When little Alfred Yankovic first picked up the accordion as a wee lad growing up in Southern California, never could he have imagined it would lead to a decades-long career as “Weird Al” – the foremost creator of pop music parodies. And even though the internet has made for plenty of competition, he’s still going strong making fun of stars like Lady Gaga.
“Weird Al” performs Sunday night at Tacoma’s Pantages Theater as part of his ‘Alpocolypse Tour’, and we caught up this week to talk about his surprising success, and what it takes to make a hit parody.
Al says there are no hard and fast rules to crafting something like “Eat It,” his breakthrough parody of Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” that made him a star. He starts with a list of songs culled from the top of the charts, but actually coming up with a good song isn’t so easy.
“I try my hardest and I try to think of ideas – and I can think of a lot of ideas. I can think of a lot of bad ideas, but there aren’t that many extremely clever ideas out there,” he says.
Once he lands on something, he seeks out artist approval. He’s been famously turned down by plenty, including Prince and Paul McCartney.
“I just don’t want to have any drama with anybody. I don’t want to have any misunderstandings or litigious celebrities out there looking for me. I just want to make sure it’s all done in good fun,” he says.
Usually, his people talk to their people. But Al says one of his biggest songs – his parody of Nirvana’s “Smell’s Like Teen Spirit,” came after a conversation with Kurt Cobain.
“He couldn’t have been a better sport and approved it immediately,” he says.
“Weird Al” still marvels at his surprising success. He’s sold more than 12 million albums, earning three Grammy Awards, four gold records, and six platinum records. While he’s had plenty of hits and feels close to many of his songs, he says “White and Nerdy,” a top ten hit from from 2006’s top 10 hit “Straight Outta Lynwood,” is his favorite.
“It’s my biggest hit to date and it’s probably my most autobiographical. I didn’t have to do a whole lot of research into nerd culture to write that song,” laughs the self-professed geek who graduated from college with a degree in architecture before focusing on his music career.
Interestingly, Al admits rapid changes in the music business are forcing him to change the way he makes music. The speed of the internet means he can no longer take the time to carefully craft an album of 12 songs or so and release it at his leisure.
“Right now there are several songs that would be great to parody, but by the time my album comes out I think they would feel dated.” Instead, he plans to do more digitally to remain topical once he fulfills his current record deal.
While music remains his first love, he’s also forging a successful second career as a children’s book author. His “When I Grow Up” was a New York Times bestseller in 2011. The follow up “My New Teacher and Me” comes out in June.
“I’ve always been a big fan of children’s lit, I’ve always been a big fan of Dr. Seuss and Shel Silverstein,” he says. An editor who was also a fan thought his lyrics would make him a great writer. She was right.
“I took a shot at it and it seemed to work out,” he says.
As for when he plans to finally get around to releasing more music?
“I would say some time for sure in the next 30 to 40 years,” he laughs.