Up in the lighting booth, a concerned employee comes by with some earplugs for Andrew; with some reluctance, he squeezes the foam nubs into his ears. Though his celebrity is one of the main draws for Santos devotees—his performances are notoriously rambunctious affairs—to spend time with him at Santos is to understand that he has a way of quietly curating even the nights he’s not directly involved in. He designs the flyers and the drink tickets, and while he employs people to work the controls in the lighting booth, he often takes over himself. “Watch this,” he says, pressing a few buttons on the control board and throwing a cool burst of neon blue in one corner of the cavernous room, a slivery flicker of a strobe in another. “Do people notice what I’m doing? Maybe not directly, but it’s enhancing their experience. That’s all I really care about. Is everyone having the most fun they can possibly have? Is this the best night of their lives? What can I do to make it better?” As he speaks he drifts into a meditative trance, growing silent as he works the lighting for the next hour, stopping only when he realizes that the club, still packed with people, is minutes away from its 4 a.m. closing time. “Sorry about that,” he eventually says. “I get kind of possessed when I’m in here.”
When Andrew is not in Santos, he tends to be holed up in the apartment he shares with his wife, a sprightly, vivacious woman named Cherie Lily who works as a celebrity personal trainer and performs (often at Santos) a genre of dance music she calls “houserobics.” The two live on the 39th floor of a midtown high-rise, a cozy space filled with framed black-and-white posters of iconic New York skyscrapers, several of which can be seen in the sprawling views. It may seem like a curious choice of location for someone with such a downtown presence, though it doesn’t take much time with Andrew to learn that everything in his professional life, from the music he makes to the club he runs, is a way for him to participate in a lifestyle that, on a personal level, he finds fascinating but deeply alienating. Raised in Michigan, he describes himself as a socially awkward child who grew into a socially awkward adolescent and remains, his public persona aside, a socially awkward adult driven, as he puts it, by the sense of not quite belonging to any group.
“The feeling of being included or excluded—that’s always been powerful to me,” he says one afternoon, sitting inside the recording studio he built where most people would place a dining table. “By the time I got to high school I got really interested, almost out of spite, with how I could be part of every group. My feeling of revenge started to develop. The people who beat me up or teased me, I wanted to trick them by winning their approval. The feelings weren’t stemming from me feeling left out, but just feeling sad about everybody not coming together. My music was certainly based on that feeling, and the nightclub has become the pinnacle of all that.” When he first got to New York, Andrew says, “there were places where it felt like I wasn’t even welcome, like it was some kind of nuisance for me to be there.” With Santos, he explains, the idea is to create the opposite sensation, a relentlessly positive energy that specifically counters much of New York nightlife and maybe even the current mood of the country. “The club is about making people feel good about themselves. When they leave, they feel good—they got in, they had fun, they were cool. You can get a lot of power from making people feel bad, but I don’t know that it pays off in the end. It’s almost too easy, you know?”
Although his record sales are not what they once were, Andrew has continued to parlay his music career into a number of related extracurricular activities. He’s filming a game show for the Cartoon Network—“The concept is to destroy things and rebuild from the wreckage!”—and, thanks to Japan, where he remains a star, he earns a decent secondary income recording ringtones and, most recently, a soundtrack to be played on pachinko machines, a kind of anime slot machines that have given birth to a thriving culture of semi-legal gambling. But of the many unexpected tangents Andrew’s career has taken, none is more curious than his fledgling side gig as a motivational speaker. “That started in 2006, when NYU invited me to give a talk,” he explains. “I figured they wanted me to talk about the music business to, like, 45 kids, but when I got there it ended up being 900 people in this huge auditorium.” During the talk, which lasted four hours, Andrew did everything from flailing his body around spastically to singing a cappella versions of his songs to waxing philosophical about standard self-help tropes like living in the moment and being true to yourself. He has since been invited to give similar “lectures” at Carnegie Mellon and Yale and on Late Night With Conan O’Brien—many of which are in heavy circulation on YouTube.