The Anniversary

I Get Wet Turns 20

Island
2001
Island
2001

In 2018, Stereogum’s Michael Nelson painted his masterpiece — a long and mind-blown piece about the identity of party-rock freak Andrew W.K. In that story, which reads more like a work of obsessive true-crime conspiracy theory than rock criticism, Michael got deep into the question of whether the Andrew W.K. of today is the same Andrew W.K. who first emerged on the global stage in 2001. Was an actor now portraying the Andrew W.K. role? Had Andrew W.K. suffered some kind of psychotic break? Who was Steev Mike, the associate and adversary who had, at various points, seemingly hijacked the entire Andrew W.K. enterprise? Was it really Andrew W.K. himself? Michael didn’t know, and after reading his piece, I didn’t know, either. I suddenly had new questions about the nature of reality and individual identity. But long before the ongoing mysteries surrounding Andrew W.K. rose up, there was a more pressing question, and it was a question that had no answer. The question was: Is this guy joking?

The mere existence of I Get Wet, Andrew W.K.’s debut album, is an improbable miracle. If we are to accept the basic contours of the man’s biography, Andrew W.K. is really Andrew Wilkes-Krier, the son of a prominent law-school professor. Wilkes-Krier grew up in Michigan, played piano, loved death metal, and moved to New York as a young man. For years, Wilkes-Krier played in metal and noise bands while working odd jobs around New York. At some point, he apparently moved to Florida, where he linked up with Donald Tardy, former drummer for Tampa death metal legends Obituary. In 2000, Wilkes-Krier debuted the Andrew W.K. project, releasing an EP called Girls Own Juice on Bulb Records, a Michigan indie associated with bands like Wolf Eyes. Girls Own Juice sounded like a purposefully deranged take on anthemic ’80s stadium-rock, and it’s truly strange to think that anyone listened to it and heard money.

At this point, at least as far as I can tell, Andrew W.K. was essentially an oblique art project. The man himself might’ve played around with stadium-rock sounds, but that doesn’t mean he had any ambitions to become a stadium-rocker any more than Lightning Bolt wanted to be AC/DC or Metallica. But Andrew W.K. made connections. Matt Sweeney, coming off of his time in Chavez and about to join Zwan, became Andrew W.K.’s manager. Dave Grohl recruited Andrew W.K. to open a Foo Fighters show. British magazines like NME got ahold of some early Andrew W.K. music and started hyping the man up in much the same way as they were hyping up fellow American rockers like the Strokes and the White Stripes. Strangest of all, Island signed Andrew W.K. Someone in that office heard Girls Own Juice and decided that maybe this guy could be an actual rock star. For a minute, he came close.

There are lots of ways of hearing I Get Wet, an album that will celebrate its 20th birthday tomorrow. It could be a brutally stupid rock album. It could be an art-school prank. It could be a collection of beautiful metallic-bubblegum silliness. It could be all of those things. If I’m actually thinking about I Get Wet, I tend to regard it as a textbook example of what happens when an outsider artist gets insider money, a hesher equivalent to the moment when David Lynch got hired to direct Dune. But if I’m listening to I Get Wet, I’m probably not thinking about I Get Wet. I Get Wet is an album that demands lizard-brain reaction. If you’re thinking too much when you’re listening, you’re doing it wrong.

In recording I Get Wet, Andrew W.K. overdubbed as much as possible onto every song. Those songs are simple, but they’re sonically overwhelming, with guitars and keyboards and pianos and drums and robo-voice vocoders and bellowed-out vocals achieving dizzy brickwalled mass. It sounds like a sweaty bearhug. It sounds like a Def Leppard tribute band composed entirely of hockey goons. It sounds like Cannibal Corpse attempting to become Technotronic. It sounds like Meat Loaf, if Meat Loaf really was the sensitive monster guy who he played in the “I Would Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That)” video — or maybe it sounds like whatever’s happening inside the brain of “I Would Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That)” video director Michael Bay at any given moment. It’s ridiculous, and it’s glorious. I love it.

There are 12 songs on I Get Wet, and three of them have the word “party” in their titles. At the time, this was a cheat code for any critic writing about Andrew W.K.: This guy loves to party! As Michael Nelson notes in his own galaxy-brain Andrew W.K. epic, the lyrics of those party songs have a pretty vivid, intense idea of what partying means: “Open your mouth! We’re all gonna come! In! Your! Face!” At the time, though, the all-out physical rush of those songs overwhelmed any thought that there were dark things happening in those lyrics. I must’ve bellowed along with “Ready To Die” dozens of times before I bothered to realize that it’s a song about the joy of murder.

I Get Wet did not present itself as a complicated work of art. It presented itself as a vehicle for sheer abandon. The album cover, with blood all over Andrew W.K.’s face, felt instantly iconic. Andrew W.K. has said that he achieved that image by smashing himself in the face with a cinderblock and then, when that didn’t produce enough bloodflow, buying pig’s blood from a butcher and painting his own face with it. The image suggested violence and cocaine. The album title suggested sweat and sex and PCP. It all spoke to the idea of living in the moment, giving yourself over to some viscerally euphoric physical experience.

It took art to make something that artless, just like it took tons of technology to make something this bone-snap simple. I Get Wet is short and brutish and overwhelmingly catchy, as purely knuckleheaded in its presentation as any Ramones record. Even when Andrew W.K. sang about love, or sex, there was nothing romantic or sexy about it. The video for “She Is Beautiful” is instructive. We never see this person who Andrew W.K. says is beautiful; we simply see him running into his basement and out onto his suburban street, thrashing out in response to that beauty. This is appropriate. “She Is Beautiful” is less a song about being in love, more a song about being in love with the idea of being in love. It also has a line about the object of Andrew W.K.’s affection melting his eyes, and it’s clear that he means this in a nice way.

People resisted that simplicity. Pitchfork founder Ryan Schreiber infamously went ham on I Get Wet:

I Get Wet is an insidious beast, planting itself into the deepest instinctual recesses of your brainstem, where it instantly detonates in a visceral adrenal charge. There is suddenly no respect for proper behavior, just the urge to turn acrobatic flips and smash everything within a fifty-foot radius. You’re Genghis Khan in the San Dimas Sportmart somersaulting over Nike racks to the Slippery When Wet synth-metal of Beethoven’s Schmidt Music foray into Bachman-Turner Overdrive. And then you wake up the next morning, hazy-headed and groggy, humiliated by the preceding night’s incidents.

That paragraph looks, at least to me, like the work of someone who understands and loves I Get Wet, but Schreiber gave the album a big fat 0.6. (For the 10th anniversary reissue, Ian Cohen ratcheted that score up eight points.) I get it. Schreiber thought that the album was fucking with him, and he resented it. The past 20 years of mysteries around the whole Andrew W.K. mythos would suggest that yes, Andrew W.K. probably was fucking with us. He probably still is. But for many of us, that didn’t matter one little bit. For many of us, this music worked.

Andrew W.K. and I are about the same age. When Andrew W.K. was singing his major-label deal and seeing his bloody face plastered across the covers of British music weeklies, I was finishing up college and regularly partying until I puked. 9/11 had just happened. The dot-com bubble had just burst. I was an English major with good grades and no prospects. My immediate future was bleak. I would move back into my parents’ basement. I would work temp jobs in warehouses and briefly serve as a salesman at a sketchy discount furniture store in East Baltimore. I would continue to get shitfaced at every available opportunity. My situation was not ideal. At that point in my life, I Get Wet made absolute sense. This half-hour ode to partying and having fun and living in the red and keeping going? It spoke to me on some deep level.

Shortly after I made that move back into my parents’ basement, Andrew W.K. and his band played a show at the Recher Theater, a building that had been a discount movie theater and a pool hall in the years before. That show was absolute fucking bedlam. Bodies flew everywhere. The pit never let up for a minute. Andrew W.K. basically spent the entire night at the center of a pile of human beings. Everyone in the room wanted to rush the stage and scream those words into his microphone, and many of them did. There was a whole phalanx of beefy security guards along the edge of the stage, but none of them attempted to interrupt the chaos. They just stood there stoically and let these kids fall all over them. After the show, I went up and thanked the security guards for being cool that whole time; it’s probably the only time I’ve ever done that.

In that room that night, Andrew W.K. was the only artist in the world who mattered. But that room wasn’t the world. The other rock conquerors of that era, like the Strokes and the White Stripes, had context. They were products of scenes and sounds. They had foundations. The Hives, who had their own theatrically physical live shows and their own uniforms, had a more tangible relationship with the concept of irony than Andrew W.K. ever did.

Andrew W.K. was an army of one, and there was no way to situate him within the wider world. People tried. Andrew W.K. played on the OzzFest tour in 2002. He got his own short-lived MTV2 show. There was another Island album, The Wolf, which came out two years later and which sounded like a slightly lesser version of I Get Wet. Ultimately, Andrew W.K. only turned out to be a commercial musician in the sense that a bunch of his music appeared in TV commercials. On a wider cultural level, his deranged energy-bombs only made sense in 30-second chunks.

Listening to it today, though, I Get Wet is as joyous and immediate and ridiculous as it ever was. We still don’t know whether he was joking, whether this whole thing was some sort of elaborate hoax. But the answer to that question didn’t matter then, and it doesn’t matter now. Bangers are bangers. I Get Wet is a deeply strange record, but it’s a deeply strange record that whips me into an instinctive partied-out fugue state. Andrew W.K. continues to make records; God Is Partying, the album he released a few months ago, kicks serious ass. But Andrew W.K. hasn’t yet come close to equaling the cheerleaders-with-rabies pep-rally intensity of I Get Wet, and neither has anyone else.

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