A Conversation With Longtime Weird Al Lead Guitarist: Jim ‘Kimo’ West

West, who was born in Toronto but spent much of his childhood in Ottawa, has been playing Weird Al for more than 40 years.

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When Weird Al Yankovic brings his Unfortunate Return of the Ridiculously Self-Indulgent Ill-advised Vanity Tour to the Meridian Theater in Centrepointe on July 30, it’ll be a not-so-ridiculous return to town for lead guitarist Jim “Kimo” West. .

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West, who was born in Toronto but spent much of his childhood in Ottawa, has been playing Weird Al for more than 40 years.

It’s Weird Al’s camp and craziness that draws attention, so it’s easy to miss the stellar musicianship that underpins his music. Pretty Fly for a Rabbi wouldn’t fly if it didn’t sound like it was The Offspring on stage.

West also has his own career as a virtuoso in the world of Hawaiian slack key guitar, the soft, traditional form of music in his adopted Hawaiian home (“Kimo” is the Hawaiian translation of James). In 2021, West’s album More Guitar Stories won a Grammy for Best New Age Album. Postmedia’s Blair Crawford met with West by Zoom at his second home in Los Angeles

Tell us about your connection to Ottawa.

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I lived there when I was very young. I was born in Toronto, but my family moved to Ottawa when I was only a year and a half old. And I lived in Ottawa until I was nine years old, when my family moved to Florida. It was a big change for me. Most of my friends, their families, went on vacation to Florida and I was moving there. But my older brother stayed in Ottawa, so his whole family is still there.

How does someone end up messing with Weird Al Yankovic?

When I got to Los Angeles I was playing in several different bands and doing everything I could to survive. Steve Jay, the bass player for Weird Al, had answered an ad for someone to play bass on Al’s first record. Then Al wanted to play some shows and needed a guitar player, so Steve recommended me for an audition.

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I didn’t really know who Al was, just some guy with an accordion. I said, ‘Does he have a job?’ and they said, ‘Yes. And they are also paying concerts. So I said, ‘Sure.’ A few days later, I got a call from Al and he was like, ‘You’re the one.’

Al’s next record came out just as MTV was starting and it went really big. And suddenly the tours began to be more elaborate. We started playing bigger and bigger venues and that’s been the story for over 40 years.

Weird Al’s songs cover a wide variety of styles: Michael Jackson, hip hop, country, klezmer… Is that a challenge?

When I started to learn the songs I realized that they were very well done and that the lyrics were very clever. It’s not something you just put together in five minutes. We play all different styles so musically it’s a fun challenge – everything from polka to metal.

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The New York Times did a long profile of Weird Al a couple of years ago. I was surprised to learn that he was so straight. He is vegetarian. He doesn’t drink or do drugs. He refuses even to swear.

That was a great profile. The writer spent some time on the bus with us. Al he is really laid back. He is a super sweet guy. He is not a big party animal. Al is definitely wacko and crazy on stage, but off stage he can be very quiet. It has been a great honor to play music with Al and support him all these years.

Your entire solo career has revolved around Hawaiian slack key guitar. What is Slack Key and how did you start playing it?

I went to Hawaii after one of our tours and the place I stayed had a bunch of Hawaiian records. What really impressed me was the Hawaiian slack key guitar. The sound of slack key really felt like where I was: beautiful lush jungle, waterfalls, horses, chickens, and cows. He was really connected to the place.

Where does the slack key come from?

When Captain Cook visited Hawaii, he brought cows with him and soon there were cows all over the island. Hawaiians brought Spanish cowboys from the mainland to teach them how to be cowboys. These Spanish cowboys would sit at night playing their guitars and the Hawaiians were fascinated by that. They had never heard a guitar before. When the cowboys left, they left their guitars as gifts. The Hawaiians loosened the strings to produce sounds that seemed more natural to them.

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https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BFFAYISN7BY

How did you start playing it?

I had no intention of making a slack key career. I just liked playing the songs. And I would record them so as not to forget them. Then a friend said, ‘You’ve got like 12 songs on there.’ Why don’t you make a CD? He hadn’t even considered it. It was something I did for my own enjoyment.

Slack key is a wonderful sound. It’s an open tuning, so you get a lot of open strings and you get a lot of resonance and there’s something very warm about that. The whole style is like someone is giving you a big hug. He is very human and very warm. That’s what attracted me.

Weird Al Yankovic plays the Meridian Theater in Centrepointe on Saturday, July 30. Jim “Kimo” West’s latest CD, Ka Honuna Maluhia, Peaceful World, is available at jimkimowest.com

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Jim “Kimo” West has been playing with Weird Al Yankovic for over 40 years. West, who grew up in Ottawa, will return to the city on July 30 for Weird Al’s sold-out concert at Centrepointe Theatre. Photo of Jim ‘Kimo’ West /Jim ‘Kimo’ West

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