Stephen Jay: Heading The Bass Dept.

A Bass Player sticking with the same band for 37 years is a rarity. Even rarer is a band that’s remained unchanged for that long. Since 1981, song-parody master “Weird Al” Yankovic has relied on the versatile talents of bassist Stephen Jay
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A Bass Player sticking with the same band for 37 years is a rarity. Even rarer is a band that’s remained unchanged for that long. Since 1981, song-parody master “Weird Al” Yankovic has relied on the versatile talents of bassist Stephen Jay, guitarist Jim “Kimo” West, drummer Jon “Bermuda” Schwartz, and keyboardist Rubén Valtierra for both recordings and stage work. “It’s pretty remarkable we’ve been together this long,” Jay marvels. “At first, it just seemed like a fun thing to do, but over the years we put out records and had hits, and we kept touring and developed a real audience. It’s gotten more fun with how big it’s gotten. I look out at the crowd and see the joy on people’s faces. Everybody forgets their day-to-day cares and has the best time imaginable. It sanctifies me every time.”

Elitists may scoff at the idea of playing song parodies for a living, but for Jay—who boasts a degree in composition from the University of South Florida and has logged stints with jazz legends Wayne Shorter and Hugh Masekela—the “Weird Al” gig offers a multitude of musical riches. “The variety of styles we cover is all over the map. That’s incredibly satisfying, because we switch gears on a dime, and for a musician, that’s extremely fun and challenging. Some bands stick to one kind of music through the whole set, night after night. With us it’s always changing, so you’ve got to stay on your toes.”

During off-nights on the current “Weird Al” Ridiculously Self-Indulgent Ill-Advised Vanity Tour, Jay and West have been moonlighting with their own show, the Parallel Universe Tour, in which they perform selections from their solo albums. (Jay’s latest release is So Do I Sadie, a compilation of his 14 discs.) “I’ve got the best of both words,” Jay enthuses. “Between all the music we do with Al, and everything that Jim and I get to play on our own tour, it’s a lot of great material. The idea for our tour came from Al’s manager, Jay Leavey. He said, ‘Why don’t you guys do your own tour? Al will pay for the travel and hotel rooms—we’ll get your gigs.’ How great is that? Believe me, I don’t take for granted how fortunate I am. I love what I do.”

You’re primarily a fingerstyle player, right?

Most of the time. I use a pick on some songs if the original bass player used a pick. Other than that, I prefer my fingers. I’ve always loved grabbing the strings and getting underneath them with my hands. It’s funny, though: When I was about three years old, I busted a glass bottle and it slashed through the palm of my right hand, severing the tendon to my index finger. The doctor didn’t do a very good job of sewing it back up, so I don’t have the full use of that finger. It works out okay when I’m plucking, but I can’t bend it up fully when I’m slapping. When I slap, I extend my index finger straight and I curl my other three fingers, and then I kind of rotate my forearm at the elbow to create a sort of rotational axle. What’s interesting is, my son Miles, who has no disability with his index finger, adopted the same style for funk and slap.

Before the “Weird Al” gig, you auditioned for Frank Zappa. What’s the story there?

Frank and Steve Vai came to a gig I was playing in Tampa. Afterward, I went over and told Frank how much I loved his guitar playing, and he said, “This is the best-sounding band I’ve ever heard.” He actually said that, and Steve Vai’s jaw dropped. Later on, Steve told me, “Frank never says things like that.” Two weeks later, I got a call from Frank. He asked me how soon I could be in L.A. I said, “I can be there this week.” Like, “Are you kidding?” Once I got to his studio, he pulled out a piece of music and said, “Play this.” It was the “Black Page,” which is this famous, impossible piece of music. It’s designed to be a beautiful thing to look it, but in terms of sight-reading … oh, boy. I was a composition major, so I said, “If you give me a few minutes, maybe I can work this out. But I really thought you wanted to hear me play.” Frank said, “Well, we really don’t have time. I guess you’ll just hold us back, so, see ya.” I was stunned. I drove on Ventura Boulevard and called my wife in tears. I couldn’t believe that this had happened. But things ultimately worked out: Frank got me out to L.A., and that opened a lot of doors for me. I should add that I got to know Dweezil Zappa a little after his father passed on, and he told me that his dad had been following my career and that he was really proud of what I did. So, that was very consoling.

You got the job with “Weird Al” from answering an ad in the newspaper.

That’s right. In Al’s ad, he said he wanted to form a band to play the Roxy—that was one place I had never played. I went down and I got the gig. I didn’t know how long it would last, but it was fun and everybody in the band was great. I wasn’t an elitist about anything. I had a wife and a young son, so I would play anything for anyone who would pay me. I was very happy to have the gig.

How does Al work with you and the rest of the band?

He’s very hands-off. It’s like each of us is the head of our own department, and I’m the bass department. He tells us what we’re going to parody, and he expects us to study and come up with the right stuff. When I study a song for a parody, I study not only the notes but also the bassist’s idiosyncrasies. I also try to zero in on what kind of instrument he’s using and what kind of tone he’s getting. If it’s a synthesizer bass, I play it on a synthesizer.

How has your bass solo in the “Weird Al” show evolved? At first you were simply striking rock-star poses.

Yeah, that was fun and silly. At first, Al said, “Just don’t do anything that sounds good. You’re supposed to make a fool of yourself. This is a comedy show.” So that’s what I did, and it was great, but having done it for so many years, we’ve all taken liberties. Now I’ll play famous little bass intros from songs that people recognize, like the beginning of the Animals’ “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” or [Queen/David Bowie’s] “Under Pressure.” That’s more fun than just falling on my face.

What are the main basses you use with “Weird Al”?

I’ve got a bunch of Dean basses; these days I’m using the Edge bass—it’s a neck-through model that’s extremely versatile and playable. I also use an Alembic Stanley Clarke model. That one sounds so pretty. But what I really love is the Dean Resonator bass. It plays like a tenor guitar, but it’s for bass players, so you can play chords that’ll sound good. It’s so charming. And here’s something I’m really excited about: Evan Rubinson at Dean Guitars has decided to release a Stephen Jay signature model, and it’s going to be a Resonator. That’s about as cool as it gets!

What about your rig?

It’s fairly simple. I’m a Mesa/Boogie guy; I use the Subway D-800 head. I was using the Big Block 750 head for many years, but the Subway blew me away. I use two Boogie 4x10 Road-Ready cabinets—they don’t make them anymore, but I love ’em. Because I have to try to emulate the sounds of so many bassists, I need to use effects, and I really like the Boss ME-50B. It has everything I need.

Have there been any bass parts or sounds you haven’t been able to replicate?

Not really. Sometimes I have to think, “Okay, what are they doing here?” I did a synth-bass part for “Another Tattoo,” which is a parody of “Nothin’ on You” by B.o.B. and Bruno Mars. That part is absolutely amazing, but it’s very simple. The way they cut it apart and recombined it—it sounds like it’s doing the same thing over and over, but it’s not. I had to figure out how to get that one right. Other than that, nothing’s stumped me yet.

INFO

LISTEN

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Stephen Jay, So Do I Sadie [2018, Ayarou], Spontaneous Symmetry [2017, Ayarou], E Natural 7 [2016, Ayarou]

EQUIP

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Basses Dean Edge bass, Dean Resonator bass, Alembic Stanley Clarke model
Amps Mesa/Boogie Subway D-800 head, two Mesa/Boogie 4x10 Road-Ready cabinets
Effects Boss ME-50B Bass Multiple Effects
Strings Dean Markley signature series (.048, .067, .086, .106)
Picks Dunlop .74 mm.

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