With the future of Spinal Tap up in the air, the band’s legendary bassist Derek Smalls has gone solo, unleashing the album Smalls Change, featuring a who’s who of renowned guest musicians.
Boasting a career dating back to the ’60s, Smalls gained prominence when his band was featured in the captivating 1984 documentary This Is Spinal Tap. Arguably the greatest metal act of all time, Spinal Tap dominated the scene for decades, culminating with massive shows at the Glastonbury festival and Wembley Arena in 2009.
However, the band hadn’t been seen or heard from since then, and it was presumed they got lost somewhere in the back of a venue. But earlier this year, with praise to the metal gods and a grant from the British Fund for Aging Rockers, Smalls re-emerged with his aforementioned solo disc.
Smalls Change is a 13-song opus with instant classics like “Butt Call,” “She Puts the Bitch in Obituary” and more, as Smalls steps into the role of frontman with a power and force akin to an 18-inch stonehenge replica crashing into the ground.
Having just freed himself from a giant pod, Smalls recently gave Heavy Consequence a call to talk about the album, the safety of his guest drummers, the future of Spinal Tap and more. Read our exclusive interview with the legendary bassist below:
First of all, congratulations on getting drummers like Chad Smith of Red Hot Chili Peppers and Taylor Hawkins of Foo Fighters to appear on your album. Given your history with drummers, at any point were either you or they in fear of them spontaneously combusting?
Yeah, everybody was a bit shaky at the beginning, and we reassured them as much as we could with beverages of their choice. But, as it turns out, and you couldn’t see this coming in advance, I believe Satan — I know a little bit about the ways of Satan — he’s very hung up on the number three. You know, you look at 666 and it’s just a bunch threes stung together. And we were three in Spinal Tap — David, Nigel and me were basically the core of the band — and that’s what I think attracted the curse.
But now I’m one, you see. I’m a solo performer who hires musicians to play with me. And I think Satan doesn’t give a fig about the number one, so it’s a curse in reverse, is what it turned out to be. And I rang up every drummer — Taylor and Chad and the rest — and said, “How you doin’ mate?” — just to make sure, and they all said, “Never felt better, never felt better.”
Well I’m glad they came out alive and are back with their respective bands.
Oh, it would’ve been a heartbreak and probably legal consequences I couldn’t have afforded.
You also have Rock and Roll Hall of Fame artists like Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen and Yes’ Rick Wakeman on the album. Most musicians would be in awe of working with the aforementioned legends. But I assume in this case, those guys were in awe of working with you, the legendary Derek Smalls…
Yeah, they all went the other way, you’re right. There was an awful lot of awe. When we’d ring ‘em … and they’d finally return a call, there was such good feeling and warmth. One of them, I don’t know who it was, when we said, “Can you do this?” he said, “Of course, man, it’s like a pity f—k.” And I took that as a supreme compliment, ‘cause I’ve been on both sides of that equation.
On guitar, you have virtuosos like Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, Steve Lukather and Dweezil Zappa on the album, but talent-wise do their skills even come close to your Spinal Tap bandmate Nigel Tufnel?
Well, everybody’s got a different bag of tools, don’t they. Nigel’s bag of tools is, you know, he’s got the sideways hammer, you might say. But they all brought what they did and what they could. I mean Steve played his ass off on a song called “Gummin’ the Gash” and you could swear that you’re watching what the song’s about as he plays, because he’s just drawing a picture with notes. They all brought amazing chops. It was a chops festival.
The hauntingly beautiful title track “Smalls Change” seems to serve as a musical goodbye to Spinal Tap. Was it a particularly painful song to write? And why would the greatest heavy metal band on the planet break up?
We’ve had a habit of dissolving from time to time. We never broke up. There were not sessions when we’d get together and yell at each other and throw things, because then we’d have to go get the things and pick them up — and we didn’t have that many things. But we would dissolve like a sugar cube in a saucer of warm coffee. You look at it, and then you come back two hours later, and “Where did it go?” It didn’t break up, it just dissolved — and that was us.
But, it just happened, I can’t say why. We played Glastonbury festival in England in 2009, and we played Wembley Arena the same year. And I thought great — there’s a one-two punch, and I just sat back waiting for the phone to ring, and it didn’t. So, I did what you normally do — I rang up the telephone company and said, “What’s the problem?” He says, “There’s no problem on our end, mate.” So, it’s one of those things like the sunrise — you can’t really explain it.
Yes, “Smalls Change” — it was painful but it was a good kind of pain, it was the pain of like when you take a plaster off a wound, and it hurts for a little bit, but you realize the wound is healed. It’s exactly like that — the wound is healed. The song is about the wound healing. I never thought of that before. It seems a bit scary and medical, but, yeah, that’s what it’s about.
Can you talk about the inspiration behind the song “Gimme Some (More) Money”? Are you paying tribute to the early Spinal Tap hit “Gimme Some Money” or are you actually asking for more money?
Well, it’s both, isn’t it, mate? Yes, it’s a tip of a hat, if I wore a hat, and it’s basically saying that the musician’s life is a great circle that has yet to be completed because you start out busking on the street with an upside-down hat, and people throw a few coins and a few bills in there. And then you get signed to a record company and they rob you blind. And then it’s the 2000s and they say, “The record industry has collapsed — sorry you missed it.” And now, there’s streaming, and you get one penny for every 4 million times they play your song. It’s just the musician’s life — gimme some more money.
In the song “It Don’t Get Old,” which was co-written Spinal Tap’s David St. Hubbins, you sing lines like, “Autograph hounds / Girls on their knees / Some saying don’t / Some sayin’ please.” In this day of #MeToo and #TimesUp, weren’t you concerned that a song like that may ruffle some feathers?
You mean ruffle the feathers of the birds? No, I wasn’t worried. As it turns out, some birds, I heard, had their feathers ruffled a bit. But it’s the truth. These are not women who are working for you. They’re not people that you’ve threatened or abused in any way. The whole story of rock ’n roll, the birds were going to you and said “please.” And then the ones who say, “Don’t,” you just go, “Ok, sorry, must have misunderstood.” No, it’s not like a Weinstein sort of scene.
But you must think that had Spinal Tap started today, in this day and age, it would have been a much different scene for you, backstage and on tour.
When we did the Break Like the Wind tour in the ‘90s, there was still a lot of female fans who would come around after the show was over, to be honest. But when we played the first night of [my solo] tour in support of this record in New Orleans, I didn’t see it, and I looked for it for an hour, didn’t see any of that. I looked very hard! I just thought they couldn’t find parking …
That could be it, or maybe they got lost in the back of the venue …
Yeah, it’s tough to get around, you know, as we’ve proven millions of times.
When you titled the album ‘Smalls Change’, were you ever worried about getting a two-word review similar to the infamous “shit sandwich” review that was bestowed upon Spinal Tap’s ‘Shark Sandwich’?
Yes, I don’t know what you’d say about Smalls Change that would be that nasty. You hope for the best and prepare for the worst. It’s like going on a voyage on an ocean vessel that doesn’t quite have its papers nailed to the mast. You might arrive or you might capsize. It could be another “shit sandwich” but it could be good reviews. You just hope if they don’t like it, they don’t really notice it.
Changing topics, the band The Folksmen opened for Spinal Tap a number of times. Are you close at all with fellow bassist Marta Shubb?
You know it scared me when I saw what happened to Shubb. It’s nothing I would have done. I mean I don’t like makeup. It was a strange band to have open for us, and they’d get booed off the stage. People would be yelling “Tap, Tap, Tap, Tap,” and they’d be louder than that band, and so they’d go sulk, and I don’t think they were very happy on those gigs. But I don’t know if they were ever very happy, I mean they’re folkies.
But Marta made the transition in a time when being transgender was less socially acceptable. Do you look back and consider her a pioneer in the music industry?
I guess so. I guess pioneer is one way of putting it. Every time I hear that word, I get a picture in mind of somebody trying to put a piece of pie in their ear, so I get totally distracted, but yeah, I guess so.
Not sure if you know, but Metallica’s “Black Album” is the biggest selling album of the SoundScan era. Do you feel like you and the other Spinal Tap members should be getting a cut of those profits?
Well, if we owned a trademark on the color black, we sure should. I don’t think we thought of that. I don’t think it even occurred to us that (A) anybody else would do it, or (B) you could trademark a color. I don’t know if you can.
We know those blokes a bit. We followed them at the Live Earth concert at Wembley Stadium, and we stood backstage just to be ready during their set. And then Robert Trujillo came out and played on “Big Bottom” with us, with all 19 of the bass players who were there at Live Earth, and I think he wiped the floor with all of us. So, again, I have to tip my hat, which I don’t wear, to them.
Were you ever tempted to try out for Metallica when they had bassist vacancies in the past?
No, because they wanted a commitment, and I thought I might do it for a bit, like a did with Lambsblood, the Christian rock band. But my heart was with Tap. It was always, “If Tap calls, I’m gone.” And they said, “You’re right, you’re gone.”
So, what’s on the horizon for Derek Smalls in the coming months?
Later in the year or next year, the Lukewarm Water Live Tour will rev up and hopefully come to where you are. Just let me know where you are, and we’ll come to you.
And will there be any interesting set pieces on the tour?
It’s basically designed to be done with a symphony orchestra, which I think is important, because that way the grandiosity will make up for any lack of substance. But we do a couple of Tap songs during the show, and we launch, for the first time ever in the world, the inflatable pink torpedo. So, you can watch for that. Look up when it goes by.
Finally, for the fans who are holding out hope for a Spinal Tap reunion, what are the chances on a scale of 1 to 11 that the band will get together again?
I think 1.11. It’s a little more than 1.
Well, a little more than 1 is better than zero, so we’ll continue to hold out hope.
It’s better than 0.11, too.
Our thanks to Derek Smalls for breaking out of his giant pod and taking the time to speak with us. Make the British Fund for Aging Rockers proud and pick up his new album, Smalls Change, at one of multiple retail outlets.