Headed back to town for a Sunday night performance at Riot Fest, I spoke with Andrew W.K. about his now annual appearances at the festival, what makes Riot Fest unique in a crowded American festival field... and about partying.
Riot Fest consistently features one of the most diverse and rewarding festival lineups in the United States.
As Chicago adds more and more festivals to the concert season, Riot Fest continues to stand out thanks to a carefully curated, affordable festival experience that's built around a simple focus frequently absent from many others: the fan.
It's the fact that they continue to think like fans that has given Riot Fest a unique advantage in staging previously unthinkable reunions by artists like Naked Raygun, The Replacements, Misfits and more. This year, they add a Sunday night headlining slot by reunited punk/emo trio Jawbreaker to the list.
Since 2012, in each of its years as an outdoor festival, Andrew W.K. has performed in Chicago at Riot Fest (a distinction matched only by GWAR). The rocker, host, writer and general entertainer approaches his vast array of artistic endeavors with a positive attitude and party mantra that fits Riot Fest perfectly.
"I remember the first year we were invited back, I actually had our agent double check to make sure they realized we had played the year before," jokes Andrew W.K. "And I almost didn’t want to tell them that. Because you’re just happy to get asked to play. But I wanted to make sure that they realized. It’s almost such a taboo in the industry to have an artist repeat like that."
While there's little conventional about Riot Fest, one thing fans can expect annually is Andrew W.K. in his role as de facto festival mascot. I spoke with Andrew W.K. about the key to responsible festival partying, the possibility of new Andrew W.K. music and much more. A lightly edited transcript of that phone conversation follows below...
Q. You’ve played Riot Fest now in each of its years in Chicago as an outdoor festival since 2012. I believe the only other artist who can claim that distinction is GWAR. I imagine you’ve played a lot of festivals over the years, so what is it that makes your experience at Riot Fest unique?
Andrew W.K.: Just beyond the fact that there’s never been another festival that has had us play back to back to back to back to back to back – I’ve actually lost track which has never happened with any festival. It’s really almost unheard of. In fact, most festivals would go out of their way to avoid booking anyone consistently in a row like that. So that’s not lost on me and I don’t take it for granted at all.
It’s interesting… Because, each year, in a way, I of course hope to be invited back. And I kind of almost get bold enough where I dare to expect to be invited back. But I don’t! Because it’s already so absurd.
I remember the first year we were invited back, I actually had our agent double check to make sure they realized we had played the year before. And I almost didn’t want to tell them that. Because you’re just happy to get asked to play. But I wanted to make sure that they realized. It’s almost such a taboo in the industry to have an artist repeat like that.
But I guess I could be so bold as to say that now it’s become a tradition of sorts. But, again, it’s not something I take for granted. And if we, for example, didn’t get to play next year, we certainly would have no right to complain. That’s the beauty of it: each year is still a treat, it’s still a pleasure, it’s still a privilege. Each year I’ve grown to appreciate it more.
And with all the festivals, like you’re saying, that we’ve gotten to play, I really think the greatest thing about Riot Fest is this almost intangible atmosphere that they’re able to create. Which, with all the moving parts of the festival, that’s the one thing that you can’t really force to happen. It doesn’t matter how well you execute all the other parts – you could still not be able to have that magic in the air.
And I think it’s not just the organizers themselves or the performers or the audience – it’s a combination of all of these factors, and some bit of magic, that creates this special feeling in the air. And I think there’s a lot of other festivals that wish they could do that but they can’t. It’s just a special x factor that I think everybody can feel like they contribute to on some level and maybe the city itself as well.
"That’s the beauty of it: each year is still a treat, it’s still a pleasure, it’s still a privilege. Each year I’ve grown to appreciate it more."
Q. Three days can be a lot for fans who are partying outdoors in early fall. What would you say is the key to responsible partying over the course of three days at Riot Fest?
W.K.: Well, you really... At that point, you’re trying to be responsible to yourself so you can make the most of those three days. It would of course be a shame to burn out before you’ve had a chance to enjoy all that the festival has to offer.
That being said, all great festivals - and Riot Fest being no exception - they offer more than any one person could enjoy. And that’s the goal – you want to have there be more than you can do. You want your options to be so lavish that no one human could do it all even in three days.
But you like to give yourself the best possible shot at seeing everything and I think that involves some basics like hydration. And some stretching maybe. And some pre-active-aerobic-cardio to get your body prepared for the energy requirements.
But it’s really a mind over matter thing. Today has been a very busy day and I just was thinking to myself, “Part of me just wants to rest.” But there’s those moments when even though you want to rest, or your body’s telling you to rest, you don’t want to. Because you don’t want to miss out on the stuff that you have to do. So you rally. You have to rally.
And that’s part of the spirit of the festival. You push yourself past that point and you call upon that super human energy that keeps you going. It’s not a normal thing – that’s why it only happens once a year. Not every day could be Riot Fest.
In a way it would be nice if that was possible but, as it stands now, Christmas comes once a year and Riot Fest comes once a year... but mindset can last all year and it can stay with you. You just have to get your mental head space prepared and have that combination of focus and resilience and endurance.
Q. Are there any memories that stick out for you over the years as particularly fond ones at Riot Fest?
W.K.: Well, I had the pleasure of doing a couple sort of special interviews involving Dave Brockie [of GWAR]. And that was also based on our repeat playing of Riot Fest. We kind of formalized that and were able to commemorate that in a couple of interviews that we did. And those obviously are very fond to me now that he, in physical form, is no longer there. But his spirit certainly is. That’s a fond memory.
In a lot of ways, the memories blur together but it’s odd the ones that stand out. I remember very clearly last year eating a lot of popcorn right before we went on stage. Which, I could kind of tell by maybe the twelfth handful of popcorn that maybe I shouldn’t have eaten that right then. But it was so appetizing that I couldn’t stop. And then I ended up even having more.
Now, is that a notable memory? I don’t know. But I remember it. And, at this point, any memory at all – any that I can remember – is sort of valuable to me.
I also connect it to those early feelings of fall first coming into the air. Those certain smells and that special crispness. In a beautiful way, every fall that you’ve ever experienced kind of connects and reflects on itself in a sort of infinite regression with giant memories. Riot Fest has become part of that. It really has become this beautiful part of my life experience and my year.
Q. Last September, during Riot Fest week, you performed in Chicago as part of the "Power of Partying" spoken word tour. On that tour, you literally hit all 50 states and you did it during what turned out to be an even more contentious election cycle than normal. I would imagine that gave you kind of a unique insight into people generally. What did you learn about people during that tour?
W.K.: That tour was challenging. But it was one of those tours that really fueled you as you went.
I’m very fortunate to be able to focus and have work that is focused on positive emotions – experiencing the full range of emotions in a positive way. That’s one of the great things about the arts in general – music and everything else: you get to explore all these different feelings, all these different colors of humanity, filtered through a meaningful and hopefully joyful encounter. So even a bad emotion or angry emotion can ultimately be a rewarding experience in the context of performance or entertainment.
That’s really how I felt about that tour. It had every shade of feeling in it. In some ways it was the most intense and difficult tour that I’ve ever done. In other ways it was the easiest (in sort of obvious ways I guess but also in surprising ways). Just getting to be with people and talk about life was quite rewarding.
[Chicago during Riot Fest] was the first date of the whole lecture tour. More or less. There was the Chicago show and then it was like a week in between or so. It’s all a bit of a blur but I believe Chicago was the first one. And then to Hawaii and Alaska and maybe then to Texas or something.
"That’s one of the great things about the arts in general – music and everything else: you get to explore all these different feelings, all these different colors of humanity, filtered through a meaningful and hopefully joyful encounter."
Q. Last year you released a new EDM collaboration track with MAKJ and Timmy Trumpet called “Party Till We Die." Are you working on more new Andrew W.K. music?
W.K.: Yes. I just finished recording a new album that will be out early next year that will be the first new full length rock album.
This September tour is the first full band tour since 2012. Of course this is including Riot Fest. We’ve still played as a band. There’s always been lots of shows and tours but as far as a full rock tour, it’s been a few years for that.
And I didn’t really plan it this way but someone pointed out to me that this is now the 15th anniversary of when the first album came out. I don’t know, I just keep trying to keep going along.
I feel in many ways more determined, and almost more desperate, now than I ever have before to just do the very best that I can. I'm just thankful and more just amazed that any of this has happened and that there are still opportunities out there to keep doing this. So I’m thankful to have that feeling in the midst of all this.
Q. Obviously Chicago has accepted and embraced the state of mind that is partying. What’s it like for you coming back now annually?
W.K.: There’s no better city for whatever it is that I have to offer. Chicago has been the best. There’s no one better. Anywhere in the world that we’ve gotten to play, noone has topped Chicago.
That’s not to say that nobody could. It’s not to put it on a pedestal – it is unique unto itself and it’s special – but I can say there’s no place on earth that has responded with more consistent enthusiasm for this particular feeling that I’m interested in.
I feel like I’m amidst friends and brothers and sisters in partying, in pursuit of this sometimes elusive but always worthwhile feeling of celebration.
Thank you to Riot Fest for all the work they put into what they do year round. It speaks for itself. Any band that plays there can tell that is the result of a real special group of people. And I’m just very thankful, very humbled, to be included so many times.
- Jim Ryan ( @RadioJimRyan )
(Details on Riot Fest 2017 below)
Riot Fest 2017 - Friday, September 15 - Sunday, September 17, 2017
(Andrew W.K. performs Sunday at 8:30PM on the Heather Owen Stage)
Gates open at 11AM each day
Performances begin at noon each day
Performances end at 10PM each night
Friday headliners: Nine Inch Nails, New Order, Ministry, Vic Mensa and more
Saturday headliners: Queens of the Stone Age, Wu-Tang Clan, At The Drive In, Danzig and more
Sunday headliners: Jawbreaker, Paramore, Prophets of Rage, M.I.A., TV on the Radio and more
Click HERE to purchase single day, two day or weekend general admission and VIP passes