The musician and parodist Weird Al was on The Sound of Young America earlier this year, but the details of his new album were still under wraps. It was so top-secret, he couldn’t even allude to it. We agreed to do the interview if we could do a follow up when Alpocalypse was released.
The caveat from their side — that we come over to Al’s house to record! So this time, we’re at Al’s to talk about the timing of parodies, getting artists’ permission (including Lady Gaga), and where he stores all those Hawaiian shirts.
JESSE THORN: It’s The Sound of Young America, I’m Jesse Thorn. We booked Weird Al Yankovic to appear on our show six or nine months ago, and it was a great pleasure to get to book him on our show. At the time he had a new children’s book out, and he was putting the finishing touches on his new album. We asked if we could hear the album, and they said, no, absolutely not. Everything that “Weird Al” does is kept under lock and key until he decides to release it. He will not even allude to the new album in the conversation.
So this was the compromise that we came up with: we do our interview with Weird Al Yankovic; we talk about the children’s book and his career and all of the amazing stuff I’ve always wanted to talk about “Weird Al” with; but, we would then do a followup interview where we would talk about his new record that we could put out now, when his new record is just about to hit stores. Their caveat was that I would have to do it at Weird Al’s house, which is hardly a caveat; I would basically do anything, I would become a furniture mover so that I could visit Weird Al’s house.
So before we go to my conversation with Weird Al in the Casa de Al, let’s hear a song from his new album Alpocalypse. This is called TMZ, it’s a parody of the hit Taylor Swift song “You Belong With Me.”
WEIRD AL YANKOVIC: Welcome Jesse, thanks for coming.
JESSE THORN: It’s a pleasure, Al! I’m excited, as the host of a public radio show, to get to be the one who is welcomed. Welcome to you, too, by the way.
WEIRD AL YANKOVIC: Thank you so much.
JESSE THORN: This is made up of half or two-thirds original songs, this new album, but the song parodies, you really have to be in the moment when that song is crackling; when it’s the thing that everyone understands for it to work. Do you lose stuff because you’re only putting out a record every couple of years?
WEIRD AL YANKOVIC: There’s definitely artists and songs that I wind up not being able to use because my album cycles are getting longer and sometimes if I want to be topical and timely there are certain songs that I just probably shouldn’t be doing at this point. I’m hoping to take advantage of digital distribution more in the future and hopefully releasing the parodies more when they would have the most impact.
JESSE THORN: You famously always check in with people before you put out a record that is a parody of one of their songs. What is that actual process like? Do you make phone calls personally? Do you say, “Hi, this is Weird Al Yankovic speaking”?
WEIRD AL YANKOVIC: Generally not, unless I’m personally friends with the artist which is rarely the case. Usually I have my manager, Jay Levey, contact the manager or representative of the artist, because that’s why he gets paid the big bucks. He usually has that responsibility. If, by any chance, the artist’s management or representative is non-responsive or giving him a hard time, then he’ll tell me that it’s my quest to track down the original artist.
Generally, the artist himself or herself, is pretty cool about it. Artists get what I do and usually appreciate it, whereas sometimes managers and representatives would rather not be bothered. On rare occasions I have to go to award shows or parties or what have you and basically stalk an artist to get permission.
JESSE THORN: Give me an example of a time when that exchange of permission, the nod of okay, came in person backstage somewhere, or at Ahmet Ertegun’s house or something like that.
WEIRD AL YANKOVIC: There’s been several instances of that. One time, for whatever reason, MC Hammer’s people weren’t getting back to us. This was I guess 1991 or ’92.
JESSE THORN: They were too busy buying and selling racehorses.
WEIRD AL YANKOVIC: Yeah, or they were trying to stock up on genie pants or something, trying to corner the market. I had to go to an awards show specifically so I could accidentally on purpose bump into MC Hammer and go, “Oh! By the way! I’m doing this song…” I talked to him for like 30 seconds and he immediately approved it and was totally fine with it.
JESSE THORN: What award show was it? Was it the Source Awards?
WEIRD AL YANKOVIC: I want to say the American Music Awards, but I wouldn’t swear to it. It was probably that though.
JESSE THORN: I’d like to imagine, with your permission, that it was the Source Awards.
WEIRD AL YANKOVIC: Imagine with me, won’t you?
JESSE THORN: In my imagination it’s you backstage at the Source Awards; you’re saying hi to Biggie and Tupac, 1992, 1993.
WEIRD AL YANKOVIC: A big riot breaks out, chairs are thrown.
JESSE THORN: Absolutely. Absolutely.
Tell me about who was the most difficult person to track down and get this permission in your career?
WEIRD AL YANKOVIC: I never really tried that with Prince. I got the feeling that wouldn’t make much difference. That, actually, I’m pretty sure was his singular voice that kept saying no.
JESSE THORN: Prince is a man of distinctive tastes.
WEIRD AL YANKOVIC: He is. I don’t know why he has consistently said no. He’s sort of been my scapegoat over the years; he’s the guy I can point to as an artist whose work I can appreciate, and yet does not seem to have much of a sense of humor.
JESSE THORN: Tell me what qualities get you excited, above and beyond pervasiveness. Certainly “Party in the USA” is an all pervading song, but there are a lot of huge monster hit records that aren’t here. What is the quality that you like?
WEIRD AL YANKOVIC: Pervasiveness and ubiquity are really high at the top of the list. It always just boils down to me coming up with a good enough idea. There’s a lot of songs that would essentially be good targets for parody, and I rack my brain, and I can think of plenty of ideas, but not often good or clever ideas. I like to wait for those. The polka medleys are generally littered with songs that I would have like to do a good parody of, but I just couldn’t think of a good enough idea.
JESSE THORN: Let’s talk specifically, just to take an example, of “Party in the CIA”, which is your parody of “Party in the USA.”
This is one that I was sitting in our office laughing out loud at, I have to admit, earlier today. Tell me with this song where that parody idea came from.
WEIRD AL YANKOVIC: That was obvious – the Miley Cyrus song was a huge hit; last time I checked it had almost 200 million hits on YouTube. I wanted to have some kind of allusion to the whole teen pop, Disney star-making factory phenomenon, and that was a really great candidate. I also thought it would be kind of cool to be parodying in my career both the father and the daughter, I did Billy Ray back when.
That was obviously a good song to parody because a song was sort of, I guess you’d call it bubblegum pop. Kind of fluffy, certainly not dark. I thought if I were to do that song I’d have to kind of turn it on its head and just make it very sick and twisted. I was running through ideas in my head of various variations on a theme and I came to Party in the CIA and thought, that can be pretty dark. I can work with that.
JESSE THORN: That was “Party in the CIA” from Weird Al Yankovic’s new album, Alpocalypse.
Let’s talk a little bit about Lady Gaga. As I was thinking about Lady Gaga coming up on this album, and it’s been in the news a little bit lately because of a not unusual for you last minute confusion as to whether you actually can get permission for this or not. I was thinking about the fact that there aren’t a lot of best selling super top of the charts serious musical artists that I feel could reasonably be said to have a kinship with your work; but, I kind of felt like that with Lady Gaga. There’s something about her commitment to absurd grandeur.
WEIRD AL YANKOVIC: Yeah, thanks. She’s obviously not afraid to fly her weird flag high.
JESSE THORN: And do something absolutely ridiculous.
WEIRD AL YANKOVIC: Yeah. She’s very theatrical, and I’m sure we were both inspired by the same people; the big theatrical rock productions and things like that. I definitely feel some sort of kinship and affinity with and towards Lady Gaga, which is why when I first was under the impression she turned me down I thought, well, this makes no sense. This is not right. This is not predestined to be so.
JESSE THORN: Tell me a little bit about how that situation got set right. It was one of those things where somebodies management talked to somebodies management.
WEIRD AL YANKOVIC: I would think the manager would take the blame themselves instead of throwing the artist under the bus, and the whole time it was like, “No, we have to run this by Gaga. Gaga has final approval; Gaga has final say.”
JESSE THORN: Does he refer to her as Gaga?
WEIRD AL YANKOVIC: Yes.
JESSE THORN: Not like L.G. or something like that?
WEIRD AL YANKOVIC: He was making me jump through all these hoops. I go through this in exhaustive detail on my blogs on the subject. Not only did he ask for lyrics, he asked for a finished recording of the song, and that takes time and money. I was on the road in Australia, and basically I had to write the song in a hurry – – I was going to go on vacation with my family afterwards, and I had to cut the family vacation very short, go into the studio and cut this song, and then he still said no. It kind of blew my mind. First of all, why do you even need me to record the song once you’ve got the lyrics? It’s the same song with different words, you would think that the lyrics would be enough to decide whether or not you’d be okay with it.
JESSE THORN: A good way of figuring out what it would be like is for the manager to get the instrumental track and get the lyric sheet, and then maybe pinch his nose a little bit and sing it.
WEIRD AL YANKOVIC: It’s not a big leap of faith to figure out what it’s going to sound like. That kind of freaked me out when he said no. I couldn’t wrap my head around how I had just been treated, but also it meant I didn’t have an album because I was hoping for this to be the lead off single and video, and I was all set to release an album and have an album to promote and go on the road with in the summer. In a flash, that all went away.
At that point I decided, well, I just spent the last month working on a song which is never going to have an official release, so I might as well upload it to YouTube so at least the fans can enjoy my hard work, and one morning a couple of months ago I did just that and I simultaneously posted a blog telling exactly what had gone down previous to my posting the YouTube clip. That was a day that my life changed. Within a few hours I had millions of hits, the New York Times were calling. It was a media firestorm. I was amazed, people really had my back on this; people were really upset. They tracked down Lady Gaga and got in her face and were saying, “How come you’re not letting Weird Al do this song?” And Gaga had no idea, she was like, “What are you talking about? I love Weird Al. What?”
JESSE THORN: You mean LG?
WEIRD AL YANKOVIC: LG is what I mean to say, sorry. LG, I think of that as some sort of major corporation that sells electronics or something.
JESSE THORN: A lot of people think that, but it’s actually a nice lady from…New York?
WEIRD AL YANKOVIC: Stefi. Stefi, I call her. Anyway, she had never heard the song, and once she had she immediately approved it and her manager had to say, well, okay, I guess you can do the song.
JESSE THORN: It’s interesting to me that this Lady Gaga song, which is called “Perform This Way”, a parody of “Born This Way”- – it is possible to read it as a satire of Lady Gaga, and I think that you have to go into it with the assumption that over the course of his 30 year career, Weird Al Yankovic has never been known to take a mean stance towards anyone. When you read it with that affection in it, it makes a lot more sense.
WEIRD AL YANKOVIC: It is satire, obviously, but my humor isn’t mean spirited. As Lady Gaga herself said in a recent Rolling Stone interview it’s an empowering song, and I’m kind of standing up for her. It’s certainly not an anti-Lady Gaga song, I’m having a bit of fun with her bigger than life persona, and that’s about it. It’s basically a harmless song and I think that even Lady Gaga fans can certainly enjoy it – – LG fans, excuse me.
JESSE THORN: Was part of the appeal of doing a Lady Gaga song the fact that you knew you would be able to do a bunch of ridiculous stage things and video things around all of these ridiculous things?
WEIRD AL YANKOVIC: That was a big part of it. As soon as I decided I wanted to do the parody, I knew that I was going to have to do a video for it. I thought, that’s two dozen costumes I’m going to have to have fabricated right there, and I’m already adding up the budget in my head.
JESSE THORN: I have to ask you about this costume fabrication issue, because Julia who is my producer and is sitting in a lounge chair behind me right now is giggling because on our way up we were trying to decide whether you keep your outfits in a special outfit room in your house or if you have some sort of Weird Al’s Outfit Warehouse somewhere in Torrance or something like that.
WEIRD AL YANKOVIC: Pretty close. There is a storage facility somewhere in the greater Southern California area that houses a lot of the band gear and hundreds of my old Hawaiian shirts and a few personal items. There is some stuff in this house – – in fact, there’s a downstairs bedroom right now that is scattered with the costumes that we used in the “Perform This Way” video because I’m trying to figure out what stuff to outfit the band with when we go back on the road.
JESSE THORN: So you’re just about to go back out on the road as we converse right now. In fact, by the time this airs you will probably be on the road crisscrossing the United States and the world.
WEIRD AL YANKOVIC: Very likely, yes.
JESSE THORN: Tell me what the process is to put together one of these big extravaganza shows that you bring to arenas and large state fairs across this great nation.
WEIRD AL YANKOVIC: For the people that have seen the show before it’s billed as a rocking comedy multimedia extravaganza. It’s me on stage with the same band that I’ve had pretty much forever, and there’s a lot of costumes, so we have to build new ones for the new songs.
JESSE THORN: Do you have a guy that does that?
WEIRD AL YANKOVIC: It depends. If it’s easy enough, like for “Party in the CIA”, basically it involved the guys going to Men’s Warehouse and getting really snappy Men in Black type suits, so we didn’t have to hire a stylist for that. But for some stuff, like when I do “Perform This Way” in this current iteration of the show, I appear on stage in a large peacock outfit, so that was specially made for us by a mascot clothing company in Canada that does sports mascots.
JESSE THORN: Where do you even begin with that?
WEIRD AL YANKOVIC: There’s this thing called Google, and you can find stuff on the internet.
JESSE THORN: You can just type in peacock suit?
WEIRD AL YANKOVIC: Yeah, peacock suit. Like, oh, eh, we do peacocks, eh? Give us a call, eh?
JESSE THORN: Well Al, I sure appreciate you taking the time to come back on The Sound of Young America, and for inviting us into your beautiful home.
WEIRD AL YANKOVIC: My pleasure.
JESSE THORN: Weird Al Yankovic, recorded at his home in Hollywood. His brand new album, Alpocalypse, is in stores now. You can find him online, and his summer tour schedule which is extensive, at WeirdAl.com.
Our transcripts are provided by Sean Sampson. If you’re interested in contacting him for transcription work, email him here.
About the show
Bullseye is a celebration of the best of arts and culture in public radio form. Host Jesse Thorn sifts the wheat from the chaff to bring you in-depth interviews with the most revered and revolutionary minds in our culture.
Bullseye has been featured in Time, The New York Times, GQ and McSweeney’s, which called it “the kind of show people listen to in a more perfect world.” Since April 2013, the show has been distributed by NPR.
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