I am already flattered to head to the United States. I am going to Florida next week to see five additional shows of the Weird Al Yankovic The Unfortunate Return of the Ridiculously Self-Indulgent Ill-Advised Vanity Tour. (Almost) no cover songs, a new list of songs every night. I already loved my short trip to the tour’s first three dates in April.
Jon “Bermuda” Schwartz is the drummer of Weird Al Yankovic since very early stages of his career. However, since that time in 1980, he is not only leading the rhythmic part of the band, but also some sort of “archivist”: Bermuda owns tons of pictures and videos of all the years working and touring with the five-time Grammy Award winner. After a first photo book, Black & White & Weird All Over: The Lost Photographs of “Weird Al” Yankovic ’83 – ’86, Schwarz is about to release a new set of illustrations and stories about the remarkable career and collaboration: Lights, Camera, Accordion!: Eye-Popping Photographs of “Weird Al” Yankovic, 1981–2006 will be available from 15th November 2022. I felt gifted to have a chat with Jon about touring with Al – and the new book.
Flyctory.com meets Jon “Bermuda” Schwartz
FLYC: Jon, in 1980, you ran into a guy named Alfred Matthew Yankovic. What would have been your life alike if his wouldn’t have happened – or you declined to join his band?
Bermuda: I’m sure I’d still be playing drums, but I don’t know if I would have enjoyed the kind of success and longevity with a band that I’ve had with Al. I was in the right place at the right time that night and I’m glad we met.
FLYC: Would you have been more tempted to decline to join his band if you knew that you will still be his drummer 42 years later?
Bermuda: I don’t think it would have mattered. I certainly didn’t have any idea that there might be a lengthy future with Al, but I’m glad it has worked out!
FLYC: You are just about to finish a long tour with Al, lasting from April to October 2022. How easy was it for you to motivate being abroad for such a long time?
Bermuda: This tour has been our longest ever without any breaks, and we weren’t sure how we’d feel with so much time away from home. But with the end in sight, I realize how quickly the time has passed. It doesn’t seem like 6 months at all.
FLYC: An additional challenge to the The Unfortunate Return of the Ridiculously Self-Indulgent Ill-Advised Vanity Tour this year was Covid-19. Several band and crew members have been infected during the tour, some shows had to be postponed. How difficult has that been for you?
Bermuda: Fortunately the crew stayed ‘negative’ during the tour, but Al, Jim, Ruben and eventually I tested positive. There were no serious symptoms, but testing positive changed how the shows were handled, and when Al tested positive for Covid we did postpone four shows (they’ve been rescheduled for February, 2023.) When I tested positive, I had a drummer friend come in and play some shows. I felt bad that the band had to work with a drummer they hadn’t played with before, but he was prepared and did a great job. And no shows were cancelled so it all worked out.
FLYC: You were also ill and had to be replaced for a couple of shows. You learned for so many years to play the drums like drummers in other bands – but how difficult is it for other drummers to sound like Jon “Bermuda” Schwartz?
Bermuda: I’m not sure I have an identifiable sound, because it’s my job to sound like so many other drummers. But nothing I play is very difficult, the real challenge in doing the show lies with the arrangements and vocal cues from Al.
FLYC: The band’s guitar player, Jim “Kimo” West, even had to play some shows from outside the venue, being isolated in a small studio-alike scenery. How was that for you when someone was “missing” – and has that been an option for you as well?
Bermuda: It was surprisingly easy to play the show without being able to see Jim – or him being able to see us. When Ruben tested positive, we were able to do the shows without him or a substitute player. But by the time I tested positive in late-August, there was no longer a plan to have the player perform from an isolated place. A sub has to be called in.
FLYC: When Al is suggesting a new song, cover or original, is there something which makes it especially hard for you to get around with it as a drummer?
Bermuda: Most of the original songs are easy for me, but the parodies became increasingly challenging especially with advances in production and sound design. I learned to create sounds, and I think I became quite good at it. All of the drum and percussion parts on all of the albums are done by me, and I’m especially proud of my work on the parodies on the last several albums.
FLYC: On this tour (i.e. only originals) – and maybe in general as well, which are your favorite songs and least favorite songs of your repertoire?
Bermuda: They’re kind of all the same to me, because I like playing the drums. I guess if I had to pick my least favorite, it would be You Don’t Love Me Anymore. I don’t play drums on that.
FLYC: The reason why we do this interview also is that you are releasing a book with behind-the-scenes photos of Weird Al’s career. What did you make become the “photographer” and archivist of the band?
Bermuda: I had been taking photos since I was about 15, and always took a lot of pictures of the people around me, my bands, vacations, the dogs… everything! I also kept memorabilia of the things I did in school, with bands, etc. So by the time I met Al in 1980, I was already ‘documenting’ the events in my life and I did the same with him. Of course I didn’t know that the collection of photos and other materials would continue to grow, and that they might have some value to Al and the fans. I’m glad I kept everything, and I know Al’s glad as well.
FLYC: It is already the second photo book of you about your band life. The first one was name Black & White & Weird – and has been a great success in 2020. How was it like for you two years ago, when you saw the pre-sales and sales figures of that first photo book?
Bermuda: Of course I was pleased to see the book sell so well, but the reaction from the fans was very satisfying as well – they loved it! The book is officially sold-out now, only a handful of copies remain with Amazon and some other sellers. I don’t know if there’ll be a re-print, or maybe it will be released on Kindle?
FLYC: Do you have a favorite story or picture in this book?
Bermuda: There are as many memories for me, and all of them are good! It’s impossible to pick one (or many) favorite shots, but Al deserves the credit for being so easily photographable. I just held the camera and pressed the shutter at the right time. I really enjoyed being able to give some information about the video shoots, such as locations and a little info about some of the people in the videos. I could have written a lot more, but we wanted to keep the text short to help feature the photos.
FLYC: One key difference between Black & White & Weird and the new book, Lights, Camera, Accordion is that your new book will have color photos. Why did you go for these ones this time?
Bermuda: The black and white photos were special because most of them had never been seen before. They were also shot in a fairly short period from 1983-86. But those were the only black and white shots of Al that I had taken, everything else was color and taken over a 25-year period. There were a LOT of great photos, and several of them have been seen online and in print, but not in the quality that they appear in the new book. Some of the photos are just stunning compared to previous versions that are out there. And of course there are a ton of photos that haven’t been seen before, so this book is a must-have for fans.
FLYC: The book will be a 250 page hardcover book. How did you select all the pictures in it? And how did you select a “dramaturgy” in which you want to order the pictures?
Bermuda: Obviously I wanted shots that were interesting, but it was a difficult process choosing a realistic number of shots. I was able to select about 800 photos, which was way more than we needed. But I still needed some help cutting that by more than half, so I sent them to Al, Jim, Steve, Ruben, and Al’s manager, hoping they could help eliminate some. They liked just about all of them, and the final count was 794, which didn’t help much. Fortunately, the publisher’s editor Shane Lewis helped narrow that down to just over 300, which was the number we were shooting for. Shane also decided on the order of the photos, which was somewhat by date, but mostly grouped by whatever was happening in each shot. I think he did a great job!
FLYC: This book is majorly focusing to the “early-to-middle” years of the Weird Al career and your band story. Does that mean that there are many photo books to come in the future?
Bermuda: There are certainly a lot of digital photos that cross over into the period of the book’s film photos, and include plenty of recent and current photos. There are more than enough for an additional book (or two!) but there hasn’t been any discussion about that yet.
FLYC: When you think of the 2022 tour, which picture would describe the tour best?
Bermuda: It’s hard to sum-up a tour in just one photo, but we usually take a group shot that includes everyone on the tour, and that’s always a great memory.
FLYC: Last, but not least: you finish the tour on 29th October 2022 at Carnegie Hall, New York City. Some three weeks later, your book will be released. What are you looking forward to most when all the work is done and you have some time to relax?
Bermuda: The holidays come up soon after I get home, so there’ll be preparation for gifts, cards, family get-togethers, etc. It will probably be two months later in January before I can really relax, but then we’re on tour again in February!
Drum pictures by Kamal Asar (Instagram: leftyphoto), picture with Weird Al: artist material. Lower picture: Flyctory.com
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