When it comes to legendary rock bands and artists, there’s a scant few who we can all agree truly deserve to be deemed “icons,” geniuses who influenced, inspired, and changed the course of musical history as we know it — Queen, David Bowie, Led Zeppelin, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and, of course, Spinal Tap. Bowie and Freddie are gone, Page and Plant aren’t doing much these days, and Sir Paul’s around (even if he demeaned himself with that Kanye thing), while the Stones are actually still together after reuniting several years ago, touring the world and rocking out for arenas. As for Spinal Tap, it’s a given that fans would die to see the metallic gods catch reunion fever a la Guns n’ Roses, and more recently Bauhaus and Rage Against the Machine. All three original members are still living after all, and we know there are quite a few fearless (and famous) drummers out there who’d be game to tackle the skins for ‘em in spite of the well-documented dangers that befall those who try Tap’s kit.
Spinal don’t need the reunion dough, though. After an ugly three-year legal battle with Universal Music Group, it was announced only yesterday that the band have finally won back the rights to classics such as “Sex Farm” and “Big Bottom.” The lawsuit, filed by the band’s bassist Derek Smalls (who, based on the legal documents just released, also apparently uses the little-known alias of Harry Shearer) charged breach-of-contract against UMG and StudioCanal. As part of the agreement, Universal will continue to distribute Spinal Tap’s recordings but the rights for the film’s soundtrack will revert to the band and filmmaker Rob Reiner, who famously documented its journey in the documentary This Is Spinal Tap. The deal includes the soundtrack as well as the band’s follow-ups, ’92’s Break Like the Wind and 2009’s Back from the Dead. We know we’re not alone in wishing the band a hearty congrats on their much-deserved victory.
We’ve interviewed Page and Richards in the past, not to mention Joan Jett, Johnny Rotten and so many more, so we know what it’s like to be in the presence of true rock royalty. But nothing prepared us for the surreal experience of sitting down with “The” Derek Albion Smalls for an interview, which we did last week. And of course, there was only one place we felt right for the auspicious moment, a place where the lights are always low and the music is always loud, where sexy, hairy hit-makers peer from frames on every wall and crevice, where Lemmy Kilmister’s cenotaph guards the bar outside and groupies still go before and after shows at the nearby Roxy and Whisky in hopes of snagging and shagging a musician, even if said musician lacks money, ambition or a vocabulary. We’re talking about The Rainbow Bar & Grill on the Sunset Strip, of course, and we figured Sir Smalls would be right at home there. We were right.
An essential part of the band’s venerable vertebrae, Smalls is famous for a lot of things, and though the singing and guitar-riffing that make Spinal Tap’s music so magical don’t happen to be two of them, with singer David St. Hubbins and guitarist Nigel Tufnel sort of MIA lately, it seems it’s up to this still sprite old chap (who is either 75 or 78 on April Fools Day, depending on which article you read) to carry on and keep the band’s legacy alive. Small’s spine is clearly still aligned, so he has no problem playing S.T.’s music with other musicians, but these days he’s also jazzed for new material.
Thanks to a grant from the British Fund for Ageing Rockers, Smalls released the album Smalls Change last year. A musical revelation, the record is loaded with self-reflective lyrics, nuanced melodies and unadulterated sonic depth, not to mention guest appearances by ax-men Joe Satriani and Waddy Wachtel, actress Jane Lynch, singer Donald Fagan and drummers Taylor Hawkins and Chad Smith (both of whom survived the experience!)
As he prepares to share material from the record and conjure some classic Spinal Tap tunes live with Fagan, Paul Shaffer, Steve Vai, Billy Idol and more with Los Angeles audiences at the Wiltern tonight, then with the world via a concert film (they’re taping the show) — we share our chat with the inimitable rock doc figure here.
L.A. WEEKLY: Let’s start with the tour and its name. How did it come about?
DEREK SMALLS: Well if you saw the film [This is Spinal Tap], I was asked at one point to describe my relationship to the other people in the band. I said they are kind of two visionaries — one is like fire and one is like ice. I’m in between, I’m like lukewarm water. But that’s the role of the bass player in a band, you know, guitarists are these sort of gods that fly to the sun and singe their wings, and you have to put cream on it. And the bass player is, you know, sort of the ground upon which the whole structure is based.
So the Lukewarm Water Tour was quite natural. We did a shakedown show in New Orleans last year with a symphony orchestra there, and it was quite effective. And so we decided to do this one night only West Coast tour.
The band has reunited in the past.
Well, they weren’t really reunions. They were more like, OK, we’ll get back together… let’s do this thing again. And then we think we’re just going to be going on, but then it stops. There’s no rancor, there though. We don’t get into big fights. We don’t throw things. We never had that many things to throw. We played Glastonbury festival and Wembley Arena in 2009. And I thought, right, here we go, and then the phone doesn’t ring. And I wait a few days and then I do what anybody would do Wembley — ring up the telephone company but they say, no, nothing’s wrong with the line.
Spinal Tap are legendary and the doc has been rediscovered by a new generation. But do you think the audiences of today really appreciate the band and its music?
I don’t know if they ever did. You know, I think we got to be legendary without being, um, extremely well liked, which is our biggest accomplishment really. You know it put us in a unique place. If we ever get into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, we would be in it, I think a little room by ourselves because of that. I don’t know. The audiences of today, who knows…
Why cant Spinal Tap be like the Stones — just out there and keeping it going?
I think it’s the lack of heroin, frankly. If you do heroin for a while, then you feel like the rest of your life is making up for lost time. And we didn’t do that. You know, it’s like, “Oh, I fucked away all those years,” so better get to it.
But you led a hedonistic lifestyle didn’t you?
Well, we had rock & roll lifestyles. Yeah. But that doesn’t kill you. It makes you stronger. There’s a song on the record about this called “Don’t Get Old,” and it’s about the rock & roll lifestyle.
This is on your new record, yes?
Yes. I’m not plugging anybody else’s record. We’re doing most of the songs from it at the show. And some Tap songs.
That’s the big question! Which ones?
“Hellhole,” “Heavy Duty,” “Stonehenge,” “Big Bottom” and more.
Will there actually be Stonehenge on stage?
Yes. We’re doing something I can’t say too much about for that. But I can say that for “Big Bottom,” we are launching for the first time ever, the inflatable pink torpedo. People will have their mouths wide open, hopefully.
So clearly props are still huge for you.
Well it’s different because we’ve got a symphony orchestra on stage, so there’s not a lot of room for lots of props. There will be Stonehenge, the pink torpedo, and you’re going to see me coming on stage in a special purpose built vehicle, which I can’t talk about any more. Otherwise the stage is filled with these people in tuxedos.
Are you singing lead on all the songs?
I’m the lead bassist… and lead vocalist on most of the songs. I sing from my record but I don’t sing lead on the Tap material. Paul will be singing on one song with me. Did you see him in The Masked Singer?
I didn’t. But it’s a fun show. So your new record references aging. What is your point of view about being too old to rock?
Well, if you can do it, why wouldn’t you want to do it? I mean if you’ve got to be hooked up to all sorts of pipes to breathe and stuff, then I’d say stop rocking.
I saw Brian Wilson not too long ago and it was like kind of a Weekend at Bernie’s thing.
It should be fun for you, the artist, but it should be fun for the audience too. It should not give the audience the creeps. I would say that’s been my rule. If you’re giving them the creeps, maybe just do it in your room. But that’s true with everything.
If the show goes well would you consider touring more?
Maybe. It’s a big thing to put together. Yeah. So, uh, you know, it would be a bitch to tour, but it’s possible. I had the idea for this show. I just wanted to get it out there and have people see it. L.A. is the perfect place because there’s so many people.
And you have so many fans here. Is there any chance that any of your former Tap members could show up and surprise?
No. Nigel is in the south of England breeding miniature livestock. He started with miniature horses. He sent me a nice note when the record came out. As I say about guitar players, they’re just extreme kinds of individuals, you know, in their head. And so he just kept pushing and pushing and pushing with the miniature horses and he got them so small they couldn’t find jockeys small enough to ride them. So he’s had to change courses; he’s doing miniature goats now. I mean he’s driven. He’s really driven.
So Nigel’s not doing music anymore? What about David?
No. And David — I get envelopes from him every once in a while in the post and I opened them up and there’s a sheet of paper inside. So far so good. And it’s just got Chinese pictograms written all over. It could be Korean. I don’t know the difference. I don’t read bloody pictograms so I don’t know if he’s saying, hello mate, let’s get the band back together or great record or I’ll have dim sum for three tonight, please. I don’t know what he’s saying.
Even if you did get back together, what would you do about a drummer? As the film famously depicted, that was always an issue.
Well, I’ve achieved an understanding about that. I dunno if you’re aware of my personal belief system, but I’m somewhat, shall we say, well acquainted with the Supreme Evil one. I think I flatter myself, but I know a little bit about his thinking. The hor-ned one. So yeah. He’s hung up on the number three. Six six six is just a bunch of threes and we were basically three — David, Nigel and me. I think he viewed the drummer as interrupting or somehow messing with that. So he just kept trying to hold us back to the three. But now I’m a one…a solo artist, so he’s not messing with me. We have a lot of different great drummers on the record. We had to get them insured of course…. But I rang them up after the session date, and they were never better. So that’s the curse in reverse.
Maybe the drummers of the world are safe as long as you guys don’t reunite?
That’s right. Satan’s a rascal.
So concerning the film- you’ve called it a “hachet job,” but it is what put Spinal Tap on the map. In fact, when I was trying to decide where to interview you, The Rainbow was the number one suggestion, but number two was The Andaz Hotel, formerly known as the Hyatt Hotel, aka the debaucherous Riot House just down the Strip. You filmed a pivotal scene on the roof. Remember that?
Oh yes. It was sort of shit pit back then. David and I were having a discussion whether we should go back and finish the musical we were doing about Jack the Ripper.
So what ever happened to Saucy Jack?
It’s a danger zone obviously. We did finish the title song, on our record, Back From the Dead, which turned out not to be true. It seemed like a project that’s could be so well summarized in a title song that there was no need to go further. Oh shit. We said it all! You know?
I see. Referencing another one of the movie’s most memorable scenes — can we talk about cucumbers?
It’s not a cucumber. You would call it a zucchini. We call it a courgette. That’s the British name for a zucchini.
OK. So why the foil? A lot of people don’t understand that part of it, especially since it can set off metal detectors.
[They] should take a zucchini or cucumber, which ever he or she might choose, slip it into their trousers — leather trousers — then go on stage for a couple of hours under hot lights, [then] tell me why they wouldn’t want to put it in foil… it goes to mush. The foil keeps it intact, in the heat and the sweat over the night.
Now that you’re older do you still have the same concerns about enhancing your, um, pelvic appearance?
No, no, this was our first U.S. tour. I’d never had a problem with, as you might call it, my stage presence. It was just an insurance policy in case, you know, stage fright or whatever… it was just a backup plan.
OK. Since we are talking about sexuality, Tap’s songs are obviously timeless but a song like “Big Bottom…” It might be your most beloved number, but in today’s PC-minded world, do you think it comes off as sexist?
No, because I don’t even think we specify gender. So it’s equal opportunity… It’s about celebrating the human body — the lower half of the human body. No one has ever been offended by that song. I have songs that offend people, but that’s not one of them. Some of the new ones might be, but not to me — there’s a lovely ode to [getting] older, and how you can lose things, but you gain things too. And you can still give and take pleasure. The song is a tribute to the joyous meeting of two toothless orifices. It’s called “Gum in the Gash.” Steve Vai plays on it, and it’s just a lovely, lovely observation, but it rocks very hard too
Lovely. Well Derek, it’s been a career highlight chatting with you. Any final words of rock & roll wisdom or thoughts about playing Spinal Tap stuff again as you prep for your big solo show?
Well, I mean, you know, anybody who’s been in a band and goes solo and doesn’t play some of the band’s old songs is in for a big surprise when they see the fans in the audience out there. I don’t know who said it, but I know he said, ‘you gotta give them what they want. You don’t have to give them just what they want, but you do have to give them some of what they want, or they’ll stop wanting it.’
Indeed. Thanks for giving us some!
Derek Smalls’ Lukewarm Water Live! with Billy Idol, Rick Wakeman, Steve Lukather, Waddy Wachtel, Dweezil Zappa, Paul Shaffer, Donald Fagen, Jane Lyncg, and (via satellite) Steve Vai, perform at The Wiltern, 3790 Wilshire Blvd., Wed., Nov. 6, 8 p.m. Tickets at wiltern.com. More info dereksmallsmusic.com