Spinal Tap? Check. The Simpsons? Check. Grammy Nominated Musician? Double check.
by Rick Suchow
(originally published in the September 2012 issue of Bass Musician Magazine)
You’ve seen him play bass on the big screen as Derek Smalls in This Is Spinal Tap and Harry Shubb in A Mighty Wind; you’ve heard his voice on television via a dozen animated characters on The Simpsons. But for the real life version of Harry Shearer, playing bass and using his voice is anything but fictional. This week sees the release of his latest album, Can’t Take A Hint, a collection of 13 songs that feature Harry’s bass and vocals, and this time around he’s brought an impressive list of special guests to the party. Dr. John, Jane Lynch, Jaimie Cullum, Fountain Of Wayne, Alice Russell, Tommy Malone and guitar greats Steve Lukather and Jeff “Skunk” Baxter all lend their talents to Can’t Take A Hint, as Harry offers his comedic slant on politics and more. Two of his previous releases, Songs Pointed And Pointless (2008) and Songs Of The Bushmen (2009), have been nominated for Grammy Awards. So, in a brilliant career that also includes credits as director, author, writer/cast member of Saturday Night Live, and radio show host, where is Harry on our collective consciousness? Well, on a level of one to ten… let’s say eleven.
If we take just your career in writing, acting and voice work, that would be enough to fill the lifetimes of 20 or more average people. When the hell did you find time to learn and practice bass?
To quote an old Earl King song, “those lonely, lonely nights.” Actually, having done about eight years of serious piano lessons (my teacher was serious, I was less so), I gave up music for a while, then picked up the bass to learn an instrument my way–i.e., by ear. I took some lessons from Jim Fielder, bassist for Blood, Sweat & Tears, and then just played along with records and the radio until Spinal Tap came along.
How did you go about putting together the collection of songs on Can’t Take A Hint?
Basically, I went through the songs I’ve written since my last record came out and chose the ones I really liked musically and that still had thematic relevance. Then I winnowed those down to the crop we’ve got here.
There are a whole bunch of guest artists and musicians on the new album, including Dr. John, Jane Lynch, Steve Lukather, Jamie Cullum and others. How did some of these guests wind up on the album, and were you looking for certain people for certain songs?
Yes, for each song I chose a guest vocalist–or band, in the case of Fountains Of Wayne–that fit the idea and the style of the tune. FOW’s music had actually inspired the writing of “Celebrity”, and Dr. John was an obvious choice for “Autumn”. Steve and Skunk Baxter are killer guitarists, I’ve worked with both of them before, and it’s always fun to hang with them and watch them do their magic. For the guests–including Jane and Jamie and Alice and Tommy–I just called/emailed them. I’d known them all to some greater or lesser extent prior to this audacious moment. So it’s not who you know, it’s you know who.
Who can’t take a hint?
Three CDs. First two Grammy nominated. Third one not.
What basses do you play (both electric and upright), and what strings do you use?
I play both Schechter and Lakland electrics. I have a couple of German uprights of fairly older vintage and just added a lovely younger Italian upright, who’s fitted with a Highlander pickup. I’d been using Velvets on the uprights, recently switched to Tomastiks, and looking forward to Danny Thompson’s new line of strings.
Other than the fact you can’t turn your amp up to eleven, how might your philosophy of playing bass in a band differ from Derek Smalls’ ?
Derek tries to play with power. I try to play with myself.
Your songs are often political statements, and this album is no exception, such as “Bridge To Nowhere”, inspired by Sarah Palin and “Trillion Dollar Bargain”, a reference to George W. Bush. What are your thoughts on this year’s presidential election?
Actually, I’m about as glum about this election as any since I’ve been voting. I fear that, as long as you need huge gobs of money to participate in the game, and as long as both parties go to roughly the same places (banks, insurance companies, media megaliths) to get the money, the choices we’re being offered are strong on rhetorical difference and weak on differences in action.
The new album, like your recent ones, is released on your own label Cougrette Records. What have you found to be advantageous and disadvantageous in running your own label?
Advantageous: don’t have to talk to record company executives. Disadvantageous: have to pretend to be one.
Your character Mark Shubb played folk music on upright in The Folksmen, and your character Derek Smalls played heavy metal in Spinal Tap. Tell me something about your own personal tastes in music, and what are some of your favorite albums of all time?
XTC’s WaspStar is a recurring delight. I always love going back and listening to obscure Motown songs (Marvin Gaye’s “You” and “Chained” being prime examples). I’ve become a big fan of the Wood Brothers. Love Fountains of Wayne, especially Welcome Interstate Managers. I listen to a lot of Brazilian music, and I quite like Celso Fonseca’s Natural. And I listen to a lot of bluegrass/newgrass/weirdgrass, and always go back to Bela Fleck just to remind myself how nervy it is for me to even pick up an instrument.
For some odd reason God has told you that you can only pursue one of your many creative skills for the rest of your life. Would playing bass have a shot?
It might be top of the list. But for some odd reason, I told God not to even try.
(Special thanks: Chris Boland for b&w Derek Smalls - Spinal Tap photo. )