A Chat with "Weird Al" Yankovic
ALSO: Don't miss Will's review of Straight Outta Lynwood.
Can it truly be that “Weird Al” Yankovic is preparing to release his 12th record? You’d be hard pressed to come up with many other parodists who’ve managed to extend their career beyond a few singles, so the idea that he’s not only been putting out albums since 1983 but continuing to thrive…well, it’s damned impressive, really. And whether you think he’s a laugh riot or not – and, for the record, he is, and I’ll fight you if you say otherwise – the fact of the matter is that he’s a really nice guy and few people have a bad word to say against him…well, with the possible exception of Atlantic Records. (More on that in a moment.) Bullz-Eye was lucky enough to chat with “Weird Al” for about 15 minutes, having been upgraded from an email interview to a phone interview due the fact that this writer is a total fanboy, and he spoke with us about his new album – Straight Outta Lynwood, due for release on September 26th – as well as his work with Ben Folds, the Prince parodies he never got to release, and the shocking revelation that…gasp!...he isn’t weird 24 hours a day.
Weird Al: Hellooooooo…?
BE: How are you?
WA: Good! How ya doin’?
BE: Pretty good. I really appreciate you doing a phoner versus the email.
WA: My pleasure!
BE: I’ve just been a big fan since (1984’s) In 3-D…
WA: Wow! Old school!
BE: …yeah, I’ve got all the albums, blah blah blah. Unfortunately, I have not heard the new album yet…although I did throw caution to the wind and download “Don’t Download This Song.”
WA: (Laughs) You’re so ironic!
BE: Yeah, exactly. I was relieved when the knock at my door turned out to be the UPS guy and not someone from the RIAA (Recording Industry of America)! It’s great to see you getting publicity for one of your songs, as opposed to a parody.
WA: Yeah, it’s a nice…uh, obviously, I enjoy the parodies and I’m thankful for all the attention that those get, but it’s nice when one of my own compositions creates a little buzz.
BE: What are a few of your personal favorites of your originals? I’m partial to “Melanie” (from 1988’s Even Worse), myself.
WA: Oh, that’s one of my favorites; I’ve done that in concert quite a bit. Um…y’know, “One More Minute” (from 1985’s Dare to Be Stupid) is an old standard that we do in concert, “You Don’t Love Me Anymore” (1992’s Off the Deep End)…there’s a few on the new album. The new album has quite a few originals, actually, that I’m fond of. In fact, there’s videos for all the originals on the new album. There’s sort of a Rage Against the Machine soundalike called “I’ll Sue Ya.” And there’s possibly my best production to date, an homage to Brian Wilson – it’s done in sort of his Smile and Pet Sounds era – called “Pancreas,” which is basically a love song dedicated to my pancreas.
BE: There are too few of those.
WA: So few. It’s a genre unto itself.
BE: It is. I’m also a big fan of “Why Does This Always Happen to Me?”
WA: Oh, thank you! Yeah, it was a real thrill for me to work with Ben Folds. (Writer’s note: Folds contributed piano to the song, which, as a result, makes it sound suspiciously like a Ben Folds song.)
BE: Yeah, I was going to ask: how did you hook up? I know you directed his “Rockin’ the Suburbs” video, but how did you actually meet up with him?
WA: I’d met him once or twice before that, but we didn’t really get to be friends, I think, until we worked together on that video. It was kind of an odd bit of synchronicity, because my agent at the time said, “Would you like to do a video for Ben Folds?” And I said, “Absolutely! I’d love to! I think that’d be great!” And I’d written the treatment for the video, and the next day, I was shopping in the supermarket and Ben Folds got into line right behind me. And he doesn’t even live in L.A.! He just happened to be in town, and we were in line in the supermarket together. And I said, “Hey, I just wrote a treatment for your video!” And he was, like, “Oh, cool, well, we’ll see what happens!”
BE: That’s serendipity right there.
WA: Yeah, that was it!
BE: Were you psyched when he asked you to sing backing vocals on (the Folds’ song) “Time,” or was there already a you-scratch-my-back contract in place?"It’s never too easy a target. Easy targets are good."
WA: No, it was really cool! I just happened to be in town; I was on the road, and I’d invited him to go my show that night in Nashville, ‘cause he lives in Nashville most of the year and he’s got a studio there. And he said, “Y’know, I wish I could go to the show, but I’m working on my album and I can’t leave the studio…but if you want to, come on by and you can sing backup on one of the songs.” And I was, like, “Absolutely! That’d be great!”
BE: Have you ever thought about doing just a completely straight album?
WA: You know, I think there’s enough of those in the world already. I don’t have any strong hankering to do that kind of material; I enjoy my own personal niche…or neesh, however you want to pronounce it…but I think I’ll leave that to, y’know, Phil Collins.
BE: Fair enough. And, like I said, I haven’t heard the album yet, but I have seen the cover, and I was wondering if I could get you to name three people who are less “gangsta” than yourself.
WA: (Bursts into laughter) Less “gangsta” than me? Oh, gosh, I’d have to go with…Screech, Urkel, and Pee-Wee Herman.
BE: I think those are three fine choices.
WA: Thank you.
BE: And, of course, parody-wise, you’re tackling Green Day, Usher, R. Kelly, Taylor Hicks, Chamillionaire…and, of course, notably missing is your James Blunt parody.
BE: And I’m sure you’re sick of talking about this…
BE: …but if you could just kind of give a quick summary for those who don’t know the story?
WA: A quick summary. Basically, around the beginning of the year, I had written a parody of “You’re Beautiful” called “You’re Pitiful,” and we’d gotten it cleared with James Blunt, who was fine with it. And I thought, well, this is going to be the first single from my album, so we set the release date. And we announced it – I think the original release date was, like, June 27th – and we’d just started to announce it when we got a call from James Blunt’s label, which was Atlantic Records, saying, “We absolutely do not want you to do this parody.” And I’d never had that before, y’know; I’d never had a record label kind of step between me and their artist before. Generally, if their artist is fine with it, the label’s happy to get the extra revenue and the extra publicity. But they said that they felt that it was too early in James’s career for a parody, that he was too closely associated with “You’re Beautiful” and they wanted to make sure…they thought that the parody might tip him over, might make him seem more like a one-hit wonder by attaching even more attention to that particular song. They thought it would make more sense to have a parody once his career was better established…and I didn’t quite get that logic. I said, “Well, y’know, when I did ‘Smells Like Nirvana,’ that didn’t really kill Nirvana’s budding career. I mean, it’s good publicity, it’s all done in good fun, your artist is fine with it.” But Atlantic really was not swayed by that logic, and they said, “You cannot do this.” So even though, legally, I may’ve been able to get around it and do it anyway because of my First Amendment rights, I figured, y’know, it’s not worth the headache, and it’s not worth going to war with these people, and if that’s the way they feel, then I’ll step down, even though they’re going against their own artist’s wishes.
BE: Did they react when you made the song available for free download via your website?
WA: Um, I heard from the publisher of the song, saying, “Please take ‘You’re Pitiful’ off of your website.” And we had to respond and say, “Well, it’s not on my website anymore. I’m only providing links to several of the thousands of places on the internet where it is now…so if you want to track all of those people down, be my guest.”
BE: But I guess that, as a result of pulling “You’re Pitiful,” it gave you the opportunity to record two new tracks.
WA: Yeah, actually, you know, I was really bummed at the time because I was really looking forward to doing a video for “You’re Pitiful,” and I thought it was a strong album, anyway…but, actually, I think it’s a much stronger album now, with the Chamillionaire parody (“White and Nerdy,” a take-off on “Ridin’”) and the Taylor Hicks parody (“Do I Creep You Out,” based on “Do I Make You Proud”), which we didn’t have before. Plus, people still got to hear “You’re Pitiful” and enjoy that. The only thing that happened is that nobody made any money off of “You’re Pitiful” and James Blunt doesn’t get the revenue that he would have otherwise.
BE: And it certainly got the buzz going for the album.
BE: And I guess the Chamillionaire parody, that’s the first single now?
WA: Well, it depends on what you call a single. We had “Don’t Download This Song” out, and, y’know, we were kind of promoting that first, and now “White and Nerdy,” but I don’t even know what constitutes a single anymore, because we weren’t offering that for sale, and…I guess you’d call it the lead single? It’s the one that’s going to get the most attention.
BE: Doing the Taylor Hicks parody, did you ever think, “This is too easy a target”?
WA: (Laughs) It’s never too easy a target. Easy targets are good.
BE: I’ve been fortunate enough to meet you in an after-show setting in the past, and I have to say, you were surprisingly un-weird.
WA: (Laughs) Don’t tell anybody!
BE: Well, I’ve theorized that you had possibly sweated out all of your weirdness during the show and had yet to refuel.
WA: Yeah, it’s like electrolytes. (Laughs) I can’t be the guy I am on stage 24 hours a day. That would just be exhausting.
BE: Do you ever have people surprised at how arguably normal you are when they meet you?
WA: Yeah, kinda. I don’t know what they expect exactly, but I’m sort of like a human being a lot of the time, and that seems to either surprise or disappoint some people.
BE: You’re even married with child now.
WA: How about that?
BE: Is there going to be a tour immediately following the album, or are you going to do the outdoor venue circuit in the spring?
WA: It’s, uh, we’re planning on doing a full-on tour next summer, and we may be out before that, but we’re kind of waiting to see how the album does and whether it would make any sense to do any international touring and just kind of see what our options are at that point. All I can say is, next summer for sure, and before that, maybe.
BE: I did a review of the Shout! Factory DVD release of “The Weird Al Show”… a favorable one, for the record…
WA: Oh, thank you.
BE: …and I observed that, for as much as I liked the show, it was almost more enjoyable listening to the commentary.
WA: Well, across the board, I think that was the reaction from the critics. “The show? Eh. But the commentary!” It’s like a new life for the show as a behind-the-scenes drama! It was so therapeutic for me and the director, Peyton Reid, and the producer, Tom Frank, just to sit there for an entire evening and just hash everything out about what went wrong with the show and just get all the bitterness out on the table. It was a cathartic experience, to be sure.
BE: Yeah, I missed the opportunity to use the descriptor of “Bitter Al” Yankovic.
BE: Even several years down the line from when you’ve cut your hair and shaved your mustache, my wife is still fascinated by the fact that, underneath the perm and the facial hair, you were really cute. Were you surprised by this as well?
WA: (Bursts into loud laughter) Ohhhhh, gosh…I don’t even know how to respond to that! Except to point out the fact that it’s not a perm; it’s actually bad natural hair.
BE: Ah. Well, my wife falls victim to her natural curls herself, so…
WA: Ah. No, I mean, some people are just taken aback by…sometimes they see me in a short-haired wig and they think, “Gosh, that doesn’t look like ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic. Who’s that?”
BE: And you sprung that look way back in the “Ricky” video (in 1983).
WA: Uh-huh. And I’ve got a short-haired wig…you probably haven’t seen it yet, but for the video for “White and Nerdy,” I’m sporting another short-haired wig. Although I wouldn’t say that it’s sexy or attractive, I definitely don’t look much like myself.
BE: Is MTV going to be playing the video, or have you sent it to them?
WA: Oddly enough, MTV is not. But VH-1 will.
BE: When can we expect the “Weird Al” Yankovic reissues to begin? Because I know there’s a ton of bonus tracks to be had, with the stuff that you’ve given to the Dr. Demento Society over the years. (Writer’s note: The Dr. Demento Society – affiliated, of course, with the Doctor’s long-running radio show – issues yearly Christmas re-releases of material from Dr. Demento's Basement Tapes.)
WA: Oh, all the stuff I give to the Dr. Demento Society, that’s ancient stuff that I think has a very limited appeal. I think the intended audience is going to get those; those are hardcore fans who just want every little piece of memorabilia they can get. It’s for the hardcore completists. All that early stuff…it’s just not that good. It’s early work. It’s like looking at old baby pictures. It’s kind of embarrassing, but, y’know, if you really must, here you go.
BE: I know Prince has continued to deny you the opportunity to parody him, but can you at least reveal the titles of a few songs that we never got to hear because of his lack of a sense of humor?
WA: Oh, boy, there were several. I remember one of the first ones I wanted to do was a parody of “1999.” My title was also going to be “1999,” but it was going to be like a Mr. Popeil kind of ad. “You can get all this for just $19.99! Now how much would you pay?” But that didn’t work out. And I think I had a parody for “When Doves Cry” and “Kiss.” And “Let’s Go Crazy.” There were a number of Prince songs down the line that I wanted to do parodies of, but he just was not open to it.
BE: What would you say is your most underrated album?"All that early stuff…it’s just not that good. It’s early work. It’s like looking at old baby pictures. It’s kind of embarrassing, but, y’know, if you really must, here you go."
WA: Hmmm. Um, depends what you mean by that. Poodle Hat, my last album, didn’t sell nearly as well as I thought it would, and I’m not sure if that’s because of illegal downloading or what. I mean, I know for sure that the fans loved it, and, y’know, it won a Grammy…but it has yet to go gold. And most of my albums go platinum, so I was a little, uh, concerned… (laughs nervously) …about the sales on the last one. But I know that, at least, the fans like it. They’ve heard it; when I play those songs in concert, everybody knows every word…so I don’t know where the disconnect is, exactly.
BE: Will “The Complete Al” ever make it onto DVD? (Writer’s note: This is a mockumentary Al did as a 1985 home video release, mixing a blend of fact and fiction to tell an approximation of his life story; interspersed throughout the release are all the videos he’d done up to that point.)
WA: I don’t know. That’s a good question. I don’t know who at this point owns the rights to that, and, um, I’m not sure where that stands. I haven’t heard about anybody trying to bring that out on DVD, but that’s certainly one of those things that’s sort of fallen between the cracks. Maybe someday.
BE: I didn’t know if it was one of those things that you owned the rights to but just hadn’t gotten around to reissuing.
WA: Yeah, I own the rights to very little of my catalog, so I would guess not.
BE: So I guess that answers the question about the reissues: they may or may not happen, depending on the label’s whims.
WA: That’s exactly right.
BE: And I know we’re coming up on our fifteen-minute mark here…
BE: …but one last thing: could I get you to wish my nephew Tyler a happy birthday?
WA: Sure! (affects what can only be called the definitive “Weird Al” voice) Hey, Tyler, this is “Weird Al” Yankovic, and I’d like to wish you a HAPPY BIRTHDAY!!!
BE: That’s so much cheaper than me buying him a present.
BE: I really appreciate that. Thanks a lot.
WA: My pleasure. Thanks, man.
BE: Thank you. I look forward to seeing you on the road.WA: Alright!