Interview: Weird Al Yankovic

When “Weird Al” Yankovic was sixteen years old, he gave a home-recorded tape of original and parody songs to Dr. Demento, who broadcast them on his radio show. This was the beginning of Yankovic’s career in comedic music, which really took off in 1984 with his hit song with “Eat It”, a parody of Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” with a hilarious video which spoofed Jackson’s own. He has released many other popular parodies, including another song by Jackson (“Fat”) and songs by Madonna (“Like A Surgeon”), Queen (“Another One Rides The Bus”), Nirvana (“Smells Like Nirvana”), Coolio (“Amish Paradise”), and Chamillionaire (“White & Nerdy”). He also has written a number of original comedy songs. His new album, ALpocalypse, is being released in June, 2011.

The following interview was conducted by phone on 6/13/11.

Jeff Moehlis: What can we look forward to at your upcoming concert at the Chumash Casino?

“Weird Al” Yankovic: Well, if you’ve never had the “Weird Al” live experience before, I guess I would describe it as a rock and comedy multimedia extravaganza. It’s me on the stage with the same band that I’ve had since my very first album. There’s a lot of costume changes, there’s a lot of film clips on a big screen. It’s a highly produced, theatrical high energy rock show. It’s a good time, and we try to give people their money’s worth.

JM: Your new album ALpocalypse comes out in just over a week. How did you choose the songs to parody for that album?

WAY: There’s no real rules other than I try to pick songs that are, obviously, very popular, and if I come up with a clever enough idea for that song I get permission to write it and put it on the album.

JM: One of the new songs on the new album is “Perform This Way” [which parodies Lady Gaga’s song “Born This Way”]. Could you comment on how it went when you tried to obtain permission for that one?

WAY: I detail the entire process pretty exhaustively in a couple of blog posts [post 1, post 2], but in a nutshell basically Lady Gaga’s manager had turned down the parody without ever approaching Lady Gaga about it, and then after I had uploaded the song to Youtube to give it away for free, Lady Gaga was made aware of it and immediately approved it. Now it’s getting an official release, and in fact it’s the first single and video from the new album.

JM: You have kept up with pop music certainly more than most people – it’s kind of part of your job. How would you compare today’s pop music to the pop music from yesteryear?

WAY: You know, pop music is always changing. It’s always a little bit ridiculous by definition. But, you know, it’s always going to morph or change into something new. In terms of general wide-sweeping trends, I’d say we’re living in an age of AutoTune. I think that’s starting to finally wane a little bit, but there for a while every other song on the radio had this obnoxious AutoTune effect on it. I mean, everybody in the world suddenly became T-Pain, which I’m not exactly sure why that was a good idea. No offense to T-Pain, of course, just everybody should not sound like that.

And also there’s a tendency for people nowadays to just have everything sequenced and synthesized, and there’s not as many quote-unquote real instruments anymore. I kind of liked the whole 90’s grunge movement, and the DIY revival and all that, and actual bands playing music. And now a lot of the music you hear on the radio, it’s all done with keyboards and computers, basically. There’s nothing wrong with that, but, you know, I like guitars, I like live instruments, I like the eras in pop music where people were actually playing live.

JM: You mentioned the grunge movement. I think one of your most brilliant parodies is “Smells Like Nirvana”. How did it go when you tried to get permission from Kurt Cobain to do that song?

WAY: Kurt was great about it. We were having a problem actually with their management. My manager couldn’t get a phone call from their manager, so basically I was told, “If you want to do this parody, you’re gonna have to figure out a way to talk to the guys in the band directly.” So I tracked them down. I talked to Kurt backstage when he was getting ready to do his first performance on Saturday Night Live, and I basically introduced myself over the phone, and told him what I wanted to do. And he agreed to it immediately. He was a terrific sport. He had a wonderful sense of humor, and he was totally into it. In fact, one of my favorite quotes of all time was Kurt Cobain saying that he didn’t realize he had made it until he heard the “Weird Al” parody.

JM: Your most popular YouTube video is “White & Nerdy” [a parody of Chamillionaire’s “Ridin'”]. I have to confess that I can personally relate to a lot of the lyrics from that. Where did your inspiration come from – was it personal?

WAY: Yeah, it’s probably my most personal song to date. I mean, I didn’t have to do a whole lot of research for that particular song. I drew from a lot of personal life experience. I wouldn’t say that the song describes me 100% accurately, but enough that I didn’t have to exaggerate a whole lot.

JM: I should mention that I’m from the first MTV generation, so I remember seeing your videos way back when. Your Michael Jackson parodies, “Eat It” and “Fat” – did Michael ever give you feedback on these?

WAY: Yeah, he liked them. I talked to Michael on two separate occasions, and he always was a big fan of the parodies. As you may have heard, we actually shot the “Fat” video on Michael Jackson’s subway set. He was nice enough to allow us to use that. So he was very supportive, very appreciative of the parodies.

JM: I read that “Like A Surgeon” was actually a suggestion from Madonna herself – is that correct?

WAY: It was. I mean, it wasn’t like she called me up and said “I know what you ought to do”, but what happened was she was having a conversation with a friend of hers in New York one day, and she kind of wondered aloud, “Hmm, I wonder when “Weird Al” is gonna do ‘Like a Surgeon’?” And her friend happened to know my manager, and so of course word got back to me and my immediate thought was, “Hmm, that’s not a bad idea.”

JM: But I understand that nowadays you try not to take suggestions from others. Is that for legal reasons?

WAY: Well, I just have more than enough warped ideas on my own. I don’t really need to outsource ideas for song parodies. And it also opens me up to a lot of problems and headaches that I don’t want to deal with, legally and logistically and everything else. I’d rather just listen to the voices in my own head.

JM: You’re best known for your parodies, but you also write a number of original songs yourself. What are some of your favorite original songs?

WAY: Oh, it’s hard to pick. Some of my favorites are the ones that I spent the most time on, like the big production numbers, like “Pancreas” or “Genius in France”, or “Don’t Download This Song”. Or, there’s a song on the new album called “Stop Forwarding That Crap To Me”, which is sort of a Jim Steinman / MeatLoaf kind of big production number, bombastic ballad kind of vibe. That was a lot of fun to do. I feel very close to all the original songs, but the ones that I spent the most time on, obviously, I feel the most close to. “Hardware Store” is another one.

JM: The number 27 pops up in a lot of your videos. I’m wondering, what is the significance of that number?

WAY: The actual answer is that it has very little significance other than I used the number on a couple of occasions early on in my career without even thinking about it. I mean, I don’t know why, maybe I thought it was a funny number, or maybe it was the right number of syllables. I’m not sure. But some fans picked up on it, and said, “How come you’re using the number 27, this must mean something?” And once I realized that they were dissecting my lyrics and obsessing about this number, I started fanning the flames by throwing the number into lyrics and videos and random things, just to amuse them. Now it’s just sort of like a secret handshake for the hardcore fans, just to throw in the number 27 here and there.

JM: What advice would you give to an aspiring songwriter or musician?

WAY: I would say give up, because all of the slots are filled. There’s really no openings left. So thanks for your interest, but they’re not taking applications anymore.

JM: What are your plans, musical or otherwise, for the near future?

WAY: Well, I’ve got a couple more concerts this week, then I’m on my promotional tour for my album. We’ve got some national TV stuff, and a ton more interviews, and we’re wrapping up the video for “Perform This Way” which is going to have its world premier at the end of this week. Then we’ve got another week’s worth of shows in July which are leading up to a big TV show taping. I can’t say which channel quite yet, but that’s gonna be a big deal. And some more promotion. I’ll take a little bit of time off with the family in August, then we’re going to be touring for two months in the fall.

JM: I think you mostly tour in the US, right? How has it worked out that way?

WAY: We do very well in Australia. I did my first tour of the UK just this last December, and it went extremely well, and I would love to go back and do some more of that. There’s only a few American pop culture references that they may not get or appreciate as much as US audiences, but they appreciate the humor, they get the gist of it. And some of my most enthusiastic audiences have been outside the US. I’d like to do more international touring if possible.

It was kind of harder in the 80’s and 90’s to develop an international fan base, but now because of portals like YouTube I’m finding that I have fans in parts of the world that I barely knew existed. So I think the opportunity for me to expand my touring beyond the US and Canada, there’s more opportunity for that now than ever.

JM: Do you want to set the record straight on anything about your music, career, or life?

WAY: [laughs] That’s a pretty broad question. I mean, there’s a lot of misconceptions about me and what I do, and it would take all day to systematically refute all the errors on the internet. You know, there are a lot of songs that are attributed to me that are not by me. It’s hard for me to even go into that. You can’t really police the internet – I figured that out a long time ago. So you just hope that people can kind of wade through the misinformation and figure out the stuff that’s real and the stuff that isn’t.

JM: Could you give the correct pronunciation of your last name?

WAY: It is in fact ‘Yank-o-vick’. There’s no ‘h’. You know, it’s a common misunderstanding, and in fact, I believe it was ‘Yawnk-o-vich’ a couple generations ago, but it’s been ‘Yank-o-vick’, you know, for me. That’s what it is.

JM: Where are you calling from?

WAY: I’m calling from my home right now, in Los Angeles.


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