Blame it on the piano lessons

Shock monger, corporate puppet or talented musician? Simon Price cuts through the hype and asks, will the real Andrew WK please stand up?
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The Independent Culture

A young man stares out at you. Still, blank, expressionless, his face, framed by long glossy hair, is violated by a lurid triangle of blood which starts at his nostrils, runs over his parted lips, streaks his chin and continues down his neck, congealing in dark lumps on his wispy facial hair.

The man is Andrew WK, and this striking image, which has been plastered on billboards all over the country for months, forms the cover art of I Get Wet, his astonishing debut album. Dave Grohl (Foo Fighters/Nirvana) says it's "the sexiest thing I've seen in my life". A number of people who complained to the Advertising Standards Authority disagreed, saying that they found it "distressing" and "suggestive of drug use and violence". The ASA, while rejecting the cocaine connection, agreed that the picture "may frighten children and vulnerable people", and ordered Mercury records to withdraw it.

On the day I meet him in Dublin, this has provided Andrew WK with a very real headache. While his bandmates were out partying hard, he's been up all night with his laptop, working on ways to make the image acceptable. Does he think it's distressing? "Obviously to some people," he says, in a voice deep enough to shake the furniture. "I don't find it distressing. You'd have to ask them. I never thought of drugs or violence until I read what they said. Do you think it's distressing?" Actually, I think it's beautiful. What about "sexy"? "No. I just think it's a cool picture, it made sense with the title. It's wide and vast and open, and ready to go." Andrew WK likes using the words "wide" and "vast" and "open" to describe his music, which he speaks about in the third person – "all this music wants is for people to be happy" – as though it were a living, breathing entity.

Far from the dumb-ass gonzo rockbeast one might have expected from the picture and the pre-hype, I encounter instead an articulate, intense, deadly serious but extremely polite young man (at more than one point he calls me "sir"), given to digressing into intricate metaphysical theories about music, life, everything.

Born in California but raised in Michigan, Andrew had a "nice, basic, stable" upbringing ("my dad's a teacher, my mom was a mom"), and had his first musical epiphany in the least rock'n'roll way imaginable: at piano lessons.

"Listening to my teachers, these guys or women who could open the lid and just play, and it was so loud, so huge, so intense. And for someone who was 11, and just learning how to tap the keys, seeing that was just the most exciting thing. I became addicted to moving, powerful songs." As he entered his teens, and came into contact with the local punk scene, another avenue opened. "Whole new worlds were opened up when I heard this incredibly aggressive music from these dudes around town... doing things I never considered possible." Then, the lightbulb-over-the-head moment: what would happen if he combined his two loves? "Knowing that I could sit at a piano and play music that gave me butterflies in the pit of my stomach, and made me feel queasy and shaky, I thought, 'OK, if I can play these huge chords on a piano, imagine if I keep stacking it up with guitars and drums and bass... Bang bang bang bang bang!'" Anyone who's heard I Get Wet will instantly recognise this formula. At the age of 17, Andrew moved to New York City, and set about making those bang-bang-bangs a reality. With just a keyboard and a backing tape for company, he did shows in half-deserted bars all over the state ("I would take a bus for four hours each way to play to five people: I didn't care").

He knew that he needed a full band to realise the sounds he heard in his head, and through a series of chance meetings and fortuitous connections, he recruited talismanic guitarist Jimmy Coup and drummer Donald "DT" Tardy – formerly of Death Metal giants Obituary (of whom Andrew was a major fan) – who assembled a band of Florida-based musicians. Andrew moved to Tampa to join them, and the end result is the 34-minute blast of audio adrenalin he christened I Get Wet ("It's about getting in there, into what's happening. Cutting in. Getting wet").

There are two prevailing theories about Andrew WK, both equally insulting. The first is that he's a dumb kid, being manipulated by corporate puppeteers. "I've heard that once," he sighs. "It's out of my control. I could state the truth, that this is something that I've worked on since I was little, I wrote all the songs myself, I designed every visual element, the ads, the website, everything. I don't gain any kind of glory from that, but everything is built from the ground up, piece by piece." The second is the diametric opposite: that he's a cynical ironist, playing a game with us, having a laugh, and he doesn't even like the music he makes.

"I don't blame people," he says. "Because there's so much confusion and doubt in the world, and you have to keep on top of things at all times. And who would want to be wrong? It's so much easier to trust, and not to have blind faith. Who would want to have blind faith?"

AWK's songs seem to offer strength, confidence, defiance. "I don't have much confidence as a human, but my music is fucking confident. And I can trust in that, and hug it, and get all that goodness from it. You know?" There's very little room for double meanings or ambiguity. When he says "I Love New York City" (written before 11 September, incidentally), you know that he loves New York City. When he sings "She Is Beautiful" (his new single), you know he means that she is beautiful.

The infamous sleeve isn't the only time he's deliberately drawn blood for a photo shoot, and head injuries at gigs are not uncommon. Does he get a kick from it? "I definitely benefit from it. Sometimes when I get into crazy chaos, something as simple as pain will bring me back to sanity really quick. I used to have a really bad ear infection. My mum would say 'Go under the pain'. It would work, because pain is a tangible thing. The more you focus it, the more you can contain it." Can bleeding be a feeling of release? "I guess so. Not as much as from an orgasm, but it's close."

Rock'n'roll: a bloody history

Iggy Pop: The godfather of punk frequently cut his wiry chest onstage. The blades probably broke.

Sid Vicious (right): Often misjudged the distance between microphone and nose, with messy consequences.

Mötley Crüe: Like Andrew WK, posed for photos with blood-smeared faces. Theirs, however, was fake.

Richey Edwards: Cut "4 REAL" into his forearm to convince a sceptical interviewer, and slashed his chest onstage with a set of steak knives given to him by fans.

Marilyn Manson (right): There's barely any transgression Mr Warner hasn't attempted. When he moved onto bloodshed, no one was surprised.

Casey Chaos: The Amen singer tends to conduct his blood-letting in private, but the scars are there for all to see.