'Weird Al' Yankovic On Pulling Off His 'Most Overblown Production Ever'

Weird Al
Tracy May

Weird Al performs during the Strings Attached tour.

“Weird Al” Yankovic’s Strings Attached tour has been billed as his “most elaborate and extravagant” yet, and that looks to be a gross understatement. You’d better believe there are zany costumes, elaborate props, and, oh yeah, a different orchestra each night. As the Grammy-winning humorist sums it up: “You just have to be there.”

The tour is well underway, but there are plenty of chances left for fans to witness him performing all of the hits -- "White & Nerdy," "Amish Paradise” and "Smells Like Nirvana" are all in the rotation -- plus newer favorites like "Word Crimes" and "Tacky.”

Ahead of “Weird Al” Yankovic's performance with the Queens Symphony Orchestra at the historic Forest Hills Stadium in Queens, NY on July 20, Billboard caught up with the multi-hyphenate to talk all things touring, and what it takes to continuously pull off such a massive production.

How's the tour going so far?

Great! We're about a month into it and we're having a great time. The orchestra's sounding fantastic. It's a great sounding show. It's pretty amazing to be onstage with dozens of people. 

Where did the idea to perform with strings come from?

I did two nights at the Hollywood Bowl in 2016. The Bowl invited me to play with their orchestra and that's an offer you don't turn down. I was there with the 85-piece Hollywood Bowl Orchestra and it was almost a religious experience -- I couldn't even describe the feeling. When I did the Star Wars songs, I felt like I was inside the movie. You hear the Star Wars theme and you're kind of transported. It was such an experience that I talked to my manager afterwards and said, "Hey, if there's any possible way we can put together a whole tour like this, it would be amazing." I don't know how we did it, but we actually managed to put it together.

You’ve been doing a sort of Star Wars-themed encore, which is cool.

I hate to be tied to anything or be too predictable, but my Star Wars songs ["The Saga Begins" and "Yoda"] are two of my biggest fan favorites. The encore seemed like the best place to do it, because it's kind of a showstopper and hard to come back after that because I bring the members of the 501st Legion onstage. I've got the Stormtroopers and Darth Vader, and it becomes a huge thing -- anything after that feels like a little bit of a letdown. 

Tracy May
Weird Al performs during the Strings Attached tour.

That’s quite a crowd. I’m guessing there also has to be some pretty complicated logistics involved, to perform with a different orchestra every night?

Yeah, there is. Thankfully, I'm not the one putting all the orchestras together and making all the phone calls. [Laughs.] I'm not doing the heavy lifting on that. But it's a lot of work and effort to make it happen. We're playing with a different orchestra in pretty much every city, so there's a lot of people and moving pieces involved. Somehow it's all coming together.

You have such a massive catalog at this point. How was it narrowing it down which songs to perform?

It's always a challenge to put the setlist together. We had even a harder job this time because of union rules -- we’re only allowed to do 90 minutes with the orchestra. So we had to really tighten it up and figure out, “Okay, what are the fan favorites, what are the hits?” And on top of that, “What are the songs that I've always wanted to do with an orchestra?” We wanted to really accentuate the orchestra, because it's really unlikely to get to tour with one, so [I picked] the ones I've always wanted to do with a full orchestra. It's a nice mix of the big hits and some of the deeper cuts, and even a couple songs we've never played live before, because it would have been difficult or impossible to perform them without an orchestra. 

Do you have a favorite song to play right now?

This is not a big fan favorite, more of a deep cut, but I do an original, nine-minute song called "Jackson Park Express" [from 2014 album Mandatory Fun]. It’s fun to do because it tells a story, it's kind of emotional, it's very musical, there's a lot of tempo changes. It's just fun to perform.

What else have you gained out of the experience of performing with all of these different orchestras?

I've always had a healthy respect for orchestras, so it's something that I've immensely enjoyed. We'll see if I make any money on this tour, there's obviously a lot of overhead. [Laughs.] You'd think that [performing with an orchestra] would be a once-in-a-lifetime thing, but it's not. I'd certainly be open to revisiting it at some point down the line.

I’ll be interested to see how you could possibly top this tour!

Well, I like to mix it up. Last year, I did the Ridiculously Self-Indulgent, Ill-Advised Vanity tour and that was literally just me and a band walking out and sitting on stools and playing our instruments, without any costumes or props or big video screens. So I wanted to follow that up with my most overblown production ever; that’s what I'm doing right now. Every time I go out, I try to make it a little different or unusual or give fans something that they're not exactly expecting.

Have you seen a change in the age group coming out to your shows over the years?

Yeah, for the last decade or two, it's really been a multigenerational fanbase. I look out into the audience, and there's everyone from little kids to great grandparents, and they're all having a great time. On the Vanity tour, it was a little older audience, because I made it very clear we're catering to the long-term hardcore fans who have been waiting like 30 years for me to play this obscure deep cut from their favorite album. So that wasn't as much of a “big hits” show. But we're back to doing a show for everyone -- we're playing the hits, we're doing the big production. This is meant to be something that hopefully everybody can enjoy, so again we're seeing the families and the kids and every imaginable demographic. 

If budget were no issue, what sort of show would you love to pull off one day?

Sometimes I think about shows where I'm suspended on strings over the audience, but I've learned to never do any kind of thing where if it goes wrong once, you're dead.

That would be the Strings Definitely Attached tour.

Yeah. Strings maybe attached. Hopefully attached.

Last year, you did "The Hamilton Polka" and remixed "Feel It Still" by Portugal. The Man. It's so awesome to see you continue to experiment with every sound and genre, not that that’s a surprise.

That's a nice perk of my job is that I'm not limited to do any one specific thing. I'm not tied into doing a genre. If I step outside of my comfort zone, people don't say, "Hey, that's not the ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic I know!" because part of my job description is that I get to do everything, which is very fulfilling for me and my band. 

You also made an appearance in Weezer’s "Africa" video. I think we’re all waiting for the live accordion remix...

Oh, I know. Yeah, that was really fun and I've always been a big fan [of Weezer]. It was fun to be able to jump onstage with them at The Forum and it was a real kick to step into Rivers [Cuomo]’s shoes and actually fill in for him in that video. It was a very odd set of circumstances, but it was something that I enjoyed doing and the fans reacted very positively to it.

When I tweeted about it, I said something like, "Hey, I make a cameo appearance in the new Weezer video, see if you can spot me." And it's not until I'm doing like the really insane dance move where people are like, "Oh, wait a minute, that's Al [not Rivers].

Finally, can we expect any plans for a live album based on the Strings Attached Tour?

That was never really discussed. It seems at some point that would be something to document, but nobody's ever approached us about that. I think it's one of those tours where you just have to be there.