He is most famous as the bass player of Spinal Tap, but Derek Smalls finally comes into his own with the release of his long-awaited solo album, Smalls Change (Meditations Upon Ageing), on April 13. With You Am I soon to kick-off their The Majesty Of Tap East Coast tour (dates below), we asked guitarist, Davey Lane, to have a little chat with Smalls about the new album and indeed, a life spent on tap…
(DL) Hi, may I speak to Derek please?
(DS) Yes, this is he.
Hi Derek, my name’s Davey Lane; I was just calling for a little chat.
Hi Davey, now what is it that you’d like to talk about? Your feelings?
I was actually hoping we could talk about some of your feelings if that’s alright?
Oh excellent. Alright.
Would that be alright?
Yeah that’s great, just when you said chat I thought, you know…
I wasn’t going to go as broad as that, but if it’s okay I might ask you about your new solo record…
Yes, it would be an honour. An offer.
Well I’ll gladly accept the offer.
See Davey, it’s honour and offer.
Yes, I’ll accept the offer.
Honour and offer. If you say them like that.
Ah gotcha. Okey dokey. I’m a little slow on the uptake today…
You’ve been plying your trade in the world of rock and roll since the mid ‘60s, why wait 50 years to release your first solo record?
Firstly, it’s my first full-length excursion; I had a five-track super-demo which came out only on eight-track which was probably a wrong bet on my part. It was called It’s A Smalls World, that was in the ‘70’s. Tap is like a breathing thing, it inhales and starts up again then exhales and disappears, when it would do that I would pursue other things. One time I joined a Christian rock band called Lambsblood, we had a hit on the Christian charts called Whole Lotta Lord. I’m a man of parts, as they say, so I would go off to do some adverts, jingle writing in the Netherlands, I kinda caught on there and became the host of a competition show called Rockstarz. Went over to Latvia for a while, things were strange over there, I became a male dancer in a club called P.K Hunkingtons.
Oh, how does one, you’re a bass player by trade…
I worked on my physique a bit. After all, it’s Latvia, they aren’t flooded with applicants for that particular job. I’ve always occupied myself; I’ve never been on the dole. It seemed like a solo record was beyond my particular pale, and then The British Fund For Ageing Rockers came along and filled my pail, and then I thought, ‘it’s time now’. that’s really what made it possible to happen, and happen, possibly.
There’s a quote of yours that doesn’t immediately spring to mind about being sandwiched in between two strong personalities…
Fire and ice. Lukewarm water.
Yes that’s the one.
From that hatchet job.
Sorry, the hatchet job?
That film (This Is Spinal Tap). Made us look like prats.
Well put it this way Davey, we were on a cross country American tour, do you think it’s likely that almost every night we found our way to the stage, no problem?
Yeah, that’s fair to say.
A bit of a slant, a bit of an agenda I’d say.
With the stage props and riders…
Yeah all that. Let’s just pick out the parts of the experience that make this band look their absolute worst.
Absolutely I can understand that now, I play in a band myself and…
What do you play?
Great. The one with the littler strings.
The littler strings and a couple more of them.
I picked up one once, earlier in life and I thought, ‘these are finger torturers, these strings’.
Well I was going to ask you, around that time the heroes were Hank Marvin, Eddie Cochran, Buddy Holly… why the bass?
I wasn’t a guitar fan, I was just hanging around with some mates at the London School Of Design and they were bashing away at the guitar, and they said, ‘hey Derek, you play this’ and I thought, ‘I’m gonna shred my fingers doing this’. But there was a little Japanese bass, three-quarter scale, made of balsa wood, I thought, ‘wow, this is a nice big sound’. It wasn’t so much out of emulation as it was personal experience.
Turning to your new record, She Puts The Bitch In Obituary is quite a confronting tune – is the lyrical content stuff you’ve gleaned from personal experience?
Ripped from real life – tendrils still bleeding. In fact the woman who sings background vocals on that track, the woman the song is about, went into a bit of a freakout at the end of the recording….
So that’s an actual recording…
Of the thing we’re singing about.
The thing itself. So the producer and I had a discussion about whether to leave it in or take it off and I thought, here’s the thing – it’s evidence. In case she decides to come after me, it’s evidence, it’s right there. It’s a document.
That shows incredible foresight.
Well, I’ve been there before mate….the, uhh, female persuasion. That’s where my first Lamborghini went.
It was just a court proceeding. A lovely court proceeding. She came after it and got it. So I’ve had a bit of experience with the ol’ Cindys.
I’m sorry to hear that.
That’s alright. I got mine back on that track, the only revenge song on the record. In fact, I take that back. Faith No More, two revenge songs on the record. That’s enough.
They might be revenge songs but I guess there’s wisdom for us to take from them.
We’ve all been there before, we’ve all been in a position where we wonder, how did this happen? I know I fancied her once but this? Faith No More is something that we’ve all experienced in life called betrayal of trust. You look back and think, ‘how could we have been so stupid for 17 years to believe this bloke, to the point that we believed that he’d died when it turned out he faked his own death, just to escape some obligations to us?’
It’s none of my business, but if you don’t mind me asking, who is that?
It’s Ian Faith. Our manager.
That’s why the song is called Faith – No More.
Ah I see now, sorry.
It is early there isn’t it?
It is. I’m gonna have to listen to it with a fresh perspective.
Oh yeah, now that you know that. Again, it’s a document, which is why we treated it with orchestral pomp. It might as well be submitted in a court proceeding.
Memo To Willie features Donald Fagen of Steely Dan – like yourself, a key proponent of incorporating elements of jazz into the rock world – how important is it to keep challenging or broadening the sometimes narrow stylistic parameters of heavy rock music?
I think what I was doing with this record was try to bring other parts of my musical personality to the fore. We’ve got something that’s almost like a piece of chamber music in Hell Toupee.
It is, like an ominous fugue…
Yeah. There’s no bass, there’s no guitar; it’s just almost as if you’ve walked into a room playing Bach or something. Night On Bald Mountain, sort of thing. And then there are other pieces like When Men Did Rock where the grandiosity almost overwhelms you, the orchestral grandiosity in paying tribute to four strings, two or three chords, it’s almost ironic in the way the two things face off against each other. Trying to have other kinds of music, to bring them into the hard/heavy rock sphere and bash them about a bit. There is no jazz on this record. We recorded Jazz Odyssey for the last Tap record, and that was exhausting, so that was an excursion into jazz as we called it – or as I called it, as I was the only one who liked it. We followed that up with an incursion into jazz called Jazz Iliad, which we’ll be incorporating into the live shows.
Ah okay, ‘cause I was going to ask you, there is quite the orchestral bombast to the record. Having seen you’re touring the States with symphony orchestras, did you incorporate orchestral work into the record with a foresight to touring in that configuration?
That’s a good question, which came first, the orchestral chicken or the orchestral egg. I would say the egg.
Right, the egg being….?
Oh, I don’t know, I’ve forgotten which one that was. I started writing songs before the symphonic approach beckoned, and then as soon as it did that led me to write grander pieces.
This is a question I wanted to ask out of personal interest – you joined Spinal Tap in 1967, around the time of Listen To The Flower People. I’m a big fan of psychedelic/freakbeat music – did you ever have any run-ins with Syd Barrett, or did you ever tour with bands like The Move or The Dukes Of Stratosphear?
We’d run into them in the clubs, we’d trade substances on occasion, never toured with them. We aspired to. One reason we changed our musical direction was because we got a bit of a resounding ‘thanks fellas, all the same’ from the psychedelic world, and I think it was David (St Hubbins) who said that this can’t last – and poised in the directions we went in next. So, it was a good thing, I don’t think you see that many psychedelic bands around now plying their wares on the unsuspecting public. Probably a good move on our part. It was fun music to play, but didn’t have the staying power of hard, crunchy rock.
Well I guess around 1968, bands seemed to shed the multi-coloured, kaleidoscopic thing and turn toward a more basic style of rock.
Yeah, primary colours. Primary colours in the music as well as the wardrobe. It was a turn from the fussy to the basic. If you’d heard us play at the time, you couldn’t get more basic than that.
We’re almost out of time but I just had one more question – I play guitar in a group called You Am I…
You’re in that group?
Yes I am.
Oh I know what you’re doing, you’re doing that Tap tour. That’s so great. We really appreciate that, and we’re very moved by that – and by we I mean me because I don’t talk to the others. But that’s wonderful.
Oh thanks Derek, I’ll pass that on to the lads.
Please do, please do – now tell me are you doing any songs from Break Like The Wind?
We’re playing The Majesty Of Rock, we’re doing a little psychedelic bracket with Rainy Day Sun, Flower People and Cups & Cakes. Also a skiffle section with All The Way Home and the original arrangement of Gimme Some Money.
Rock & Roll Nightmare’s in there, Warmer Than Hell’s in there..
(Laughs) That’s great. More topical than ever mate. Are you changing the geographical names to suit Australia?
Nah, why mess with perfection?
That’s a great motto. A great motto. I always loved playing that song of Nigel’s (Tuffnell), Clam Caravan. So much fun to play.
Well I wanted to ask, is there any wisdom or advice you could impart to us to help us really inhabit these songs of yours?
Yeah, two things, not so much about the songs – one thing is, just bloody well turn it up. Don’t be afraid to turn it up. These songs really must overwhelm the listener to be any good. And two – this is from hard experience of many years – get the money before the gig.
Ah, yep. Chuck Berry style.
Yeah, there’s always a bit of a smile on Chuck’s face, ‘cause he already had the cash. I guess it puts a little extra gasoline, or petrol, as we say, in the engine or tank. It puts a little extra puissance in the trouser department – ‘we’ve got the cash, let’s go’.
Ah yeah, well I guess Chuck never really gave a shit who was backing him up…
He had the cash. He had the cash already. Let’s go. That’s the rock‘n’roll spirit really, isn’t it? This fussy kind of perfectionism is for, I dunno, Neil Diamond or something. You know, get the cash and bash.
Get the cash and bash is something to bear in mind, I’ll pass that onto the rest of the group too.
Maybe get T-shirts with that printed, so you impress upon them the importance of it.
I absolutely will Derek.
Well good luck with it, I hope it goes well. Are you going to record it in any way?
We weren’t planning to, but everything’s up on YouTube now anyway.
Yep get some punter to do it for you. Well I look forward to it if I get to hear it. Great to talk to you, and I hope we can bring the tour down there…
Well if you’re looking for a band to back you up who are familiar with your oeuvre and material, we’d love to do it.
Well that’s fantastic, thank you Davey.
Thanks for your time Derek.
My pleasure, see you soon I hope.
Also featuring guests such as Peter Frampton, Dweezil Zappa, Rick Wakeman, Richard Thompson, Steve Lukather, Joe Satriani, Waddy Wachtel, Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, Paul Shaffer, Steve Vai, Jane Lynch and The Hungarian Studio Orchestra, Smalls Change (Meditations Upon Ageing), is released on April 13. You Am I’s The Majesty Of Tap dates are…
Thursday, March 22, Sooki Lounge, Belgrave, VIC
Friday, March 23, Corner Hotel, Melbourne, VIC
Friday, April 6, The Triffid, Brisbane, QLD
Saturday, April 7, The Factory, Sydney, NSW
Full tour details via www.facebook.com/pg/youami/events