Smalls Gets Bigger
Spinal Tap's Legendary Bassist Derek Smalls Goes Solo and Symphonic

By Lee Valentine Smith

Astute classic rock fans know and quite possibly love Derek Smalls as the fist-pumping bassist from cult-favorites Spinal Tap. After a storied and somewhat legendary career, the grizzled British road warriors have finally - at least for now - dissolved, leaving Smalls to issue his debut solo album.

Smalls Change (Meditations On Ageing) takes the familiar roar of Tap and expands it exponentially with the genius addition of the Hungarian Symphony Orchestra. Special guests, including - but not necessarily limited to - David Crosby, Donald Fagen, Jim Keltner, Peter Frampton, Rick Wakeman and Dweezil Zappa add their own special - and prerequisite rocking - touches to the project yet the album bristles with the big, bushy mustachioed sound that is pure Smalls.

Now on a symphonic tour with "Lukewarm Water Live: An Adventure In Loud Music," the enigmatic bassist reluctantly agreed to an interview when reached via phone at an undisclosed location in Los Angeles. As he spoke, he was slightly preoccupied with practicing his autograph for an instore appearance at a record store in Hollywood.

It's about time you've released a solo album.

Yes. Well, it's about past time, is what it really is.

What took so long?

It's difficult to say when you're in a band that's dissolved so many times. You know, there were no fights, no rancor, no throwing things and then picking them up and throwing them again because you don't have that many things. We just dissolved like a cube of sugar in a saucer of tepid coffee. We'd done Glastonbury Festival and Wembley Arena in 2009 and it seemed like, 'Well here we go,' but we didn't go. It took a while to process.

What was your process of processing the oft-dissolved Tap?

I did the processing when I was over in Amsterdam, judging a reality competition show called RockStarz, with a Z. The phone wasn't ringing. When the show went belly-up, I moved to Albania. A friend of mine, Eddie, has a Near-Death Metal band there called Chainsaw Vermin. His bass player abuses every substance known. I would fill-in from time to time while hanging out there. I thought, 'Derek, is this where it ends after all this time, as the subsititute bassist in Chainsaw Vermin?' That was the wake-up call. Not that I was asleep, but you know it's like, 'get on the horse,' but there is no horse.

It's no secret that you've passed the seven-decade mark in life. The theme of aging must've really been on your mind.

We're all aging, mate! You know there's only two kinds of people in the world - people who are getting older and dead people.

Then the British Fund For Aging Rockers stepped in with an offer at that point?

Yeah. When I got the grant from them, they said, 'Well, what's your idea?' I said, 'Oh. I didn't know I had to have an idea.' But you write about what you know. I know I'm getting older.

At this point, touring still isn't a drudge - it's what you live for, right?

Pretty much. You always live for the hope there'll be some type of sedative that can take you away from consciousness during the actual travel portion. But when you're up on the stage – unless a light falls on you – you're in 'eaven.

A great track on Smalls Change is "Gimmie Some (More) Money" with fellow legend David Crosby.

Oh yeah, David. He's an amazing geezer. Still at it after all this time, still doing what he loves and still pretending that he hates it and all concerned. Deep in the past of that band I used to be with, we had a song called "Gimmie Some Money." It basically evokes a band of musicians busking on the street with a little sign that says 'gimmie some money.' Now here we are all these years later, and you get robbed blind by managers and record companies. They say, 'Oh there is no more record business, sorry about that. It's all gone streaming and somewhere.' But you're back there going, 'Gimmie some more money, mate!' It's like the circle has done a 180 on itself.

It's a great statement.

Thank you, but I didn't issue a statement, I issued an invoice for that one.

Did any of Crosby's activism rub off on you? Do you think besides addressing aging, you'll do a political anthem at some point?

Well I'll tell you, I learned my lesson about 15 years ago. Tap had just been on tour and I was a bit in front of myself and I thought, 'Right, I'm gonna shed the ol' bass player reticence and speak my mind.' I'd found out that the Americans had, in Cuba, these detainees, they called 'em. I called 'em prisoners, but who's gonna quibble? They were 'enhancing,' as they said, their treatment by playing at very loud volume - which I have no problem with - the music of Aerosmith, Metallica, AC/DC and Queensriche. I just couldn't help it. I held a press conference and I said, 'Look, speaking as a human being and a citizen of the world, I just have to ask the United States, 'Why can you not find it within your power and your sense of decency - to include Spinal Tap music on that playlist?' I got quite a bit of brushback from that, so I'm done with politics.

As well you should be. The time for PC is over.

I think the time for all C is over. Every kind of C.

Now that you're away from Nigel Tufnel and David St. Hubbins, do you finally feel free of creative differences and restrictions?

I just didn't want to be confined by the penumbra of Tap, you know? I wanted to go bigger and have a palette in front of me - like so many differently colored candies - to broaden well beyond the spectrum of Tap.

The symphonic element really opens up the sound.

I'd always dreamed of it! It seems strange to say you've always dreamed of the symphony behind you, but we just did the first concert of the tour in New Orleans on Saturday night. We did "Big Bottom" because we do a few Tap tunes in the live show. To say you've got a big bottom by having a lot of electric basses on stage is one thing. We've done that. But now these geezers are playing big upright basses that are four times the size of mine, and there's these wonderfully low horns. It just makes the bottom a lot bigger. And that's all you ever want - you want your bottom bigger.

In life, absolutely.

In life, in death or in art. So the symphony is the next step. You don't want 14 guitarists and 8 drummers, but you want a symphony. Tap had never done that, never went there. But I can, thanks to the grant. It's very exciting to have all these people in tuxedoes or gowns - or both, sawin' and tootlin' away behind us. It's a whole different power you get. Rock'n'roll is all about power, as you know.

You've been known to use props in your live shows. Are you bringing any props on the symphonic tour?

We are bringing a prop or two. One, I won't disclose because it's a lovely surprise. But one is from the aforementioned tune, we've road-tested and signed off on. It's the flight of the inflatable Pink Torpedo.

That's very both Freudian and very Floydian.

Yes. It looked great floating above the audience - and them looking up at it with their mouths agape.

We need to discuss the film "This Is Spinal Tap." You've said it was a hatchet job by director Marty DiBergi.

I've had some time to think about that. It is a hatchet job, obviously. We did a 26 - well 25, one pulled out - city tour of America. To be precise about it, about 90.4037 percent of the time, we found our way to the stage straightaway. But you don't see that in the film, do you? Slightly less percentage of the time, I got out of the pod straightaway. But you don't see that! So I'm askin' myself, 'This geezer presents himself as a fan of the band?' But I've had a reflective moment or two and I think he really was a fan of the band. He thought to himself, 'These blokes have been around for 17 years and they still haven't broken though. I will help them break through by turning them into laughingstocks.' He had an agenda.

It was a hit piece.

It was more of a piece than a hit, if you know what I mean.

You've got a great album out with a big tour and a big inflatable. What's next?

I would love to do this show on ice.

Beautiful.

It would still be loud, but there'd be a little more grace to it, you know?

The sheer volume might shatter the ice at some point, though.

Which would be great! I don't think people have ever gone to an ice show and seen the ice crack in two, have they?

That would be so rock and roll.

It would. People always talk about what would be a good icebreaker. But I don't think they'd expect that.

Derek Smalls performs Friday, June 29 at Symphony Hall. For more information, please visit atlantasymphony.org.

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