every one of these questions and answers is a matter between my business partners and me. It's not out of disrespect for you, the press, or any of my fans, but rather out of respect for the promises I made to my family and associates, promises that, if broken, will change my life in unimaginable ways...
"They did not ask to be in this spotlight, I did—I did. I recognize I have brought this on myself, and I know, above all, I am the one who made the decisions which have brought me to where I am. I have a lot of work to do, and I intend to dedicate myself to doing it."
The website Justin.tv recorded video from Santos:
Watch live video from Andrew WK on Justin.tv
After the statement, Andrew W.K. opened the event for questions. He got a few tough ones, and many softballs.
But what he did—and I have never seen this tactic, if that's what it was, used at any political press conference or open-question event before—was to avoid answering not just the hard questions to which he can't or won't respond for whatever contractual or professional reason, but the softball questions along with them.
An audience member asked whether his songs would appear on Guitar Hero or Rock Band, and he immediately launched into a tangent about the film Couples Retreat and the innate sexual chemistry between Vince Vaughn and Kristen Bell.
When the tough questions came, the audience didn't know what to think of his reaction—but I suspected they suspected it was all a joke.
Had he sung in his own voice on his first album? He didn't answer directly, except to say that, "to answer your question, I am Andrew W.K. I am the same Andrew W.K. that has been there from the beginning. I am the same Andrew W.K. you have seen...on the albums"—but he didn't say the voice was the same.
He was asked, "Who is Steev Mike"—a mystery producer listed on his first album, whom some have speculated is a pseudonym for W.K., or Grohl, or for the mysterious group of people alleged to have concocted Andrew W.K.'s act and persona. Andrew W.K. grew obviously nervous about this and stood up to protest, sounding genuinely scared and upset, that his current creative vision began when he was quite young—18 years old—and that he takes responsibility for everything that has happened since then.
"On my first album, I Get Wet, Steev Mike was the executive producer. This is the name of the producer that appeared on my third album, Close Calls with Brick Walls, which will be release on march 23rd, 2010," he said, reading exasperatedly from papers on the music stand.
And then: "People should understand that Steev Mike or anybody else, any other group of people that I chose to work with, I chose to work with," he said. "Just because someone signed up for something or takes advice or has managers, or works in entertainment or show business with other people doesn't mean they don't have a brain, okay, it doesn't mean that they're not a real person... "This was the vision that I was presented with as a young person by my family and by the people that supported me...The point of this is to look out into the world with a sense of optimism, with a sense of possibility, with a sense of purpose, with a sense of power that you can make your dreams come true," he said, telling the audience that songs like "Party Hard"--a popular track from his first album--"were written by--songs like 'Party Hard' were written to make people feel good. Songs like party hard were written to make people feel in touch with their greatest potential."
It is clear—not just from his time on stage, but talking to him in person—that this is what he wants: to deliver that sense of optimism—and that the questions about his identity, or who got him started with it, have become a burden to him, because they've distracted from the business of delivering it.
His answer to that last hard question was long and winding, and he was clearly agitated. A few sparse jeers and catcalls came—but so did shouts of support. "You can do it, Andrew," a woman told him at one point during his time on stage.
I am a political reporter. I've covered press conferences at the U.S. Capitol. I have seen controversies play out in live settings, tough, confrontational questions asked, and I've seen pro performers try to duck them. But I'd never seen anything quite like this.
Afterwards, it's all over and Andrew W.K. is signing posters at a folding table in the middle of the bar, lights dimmed, chairs pulled away to make room for a dance floor and the regular, offbeat crowd Santos attracts for weeknight drinking. I ask an audience member, a man in jeans and a dark t-shirt who looks like he's in his 20s, what he thinks of W.K. and the mystery. His opinion: W.K. is playing up conspiracy rumors for the sake of publicity and record sales.
"I mean, how many questions did he not answer?" the guy asks me, suggesting W.K. was being cryptic on purpose. "It's all a business, man."
When he's done, Andrew W.K. tells me he's not sure how it went. He needs time to unwind and absorb.
The next day, I get an e-mail response from him with some doubts, in reflection.
"I'm wondering if last night was a giant mistake," he wrote. "Instead of making everything better, it just seems to have made it worse. I didn't do enough preparation with my notes, and I didn't answer some of the questions the best way that was planned. All in all, I can't be too hard on myself because I was really nervous."
Andrew W.K. is scheduled to join the Warped Tour this summer. Whether the questions continue, they seem not to matter, whatsoever, to many of his fans. And whether he is able to answer them any differently appears to be a drama that's ongoing, with few answers known.