Weird Al Yankovic Breaks Down His Upcoming ‘Ill-Advised Vanity Tour’
Anyone that walked into a “Weird Al” Yankovic concert at any point during the past 20 or so years knew exactly what they were going to see. The set list would be packed with hits like “Smells Like Nirvana” and “Amish Paradise.” Funny videos from his throughout his career would run while he changed costumes, dressing up like everything from an obese gang member for “Fat” to a rapping geek for “White and Nerdy.” At the end, he’d walk out for the last encore dressed up like a Jedi Knight and belt out “Yoda,” complete with a ritualistic chant of gibberish. Every show on any given tour would be exactly like the one before it and the one after, with moments rehearsed down to the exact second.
But when Weird Al hits the road in 2018 for the “Ridiculously Self-Indulgent, Ill-Advised Vanity Tour” none of these things will be true. There will be no costumes, props or even video screens. The set list will change wildly from night to night. Most incredibly, he’s going to skip nearly all of his parody songs, centering the show instead around his long catalog of original (though still highly comedic) tunes, many of which have never been played in concert. We phoned up Weird Al at his Los Angeles house to learn more about this bold adventure.
How did you get the idea for this tour?
It was sort of an epiphany near the very end of the last tour. I think I was in the middle of putting on my “Fat” suit for the thousandth time and getting ready to go back onstage. I was thinking, “Gosh, next time I go on tour I don’t know if I want to be doing this. I think I need to take a break from all the theatrics. Wouldn’t it be nice to just do a really scaled down, low-key, casual show for the hardcore fans and just go out and be musicians?”
I just thought, “Well, that’s pretty unrealistic. I don’t know if that would ever be able to happen in reality.” But the more I thought about it, the more I thought, “Why not?” I’m at a point in my life and career where I can do whatever I feel like doing, regardless of whether it’s commercial, or whether it’s something people actually want to go see. I know this tour is going to be held in high regard by the hardcore fans, but more than anything, this is for me and the guys in the band because this is a tour that we’re going to really enjoy doing.
Did you get a lot of pushback from your manager and agent when you told them you wanted to do this?
They were kinda of like, “OK … yeah … sure … that could work.” Then I got a little pushback and they were like, “Well, you gotta sprinkle some parodies in the show.” And I was like, “No, that’s not the idea. That’s not the point of the show.” So once they found out I was really serious about it, about doing it my way … I think they were still a little skeptical, but ultimately I think they trust my judgement. They’re letting me do what I want to do.
Are you worried that no matter what you say and write in advance, a certain percent of the audience will still show up expecting to see a regular show?
Yeah. I mean, that’s always going to happen. I think I put it out there as much as I possibly could what the show is going to be. I think an extremely low percentage of people will come expecting to hear all the hits. There’s never a hundred percent success when you try something new. I’m sure some people will probably walk out in disgust because they didn’t hear their favorite hit parody, but I’m doing everything I can to make sure people don’t have buyer’s remorse.
Are you going to do style parodies or only pure originals?
Here’s a good way to determine what I’m considering an original: If I get sole songwriting credit on the song, that means it’s an original. That includes any kind of pastiches or style parodies or anything like that.
You say that you mostly won’t be playing any parodies. Does that mean you’ll be doing some?
I don’t want to give away any surprises. Near the end of the set, there might be a couple of things that we throw in that aren’t originals. We might throw them in as a little surprise treat. In the first 75 minutes, at least, there are going to be nothing but originals, so people need to be emotionally prepared for that.
How much do you think it’s going to change between from show to show?
A lot. In cities where we’re doing two nights back to back, it’s going to be an almost entirely different show between the two nights. We’re got over three hours of material, easily, that we’re rehearsing. We’re trying to learn 50 or 60 songs, so we have a pretty deep catalog to choose from. Usually I don’t encourage tour chasers. I tell them, “I’m glad you enjoy it, but it’s literally the same show every single night.” But on this tour, if you go to any two shows, they will be different. Again, if you go to two shows in the same city, it’ll be very different.
It truly is the polar opposite of everything you’ve ever done with a tour.
Yeah. This is a very, very different tour than what I’ve done before. As I said, it’s a little out of my wheelhouse because I am a guy who likes to have everything planned. I like structure. I like to be able to fall into rhythms and get my muscle memory happening so that I don’t need to think about what’s coming next. For this tour, I really have to be more in the moment because the setlist changes literally every single night. I want to talk to the audience and be more casual and friendly, because in my normal show, it’s basically song, video, song, video. It’s non-stop and there’s very little time to take a breath and check in with the audience or tell a story if I feel like it. I’m just going to have to relax because this is a whole different kind of energy than every tour I’ve done in the past. This is not a high-energy show, this is kind of like a “hanging out with your friends in a living room” kind of show.
Are you going to be seated?
That’s the idea. I mean, we’ll see how it goes, but right now I’m thinking we’ll all be on stools and hanging out.
It certainly won’t be as physically draining as your other shows.
Yeah, this is going to be the “not work up much of a sweat” tour. I’m a little bit concerned about my voice, though. I’m used to having several breaks during the evening to rest my voice while I’m doing my costume change. This is going to be 90 solid minutes of singing and talking. That’s going to be a little more taxing on my voice, but I’m sure I’ll figure it out.
How shocked was your band when you told them the plan for the tour?
They’re such good sports, pretty much literally anything I wanted to do they’d say, “Yeah, that sounds good to us.” I think they’re excited about this. They’ll really be able to show off their chops. I think the fans have always known the incredible musicianship in my band, but this tour they’ll definitely be featured, and it’ll be really nice for them to step out and show that they’re world class players.
What sort of feedback have you gotten from fans about this?
It’s been extremely positive. Every now and then I’ll see something on social media like, “Oh, gosh, I was going to take my seven-year-old to the tour, and this isn’t the show that I think he’d want to see because there’s no costumes and production.” But overwhelmingly, I’m hearing from the hardcore fans that, as I predicted, had been waiting decades for this kind of show, and they’re getting the opportunity to hear some deep cuts and some obscure tracks that they probably thought they’d never get to hear live. I don’t know how that’s going to translate into ticket sales, but the response has been extremely enthusiastic.
Are you going to play “Albuquerque?”
I think that’s pretty much guaranteed. Again, not every show. I’m trying to mix it up. I actually have a little chart that I made. This is me; this is how methodical I am. Every song that we’re rehearsing, I’ve attached a number value to it. “We’re going to play this song 80 percent of the shows, this song at 40 percent of the shows, this song at 20 percent of the shows.” And then I’ll kind of mix it up, change the order every night and just make the shows, from city to city, as different as they can possible be.
So no song is too obscure, whether it’s “Airline Amy,” “Gotta Boogie” or “Cable TV” …
Anything is fair game. If we don’t play an original song, it’s either because it’s too difficult to pull off live and there are a few I feel like without backing tracks or any kind of trickery, they’d be hard to pull off in an acceptable manner. Others, we’ve played a lot in the past, so they wouldn’t be fresh and novel, or they’re just not my favorite. That still leaves quite a few songs that we get to choose from.
Can you name one song that’s just too complicated to play live?
Unfortunately, “Hardware Store.” That’s a big fan favorite and I’m sure everyone would love for me to do that live, but that was hard enough to do in the studio, and it would be near impossible to pull off live.
Why did you decide to bring Emo Phillips out as your opening act?
Normally, my shows are over two hours long, and because this one is going to be literally us playing on stage without any kind of breaks, I thought 90 minutes would be more of a human length. Also, we didn’t want to burst anyone’s bladder. So I thought, “OK, we should have an opening act.” In the past, when we had an opening act, we would rely on local promoters to provide a local stand-up comedian. Sometimes they’d be great, sometimes they’d be not so great, and sometimes they’d be completely inappropriate. I thought I could travel with somebody, and my very first choice was Emo. He’s one of my oldest friends, and I also happen to think he’s one of the funniest guys in the world. I know that my fans love Emo from his appearance in UHF and also because he’s Emo. He’s an icon.
Do you think the next tour will be back to the old format?
It will be … something, yet again, different. I have an idea for what the next tour is going to be after this. I’m not a liberty to say, but it will be, yet again, something different.
Getting back to what you said about the “Fat” suit and feeling like it was time for a change, did you just get sick of singing the same hits night after night?
I didn’t get sick of anything. If the audience is into it, it doesn’t get old for me. I still love playing “Amish Paradise” because the crowd goes nuts every time I walk out onstage. If I walk onto the stage and people are checking their Twitter feed while we’re playing, I think, “OK, maybe I won’t do this song on the next tour.”
Are you thinking of selling downloads of the shows since every one will be a unique event?
Somebody brought that up to us very recently. I can’t really answer that right now. I’d say probably not, but it has not been ruled out, so I guess we’ll have to see.
Are you going to tape the shows?
For my own personal archive, yeah.
Moving on from the tour, do you still say that you’re done making albums and just want to release singles?
That still seems to be the plan. I haven’t been super proactive with coming up with new material. Part of that is laziness and part of it is because I’ve had other things I’m working on. But regardless, I don’t think I’m going to be doing any more studio albums. It just doesn’t feel like the right direction for me. I like the flexibility and the freedom of just being able to put out songs as soon as I create them, instead of waiting until I have a dozen of them and then release them all at once. There’s pros and cons to that. Albums are real events and you can center a lot of promotion and excitement around events. It’s harder when you’re just releasing material in drips and drabs. This feels very ironic coming off a Number One album, but I just don’t feel like albums are the best way for me to get my stuff out there anymore.
Have you been reading the song-by-song breakdown of your entire catalog on Nathan Rabin’s website?
I am, yeah. Nathan’s an old friend and, or course, he co-wrote the book about me. I certainly appreciate his fandom. I’ve been reading those reviews every time he puts one out. It’s great that somebody who is so well spoken and such a fan gets to write in-depth reviews of every song in my catalog.
Did doing Comedy Bang! Bang! give you the TV bug again?
I loved doing Comedy Bang! Bang! so much that as soon as it ended I was like, “I want to do more sketch comedy, like a sketch comedy show.” But those are kind of hard to sell, so I’m not going to hold my breath for that happening. Also, I’m not an improv guy at all. Anything that’s not rehearsed and scripted makes me a bit nervous, but doing that show, where there’s a lot of improv, got me more comfortable doing a show where I go along with the flow. It’s part of a lifelong process to get me to loosen up a bit.
Do you see any timeline for when fans can expect to hear your next parody song?
I’ve got no timeline in terms of writing, which is maybe not a great thing because I work better with a looming deadline. I can’t tell you when any material is coming out. Inspiration could strike tomorrow and I might have something out next month. There’s no plan. It’s just going to be whenever it winds up being.
You have real freedom now now that you don’t have a record contract.
It’s nice to be able to do what I want and not feel beholden to anybody. My record label was very nice and offered me a pretty lucrative contract to re-sign with them when the contract ran out. It was tempting, but ultimately I just appreciated the freedom of not owing anybody anything, not feeling like I had to do something.
It’s hard to think of another artist that has had the same manager and the exact same band for their entire career.
I’ve been very lucky. I work with extremely talented and very nice, down-to-earth people. We’re a little family. Not many people are that lucky.