The band members who've stuck with comic musician Weird Al Yankovic for more than 30 years of funny music take their jobs seriously, mainly because the comedy wouldn't work without them.
"We love these songs and hit records we re-create, and we have the greatest respect for the musicians and composers who created them," says bassist Stephen Jay during his day off from the band's tour stop in Nashville. "Since we're getting paid to do it, we make sure we take all the time necessary to get it right, every little detail. The music is the straight man, and Al is the comedian. That's what makes it so absurdly funny because you're hearing this music that's got these soul-stirring, goosebump-producing sounds, and then you hear this crazy stuff on top."
Jay and guitarist Jim "Kimo" West first played with Yankovic after moving to Los Angeles and auditioning for a band that could provide the beats to hold up his absurd lyrics and parodies of pop music. They thought it would be a one-time thing, but it turned into a career that's spanned 14 studio albums; gold, silver and platinum records; four Grammy awards and one beef with the rapper Coolio. (Don't worry, they reconciled.)
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The most amazing accomplishment is that Yankovic and his band of musical brothers have stayed together this long. Yankovic's band started with Jay, West and drummer Jon "Bermuda" Schwartz, whom Yankovic met in 1980 while recording his Queen parody "Another One Rides the Bus" live on the comedy radio program The Dr. Demento Show. They added keyboardist Rubén Valtierra in 1991, and they've managed to overcome the petty squabbles and artistic differences that have split apart so many other musical groups that hit the top of the charts and became targets of Yankovic's parodies.
"That is the big success story," West says via phone while sitting outside a coffee shop in Springfield, Illinois. "We've done it for so long that it just feels natural and like home to us. When we're onstage playing, I'm more relaxed and comfortable playing than just about anywhere. We've done so many shows that it just feels natural."
Jay and West have also reached some notable milestones, both as members of Yankovic's band and as solo musicians. The band is on tour again, but this time, the musicians get to step out of their cone bras, yellow jumpsuits and swimming goggles that have become the standard uniforms for their live shows, play some of the less well-known Weird Al songs and even tell a few funny stories about their decades of musical work. Their aptly named Ridiculously Self-Indulgent, Ill-Advised Vanity Tour makes a stop Friday night at The Majestic Theatre.
If that wasn't enough of a treat for Yankovic and his band, Jay and West are running a concurrent tour of their own called the Parallel Universe Tour in each of the cities they visit to play songs and duets from their solo albums. After the Majestic show, both are performing their Parallel Universe Tour show at Poor David's Pub, where they'll play songs from Jay's collection of romantic and soulful, bass-driven tunes called So Do I Sadie and West's collection of slack key guitar music called Moku Maluhia.
"It's gloriously liberating," Jay says. "It's so much fun. I love it to pieces. I'm so happy to not be changing costumes and just be up there playing music and have people dig it. Al, too. He says it's the most fun he's ever had. We're just in hog heaven. It's all just the politics of ecstasy at this point."
Jay and West have worked together and been friends since before they joined forces with Yankovic. Jay, a graduate of the University of South Florida, where he received a master's degree in music composition, studied drumming and performing in West Africa under the direction of a master drummer. He returned to Tampa in the mid-1970s and was hired to organize a house band for the popular Robiconti's club. The two first met at the university, and Jay hired West to play guitar for the group.
"It was a good job, but I ultimately left," West says. "I had the best gig you could get, and that was as far as you could go there. Of course, this was in the years before the internet, where you could be almost anywhere and become a YouTube sensation. You had to go to New York or L.A., and L.A. was warmer, so we both ended up in California."
Frank Zappa once visited the Tampa club to listen to the music and gave Jay and his group a huge thumbs up, Jay says.
"I went up to him and said, 'Frank, I'm such a big fan of your guitar playing, and if you ever need a bass player, just give me a call,'" Jay says. "He looked at me and said, 'This is the best-sounding band I've ever heard,' and [guitarist] Steve Vai's jaw dropped, and later on, when I got to know Steve after I moved to Los Angeles, he said Frank never gave compliments."
A month later, Jay received an invitation from Zappa to fly to Los Angeles and try out for his band's bass player spot. So Jay decided to leave his Tampa house band, which threw him a huge going-away party, and make the move to L.A. for his big shot. Jay says he auditioned for Zappa at his home in L.A., and it didn't go smoothly.
"For some reason, he gave me 'The Black Page,'" Jay says. "It was quite famous back then. There's so many notations on the page that there's no paper showing through, and it's so overly complicated. I had read about how Frank liked to take musicians and put this thing in front of them and say, 'Here, play this,' and he'd laugh because no one could play it. So I get to his house and he puts it front of me. I was like, 'What the fuck? You got me to quit my gig just to come out here and do this?' And he was like, 'Next.'"
Jay stayed in L.A. and auditioned for just about every bass gig he could find when he heard about a comedy musician named Al Yankovic. He released his first self-titled album in 1983 featuring a collection of pop song parodies and original rock comedy songs with his signature accordion music, and he wanted to put together a band along with his drummer, Schwartz. for a live show at the Roxy Theatre on West Hollywood's Sunset Strip.
"My big motivation was he wanted to put a band together, and he had a gig at The Roxy, and I hadn't played at the Roxy," Jay says. "So I thought, 'Oh God, I wanna play at The Roxy.'"
Jay recommended West for the guitar player slot, and Yankovic formed the band that still tours with him to this day. West remembers the early audiences being a little rougher than the crowds of adoring fans they play for now. The band's first opening performance for the new wave rock band Missing Persons ended with the punk-ish crowd pelting them with whatever was available to throw at the stage.
"We come out and do polka medleys in which all of the songs were done as polka songs," West says. "For that audience, that is the ultimate insult. They hated us already, but when we pulled that out, they went into a fit of rage."
Hitting rock bottom means the only place left to go is up, and the band stuck it out until Yankovic's 1984 breakaway hit, "Eat It," a parody of Michael Jackson's chart-topper "Beat It," catapulted them into a pop-comedy music powerhouse. The albums that followed, including Dare to Be Stupid, Off the Deep End and the most recent release, Mandatory Fun, furthered Yankovic's stardom and grew his fanbase as parodies of future classics and flavors of the month drew in new generations of music fans to the Yanko-verse.
"I learned from Al's songs that he was a quality artist," West says, recalling his first sessions with Yankovic's music. "It was really new for me, but I have a sense of humor with what Al does. I can relate to his sense of humor, and his concept of comedy was something I really aligned with. Once I started learning the songs, I totally got it. It's amazing because none of us expected it could go on this long."
Jay and West also have thriving, award-winning solo music careers that inspired the Parallel Universe Tour. West started pursuing his solo music during a vacation in Maui, Hawaii, in 1985 after the grueling Stupid Tour for Yankovic's third album, Dare to Be Stupid. He heard the slack key guitar, a traditional Hawaiian style that dates back as far as the 1830s, from a friend's album collection and says he instantly "fell in love with it."
"It's a real guitar style focused on open tuning, and it's a fingerpicking style," West says. "I thought the music sounded so much like the energy of the place, and it just seemed to go hand in hand."
West studied the instrument in between recordings and touring and wrote tunes with no intention of recording or publishing them until another friend encouraged him to release them. West released his first solo slack key guitar album in 1999 and has made seven more since then in which he explores the various sounds and styles the instrument can produce, from traditional folk music to reggae and even polka. He won a 2008 Hawaii Music Award for his slack key guitar songs and has been nominated three times for a Na Hoku Hanohano, also known as the Hawaiian Grammy.
"It's something that makes me feel really good to play," West says. "I love discovering new songs and tuning, and the fact that I can sort of have it as a career is icing on the cake. Even if I wasn't playing shows or selling CDs, I would do it for my own enjoyment."
Jay continues to create lyrical compositions when he's away from his musical day job. He created the polymetric funk group Ak & Zuie with Pete Gallagher and has scored soundtracks for TV shows and films, including 70 PBS broadcasts, three of which won the prestigious Peabody Award. He's also released 11 solo CDs featuring his soulful voice and original lyrics driven by his signature bass playing. His latest album, So Do I Sadie, is a masterfully woven collection of some of his favorite songs, including "So Far," "Running Through the Forest" and "Broken String."
"Not only are they my favorites, but they're all kind of the most romantic and beautiful songs from my albums," Jay says. "They aren't as all-out, balls to the wall, Prince-type funky or too avant-garde as they get sometimes, but they all have more of a human thing that brings people together. So I came up with this sequence that flows really well."
The tracks aren't just a mishmash collection of Jay's favorite songs. He says he took four months to figure out the right collection to create a musical progression throughout the album.
"It was very deliberate," Jay says. "There's one called 'Running Through the Forest' that's kind of crazy. I put that on as a high point that's kind of avant-garde and crazy, and I could have been like switching gears, but I think I built this logical progression that builds up towards the end."
Both Jay and West have performed and booked live solo shows around Yankovic's touring and recording schedule. The Parallel Universe Tour was suggested by Yankovic's manager, Jay Levey, whom Jay says told them they could "put out a new CD, get a booking agency and do shows while we tour with Al.”
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The Parallel Universe shows start with solo performances by West and Jay on their respective instruments and conclude with some duets that gel surprisingly well for two unique styles. There's even an accordion when their accordion player is available for a performance.
"We always end up doing some Bob Marley music and reggae, which is a nice mix of what we both do," West says. "There's a lot of diversity, but it does come together very nicely. Al has actually come and joined us onstage for sure. I don't know if he'd be coming to this show or not, but he has come in and sat in with us. He might back me up on accordion, and we might do some of his tunes. We never announce it. He might walk in and come up with an accordion onstage, but when he does, it's very fun."
Jay and West's solo tour and Yankovic's tour also represent the special place where they've all arrived in both their musical careers and their personal lives. It's no longer about chasing a buck or making enough music to keep the lights running. It's about making their fans feel good, whether they are exploring their styles for their solo work or being the musical straight-men for Yankovic's comedy.
"At this point, I've had a great life," Jay says. "I've got two sons who are world-class musicians touring the world, and I feel extremely satisfied with my life, and it's a wonderful feeling. All that really matters to me is reaching people, not achieving things but making contact with people and making meaningful contributions to people's lives through my music."