Harry Shearer

by Dan MacIntosh

The movie This Is Spinal Tap came out in 1984. If you haven't seen it, you won't get the jokes about exploding drummers and gadgets that "go to 11" that have seeped into popular culture. The film was so convincing in its portrayal of the stereotypical metal band that many viewers believed Spinal Tap was a real band, which in a sense, they were.

Harry Shearer played Derek Smalls, the lukewarm water bassist in the act between the fire and ice of David St. Hubbins (Michael McKean) and Nigel Tufnel (Christopher Guest). The actors wrote and performed the songs in the movie, including "Big Bottom" and "Tonight I'm Gonna Rock You Tonight." McKean, Guest and Shearer have reprised their roles from time to time, reuniting in 1992 for the Spinal Tap album Break Like the Wind, and playing the Glastonbury Festival in 2009, where they followed Metallica.

In 2003, the trio took on the absurdities folk music in the film A Mighty Wind, where they played a group called The Folksmen, who again made appearances as a real band.

Shearer is also known for his various voiceover roles on The Simpsons, where he plays Mr. Burns, Ned Flanders and Otto Mann, the bus driver.

All kidding aside, though, Shearer is a serious musician. His wife, singer-songwriter Judith Owen, often puts him to work whenever she's recording her albums and even takes him on the road in her band. His eclectic taste in music can be heard during his weekly radio program, Le Show, which mixes commentary, funny skits and music. This show is heavily weighted towards New Orleans music, where Shearer owns a home. His latest album is called Can't Take A Hint, and features Dr. John, Jane Lynch, and Jamie Cullum.
Dan MacIntosh (Songfacts): Do you look at songwriting as just another way of expressing your comedic talents, or do you look at songwriting as a completely separate discipline in and of itself?

Harry Shearer: Both are true. I got into it, obviously, to express comedic stuff. But living with a songwriter, singer, musician of a very high order, I was on notice fairly early on. I don't know if these were her exact words, but they're pretty close: "It's okay if you do comedy music, but it better damn well be good music."

So the more you do anything, the better you get, hopefully. The more you learn. And so on this record (Can't Take a Hint), for example, for the first time there are two songs that really aren't trying to be funny. So that just happened, that wasn't the plan. So as time goes on, given the fact that I feel more and more comfortable with the craft of songwriting, more different kind of stuff comes out.

The vast majority of the stuff I do is satirical, and is driven by a satirical impulse. But when you feel more comfortable with it as a craft and as a mode of expression, other things will say, Hey, I'm here, too.

Songfacts: Would you say that you've learned about songwriting from your wife? Just playing with her and being with her, has that helped you to improve your craft as a songwriter?

Harry: I'm sure something has rubbed off. I don't want to blame her for anything I do. But it's also just doing it a lot. And having listened to all sorts of different kind of songwriters since I was a kid, from the classic American songbook writers, the Gershwins and Cole Porter and those guys and the classic rock and roll songwriters, from Lieber and Stoller all the way up to the guys in Fountains of Wayne, my ear goes much more to songs and songwriting than to, let's say, instrumental brilliance. So that's where I've always been listening as a listener. Hopefully I've stolen stuff from anybody good that I've heard. (Laughs)

Songfacts: Well, let's talk a little bit about the songs and The Simpsons, because music is such a big part of that show. And you get a chance to sing songs there. I assume you contribute to writing those songs, as well; is that right?

Harry: No. You assume wrongly. I have nothing to do with the writing of any part of The Simpsons. I'm purely a performer. I made an offer to write a song for one of my characters fairly early on and was courteously and gently rebuffed. (Laughing) I think because the guys who write the show would like to get the royalties.

Songfacts: I see. What are some of your favorite memories from working on The Simpsons?

Harry: When Michael Jackson guest starred on the show, we went to, I don't know whose house it was, but somebody's house in Bel Air. I think it was probably his manager's house, for the read through of the show. That was pretty remarkable only for the fact that he was about 15-20 minutes late, which ordinarily would mean everybody would be chit chatting. But something about the vibe of the place, nobody said anything. Everybody sat in silence waiting for Michael to come.

And then when we actually did the show, he came down to the Fox studio where we recorded at the time, and I don't know if you recall the episode, he was playing a character that was a 300 pound white mental patient who fantasized that he was Michael Jackson. So Michael did all the vocal parts when we read it again at the stage. The character in the show sang special lyrics to "Ben," and when it came time to sing, Michael sat back, nodded, and a guy that we'd not noticed before, a white guy sitting across from him at the table, started singing in a ridiculously accurate Michael Jackson voice. (This was Kipp Lennon, who is often a musical voice on the show.)

And I thought about it for a minute, and then I realized, I guess we paid enough for the talking Michael Jackson, but not enough for the singing Michael Jackson.

Songfacts: How cool is that? I know that you've kind of grown up in Hollywood basically, being a child actor and you've been around it. But still, those moments when you're around people like Michael Jackson...

Harry: You remember them. Let's put it that way. You remember them. You remember those moments. (Laughing)

Songfacts: You should. Let's talk about Spinal Tap, which I'm hoping that my assumptions are correct.

Harry: Well, we'll see.

Songfacts: That you collaborated on writing those songs.

Harry: Yes. We all collaborated on writing the songs for Spinal Tap, the movie songs, and then the latter two bunches of songs for the last two records, we would individually come in with songs and then the rest of the guys made suggestions and improvements and stuff. So it's collaborative, but it's less thoroughly collaborative from start to finish than the original movie songs were.

Songfacts: My favorite moment of seeing the movie is I went with my older sister who was kind of a hard rock fan at the time. And she didn't get it. She watched it pretty seriously, and I was giggling the whole way through. Do you run into people who don't realize just how silly that film is?

Harry: Yeah. I'm given to understand by press reports that Liam Gallagher of Oasis sort of was in that same position of not quite apprehending that it wasn't a real band. And we hear about that from time to time. And we feel badly for those people.

Songfacts: Yes, we do. I have my favorite songs, especially from the film. But do you have any particulars that you like that whenever you do your tours with the band that you enjoy playing?

Harry: We've done two or three different arrangements of "Big Bottom." I always love playing "Big Bottom." Otherwise, I love them all. "Stonehenge," probably just because it's musically the silliest song. And the song I really, really love playing and singing is the song that Michael and I wrote for A Mighty Wind, "Never Did No Wandering." I just love that song. We went to exactly the right place to get that song. I'm very pleased with it. And it is fun to play and sing.

Songfacts: I assume that you probably love the music that you parodied with A Mighty Wind more than the music that you did Spinal Tap.

Harry: I don't know. We were making fun of a very specific thing, which was not real folk music, but what people were writing trying to get pop hits dressed up as folk music. And so, I had the little purest bug in me at the time thinking, Wow, the Kingston Trio version of this song sounds sort of scrubbed up from what it used to be, when I last heard it. So it was that scrubbed up kind of folk music. And the earnestness of those guys, or at least the pose of earnestness, was every bit as funny in a way as the earnestness of the metal guys. So I wouldn't say that.

Chris Guest's son used to ask him when he was going to go out and do a gig, "Are these the British guys or the old guys?" And the basic difference is that when we do the old guys, we can hear each other.

Songfacts: Do you have any favorite metal bands?

Harry: Well, none of them are what I sit and listen to in the car out of choice. But I have to say, when we played Glastonbury - and this is good programming - we came on after Metallica. Good luck to us. So we were standing backstage listening to Metallica's set, and I have to say that's one of the best live performances by any kind of band I've ever seen anywhere. I have to admire everything they did on that stage. It was ridiculously good. So I pick them.

Songfacts: Let me put you on the spot and ask you who some of your favorite songwriters are, just from the craftsmanship and their ability to create songs. Who do you look to as people that are your favorites?

Harry: Well, I mentioned, you know, the Gershwins, Rogers and Hart not Rodgers and Hammerstein, Rogers and Hart, in the rock era Lieber and Stoller, Lennon and McCartney. I think McCartney has been much derided in his post Beatles period as this lyricist. But I think as a melodist, as a writer of melody, no matter what the lyrics are, he's right up there. I love Difford and Tilbrook (Squeeze) and I love, as I said, the guys in Collingwood and Adam Schlesinger, Fountains of Wayne. I'm a big fan of Andy Partridge of XTC, I love a lot of his songwriting. Those are the ones that come - I love Ray Davies. Mary Chapin Carpenter and Lyle Lovett in the alt-country world, I think are wonderful songwriters.

And then there are people that are less well known. I'm a big fan of this sort of a bluesy jazzy guy out of Memphis named Charlie Wood, who's written some great songs on his first three or four records out of Memphis. Mose Allison, fabulous songwriter. Holland-Dozier-Holland and Smokey Robinson, the classic Motown songwriter guys. Just amazing work.

And what I loved was that you'd hear a certain lyrical trope or a certain musical set of changes and you'd realize, well, that was just the thing that was going around the office that day. This would appear in three or four Motown songs within the space of a couple of weeks and you realize, okay, so that was the day that they all were playing around with, "I look in the mirror but it's your face I see." That happened in like three or four songs. And you'd get the idea that that was really like a little factory, but what an amazing factory it was.

Songfacts: Did your love for New Orleans music precede your love for the city, or vice versa?

Harry: Vice versa. I knew nothing about New Orleans when I heard the first Dr. John record, and it knocked me out. I knew nothing about New Orleans when I was an artist for a brief moment on Warner Brothers with Michael McKean, David Lander and Richard Beebe in a comedy group called The Credibility Gap. And so I got a lot of Warner's records for free. And you'd just play them and listen to them and see what you like. And this one record landed on my turntable and didn't leave for 8 1/2 months. Every time I played it I played it louder. It was "Rejuvenation" by the Meters. I had no idea who or what the Meters were, I just knew that was the move groovalicious record I'd ever heard.

And then I come down here, realize who they are, get to know them. So yeah, the music preceded. And the Lee Dorsey hits, all the stuff that Allen Toussaint did long before I came here in my head. I mean, he's a great songwriter, too. I shouldn't leave him out of the list. Amazing songwriter with amazing range in terms of subject matter, in terms of style. And in terms of longevity.

Songfacts: How much of a thrill was it to have Dr. John perform on your record?

Harry: Amazing. I mean, I got to New Orleans too late to see or get to know Professor Longhair or James Booker. I got here just in time to see Johnny Adams and Raymond Miles. When you're here, you're really aware of the importance of these folks and, you know, it's at the opposite end of the spectrum in a sense from pop stars. The music they make comes straight out of them and is expressing something that's not momentary. It's something deep. And I've gotten to know Mac a little bit, and so to have him say, I like that song, I'd like to do it, that was just amazing. Amazing. Amazing. And he brought such such great stuff to it that it was a total thrill.
Dr. John, which is Mac Rebennack's stage name, started as a session musician in the late '50s. In the '70s, though, he became popular for his theatrical shows, which incorporated elements from medicine shows and voodoo ceremonies. He had a big hit in 1973 with "Right Place, Wrong Time," which featured his gravelly voice. In addition to being a talented singer/songwriter, Dr. John is also a fantastic, New Orleans-styled pianist.

Songfacts: I really enjoy listening to Le Show. And I wonder, you incorporate so much music on the show, would you not do the show if you couldn't also play some of your favorite records?

Harry: Well, you mention Le Show, I should mention the guys that I've been playing a lot, I love their songwriting, is the Wood Brothers. But yeah, to me, an hour of just my voice, I wouldn't listen to that. So my use of music, sometimes it's thematic, sometimes it's arbitrary. But it's always there to help my sense of how a radio show should be paced and how mood should be changed.

I got told one time or another, Get rid of the music. And I say, No, thank you. Thanks for the suggestion. I love the idea that people would think that, Oh, I see, I've been making this mistake all this time. Only needed you to come by and hip me to it that why would I be playing music in this show? I see, because I think it belongs there. Thank you.

Yeah, I mean, it's that's just how I hear the show. It also energizes me or makes me feel different things as I listen to it, because I do listen to it as the show goes on. So it has an impact on me, so maybe it has the same impact on a listener or a different impact. But it's a basic change, gear change in the show that I feel is utterly necessary. So I would have been given the chance to do it without music and I have said no, thank you. So I'd do that again.
Le Show, Harry Shearer's long-running radio show, originates at public radio station KCRW in Santa Monica, and has been on the air since 1983. As it's a weekly program, it allows Shearer to have fun with the news with timely, side-splitting commentary on current events. In between commentary and skits, Shearer also plays some of his favorite music.

Songfacts: How serious do you take yourself as a bass player?

Harry: Fortunately, not very. I practice every day and my real love right now is the upright bass. But I love playing both instruments. I live in a city full of great musicians, I know where I am in that pecking order. I'm fine with that. I don't have any illusions. I'm an amateur, but I work hard and I've been allowed to get on stage and jam with some acts down here. That's happened from time to time and I felt incredibly privileged and extremely nervous. But I love to play.

October 24, 2012. Get more at harryshearer.com.
More Songwriter Interviews

Comments: 3

  • Bluesboy from San DiegoNice interview. I remember Harry from The Credibility Gap back in the late '60s and early '70s Los Angeles radio. Back when Firesign Theatre and the like reigned Supreme.
  • Jim from North Billerica, MaI love harry Shearer. I like to see people who versatile and are schooled in a variety of things. And, He was dead on as Derek Smalls. Absolutely dead on.
  • Zhivko from Bourgas, BulgariaWonderful interview. I wish there was some kind of audio record of it. I would love to feel the energy he's been sharing while doing it.
see more comments

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