Weird Al Yankovic
This is what a nice guy “Weird Al” Yankovic is: after he was inadvertently given the wrong number to call me for our interview, he got the right number and called me personally to apologize — twice! How many platinum-selling artists with careers spanning two decades would do something like that?
Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the aforementioned two decades, you’re probably familiar with Al, and if you’re like most people, you probably think of him as “that parody guy.” While Al’s best-known work has always been his parodies (including “Eat It,” “Smells Like Nirvana,” and “Amish Paradise”), he’s as talented a songwriter as he is a lyricist. His albums are half-filled with his oft-underappreciated original songs, but they’re usually some of the best stuff on the records.
On his latest album, Running With Scissors , Al delivers his most eclectic set of tunes to date. Alongside parodies of the Offspring, Barenaked Ladies, Cherry Poppin’ Daddies, and the album’s first two singles, the Phantom Menace inspired “American Pie” parody “The Saga Begins” and the Puffy Daddy put-on “It’s All About the Pentiums” (whose clever video, itself a parody of those ubiquitous Hype Williams videos, features Drew Carrey playing Mase to Al’s Puffy), Al offers up insurgent country, third-wave ska (featurning the Reel Big Fish horn section), zydeco, industrial (“Germs,” a style parody of Nine Inch Nails), and more. Once we got the phone situation worked out, I had a nice chat with Al about his twenty years as the weirdest guy in the music industry.
At SXSW, I stood about 3 feet from you and didn’t realize it! Do you find that people don’t recognize you as often, since you’ve had LASIK and shaved off your mustache?
Yeah, absolutely. Thay’re starting to recognize me a little more now, becasue I’ve been on Behind The Music and I’ve been doing a lot of media for the new album, but it was kind of a Clark Kent phenomenon. I’ve been a walking cartoon character for most of my life, but when I got the LASIK surgery, and I lost the glasses and mustache, I was immediately incognito. I was virtually anonymous walking through large crowds, which was a nice change of pace!
On Running With Scissors , you play a very wide variety of styles of music, not only in your parodies but in your originals. Is it a challenge for you to write and play in so many different styles?
Yeah, I suppose so. I mean, that’s part of what I like to do, I like to make my albums as eclectic as possible, and do as many different kinds of styles as possible on a single album, which is why we go from hip hop to country to ska to swing to hard rock to polka. I mean, there’s a little bit of everything on the album, so if you don’t like the way one song sounds, just wait around for a few minutes, and there’ll be something completely different!
Do you set out to say “I want to write a ska song, or a zydeco song,” or is the choice of styles actually a parody in and of itself?
A little of both. I mean, a lot of times I’ll think, “I haven’t done a zydeco song yet, I think I want to do one on this new album.” So I’ll have a list of styles, and sometimes I’ll be sitting with a list of styles and a list of song topics and think “oh, what would go good with what style?” I thought the thing with matching Eddie Vedder with a zydeco song (“My Baby’s in Love With Eddie Vedder”) I thought was so random and ridiculous that I thought it was kinda funny.
On the same topic, it obviously takes a very talented band to play such a wide variety of diverse styles. Do you think you and your band get the respect you deserve musically?
I definitely think my band is underrated. I think that because what we do is comedy that it’s maybe not looked upon as highly as some angst-ridden rock group [laughs], but my band, I think, is one of the greatest bands in the world, just because they’re able to pull off so many different things, and do it all so well. They’re all extremely well-skilled musicians, and you’re right, they probably don’t get the respect they deserve.
I really liked the song “Albuquerque” on the new album…
I was wondering if you actually wrote the lyrics stream-of-consciousness, or did you take a lot of time coming up with just the right lyrics?
Well, I didn’t improvise it in the studio — I mean, I did write out all the lyrics and rehearse with the band, like a regular song, but when I was writing the song, I tried to… Basically, I wrote down a lot of stream-of-consciousness things — like with all my songs, I write in a notebook or in a computer file, and keep notes — and I just let my brain wander for days and just wrote down everything that kind of came into my head. After all that, I kind of figured out how to make it into a song, just to kind of condense it… [laughs] into eleven-and-a-half minutes!
Was it hard to set it to music?
Well, that particular song, no, because it’s basically a rambling kind of a George Thorogood kind of two chord ramble [laughs]. There’s not that much music to speak of!
How did you get hooked up with voice actress Tress MacNeille (perhaps best known as the Warner Sister, Dot, on Animaniacs )?
I’ve known her for many, many years — in fact, one of her first jobs ever was with me — she was the voice of Lucille Ball when I did my song “Ricky” (a parody of Toni Basil’s “Mickey”) back in 1983. She was basically new in town and she answered an ad that we put in one of the trade papers. I think two women showed up to audition for it, and she was one of them. She got the gig, and she’s since become one of the absolute hottest voice-over talents in the world! She does so many voices, her resume is just incredible — she’s done The Simpsons , Animaniacs , she’s on virtually every animated show you can think of. She’s phenomenal.
I know you get permission from the artists you parody. Do you actually play the songs for them before they’re released, or do you just get the go-ahead and then surprise them when it’s released?
Generally, the latter. If they insist on hearing it before it’s released, we’ll of course oblige them, but more often than not, they’ll sign off on a parody just based on the concept and the fact that I’m doing it, because I’m lucky enough to have a track record now, where people realize I’m not there to make them look bad or put them down. It’s meant to be a tribute, and an homage, if you will, to their work. A lot of people look at it as a badge of honor when they get a “Weird Al” parody.
Other than the unfortunate situation with Coolio (who apparently was none too happy about “Amish Paradise”), has anybody ever been offended by the finished song?
No! I mean, if they’ve approved the concept, they’ve loved the song.
I’ve always been a fan of your style parodies (in which Al writes a n original song in the style of a well-known band). Do you do them out of affection for the artists, or do you pick someone with an easily-identifiable style for the humor value?
I would have to say, almost without exception, it’s done out of affection, out of fandom. Generally, I do a style parody because I really, really enjoy the artist, and I happen to have all their CDs, and I’ve been doing research on them for a long time. I don’t think I’d ever do a style parody just because I thought a band was popular — I might do a parody based on that, but the style parodies are based on genuine affection.
Has any artist ever mentioned that they particularly liked or disliked your style parody of them? I know when I interviewed They Might Be Giants after you did “Everything You Know is Wrong,” and they thought it was kind of cool, but they also felt like they shouldn’t be stereotyped as just that one kind of thing…
They said that?
Yeah, they thought it was kind of cool, but they wanted to think that their stuff is kind of “beyond style”…
Well, you know, of course, as artistes , they would say that, but I was going for a particular part of their career, and of course, that one song isn’t going to encapsulate everything that the band is or does. The same way that “Frank’s 2000 TV” is kind of like an early R.E.M. song, and is not meant to say “this is what all R.E.M. songs sound like,” but I think the song was recognizable as something that they might have done at one point.
I think “Everything You Know is Wrong” could have been on TMBG’s first album, easily.
I think they recognized that, but I think they were kind of worried that people might think that they do…
You know, I love They Might Be Giants, they’re one of my absolute favorite groups. I think they’re a little leery about being tied in with me, and comedy and demented music in general, because they want to be taken more seriously. I think they don’t want to be known as a “joke” band or a “comedy” band. Certainly, their lyrics are quirky, and yes, they’re funny! [laughs] But it’s a stigma. I know very much where they’re coming from, and why they might be leery of being even associated with somebody like me. Mad props to the Johns, I love them, and I think they’re wonderful.
When you include a song in a polka medley, do you also request permission?
Yeah. That’s more a matter of a money thing, because if you do a cover version… it gets real technical and boring, so let me cut to the chase. When I do a polka medley, basically, these songwriters have to agree to accept a percentage of the statutory rate. Whenever you do a song, the publisher and the writer get x [amount of money]. We can’t afford to pay that to every single person in the medley, because then it would break us. So they have to agree to accept a percentage of that statutory rate, based on the amount of their song that’s in the medley. Basically, that’s the deal — just to get the publisher to accept a lower rate.
Has anyone ever been touchy about giving you permission?
Well, sometimes they’ll say, “no, we’re not going to accept the lowered rate,” and then I say, “well, sorry, then we can’t have you in the medley,” because it’s a “favored nations” deal — if one person wants more, then everybody has to get more, because it’s not fair otherwise.
I was kind of surprised that Marilyn Manson would allow you to use his song (“The Dope Show”), I figured he’d be very apprehensive about that.
I actually haven’t met him, but Marilyn seems to be actually a pretty cool guy. In fact, he was in the studio right next to me when we were mixing the album, so even though I didn’t actually meet him, I talked to one of his guitar players, and I burned a copy of the polka medley as soon as we were done with it, so Marilyn Manson was actually the first person ever to hear the polka medley! [laughs]
Has anybody ever refused to give you permission to parody their songs?
Yeah, but it happens really infrequently. As I said before, when I do a parody, it’s not meant to be a put down, it’s meant to be an homage. In fact, one of my favorite quotes was from Kurt Cobain, actually, who said that he didn’t realize that Nirvana had really made it until he saw the “Weird Al” video. So, more often than not, people seem really flattered by it.
You were recently the subject of one of VH-1’s Behind The Music shows. What was that like? Was it odd to be on a retrospective thing at this point?
It was! It was really bizarre, it was like seeing my life flash before my eyes [laughs]. I’ve done a few kind of bogus documentaries of my life story [notably The Compleat Al — out of print but well worth searching out! — ed], and in fact, we briefly thought, “well, maybe this Behind The Music we should do as kind of a gag, kind of like a take-off on Behind The Music ,” but then we thought, “you know, I’ve been doing this for twenty years now, a serious retrospective might be actually nice for a change.” It was kind of nice. The one strange part is [that] I haven’t had any kind of downward spiral in my life, really, which is what a lot of those Behind The Music shows are about [laughs]. They look for the drama …
Yeah, I was going to ask if you felt like you had to invent a drug habit or some kind of tragedy to fit their usual format.
No. I was going to get hooked on crack just for the show, but I never got around to it. [laughs] Yeah, they really had to dig deep, because they really wanted a little dirt or some kind of angle, or something. The best they could do was say that I’m still single at 39, which, you know, ooh, what a tragedy! [laughs] And you hear the sappy violin music playing and then they’d say things like “and then his fourth album didn’t sell quite as well as his third album, and he was bummed for a week or two.” [laughs] That kind of stuff.
I was really impressed with the Web site for “The Saga Begins” (http://www.sagabegins.com), and I was wondering how much work you did on that. Did you do the grunt work, or did you just come up with the idea of parodying the Star Wars Web site?
I wish I could take more credit for it, but that was really all done out of my record label. They basically just came up with everything and ran it by me for approval, and I made a few minor tweaks here and there, but that was really all their doing, and they did a fabulous job. In fact, one of the highest compliments I’ve ever been paid was the fact that on starwars.com, Lucas’ official site, they gave both the site and my new album an extremely nice plug, which I’d never seen them do to an outside project before, so that was extremely nice.
How did you manage to get such a quick turnaround on “The Saga Begins”? It seemed like it came out within a few weeks of the movie, so unless you got to see it in advance…
Well, I didn’t get to see it in advance, but I was able to basically glean the entire plotline from unofficial Star Wars Web sites, so thank god for the Internet! [laughs] I was able to write the song in early April, even though the movie wasn’t released until May 19th, so I could get a jumpstart. I still didn’t give the song to Lucas until after the movie came out, just because I thought it would be kind of a bad move to shove a parody in his face before the movie actually hit theaters [laughs], which meant we had a very short window of time, because to get the album out on the release date, we had to have the presses rolling basically a week after The Phantom Menace appeared in theaters. So, we had this one-week window, and it was like, “OK, on this date we’ll get the CD to Lucasfilm, and hopefully they’ll get back to us by this date, because otherwise, we’re in big trouble.” Luckily, they were not only extremely efficient in getting back to us, but they had great senses of humor — in fact, the quote we got back from Lucasfilm was, “you should have seen the smile on George’s face,” which was really great to hear.
Well, it seems to have done very well for you. The album is obviously selling very well.
Yeah! We’ll see if it does as well as Bad Hair Day — that’s my biggest selling album to date — but out of the box, it’s doing really, really well, and we’re very happy. It just shot back up the charts this week — it’s at number 24 with a bullet — so we’re very happy.
Do you think you’re going to continue on to do parodies for the next two Star Wars movies?
Probably not — I mean, I don’t want to be the Star Wars parody guy. I became the Michael Jackson parody guy for a while, and I don’t want to get stuck in a rut. I think one Star Wars song every twenty years or so is just about right [laughs].
With the popularity of things like South Park and other gross-out or raunchy humor, it seems like the current trend in humor is leaning to a lot of coarseness and vulgarity. Have you ever felt any pressure, either from yourself creatively or from a label, to jump on that trend and make your stuff a little more harsh?
No, not really. I mean, I’m my own censor, I do basically the kind of humor that I like to do. I love South Park , but that’s not the kind of humor I do, my humor is pretty clean. Sometimes it tends to be a little sick [laughs], but it’s not vulgar, I don’t use profanity, and it’s not overtly sexual, or anything like that. It’s the kind of stuff that parents usually feel OK buying for their kids. That’s not why I do it, I’m not gearing myself for a particular market or a particular demographic, I didn’t set out to do “family entertainment,” it’s just the kind of humor that I like to do. I think it’s more of a challenge, and it’s ultimately more satisfying to be funny without having to resort to that.
Is there anything else you’d like to say to the readership at large, before I let you go?
Umm… [laughs]. That’s always the hardest stuff to answer, and I usually blank out, so I’ll have to say… HI, READERSHIP AT LARGE! [laughs].
“Weird Al” Yankovic is currently “Touring With Scissors” throughout the US and Canada. Catch him if you can! For more fun with Al (including a chance to have him answer your own questions, check out http://www.weirdal.com!