When former Spinal Tap bassist Derek Smalls speaks with Rolling Stone for our Last Word interview series, he’s a bit nervous. “You’re not talking to people who are dying, are you?” he asks in his famously thick English accent. “I mean is that the idea of ‘The Last Words’? It’s not like, ‘I told you I was sick’?”
He’s relieved upon learning that the conversation would be more about his life philosophies and lessons he’s learned. After all, he’s had a unique career, which started with Spinal Tap in 1964, traversing psychedelia and heavy metal – as chronicled in the 1984 rockumentary This Is Spinal Tap – and leading up to his first solo album, the new Smalls Change. With nearly five decades to reflect upon, he quickly found his groove and began answering questions with no hesitation. So, if the Last Word were the sort of interview meant for dying people, what would his farewell to the world be? “Rock on.”
What’s the best part of success and what’s the worst?
This may be oversimplifying, but the best part of success is when you go about a city and people recognize you and offer to buy you drinks. The worst is when they stop and tell you that you have to leave.
Aren’t you rich enough to buy your own drinks? I thought you might still be living off royalties from Spinal Tap’s The Sun Never Sweats.
No. [Former Spinal Tap manager] Mr. Faith took care of those.
What are the most important rules you live by?
I’ve got one: When you get up in the morning, stay up. Half your work is done just doing that, because, to me at least, the bed never looks better than when you’ve gotten up out of it.
I’ll have to try that myself.
Well you’re up now, so you know the basic outline of it.
What is the best advice you ever got?
Got it from my dad, Duff, Duff Smalls. He said more than once, “Derek, ignore the advice that other people give you.” I think that was just because he wanted me to follow him. It was meant to be double-edged; it was meant both to be guidance and also to cleave me to him more thoroughly. But I found it to be good advice over time because most of the advice people give you is shite.
Did he ever manage you?
No, no, no. I wish he had but he was in technology. He had a business sanitizing telephone headsets. There was a great deal of germophobia in Great Britain after the war and he would go out in this little van every week and spray his proprietary formula on people’s telephone headsets. It’s a pity he hasn’t lived to see this day because nothing is as germy as a mobile phone.
You have a song about mobile phones on your new album called “Butt Call.” Who is the most famous person to have butt-called you?
Rob Brydon, English comedian. My number was one digit off from Steve Coogan’s at one point. He eventually figured it out but it is literally a pain in the ass.
Who are your heroes and why?
Napoleon. He was short and still made a big impression. I’m 5’8″ and, sometimes in rock & roll, that’s looked at, not to engage in wordplay, but as a shortcoming. I try to follow … what’s his first name? Oh, Napoleon was his first name. I also try to follow him in making a big impression from my particular standpoint.
Do you consider yourself a Napoleonic bandleader?
No, I’m more like a scoutmaster.
Not the kind you’re thinking of.
What kind then?
Well, the kind that doesn’t diddle around with boys.
I’m sure the band appreciates that.
I’m sure we all do.
So you’re teaching them how to tie knots and start fires?
Well, I’m making them wear the little neckerchiefs in rehearsal just as a disciplinary move. And there’s a fine jar if they get out of line.
Tell me about the fine jar.
Well, we have females in the show. So when we’re rehearsing sometimes the musicians will tell a good scummy story from time to time, and I had to say straight away, “Not going to make any rules about what you can’t say, but when you tell one of those stories it’s five dollars into the #MeToo jar.”
Do you regret recording the song “Bitch School” then? It certainly has #MeToo overtones.
No. “Bitch School” was about dog training. Only the dirty minds at MTV could get that wrong.
What about the proposed cover you had for Smell the Glove?
It sounds worse than it was. It was an absolutely consensual photograph.
What is your all-time favorite book?
War and Peace. It stands there as a lifelong challenge for me because I’ve never read it. It just looks down on me and says, “I’m waiting for you, mate.” It’s like one of those paintings that follows you about the room, daring you to read it. It’s a very powerful book without ever opening it. People will say, “It’s like War and Peace,” but I’m not sure they read it. I think the strange truth is Tolstoy wrote it and I don’t even think he read it. That’s the power that book had. It came out of him, and he went, “That’s enough of that.”
What do you do to relax?
Watch football and rugby. My football club is Shrewsbury. I had thought about buying them at one point, when Elton John – Reg – bought a football club. I thought, “Right. That’s what you do.” And I got kind of fond of Shrewsbury and thought about buying them, but it turns out even the piece of a non-premier league club is a little too dear so I just follow them from a distance and pretend that I own them and fire people but they still stay employed. So it’s the best of both worlds really.
What do you wish someone had told you about the music business?
These waters are not shark-infested; there’s no water, just sharks.
So it’s just a pit of land filled with sharks?
Well, it’s just sharks. There’s just enough water for the sharks to swim, but it’s not shark-infested waters. There’s a lot more sharks than water. It’s not like they’re land-sharks or anything.
Speaking of sharks, Spinal Tap’s album Shark Sandwich was once reviewed with just two words: “Shit Sandwich.”
Yeah, it’s a bit glib, don’t you think?
What have you learned about handling criticism since then?
Oh, just to call it a bit glib. It works every time. Whatever they say about you, “it’s a bit glib.” It suggests they haven’t really listened or that they don’t really understand music, but you don’t want to go into that so you stick with, “It’s a bit glib.” It sounds a bit tossy.
What is the most indulgent purchase you’ve ever made?
A diamond-encrusted toilet brush. That was a few thousand quid in the Eighties, when quids were good.
Where are the diamonds located on it?
On the handle, not on the business end. It was not my idea. My first wife, Cindy, insisted on it. The things you do for the ones you love – get ’em a diamond-encrusted toilet brush.
Who got custody of the brush in the divorce?
She did. The divorce was a less indulgent purchase than the brush. I had no interest in the brush. It’s just a monument to stupidity, really. It’s a waste of good diamonds or, on the other hand, a waste of a good brush.
You have a song on your new album, “Memo to Willie,” that appears to be about your ability to perform. What is the secret to maintaining your sex drive at your age?
Well, it’s not about mine, it’s about one’s. I’ve been in this country a few times, and I’ve turned on the tellie and, before you sit down, there’s an advert with a geezer in his thirties or forties with a partner of the female persuasion, and it says, “When the time comes, will he be ready?” And he needs a bloody pill. And I’m thinking, “What’s going on here?” You used to hear, “This is what happens when you get old.” But the geezer in the ad is barely middle-aged. So is this a secret problem with my mates in the men department all over the English-speaking world? In Britain, you don’t have these adverts allowed, so is this an American problem? The song is a way of saying, “Look, you don’t need a pill. Just give him a stern talking to: ‘Get it up! Get it up! Get it up!‘” Hence the chorus.
You have another track, “Rock and Roll Transplant,” about getting older while still rocking out. Has that gotten harder?
It doesn’t change. If you look at where rock & roll came from, it came from blues and country music. And those people played ’til they dropped. You just do it. Unless you’re bloody rich – or Buddy Rich – you just don’t stop. Jagger could afford to stop, couldn’t he? He’s not doing it for the money. But you just keep doing it. “Rock and Roll Transplant” is about how that’s what you need. Get that back in your life. Your problem is you haven’t been rocking hard enough. You thought, “I’ll just put this away now and sit and listen to, I don’t know, Julio Iglesias or his son or somebody.” You gotta get back up and rock & roll. Bang your bloody head, mate.
Spinal Tap never had much luck with drummers. What’s your secret to keeping your rhythm section together as a solo artist and maintaining a sound?
I don’t like to make a big deal about my spiritual practice, but I’m equated with the ways of Satan. I could see that the curse that plagued or attached itself to Spinal Tap was somehow connected to the three of us as a threesome, and you know about the power of three. But me as a solo artist, and I’m not patting myself on any part of my body, every single drummer who played on the record feels better now than before they played on it. I believe it’s now a reversed curse.
Are you saying they’ll now live forever?
I don’t know if they’ll live forever. That’s up to Satan.
On the subject of curses and bad fortune, you famously once got stuck inside a pod that didn’t open up onstage during “Rock and Roll Creation.” Now that you’ve had years to reflect, what did you learn from that experience?
Stay out of the bloody pod. They’re no good.
That was featured in the rockumentary This Is Spinal Tap. How do you feel about that experience in hindsight?
That film was a bit of a hatchet job. We were on a 26-, well, 25-city tour – one pulled out – of America. I’m gonna approximate here, but about 90.0427 percent of the time, I got out of the pod straightaway. The same percentage of the time, we found our way straightaway to the stage. You don’t see that in the film. You could ask yourself why, and I have a one-word answer: “agenda.” The director, Marty [DiBergi], presented himself to us as a fan of the band. I think he said to himself, “Marty, I’ve been a fan of this band for 17 years. They’ve never really broken through. I’d love to help them break through with this film, and the way I can do that is by making them laughingstocks.” That was his agenda.
Did becoming laughingstocks make you more successful?
It’s hard to say. Does it help you if more people know who you are – and you know that because they say, “Hey, Derek, you wearing your zucchini tonight?” [Smalls famously stuffed a zucchini into his pants to enhance his appearance in the film This Is Spinal Tap.] Or if they’re even a bit more dim: “Hey, Derek, are you wearing your cucumber tonight?” because of course it would not be a cucumber; the surface is far too warty for the desired effect.
On another note, what is your secret to mutton-chop maintenance?
If I was starting out again and looking for a look, I’d probably stick to this one. You just need a magnifying mirror to do it right. I do it with little scissors and then the occasional electric shave. Little scissors can poke you in the finger if you’re not careful, so always wear gloves. Well, not always, but wear them when you’re doing that. Don’t wear gloves when you’re playing bass, for example.
What is your workout routine like these days? You had a six-pack on the cover of Break Like the Wind.
It goes back and forth. I take a good, brisk walk every day, often to the fridge. Do I count steps to the fridge? No, I don’t.
Also, I’d long read about the benefits of “resistance running,” like walking or running against water in a pool, so I’ve taken it up. But lacking a pool, I do my resistance running in the tub. Not as much water, so not as much resistance but the same amount of running. Makes a bit of a mess afterwards, but if you can’t live on the edge then, when can you?
Lastly, for years you’ve had a deranged stalker named Harry Shearer claiming he’s you and doing impressions of you. What have you learned from that?
Well, I’ve had to get security. It’s not a pleasant thing to have these people walking around, sniffing and poking flashlights everywhere just to make sure you’re safe. It’s not the way I’d recommend anybody live, but my stalkers are not to be trifled with – even if they’re just pretending to be you and mean you no harm. It’s best to take professional steps if at all possible.
Would you recommend taking legal action?
No, because that’s a totally different can of worms. And I don’t know who got the idea of putting worms in a can to begin with. It just sounds impractical to me and way too much work for the little reward you get. You know, you use the can opener and, oh, look, there’s worms in here. So what, really? That’s not going to solve dinner.