I had a chance, a few years back, to chat with “Weird Al” Yankovic – it was fun. He was mostly pretty serious, but we got to talk through a few of his finest parodies and his motivations around doing what he did. He was about to tour NZ and play Christchurch – the tour ended up cancelled due to the Canterbury earthquake. He had also just released his first children’s book – a fun wee read. I’m not “Weird Al” fanatic – but I’ve always admired his skill and dedication. So if you missed it the first time around here’s my chat with “Weird Al” Yankovic.
There was nothing weird about my interview with “Weird Al” Yankovic, unless, in a David Lynch directing The Straight Story-kind-of-way you choose to find something weird about how straight it all was.
But “Weird Al” is just “Normal Al” Yankovic when we speak and he assures me that is how it is most of the time; “Weird Al” in stage-name only. In fact, the song parodist is probably the nicest, straightest – most down-to-earth – musician I have ever spoken to, or near enough to the top of the list.
Yankovic was branded “Weird Al” for his song parodies that began with a Goon Show lunacy (part Frank Zappa, part Allan Sherman, part Spike Jones) back when he was a college kid, adding pranks and silly jingles to the radio. He was formally instructed in the ways of the accordion, joking that it was easier for him to find work as a novelty act than as a serious musician.
Oh yeah, when “Weird Al” jokes – he’s usually very serious.
I find him, pre-tour, focussing on another outlet.
“I’m just doing some publicity for the release of my children’s book I wrote over summer. It’s called When I Grow Up and it’s about an eight year old named Billy and all the things he’s dreaming to be and the imaginary world he creates. It’s whimsical and sweet and somewhat empowering, hopefully”.
Yankovic says that although it is in no way meant to be autobiographical he can relate to the idea of following dreams, of creating imaginary worlds.
“Oh yeah, sure, there are themes I recognise; themes I have intentionally focussed on. I was very lucky with my career because I had two loving parents who supported me with all that I did. In a way my parents gave me a very special gift – they encouraged me to be happy creating, to be able to follow my path and invent and have fun; to be happy”.
He was a smart child who excelled at school, starting university at age 16, working to become an architect. He has learned a vast repertoire of polka tunes, starting before he was a teenager. Now Yankovic is the world’s most successful song parodist – known at the birth of MTV for his video send-ups that shadowed the original clips. He sang about food (changing Michael Jackson’s Beat It to his own Eat It and then Jackson’s song Bad was turned in to Yankovic’s farce, Fat). He made silly pop songs out of – well – silly pop songs. He refused to be written off as a novelty act and has continued to carve out a career – one that, as near to unfathomable as it might seem for some, runs in now at over 30 years.
“The irony”, according to Yankovic, “is that I couldn’t get signed to a record deal back then. The label people were all saying ‘well, you’ll only have one or two hits and then what’ but here I am. Still. So, yeah, that is kinda funny”. Neither of us laughs.
I point out that not only has he lasted longer than some of the acts he has famously parodied – now the industry would be excited to think a new signing could even generate those one or two hits.
“That’s right. Double irony. But you know, I enjoy what I do and we’ve stuck at it – as a band, touring, recording, I’ve moved in to TV and film and worked a lot with the video aspect, that was always important. People think that because these are silly songs they are easy, or not the same as a normal song. But I sit down and work at these; I write them – just as the original songwriters sit down to create them”.
Ideas come from listening to the music – “from reacting” – but I ask Yankovic if it is getting harder to be a song parodist. Aren’t artists like Lady Gaga and Eminem parodies of themselves as (well as being) serious artists?
“Well, yeah the main thing that has made it harder is YouTube – the video aspect was always as important to me as the song side of it and now with YouTube people can put up some quality stuff themselves; create some funny videos – but also it means that parodies are more likely to occur. So, you know, back, 30 years ago, or 25 years ago, I might have been the first to make fun of a song – to rewrite it, not counting funny radio skits of course. But that’s almost impossible now. But that actually makes it better – it’s seeing the audience grow, it’s creating new ideas. It’s a lot of fun. It’s exciting”.
Yankovic’s audience is “everyone and anyone”; loyal fans have stayed with him from the early 1980s “hits” and have introduced their children. But then there are always new fans too.
“We’re lucky, every few years we’ll do something that seems to register – seems to create a bit of interest and do the rounds. There was Amish Paradise and more recently White And Nerdy seems to have created a few fans”, here, finally, there’s a chuckle.
Loyal, too, are the band-members.
“Yeah, I’ve had the same band, mostly for 20 years or more. My drummer [Jon “Bermuda” Schwartz] has been with me from the start, we’ve got most of the band clocking in at 30 years together. Then there’s our keyboardist, he’s been with us coming up 20 years. He’s the new guy”.
I ask if his name is Ron Wood and Yankovic howls with laughter.
“We played in New Zealand before but we’re really looking forward to coming back. We do a good show. A really long show, we do about two and a quarter hours and we’ll cover all the hits, some new material – I’m working on a new album, we’ve released the EP digitally but we’ll release a full album in a few months. In fact most of it is done”.
It’s impossible to ask Yankovic what the new album will sound like – as that’s basically like giving away the plot of a movie or book; or at least telling the punch-line of a joke before the rest of the story.
“Unfortunately, yeah”, he chuckles, “in my line of work I don’t really get to give away much in term of previews. It doesn’t work. For me comedy is about surprise, the element of surprise is crucial”.
Yankovic’s courteous, down-to-earth approach extends over the way he works, the way he conducts his parody process.
“I always get permission. Always. It’s just something I like to do – we can do parodies of pop songs without asking, but I just think it’s polite to have people on board. And, really, we’ve had no complaints over the 30 years of doing this”.
But one person has never been keen to allow a Yankovic treatment of his work.
“Yeah, ah Prince has said no a bunch of times”, and Yankovic chuckles lightly. “So, ah, that’s a shame but I’ve given up on that – that was a long time ago, he said no, we asked a few times and he said no and that’s fine. But it’s a bit of a shame. I don’t know, Prince lives in a bubble – I think he lives in a place inside his head that few people ever get to visit. And I don’t think I want to go there, so, ah, yeah – that’s not gonna happen now!”
And Coolio was not very happy with Amish Paradise, Yankovic’s twist on Gangsta’s Paradise.
“Yeah, that’s the other one that’s often mentioned. Coolio. I don’t know what that guy’s problem was”, Yankovic says, laughing, “he was upset over one thing or another – but that’s all been taken care of. I saw him at an awards show a few years later and we hugged it out, we’re old buds now”, there’s laughter breaking up Yankovic’s explanation of his apology to Coolio, “we’re tight now. Well, no, we’re not – but he’s fine with it”.
It’s particularly ironic given Coolio’s appropriation of Stevie Wonder’s Pastime Paradise, I suggest.
“Right!” Yankovic hoots.
Some of the parodies Yankovic has written have taken just a few minutes – “an hour or so” – but there are others that have required a great deal of thought – the joke so heavily buried/sustained. This was the case with BOB – Yankovic’s rewrite, in palindromes, of Bob Dylan’s Subterranean Homesick Blues. I suggest that it was more like a maths problem than a song.
“Yeah, that one was a lot of fun to sit down with – and it was exactly that, a problem, a puzzle; it was just fun to mess around with. I was proud of that. It was a shame because I think we released that in 2003 and I remember thinking it would have been cool to release it in 2002 as that’s the last palindrome-year we will see for a while. Oh well”.
So you see Yankovic is rather white and nerdy. And he’ll happily admit it.
But if he is not, in your mind, a “real” musician he certainly feels like he is. And is driven by the same motivations, the same desire to get out and play live, rather than hide at home and laugh at his tongue-in-cheek creations.
“I’m excited about the tour – I’m always excited to tour, we have a great band. These guys are some great musicians because they’ve learned just about every single style there is – and we play stuff from all of the records. We even do a medley of some of the hits, just so we can squeeze value in to the show. It’s a big show – loads of fun stuff. We have great visuals, costume changes. And it’s just a great bunch of people to work with and to play to. We all get on, we’ve known each other so long we have no tensions, no stress; it’s just fun to go out on the road. We’re old friends. Playing to new friends”.