Party king Andrew W.K. brings his zen to motivational speaking
When most people hear the term "motivational speaking," they'll probably think of an amped-up, sweaty guy on a stage at a corporate event urging the audience to unlock something within themselves. They have a program, a system, books, a DVD. You've seen them in '80s movies, school assemblies, business retreats, and hotel conference rooms; they’ll help you become a better you.
In a lot of ways, "the partiest man alive" Andrew W.K. fits the mold pretty well. The international rock star, TV host, nightclub owner, radio personality, and all-around entertainer has books, CDs, and various merch to sling at his die-hard fans. He's generally pretty amped, and on more than one occasion I've seen him "Get Wet." But Andrew, who was born Andrew Fetterly Wilkes-Krier, never desired to speak, and only began his practice of motivational speaking after being dared by a student-run committee at NYU.
We talked to Andrew W.K. about his role as a motivational speaker, forgoing college, and the zen of the C major scale.
Hopes&Fears: I remember seeing your first lecture as a motivational speaker in 2005 at New York University. I was a freshman in college back then.
Andrew W.K.: That was a rather transitory time for me, just in terms of my adventures and whatnot. I had moved away from New York in 2001, the week after September 11th, to go to Florida. Not really to move to Florida, but I just moved out of my house and didn't have a house then until I think around 2005. From 2001 to 2005, I was basically just touring and recording and doing everything that I was doing.
Come 2005, I started being in one place for the first time since those earlier years, since I was about 18, 19 years old, and it was a very magical feeling. There was this real sense of possibility. If I'm going to be real honest, this whole idea of having a vision or having some kind of a preconceived idea, sometimes I thought that's what I've done or that's how things have worked, but it's never really worked that way for me. There was just a feeling in the air that things were going to happen. It can seem, depending on how you interpret that feeling, like you're getting ideas — your imagination is starting to fire up, or you're coming up with your next move, or you're starting new designs and things like that.
To me, it's more like when you're going to see a movie. Maybe you've put yourself in that seat or you've made the choice to buy a ticket to the show, maybe even saw the previews of what the movie's somewhat like. You have a faint sense, but part of the excitement is not knowing what's going to happen, not knowing exactly what you're going to see on that screen. That was the feeling I had around 2005, it was just a very palpable anticipation that some new chapter that I really couldn't predict was going to unfold. Sorry to be so long-winded here.
H&F: No, no, that's perfect.
AWK: [It felt like something was] in the air, and it wasn't long after that,[I felt] this sense of incredible possibility, probably more than I'd ever felt before in life. Maybe in some ways more than I've ever felt since. Things seemed like they were coming to a close, and in other ways it seemed like things hadn't even begun. Around that time, New York University reached out to me completely cold. I don't believe there was any sort of connection or other event or encounter that prompted this idea, they just came up with it themselves, and asked if I would like to do a lecture. I [tried to] anticipate what they were thinking and thought, "Oh, they must want me to speak to a music business class or something related to the entertainment industry," imagining it to be in a classroom setting.
I had done something like that once years earlier, where I spoke to a very small music business class in Minneapolis, Minnesota. I prepared for that and I was certainly looking forward to it, but once we started talking and they explained further about what they wanted, they said, "No, no, this is going to be very open. It's not for a specific class, and we would like to have it, if you wouldn't mind, cover almost everything but the music business. We want you to talk about whatever you want." In fact, they proposed this title, "Andrew W.K. talks about whatever the hell he wants." I was very moved by that. I was intimidated as well, because of the freedom, but also very excited and really had no idea what to expect.
Of course, I was scared in a way, but again, scared in that kind of way that you might be scared going to see a movie where you don't know what's going to pop out of the screen. You're excited about that feeling as much as you might be on edge. Then it ended up being much more well-attended than I had ever imagined, and I think it went on for four hours. It was all a blur for a bunch of reasons. The feeling I left with afterwards [reminded me of the feeling I got from performing music].
I thought, "Wow, this is a way to get to the same feelings that I'm trying to get to using music. This counts, too!" Not only did it start this whole idea of speaking and lectures, but it clarified my understanding that what I'm trying to do here is get to a feeling. I really shouldn't say no to any possible way that might end up helping get to that place. My job isn't to play music necessarily, my job is to get this feeling out there, to conjure it up. I should really use whatever means I have at my disposal to do so.
H&F: Do you know how many lectures you've given at this point?
AWK: I would say maybe 50, 55? Could be fewer than that. It could be 20 for all I know, but I did do a couple tours, so I know there must've been at least a bunch that happened on those tours. Not nearly as many as concerts or shows I've played, which I guess probably is over a thousand.
H&F: Do you mostly speak at colleges or other public arenas?
AWK: I guess about half and half. Even ones that we did on college campuses for the most part were open to non-students as well. One of the most open ones we did was in Philadelphia at the [First] Unitarian Church. There was everyone from very young people who were there with their families, to older people who had come on their own accord for whatever reason. I don't even know about how some of these people found out about these meetings.
That was always exciting to me, because there's a heavy Q&A section, as well, where I can ask people questions and they can ask questions of me. That's usually the most stimulating and interesting part for me.
Andrew W.K. lectures at NYU's Kimmel Center as a part of CMJ 2009
H&F: For motivational speakers, there's usually some kind of event a person had to overcome or some igniting event that kind of made them want to go around and speak. Do you think you have any igniting incident that serves as a catalyst for the things that you talk about?
AWK: No. I wish I did in a way. I would say out of sheer respect for what I consider more traditional motivational speakers that I really can't hold a candle to those people who have been through genuine, true ordeals, true life-threatening challenges, extraordinary hardship, and have every reason to go and share that. I don't have that kind of experience or that kind of life. For better, in some ways, and maybe for the worse in other ways, there was no single moment. This was never, again, something I chose to do or wanted to do, or had the desire to do in that sort of moment of personal inspiration where I want to go out and tell people about my experience, or I want to go out and help people. This was something I was asked to do, and said, "Ok, I'll try."
It wasn't so much that I was being pushed by my own desires. I think most of my life or my work has been pulled. I've been pulled toward things where I feel something, where I could be useful in some way. Really, to me, the whole challenge is just being alive. It's an ongoing, everyday experience and challenge and reward in itself.
I actually think there's a lot of people that can relate to that, as well, where their life actually isn't so much made up of these extraordinary turning points or really overwhelming obstacles. Their life may be much more even, and yet still extraordinarily painful or difficult in its own way. A lot of times, I feel like what you would walk away with from hearing about someone's extreme triumph in the face of really, almost unimaginable hardship would be, "Well, I guess it makes my life not so bad," but it's also helpful to hear from people who have had struggles when there's been no reason, no obvious reason, to have any struggles at all. It's something about the human experience.
I don't really talk about my experiences that much in most of what I do. My songs aren't really about my own experiences because I find it quite boring, and I think a lot of other people would too, compared to some of these other extraordinary lives. I don't have that extraordinary of a life compared to other people, but I am very interested in life itself. I try to just talk about those things, about the actual essence of this adventure called being a human being. That's something we can all relate to, whether we have a particularly harrowing tale or not.
H&F: You had an MTV show where you were helping people out. You have your advice column in The Village Voice. Do you think that's kind of what propels you when you speak in front of people, just this willingness to understand people?
AWK: Not so much, because I don't think that I can really help anybody feel better or worse. You can certainly help in a very physical sense. If someone, for example, is a very young child and they can't tie their shoe, then you can, of course, tie their shoe for them. But ideally, that person would be able to tie their shoe themselves, and the only thing you could ever help someone do really, at the end of the day, is teach them how, or motivate them, or put them in touch with that part of themselves [so they] can help themselves. Know that these trials and tribulations are meant to be gone through by each of us for some particular reason. Sometimes that's very confusing or almost impenetrable, but it's meant to bring out something inside of us. Someone else is not supposed to put that in you, someone else is not supposed to do it for you, someone else is not supposed to really even tell you how to do it.
The best thing that I could ever say would just be to... remind people that we're each doing that. I'm doing it and you're doing it, and we can do it together as a team in terms of cheering each other on to do it on our own. It is painful, because you do want to think that you can do it for someone else. There is a situation that many of us get ourselves stuck in, wanting so badly to help someone else and being so frustrated, when you realize that you really can't do it. It has to happen on that person's own will. No, I don't know that I really feel like I could help anybody. When people say that I have, I appreciate it as a compliment, as them extending a very nice kind of feedback toward the work, but I remind them that this is what they have found in what I have put out there.
They identify with it because it's already inside of them. They've got to give themselves credit. Don't take that out of yourself and put it on someone else; whatever value you've found in anything that you encountered with me was your discovery. Even though it seems like someone else told you it or taught you it, there's plenty of people who can just ignore the whole thing, not find something at all, or find something very bad in it. If you found something positive or good or helpful, that's your own help. It's your own achievement.
H&F: You've often used partying as kind of an all-encompassing idea for this kind of energy. What would you say is your message, or how would you define partying?
AWK: You can look into it as much as you want, or as deeply or as shallowly as you want, and probably find more or less the same thing. It goes beyond physical feeling. It's a thought that goes beyond an idea, it's a sensation that goes beyond mood or emotion. It's the experience of being fully alive and being aware of that, and deciding to be glad about it. Or accepting the goodness of that experience, and celebrating it. It's a celebratory mindset. It's celebrating the entire experience of not being dead.
That could be as vast or as limited as one would want. A lot of times I don't really know what I'm doing. That seems pretty obvious, I think, if you look at the lecture stuff. There's no sense of authority, I really have no idea what I'm talking about beyond just being there and trying to do something that is worthwhile. It may not even be worthwhile. A lot of it is pure confusion and moments of despair and hopelessness, as well. Even that, I try to end up celebrating, because there's no reason it would exist if it wasn't valuable in some way.
H&F: Are there any people who have helped you in your life and in your search for the joy of life?
AWK: Well, yeah, thousands. It's always a team effort; nobody is self-made. It's a nice idea to think of that. It's also nice to think that there's a small handful of people that maybe had such a big impact [on your life], but even each one of those people were the result of millions of other people. It's always a big swarm of influence and swarm of different folks.
H&F: As far as life philosophy, were there any particular minds or books that really resonated with you?
AWK: Well, that's one of the things I'm not so proud of. I'm just not very well-educated in, I guess, classical education or traditional education. For sure a big part of that is having not gone to college, but also I just didn't really put a lot of time into that. I guess because I was doing other things. I'm not proud of it; I know people that are [a lot busier than I am] that have not only gone to college, but have gone to graduate school and done a lot of research and reading. Fortunately, I'm not trying to be an authority. I'm not here to recite facts. That's not for me, I'm good at any field. These things are very basic, fortunately. What I'm grappling with is very fundamental.
You don't need to be educated, you don't need to have read a single book to be able to wonder about life. It's basically just sort of common sense, or even more primitive than common sense. It's just questioning what's going on. No, I would say that, out of all due respect for all these great writers and minds and scholars, I wouldn't tarnish their reputation by lowering them into my sphere of work. That's not what I'm about. Again, because there's so many people that are so highly evolved and so accomplished in that field, it's covered. There's nothing I could possibly contribute in that world.
H&F: What aspects of the modern world do you think are distracting us from the pure joy of being alive?
AWK: Looking for any particular reason to be happy will probably stand in the way of that type of pure, fundamental happiness, which is more of an acceptance of all things. Even including both the negative and the positive as part of one larger, indefinably positive phenomenon. You have to decide at some point that "It is good." Within that, there is every variation of good, bad and in between, but I think, in order to find that type of happiness, you have to just decide that existence is good.
As far as this idea of progress or modern civilization and culture accelerating, I think a lot of that is a distraction, or a misinterpretation of progress. It's the very idea of progress, because it seems like things are still very much the same. This outer world and material world that seems to be changing so fast and getting really exciting, there's all this advancement, but it's all a scam to a certain extent. The real world, or the world that has more importance, is this more desperate need for attention and focus that is pretty much fixed from now until all the way back when humans first developed some kind of internal self awareness.
That is still the proving ground for everything. Getting so caught up in thinking about life as what's going on around us, I think cuts from that inner state, which might in fact be real life. I think you could go back a few hundred years and it would be very much the same. People would think things were happening and there was so much going on. In many ways, there was so much more calamity than there is now. It may have been more peaceful and more tranquil. I don't know, it's probably all kind of the same, like a big spiral that's just shifting tones and textures. [It's] more or less the same ordeal that each person is faced with, which is trying to become true to themselves, and become a better and honorable person to themselves and to their fellow beings. No amount of technology or advancement can really do that work for us.
Maybe that's the hardest thing we face, is just facing that at all. People think that, because the computers can do more things, that it's going to make life easier. It doesn't change anything; the hard work remains the hard work.
It's like being a piano player, I've always [experimented a lot with] synthesizers, electronic music and computers for what they could offer, but nothing they have ever offered changed what a C major scale was. There may have been many ways to play the C major scale including just programming it into MIDI and having it be played automatically. There's many sounds that I could use, even like the sound of a barking dog. I could play a C major scale with the sound of a barking dog and that's all fascinating and inspiring and creates a sense of childlike wonder, but it doesn't do anything to change what a C major scale is.
Same with a tree. You can draw a tree with pencils, you can paint it with oil paints, you can have a 3D printer recreate a tree, you can film it in 3D and put it on an IMAX screen, or put it in virtual reality, but the tree is still the tree. Nothing will ever really change the fundamental aspects of a tree.
That's the same with the greatest work a person can do. We can spend huge quantities of time in these outward pursuits of development in technology, or in just participating in a joyful exploration of what these new powers offer in the outside world. Even in our efforts with science to get a deeper understanding of this outside world, that still doesn't take away the very important, perhaps first importance of that greater, most noble work of trying to become a good person.
That's all I'm saying.