The Sonic Detective Speaks Out

Jim “Kimo” West on working with “Weird Al” Yankovic

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Most music artists only dream of reaching the top of the charts, and for good reason—it’s an impressive and unlikely achievement. It’s even more unlikely to top the charts three decades into a music career. But after many years of playing together, guitarist Jim “Kimo” West and “Weird Al” Yankovic did just that. Yankovic’s latest album, Mandatory Fun, debuted at the top of the Billboard album chart—the first comedy album to reach number one since 1963. The secret behind the success? Keeping the music, marketing approach—and studio techniques—fresh.

Since his first comedy song aired in 1976, Yankovic has carved out a successful, albeit unorthodox, music career. He’s recorded more than 150 parody and original songs, sold more than 12 million albums, and earned three Grammy Awards. And from the beginning, guitarist and multi-instrumentalist Jim “Kimo” West has been Yankovic’s close collaborator, helping to accurately recreate the sounds and arrangements on the songs that Yankovic parodies.

The Musical Renaissance Man

West has never been one to take the easy road. A self-taught musician with no music lessons or training, West has forged his highly successful musical career by staying on the cutting edge of music and audio technology. After teaching himself to play his brother’s acoustic guitar when he was 12 years old, West absorbed his musical knowledge by playing with other musicians in bands, reading books, and even watching bands on TV. He also learned how to operate recording equipment at a young age.

“I’ve always had a studio, and I was there at the beginning of MIDI production when people started using computers to create music,” West explains. “I’ve worked as a composer for television and film, and in that world you’ve got to be savvy with technology.”

After moving from Florida to Los Angeles, West joined Yankovic’s band in 1982, just as the songwriter was beginning his career. Initially, West says the idea of playing with a singing accordion player sounded a little strange.

“I remember getting a call and someone saying, ‘I have this guy who has some gigs—he plays accordion.’ I was like ‘What?’ But he had a gig and was paying, so I agreed. He was putting the band together when he got his first big record deal, and I was there from the beginning.”

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As a guitar player, West is skilled in a variety of playing styles. In the mid eighties, West took a trip to Hawaii where he was exposed to slack-key guitar, a style of playing that involves fingerpicking and open tunings. West became enamored with the style, and eventually began composing his own slack-key guitar songs. He’s released four solo albums since 1999, and says that performing and recording his own music has become a second career.

“With Al, I get to play the electric guitar, and it still feels really natural—I love to rock! Slack-key guitar thing is something I can do by myself. It’s a very freeing thing.”

Becoming the Sonic Detective

When creating a parody, Yankovic likes to reproduce the original music as faithfully as possible—he never overdubs his lyrics over the original recordings. Along with his lyrics, Yankovic views recreating the tracks as part of his art form. Initially, West only played guitar, but as Yankovic started exploring different genres such as hip hop and pop, he began playing synth and programming the electronic sounds on the tracks.

“He leans on me to do most of the synth programming,” West remarks. “I wouldn’t call myself a sound designer, but by default I’ve figured out how to twiddle knobs and parameters on synths to approximate a sound.”

West says most of the work comes from trying to figure out a wide and complex range of sounds, so he often reaches out to the original artist for advice—and gets no response. In the past, this meant the band had to spend weeks in a recording studio to get the right sounds.

“When we do parodies, I spend hours just trying to tweak sounds and figure out the components of a synth sound,” West relates. “You spend a lot of time in headphones just trying to pick the parts out. It’s like being a sonic detective.”

Staying On the Cutting Edge

Instead of continuing to record with traditional studio methods, the band constantly embraces the latest technology to keep the process and sound fresh. Once Al decides on the tempo and a basic template for the track, the band members record their parts separately and at home. This approach not only allows the band to produce the record much more economically, but also lets them take the time to experiment—which produces better and more creative results.

“I end up doing a lot of tracking in my studio, which is really good because I don’t feel like I’m on the clock,” relates West. “I can take my time and Al doesn’t have to pay for the studio time. The drummer and I come in with our hard drives and five minutes later the whole track is playing. And then Al can record his vocal.”

As he’s done throughout his career, West is constantly on the lookout for fresh and innovative audio technology. One of West’s favorite tools is Ozone by iZotope, which he uses on almost everything—from mastering his final mixes to fattening up individual tracks.

“I use Ozone for any film or TV work, or anything that I’m doing entirely in my studio,” West shares. “For example, I’m using Spectrasonics Omnisphere and when I have a track I really like, I’ll use Ozone and pick just one module—a compressor or something from the Ozone package. Then I’ll pick one or two modules as opposed to a whole chain, just to pump the sound, take it over the top, and make it as fat as possible. And once a final mix is approved, I always pump it up with Ozone.”

West also uses iZotope’s Iris to create fresh and innovative sounds, which he says is especially useful for creating soundtracks and film scores.

“Iris is great on any kind of cinematic film music where you want a sound that’s unidentifiable—you can make your own unique sounds that nobody else has,” enthuses West. “I can feed an acoustic guitar into Iris and mutate it beyond anything that sounds like a guitar. I’m blown away with what Iris can do.”

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A Music Marketing Revolution

The recent success of Mandatory Fun was no accident. Yankovic thought up an innovative idea for promoting the album before it was released—release eight music videos over eight consecutive days. When his record label wouldn’t provide the production budget, Yankovic partnered with a variety of websites to produce and release the videos, including The Wall Street Journal, Yahoo!, Nerdist, College Humor, and YouTube.

Each site had its own built-in audience, which helped Yankovic reach a huge and diverse range of viewers. The result? The video campaign went viral. Thanks to the buzz the videos generated,Mandatory Fun went number one on Amazon during presale. And when the album was released, it sold 104,000 copies in its first week, propelling it straight to the top of the charts.

“I knew it was going to be a good record, but I don’t think any of us expected it to go so viral,” West says. “Al called me the night before the official numbers were released and told me that the album was number one. He thought it was hilarious that business magazines were interviewing him about his marketing strategy, but he’s obviously very Net savvy.”

Keeping the Music Fresh

The album features parodies of songs by some of today’s most successful artists, including Pharrell, Robin Thicke, and Lorde. By staying current and up to date with pop culture, Yankovic has been able to regenerate his audience throughout his career. West says that if you come to one of Al’s concerts, you’ll see three different generations of fans—teenagers, adults, and even young kids who are excited about a parody of a current hit.

“He’s outlasted pretty much everyone he’s done parodies of,” West states. “He’s had longevity that no one else could have done. He’s a fun guy and he’s smart—everybody loves Al.”

Throughout their careers, West and Yankovic have taken a fresh approach to every aspect of the creative process, and with such a rich history of experimentation and innovation, they’re poised to stay relevant for years to come. There’s only one remaining question for music fans—what will they do next?

Learn more about Jim “Kimo” West and “Weird” Al.

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