IT IS A Smalls WORLD, AFTER ALL
Starting tomorrow — when the new solo album 40-years-in-the-making is unleashed on an ill-prepared world by the man for whom the word “legend” may have been invented, the physically smallish but musically, lyrically towering bass genius for the way-beyond-legendary British rock group Spinal Tap. Derek Smalls has finally emerged with something to say, but he waited so long that what he has to say is about being an aging rocker. But aren’t we all, really… hm?
CA: The album is titled “Smalls Change (Meditations on Ageing)” — what are you trying to tell the world, Derek, and why now?
DS: Well, we’re all getting older. There’s only two kinds of people, you’re either older, or you’re dead. You can’t sell records to dead people.
CA: When you were a young rock god, did you imagine you’d still be playing and touring at this time of your life?
DS: Oh yes. I’m a bass player, and we’re more observant. We have fewer notes to play. Our fingers have to move less, and so we have lots of time to stand there and… observe. Our eyes and brains can work more because our fingers don’t. I figured out a long time ago how this whole thing runs.
BLUES AND COUNTRY
DS: Rock and roll comes from blues and country music, and you never see those guys say, well, I’m getting up in years a bit, past 30 now, time to call it quits. No. They just keep playing, till they drop dead on stage somewhere. You believe it’s just never going to end. Is this gig going to be around longer than… the sun?
I was in this other band, Spinal Tap, for a long time but that’s gone now, just kind of faded away, we never had fights or screaming or lawsuits, just sort of dissolved, leaving a small stain but, nothing harmful. Like Panagea, so very slowly drifting apart.
CA: And which part would you be?
DS: Oh, perhaps Africa… no, South America… no, Africa, I believe… I’m not certain. I had an offer, I’ve got a mate named Eddie in Albania with a band called Chainsaw Vermin, and his bass player left and he rung me up and said, well, you’re free now, want to have a go? And I thought, is that how I want to end my days, subbing, touring endlessly and futilely then dropping dead on stage with Chainsaw Vermin? And then this British Fund for Ageing Rockers came along and made a contribution, to make the album, so there you are.
CA: I guess the British government is much more helpful like that, the arts and all, than the US government…
DS: Well, you tell me.
CA: Say no more. So you have a bit of a tour planned, to debut the album?
REALLY FANCY MUSICIANS
DS: Yes, five dates for now, with full orchestras, in Florida, New Orleans, Atlanta, Pittsburg, and in Washington, D.C. at the Kennedy Center with the National Symphony Orchestra. 60-70 people on stage, in tuxes and gowns, some with both, all those people in formal wear sawing away… and also musicians, of course.
It stretched me musically to make this album. In all the time with Tap we always aimed for grandiose, and sometimes we came close, close to grandiose, but this was more like it. It’s almost like a graduation ceremony, playing with a symphony. Extra pretentious. In a good way.
CA: You mentioned Spinal Tap. You were so big at one time, and such groundbreakers, pioneers in touring and production, and yet you’ve been completely ignored by the Rock and Roll Hall…
DS: So-called Hall of Fame…
CA: Yes. How do you feel about that?
DS: I’m certainly not bitter. They should be bitter, really. They should be bitter at themselves. They’ve lost a bit of luster, I think, by not including us. What did we lose? A trip to Cleveland.
CA: So many great songs on this new album, Derek. I was wondering about “Memo to Willie” and that familiar-sounding chorus at the end, “Willie, don’t lose that lumber!” Steely Dan co-founder Donald Fagen sings on it, and ex-Dans “Skunk” Baxter and Larry Carlton play — did you write the chorus first and then ask them, or was it inspired when Fagen came on board?
DS: I wrote it first. And then I thought, oh no, how do I keep Donald Fagen from suing my ass off? So I asked him on.
CA: “MRI” is a really great song. Awesome guitar shredding from Dweezil Zappa.
DS: Yes, he outdid himself.
WELCOME TO THE MACHINE
CA: So emotional, that song. It really put me there. In the machine.
DS: Well yes, we did use the actual sounds of an MRI, so you’re able to imagine being in that tight, dark little chamber. I’ll never get out of here! Quite the experience. It even bangs your head for you.
CA: That’s quite the assemblage of supporting musicians you’ve gathered. Also David Crosby, Richard Thompson, Steve Vai, Rick Wakeman, Waddy Wachtel, Joe Satriani, Chad Smith, Michael League, Paul Shaffer, Keltner Korchmar, and Kunkel… how did you manage that?
DS: Mostly I just called them, or “my people” did, and I said, I’d love to have you involved. It was… I don’t want to say it was a love fest… it was more of a pity screw. I should know. I’ve been on the other side of plenty of those.
CA: Derek, I’m calling from Santa Monica, there are many musicians who live here and other creative people. Keith Emerson of the Nice and ELP lived just a few blocks from me for years…
DS: Wonderful man he was, Keith. Dumped his keyboard on my foot once at a big benefit concert, nearly broke it, heh heh.
CA: Jack Sherman, early Chili Peppers axe man, also lived just around the corner from me, Jackson Browne is around here somewhere, I believe…
DS: And Richard Thompson, and Waddy Wachtel — Wicked Waddy, I call him.
CA: I was wondering, have you ever been to Santa Monica? — Do you know anyone here?
DS: (thinks a bit) Well, anyone who comes to Southern California probably winds up in Santa Monica at some point, perhaps for lunch, but no…
I don’t know anyone in Santa Monica.