Andrew W.K.’s “Party Hard” is a blunt instrument. It’s big, loud, boneheaded and, in case it wasn’t obvious, about partying. The word “party” is uttered 57 times across its three minutes, and each utterance is swaddled in heavily overdubbed guitars spewing bludgeoning power chords. Decades on from its original release, “Party Hard” is still Andrew W.K.’s blaring manifesto –– as monomaniacally devoted to the act of communal, rock-based partying as anything he’s written since.
Andrew Wilkes-Krier grew up in Ypsilanti, Mich. with a lifelong appreciation for music. With an accomplished legal scholar for a father, he also grew up around enough wealth and connections to start his formal education early: the classically trained pianist was just five years old when he entered the University of Michigan’s School of Music. W.K.’s love of music as an ecstatic communal experience –– what he would famously proselytize under the term “partying” –– came from a different realm: Midnight Mass with his parents. “The feeling of everyone coming together and synchronizing around this elevated state, especially at midnight… that changed me,” he recalled in a 2018 interview with PopMatters.
The teenaged W.K. studied at a series of preparatory and alternative schools (his stage name comes from a teacher seeking to differentiate between the other Andrews in his class) while moonlighting in a series of Detroit-based bands. The first, Slam, he joined as a 14-year-old; from there, W.K. moved from one short-lived project to another, most within the scope of harder metal genres like grindcore. One of these bands, the noise-rock act Ancient Art of Boar, he later converted to a vehicle for releasing his original solo material.
W.K. ditched an opportunity to study art in Chicago to move to New York and pursue a music career under his stage name. Inspired by the city’s artists, and working off the income from a series of odd jobs, he threw his full efforts into writing, recording and promoting a pastiche of Eighties-era rock music that refracted the decade’s guitar heroics in a less serious, less lascivious light. Early promotional materials featured W.K. in a pair of white jeans and a matching T-shirt, long greasy hair covering a face streaked with stage blood –– an outfit he has continued to don ever since.
After years of playing every gig he could land (including at Starbucks), Andrew W.K. released his debut EP Girls Own Juice in 1999. Though he stuck to independent Michigan label Bulb Records for its release, somehow the EP found its way into the hands of Dave Grohl, whose band Foo Fighters was about to tour behind their third record, There Is Nothing Left to Lose. Grohl reached out about joining the tour, and though W.K. had yet to assemble a band, he agreed to play a few shows solo. “I’d go out there with my microphone and run around in a circle, basically, as fast as I could,” he recalled to the Los Angeles Times. The frustration from the gig lingered, and after relocating to Florida, W.K. solicited his musician contacts, including Obituary drummer Donald Tardy, to flesh out his own ambitions as a performer. From there, he spent months shopping for major labels, finding a home at Island Records for his first LP, 2001’s I Get Wet.
“Party Hard,” the first single from I Get Wet, provides a fitting vessel for the character Wilkes-Krier created — an act walking the tightrope between earnest metalhead and savvy performing artist. The first thing you’ll notice about the song, after the brief robotic salvo, are the guitars. They’re loud, and there are many of them: at least three separate guitars and a bass, each with its own overdubs, all fused into a metallic wall of noise that leaves no room to breathe or think. Assuming you’re on the right wavelength, it’s irresistible headbanger music; otherwise, “Party Hard” might immediately cause a headache even without the headbanging. Luckily, you don’t need a functioning brain to comprehend what W.K. and his band are playing, or what they’re saying. The mantra-like choruses incite spontaneous partying, while the verses are placeholder mishmashes of “all night” and “all right” rhymes as featherweight and mildly abrasive as pumice. The whole thing sounds like a speaking hivemind: one voice built from many.
“Party Hard” is also incredibly digital-sounding, a relic of the nascent digital audio workstations that were becoming industry-standard at the turn of the millennium. It also might have to do with the sheer amount of compression required to wrangle all the instruments. But W.K. also insisted the cohesive sound was an aesthetic choice: “I never wanted it to sound like a bunch of musicians or singers –– I wanted the sound of the songs to sound like one instrument,” he offered in a 2012 Pitchfork interview about I Get Wet.
The “Party Hard” sound certainly inspired music appreciators worldwide to ask “Is he kidding?” It was a valid question, given that rock had already entered its next phase by I Get Wet’s 2001 arrival — a chapter synonymous with sleeker, chic-er New York acts like the Strokes and Yeah Yeah Yeahs. At the same time, New York is a city enthralled with postmodernism, and its art school students (including quasi-karaoke electropop gremlins Fischerspooner) were actively challenging the ideas of what it meant to perform over-commercialized pop music. It wasn’t a stretch to assume that W.K., an act familiar with the NYC scene, was participating in that conversation via music that forcibly shoved all the tired rock tropes of the previous 20 years down your throat.
In a retrospective light, we know now that W.K. was completely earnest in his approach, and it’s easier than ever to crack a smile at the extremeness of his music. A significant crowd has bought into his music and message ever since the release of “Party Hard,” and though the song never hit the U.S. pop charts (it climbed to number 19 in the U.K.), W.K.’s devotion to partying as a holistic expression of joie de vivre appears unstoppable. After so many years of crafting anthems for that purpose, “Party Hard” continues to be his signature statement: it’s been used in commercials, films, sporting arenas and countless memes, all for how effectively it conveys the pure, giddy pleasure of being as loud and raucous as possible.
Now in his forties as of this writing, Andrew W.K. remains an enigma in perpetually dirty white jeans and T-shirt: easy to understand, but hard to know. He continues to play the songs from I Get Wet, including “Party Hard,” with the same intensity of his youth. How does he do it? “I have no choice,” he admitted to Pitchfork. “[The music] completely takes over your body and pushes you, like it was designed to do… it’s the only way I’m able to keep doing it.”
Party Hard (KORD-0103)