DETROIT – Wendy Wilkes always thought her son would become an artist.
“He put his portfolio together and went to the Art Institute of Chicago and they accepted him, and then he got into the car and called me and said, ‘I did everything you said and now I’m moving to New York,'” says Wilkes, of Ann Arbor.
Andrew Wilkes-Krier did become an artist – though not quite the way his mother expected.
He signed a contract two years ago with Island records and he’s better known now as Andrew W.K., a purveyor of fast, loud, 1980s-style anthemic rock mixed with frenetic energy and poppy keyboard choruses that almost never fails to elicit a strong reaction – whether or not people like it.
It’s music “you can literally feel through your entire body,” his mother says. “His intent is to make this wall of sound. My sister loves to vacuum to this CD because it makes her go really fast.”
Wilkes and her husband, James Krier, had seen their son play a few small shows before attending OzzFest in Clarkston earlier this summer,where he was playing on the tour’s second stage.
“Frankly, I don’t even know how he can do what he does for 45 minutes,” says Krier, a law professor at the University since 1983. “He was a skinny kid when he left for New York, and now he’s a hulk.”
The music’s intensity is matched only by the manner in which it is delivered: by a thrashing, jumping, crowd-diving, generally sweaty, sometimes bloody, long-haired 23-year-old who espouses, above all, “having fun.” He admits to occasionally splitting his pants or kicking himself in the face during his show.
Andrew W.K.’s popularity has grown since the U.S. release of his first full-length album, “I Get Wet,” in March.
British music tabloid NME hailed him as “The Saviour of Music,” his videos are getting air time on MTV and VH1 and he performed on Saturday Night Live in April.
Two singles from the album -“Party Hard” and “Time to Party” – have been used in Coors Light and Expedia.com advertisements.
He has played three shows in southeastern Michigan since April, and says he enjoys coming back and seeing friends and family, even if the visit is brief.
“I had a bunch of cool ideas for when I return in the fall. We could play my old school,” he gushed during a recent phone interview conducted while he was on his way to the Detroit airport to fly to a movie opening in Los Angeles.
A visit would be fine with Elaine Headly, 62, who teaches advanced art at Community High School in Ann Arbor and had Andrew W.K. as a student three years in a row.
“I like (the music) a lot. It has a lot of energy. It’s really fun, too – sort of ’80s music,” Headly says.
She says he stood out in class.
“He never did the usual projects. He loved to collage things and bring different media together,” Headly says. “He thinks and feels things very deeply.”
Andrew W.K. began playing classical piano when he was 4, shortly after the family moved to Ann Arbor from California.
During and after high school, he played mostly drums in punk and rock bands around southeastern Michigan. He graduated in 1997 and moved to New York a year later, where he worked a variety of low-income jobs.
His success has surprised his parents. “We were paying his rent for him in New York and I thought it was a pipe dream,” Krier says.
Andrew W.K. spent nights in his Brooklyn apartment writing and recording music he performed at small solo shows, pre-recording most of the instrumentals and then singing along.
It was “me and a CD player and a keyboard or a guitar. It really was terrifying at times. A bunch of people thought it was the dumbest thing they had ever seen, and they might have been right,” he says.
He describes his music this way:
“Imagine everything you’ve ever wanted to hear sandwiched into three minutes. The most pounding drums and everything going down a roller coaster into a loop-de-loop and the biggest birthday party you’ve ever thrown for yourself.”
After two years in New York, Andrew moved to Tampa, Fla., where he assembled a band, signed with Island and now lives when he’s not touring.
But in many ways, things haven’t changed for Andrew W.K. – like the white T-shirt and white jeans he wears at every show until they wear out.
“A month or two of the same clothes every day. I’ve made myself nauseous,” he says. There was some concern when the band agreed to play OzzFest that they wouldn’t fit in, but Andrew W.K. says it hasn’t been a problem, even if their music is different from the festival’s traditional heavy-metal fare.
“People thought this would be a horrible idea, and that’s part of the reason we did it. We play like it’s the only show we got. I think we fit in perfectly,” he says.
Playing on a large, multi-band tour has given Andrew W.K. more people to meet. He joins the crowd and catches other acts when his set is over.
“When things are perfectly organized, I’ll go out between six and 10 hours. It’s not to prove anything, I do it because it’s the right thing to do. If someone is there for me, I should be there for them,” he explains.
Even though he has been on tour for most of the last year, he says his second album is written.
“I have a lot of ideas and songs, and come September I’m going to organize it all. It’s going to be more. You just wait. I’m going to open the floodgates on this next record,” he says.
That’s coming from a musician who has already bloodied his own nose for the picture gracing the cover of “I Get Wet.”
When that didn’t produce the effect he wanted, he went and found some pigs’ blood to run down his face. When the album reached stores, it was with a sticker placed over his face.
“It’s not a statement or anything, I’m not doing it to make any point,” he says. “It’s just a photograph, a cool one I think. I hit myself to get my nose to bleed, that’s all. I do what I do.”
While the cover and some of his antics have their critics, even his mom is getting fan mail.
“I got a fan letter from somebody who went to one of his shows in Seattle and he said, ‘I know it’s kind of weird that I’d be writing his mom, but if I affected someone so profoundly, my mom would want to know about it,'” Wilkes says. “This message that Andrew is trying to get out is that everyone is invited to the party.”