Harry Shearer on Spinal Tap’s Spinal Tap moment

The man behind Derek Smalls and a hatfull of iconic The Simpsons characters shares some of the highs and lows of his musical life. 

For over 30 years, Harry Shearer has embodied Spinal Tap bassist Derek Smalls on stage and screen, used his voice-acting to create some of The Simpsons’ most memorable characters, and been a fixture in TV and movies. Every year, Shearer and his wife Judith Owen also put on Christmas Without Tears – a seasonal variety show of comedy and music, with all-star guests raising money for a good cause. For 2020, Christmas Without Tears has become a ticketed online event that will raise money for musicians and venues affected by COVID-19 in both the UK and USA, and features guests as diverse as Jeff Goldblum, Steve Lukather, Ringo Starr and John Goodman.

We caught up with the comedy legend to talk signature basses, accounting for bad taste and his very own Spinal Tap moment…

Harry Shearer Christmas Without Tears

The moment it all started…

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“I had studied classical piano for most of my childhood and early teens, and thereby was forced to learn to read music… and I couldn’t think of anything that I’d like to do less than read music! So when I hit university age I left the piano and bought a 3/4-sized Japanese plywood bass and started doing what I always did with piano when my teacher wasn’t looking, which is playing by ear! My ear had always been drawn to bass notes, and it was just something I felt comfortable with, and as opposed to the finger-shredding little strings on guitar, the nice big fat strings on bass were just fine with me!”

I couldn’t live without my…

“Well, I play both upright and electric bass, and of my three uprights, there’s one that is just my absolute favourite. The great British bassist Danny Thompson guided me to a shop up near Watford and picked out an Italian-made bass for me that he thought I’d like and it’s just a dream to play. So that’s probably my favourite bass in the world.”

The one that got away…

“I’ve been fortunate enough in my life that I haven’t had to sell stuff off. I’ve been with almost everything a collector and not a distributor! That goes for records too, I’ve never got rid of an LP, still have ’em all! And I’ve kept basses, both shitty and good! Thankfully I have a storage locker, so I don’t have to be surrounded by all of them.

Harry Shearer
Image: Jim Dyson / Getty Images

My signature model…

“There’s a company here in Los Angeles, Schecter Guitar Research, and before I went on the Derek Smalls tour a couple of years ago I went over there and they let me plough through the whole range and I found one in the Diamond Series that I really love. It’s my favourite electric bass to play, I don’t have to coax it, it’s right there.”

The first thing I play when I pick up a guitar…

“I have a practice routine, and it starts usually with a song that I’m still trying to learn the part of, and if I put it at the top of the routine I know I’ll get to it every time. Right now it’s the bass part to Beat It – I’m going through my classic R&B favourites one by one, and finding out that the ones that I thought I knew, I’m missing all these nice subtleties that make it R&B!”

The best advice I’ve ever been given…

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“Hmm, I don’t actually recall anyone giving me any advice. [laughs] I wish someone had given me some decent advice, I could have avoided some shit! I’ve gone through life advice-less. Maybe a couple of people have advised me not to eat something, but I don’t think that’s what you’re looking for – it was good advice, but very limited in scope!”

Harry Shearer
Image: Rick Diamond / Getty Images

My Spinal Tap moment…

“Spinal Tap had been invited to perform at the Freddie Mercury Memorial Concert at Wembley Stadium, and we had a song on our second record called The Majesty Of Rock, and we’ll come on stage wearing ridiculous pompous ermine robes, doff the robs, Nigel hits a powerchord and we start the song. So we get on stage, we doff our ermine robes to big fanfare, and Nigel hits the powerchord… and no sound comes out – 90,000 people in the stands, a billion people watching at home on live TV. And we’re looking around, and it becomes apparent after a moment that the stage crew thinks this is our joke… and it’s not! And we can’t figure out how to break character and say, ‘No, no no, this isn’t our joke, c’mon, help!’ So we’re stuck out there being these guys, and finally somebody on our crew twigs to what’s going on and rushes to fix it. Someone had obviously just unplugged or otherwise unpowered Nigel’s amp. You go through something like that and it feels like about 25 years, and I’ve gone and looked at the tape since then and y’know, it was probably 30 seconds. But it felt like a millennium up there, precisely because everything we had worked for was to disappear into these characters, and now we couldn’t get out of them!”

My guilty pleasure…

“I got a lesson about this very early on when I was in a comedy group, and a fan came up to me and said, ‘You guys are my favourite comedy group… you and Cheech & Chong!’ And I thought Cheech & Chong were kinda trash! So there I was saying thank you through clenched teeth and then I thought, wait a minute, there’s plenty of shitty music that I like. But that’s the big mistake that executives make in showbusiness. They think people like shit so they can’t possibly, therefore, like good. And that lesson to me was, ‘Of course they can!’ And they don’t even have to make the distinction! And so I don’t feel guilty about anything I like. I like incredibly complex and subtle symphonic stuff, I like bluegrass, I like Brazilian music… there’s a lot of rock ‘n’ roll from the era that I was formed in that people forget about how shitty it was! They think, ‘Oh The Beatles, The Kinks, The Byrds!’ And I think, ‘Yummy, yummy, yummy, I’ve got love in my tummy, y’know?’ You like what you like!

Harry Shearer & Michael McKean
Image: Phil Dent / Redferns

I’m in the band…

“You know, I had the experience about 10 years ago of writing a song that was a gentle poke at the style of this band, which was one of my favourite bands. The song was stimulated by the headline I saw in a local paper that said, ‘Madonna signs deal to become celebrity booze endorser’ and I just thought that turn of phrase was delightful. So I wrote a song called, Celebrity Booze Endorser in the style of Fountains Of Wayne, and I called them up and said, ‘Would you play this on my record if I sing it?’ And they came and played, and then we did it live on the Conan O’Brien Show, and I loved singing with them. I thought, ‘Man, this would be a fun band to play in – I love their songs, they’re funny and smart, and had great melodies and chords, and they were lovely people to be with. Unfortunately one of the band leaders, Adam Schlesinger, was one of the first to pass from COVID-19, so I guess it’s a fantasy never to be realised. But I would have loved to have been able to play more with that band.”

The most important thing on my rider…

“I’m very simple – a banana and some sparkling water. That’s it. Banana for energy, sparkling water for moisture!”

If I could just play one thing…

“I’ve learned two bass parts of songs by Snarky Puppy, but that’s as close as I can get to playing anything resembling jazz – I just don’t have the chops for it, when you go into Weather Report or bands like that. This is a vestige of when I approach to when I was studying classical piano – I practice as little as possible, as little as I can get away with! Nowadays I look forward to practice, but I could never do it all day, and you have to do that to get that kind of technique, so I feel quite proud that I managed to get two of Michael League’s bass parts under my belt!”

Come join the party…

“Christmas Without Tears started out as a party in our house, because my wife, Judith Owen, when she moved here from London, she just never got the idea of a warm and sunny Christmas, it just did not compute at all! So we planned this party where we’d all gather, and there’d be food, friends, we’d sing and try to replicate a Christmas party in Wales! We did that for a few years, and because we were in the showbusiness, the friends who performed were accomplished singers or could do some sort of party piece, and it became what I would say you’d have to define as a proper knees-up!

“Then word got around and we had an invitation to move it to the Walt Disney Concert Hall here in Los Angeles. This was in 2005 when there’d been the horrible effects of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans so we thought, ‘Let’s do it there and do it as a benefit concert’. So that’s what we did, and we started performing it in other cities, including Chicago, London, New Orleans and New York.

“So when we looked at this year we realised we couldn’t do that, and so Judith put together this idea of how to put it together as a virtual show, and pulled together a lot of the people who’ve been involved in the show in various cities and thought, ‘this is our chance to put all this talent together in one mythical place called ‘online’ and raise money for musicians and NIVA (the National Independent Venue Association).

“People have been recording stuff for it, and I always write a song, this year’s it’s very of the moment as it’s a Donald Trump song called, I Won Christmas! The vibe of the show toggles back and forth between reverent and irreverent – Judith accurately calls it ‘the antidote to Christmas!’”

Christmas Without Tears will be streaming from Friday 11th December to Sunday 13th December. Tickets available here.

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