By Eric Renner Brown
April 03, 2018 at 12:00 PM EDT
David Corio/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

The 1984 mockumentary This Is Spinal Tap elevated the (faux) British heavy metal act — comprising David St. Hubbins (portrayed by comedian Michael McKean), Nigel Tufnel (Christopher Guest), and Derek Smalls (Harry Shearer) — to fame. As the Tap bass extraordinaire Smalls prepares to release his latest solo album, Smalls Change, he (and his alter ego, Harry Shearer) takes EW inside his history with the beloved band.

He knew that size mattered

In Tap’s heyday — when “there was a lot of attention paid to the nether regions of the male rocker’s body” — Smalls would wrap a zucchini in foil and shove it in his pants. “One goes through different moods, shall we say, and I just wanted to make sure that when I appeared on stage, I appeared to be in the right mood,” he says. “A lot of people make the mistake of saying cucumber… Cucumber is a bit grotesque and the surface of the cucumber is a bit warty for the desired effect.”

When not rocking, he was gardening

Though music kept him pretty busy, off stage, Smalls wanted to develop a green thumb, and he succeeded in breeding and patenting a black rose. But he couldn’t replicate the botanical success with other flowers. “I tried a black carnation and it just didn’t work,” he explains. “I got something that was red with black spots, and it looked like a leopard had taken a dump on a carnation, or something like that. So I gave it up.”

He’s still bitter about This Is Spinal Tap

“The hatchet job?” Smalls says when the 1984 doc comes up. He still seethes over one particular scene where Tap is shown to be unable to find the stage. “Ninety-nine-point-one-nine-nine percent of the time we found our way to the stage,” he fumes. “Does he have any of those incidents in there? It’s just a matter of basic fairness. Show us finding our way to the stage once — because we did!”

After Tap’s breakup, Smalls volunteered

What’s a rocker no longer gigging with a legendary band to do? For Smalls, pitch in at a local elementary school. “Somebody’s gotta collect the blocks,” he says. “The kids do like to strew them about. I’m a relatively orderly person, so it was a natural thing for me to do.” Donating his time, Smalls says, was just part of his charitable spirit: “It was a lovely thing to just help out and, as I like to say, give back. And I left with none of the blocks on me, so I gave them back, literally.”

He toyed with Christian rock

Tap dissolved and re-formed many times. During one hiatus, Smalls joined Christian-rock band Lambsblood — but went too far. “You know the fish symbol?” he says. “I got a tattoo of that when I joined.” That posed a problem when Tap reunited in 1992. “I’m back in Tap with this bloody fish on my arm,” Smalls recalls. “I went to a [tattoo] artist and I said, ‘Well, what about we have a devil eating the fish?’ That’s as closed a door to Christian rock as you can get.”

 

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