You may not have heard much from Derek Smalls, bassist of the legendary band Spinal Tap, aside from the occasional reunion concert when enough of the band members simultaneously run out of money. But that doesn’t mean he hasn’t been busy.
He’s released a solo album, Smalls Change (Meditations Upon Ageing). And he has a concert in Los Angeles to support it backed by several famous friends and not one but two symphonies. It’s all very impressive and important.
But we won’t be covering that. Unlike most publications, RIFF aspires to get the story behind the story, to ask the questions nobody else is asking. So we spoke to Smalls, sometimes known as Harry Shearer but only in an alternate universe, about what else he’s been up to both musically and otherwise.
Between the most recent Spinal Tap reunion and his latest solo album, he wasn’t entirely out of music. You may not have seen it if you aren’t in Eastern Europe, but he’s out there.
“I’ve done some touring. I’ve spent a little time on the road,” Smalls told us by phone from London. “Last time Tap dissolved, I was in Albania at one point. A friend of mine has a near-death metal band called Chainsaw Vermin, and I would sub for their bass player from time to time. You know; when he was having one of his episodes.”
In fact one of those shows is what inspired his latest album. When he was in Albania, he saw an advertisement for the British Fund for Aging Rockers, a grant program for aging rockers, as you might suspect. He applied and became a grantee.
“Then they expected me to make something,” he explained. “Hopefully a record. So I thought, my dad, who was a great influence on me, he said, ‘Write about what you know.’
“So I said to myself, ‘Derek’—I call myself Derek—I said, ‘What do you know? I know I’m getting older. Because I’m not dead, you see. So I might as well write about that.’”
But we’re not talking about that, because we’re hard-hitting journalists. We’re talking about how else he spends his time when he’s not recording blockbuster albums or going out on extremely loud world tours.
“I do my own cooking,” he said. “That keeps me busy because I’m not very good at it. Many a meal is started over, you might say. Because I’m not on the internet—I’m on a strict 10-minute-per-day regimen because I was addicted to it. To compensate, I watch a hell of a lot of tele.
“I love ‘Antiques Roadshow.’ I love that think they’ve got something of value and it turns out to be a little piece of shit. You know, to me that’s the greatest comedy there is—when people bring this stuff they think is really valuable. They have these hopeful doe eyes, then they’re told, ‘This is rubbish.’ And the missus, well, not missus, my girlfriend; we’re howling with laughter at that point. The best comedy on the tele.”
Smalls is also an award-winning gardener. Famous in botanical circles for developing and patenting an entirely black rose, for a while he’e been hard at work on his next creation.
“I’ve been trying to perfect, among other things, the black carnation,” he said. “It does not to this point exist, and I thought that’s what the world needed. But it’s proving to be harder than I thought, so I’ve hung up my gardening tools for the moment. But ask yourself, wouldn’t it be great to have a totally black carnation? Wouldn’t that make your world more beautiful?”
We did briefly ask Smalls about his tour in support of Smalls Change. He’ll have virtual guests including Donald Fagen of Steely Dan, legendary guitarist Steve Vai, and the Hungarian Symphony Orchestra live from Budapest.
“A lot of people were on the record, and they said to me, ‘Derek, can we please play with you out on the road?’” Smalls said. “They didn’t literally say that, but they meant that.”
They also have a live orchestra in addition to the Hungarian orchestra live by satellite; twice as many orchestras as Metallica plays with, as he pointed out. And Smalls could not stress enough that the show is engineered to be very, very loud. No expense was spared to make it loud.
Unfortunately, since the interview was conducted, Smalls has canceled all but the Los Angeles show, including the scheduled show in San Francisco. We attempted to reach him by email for details but got no response. One hesitates to speculate, but we hope that doesn’t suggest it’s due to a relapse of his internet addiction.
Regardless, the Los Angeles show is still on. And at least the newly freed-up time may let him return to gardening. The world really does need a black carnation, after all, and not just anyone can make that happen.
Follow editor Daniel J. Willis at Twitter.com/BayAreaData.