Spinal Tap’s Derek Smalls Recalls Performing the World’s Largest ‘Big Bottom’
Spinal Tap bassist Derek Smalls embarked on a new career path in 2018, releasing his first solo album, Smalls Change (Meditations Upon Ageing). As a guest on Full Metal Jackie's weekend radio program, he discussed going solo, meditating, what can be learned about virtuoso guitarists simply by watching their mannerisms and how the This Is Spinal Tap film grossly misrepresented the band. And if you're wondering about the largest "Big Bottom" ever, he's got an answer for you there too. Check out the chat below.
We're here to talk about the solo debut of Spinal Tap's Derek Smalls, Smalls Change (Meditations Upon Ageing). Why are you finally branching out on your own now?
Well, if I waited any longer, I might be dead.
[laughs] Fair enough, we're all going to die eventually.
Yeah, but you know, we played Glastonbury Festival of 2009 — 130,000 people out there, none of them left. And then 20,000 at Wembley Arena in London, and I thought great, here we go, Tap 3.0 or whatever. And I'm sitting in my flat staring at the phone, and it doesn't ring. So, I do what anybody would do under the circumstances, I get in touch with the telephone company and give them a piece of my mind. And they said it's not us, and then I realized oh, oh it's this.
The band would dissolve so many times. We wouldn't be wrangling and yelling sort of things and break up like other bands. It would just sort of, you remember the giant supercontinent, Pangaea that was around about 300 million years ago? You read about it. Yes. Pangaea, old earth, I just learned that, which is why I quoted that. And then you turn around 3 million years later and it's gone. But now there's South America and Africa and Australia as three separate, you know, continents and things. And that's what it was like, you know, there's no more Tap, there's no more Pangaea. So, I guess I'm now either South America or Australia.
Like your solo album's title suggests, Smalls Change (Meditations Upon Ageing) addresses getting older. What's the main distinction between meditating and napping?
Lack of snoring.
There's no snoring in meditating?
Not that I've heard.
No wonder it's not working for me [laughs].
Yeah, if you're snoring, you're not meditating. I should say, Jackie, that the video from that song is now — you get to see me actually in an MRI machine, which is thrilling and frightening at the same time.
They're pretty scary.
Yeah, they are. I mean the journey of that song is that they're very scary and then all the sudden you realize, wait a minute, they're banging my head for me.
What a positive way of looking at it! [laughs]
Yeah, I turned it round.
There are some pretty impressive musicians on this record including Joe Satriani, and Steve Vai. What did you enjoy most about working with so many A-list players?
Well, I was hoping something would rub off on me, frankly Jackie, you know, you play with the best, maybe you're not the best but you can get a bit better just by, "Oh, he's doing that." Oh, you know, that sort of thing. And you know, you'd pay through the nose if you said, "I need some lessons mate." But if you just hang around them, and also, I'm not the guitarist anyway, but it's just little things, you know. How they sit. I don't know if that has anything to do with how they play. You're just watching them, just picking up on it. And then there's also — it's just a great hang. The best players are the best hang it turns out.
Recently you performed with symphony orchestras in Budapest and Louisiana. How did that compare to being on stage with Spinal Tap?
Well, it was almost as loud. You had 40, 45, 50 people sawing away. A lot better dressed than Tap. You know, they're all in tuxedos and gowns or both. And they're all reading. Rockers aren't readers as I like to say. But you're dealing with another kind of music there. So they're all playing their hearts out but staring at these little pieces of paper with dots on them.
But it was great. It was what we were looking for in the live show and it's gonna be hitting the road next year. It is called Lukewarm Modern Life — a grandiosity which may mask any lack of substance that you feel you're experiencing because it's just such a big show. And you know, we did have the world's largest big bottom. Because we had all these low basses in the orchestra, and then the low horns and then we came in, all of us in the band that I'd assembled were playing bass.
And then because it was New Orleans, we had twelve sousaphone players march out and you could not get a bigger bottom than that.
This Is Spinal Tap has become a well-known, if not legendary film. Looking back, what made it such a pivotal point in your career?
I have to say, Jackie, it's a dual-edged pivot, if there is such a thing. Yes, because it made us well known but it made us a laughing stock in a way. There were a million times, not really a million, at least 24 times when we found the stage straightaway during that tour, but you don't see that in the film. I got out of the pod about two-thirds of the time, but you don't see that in the film. Most of the time I went through airport security - you don't see that in the film. And it bothered me because he had said, the filmmaker said he was such a big fan of the band, that I realized we hadn't really broken through yet, 17 years in the business - and he thought, "I'm going to help them break through by turning them into a laughing stock."
And I was disturbed by that but then my dad, the late and very sage Duff Smalls, said to me, "Son, it's better to be a laughing stock than no stock at all."
You, David and Nigel were the core of Spinal Tap for such a long time but they didn't contribute to Smalls Change. Was it spontaneous combustion or are they both alive and healthy?
They're both alive, but I don't know if they're healthy - well I know Nigel is because he wrote me a note and said, "Well done mate." Which is about as much as Nigel can write at one sitting. I had actually said to him, "The door is open to you if you want to play on the record" and then I realized that was the wrong thing to say to him because - and I didn't know this - I worked with the man for years, he's got a phobia about doors. Apparently he built this whole house in Wiltshire, south of England with no doors. So that sort of put the curse on it for him. And David, I don’t know. He writes me letters because I cannot use the internet. I was addicted and so, I'm forbidden to use the internet. So he writes me letters on nice white paper on either side, but it's all written in Chinese pictographs. And Jackie, I have a confession to make. I don't read Chinese bloody pictographs.
No. Not yet. So, I don’t know if he's saying, "Good record, mate." Or "Let's get the band back together" or "I'll have the dim sum for three."
Thanks to Derek Smalls for the interview. Grab your copy of 'Smalls Change (Meditations Upon Ageing) at Amazon or iTunes and find out where you can hear Full Metal Jackie’s weekend show here.
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