Spinal Tap bassist Derek Smalls discusses solo debut: It 'makes up in grandeur what it lacks in substance'
Derek Smalls is stepping out on his own — literally. “It’s a bit of a lurch, shall we say, to decide I’m going to go from the back line where I’m the bass player and do an occasional la la la or something, to the front of the stage,” the Spinal Tap bassist says when EW connects with him to discuss his debut solo album Smalls Change (Meditations Upon Ageing). “By the way, I never realized before, but I’m sensitive to the cold and the lights are warmer up front. So it’s a good place to be, to stay warm.”
Though Smalls Change, due Friday, continues the hilarious legacy of Harry Shearer’s satirical rocker, it’s no mere comedy album. For the record’s 14 tracks, Smalls recruited greats including Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen, Yes’ Rick Wakeman, Joe Satriani, and Paul Shaffer to help him realize his absurdist rock vision. “We set about creating an album that makes up in grandeur what it lacks in substance and vice versa,” Smalls says. “It tries to cover all these different threads. You can’t cover threads, really, but it tries to follow the threads of all the types of music that were implicit in the Spinal Tap oeuvre and expand upon them. And yet, encapsulate them at the same time. It’s an expanded encapsulation.”
As for why he’s only now striking out on his own, the 77-year-old Smalls has a matter-of-fact explanation. “I was always in bands,” he says, noting Spinal Tap and his Christian rock project Lambsblood. “The band thing was always foremost in my mind — and my pocketbook, to tell you the truth.” (He did record a “never released” EP in the late ’70s named It’s a Smalls World.) Thanks to an (entirely fake) government initiative in his native Britain, Smalls’ circumstances changed. “Fortunately, there’s an agency that’s been set up in the U.K. over the last ten years, I guess using the funds from austerity,” he explains. “The British Fund for Ageing Rockers. They exist to give grants to people like me or in my case, me.”
Smalls connected with EW to discuss how he convinced Rock and Roll Hall of Famers to work with him, the problems with modern technology, and his opinion of “hip-hoppers” and “EDMers.” Read highlights from the conversation below.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You united with some fellow legends for this one — Donald Fagen, David Crosby, and more. How’d these collaborations come about?
DEREK SMALLS: First of all, you can’t approach these people through their representatives. Because they’ll just say, “Don’t do it.” Whoever they’re talking to: “Don’t do it.”
Even when Derek Smalls is calling?
Especially. I was able to make personal contact, because my name does open some doors, while it closes others. You could sum up the response as a “mercy f—.” This year they didn’t have to give to charity. They could just perform on my record.
With its alarming lyrics about accidentally giving your contacts a ring, “Butt Call” is one of my favorite tracks on the record. Does modern technology ever freak you out?
Modern technology has bedeviled me. I’ve had two stints in rehab for internet addiction. In the days when I was addicted, I had a smartphone — or, as I call it a dumbphone. I did a little switch on the name there. I thought, “This is a hellish part of modern life and I fancy myself a bit of a student of hell.” Anything that seems hellish deserves a musical portraiture by me, I think. I think of myself as a portraitist of hell.
Given your relationship with the internet, what do you make of the rise of streaming and digital music?
Like most people in my profession, I would like it if people paid for my work. In my personal case, we like to play it loud. Maybe the louder it is the more you pay or something like that. But, you know, anything to get the music to the people.
How did you decide to honor Tap with “Gimme Some (More) Money,” which references the band’s early single “Gimme Some Money”?
I think that’s the closest acknowledgment of my taproot, so to speak. “Gimme Some Money” was a song before I joined the band, actually. I felt free to acknowledge it without because I was accused of patting myself on whatever you’re supposed to pat yourself on. But it goes back to what you were saying, about streaming and all this stuff. Give me some more money, mate! People [are] thinking “Well, it all deserves to be free.” Well, we all deserve to have free rent then, don’t we? “Gimme Some (More) Money” is just a heartfelt plea for money, when you analyze it. Even if you don’t analyze it, that’s what it is.
Closing track “When Men Did Rock” is an interesting historical survey of rock. As other genres grow in popularity, how do you see rock in 2018? And how do you see your role in rock?
My role on that tune is to stand in awe of what was wrought by the rock experiment. As we look back at the people who built Stonehenge, people in centuries to come will look back at rock and say, “What was that about?” As we say about Stonehenge. They’ll look at these songs and say, “Was it a calendar?” It’s just an attempt to encompass this grand achievement of our generation and to say, “You who follow with your hip-hop or your electronica, let’s see if what you do can measure up.”
Do you think they will be able to measure up? Or is rock forever superior?
Of course I would say rock is the best because I’m a rocker. A hip-hopper would say hip-hop is best because he’s a hip-hopper and the EDMer or whatever you would say — I mean, if we don’t like what we’re doing we should bloody well get out of it. I just wanted to take 10 well-chosen minutes to sum up the grandeur of the rock experiment. And to say, “It got this high, this is your bar now, you should bloody well hope to get this high.” I mean “high” in the sense of an achievement. I know they get this high otherwise.