Photos courtesy of Stephen Jay and Jim West
“So this band I play with needs a guitarist. Are you interested? It’s for a guy named Al Yankovic.”
HOW IT ALL BEGAN
That’s what Stephen Jay told Jim West over three decades ago. They had been in bands together but had gone their separate ways. West was a guitarist in a few bands, trying to make it in the dog-eat-dog world of the music industry. Jay, a bassist, had recently moved to Los Angeles to audition for Frank Zappa, only to get spurned. Several months earlier, he had seen an ad in the newspaper about auditions for Yankovic’s band and got the job.
This was prior to “Weird Al” being the internationally known satirical musician, renowned for parody — basically an unknown.
“The guy with the accordion?” West asked. But then he asked the more important question: “Does he have gigs?”
That’s essentially how Stephen Jay and Jim “Kimo” West ended up playing in the same band again. They’ll perform in Des Moines Saturday night on a stop of “Weird Al” Yankovic’s “Ridiculously Self-Indulgent, Ill-Advised Vanity Tour.” Then, on Sunday, the two will have their own show at Vaudeville Mews for their “Parallel Universe” tour.
The name of the tour could not be any more fitting. A parallel universe can be defined as “having certain similarities to the known world but different from it in some fundamental way.” And that is a lot like Jay and West.
INFLUENCES ON THE ROAD
They both spent many years in southern Florida, often in the same band. They are both original members of Yankovic’s band and have been touring with him for over 30 years. They are both master musicians capable of replicating any genre as part of the group. They both have exotic influences in their own music.
Jay has been voted as one of today’s top bassists. West is considered an expert at playing the slack key guitar. Having been interested in West African culture since childhood, Jay traveled across Europe and Africa, at one point working on a fishing boat in Iceland, and eventually learning traditional drumming in Niger. West went to Hawaii on a whim and fell in love with the islands’ unique style of playing guitar while staying in one of the most remote communities in the state.
The tour brings together their vastly different music from their most recent albums, “So Do I Sadie” by Jay and “Peaceful Island” by West. They will each perform songs from their albums while also performing several songs together.
“Sometimes, it’s like lyrics will drop down from heaven onto my lap. It’s like holy shit, I can’t change a word. It’s like I’m dictating for someone.” – Stephen Jay
“So Do I Sadie” is a collection of songs from Jay’s previous albums. Trying to define the genre of his songs, with roots in funk, rock, and jazz, is no easy task and leads to a unique listening experience. Jay’s lyrics are mystifying, weaving together with the rhythm to create bewitching harmonies. He often works from the bass up, jamming until he finds something that plants the seed for the lyrics and rest of the instruments to join. “Sometimes, it’s like lyrics will drop down from heaven onto my lap” Jay said. “It’s like holy shit, I can’t change a word. It’s like I’m dictating for someone.”
For West, lyrics take a back seat to his instrumental-only melodies. While he is known for his electric guitar riffs with Yankovic, West uses the acoustic slack key guitar for his own music. It is a unique fingerstyle originating in Hawaii with a characteristic open tuning. West tends to take a more outside-the-box approach with his music, but for “Peaceful Island“ he stuck with a more classical, relaxing sound. “I wanted to do something that takes you to another place,” West said. “You close your eyes and feel the trade winds, and feel like you are on the islands.”
While the pair has been performing in the same band together for decades, this is one of the first times you can see them perform their original songs together. They had each performed the occasional solo gig while touring with Yankovic before — but this time Jay Levey, Yankovic’s manager, suggested they do it right. Levey helped set them up with an agency and promotional company. The rest is history. “We were both hesitant, but Jay is a big fan of what we do and worked it out, and made us feel good about it,” West said. “Having an advocate with his experience is really nice.”
This isn’t the only new chapter in their music careers. This time around, Yankovic and his band have taken a different approach with their concerts. Rather than performing the pop culture parodies that Yankovic is known for, they are performing his original, non-parody music. Rather than an elaborate production with videos, effects and even costume changes such as Jedi robes or oversized cone bras when parodying Madonna, they take a more subdued approach playing for intimate venues and sitting on stools as though at a coffee shop. It’s more like watching some friends get together just being musicians, rather than a production. And while they are glad to be putting on a more low-key show, they know that sometimes the over-the-top has its place.
“It serves a purpose, and it brings a lot of joy to people,” Jay said. “But the Jedi robes got old — and the cone bra too.”
You can catch Jay and West Sunday night at 6 p.m.