Interview Date: 011/02/2008
Run Date: 11/06/2009
“Weird Al” Yankovic has been around long enough to be defined not only as the leading parodist of his generation but, indeed, of several generations. It’s enough to make most guys feel old, but Al’s nowhere near slowing down: in addition to offering up regular digital single releases through iTunes (five of which have been compiled as the Internet Leaks EP), he’s the subject of a new 2-disc compilation entitled The Essential “Weird Al” Yankovic. Bullz-Eye had a chance to chat with Al about the sources of his inspiration, some of his guest appearances on other people’s material (including Brian Wilson), and how he came to turn up both in “Halloween 2” and “Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!”
Weird Al Yankovic: Helllllllllooooooo?
Bullz-Eye: Hello, Al!
Al: Hey! How are you doing?
BE: I’m good. Good to talk to you…again. I talked to you a few years ago.
Al: Well, let’s fill in the blanks!
BE: Excellent. First off, I’m a big fan of the new stuff that you’ve been releasing digitally, which you actually just collected as the Internet Leaks EP…
Al: Oh, thanks!
BE: …but I guess we should probably start by talking about The Essential “Weird Al” Yankovic, which was just released. I’ve read a little bit on your website about how it came to fruition, but were you skeptical when they first pitched the idea of doing an Essential collection?
Al: Well, I’m always skeptical anytime my label wants to do a compilation. It’s sort of a kneejerk reaction because, in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, my old label – Scotti Brothers – would just release… (Starts laughing) …a compilation album whenever they were having a bad quarter. “Oh, gosh, we need some more money. Let’s put out a ‘Weird Al’ greatest hits!”
BE: “Time for ‘The Food Album.’”
Al: Right. (Laughs) Exactly! Which really kind of rubbed me the wrong way. So my new label’s been more than patient and nice about not jamming any unnecessary compilations down my throat, and it really got to the point where it felt like a career-retrospective compilation was actually something that would be nice to have. You know? It had been 15 years plus since my last compilation of any sort, and I had a 4-CD box set which came out in…’94? Which has since gone out of print. So there really isn’t anything like this in the marketplace, and it really felt like the time was right for The Essential “Weird Al” Yankovic. So I happily agreed to it, and I was very involved in the song selection, even the art design. (Laughs) I was very hands-on.
BE: So did you work up a particular algorithm to come up with the number of parodies versus originals versus stylistic parodies that you’d include?
Al: I don’t think I had any actual algorithm or mathematical formula… (Laughs) …but as it turned out, half of the songs on the compilation are originals, which is the way it is on my studio albums as well, so that’s sort of a nice kind of synchronicity. I like to have it pretty much split up half and half. But that was sort of a happy accident.
BE: The material that’s been compiled on Internet Leaks…I don’t know, but it seems to me like it’s been at least a semi-phenomenon, the way song after song has been kicking ass on iTunes.
Al: Oh, well, that’s nice of you to say. Thank you.
BE: What led you to move forward in that way, releasing a song at a time?
Al: Well, I just wanted each song to be an event, and to bring a little bit more attention to my originals. I mean, I don’t need to tell you that half of my material is original, and that’s generally the half that gets ignored, by and large, by radio and video channels and even the general population. My hardcore fans, I think, enjoy the originals as much if not more than the parodies, but it’s always been an uphill battle to have a hit song with an original, and I thought, “Well, one way that maybe I can combat that is by releasing them one at a time digitally, making each release sort of a mini-event.” I mean, they’d have a world premiere of the video, I’d get a little bit of publicity exposure, and even it doesn’t become a hit, even if it doesn’t sell that much, it still kind of keeps me out there and gives the fans something new to listen to and enjoy instead of literally waiting another year for those songs to come out. I figured they’re in the can, they’re done, so why not get them out there and let people enjoy them while they can?
BE: “Whatever You Like” is, I think, the first time you didn’t change the title of the song you were parodying.
Al: That’s right. Just to confuse everybody. To confuse all of the search engines out there.
BE: Did you consider changing it, or did you just realize that there wasn’t a way to do it?
Al: Well, there’s a way I could’ve done it, but like you said, I’d never done that before, so… (Laughs) …I just figured I’d see what that was like. I just thought that that would also give it a bit more buzz, to keep the same title…which, of course, is perfectly legal. I could put out a song called “Stairway to Heaven” if I wanted to. But to keep the same title but just change the meaning of the words…?
BE: “Weird Al”: still breaking down barriers.
Al: There you go.
BE: “Craigslist” is a stylistic parody of the Doors, of course, and you’ve done some great ones in the past where the sonic touchstones are pretty easy to spot: Devo, Talking Heads, and so on. There are some claims on Wikipedia about the origins of some of them, though, that I have to ask about…
Al: (Uncertainly) Okayyyyyyy…
BE: Is it true that “Airline Amy” is a semi-parody of “Switchboard Susan” by Nick Lowe?
Al: Uh, I’m not going to give away all of the answers… (Laughs) …but I will say that that song wasn’t necessarily supposed to sound like Nick Lowe. But thematically, I can see where they would say that it was similar to “Switchboard Susan.”
BE: Do you have a particular favorite amongst your stylistic parodies?
Al: (Hesitates) No, I can’t really pick a favorite. I mean, there are some songs that I think will lend themselves more to being played in the live shows, but…no, it’s hard for me to…I tend to like what the fans like, so I kind of wait to see which ones the fans attach themselves to.
BE: Did you ever get any feedback from Brian Wilson about “Pancreas”?
Al: I didn’t, although I did run into a couple of his band members…and, in fact, I got a very, very nice letter from his musical director (Darian Sahanaja), who loved the song. So the people who work with Brian seem thrilled with it… (Laughs) …but I haven’t gotten any official reaction from the man himself.
BE: “Skipper Dan” has an upbeat tune, a catch chorus, and is one of the saddest songs I’ve ever heard.
Al: (Bursts into laughter) That bummed people out a lot more than I thought it would. I mean, obviously, it’s sort of a bittersweet kind of song, but a lot of people just got really bummed out by it! I dunno, it’s an odd little character study, and I thought it was whimsical and bizarre. It definitely has its big fans, but I just was surprised by that so many people actually got depressed by it!
BE: With “CNR,” your tribute to Charles Nelson Reilly, was there no way to work in a reference to “Lidsville”?
Al: Well, that was on my list! There are so many aspects to Charles’s life that are based in fact that it was tough to work in more than a passing reference to his “Match Game” career. (Writer’s note: Giddy up, Gene.) But, you know, I watched his one-man stage show…or, rather, the feature based on his one-stage show…after having written the song, and I don’t know if you’ve ever seen “The Life of Reilly,” but I highly recommend it. It’s an amazing story of the man and the things that he went through in his life, for real, which deserve a song on their own.
BE: With your song “Ringtone,” have you checked to see how it’s doing as a ringtone?
Al: You know, I was kind of hoping that it would be burning up the ringtone charts, but that didn’t happen immediately, so I kind of lost interest in following its progress. (Laughs) I thought it was kind of unique to have a song about ringtones called “Ringtone,” and I was told that it actually wasn’t. I wasn’t the first person to think about that, so as such, nobody wanted to get behind it to promote it.
BE: I’m sure you’ve been quizzed to death about Michael Jackson’s passing, but what was your relationship with him as you were doing the parodies of “Beat It” and “Bad”? Was he amused by them?
Al: He was. I wasn’t ever close with Michael Jackson, but, I mean, I had met him a couple of times, and he did, in fact, personally sign off on the parodies. He had a great sense of humor about it, and I totally credit him with jump-starting my career. I mean, my first album did okay…about well enough to warrant letting me do a second album…and the second album, thankfully, had the international hit “Eat It” on it. And if Michael Jackson hadn’t given his blessing, it’s hard to say the direction my life would’ve taken. If my second album hadn’t done well, that might’ve been it for me. But with Michael Jackson signing off on “Eat It” and giving me his support…I mean, I’ve been able to ride that for quite some time.
BE: A friend of mine wanted me to ask you how heavy the fat suit was in the “Fat” video.
Al: It’s a little bit heavier than it is on stage. We have a fat suit that I use in concert, which is as lightweight as we can possibly make it, because it’s not fun to run around in a fat suit. But it really wasn’t so bad, not even the video version. It became…it felt pretty real after awhile. You’d pass a mirror, and you’d think, “Wow, I need to eat a salad once in awhile.” (Laughs)
BE: Also, a buddy of mine who’s a DJ in Hawaii was wondering whether or not you’d settled in Maui, since he knew that you’d been looking for a place there.
Al: Well, my family and I live most of the time in Los Angeles, but we do have a house in Maui which we love, and whenever our daughter’s not in school, we try to make it out there, because it’s really our favorite place in the world. It’s always a bit depressing when we come back to Los Angeles.
BE: I’ve got a couple of things to ask you about that may not come up a lot. You played accordion on Crispin Glover’s album.
Al: (Laughs) I did.
BE: I’m very curious to hear how that came about and what the experience was like.
Al: Gosh, that was a long time ago. That was produced by Barnes & Barnes, who are old friends of mine from the Dr. Demento days. In fact, one of the Barnes is actually Bill Mumy, who had another very special role in my life: he introduced me to the woman who became my wife.
BE: Not a bad role.
Al: Yeah. (Laughs) But we recorded Crispin’s album at Bill’s house, and Bill and I are old friends, and Crispin needed some accordion tracks, so of course he calls in Yankovic.
BE: So what was the experience of working with Crispin like? Or did you actually work with him directly?
Al: You know, I’d met Crispin a number of times, and…I’m not sure if he was even present during the recording of my tracks. He may not have been. But Crispin had shown me a lot of the odd books that he’d written, which were basically…grafts of other books which he’d pasted inside his own book. It’s kind of hard to describe, but it was a very, very bizarre kind of art project, where he was basically taking bits of other books and making collages and claiming it as an original work. I guess it’s, in a way, similar to what I do. Maybe…? (Laughs)
BE: Speaking of Bill Mumy, I wanted to ask about you and him working with Sarah Taylor. That’s something a little bit different for you, to play accordion on someone else’s work. Well, aside from Crispin Glover, of course.
Al: Yeah, Bill gets me most of my outside studio work. (Laughs) But, yeah, that was a lot of fun. Sarah’s album is great, and it was a real thrill to, y’know, be treated like a musician every now and then. It was, like, “Hey, Al can play accordion. We should get him to play on this track!” And to bring it back to Brian Wilson, I don’t know if you knew this, but I was brought in to play accordion on a Brian Wilson album once. In fact, it was perhaps why I don’t think that song ever saw the light of day. (Laughs) It was back during the period where he was working on an album which was tentatively called Sweet Insanity, and that was the Dr. Eugene Landy period, a very odd time in Brian’s life. I’m not really sure what happened to those tracks. All I know is that it was a real thrill for me to actually be playing on a Brian Wilson track, even though… (Laughs) …it disappeared into some crevice somewhere.
BE: Do you remember the title of the song?
Al: I don’t. All I remember is that it was a waltz, just a real oom-pah-pah kind of waltz which anybody could’ve played on. But, thankfully, they picked me. (Laughs)
BE: How did you find your way into the video for the Ramones’ “Something to Believe In”?
Al: I’m not sure exactly. I think the call just kind of came out of the blue. But I’ve always been a huge Ramones fan, and I was thrilled to do it. I just sort of showed up on the set and did it, with that huge cast of odd characters. (Laughs) That was a lot of fun. But I don’t know who suggested that or how my name came up. I’m just glad they called.
BE: Where does your taste in music lie? Your non-weird music tastes, I guess I should say.
Al: Well, I don’t know how to answer that, because a lot of my favorite music is a little weird. Not necessarily all comedy or novelty, but, I mean, some of my favorite bands and favorite artists are ones that are a little quirky and have a bit of a sense of humor about themselves. I don’t want to start giving you a laundry list of names, but, basically, my favorite musicians are the ones that don’t take themselves too seriously.
BE: And, more recently, how did you end up in Rob Zombie’s “Halloween 2”?
Al: (Laughs) That was a last minute thing. I’m friends with Chris Hardwick, who’s friends with Rob Zombie, and…I think that Chris was already cast in the movie as the talk show host who’s interviewing Malcolm McClaren. McDowell. (Laughs) McClaren? Where did that come from? Malcolm McDowell. And they wanted somebody as the guest who would be just so the opposite of McDowell’s character, some random weird guest. And Chris said, “Well, how about Weird Al?” And Rob Zombie said, “Hey, if you can get him, great!” So Chris called me up and said, “Hey, you wanna fly to Atlanta on Monday and be in a Rob Zombie?” “Yeah, sure!” Great way to spend a Monday, right?
BE: Have you enjoyed playing Uncle Muscles on “Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!”?
Al: Yeah, that’s always fun. I get called in every once in awhile, and… (Starts to laugh) …I wear that weird, too-tight red satin shirt with tassels that I’d had in my closet since the early ‘80s. Tim and Eric really liked it, so I always wear that shirt, and I’ve got my low, gravelly voice, and I do this creepy public-access talent show host thing. I’ve taped a bit for Season 5, so hopefully I’ll be showing up somewhere in the upcoming season.
BE: And you’ve done a couple of other Cartoon Network things, too. I know you were on “The Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy” as a voice.
Al: Yeah! I love doing voiceover work, and I love the Cartoon Network shows. It’s always a thrill to do anything like that.
BE: Obviously, you’ve been focusing more on your originals lately, but when it comes to doing parodies, where do you go for your material nowadays?
Al: I have to just kind of look everywhere to determine what the hits are, because you can’t just look at the Billboard singles chart anymore. That’s not really indicative of what’s necessarily considered a crossover hit. I look at that chart, but I look at all of the charts, I look at playlists, I go online and see if there’s anything happening on the internet. There are a lot of sources that I really need to look to to determine what the targets would be.
BE: I’ve introduced my daughter to your work as well, so now she demands to hear “the song that goes ‘eat it, just eat it.’”
Al: (Laughs) Good job.
BE: Do you find that you have an ever-growing population of new fans?
Al: It seems that way, yeah. It’s very gratifying. I’ve got a six-year-old daughter, and she grew up around the house and seems to be a fan as well. (Laughs) And it’s nice that my music has introduced her to a lot of pop culture things that she may or may not have been exposed to otherwise. I mean, she was a big “Star Wars” fan since about age 3, and lately she’s going through…and it’s obviously resurgent…a huge Michael Jackson phase. We’re listening to Michael Jackson around the house constantly. And beyond just my daughter, yeah, I mean, absolutely, it seems like with every album I put out, a new generation of young fans discovers me, to the point where…I’ve heard these stories about how kids would talk to their parents and say, “Hey, I just found this new guy, ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic. You ever hear of him?” And they’re, like, “Uh, yeah. Yeah, we’ve heard of him.” (Laughs)
BE: Well, it’s been good talking to you again, Al. Here’s hoping the new material continues to come out fast and furious, because I’ve really been enjoying what you’ve been putting out.Al: Well, thanks. I appreciate that. Thank you so much!