#165 – Harry Shearer – Spinal Tap, The Simpsons & Can’t Take a Hint

Harry Shearer stormed his way into rock n’ roll infamy as bassist Derek Smalls in the rockumentary This is Spinal Tap.  He’s also been a recurring voice on the longest-running animated series, The Simpsons, hosted the weekly-syndicated radio program, Le Show, and starred in such films as The Mighty Wind.  His recordings have been twice nominated for Grammys for 2007’s Songs of the Pointed and the Pointless, and 2008’s Songs of the Bushmen.  Now, Shearer has put together Can’t Take a Hint, an all-star collaboration, featuring Dr. John, Glee’s Jane Lynch, members of Fountains of Wayne, and wife Judith Owen.  We talk the inspiration behind songs like “Joe the Plumber,” and “Celebrity Booze Endorser,” as well as touch on the humble beginnings of the legendary Spinal Tap.

Icon Fetch: Actor / Comedian / Musician / Director / Satirist / Radio Show Host  – Harry Shearer – he is the voice of several key characters on the Simpsons (including Ned Flanders, Mr. Burns, Principal Skinner ), he’s hosted a long-running radio program – Le Show on NPR, and directed the Hurricane Katrina documentary, The Big Uneasy – but music fans know him probably best as Derek Smalls, the bushy mustached bassist for heavy metal pioneers, Spinal Tap.  Shearer has released several albums that have been nominated for Grammys – his latest is Can’t Take a Hint  It’s our pleasure to welcome Harry Shearer – how are you Harry?

Harry Shearer: I’m good, thanks so much

IF:  Good.  Now, you’ve released several albums before, but with Can’t Take a Hint, you’re kind of taking a different approach here.  It’s a star-studded lineup.  Now, you’ve been in the entertainment business for a long time, was the idea to “cash in the chips – call in all the favors”?  Did it start out as that sort of project?

HS: Yes, that was sort of the idea at the beginning, it was “let’s do this differently.”  I’ve always had guests – really fine, top-notch guest-players on my records.  Most notably, Jeff “Skunk” Baxter and Steve Lukather, two amazing guitar wizards have played on most of my stuff.  And, a lot of great New Orleans players have played on some stuff as well.  But, this time is was more in the direction of guest vocalist.  With that in mind, I just called a bunch of people that I know, fortunately.  And, all but one of them said yes.  The one that said no wanted to do it, but his record company wouldn’t give him a release – one more reason to root for the demise of record companies!

IF: (laughs) right right.

HS: A great bunch of people said yes – from the wonderful young British jazz singer Jamie Cullum to Dr. John, the New Orleans legend, to Jane Lynch, famous from Glee and earlier from the Christopher Guest movies, to one of my favorite bands, Fountains of Wayne – all sorts of folks agreed to be on it.  Which is a great thing for me – I don’t have to do as much singing!

IF:  Sure.  With all these different bands, did you have to go all over the world to come to them, or did they come to you?  How did that work out?

HS: It worked all sorts of different ways.  I live in New Orleans, so going to New Orleans to record Dr. John was just going home.  Jamie recorded his track at his studio while he was making his own record, Jane came into the studio with me in LA, Fountains came into the studio with me in LA, Judith Owen, my wife and a fabulous singer came in to do her stuff in the studio in LA – so, it’s like whatever I had to do, I did.

IF:  Now, most of the songs on the album are topical.  I imagine you’ve got to be, especially for your radio show,  a news junkie.

HS: Yeah, it’s changed over the years, but I still am.  How I define news has changed.  I don’t watch those cable channels that have the word “news” in them.  Because they decided to stop covering the news – they figured that it’s cheaper to just have people yelling at each other.

IF:   I imagine – if you see an item that rubs you a certain way, do you immediately have a song pop into your head?  Or do you go “I need to bookmark that and I’m going to write something later”?

HS:  No, it’s pretty much instantaneous.  Either I see a phrase or a word – I mean, in the case of the song about the guy who ran BP at the time of the oil spill – he had made that famous quote “I want my life back.”

IF:  Right, you’re talking “Macondo”

HS: What made the thing click for me was just – Macondo was the name of the well.  I just thought – singing the song to the well made sense to me.  Tony Hayward singing a farewell song to this well that had tormented him supposedly in his mind.

That’s a kind of singable name.  As opposed to Deep Water Horizons

IF: Right – doesn’t quite roll off the tongue?

HS: Yeah, and then that tells you kind of what kind of song it is.  It’s a guy singing a farewell song, except it’s to an oil well.  Same thing for “Celebrity Booze Endorser.”

I read an item in a trade paper in Hollywood about a well-known pop singer signing on to endorse a brand of vodka, which would’ve been unremarkable except that the headline was “so and so joins ranks of celebrity booze endorsers” – and I had just never heard that phrase before and I thought “that’s singable, in an odd way.”  And, I’d been listening to an old Fountains (of Wayne) record that very day driving around in my car, so the song sort of assumed the dimensions of kind of a quasi-Fountains song in that it was written in the third person about that personality, rather than in the first person.  A lot of my songs are written in the first person, or close to it.

The “Joe the Plumber” song sort of came back to me because he was running for Congress this year.  I don’t know if he got through the primaries, but the idea that he was going to revive his political career – what there might have been of it – just said “I gotta do this.”

The notion that – he was sort of the definitive “every man” that you could ask anything of, cause he had this great fountain of common sense welling up inside of him.  Even though he was neither named Joe nor was he a plumber.

IF: (laughs) – Right exactly.

HS:  Just two little side facts

IF:  Minor details

HS: Minor details.  So, most of the songs come from words or phrases that just pop into my head, and I just think “that’s it.”

IF:  Now, I wonder.  The idea might be good, but how do you then put (it together).  It says “all songs written by Harry Shearer – so you do the music as well.  How do they not all come off as country songs?

HS:  Well, the style is really dictated by the idea.  So, with “Bridge to Nowhere” – Sarah Palin, similarly to Tony Hayward singing to the well, it’s Sarah Palin singing to the bridge  – but it’s a bridge to nowhere, which immediately said to me it’s sort of an exotic travel thing.  And, there was this early version of lounge music in the 1950’s, it was called “exotica” – but what it basically was was fake Hollywood music about someplace that nobody had ever been to.  Kind of quasi-Polynesian, but mainly quasi-Hollywood.  And so that immediately told me what that song was, stylistically.

“Celebrity Booze Endorser,” a Fountains’ song, because I had been listening to Fountains on my stereo.  So, I wrote it in that style.

IF:  Right, you’ve got “Trillion Dollar Bargain.”

HS:  “Trillion Dollar Bargain” was – somebody came out with a price for the Iraq War.  And, I just thought “when the defenders start saying, ‘well it was worth it’ – y’know because they voted for it, I just thought ‘well let’s amp this up into a love song, a love song for the war.’  And, sort of the quintessential form for the love song in my mind was like a Motown duet – a Marvin and Tammi kind of thing.

IF:  Sure.  Now, your wife sings on the album,  Judith Owen.

HS:  Yeah, she does the Sarah Palin song, and she also sings this song, which is called “Your Thing,” and it was written as kind of an exercise in how simple a song I could possibly write.  The two-word phrase “your thing” is kind of repeated ad infinitem, and the two-note melody – and it’s done as kind of a J-Lo pop song.  That was sort of the idea – how stripped down can it get, and still be eligible to be described as a song.

IF:  Now, working with your wife – since it’s your record, how well does she take to your criticism?

HS: Y’know, we’re great in that way.  I’m her side man often on her gigs, and occasionally on her records, and she bosses me around like a Neo-Nazi

IF: (laughs)

HS:  Then when she’s working on my stuff, she’s ready for the same kind of treatment.  But, I’m a bit more gentle.

But, it’s great, because we do swap off those rules of leader and hired hand, so we’re both used to it.  She’s absolutely impeccable in the studio.  You can say “a little bit more this” – and the next take – bang – you get exactly what you requested.  She’s phenomenal that way.

IF:  And you guys got married in ’93, so you’re almost on your 20th anniversary

HS: That’s correct

IF:  Y’know, that’s like…in Hollywood marriage years…I’m not sure how long that is

HS: (laughs) Well, lets put it in Tom Cruise marriage years

IF: Right!

HS:  We’re very lucky.  I had to travel 6,000 miles to find her.  We have a great time together – we are best friends, and all that blah blah blah.  But, I don’t like to talk too much that way, because I noticed that the minute you see celebrities talking in gushing terms about their marriage, that’s a signal that it’s about to end.

IF:  Sure.

HS:  So, I hate her guts!

IF:  There you go.  Now, the one song that isn’t terribly topical, but I would imagine that it’s near and dear to your heart, “Autumn in New Orleans.”  You have a home in New Orleans.  And, c’mon, you get Mr. Crescent City himself, Dr. John to sing and play on the track.  That’s unbelievable.

HS:  And, Nicholas Payton, one of the great trumpet players of our time, who’s a New Orleanian to play on it as well.  I was in the city  – I live there, I do live there.  I was in the city two years ago, for almost the entire first nine months of the year doing that documentary about why the city flooded.  Which, by the way was not a hurricane story, it was the story of massive engineering malfeasance by the US Army Corps of Engineers.

IF:  You’re talking about The Big Uneasy

HS:  Yeah.  And, so I endured that summer pretty much non-stop, and so there was a day, about mid-September, and it was just that day, where “oh my God, I can turn the air conditioning off, I can open the windows, I can hear the birds.  How amazing.”  And, I thought “Autumn in New York” has been written, but nobody’s written “Autumn in New Orleans.” And, so I thought It’s up to me.  I’m a great fan of the late Hoagy Carmichael who wrote a couple of New Orleans songs.  But, he never wrote this one.  And, I just thought, “I’m gonna try and channel my inner Hoagy.”

IF:  Right

HS:  Not the sandwich, the songwriter.

It was very much NOT a Dr. John-style song.  But, I thought who better to sing it, and Mac Rebennack, his real name, sparked to it immediately, and got him into the studio with Nicholas, who, as I say, is just a spectacularly wonderful trumpet player, and a bunch of great New Orleans players.

IF:  Yeah, I noticed you had Dave Torkanowsky record the track.  I had Maria Muldaur on the show last year, and they’ve done some great work together as well.

HS:  Yep.  And, Herlin Riley on drums, and Roland Guerin on bass.  I mean, you can’t get much better than that.  So, it was a wonderful thing to be a part of.

IF:  I want to switch gears here for a minute, because a lot of people know you from the movie This is Spinal Tap.  I’ve seen the movie many times, big fan of it – in fact, I kind of used it as a measuring stick when I was dating years ago.  If the woman didn’t laugh at it – she’s outta here.

HS: You are not the only person to use that measuring stick, by the way.  I’m very proud that that’s part of people’s dating criteria now.

IF:  Now, just watching it, it seems like you’re kind of, at times, having trouble holding it together.  It seems like you’re laughing from each other’s jokes, like you don’t know what’s coming next.  Was a lot of it ad-libbed?

HS:  Totally improvised.

IF:  Wow

HS:  Not ad-libbed, improvised.  The difference being, ad-lib is about talking, and improvisation is about listening, to get scientific for a minute.  But, it was all improvised.  The only time we were really even in danger of cracking up, frankly, was during the Fred Willard scene, where he’s taking us around the air force base.  Fred is from a planet right near Mars.  Everybody was brilliant in that film, but he was the one that challenged us the most to hold it together.  Otherwise, I think we were pretty much in character, listening to move the plot forward.

IF:  Are you surprised at the longevity of the movie?

HS:  Astounded.  This was a little, low-budget film that was made by a film company, halfway on its journey to bankruptcy, and the head of the company didn’t want to release it.  So, from the idea that those dire beginnings, come something that people are still talking about and basing their dating decisions on in 2012, is just astonishing.  You can’t predict this stuff.  Y’know, you see every year 75, 85, 200 million dollars being spent by Hollywood on something that you look at and you say “how can anybody think this would be a movie.”  So, you really can’t predict this stuff.

IF:   I see where in 2002, the Library of Congress deemed it “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”  I’m not sure which one, but it’s in the preservation in the National Film Registry.

HS:  We in the Li-Brary baby!

IF:  The other thing that made me fall off the couch, was when “Gimme Some Money” (the Spinal Tap song), was used in a commercial.

HS:  Oh yeah.  By the way, they didn’t want to pay for the rights to our recording of the song.

IF:  Unbelievable.

HS:  They got guys in to…now, this is like – “how much water do you add to the skim milk and still call it milk”?  They had guys come in to imitate us.  Of course, we were imitating British bands of the 1960’s.  These guys came in to actually ape our performance.  Those cheap bastards!

IF:  Exactly!  So, I didn’t know that – it’s NOT you guys playing in the commercial?

HS:  It’s not us.  They almost never use the real people.  They have soundalikes come in, because “old Daddy green.”

IF:  Well, let’s move subjects here, let’s talk the Simpsons.  23 years, is that right?

HS:  Yep.  Working on Season 24 right now.

IF:  Unbelievable.  How did you originally get involved in the show?  Did they see you from Spinal Tap?

HS:  No, Matt Groening was a fan of my radio show, and he knew that both there, and on SNL, that I did a lot of different characters and a lot of different vocal characters.  They just called me out of the blue one day and said “you wanna do this thing”?  And I said “no, I don’t really want to do a cartoon thing” having no idea what it was.  And they twisted my arm two or three times and said “it will be fun, it will be an hour a week,” which was not true.

IF:  (laughs)

HS:  Finally, i just said, “okay,” and that was pretty close to the best decision – aside from marrying Judith, pretty close to the best decision I’ve ever made in my life.

IF:  Now, you have a whole bevy of characters that you do, did it start out that way?

HS:  Yeah, I was hired as the guy – that’s what I mean.  They had the family already in place, in terms of the actors.  And, Dan (Castellaneta) was, and is, very versatile.  I think they needed somebody to do a lot more characters, so that’s why they brought me in.  Yeah, the idea from the beginning was that I was going to do a bunch of characters.

IF:  it’s interesting where I read that early on, as a childhood actor, that you befriended Mel Blanc.

HS:  Well, I worked on the same show as Mel Blanc, and he kind of took a friendly interest in me.  He had a son the same age as me, so he was my best friend on the cast of the Jack Benny Program.  I know, it seems ironic because Mel was the voice of all the great Looney Tunes characters, with the exception of Elmer Fudd.  If you were looking at this from the distance of Mars…there’s another plug for Mars…we’re doing a shout out to Mars here.

You would say “gee, that’s an influence – that boy, he’s destined because he was working with Mel Blanc, and then he ends up here.  But, in fact, many twists and turns, and improbable strokes of luck along the way happened.

IF:  And, you’re still doing the radio show (Le Show on public radio).

HS:  Yeah, can’t stop.

IF:  We’re talking about your marriage in Hollywood years – but, talking about a radio show in “radio years” – my God, you’ve been doing it 500 years.

HS:  Yeah, I know.  Every week, I think about stopping (laughs).  Because, it’s basically…I have a few people who send me clips of news stories that I bounce off of on the show, but in terms of the actual work of putting it together, it’s a one-man operation.  Which is one of the things I like about radio.  You can do that.  You can have a cast of thousands, and a lot of sketches, and songs, and really still, more than ever, do it yourself.  And, I’m in a situation where I have access to a worldwide audience, and yet, nobody sees or hears what I’m going to do before I do it.  And, I never have a meeting afterwards, so it’s pretty much the most untrammeled form of mass media I’ve ever experienced.  So, the part of me that says “I’d love to stop doing this, and have an actual Sunday to myself” is shot down by the part that says “don’t you know how lucky you are”?

IF:  Very true.  Are you doing any touring for Can’t Take a Hint record?

HS:  We are trying to find some dates that fit into my schedule.  I”m going off to do a TV series in Great Britain in the next couple of weeks – that keeps me out of the country probably through Thanksgiving.

IF:  Wow

HS:  So, after that, we’re trying to put together some dates.  I’d love to.  I toured – did some dates with a wonderful band that we put together a couple years ago for my second album, Songs of the Bushmen, all about people that used to work with George W. Bush.  Lee Sklar and a bunch of great musicians.  I named them the “High Value Detainees” and they all came out in orange jumpsuits.

Now, I was at Whole Foods the other day and I saw a sign in the produce section that said “Young White Coconuts” – if we do dates for this album, that’ll be the name.

IF:  I didn’t know there was a distinction between the young white and the

HS:  Old black coconuts?

IF:  Grey coconuts

HS:  Or the old yellow coconuts

IF:  Exactly!  Alright Harry, well good luck on the new CD, It’s called Can’t Take a Hint.  Hope to see you out on the road, and we’ll be checking – harryshearer.com is the website as well.  We appreciate you talking to us.

HS:  Thank you.  My pleasure.