Sunday, 6 April 2014

interview: 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Every journalist has a wish-list - interesting people whom they would desperately, desperately love to interview - and occasionally the dice land right and you find yourself able to sit down, at length, with someone on that list. On 5th August 1999 I was able to talk on the phone with legendary comedy rock musician and pop parodist ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic. The reason was because his new album Running with Scissors was being released in the UK and the lead track was ‘The Saga Begins’, which basically sets the entire plot of The Phantom Menace to the tune of ‘American Pie’. Al has recorded several other sci-fi-themed songs, including ‘Jurassic Park’ (based on ‘MacArthur Park’) and ‘Yoda’ (based on ‘Lola’). He was extraordinarily easy to interview and genuinely interested to hear about how he is viewed on this side of the Atlantic. A few quotes from the interview appeared in a short piece in SFX, but here’s the whole thing.

When did you decide that The Phantom Menace needed a song written about it?
"Well, it was a few years before the movie ever came out. As soon as I learned that George Lucas was planning to do the first trilogy I smelled a pop culture phenomenon. I had a strange premonition that a new Star Wars movie might be popular, and since my career is based in a large part on doing my own take on pop culture phenomena I knew that at some point I wanted to take another stab at Star Wars. So I had my eyes set on The Phantom Menace for quite some time."

Did you try lots of different angles, or did the idea of using ‘American Pie’ just come to you in a flash?
"That was actually the first idea that I had and it was the one that I stuck with because I just thought it was the most appropriate. There were two different ways I could go. I could either pair Star Wars with whatever song happened to be very popular during the month that the movie actually came out, or I could pair it with a classic rock song. And I thought that the classic rock song would be the way to go because I think Star Wars feels more weighty than that. Since Star Wars is a classic movie and a classic genre unto itself, it merited a classic rock song to be paired with. And ‘American Pie’, besides being one of my favourite songs, is considered one of the all-time classics. In this country, at least, it’s almost like treading on sacred ground when you’re dealing with that song."

The original version of ‘American Pie’ goes on for about a day and a half...
"It’s eight and a half minutes, but it feels like a day and a half sometimes!"

Did you not feel that this warranted an eight and a half minute parody?
"It’s not that it didn’t warrant it. It’s just because I’m trying to get radio play and even having a five and a half minute long song was considered extraordinarily long. I just couldn’t artistically rationalise cutting the song down any more than that because I needed to have the slow intro, the slow ending and a couple of fast verses in the middle or else it just wouldn’t even feel like ’American Pie’. I cut it down as much as I possibly could, but it’s still five and a half minutes which for me is very long."

Given how much secrecy there was around the film, when did you actually write the song? You must have had a fairly narrow window to get it written, recorded and videoed?
"It was more of a narrow window to get permission because as it turns out I wrote the song about six weeks before I ever saw the movie. I was able to glean basically the entire plot of The Phantom Menace by looking at fan-based Star Wars websites. There are quite a few bootleg, unofficial websites out there that somehow were able to figure out the plot of the movie and post it on the internet. I carefully scanned those newsgroups and pieced together the plotline and wrote the song based on that. I did see the movie once before finalising the album. I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t getting false information. But I did have the song written well in advance of the movie coming out."

Did you have to change the song at all when you saw the film?
"I actually changed three or four lines. Just subtle changes because there were a couple of things on the internet that didn’t wind up in the movie. A few lines of dialogue that would have subtly changed the meaning of some of the lines of my song. So I did change a few things, but it saved me the stress of having to write the whole song within a few days after seeing the movie."

What permission did you have to get from Lucasfilm?
"Basically just his blessing. I wouldn’t have done a parody of Star Wars if George Lucas thought it was a bad idea or was offended by it or basically didn'’t want me to have anything to do with it. I had done a Star Wars parody years and years ago called ‘Yoda’ which was a parody of ‘Lola’ by the Kinks, which George Lucas approved. So we had an indication that he had a good sense of humour about these things. So we thought we had a pretty good chance that he would approve, but of course that was a long time ago and you never know how people are going to feel from one day to the next. We just wanted to make sure, so it was very gratifying when we finally got the call from Lucasfilm saying that George loved ‘The Saga Begins’."

The video has not much happening, but it’s very funny.
"Thank you. It’s kind of down-scaled a bit because we don’t have an $80 million budget for the videos and it’s kind of hard to do a Star Wars video on a low budget. So we had to think in modest, low-budget terms and we thought that doing a kind of Star Wars Unplugged would be the best way to go. Especially since we’re covering five and a half minutes of screen time. That gets very expensive."

I don’t know if this is a blooper or a deliberate mistake, but as you walk up the sand dune looking at the twin suns, your shadow rotates through about 90 degrees so there’s obviously a spotlight or something just behind you.
"There’s no spotlight actually. That was shot in direct sunlight. But I think both of those suns were fakes and I’m sure the sun was coming from a much different angle."

Although the video has a Mace Windu lookalike and your cousin is dressed a bit like Queen Amidala, most of the people are generic weird aliens but not specifically Star Wars.
"Yes, we wanted to go with that because we didn’t want to take advantage of Lucasfilm’s good nature too much. We didn’t want to have too many copyrightable, trademarked characters in the video. We just wanted to kind of approximate the vibe of a ‘Star Wars cantina’ type of scene without exactly copying many of the characters. But we did get permission to use the photo of Anakin Skywalker in that one shot. And we did get permission to do the video obviously, but we didn’t want to push it too much."

Has there been any thought of Lucas including your video on the DVD of The Phantom Menace as an extra?
"If he wanted to, I’d be flattered and he’d be more than welcome to it! Actually the biggest compliment I’ve received is the fact that the official Star Wars website, starwars.com, gave my album and the video a very, very nice plug right on the front home page there. I was really thrilled that they did that. That’s very unusual."

I notice that all three of your sci-fi movie songs, including ‘Jurassic Park’, are based on classic songs whereas most of your parodies are of current hit songs. Is there any reason for that?
"I don’t know. It’s just that sometimes if I’m dealing with a very, very current theme I like to mix and match, and have a current theme with an old song. Or sometimes I’ll take a very current song and mix it with an old TV show or something. I just like to juxtapose things like that and go for the stark contrast."

Has ‘The Saga Begins’ been released as a single, or just for airplay?
"In the States at least, my record label isn’t releasing any singles period. They’re basically releasing albums only but they’re releasing singles to radio stations. It’s just their company policy. They basically want to sell albums and they’re not all that interested in selling singles."

Has it been getting a lot of airplay?
"It’s been getting a fair amount of play. The new single which has just been released over here is doing a bit better in terms of video play. I don’t really know how much airplay it’s getting because it’s not the kind of song that gets added on radio station playlists. It’s the kind of song that, every kooky morning team on a radio station will play the song a few times. So it’ll get a lot of airplay in the morning, but it’s not the kind of thing that gets reported so it’s hard for me to know how much airplay it’s getting."

Is the album selling well?
"The album’s selling very well. This may be my biggest seller to date, I don’t know. It’s kind of early to tell. My last album sold over two million copies here in the States and this current album is doing just as well, if not better, right out of the box, but it remains to be seen how long it can hang around."

It’s about three years since your last album, Bad Hair Day. Did you spend those three years gradually building up an album or do you normally sit down six months before an album’s due and see what’s topical?
"A little of both. I haven’t been working on this constantly for three years; I had a lot of other projects that occupied my time. I spent about a year doing my own Saturday morning children’s TV show called The Weird Al Show. And I’ve spent some of my downtime directing videos for other artists like the Black Crowes and Hansun and the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, people like that. But I started this current album about a year and a half ago, I guess.

“I casually worked on the originals for the new album over the course of last year because I could take my time and there wasn’t any rush on that. But once we got closer to the release of The Phantom Menace, we set a release date because obviously we wanted to be timely and topical and come as soon after that movie as possible. I set a cut-off date and said: ‘By this date I want to know what parodies I’m doing.’ I wanted to make the parodies as timely as I can. So once we’d decided on the parodies and we had the go-ahead from the original artists, then it was a last minute crank to get everything done as soon as possible."

Modern songs aren’t as catchy as they used to be, and they’re not in the charts for as long. Is that affecting your ability to find good memorable stuff that you can parody?
"Not really, although it’s a little bit harder to determine what exactly is a hit because it seems like music has got so segmented. It used to be as simple as looking at the Billboard top ten to determine what a popular song is. But the top ten isn’t really a good indicator any more of what a popular song is because the top ten is based a lot on single sales and a lot of hits aren’t ever released on singles any more. So I have to look at the Billboard singles, the Billboard albums, the modern rock charts, the rock charts, the pop charts, the airplay charts, the sales charts, the MTV playlists. I have to consider a lot of different sources and a lot of different research material just to determine what’s a popular song these days."

I believe you considered giving this album a Star Wars-based title. What happened there?
"I considered that, yes. But we just couldn’t agree on a title, really. I thought that Album One would be a clever title and the whole gimmick would be that this album would be the prequel to all my other albums. But the record company thought that would be kind of confusing and nobody liked the title Album One. We kicked around a few other ideas but none of them seemed clever enough. And ultimately we decided to go with Running with Scissors which had nothing of course to do with Star Wars but we just thought it was a fairly good sight gag and a good generic album title and concept that didn’t tie us in necessarily to any particular song on the album."

For some reason a lot of your British fanbase is science fiction fandom.
"Really?"

Your songs get played a lot at sci-fi convention discos.
"I didn’t know that. That’s great."

A couple of years ago a small British convention called (for various reasons) Year of the Wombat, surveyed its members to ask what songs would they like played at the disco, and you were the only artists with two songs in the top ten.
"Oh, that’s terrific. I’m guessing ‘Yoda’ was one of them."

Actually, no. ‘Trigger Happy’ was about number eight and ‘Smells Like Nirvana’ was number two.
"Wow, that’s great!"

Are you a sci-fi fan?
"Yes, I am. Luckily I didn't have to wait on the street corner for a month to see Star Wars. I was able to go to a benefit screening. But I guess I am still kind of a fanboy."

What did you think of The Phantom Menace?
"I thought it was great. I really enjoyed it. I feel like I have to defend myself every time I say that because it got a little bit of a critical drubbing. I think it’s difficult, in the States, to put something out with that much hype. It’s a precarious situation to be in, because The Phantom Menace was perhaps the most highly anticipated movie of all time and it’s just hard to make everybody happy when they’re expecting that much. But I thought that Lucas did an incredible job. I thought he set up the whole franchise very well. I thought it was an engaging story and amazing special effects and it was thoroughly entertaining."

Be honest. Jar Jar Binks: funny or annoying?
"Hmmm… Somewhere in the middle for me."

You were in an episode of Amazing Stories many years ago. How did that come about?
"Tobe Hooper - who did the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Poltergeist I believe - was the director of that particular episode and he cast me in it. And it was a lot of fun. I got to play a cabbage man from outer space and I got to work with Dick Shawn and Laraine Newman and some other very cool people. It was an episode called ‘Miss Stardust’ where the conceit was: Dick Shawn was this promoter who was having a Miss Universe pageant and I was very upset because I didn’t feel he was really representing contestants from around the universe. So I brought in Miss Uranus and Miss Neptune and all these odd, odd creatures that just completely ruined his little contest. It was a lot of fun. I was in special effects make-up for about a week and a half, so I got used to looking like a cabbage!"

I remember seeing the first Naked Gun movie with a bunch of friends and when you appeared in that cameo - ‘No, Frank. “Weird Al” Yankovic was on the plane.’ - we all whooped with delight, which worried everybody else in the cinema.
"I’ve always wondered how that scene went over overseas because I’ve never been all that popular outside North America and I know that the Naked Gun series was very popular in England. So I was always wondering: ‘How did audiences react when that scene came up?’"

Some members of the audience loved it and some were confused, but we’re used to seeing American things where a special guest star comes on whom we’ve never heard of. How did you get this regular cameo gig in the Naked Gun films?
"It’s kind of a mutual admiration thing. The Zucker Brothers are my all-time favourite directors, the Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker team. I just love their comedies. And Police Squad, the short-lived TV series that the Naked Gun series was based on, was my all-time favourite TV show. I knew Bob Weiss who produced the Naked Gun movies. In fact, I’d worked with Bob on some of my early videos. I told him: ‘Bob, I’ll do anything to be involved with this movie. I love these guys, I love this movie. I’ll run out and get their coffee, I’ll be in a crowd scene. Just please put me in the movie somewhere.' And he told the guys involved that I really wanted to be in the movie and they actually wrote that scene for me which was really, really nice of them."

Your own movie, UHF, came out over here on rental video and has been on TV a couple of times. It’s got a cult following.
"That’s exactly what it is. It came out in the States - it tested extremely well which is why Orion Pictures had put it out in the summer of ‘89 up against Batman and Lethal Weapon 2 and Honey, I Shrunk The Kids and a lot of major movies - and it quickly disappeared. Looking back on it, it’s kind of an uneven movie. There are parts that I still think are great and parts that make me grimace. But it definitely has developed a cult following over the years. In fact, we do live shows - I’m in the middle of a concert tour right now - and part of what we do is we play film clips during the show, during which we do costume changes. Whenever we play a clip from UHF, the audience chants along with the dialogue like it’s The Rocky Horror Picture Show or something. It definitely has a very hardcore fanbase."

Are you going to do another film?
"Not in the near future. I’m going to be on the road for pretty much the rest of the year. I would really love to do another feature or another TV series, but that’s somewhere down the line, I think."

How is the tour going?
"It’s going great. We’re about two and a half weeks into it and we’re going to be going at least to the end of the year and possible after that. We’re having a great time - the audiences are really enthusiastic."

Your popularity overseas is mixed, but you’ve been released in a lot of countries. I’ve got German and Japanese releases of your records.
"Really? Wow!"

How popular are you in these places? How do they even know what you’re singing about?
"Well, I’d love to ask you that. I don’t know. Up until this current album it’s been kind of spotty even finding me in record stores over there. I was in England about the time that UHF came out and I was going into record stores just trying to find my own albums and I could hardly come up with one. My previous record label, I don’t even think had an international deal in place. A lot of my fans overseas have had to buy albums through import shops and pay a lot of money for them, which is unfortunate. But the new album, Running with Scissors, is going to be released in the UK, I think on the 16th of this month, so it’s going to get an actual release this time which is great."

As far as I know only In 3-D and Even Worse actually got a proper release over here.
"So it’s been what, over ten years since I had a proper release."

Legend has it that you had a number one hit in Australia.
"Yes, ‘Eat It’ was a big hit in Australia back in ‘84 so I got an Australian gold record back then. And again, the same situation: I haven’t had proper international distribution so I haven’t really had any bona fide hits there for quite a few years. But the new album just got released in Australia. I’m told it’s doing extremely well there so hopefully we’ll have success over there once again."

Over here, British radio stations tend to have a knee-jerk reaction against novelty songs.
"Really? This is a learning experience for me. I was under the impression they really liked novelty songs."

Back in the seventies there were a lot of novelty hits.
"The Barron Knights I guess were very popular."

They had a lot of hits in the sixties and seventies. And Benny Hill, for example, had a huge number one hit. But now it’s pretty much died out. Although the South Park single got to number two at Christmas.
"Which single was that?"

‘Chocolate Salty Balls’ sung by Chef. It just missed by one week being the Christmas number one.
"Oh, too bad!"

Which would have been great because every time they had a Christmas hits retrospective they would have had to play it
"Oh yes!"

Finally, what would it take to get you to to do a concert over here in the UK?
"It would just take a promoter making us the right offer. I would love to play overseas. Hopefully, first of all, the new album will do well enough to justify us coming over and supporting it. But we’ve never done a concert outside of North America, so I would love to tour the UK. That would be great.”

‘Weird Al’ is such a great guy. When the interview finished I told him that I was going that weekend to a party where most people there were fans of his work and he kindly recorded a special message on the end of my tape to play to everyone at the party. What a top bloke!

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