Music+Clubs » Features

Weird Al Yankovic talks nerd cred, dark humor, and why he's given up on Prince

Ask Al

by

comment

When I first started working at the City Paper in 2011, I told our then-music editor that I was calling dibs on an interview with Weird Al Yankovic if he ever came to town. That day has finally come. The Weird One plays the North Charleston Performing Arts Center Sun. Aug. 9. I'll be the guy dancing in the aisle if he plays "Party at the Leper Colony."

City Paper: I hope this doesn't sound weird, but I've been waiting to interview you since I was probably 13 years old. Huge fan.

Al Yankovic: Well, it's about time then.

CP: It's a long time coming. I'll start with the question I've been wanting to ask you since high school.

AY: OK.

CP: UHF was a masterpiece, and I will fight anyone who says otherwise. I know you've said you don't plan on making a sequel, but is the world any closer to having another Weird Al movie?

AY: I hope so. I mean, I would love for that to happen. There's nothing in the pipeline right now. I've put some feelers out here and there. Let me just say it's not imminent, but I still reserve hope that someday that will happen again.

CP: I know it didn't do well in theaters, but so many people love it. Is there any consolation in having created a cult classic?

AY: Absolutely, it's a huge consolation. Having said that, I would have probably preferred that it be a huge blockbuster when it came out, but since that didn't happen, the fact that a couple of decades later people look at it very fondly and it's considered a cult classic, that's a huge amount of gratification.

CP: Here's a question from my friend John, who's also a big fan: What's the weirdest gift you've ever received from a fan?

AY: Oh gosh, it's always hard for me answer questions that are in the superlative like that because I've gotten so many amazing gifts. I'll just say the most recent one. Today I went to — I'm in Halifax, Nova Scotia, right now, and I went to an art gallery where they're having a display of Weird Al marionettes, so I was just given a marionette in the likeness of me, circa 1984, in the "Eat It" jacket. So now I have a marionette of myself that I can annoy my daughter with.

CP: So they have different eras?

AY: Yeah, they did an Amish one, and there's a Mandatory Fun one and a Kurt Cobain one and a Rocky from UHF kind of thing, so it was a pretty amazing little exhibit.

CP: Your music means a lot to nerds and geeks and outcasts of all different stripes. What's your take on geek culture today? Is it any different than when you were growing up?

AY: Well, it's huge, it's the perception. I mean, when I was in high school, a nerd was not something that you wanted to be. You know, you didn't want to be called a nerd, and the perception on nerds has just changed 180 degrees, and now people are all about establishing their nerd cred. All the people that want to be popular are claiming, "No, no, no, I'm a total nerd. Absolutely I'm a nerd."

It was a slow evolution, but I think it happened sometime in the mid-aughts. In fact, this was not calculated, but I think my song "White and Nerdy" [Straight Outta Lynwood, 2006] ended up happening at a perfect time because that was sort of when nerd culture reached a bit of a tipping point, when people all of a sudden realized, "Oh, nerds rule the world, and nerds make all the cool stuff." I think nowadays the nerds are not closeted anymore. People are proud and wave their nerd flag high.

CP: You've always had a thing for food comedy in your songs. I've always wondered, did becoming a vegan affect your comedic view of food? Like, when you perform "Taco Grande" [Off the Deep End, 1992] do you think about how bizarre it is to eat beef tacos?

AY: No, I mean, when I write songs, it's not autobiographical for the most part. Virtually every song that I write, I'm playing a character, so it's not a huge stretch. I talk about decapitating people, which I also would not do — normally — so singing about bologna sandwiches is not a huge stretch for me. I can make that jump. And so, you know, my personal diet choice doesn't affect my songwriting, and I don't think it really affected the fact that I don't write so many songs about food anymore. That's more a factor of the fact that I wrote so many in the '80s that I thought I'd give it a rest for a few decades.

CP: Although there are still some touches [of food humor], like "Trapped in the Drive-Thru" [Straight Outta Lynwood, 2006].

AY: Sure, and it's still a big part of my life, and you write about what you know, so it's hard for me to give it up cold turkey, as it were.

CP: You've got a really dark sense of humor sometimes, which doesn't come through as much on the big hits, but "Jackson Park Express" on the new album [Mandatory Fun, 2014] I think is a pretty good example, and there are definitely little bread crumbs of existential angst through your whole career, like "Generic Blues" [UHF, 1989], "Good Old Days" [Even Worse, 1989] and the end of "Albuquerque" [Running with Scissors, 1999]. Where did you pick up that sense of humor, and what is this well of darkness inside you that you're drawing from?

AY: I don't know. I'll say right now, it doesn't come from a dark place. I'm generally a very happy guy. I'm human, so I mean, you know, we've all got our little dark corners, but by and large I'm very happy with my life, had a very happy childhood, so it's not stemming from some kind of very sad or twisted place.

But that's always been part of my sense of humor. A lot of my comedy falls under the banner of "family friendly," but at the same time, I can go to some pretty sick and twisted places sometimes. And I don't know where that comes from. That's just an innate part of my sensibility, I guess.

CP: Well, it's kid-friendly, but that's also kid humor sometimes.

AY: Yeah, I mean, 12-year-old kids are some of the darkest people you're liable to meet. They're not innocent or filled with rainbows and lollipops. They go to some pretty dark places in their heads too.

CP: Yeah. I remember laughing my head off at "The Night Santa Went Crazy" [Bad Hair Day, 1996] and my parents being a little concerned.

AY: I remember — and this is something I never talk about — but I remember when I was a kid, I would love super-gory movies. And back then, they didn't have movies like Saw, and the goriest movies you could see were nothing compared to what's available today, but I just remember when I was a kid, oh man, I would love to see blood and guts on the big screen. That would be like the greatest thing. And now that holds no appeal to me. I don't know if that's at all responsible or some kind of clue, but when I was a kid, that's something that I found very appealing.

CP: I used to read the "Ask Al" Q&As, and I read one a while back where someone asked you if you're a Christian, and you said you were. How has that shaped your career, your art, and your sense of humor?

AY: It's hard to say. I don't think it's had a huge effect on my comedic sensibility or anything like that. It maybe is one of the reasons why I tend to work clean, but that's also, I think, as much a factor of the fact that my parents would not have appreciated if I worked blue. And nowadays I've got my own family, and I want to be responsible and be a good role model for my daughter. So you know, I think that my religion enters into that as well, and also I should say that I generally don't talk about religion or politics because that tends to be divisive among my fan base, so I tend to keep that fairly close to my chest.

CP: You've had some of the same guys in your band from the very beginning or really close to the beginning: John "Bermuda" Schwartz (drums), Steve Jay (guitar), Kimo West (guitar). I feel like one of the things people gloss over a lot when writing about your music is that that's a really versatile band. They can do anything. What's it been like working with those guys through the years, and what's it been like growing up together as a band?

AY: I consider myself extremely lucky because I found all those guys in the very beginning of my career, and I just kind of lucked into it. We all just kind of clicked, and what's really wonderful is not only are they some of best musicians in world, but they're just great guys. They're very grounded and low-key and down-to-earth, and there's no kind of Behind the Music drama on the road. We all get along, we have a great time together, and we're all friends. We've been like a little family on the road for the last three decades and counting, so I'm very fortunate that they've all opted to hang out with me this long.

CP: One thing I loved about Mandatory Fun was that you included a lot of style parodies and original songs, and those are usually some of my favorites of yours. How do you decide that balance between the song parodies and the style parodies? Does the record label want more of the song parodies?

AY: Knowing the record label, they probably would have been fine with me doing all song parodies because those tend to be more commercial, and those are the things that would get more air play and everything else. But I always wanted to do the original songs as well, and early on I stumbled upon a formula of roughly half parodies and half originals with, of course, the requisite polka medley thrown in. And that seemed to satisfy everybody. That satisfied me artistically, it satisfied the record label — actually I think the record label at one point, and it might have been in there at the end, but there was a stipulation in the contract, like, how many parodies I had to have per album, just in case I got too artistic for their tastes and started to do, like, an all-originals album, which they probably wouldn't have gone for.

CP: I would love it, for the record.

AY: Well, thanks.

CP: You said before the release of Mandatory Fun that it was going to be your last traditional, full-length album — and then it became your first No. 1 album on Billboard. Did that sway you any, or are you still done with records for good?

AY: You know, it didn't change my thinking behind it. I think that waiting until I have 12 songs to release all at once is not the most efficient way for me to get my stuff out there, and up until Mandatory Fun, I was contractually required to release albums, and now I don't feel any huge need to do it. And again, that sounds ironic coming off of a No. 1 album, but at the same time, I look at this as a great way to go out. It's an amazing mic drop.

I want to make it clear to people — some people have gotten confused and thought, 'Oh, Al is retiring,' and that's certainly not my intention. I'd like to stay active and keep doing music and touring and everything else as long as people will allow me to do that, but I'm just trying to change as the music industry has been changing.

CP: If and when you do retire, what are you going to do with yourself?

AY: I don't know. I can't fathom retiring just because I can't fathom anything else I'd rather be doing. It's more when people have said, 'OK, Al, that's enough, we're done with you,' then I don't know, I'll hopefully be able to spend more time with family and surf online, watch TV, eat cheese sandwiches, you know, that kind of thing.

CP: The good life.

AY: Yep.

CP: I've read that Prince has repeatedly denied permission for you to parody his songs. He hasn't really had any big hits in a while. Are you still looking to parody him one day, or have you kind of dropped that?

AY: If it happened naturally, I would approach him again. I haven't approached Prince for permission in at least two decades at this point. I approached him several times in the '80s and early '90s, and I got the message loud and clear that he wasn't into the parody thing. And you know, people change. He may have gathered a sense of humor in the meantime. But like you said, he hasn't really had a mainstream pop hit. He remains a legend, and he's certainly had his successes, but he hasn't had a song at the top of the Billboard charts, and that's sort of what I look for when I'm looking for source material.

CP: If you could spoof "Purple Rain," do you have any ideas in mind for it?

AY: Well, I had a number of ideas at the time, but nothing that I do now would really make sense, unless I combine that with some very topical idea, but I'm not going out of my way to try to do a Prince parody at this point.

CP: You've done so much to popularize the accordion. When do you think it's going to have its day in the mainstream?

AY: I think any minute now. I think we're just almost at the tipping point, so I just need a little extra nudge.

CP: One last question for you. I know you're busy. You've been known to wear some magnificent Hawaiian shirts in the course of your career. What do you look for in a good Hawaiian shirt?

AY: It's hard to articulate exactly. I look for very bright, over-saturated colors. My favorite Hawaiian shirts have a black background because I like the way that the colors stand out against black. And "Hawaiian shirts" is kind of a general term; I mean, I don't necessarily dress in the floral patterns. I like geometric patterns, I like anything that's just really bold and aggressive.

And having said that, my wife has kind of toned me down over the years, so I don't go out in public wearing Hawaiian shirts quite so much anymore. I feel a bit on display. So she's got me in more muted colors, even for TV appearances and stuff like that. She doesn't want that to be something that I'm always associated with, and I can understand that thinking. But I've always had a love for those kind of shirts, and I'm sure they'll always be associated with me in some way.

CP: She must be someone special if she can tone you down.

AY: [laughing] Well, she's pretty special.

Add a comment