Derek Smalls, the legendary bassist for Spinal Tap, is bringing his Lukewarm Water Live! tour to the Wiltern in Los Angeles on Wednesday, Sept. 6. Paste recently spoke to the elder statesman of rock about the show, his 2018 album Smalls Change (Meditations Upon Aging), and how rock ‘n’ roll has changed in the decades since This Is Spinal Tap revived their careers in 1984.
Paste: Why was this the right time to do a solo tour and album?
Derek Smalls: Well, because I’m going to be dead soon. Hurry on up, then. Y’know. I’ve been waiting patiently for the band to reform and that’s not going to happen, so I saw this advert from the British Fund for Aging Rockers, which apparently uses the money left over from austerity to give money to aging rockers, hence the name. I applied and they said “what’s your idea” and I said “my idea is that you give me money and I make a record.” And that turned out to be the magic words that opened the door.
Paste: When was the British Fund for Aging Rockers established? And what exactly is its remit?
Smalls: I think the name is rather self-explanatory. They give money to aging rockers. It was founded, I think, in 2015, that’s what the logo says in very small font size. But that’s when I found out about it, a year or two after that, I was over in Albania playing with a friend of mine who was a near-death metal band called Chainsaw Vermin and that’s when I saw the advert.
Paste: You mentioned that it doesn’t seem like a Spinal Tap reunion will be in the cards again. How do David St. Hubbins and Nigel Tufnel feel about your solo work?
Smalls: I don’t think the cards are going to be in the cards, to tell you the truth. I have not heard from David. I hear from him, I get occasional letters in the post, which I open up in anticipation and they’re all Chinese pictograms. I don’t read bloody Chinese pictograms. Nige, who is very complementary, he’s down south of England, has a big spread, and he’s breeding miniature livestock. He took time out from that, which is very hand’s on as you can imagine, to send a complementary note, so I think all’s good in that department. He tried raising miniature horses. You know how guitar players are, they’re very extreme kinds of personalities, so he’s got it so far down to where he can’t find jockeys small enough to ride them. Then he turned to goats—I mean, he didn’t turn to goats, he started breeding.
Paste: Why didn’t he try to breed jockeys small enough to ride the horses?
Smalls: I don’t think that’s legal in the United States. Or in Britain, for that matter. I don’t think you can deliberately try to down breed humans. It happens spontaneously.
Paste: So if you’ve got a west coast tour lined up in November, with a star-studded band. How did you put this group together?
Smalls: Well, I started making phone calls, and just persisted. As with the record, as you noticed—well, perhaps not—is similarly star-studded—actually even more star-studded, because there are a lot of drummers on it as well… but it’s hard to carry extra drummers [live]. We went through that with Tap and it’s not advisable. I’d call, ring them up, and I forget which one it was, but one said that the two words that seemed to typify the spirit of warmth and generosity that was typical of the response was “pity fuck.” And I think that… I take that the right way.
Paste: Was there anybody you reached out to who wasn’t able to participate?
Smalls: In terms of the tour, yeah. Because our schedules conflicted with stuff. It’s not something I take personally. I try not to take any of it personally. But a couple rockers didn’t want to play on the record because their girlfriends didn’t like the lyrics. It’s that time, if you know what I mean.
Paste: What are some of the specific lyrics that they weren’t into?
Smalls: I think one of them objected just to the song called “Gummin’ the Gash.” You’d have to ask her.
Paste: You’ve had a long, illustrious career in rock ‘n’ roll. You’re doing this new tour. Do you feel like rock ‘n’ roll is still relevant in the year 2019?
Smalls: Well, you know, it takes its place. It’s no longer… it’s relevant but not dominant. The last song on the record and in the set that we perform live is called “When Men Did Rock.” In the 1970s a lot of bands, including us, would look back in time to Medieval times or before and write fairly stunning, powerful ballads about those times and lift them up as emblematic of glory past. And now that’s how I write about the 1970s, a time when men did rock. It’s not that time anymore. Men do still rock but it’s not capital letter Rock anymore, it’s just rock. Because there are all these other kinds of music—“so-called”—I mean, I’m being generous—that are about now.
Paste: Do you miss those days or have you resigned yourself to the way the world is now?
Smalls: Well, I mean, it’s like when my dad was about, and he looked back at the big band days and so forth, and it was like they had big bands still touring as I was coming up, but they were not the same as they were back in the ‘30s and ‘40s, he would say. When they were big, they were 18 people, and then they had like four or five people playing, big bands, they weren’t quite the same. I think in rock we’ve kept the numbers the same on the stage, but I don’t think they’re the same out in the audience.
Paste: Speaking of numbers, you’re going to be joined by a symphony orchestra on this tour, right?
Smalls: Yes, yes, yes, yes. On selected dates, because it’s a cliché these days for rockers of a certain age to perform with a symphony orchestra—if you don’t have a symphony orchestra, you know, it’s like please stay home, mate—but it’s almost a cliché to even mention it. So I, in selected cities, I will be having two symphony orchestras, one live, and then the other live by satellite from Budapest. And there’ll be a synchronized two symphony performance, which has never been done, and I really don’t know why.
Paste: Are there any current rock ‘n’ roll bands, younger bands on the scene, that you’re really into today?
Smalls: Oh yeah, I mean, that’s the great thing, young people are still making rock ‘n’ roll music. I don’t want to mention them by name because, you know, they haven’t promoted me, but yeah, rock ‘n’ roll is not dead. It’s perhaps in advanced stages of something. But it’s definitely not dead yet. There are kids coming up who still sling a guitar with great ease and great dexterity and all that. But they’d have to pay men to mention their names at this point.
Paste: You mentioned that austerity is funding the British Fund for Aging Rockers. How has all the confusion over Brexit impacted your ability to tour?
Smalls: We haven’t tried to tour Europe yet. We’ve stayed away from that because of the problem you mentioned. It’s like, to tour America or Canada or something like that, really isn’t effected by it. The minute you say “we’re going to do a tour” and you start in London and then you go over to, what’s next, France or Belgium or something, that’s where you might run into trouble. “Hold on, mate. Let’s see your passport.” Then it gets worse from there. I don’t know, maybe it does. Maybe it’s Bob’s your uncle. We’ll find out soon.
Paste: It’s been 35 years since Marty DiBergi’s movie really put you on the map in America. In retrospect how do you feel about the movie and its impact on your career?
Smalls: I’d say, like a lot of cities do, maybe you’re better off not being on the map. That was a hatchet job. Everyone knows that he has this scene in it where we’re in Cleveland and can’t find our way to the bloody stage, and I’m no mathematician, but about 93.5% of the time on that tour we found our way to the bloody stage. He doesn’t show you that, does he? Maybe a slightly less percentage, maybe 82% of the time, I got out of the bleeding pub. He doesn’t show you that. He had an agenda. I’m not being critical of the man, I think, you know, I’ve had some therapy, and I think he really was as he represented himself to be, a fan of the band, when he asked to make a document of our tour. But it’s all twisted up. He sees this band that he loves, and 18 years on they haven’t quite broken through, and he thinks to himself, “great, I’ll help them break through by turning them into a laughingstock.” And that’s what he did. We all felt used by him at the time, but my dad, who was still around, and he was a very wise man, “Duff” Smalls, and he said to me one day when I was particularly down about it, “son, it’s better to be a laughingstock than no stock at all.”
Paste: It has to be a double-edge sword. Here we are talking to you in 2019, and the bass player from, I don’t know, Status Quo isn’t putting out a new album and getting interviewed. There’s a certain level of fame you’re going to have for the rest of your career.
Smalls: There is. And it’s fame I’ll have to live down, but it’s fame nonetheless. Living down fame is one of the things you can do with lame.
Paste: Speaking of Cleveland, what’s up with the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame? How have they not put the Tap in there yet?
Smalls: You’d have to ask them. I think it’s all down to politics. There are certain bands that fling about the cash, and it’s political cash that is to say—or it’s the politics of cash. And I’m not making accusations, I’m just saying flat out.
Paste: You have to play ball with Jann Wenner to get in there, I think.
Smalls: And I don’t even play ball. I mean, my fitness regime is running against water. Resistance running. You’re supposed to do it in the pool. I don’t have a bloody pool, I do it in the tub. But still. It keeps me fit.
Paste: Okay. One last question and I’ll let you go. Given your long career, everything you’ve seen, the excesses of the music industry—there’s a lot of debate right now about so-called “cancel culture.” My question is, why wouldn’t people want to cancel culture today, with the way the world is? How do you feel, as an old rocker, about the cultural climate today?
Smalls: I could cancel some culture. I could live forever without seeing Carmen again, for example. You know. Girl works in a cigar factory, so what? And maybe some Wagner. Cancel Wagner, I say. That’s the culture I’d cancel. “Proper” culture.
Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.