Spinal Tap’s Derek Smalls Discusses His Star-Studded Solo Debut: ‘It’s Like a Pity F—‘

In a Q&A with Variety, Smalls — aka Harry Shearer — addresses the Spinal Tap split, convincing his celebrity drummers the curse was over, and getting Donald Fagen to sing on a song about erectile dysfunction

Derek Smalls Spinal Tap
Courtesy of Shore Fire

Derek Smalls wouldn’t want you to think that his well of creativity is tapped out, just because Nigel Tufnel and David St. Hubbins are no longer in the picture. And the former Spinal Tap bassist has found plenty of guests willing to take up the slack on his first solo album, “Smalls Change.” The big lineup of cameos includes Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen, Joe Satriani, Rick Wakeman, Steve Vai, Foo Fighter Taylor Hawkins, Richard Thompson and Jane Lynch, with the “Glee” actress playing the titular role in one of the record’s more tellingly titled tunes, “She Puts the Bitch in Obituary.”

Spinal Tap, which last reunited for an album and tour in 2009, is apparently not due for another comeback — although we can only guess at that from the fictionalized answers given by Smalls, who does not break character to reveal the man behind the curtain, Harry Shearer. “Derek has never heard of Harry Shearer and vice-versa,” a publicist warned ahead of our call — unnecessarily for those of us who’ve interviewed the “band” going back all the way to 1984’s “This is Spinal Tap,” a film the faux Brits always contended was an act of sabotage, not satire. The deadpan lives on in our conversation with Smalls.  

How are you this morning, Derek?
I’m well, relatively speaking.

That’s good to hear, because there are a few songs on the new album that do seem to indicate some physical infirmities or aches and pains.
No, no, it’s just me thinking about things. It’s not like a list of symptoms. Don’t take it as a request for NHS help for old Derek yet.

The obvious question, to start: Have you always dreamed of getting to hog the microphone for an entire album?
Well, “hog the microphone” is an interesting way of putting it. No, I didn’t sit in the back of the buses or vans as we were doing Spinal Tap thinking, “I can’t wait to get rid of these geezers and go solo.” To tell you the truth, when you’re in a band, and you’re playing bass, and you’re in this other light, and the lead singer — David, in most cases — was up there at that center mic with that big light, as you know, if you know your physics, light equals heat. One of the things that I will say about growing older is that you’re more sensitive to the cold. So I would be doing this just for the warmth, if for no other reason. But there are of course other reasons.

Did you look for inspiration to, say, the records John Entwistle made outside of the Who as you embarked on your own deep-voiced-bassist-gone-solo career?
It is unusual for bass players to go solo. As far as John… I didn’t really think about others. I know this is probably an unusual trait of mine, but I think mainly about myself.

People want to know what happened with David and Nigel, and why they’re not around. Is that all over at this point?
Well, they’re around. They’re just not around me. You know, the history of Tap is not that of rancor and yelling and screaming and throwing things and the band breaks up and then it has to be packed together again with spit and gristle. With us it’s more a matter of… Do you remember Pangaea, the great continent? Slowly parts of it drifted apart, and now there’s South America and now there’s Africa, and there’s no more Pangaea. I think that’s the way to think about Spinal Tap. It’s like Pangaea: We won’t be seeing that anymore, but you can’t get rid of South America and Africa that easily.

But in terms of how they are or anything like that, I have been in some touch with Nige. Sent him the record and he said very nice things about it in response. He’s gone out to the country — I think it’s Wiltshire, or somewhere up there — and got very involved with animal husbandry. It started with miniature horses, but he bred the horses down so far that they couldn’t find jockeys small enough to ride them, so he’s back at the drawing board. He’s an excessive bloke; that’s the nature of the beast. I mean, guitarists are people who, like Icarus, fly too close to the sun and then get their wings burnt and they have to come back to the ground and get sunscreen.

You’ve got the line on your album: “Lukewarm water, it still has to flow.” Obviously that analogy resonated from the documentary with people and you’re holding onto it.
Well, I mean, that’s the way people think about me, you know, and it came out of my mouth, so I’ll stand by it. But no, I have no problem with that. As I say, it’s the nature of bass players. We’re not necessarily the most extreme of the members of a band’s lineup, shall we say. We’re calling the tour “Lukewarm Water Live,” just to point out, yes, it does have to flow, right into your lap from the stage.

In the song “Rock and Roll Transplant,” you have the line, “Now rocking out is just another chore.” That’s candid on your part.
But I’m talking about the audience there, not about us, on this side. I’m talking about you guys, going, “I don’t know. I’ve got the kids. I’ve got the parking, I’ve got the ticket prices, the traffic…” It’s not like just trotting down to the club in the old days. It seems a chore, but I’m saying it’s worth it. This is not about the people who are practicing rock and roll, or even doing it. This is about the people who have been the avid consumers who are now saying, “Really, maybe we should sit at home and watch the telly.” They really shouldn’t. Telly is shit.

Still, there are songs here that address some of the pains and bothers of aging, like “MRI.” Then you have “Gummin’ the Gash,” which is about what can happen when you’ve lost your teeth.
But that’s a salute to the fact that as time takes things away from you, you can still make others happy. It’s a joyous union of two toothless orifices. [The lyrics frankly address oral sex technique among the denture-less.] I don’t think that’s pain at all; I think that’s a celebration of life. And with “MRI,” it’s a similar journey. You get in one and you think, “Crikey, I’m gonna die in here. I’m never going to get out” and all that. And then you realize, “This is what this is what I go to concerts for — this level of noise.” And it’s a free… well, it’s not free. It’s actually more expensive than a concert, by a bit. But I think that song details a journey from fear and, uh… what’s the phobia… to “Oh, great, this is what I like! They’re banging my head for me.”

You’ve got some of the biggest hard rock and metal guitar gods on the album, including Steve Vai and Joe Satriani. Were of these guys competitive about being on the record?
I think it was just a great warm and oceanic — as we used to say in the LSD days —spirit of love and generosity about it all. Nobody said anything about “Why is he on that song?” When we rang up the people, my producer and I sort of split ‘em up and would be saying “What about it?” and then we would make the return call of “No, really, we’re serious.” Even the fabulous Mr. (Rick) Wakeman — everybody responded in pretty much the same way. And I don’t remember who was it that said these words, but I think it summed up the spirit I’m trying to describe to you: “Yeah, sure. It’s like a pity f—.” And I thought, great. I’m going to take that as a compliment, because I’ve been on the other side of that, more than once.

And then you’ve got one of the world’s great guitarists, Richard Thompson, who is not exactly a metal guy, but you got him to do a kind of metal solo.
I think one of my proudest accomplishments is making Richard do that, or empowering him to do that. I just thought, there’s a shredder inside him, and I’m gonna bring him out and let him run about the yard for a bit. He was almost giggling at the end. I think he wondered if he had it in him, and now he knows he does. He’s got another string on his bow, if not on his guitar.

Taylor Hawkins of the Foo Fighters is among the drummers on the album. Any trouble getting anyone to sign up for that, given the history?
It’s been remarkable to me, as a follower of the Supreme Evil One, that the curse that seems to have attached to Tap over the years dissipated almost precisely when it went from the three – which, you know, is a number that has some importance in all of this — to the one. All of the drummers – Taylor, Jim Keltner, Gregg Bissonette, Chad (Smith) from the Chili Peppers – all, basically, if you believe what they tell me, are in better nick now than before they recorded with me. It’s like a reverse curse. So I think the drummers are going to be lining up now. And of course we took out insurance on them just in case, but nobody had to pay off.

With “Memo to Willie,” you’ve got Donald Fagen singing a cameo on a song in which you address erectile dysfunction by literally singing to your member. Steely Dan was named after a dildo (in William Burroughs’ literary canon), so there’s some kind of full circle there.
We were in the studio and I sang the last line of the bridge, which was “When I’m dead, then you can slumber / Give me that lumber.” And my producer, Mr. (CJ) Vanston, said, “Oh, you know what would be great, to sing ‘Willie don’t lose that lumber’ after that.” I said, really? He said, yeah. And then I thought, they’re gonna sue us. So I sent a note to Mr. Fagen and I just said, “Two things: A, don’t sue us. 2, would you sing it on the record?” And so as far as I know, we’re at least 50 percent of the way there.

A lot of people will be happy for the sort of Steely Dan semi-reunion on that track.
Well, there’s (guitarists) Larry Carlton and Skunk Baxter, so yeah, we tried to put (Fagen) in a congenial musical environment a bit, with the Snarky Puppy horns, too, mixing it up. I think what that musically is saying is, (impotence) is a universal issue, whether you’re a jazzer or a rocker or a what.

I’ll be honest with you, this is not about me. But I had come over to the States and you turn on the telly and you see these adverts, where there’s a nice-looking bloke, about 35 or maybe early 40s, not an older gent, out with some bird who’s really attractive, and they’re out on a boat or bicycling along, and you think, well, he’s halfway home, and everything seems ready for a bit of a shag. Then all of a sudden there’s this kind of scary voice going, “When the moment comes, will he be ready?” And I’m thinking, he looks like he’s barely out of his teens, and to be ready he’s going to take a pill? So my thought was: Sod the pill; just give Willie a stern talking-to. That’s where that came from.

The song “It Don’t Get Old” brings groupies into the picture. Back in the day Spinal Tap had some charges of sexism. When you when you talk about things like a quickie behind the bass amp, do you worry at all about raising the ire of the #TimesUp or #MeToo contingent?
Well, I mean, nobody has been forced against their will to get behind the bass amp. We have roadies that would actually discourage that, unless the lady in question was pretty determined. So the rock and roll world was never one, as far as I know, of anybody being forced to do anything. Maybe you could say there was too much freedom, and people were allowed to ride on buses that shouldn’t have been. But nobody was being trafficked, let’s put it that way.

This might be the first release you have where people consume it more through streaming than other means. How do you feel about the vast changes in distribution and payment?
That’s really taken up in the tune “Gimme Some More Money.” Because you start off in this business busking on the street or in the tube and you’ve got the little hat in front of you basically saying “Gimme Some Money,” as Tap did way back when. And then you go through the record company and managers robbing you blind, and then you come out to this place where there’s no records anymore and it’s streaming and you don’t know what that means, and all you can say is “Give me some more money.” I thought somewhere along the line here, something was going to stick to the old pocket. It’s almost as if the circle has done a 180 on itself — you know, the circle of life. So it’s just the latest turn of the wheel. Really, when you were selling these as they call them physical goods, or physical objects, somebody was absconding anyway. It’s just that there’s less evidence now. You won’t find a trunk full of misappropriated LPs in the boot of somebody’s Renault anymore. You’ve got to be a chartered accountant to find it in the bowels of Spotify.

How do you feel going on in the age of Cardi B? The album closes ruefully with “When Men Did Rock,” which is a bit of a eulogy for rock and roll.

Well, it’s an elegy, not so much a eulogy. I took the U out of eulogy. But it’s like, how did we feel back in the 1970s when rockers were writing these songs about the days of Camelot and medieval castles? Were we rueful, or were we just stroking our chins going “Hmmm” very loudly? That’s sort of what I’m doing now. It’s like, that was a time; that time is over. There’s still rock, but we don’t bestride the earth as so many colossuses now. We’re just humble practitioners of our craft. There’ll always be a place for rock, as long as people crave a certain kind of rhythm and certain kind of sonic assault. But we’ve gone from a time when rock was sort of the only product in the store to, now, you go down the aisle in the store and there’s all these little cans of rappers and hip-hoppers and people doing house-trap, or whatever they are doing. I hope they’re building a better house-trap.

It’s just about more choice, and so now we’re sport for choice. But there was a time that children should remember, when men did rock, so it’s just, look back to this glory, and think about it. Or not.

We appreciate you filling us in on your thoughts about these things.
Well, it’s a pleasure to talk to you. Sometimes these thoughts don’t bubble up to the surface until somebody sticks a straw down there.