As longtime members of “Weird Al” Yankovic’s band, Stephen Jay and Jim “Kimo” West are musical chameleons, disappearing into whatever style happens to be called for: rock, pop, hip-hop, country, polka. But in their solo careers, both men have carved out deeply personal, deeply idiosyncratic musical identities. Jay has released nearly a dozen solo albums of self-described “exotic funk bass” music, while West has become a master of the Hawaiian slack-key guitar. Those two disparate styles will be on display Wednesday, April 11, when Jay and West take a quick break from Yankovic’s Ridiculously Self-Indulgent, Ill-Advised Vanity Tour and bring their Parallel Universe Tour to Milwaukee’s Shank Hall.
“Al’s manager, Jay Levey, had this idea last year of the two of us doing a tour on the off nights,” West says. “At first we were kind of like, ‘We don’t know, we’re not sure.’ But he was really into it and thought it would be a good idea.”
Though Jay and West have booked occasional “off-night” solo shows in the past, this is the first time those shows are being packaged and promoted as a tour. “Having [Levey] on board as an advocate for us has been quite valuable,” West says.
The Parallel Universe Tour finds the two musicians playing selections from their extensive back catalogs. Jay’s latest album, So Do I Sadie, is a curated collection of tracks from his previous 10 records. The album’s title is indicative of its gentle romanticism.
“One day I was noticing how enjoyable it is just to agree with someone,” Jay says. “The simple pleasure when someone says, ‘I really like this soup,’ and you say, ‘So do I.’ Most of the time you don’t notice it, but it’s a real joy to be able to do that. [This album] is a celebration of the joy of being in agreement.”
West’s latest album, Moku Maluhia: Peaceful Island, is a tribute to a fallen friend.
“It’s dedicated to a dear friend who we lost last year, my friend Kapo Ku,” West says. “He was a great musician and teacher of Hawaiian culture. We played a lot of music together and I produced a couple of his records. He was always looking for peace. I put together this collection of very peaceful slack-key. Some of my other slack-key records have some really chilled-out stuff and then some more up-tempo and fun stuff. This one is really all about taking you to that peaceful island.”
Both Jay and West have been playing with Yankovic since the beginning. Their partnership, however, stretches back even further.
“Jim and I played in lots and lots of bands in Florida, from about 1975 on,” Jay says. “The last band we were in was a house band in a big club called Robiconti’s in Tampa. It was like the Studio 54 of Florida.”
Following a chance encounter with Frank Zappa at Robiconti’s (“He said, ‘This is the best sounding band I’ve ever heard!'”), Jay accepted an invitation from the legendary musician and moved to Los Angeles. It wasn’t long before he joined Yankovic’s band.
“I went down there, did the audition, and got the gig,” he says. “We recorded the first album [1983’s “Weird Al” Yankovic] with Rick Derringer on guitar. We needed a guitarist to play live with us, so I called Jim West. He came out to L.A., joined the band, and jumped on with the second album [1984’s “Weird Al” Yankovic In 3-D].”
For West, his interest in Hawaiian slack-key guitar (a finger-picked, open-tuned style of guitar) was sparked not long after.
“When I first came to Hawaii in 1985, the family I was staying with had a lot of records of slack-key and Hawaiian music,” he says. “I thought that sound sounded really like the place. It felt like the music was coming right out of the earth. I always loved it, but I never really tried to play it. I was just a fan of it. And then, one day in the early ’90s, I had a really good friend who had come to visit me in Hawaii. And when I returned to L.A. I got this call that he had passed away. It was a shock to me. We were such good friends. I just sort of sat down to console myself. I started playing guitar, and I wrote a slack-key song. [“A Lei For James,” from 1999’s Coconut Hat.] It just kind of came out.
“Obviously, my slack-key career is completely different from what Al does,” West adds. “Other than maybe the Hawaiian shirt being involved in both of them.”
Jay, too, finds an unlikely unifying theme between his solo work and his work with Yankovic.
“Aside from the musical specifics of world music that I’ve learned, there’s a basic philosophy at the core of it,” he says. “When I was just a kid, 21 or so, my wife and I moved to West Africa. After traveling around for a while, we settled in Niamey, the capitol of Niger. I met a master drummer named Isah Hamani. I wanted to play drums, so I went around the village asking where I could buy a drum. Everyone I asked looked at me in astonishment, like I was the rudest, crudest, most insensitive person they ever heard. Later on I found out that was because in traditional African society, musical instruments were never bought or sold. In fact, they’re regarded as living beings, no different than us, except for the fact that when we play them we animate them, just like something picks us up and animates us. It’s a beautiful philosophy.
“That philosophy carries over to everything I do, no matter who I’m playing with, whether it’s Al or anybody else,” Jay continues. “It’s still the same deal: music calls me, it needs me, and I’m happy to help it.”
Describing themselves as “ancient musical bros” (“We’ve been playing together for so long, the psychic connection is just sublime. Jim makes a move, I feel it,” says Jay), Jay and West are happy to be sharing their disparate styles and influences via the Parallel Universe Tour.
“Steve and I have completely different kind of projects, so we have our own parallel universe within the Parallel Universe Tour,” West laughs. “People are getting a real variety of music in the show.”
And what about the strain of playing a “parallel” tour alongside an already hectic Weird Al tour? For Jay, it’s no strain at at.
“It’s not work, it’s fun,” he says. “It’s twice the fun. It’s like telling a kid, ‘Playing in that sandbox seems like a lot of work.’ It’s not. I get energy from playing music. It’s better than sleeping.”
Stephen Jay and Jim “Kimo” West will bring their Parallel Universe Tour to Shank Hall Wednesday, April 11—one day after the final Weird Al show at Pabst Theater. The show starts at 8 p.m. Tickets are $15.