Piano Til You Puke: Andrew W.K.'s classical side by Ben Westhoff

Over the years, New York City rocker Andrew W.K. has masterminded widely disparate, seemingly random projects and has brought great intensity to all of them. Best known for his 2001 album I Get Wet — which featured his bloody-nosed portrait and titles riffing off his "Party Til You Puke" mantra — he has toured colleges as a motivational speaker, written an advice column in Japan, produced an album for veteran reggae artist Lee "Scratch" Perry, and hosted a Cartoon Network program, Destroy Build Destroy. The show, which was recently renewed for a second season, is W.K. at his most gleefully manic. In it, he leads teams of teenagers armed with rocket launchers and Hollywood-style explosives in blowing up various vehicles and structures.

But W.K. has another, mellower side, as seen in his new work, 55 Cadillac, an album of "spontaneous solo piano improvisations." In a move that has little precedent with a pop metal guitarist licensing tunes for Coors commercials, he recorded the CD in one sitting at a friend's house in Cleveland in January. Without so much as a strong cup of coffee, W.K. — who took piano lessons from the age of four — played whatever came to mind for two hours. Back in New York, he edited together his favorite parts of the jam, and somewhere along the way decided to name the work after a vintage Caddy he'd once owned — a car which, like his piano, was big, black, expensive, and entirely inconvenient. "When I bought the piano, we had to use a crane to take it in and out of my apartment," he says. Similarly, trying to park his Cadillac near his midtown Manhattan residence was nearly impossible: "It took me hours, really, even days, to find a spot."

W.K. is further exploring subdued territory by touring with Los Angeles–based string ensemble Calder Quartet. Named for mobile sculptor Alexander Calder and comprising two violinists, a cellist, and a violist, the group bridges traditional and alternative audiences. It performs at standard classical venues, but also plays regularly with L.A. rock group the Airborne Toxic Event. In shows with Airborne, Calder's precise string parts provide a layer of welcome complexity to the band's indie-rock style. (Calder's second violinist, Andrew Bulbrook, is the brother of Airborne's Anna Bulbrook; that group shares a manager with W.K.)

Andrew W.K. (center) gets wet for Calder.
Andrew W.K. (center) gets wet for Calder.

For W.K.'s performance with Calder, expect a loosely planned affair heavy on improvisation. "There are moments where I'll do whatever I want, moments when they'll do whatever they want, moments when we'll do whatever we want together, and moments we decided on previously to do together," W.K. explains, adding that he will play piano at the shows.

He enjoys pushing boundaries with his collaborators. With Calder, he says, "I found it especially thrilling because it could be potentially detrimental to their reputation." This is unlikely, as anyone fortunate enough to board W.K.'s train of relentless optimism and musical whimsy usually comes out a winner.

As for W.K. himself, his recent, slower-tempo projects are something of a departure, but don't indicate a softening of his spirit. After all, he has long sought to veer away from his comfort zone, and these new projects fit that credo. Though he once brought intelligence to music perceived to be for meatheads, he's now fighting expectations in the opposite way — by bringing his meathead image to music perceived to be for intelligent people. Expect the outcome to be just as much fun.

 
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