Back in February, in what surely must be one of the more surreal moments in Music Week’s storied history, we spoke to legendary Spinal Tap bassist Derek Smalls for our Aftershow feature.
In that bizarre exchange, the man behind hits such as Big Bottom, Tonight I’m Gonna Rock You Tonight and Stonehenge opened up about his time in Spinal Tap, how the seminal This Is Spinal Tap! 1984 documentary was “a hatchet job” and why he regrets leaving Christian rock band Lambsblood.
Today (April 13) he is set to release his debut solo album, Smalls Change (Meditations Upon Ageing) via Twanky Records/BMG, featuring guest appearances from members of Foo Fighters, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Joe Satriani, Steve Vai, and many more.
You could say he has enjoyed the process of stepping into the spotlight for his debut.
“I sung on a couple of songs for Tap and have done background vocals on some of the tunes,” Smalls recalled. “But basically to strap on whatever you strap on to the lead singer – I think you know what you strap on but I don’t want to say it – it turned out to be better than I feared it might be. Like, ‘What have I taken on here – Oh! I see! This is why they all do it’”
Here he takes us inside his new album and how he plans on conquering the streaming world….
What are you hoping to achieve with this album?
“World domination. That’s a big goal but a man’s reach should exceed his goals. I was attempting to get with some of the best players in the world and fortunately, despite the recommendations of their managements, some of the best players in the world agreed to be on the record – Steve Vai and Satriani and so many others. It was just a thrill, I can’t put it any other way. Some of them are there basically as a pity fuck but still, it was good to be with them.”
One of your new songs is called Rock’N’Roll Transplant. What’s your take on the genre in 2018?
“Rock'n'roll is surviving not thriving, it’s taken a body blow from hip-hop from which it may not recover. I advocate a transplant for the first rock'n'roll generations, but what I think rock'n'roll itself needs is a transfusion. A transfusion of what is the question, and that would be my answer too. If I knew I would be doing it, wouldn’t I? It needs to be rejuvenated in some way, and that’s possibly by younger people. I have the highest of hopes for my new album on streaming. I don’t think mine and Drake’s audiences overlap but the market for the combination of the best of headbanging, screaming, screeching, disturbing hard rock and extended narrative opuses in the rock format is as big as it’s ever been.”
What’s the best lesson you’ve learned from your time in the music industry?
“Don’t do business with [ex-Spinal Tap manager] Ian Faith. Did you see a couple of years ago BBC did a series on what they call the 'music moguls' – producers, managers, all sorts of trustworthy people like that. And up pops this person we thought was dead! Ian Faith, who had absconded unto death with a lot of our money, was bragging on the Beeb, ‘I faked my own death!’ He’s like somebody in a secret laboratory someplace has developed a cockroach that can’t be crushed by the biggest boot heel. I think the best relationship between a band and manager is that they should be scared of the band. We should be threatening in some physical or mental way so that he keeps larceny to a bare minimum. I don’t think we, as Tap, really had menace in us. I’ve tried to develop a greater sense of menace – I work on it every day. I do some exercises, a couple of ex-convicts have been working with me just developing a more menacing persona. I’ve always tried to have a menacing persona onstage, but I think that masked a deep gentleness in me. I’m trying to deal with that now.”
You did, of course, famously once describe yourself as the lukewarm water in the band…
“Lukewarm water, yeah. It’s like when you’re driving. If all you had is highways and no bridges you wouldn’t get very far, unless you’re just driving across land. [Going] solo you’re the highway and the bridge – if I thought about it, it would be a big responsibility.”
You have also, sadly, lost a lot of drummers on the years. How did you cope with so much death in Spinal Tap?
“Well, they were just drummers. They’re still human, but they’re drummers. And I say that with the greatest respect for the craft. A band that was fronted by a drummer would end, just to take an example. As a bass player, part of my job is keeping the pulse going – so I would just step up and try to be more of a pulse-driver, if there is such a thing, as each new drummer came in. I was stepping forward a bit in the rhythm until he got his sea legs under him – which is the best place to have them – and also giving some matey advice like, ‘It can’t happen to you’. They needed to hear it, but it wasn’t necessarily true in most cases. At the time it was the right thing to say.”
I’ve always tried to have a menacing persona onstage, but I think that masked a deep gentleness in me
And when was the last time you were starstruck?
“Paul McCartney. Bass player extraordinaire. I met him once and I was struck dumb, absolutely, like a hand came from, if not heaven, then a low cloud and said, ‘Derek shut it’ and I couldn’t talk. We were in a rehearsal studio in LA and he just barged in. I was startled, it was like a hologram come true. I said, ‘Try a fifth string some time, mate’ and he shrugged. But I think it was a shrug of acknowledgment.”
Finally, your new album is called Smalls Change (Meditations Upon Ageing). So just as a quick closing question, what is the meaning of life?
“That’s a big question isn’t it? It’s like ‘What is money?’ I mean we really don’t know, if you think about it. You could say it’s a little piece of wood, gold, a piece of string or a little thing in a computer. It’s all money, but what is it? See? As to the meaning of life, it’s a riddle inside a puzzle inside a boardgame. I’d say we’re not meant to know the answer. It’s meant to bewilder – life is here to bewilder us. Which is why you’ve got so many people walking around looking bewildered. That’s the plan. I believe the Supreme Evil One has a grand plan...”
You can watch the video for Derek Smalls' single It Don't Get Old below: