Rock’s favorite “pop-culture Cuisinart” is still mixing things up

“Weird Al” Yankovic is in St. Charles, Mo.—at least, he thinks so. “I’m pretty sure I am,” he reports by phone. “They took the bag off my head and here I was.” He may prefer to open with a joke, but the man born Alfred Matthew Yankovic takes the craft of skewering the music world just as seriously today as he did when he first burst onto the scene in the early 1980s. Written off as a novelty act when he first shot to fame rendering Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” as “Eat It,” the Lynwood, Calif., native’s career as a pop parodist has proven far more durable than those of many of his targets.

Yankovic has always sought an artist’s permission before releasing a parody, and made news recently when he announced that Lady Gaga had denied him the right to issue his “Born This Way” rewrite “Perform This Way.” The whole affair turned out to be a miscommunication, and now that track opens Yankovic’s new Alpocalypse. The album plays to all his satirical strengths: There are straightforward parodies of other recent hits (Taylor Swift’s “You Belong With Me” becomes the paparazzi send-up “TMZ”); painstaking original pastiches of particular artists or genres (the Doors-esque “Craigslist,” featuring that band’s keyboardist Ray Manzarek); gut-busting originals; and a medley of pop favorites (“Polka Face”) rendered in polka fashion by Yankovic, who has been rocking out on accordion since age 6. Having established that the musical funnyman was indeed backstage at the Family Arena in St. Charles for a concert later that evening and not the victim of a kidnapping attempt, we spoke with Yankovic, 51, about his reign as pop’s top court jester.

Is topicality part of your job?

Yeah. I’ve referred to my brain as a pop-culture Cuisinart. I need to feed it constantly and always be aware of what’s happening in the world, be aware of what’s happening with music and TV and films—which is something I do anyway, because I’m a big fan of pop culture. But it’s more important for me, because it’s also what I do for a living. I have to be able to comment on things that are happening in the zeitgeist.

How do you construct a parody?

When we do parodies we’re trying to make them sound as close as possible to the original. That wasn’t always the case—when we started out we were just doing a rough approximation and would throw an accordion on the song whether there was one or not. (laughs) But now part of the gag is to suck people into thinking that they’re listening to the original song. Then all of a sudden it’s, “Hey, these aren’t the right lyrics, what’s going on here?” So we listen on headphones, dissect every track and try to make it sound as close as possible to the original master recording.

How has that process changed?

It’s hard to enumerate all of them, but one thing is that there’s not a whole lot of conventional instruments in pop songs anymore. For instance, for the Lady Gaga thing we never set up a guitar amp; we never set up drums. Everybody in the band came into the studio with a DVD like, “Here’s the digital file, I recorded my part at home on the computer.” That’s the way pop music is going. It’s all synthesized on a computer.

How does that compare to creating a pastiche like “Craigslist”?

That takes a lot more time. Producing the parodies is relatively simple, because there are no real creative choices to be made—we have the template. Doing a pastiche is also harder than writing a straight original song, because not only does it have to be an original composition, it has to have the soul of a whole different artist. So I listen to that artist’s entire body of work. I make notes. I try to figure out what the idiosyncrasies are, what the subtle little things are that indicate this is that particular artist’s composition. I try to incorporate all of those things while I’m writing this original composition. I supply the band with a dozen or so examples of the artist’s work that are representative of the style. I’m giving them a demo of my original song, but I also want them to be thinking of that artist while they’re adding their own personal touches to it. There’s a whole lot more effort that goes into one of those kind of songs than something I made from scratch. It’s a labor of love.

How did you adapt to parodying rap?

I didn’t go to school or anything for it. (laughs) I’m pretty shameless, so I just gave it my best shot. I’ve gotten a lot of good compliments. When I did “White & Nerdy” [2006], Chamillionaire himself [who performed the original, “Ridin’”] told me he thought I was a pretty good rapper, which is pretty high praise coming from him. I don’t know what to attribute it to.

You replicated his verbal flow throughout the song.

Attention to detail is a hallmark of what I do. I try to match every syllable if I can and make it as close as possible to the original. A large part of that is in the writing. It’s important to have the same meter, the same cadence, the same inflection, to make it as close as possible. It’s the little things that a lot of people perhaps wouldn’t even notice on a surface level. But they can tell that a lot of effort has been put into it and that it’s been carefully crafted to emulate the source material.

Is getting permission tough?

Whenever possible I try to contact an artist directly, but more often than not I don’t have that person’s home phone number. (laughs) That’s not always an option. It’s usually a case of my manager talking to their manager. Truthfully, 99 percent of the time it works out just fine, the artist signs off on it and looks at it as a badge of honor. But every now and then somebody will stand in the way and block access to the artist. That’s just something that I’ve had to deal with. It’s unfortunate, but thankfully in the Lady Gaga case it all got resolved very happily.

How do you go about putting together a polka medley?

In terms of song selection, I look at pop songs that I think would sound humorous done polka-style. A lot of the songs I use in polka medleys are actually songs that I would have done parodies of had I been able to figure out a clever enough idea. (laughs) It’s like the graveyard of parodies. Once we’ve gotten permission to use the songs, I’ll sit with my accordion and play around with them. I’ll try to figure out what song would segue naturally into another song, or maybe would be a jarring juxtaposition with another song. I piece it all together, arrange it, write up the horn parts and produce a demo.

What are your goals now?

I’ve achieved pretty much every goal I ever had. I would love to be able to continue doing what I do, because I love this gig. I still love performing live, I still love recording songs. I’d like to keep doing it bigger and better.

–Chris Neal

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