It’s a musical niche that seems unsustainable in the era of inflated creative egos and pop musicians taking themselves too seriously. But Weird Al Yankovic’s unique brand of parody, satire and pure silliness has persisted over 30 years. A career that started with homemade tapes sent to disc jockey Doctor Demento in the early 1980s has become a cultural institution. Indeed, in the past three decades, Weird Al Yankovic’s satiric targets have included everyone from Michael Jackson to Lady Gaga. He’s penned parodies like “Eat It,” “Amish Paradise” and “Perform this Way,” in addition to original compositions like “Melanie” and “Wanna Be Your Lover.”
We caught up with Yankovic in advance of his Aug. 23 appearance at the Arvada Center to chat about his new album Alpocalypse, his approach to songwriting and his connection to the accordion.
Aurora Sentinel: Can you offer a general tour of the new album Alpocalypse?
Weird Al Yankovic: In general, like all of the rest of my albums, it’s about half parody and half original, but hopefully it’s all funny. We’ve got parodies of Miley Cyrus, Taylor Swift, T.I., B.o.B. with Bruno Mars and of course Lady Gaga. We’ve also got the requisite polka medley called “Polka Face” where you’ve got about a dozen pop songs polka style. I think most rock songs sound better with an accordion solo.
The original songs include pastiches of the White Stripes and the Doors, including keyboard work from Doors’ keyboardist Ray Manzarek. It’s a little bit of everything. My albums are always very eclectic and this is no exception. I’m very proud of Alpocalypse. I like to think that it’s my best work to date.
How do you find the songs you’re going to parody? Is it a matter of popularity or catchiness?
It’s all of the above. It starts with a song that’s popular and that catches my ear. I make a list of the songs that I think are good candidates for parody. Even though a song may be calling out for the Weird Al treatment, I can’t always think of a clever enough idea. I have funny ideas, but not always something that would be sustainably funny for three minutes, so it’s a combination of finding a song that’s popular, catchy and one that I can think of a clever enough idea for.
Your band has remained pretty consistent, hasn’t it?
I’ve had the same guys for 30 years, yeah.
Do they have a role in the creative process?
They don’t do any actual songwriting, but they definitely lend their talent to the recording. I always say that I don’t write out guitar solos. As the producer in the studio, I’ll direct them. They all know the drill and they all are incredibly good musicians. I try to give them as much encouragement and inspiration as I can and let them come up with their own parts, but it doesn’t really comprise actual songwriting.
Speaking of the polka medley, do you still consider that genre to be part of your musical roots?
The accordion is the only musical instrument that I consider myself adept at. I had three years of accordion lessons from ages 7 to 10, so that’s my only formal musical training. The accordion has always been my axe, my main squeeze, as it were. That’s the thing I’m most comfortable with.
When polka was still a category at the Grammies, I’d always run into people at the Grammy parties … I can’t say that I’m really up on the polka scene as much as I should be, but I’m certainly familiar with the players.
Being around as long as you’ve been around, have you seen any shift in the reactions of artists when you ask to parody their song? Is it more of an honor now?
Well, from when I first started out, there’s certainly been a dramatic shift. It was hard to get phone calls returned when I first started out because no one knew who or what this Weird Al guy was all about. I think the first dramatic turn was Michael Jackson. When we got his approval, that was kind of like the golden key. After that, if anyone gave us a hard time, we could say, ‘Well, Michael Jackson didn’t seem to have a problem with it,’ and they’d go, ‘Oh. Let me reconsider.’
Now, because of the sheer fact that I’ve been doing this as long as I have, it’s become, as Lady Gaga recently said in an interview, a rite of passage. I think a lot of acts do feel honored in a way to get a Weird Al parody because they feel like they’ve achieved a certain plateau of success in their career.
You did your first feature film, UHF, in 1989. Any plans for another movie?
I’d love to make another film. There’s nothing in the works right now. A couple of years ago, I had a production deal with the Cartoon Network, I was writing and directing a light action feature for them … But it kind of dissipated through a regime change. I am very interested in pursuing another feature film down the road. I wish it were more imminent, but I’ve got my fingers crossed.
What’s going to be the dynamic of the show at the Arvada Center? Are you looking at it as a large-scale stadium show or a more intimate performance?
One of the first shows of the tour we did was recorded for a Comedy Central special, and it’s available on DVD and Blu-Ray. (Laughs). If you want a really good idea of what the show is going to be like, it’s already out on DVD.
I can tell you it’s a high-energy rock show with a bunch of costume changes – fat suits and Jedi robes and Amish outfits. We do a change for almost every tune of the whole show. There’s video elements that are interwoven throughout. There’s never a dull moment.
What’s the most difficult costume change?
The fat suit is one of the harder one. I also get into a giant peacock outfit for “Perform This Way,” the Lady Gaga parody. That involves several people backstage helping me out. (Laughs).
Doctor Demento had a pretty big role in getting your early music out. Do you still keep in contact with him?
Oh, yeah. I don’t get to see him all that often, but we exchange emails now and then and we’re definitely in touch.
Funny or Die did a spoof biopic titled Weird about your life starring Breaking Bad’s Aaron Paul. We’ve heard you’ve visited the show’s set in New Mexico. Was that piece a one-shot deal, or is that part of a bigger project?
I wish. “Breaking Bad” is one of my all-time favorite shows. I happened to be in Albuquerque and asked if (Aaron Paul) wanted to come to the set, and he said ‘Absolutely.’ He asked if I wanted to come to the set and I said, “Absolutely.”
For the original sketch, we tossed around some ideas and he got some amazing people to participate in it. I was very, very happy with the way it turned out. In fact, we still use that clip as part of the live show.
You talked about the consistent original songs on the albums that come in addition to the parodies. Is there one song that stands out as a favorite original composition?
It’s hard for me to narrow it down. There are a lot of original songs with great production values on the new album. “Stop Forwarding This Crap to Me,” “Don’t Download This Song” on the last one, “Hardware Store” on Poodle Hat … In terms of performing live, I think “Wanna Be Your Lover” is probably the most fun to perform because I cross the proscenium and actually go into the audience. That’s always fun for me, because you never know what’s going to happen.
How much longer do you have on the tour?
I don’t know. The tour is stopping and starting. We aren’t doing any really really long tours anymore because I’ve got a family and I don’t want to be out on the road for six months at a stretch.
We’ve had several legs already of the Alpocalypse tour. We’re doing this month, we’re doing another leg in October and next year, I assume we’ll be touring as well.
Any formal timeframe for another record?
There never is. It’s always when inspiration strikes. I can say that I’m going back into the studio in September to record the first three tracks of the next album, but I really couldn’t give you an educated guess on when the next album is coming out.
Weird Al Yankovic and his band will appear Aug. 23 at the Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities, 6901Wadsworth Blvd. in Arvada. Plaza opens at 6 p.m. Tickets start at $32.50. Information: 720-898-7200 or arvadacenter.org.
Reach reporter Adam Goldstein at email@example.com or 720-449-9707