Hat Tricks

"Weird Al" Yankovic has turned other people's careers into his own

I called "Weird Al" Yankovic at his home in L.A. last week to talk about his new album, Poodle Hat, which includes a parody of Avril Lavigne's "Complicated" about constipation that I don't like as much as Lavigne's song, as well as a version of Eminem's "Lose Yourself" called "Couch Potato" that's also not as good as the original but gets in a good joke about CSI: Boise. As you can imagine, I was expecting a nonstop party machine on the phone--I mean, he's wearing a poodle hat on the cover of Poodle Hat--but the Al that answered was actually a very reasonable, very articulate man who cares deeply about his life's work.

At what point in your fandom did you realize that you wanted to sort of respond to the music you were hearing?

It wasn't quite so premeditated as that. I mean, song parodies were something that I just kind of did as a goof to amuse my friends when I was 11, 12 years old. And one day a friend said, "Why don't you send some of your songs into Dr. Demento?" He's a disc jockey who's been syndicated for 30 years now and who plays all sorts of comedy and novelty songs on the radio. And I was a big fan of his show growing up, and I thought, "Well, it wouldn't hurt." So I recorded a couple of my songs on a cheap cassette-tape recorder in my bedroom with just me singing along with my accordion-playing, and to my amazement he played one of my songs on the radio. He encouraged me to send in more, and over the years the songs got better; by the time I graduated from college I actually had a couple of nationally released records out.

Ladies and gentlemen, the star of the tamest, most boring episode of VH1's Behind the Music, "Weird Al" Yankovic.
Ladies and gentlemen, the star of the tamest, most boring episode of VH1's Behind the Music, "Weird Al" Yankovic.

What's your relationship with your band like? Have you been with the same guys for more than a record or two?

I've had the same band since the very beginning. I met my drummer, Jon Schwartz, on September 14, 1980, and I remember that date because that was the night we played "Another One Rides the Bus" live on Dr. Demento's show. He banged on my accordion case, and I said, "Hey, that was pretty good banging there--you can be my drummer." And I auditioned for my guitar player and bass player a couple years later, and I've had the same guys since 1982.

What's the rehearsal process like going into making a new record? Are the other guys as keyed into pop culture as you are?

Well, it's a lot more work to do the originals as opposed to the parodies, because for the originals I'm writing the music as well, so I have to do demos, I have to give them to the band, and we many times have to rehearse to lock into an arrangement. With the parodies, essentially I'm buying CDs for the guys in the band and saying, "Here, learn this." Many times when they're recording it in the studio, they don't even know what the parody's gonna be about. So sometimes I'll give them a copy of the finished album and they'll go, "Oh, I get it: lasagna!"

Part of the comedy in the parodies derives from their closeness to the originals; they're not half-assed approximations of the real songs. Is that technical accuracy important to you?

Yeah. In the very beginning, with the first album or two, we kind of went the other direction--we would throw accordion on every single song; we wouldn't pay quite so much attention to detail. But we've gotten to the point where we feel it's a challenge to try to match the original song in terms of production as closely as possible. I get a kick out of people listening to the parodies on the radio and thinking that it's the original version of the song, and then all of a sudden the lyrics kick in, and they go, "Hey, wait a minute, this doesn't sound quite right."

Has the balance between the parodies and the originals been pretty constant?

Yeah, since the very beginning it's always been about half originals and half parodies, with the occasional polka medley thrown in there. And that's always seemed to work well. I enjoy doing the parodies as much as I enjoy doing the originals. The parodies seem to get the most attention, but the hard-core fans actually seem to gravitate more toward the originals. The medleys seem like plenty of work.

It all takes effort, and the polka medley certainly takes a lot of work in terms of arranging. I'm not really writing any new music or new lyrics, but obviously there's a lot of arranging going on, and I try to have the songs segue from one to another either as smoothly or as comically as possible, and I have to arrange the horn parts and figure out where the banjo and the tuba solos should come in and all that. And that's probably my manager's hardest job, because he's got a folder several inches thick just from clearances that he needs to get on that one song, because we have to get approvals from everybody in the medley and work out the deals. It's a lot of effort, actually.

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