Al Yankovic is a genius.
Who else but Weird Al, as he's known, could turn Michael Jackson's “Beat It” into “Eat It” or The Kinks' “Lola” into “Yoda?”
Even Kurt Cobain of Nirvana, whose “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was turned into “Smells Like Nirvana,” wrote in his journal that “Weird Al Yankovic is America's modern pop-rock genius.”
Since his career began more than 30 years ago, Yankovic has made a living making “twisted” versions, as he called them, of popular songs — as well as quite a few original songs done in the style of various artists and genres.
Songs such as “Another One Rides the Bus,” “Fat,” “Amish Paradise” and “White & Nerdy” have sent Yankovic's audiences into fits of giggles since he sent “My Bologna” (a parody of The Knack's “My Sharona”) to the Dr. Demento radio show in 1979.
While Yankovic was in Montana preparing for a performance there, we talked to him about his elaborate concerts, his longtime band, how he writes a parody and how the changing music industry may change how he releases his funny songs.
Q. Since your songs can be rock and then rap and then polka, is it tough to jump from genre to genre during your shows?
A. It's fun for me. I like the show being eclectic and not being tied to one particular genre. And we'll do a quick film montage between some songs, so I get a minute to collect my thoughts and get into a new character.
Q. You have a big, fun production. How much changes tour to tour?
A. I try to make the tours as different as possible from tour to tour. There are a number of songs that the fans would be rioting in the street if we wouldn't play, so any given tour is going to be, at the most, half new. We have so many greatest hits that are mandatory.
And even though I've literally played some of them more than 1,000 times, I'm having a great time.
Q. At this point, could you just let the crowd sing the biggest songs? Do they ever drown you out?
A. I don't know. I've got in-ear monitors, so I can't tell if they're singing or not. No, I do hear the crowd, especially in the front row. They're like human teleprompters.
It's pretty daunting. At the beginning of every tour, I always get a bit of stage fright because I know I'm gonna forget something. It's not a matter of if I forget, it's when I forget. We have backup plans if things go horribly wrong. But we're at a point in the tour now — the Alpocalypse Tour has been going for the last couple years — that now it's muscle memory. We don't have to worry too much with lapses of the mind.
Q. Jeff Tweedy from Wilco once said every time he writes new lyrics, an old set of lyrics is erased in his head.
A. I only have so much RAM in my brain! (laughs) I've got about enough for the show and that's about it.
Q. I think most people expect that your music is going to be funny, but they gloss over how good your music is. You and your band are tight players.
A. I really appreciate that. A lot of people, because it's comedy, they think it's maybe not up to par or not as good as “serious music,” and they're denigrated because there happens to be humor in the music. As I'm sure you've realized, the band does everything from gangsta rap to polka music and everything in between. They seem to pull it off.
I feel very fortunate to have found my band very early on in my career, and I think they happen to be some of the very best musicians in the world.
Q. Have you ever had an artist tell you that you did the song better than they did?
A. (laughs) I've heard comments sort of like that. I probably shouldn't say who said that (laughs) out of deference to them, but I've gotten a lot of compliments from the original artists.
Q. Does the immediacy of YouTube and streaming on the Web help with the impact of a parody song?
A. It does. I'm probably going to be doing more of that, I'm guessing, after my contract is up. I have one more album left on my contract. The model of waiting until I have 12 songs and putting them all out at once, that used to work, but now in the days of YouTube, people expect more immediacy, and it's hard for all 12 of those songs to be viewed as timely and topical. That's a hard thing to achieve.
I've done a little of that in the past. Sort of as an experiment, I did a parody of T.I.'s song called “Whatever You Like.” My parody was also called “Whatever You Like.” I was able to write, produce and release that within two weeks of getting the idea for it, which was great. My parody was out when the original song was still No. 1 on the charts. I haven't done that since then because I'm still within the old CD model.
I don't want to commit to anything, but I'm inclined to be more of a singles artist after my contract is up.
I want to leave all my options open. I have to be very careful what I say because I said something to that effect a couple months ago, and then there were headlines all over: “Al said his next album will be his last.” (laughs) Yeah, Al's retiring and living in a cave now.
Q. Does it seem to you that there hasn't been as much comedy music in the last few decades? You seem to have cornered the market on comedic music.
A. There certainly has been a lot of other comedic artists. The Lonely Island is doing quite well. I love those guys. Tenacious D, Flight of the Conchords and a billion people on YouTube are doing funny music.
But I've sort of been the face of parody for the last couple of decades. I get the credit or the blame for a lot of parodies that aren't even mine. I sort of had the field to myself at the beginning of my career.
Of course, with the Internet, everybody can upload their parodies. It's become a little bit harder for me to be unique. Well, it's basically impossible at this point. (laughs)
Q. Have you written a song and then gone to YouTube and found the same thing?
A. I used to check and I don't any more. Every time I come up with an idea, I think, “I wonder if anyone else has thought of this.” The answer is always, “Yes.” (laughs) The Internet is a big place, and somebody somewhere has thought of it. I've learned at this point to just put on blinders and do what I do and hope that my work will stand out from sheer merit alone.
Q. Have you worked on a new record at all?
A. Yeah, I'm halfway done with it. I have all the originals done. I've got the first six songs in the can. I haven't focused too much on the parodies yet, but that's the next step.
Q. Where does the process start for your originals?
A. A lot of times, I'll keep a document on my computer of things that will be fun topics to write a song about. Or situations or basically a one-line description of, “This would be a funny song.” I'll keep another list of genres or artists whose genre or style I might want to appropriate. A lot of times, I'll draw a line from column A to column B and see what makes the most sense. Or what makes the least sense (laughs) for comic effect. That's usually how we do it.
When I first started out, I did a lot of original songs, which were true originals. Lately, I found I enjoy doing the pastiches more. I really like writing the song in the style of another artist. I try to get inside their mind and use their same kind of stylistic quirks and write a song as they would except a little more sick and twisted.