A Man, A Plan, An Accordion
Weird Al's not so weird after all

Preparing to speak with "Weird Al" Yankovic, you anticipate surrealistic, brazen lunacy, with perhaps polka dancers and midgets cavorting in the background. So when I talk to Al two days before his 40th birthday, I am taken with his... dare I say... normalcy. In fact, he sounds less like a star and more like a company's MIS director.

See also...
... by Larry Getlen
... in the Dirt section
... from November 18, 1999

Just days before he embarks on a nationwide tour, we discuss accordions, anger, politics, and the collaboration we've all been waiting for -- Weird Al Yankovic and The Black Crowes.

GETTINGIT: Your bio says you were once an accordion repo man. Explain please.

WEIRD AL: I worked for the Accordion Conservatory, where I took lessons. They lent you an accordion, and if you stopped taking lessons you were supposed to return it. If you don't, they call for ACCORDIAN REPO MAN! I drove all over Southern California tracking people down, banging on doors saying, "Ummm, could you please give us back your accordion? Thank you."

GI: Ever have to get rough with anybody?

WA: Oddly enough, most people were only too happy to get rid of it.

GI: You're practically the American ambassador for the accordion. How would you make the case for the accordion being a cool instrument?

WA: A lot of rock bands in the last decade and a half incorporated the accordion into their music: the Talking Heads, Bruce Springsteen, Sheryl Crow, Bruce Hornsby, John Mellencamp, Paul Simon. It may not be the hippest instrument in the world, but it's getting away from its Lawrence Welk image. If you look at some of Dick Contino's album covers in the '50s [the guy who did "Lady of Spain"] you had this studly guy wearing an accordion, with women hanging onto his legs with no irony whatsoever. It was kinda like, accordion player as sex symbol. It wasn't viewed as particularly strange back then.

GI: Are there certain topics you won't joke about?

WA: Not per se. I tend not to do political humor. Not because it's sacred, but because it's so topical and timely. Who knows how the political climate's gonna change from one week to the next? You don't want things to be that different by the time the album comes out.

GI: Did you ever come across a political story, like maybe the whole Clinton-Lewinsky thing, that was so juicy you just had to write something?

WA: That story in particular, aside from that whole thing being a bit vulgar and distasteful to begin with, is timely. If I had a Monica Lewinsky song on my album right now, people would be like, "Why is he doing Lewinsky jokes, it's October already."

GI: You seem so incredibly laid back. Do you ever get angry?

WA: Not real angry, I'm kinda surprised you picked up on that. But I don't really get angry. If I get really upset I just get quiet. I don't get into shouting matches with anybody, I don't lose my temper or fly off the handle. I'm pretty even tempered, really.

GI: What makes you upset?

WA: War, plague, famine, pestilence -- I don't know. What makes me upset? A lot of little things, like if I'm not able to get things done the way I want, because I'm kind of a perfectionist. If I find myself limited or restricted from doing the kind of things I want to do creatively, that's very upsetting to me.

GI: Does that happen, or do you have control of your projects?

WA: When I'm doing my own albums and videos, yeah, I have control, and when I'm [directing] videos for other people, generally not, because it's not my video and I'm work for hire.

GI: Who have you directed?

WA: The Black Crowes, Hanson, Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, and a few others.

GI: It's hard to picture The Black Crowes sitting in a meeting saying, "Who should direct our new video? Well, Weird Al's available."

WA: The Black Crowes didn't know they were hiring me, because my video-directing agent submitted my treatment without my name on it. She thought, well, if they see your name, they may be predisposed to not hire you, because they may think you're too wacky. So I submitted my treatment, among a number of other top-notch video directors, and they picked it. And then they were told "Well, this is Weird Al Yankovic," and they said, "Uhhhhhh, Oh. OK."

GI: And they were cool with that?

WA: Yeah, they were fine.

GI: How was it working for them?

WA: It was great. Chris Robinson has a ton of energy. We got some good stuff.

GI: Did you find there was any loss of respect from them because you are Weird Al, or was there any period where they were like, mmmmm...

WA: I don't think so. It was kinda odd. I was trying to give Chris notes at one point, and he said "You know man, I'm sorry but I kinda have a problem with authority." I'm like the least authoritative person that I know, so it was kind of an odd experience there.

GI: When did you realize that you could make a living doing this?

WA: Last week. No, I distinctly remember when I gave notice at my day job, it was after I was on the Billboard charts.

GI: What was the job?

WA: I worked in the mailroom for a radio syndication company. I had an album out, but I had a pretty poor record deal, no big advance or anything, just like, "OK, we'll put out your album and see what happens." So I was still working in the mailroom to pay for macaroni and cheese. I went to the post office one morning, picked up Billboard and opened up to the charts, and there I was on the Hot 100. I thought "Well, I should probably give my notice and get serious about this Weird Al thing now."

GI: So what's next for you after this tour?

WA: I'm writing and putting final touches on some cable specials. VH1 is doing a concert special with me, which will be on November 20. I'm also in the beginning stages of another Al-TV for MTV, which will hopefully be on before the end of the year.

Larry Getlen has written for Raygun, Salon, and MovieMaker, among many others. He writes a weekly satire column called "Larry's Look at Life," which goes out via email.