Just like his fellow living Spinal Tap bandmates, Derek Smalls prefers to keep a profile befitting of his name. Though he’s been far from the public eye since Spinal Tap’s last tour in 2009, Smalls is finally on the cusp of doing something he has never done before: releasing his own solo album.
The record, titled “Smalls Change (Meditations Upon Ageing),” is a concept album where Smalls ruminates about nearing the end of the road both artistically and, for all practical purposes, as a person as he nears his 77th birthday. (Of course, Smalls is played by Harry Shearer — who conducted his interview with TheWrap in character.)
It took a trip to a land far away from Spinal Tap’s core audience for Smalls to realize he didn’t want to be another white-haired rock footnote.
“I went over to Albania — a friend of mine was there in a near-death metal band called Chainsaw Vermin — and his bassist is an abuser of every known substance, so I’ve been sitting in with them from time-to-time,” he said in his British drawl. “I thought to myself, ‘Derek, is this where it leads, to sitting in Albania as a substitute bass player? It’s not your journey’s end if you have the choice. It’s not time to put Derek out to pasture just yet.”
Calling on a wide range of guest musicians, including Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen, Dweezil Zappa, Rick Wakeman, Joe Satriani, Paul Shaffer, Steve Vai, Jane Lynch and even The Hungarian Studio Orchestra, the record is just what you’d expect from an aging rocker. Retaining the same bone-crunching bass lines, Smalls proves that his music can exist outside of his famed band — and tackles aging exactly how you’d expect from a Spinal Tap veteran.
Solo endeavor aside, Smalls isn’t too optimistic about Spinal Tap reuniting for one final go. Smalls said he communicates with fellow members David St. Hubbins and Nigel Tufnel frequently.
“Nig is out in the countryside in Hertfordshire — I think he’s renting it,” he explained. “He got deeply involved in animal husbandry and breeding miniature goats. He’s got his hands full — at least with baby goats. David, I hear from him, but I don’t use the internet because I suffer from addiction– so I use the post — and I will get something from him every once in a while with anticipation, mixed with fear, since he sends it using Chinese pictograms. I don’t know if he’s saying ‘how’s it going mate?’ or ‘congrats on the new record’ or ‘let’s get the band back together again’ or ‘I’ll have the duck and dim sum for three.’ I have no idea if it’s him or Janine [St. Hubbins’ significant other].”
Since Marty DiBergi’s 1984 “This Is Spinal Tap” documentary, Spinal Tap has broken up and gotten back together more times than people have fingers, and, of course, they have lost just as many drummers in the process. But Smalls said he’s not a fan of “This Is Spinal Tap” — in particular the moment in the film where he’s stuck in a pod during an otherwise rousing version of “Rock N Roll Creation.”
“I can’t speak for Nigel or David, but I regard [the film] as a hatchet job,” Smalls told TheWrap. “About 99.9940 percent we found our way to the stage right away, you didn’t see that in the film, did you? No, because he had an agenda. He said he was our biggest fan and wanted to cover our tour. Instead of being fair and helping us get big, he turned us into laughingstocks. It sounds perverse, but I think that’s what it’s about.”
Mainly, Smalls is concerned about a number of incidents that appear in the movie’s final cut that portrayed him in what he deems a negative light. As for the stuck-in-a-pod footage (“It only happened three bloody times on that tour”), he blames DiBergi.
But, it’s the infamous incident at the Milwaukee airport that continues to haunt Smalls the most:
“I got out of the zucchini packing business well in time,” he said. “I’ve never had a problem — with what we call in the business — my power stance. Those were our biggest shows and I thought stagefright and nervousness could have an effect, shall we say. This was nothing more than an insurance policy.”
Even though the band’s salad days came in the late ’70s and early ’80s — when the rock star lifestyle allowed men to behave badly without fear of retribution, Smalls said that Spinal Tap doesn’t have to worry about any lurking scandal.
“I think the #MeToo thing is about power,” he said. “We never achieved any power.”
Smalls said there aren’t immediate plans for a new Tap album or a re-release of their classic albums (“That’s all tied up in legal stuff”). So if you’re looking to get busy to “Sex Farm,” you’re just going to have to dust off that elusive “Smell the Glove” vinyl. That said, don’t expect to see Spinal Tap added to the growing tally of musicians hitting the road for a farewell tour.
“Tap never breaks up,” the bassist told us. “It’s like you’re standing at the beach and you’re looking at the water and all of a sudden the fog comes in, and the sand and the water are gone. The fog, in this case, is reality and the water is Tap. It’s just not there anymore.”
Derek Smalls’ “Smalls Change (Meditations Upon Ageing)” drops on Friday via Twanky Records/BMG.