Friday, 29 July 2016 09:22

Weird Al Yankovic brings 'Mandatory World Tour' to Grand Rapids [Interview]

Written by  Eric Mitts
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"Weird Al" Yankovic "Weird Al" Yankovic Robert Trachtenberg

Music comedy legend and pop culture icon “Weird Al” Yankovic has titled his latest adventure the “Mandatory World Tour.” It’s a joke, of course, on the cyclical nature of the entertainment industry, which he finally found himself free from after 32 years under a major label recording contract. His latest LP, 2014’s Mandatory Fun, was his first to ever debut at Number One on the Billboard Charts, and solidified his status as the biggest-selling comedy recording artist in history. With over 12 million records sold and four Grammy Awards, Yankovic, 56, has made everyone from the MTV generation to millennials laugh with his hit song parodies and zany videos. Most recently, he’s taken over bandleader duties on the hit IFC show Comedy Bang! Bang! earlier this year. REVUE had the rare chance to pick Al’s one-of-a-kind brain last month, and found out why he reluctantly embraced social media, why he turns to his teenage daughter for tips on new targets to spoof, and why he thinks his lifelong instrument of choice — the accordion — isn’t nerdy; it’s sensual.


REVUE: You’ve had the same live band since you started in 1982. What’s it been like having those guys back you up for so many years?

“Weird Al” Yankovic: It’s nice. I’ve got to say that I was extremely lucky that at the onset of my career I found a bunch of guys that not only were amazing musicians, but also incredibly nice guys. We get along really well. There hasn’t been any drama on the road. We haven’t had any Behind The Music moments. We just have a great time. We love being together, and I’m just lucky because these guys play every genre of music imaginable and do them all extremely well. So I couldn’t ask for a better band.


R: What’s it been like learning to play and adopting so many different styles of music with them over the years?

WAY: It’s fun, because there’s not one particular genre or one particular style. I don’t feel locked in. I can do literally anything I want because these guys are capable of pulling it off. So I get to dip my finger in a lot of different kinds of music, and it always keeps it fresh and fun for me.


R: I’ve read that you fulfilled your record contract with Mandatory Fun. How does that feel?

WAY: It feels good. It’s not like I felt like I was burdened being under contract to a record label. But it was 32 years under contract, and the fact that now I’m not beholden to anybody; I don’t owe anybody anything. I don’t have to ask anybody’s permission to do anything. It’s a bit freeing. It makes me sleep a little bit more soundly at night. I do enjoy the fact that at this point I’m a free agent.


"Weird Al" Yankovic
"Mandatory World Tour"
DeVos Performance Hall, 303 Monroe Ave. NW, Grand Rapids
Aug. 26, 7:30 p.m.
$37.50–$85, (616) 742-6500

R: In the future, do you think you will release songs online? How do you think that aspect of your career will change?

WAY: Probably so. I’ve been playing around with it for the last few years. I haven’t been very proactive about releasing new material since Mandatory Fun came out and I’ve been busy with other projects, and obviously the tour. But after this tour is over, I’m going to be focusing on that more, and I think probably releasing songs digitally or online is probably going to be the way for me to go, because I don’t think I’ll be releasing conventional albums. I’d rather write and record things and get them out as soon as possible. It’s more gratifying for me, and I think, in these times when things seem to be getting dated quicker, and people’s attention spans are shorter, I think that’s more important than ever.


R: Speaking of short attention spans, you first became famous on MTV, back when it still played music videos, yet you seem to have become even more of an icon now on the Internet. Do you feel like the Internet is almost the perfect platform for your music? Or maybe just the perfect place for your fans?

WAY: In a way it’s more immediate and it levels the playing field. Back when I started out with MTV, if I were to release a video, I’d have to wait around until their Thursday meeting when a bunch of the executives would sit around at the table in a board room and watch videos, and decide if my video was good enough to go into rotation. And YouTube has taken away that power from [those] people and now anybody can upload anything and if it’s good people will see it. 


R: When YouTube first started I couldn’t help but feel like it was something of a worldwide version of your [1989 cult-favorite] movie UHF. Do you agree?

WAY: A lot of people have drawn that parallel. I certainly wouldn’t make that claim. But, people have written that I’m sort of the godfather of YouTube. I wouldn’t go that far, but people have said that.


R: I’ve read that when you first started getting into social media, you found that there were some “Weird Al” imitators already online. How surreal was that for you? And how did you handle that?

WAY: It was a little discomforting because it’s identity theft. If there’s somebody out there claiming to be you, and posting pictures of you and your family, and trying to speak in your voice — that’s a little off-putting. And frankly that’s the initial reason why I got into social media was to have an official presence online to say, ‘Hey, I’m the real Weird Al. Everybody else is a phony.’ But once I got into social media I found out that I really loved it, and I’m really enjoying being active Twitter and Facebook and Instagram and interacting with fans, and keeping in contact with my peers in the comedy and music communities. It’s really been fun. But I did initially get dragged into it against my will.


R: What advice would you have for YouTube artists, who are trying to establish themselves as parody musicians or satirists?

WAY: Like I said before I think it levels the playing field. I think it’s great that anybody now has a shot at getting people’s attention. It makes it a little bit more difficult for me, because I can’t go for low hanging fruit anymore, like the most obvious idea for a song parody, because a thousand other people would have thought of it already. So it basically just makes me step out of the box a little bit more, and step up my game, and it makes me a little more competitive, which is not a bad thing.


R: Your music has reached multiple generations now, with whole families having grown up on your music. How does that feel to have crossed that generational divide?

WAY: It’s an amazing feeling. I get that feeling every time I’m onstage and I look out at the concert audience. It’s one of the most demographically diverse audiences you’re liable to see at a rock show. It’s everybody from young kids, to high schoolers and college students, and hipsters, and parents and grandparents. And they all seem to really be enjoying the show, which is amazing. And this isn’t something that was calculated. I wasn’t trying to go for this family-friendly show. We just do what I think is funny, but I’m very happy to see that it appeals to lots of different kinds of people.


R: How do you think parenthood has changed you as an artist?

WAY: I don’t know. People have asked me that, and I don’t think that it’s changed me that much creatively. It’s certainly changed me a lot personally in the sense that it’s changed me in profound ways. But I don’t think it’s changed my sense of humor, or what I think is funny, or how I go about my work. I can remember, I think the first album that came out after I became a father [2003’s Poodle Hat] I had a bit of a chip on my shoulder because I thought people would be like, ‘Oh, he’s a family man now. He’s going to turn into some G-rated cheeseball guy.’ And so I think that album was actually edgier than usual to sort of push back against that. But in general I don’t think it’s really had any direct effect on my creative output.


R: As your daughter has gotten older, what has it been like discovering new songs with her?

WAY: She’s really been my ears to the ground. If I’m trying to figure out if a song has really hit the schoolyard, and if it’s made an impact at the seventh grade level. I ask my daughter what she and her friends are talking about, so she’s helped me figure out some potential targets for parodies.


R: Do you think the sheer longevity of your career, and your success, has changed people’s opinion about music comedy or music parody?

WAY: I’d like to think I’ve achieved something of a change. I know that when I first started out in the early '80s there weren’t a lot of people doing what I was doing. And certainly I became the brand name. I was the only person doing comedy music who had a major label record deal, and had regular rotation on MTV. Which was all nice, but it was also a bit lonely. And nowadays, the last decade or two, we’ve seen a lot of people doing amazing things in comedy music. The Lonely Island, Tenacious D, Flight of the Conchords, Reggie Watts, Garfunkel & Oates,  all these different people. So it feels like a bit of a golden age in comedy music, which is nice. I like to be part of a community, and now I feel like we have a bit of a community.


R: Do you think you’ve done something of the same thing for the accordion, in getting people to view that instrument differently?

WAY: Maybe in a lesser way. I’ve certainly met a lot of kids who decided to take accordion lessons because of me, and I’m not sure how I feel about that. But yeah, I think I’ve certainly brought the accordion a bit more exposure. I wouldn’t say popularity; I think exposure is more correct. Accordion is actually a wonderful instrument. I think it got sort of a bad rap somewhere in the '60s and '70s, as a very unhip instrument, and certainly I play that for laughs. But if you look at it just on its merits, the accordion is a very sensual instrument, which I think some indie bands are kind of picking up on. It’s actually a really beautiful instrument, and I think that slowly over the course of a long period of time it’s getting its due.

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