When Weird Al lays low, he lays very low, but when he returns from hibernation, it’s like a wild, blustery flash flood of Al-ness, with the 54-year-old parodist’s curly mane plastered on every corner of the Internet, referencing old hits like a highlight reel of your junior high memories.
All of which is to say: Yes, Weird Al is back. You’ve probably noticed. His 14th album, Mandatory Fun, is out today, and Monday saw the viral release of “Tacky,” the first of eight videos in eight days. We chatted with Yankovic about making amends with Coolio, dressing up as Hitler, and whether or not Mandatory Fun will be his last conventional album (spoiler: it very well might be!).
Hi, Al! How’s your Friday going?
It’s going well! You’re interview number 27 today. [laughs] I’m just kidding.
I have to say, a lot of people were expecting a “Get Lucky” parody on this album. Was that too obvious?
Not that it was too obvious. I need a lot of words to play with when I do my parodies, which is why I tend to gravitate towards rap songs because there’s a lot of material to work with. “Get Lucky” certainly is an iconic song and was a great candidate, but it’s just a little too repetitive. So it worked great to close the polka medley with!
Were there any songs that you really wanted to parody this time around but you couldn’t get right?
No, I actually got to do everything I wanted on this album. It seems like the last few albums I’ve done, there was always some kind of drama, whether it was the Gaga saga or some kind of problem with Eminem. This time everything worked out just perfectly.
I’m a little out of the loop. What exactly was the, err, “Gaga saga”?
Oh, it’s a long story. Basically I was told by Lady Gaga’s manager that I couldn’t put a Lady Gaga parody on my album after he’d made me go through the trouble of writing and recording it. It turned out this was all without Lady Gaga knowing about it. When she found out I wanted to do a parody, she said, “Of course, I’m honored.”
What usually happens is the artists themselves are totally fine. It’s just the people around them—managers and people like that—that are overprotective.
I think TMZ had this video of you directly asking Iggy Azalea permission. How did she respond?
Yeah, she was fine. That’s the only time I know that that kind of encounter’s been documented. We were having a tough time getting a timely response from her management. I was under deadline. If I didn’t get approval from Iggy Azalea that day, we would have had to postpone the release of my album. I was literally scheduled to fly back to L.A. and record the song the next morning.
Like I said, we weren’t getting answers from management and her road manager wasn’t being helpful and didn’t want to introduce me, so finally I said, I just have to go up to Iggy Azalea and ask her myself. Which I did. She couldn’t have been nicer, and I got approval on the spot.
Speaking of not getting permission from parodies, Coolio just did an interview where he was asked about his beef with you and he really felt bad. Did you read this?
I’ve definitely seen some stuff with him online. He was upset in 1996, but that’s a lot of water under the bridge, and I know that he feels bad about it, and he feels like he overreacted. He’s totally cool now.
He said, “Real men and real people should be able to admit when they were wrong, and I was wrong, bro.”
That’s very nice. That’s very sweet of him. Behind the Music made a huge deal out of it because there’s so little drama in my life. I’m not the kind of guy that has beef with people, because I go out of my way to make sure that people are fine with what I do. That was the one little moment in my whole history where there was a problem. So people tend to latch onto that and say, “What about the Coolio thing?” That was, what, 1996?
You parody “Blurred Lines.” Are you worried that there’s a lot of Robin Thicke fatigue in the air, with all the “Blurred Lines” backlash?
My parody is not about Robin Thicke. I think “Blurred Lines” stands on its own; it’s still a catchy song. If you can overlook the original vibe of the lyrics and look at it as a fun song about the use of grammar…
This is your last album on your contract. What’s going to come next?
I haven’t made any firm decisions. I will say that I think it’s likely that this might be my last conventional album. I don’t think it behooves me to wait until I have 12 songs before I put out a recording. I try to be topical and timely and fresh. I think it would be a better model for me to just release things digitally as soon as I record them. Maybe become more of a singles artist.
Again, I’m not making any firm decisions right now. But I think this is a good opportunity for me to reinvent myself and approach my career in a slightly different way going forward.
Will you miss having physical albums?
Again, I’m not saying I would totally give up physical media. Maybe I would release a limited edition EP or something. I’ve gotten in trouble before for thinking out loud, but I just don’t think I will be interested in doing another full-length album.
You’re ending it with probably your most terrifying album cover. Where did the whole Russian propaganda theme come from?
[laughs] There’s Russian propaganda and Chinese propaganda. Basically I’m just playing on the title Mandatory Fun, which is an oxymoron that’s been in our culture for a while. It’s used a lot at corporate retreats and I hear it’s a term in the military. I just thought it’d be fun to take that term to its logical extreme.
Will the theme pop up in the videos?
Not so much. The theme has really nothing to do with any of the songs on the album. It’s completely unrelated. As all the songs on the album are unrelated to each other. As all my albums are, it’s a real hodgepodge and eclectic mix of styles and genres. It’s a theme that will continue in our merchandise and probably on our set design, but other than that it has nothing to do with the music.
I’m a big Pixies fan. The thing that surprised me the most was “First World Problems" [a Pixies style parody].
Thank you! I let [Patton Oswalt] listen to the album early and that was the song he really latched onto.
Have you been waiting 20 years to do a Pixies parody?
I’ve been a fan of Pixies for a very long time. In fact I got to play with Pixies a couple years ago at a benefit concert. That was a huge moment in my life. That got me thinking, I should do a Pixies pastiche. I’m just thinking, I haven’t actually told [Pixies frontman] Frank Black I’m doing this yet. [laughs] I don’t get permission for the pastiches. I’ve got his CD which I’m putting in the mail today. I’m hoping he likes it! I’m sure he will. He’s a really cool guy.
You nailed the whole Frank Black talk-singing vocal inflections. How’d you get that right?
Just from listening to Pixies over and over. I listen to the original artist’s body of work on repeat until it just seeps into my brain. I try to write something in their style, just a bit more twisted and demented.
Another favorite from the record is “Mission Statement.” You haven’t worked in an office for 30 years, but you seem to know a lot of corporate jargon.
It’s been a while since I’ve worked in an office, but even being in the record industry, I hear those buzzwords thrown around constantly. Ever since I got signed to a record deal, I thought one of these days I’ve got to do a song that’s nothing but these stupid business words that mean nothing. I thought it was fun to match that up with a Crosby, Stills & Nash vibe because it seems diametrically opposed.
That was fun! I was a big fan of the first season of the show. I approached Derek Waters, who created the show, because he was following me on Twitter and I was following him. I DMed him and said, “Hey, I love the show, if you have room for me in Season Two, let me know.” Derek said, “I’m a big fan, I’d be honored, we’ll let you know.” Several months later, my agent calls me and says, “I got a call from Drunk History. They want you to play… Hitler??” I said, “OK.”
I did have a moment where I’m like, Is that OK? It’s really all about context. There are contexts where you do not want to be dressing up like Hitler. And then there are contexts where it’s acceptable. For a historical recreation, whether it’s comedic or not, I think it’s acceptable.
What was the hardest song to do on the new record?
The biggest challenge was “Jackson Park Express” because that was a nine-minute song with a lot of production and full-on string section and horns and background singers. It was a lot of arranging and a lot of producing and a lot of work. I probably spent three months of my life working on that one song. But I’m very proud of it, and it’s fun for me to listen back to.
It seems like you’ve become much more comfortable doing really, really long songs since “Albuquerque.”
It’s kind of become a tradition. I’ve done several albums where the last song on the album’s an epic. I know people really loved “Albuquerque,” which surprised me. When I wrote it I thought, this song is so irritating nobody’s going to ever want to listen to it more than once, so I put it at the end of the album so people could skip it. Then it wound up being people’s favorite song.
I think I had most of that song memorized in middle school.
[laughs] Thanks, man. I did “Albuquerque” on tour as an encore. It’s a workout for everybody involved.
This month marks the 25th anniversary of UHF. How are you celebrating that?
We are doing something which I’m not at liberty to talk about right now. It’s happening later this year. I wish I could say what it is, but there will be something marking the anniversary.
Ooh. Are we ever going to get a sequel?
I can’t say what it is.
You’ve gone with a pretty unconventional promotional process for this album so far.
I just wanted to try some new stuff. Nobody knows what works anymore. The business has changed dramatically in the last decade. My albums don’t have the same kinds of buying patterns that a lot of other albums have. My songs aren’t the kinds of songs that get added to radio station rotations. But they get attention.
My marketing plan was all about getting attention for release week. I felt the best way to do that was to take advantage of the viral nature of the Internet and have eight videos, but have each one go viral for one day. Release a video in the morning, people talk about it, and the next day they have a new video to look forward to.
You must have known the track list would be leaked onto iTunes.
I was somewhat reluctant to do that. Whenever I leak a track list, fans kind of know what parodies I’m doing. They get preconceived notions. Having said that, releasing the track list seems to get people pretty excited as well.
Has the reaction been what you were expecting so far?
I’m very happy. I don’t want to jinx it, but I’m happy the album hasn’t leaked yet. We’re three days away from the album coming out. It’s not on any pirate sites. You cannot find it right now.
Having said that, it’s probably going to be out in 10 minutes [laughs].