Andrew W.K. Rocks a Classical Sound

BY Arts Desk  October 15, 2009 at 11:32 AM EDT

Andrew W.K., a solo rock act known best for his bombastic 2001 debut album, “I Get Wet,” has earned a reputation as a party-friendly, long-haired headbanger who combines earnest optimism with exuberant piano playing plus some distorted guitar and frequent, frenetic dancing.

Reputation and repertoire in tact, W.K. is nonetheless taking a bit of a departure with his latest work. Released this year, “55 Cadillac” is a solo, instrumental album that lets him return to his roots as a classically trained pianist, and he’s taken that material out on tour with an unlikely back-up band — a critically acclaimed string quartet.

The Calder Quartet, a Los Angeles-based ensemble (named for the modernist American sculptor Alexander Calder) that plays top classical venues around the world, approached Andrew W.K. to team up for a tour. W.K. thought the collaboration would be a good way to highlight his diverse musical interests, he explained in an interview, and be well-timed to the release of his new album.

Even when interpreting these instrumental works, Andrew W.K. still brings his reliably bizarre sense of humor and penchant for outrageous stage antics to pair with skillful piano work. While tour material includes works from Philip Glass, John Cage and Christine Southworth (all avant-garde artists, but definitely not in the rock genre), W.K. is also prone to burst into scheduled performances of “Spontaneous Solo Piano Improvisations,” which feature growling, the flailing of limbs, and other random noises.

Andrew W.K. closes his shows with quartet arrangements of some of his rock hits, like “I Get Wet” and “Party Hard,” numbers that inspire audience members to dance and thrash on stage to the piano and strings.

Art Beat caught up with W.K. at a tour date in Vienna, Va., to talk about the new album, the tour, and how both fit into his ideas about entertainment.

For more of the NewsHour interview with Andrew W.K., watch extended clips below: