The keyboard instrument you’re most associated with is the accordion. When did you first pick it up, and what inspired you?
I started taking lessons when I was around seven years old. I’m pretty sure my parents made that life-altering decision for me—I guess they just figured I’d be the life of any party if I knew how to play the accordion!
Onstage for segments such as the polka medleys, do you use an acoustic accordion or a MIDI sound source such as the Roland V-Accordion?
We used a MIDI accordion a bit on the last tour. My front-of-house guy loved it because it output such a clean signal and there were never any feedback issues. But for this current tour we’re back to using the vintage acoustic accordions—sometimes it’s just nice to rock it old-school.
Parody is largely considered protected speech under the First Amendment. Nonetheless, is there a process you go through to get the original artists’ blessings?
Yes, I always get permission from the original songwriters. Usually my manager will hammer out the details with their manager. Even though I can most likely “get away with” not asking, I’ve never gone down that road. I don’t want any drama or ill will with other artists. I value my relationships with other people in the industry, and I always want them to feel like they’re in on the joke.
Are your song selections strictly about numbers and popularity, or does a tune also have to speak to you musically in some way?
The only two critical things are, is it a popular song, and can I come up with something really clever or funny to do with it? It’s a plus if I personally like the song, and I don’t think I’ve ever parodied a song that I’ve actively disliked, but the only real criteria are popularity and concept.
You’ve also written original songs in the style of an artist. Do you sit at the keyboard or with a guitar and write? Is it a solo process or more of a collaboration with the band?
I write the original songs by myself, usually on a keyboard. After I make a demo for the pastiche, I’ll send it to the bandmembers along with a dozen or so examples of the artist’s work, so that they can add their own subtle touches and attempt to match the style as closely as possible.
What keyboard or synth gear, if any, do you have at home?
I have Kurzweil, Yamaha, and Casio keyboards in my home studio, and I use them with [MOTU] Digital Performer to make all my demos.
What do you like best about working with Rubén Valtierra?
He works cheap. He’s also one of the best keyboard players in the world. But mostly, did I mention he works cheap?
Is there a musical “Serious Al” you’d like to share with audiences someday?
I think there are enough people in the world already that do “unfunny” music. I like my niche, and I like to think that over the years I’ve gotten pretty good at it. I’m certainly capable of writing pieces that aren’t inherently funny, and I wouldn’t rule that out—but it’s not some kind of burning desire.
The Mandatory World Tour has been one of your most ambitious ever in terms of its length and being densely packed with dates, and you seem to be putting out mega-joules of energy every night. How do you stay healthy and focused on the road?
It’s horrible to lose your voice in the middle of a tour, so I try not to exert my voice if I don’t need to. I try not to even talk if I can help it—I spend a lot of time on the bus surfing the Internet and watching TV.
Also, I make a real effort to stay out of air conditioning and smoky rooms. When I was touring in my 20s, I’d go clubbing with the band almost every night, but in my 50s, I find that I need to lead a more monk-like existence. Of course, what works for me might not be ideal for anybody else, but personally I find it’s best to be well-rested and save every ounce of my energy for the stage.