One of the most intriguing artists to emerge from this decade, Andrew W.K. has based his career on defying expectations, both his own and those from his audience. His breakthrough album I Get Wet established him as a purveyor of feel-good party anthems. Since then, though, he's worked with a wide variety of artists, including To Live and Shave in LA, Current 93, Baby Dee and Lee “Scratch” Perry. He's also a partner at New York hotspot Santos Party House and a TV host, whose Cartoon Network show Destroy Build Destroy is about to begin filming its second season.
Although tonight, W.K. will be playing Los Angeles club Largo in support of his current release, the instrumental album 55 Cadillac, we were intrigued by yet another one of his many projects. Gundam Rock is a collection of English-language cover songs stemming from Japan's popular Gundam anime franchise. Released in celebration of Gundam's thirtieth anniversary, the disc is only available as a Japanese import, at least for now. We talked to W.K. about this recent endeavor.
How did the Gundam Rock CD come about?
Really, it all goes back to the first time I ever went to Japan to perform and meet with Universal Music, Japan. The man who was my project manager, my A&R guy was this guy named Kimi Kato. I worked with him on all my albums and we had great success together on everything we did. In around 2006, Kimi approached us with the idea of trying to take Andrew W.K. into a more domestic field within the entertainment landscape of Japan, where before I had been working as an international artist. International music and international rock 'n' roll is certainly very popular in Japan and occupies a good portion of the market, but it's very small compared to the amount of people engaged in domestic music, the music emerging from Japan.
The idea was to work on projects that would put us in that position and allow us to interact even more directly than before with Japanese culture. In the process of all this, Kimi ended up becoming one of the presidents of the entire division and had a lot of power. Over the years of working, we ended up doing a lot of special projects, including ringtones, which then developed into an entire album of Japanese covers, thirty years of Japanese pop and rock songs that I then translated into English and covered. That was the first time I did a cover album, or really that many covers ever, but I enjoyed it. It was such an incredible project in so many ways. It was so challenging and rewarding in terms of recording, in terms of translating, in terms of learning the material, in terms of going through with playing other people's music. That's something I had avoided for a long, long time or chosen not to do out of these personal feelings of wanting to play my own music. Once it became evident that that was a rule that I had been living by or operating under, I wanted to contradict it, see what it was like to crush your own creative side in terms of the songwriting process and unleash all your creativity in the actual undertaking of the recording.
The music is completely amazing as well, so that made it the big pleasure and big reward that it has been. These songs are completely unique and it's taught me a lot about music. I had never listened to music like this before over and over again and learned it. Japanese pop music has a very particular, yet almost indescribable quality. Getting to engage with it so deeply has been amazing.
After The Japan Covers CD had been released, which I think was in 2008, we were approached by Sunrise Corporation, who owns the Gundam franchise in Japan. They are celebrating their 30th anniversary and part of the celebration was that they wanted a rock 'n' roll album of the classic Gundam songs to celebrate this grand occasion. Due to The Japan Covers, they approached me to do that. The beautiful thing is that Kimi, since the first time I met him and went over to Japan, he's been obsessed with Gundam. He introduced me to it all those years ago. I never imagined, and I don't think he did, that we would be making an album with the Gundam people. Even the cover is drawn by one of the most famous and respected Gundam artists. It's like a dream come true for this partnership I have with Universal. I'm so grateful for them and for Sunrise interrupting me with this material. I would never have been able to do this if I hadn't done that first album. Learning to transcribe these recordings into my voice and my words and still stay true to the songs. These songs were more challenging than any songs I've tried to cover before.
Andrew W.K. “Fly Gundam”
How did you approach the covers?
The first thing I would do is listen to the song, but I only took them one at a time, meaning that I didn't listen to all sixteen songs and then start with one. I couldn't listen to any of them until I was finished entirely with one. I think the only reason I did that was so that I wouldn't be completely overwhelmed. The intensity and focus.
I would finish one song and that would take anywhere from one, two, three days and then mixing would be another one to three days. So, once I finished one song, it would start a whole other issue that I would have to start another one and I hadn't heard it yet. So, I would say a little prayer each time I would open a new song to begin working and hear it for the first time. I would say, please, let this be a straightforward song. Please let this be a song that I can learn without going through an intense ordeal. Ninety nine percent of the time it was a straightforward song in some way and then it was not a straightforward song in a way that I could have never imagined and that was completely challenging and overwhelming. Sometimes, it was just a drum beat or an arrangement. What are those notes? What are they playing? I didn't have the sheet music. I should have asked for it, but I think pretty fast. It took about ten minutes to get each line, but it's ten minutes of trying to figure out what are those notes. It's pretty dense, those original arrangements, but that was the most rewarding part. I never had to work so hard to cover something, but it was truly out of respect for the original recording, songwriting and for this entire franchise. I wanted to truly pay tribute and record the songs as they were written.
Were you into anime?
Somewhat. I was always interested in Japanese culture since I first visited there when I was thirteen, or even a little bit before then. We did get to take a family trip when I was thirteen and that just sort of blew my mind. I think that also manifested in the other opportunities I had to go back there and revel in how great it is and how much I love it. But, I didn't have a specific interest in anime, although I like the whole idea of it. I just didn't know much about it. I've come into it through the music, I'm learning about the animation as I go. The thing is, it's so massive, it's a little overwhelming, but there's artists that I really admire and when I've gone to Japan I've usually bought some manga and had someone try to translate it for me. The storylines have always been mind-blowing, like about cooking. There's a whole series about chefs and cooking and all these dramas and comedies, almost supernatural comedies about cooking. It's mind-blowing and people are reading them all day and they come out with these huge books. All of that is so fascinating. I don't claim to be an authority or anything like that.
Do you think that there's a connection between doing this Gundam project and working on Destroy Build Destroy?
I haven't thought about that, but of course. They're both opportunities that I sought out but also found their way to me that were new and challenging, but also very rewarding and allow me to perform in different ways. They both involve that element of going through an ordeal and taking yourself out of your comfort zone. I just want to put myself out there on a chopping block, I guess. That's kind of the feeling. When you can go against yourself and do something and be rewarded, I feel like you expand the version of myself to myself.