Derek Smalls Is Risen

The Second, or Third, Coming of a True Rock God
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In entertainment-industry Lingo, Derek Smalls is what’s known as a “get.” Starting with Bass Player’s Premiere issue in 1990, we have been trying—and failing—to feature the legendary former bassist of the legendary former band Spinal Tap on our cover. Due mostly to the über-controlling efforts of Tap’s now-universally hated then-manager, Ian Faith, we simply couldn’t get through to the bass world’s #1 rock god. On our covers, we’ve had Beatles. We’ve had cartoon characters. We’ve had Peruvian mummies and holograms. But we’ve never had Smalls.

Not that he hasn’t appeared in the magazine, mind you: He long benefitted from our news items on his upcoming tours, soaked up the glory from a half-dozen glowing reviews of albums and signature basses, and cashed the checks from appearing on an all-time-record 74 consecutive back-cover ads (Jan/Feb ’91–April ’99, endorsing a long-forgotten product which, decades later, is best left unnamed). That high-visibility stretch began after Spinal Tap had re-imploded and Smalls was dominating Christian MTV with worship-rockers Lambsblood. But embarrassingly, it ended with neither him, nor ’Blood, nor Tap having been heard from in years.

Spinal Tap would regroup several times: in 1992, for the futuro-retrospective Break Like the Wind album and tour; in 2000, for an American tour that included a Carnegie Hall appearance; and once again in 2009, for what might end up being a farewell to the band’s multiple farewell tours. Still, with each Tap relaunch, Derek’s people wouldn’t return our calls. So imagine our delight when we learned that the elusive mastermind behind “Big Bottom” had completed a ten-month studio marathon to record his first solo album in over 40 years, Smalls Change (Meditations Upon Ageing). Featuring a stellar array of guests—from Keith Richards to Donald Fagan to Steve Vai to Larry Carlton to Joe Satriani to Dweezil Zappa, plus an historic bass duet with Michael League—it had “Bass Player cover story” written all over it. And, right on cue, Derek’s publicist began pinging us on social media, sending e-mails, and literally telegraphing to us that his client was available to speak. Finally, the Derek Smalls story would be told. Where even to begin?

Derek Albion Smalls was born a small child on April 1, 1941, in Nilford, on the River Null in England’s West Midlands. His father, a professional telephone-handset sanitizer, had to raise Derek after his mother left to play trombone with a touring dance band. When Derek was 17 he enrolled at the London School of Design, more interested in the school’s initials than art, and connected with some musicians. He picked up the bass and joined a ska band, but everything changed in 1967 when he answered Spinal Tap’s bass player wanted flyer. And the rest, as they say, is proverbial rock-god history.

Already a hero among fans of the Old Wave of British Heavy Metal (OWOBHM), Smalls and his longtime bandmates (singer/guitarist David St. Hubbins and guitarist/singer Nigel Tufnel) became household names with the smash-hit 1984 rockumentary This Is Spinal Tap. The film is reviled by the band—“We call it the hatchet job,” Smalls snarls—but it gave the world an intimate look at the sordid, often seamy underbelly of a major touring rock act firing on all, or at least some, cylinders. Turbulent times followed, and after his brief stint rocking for Christ in Lambsblood, Derek slowed down. His bio after the early 1990s is spotty; he wrote commercial jingles, served as a judge on the Netherlands’ reality competition show RokStarz (before the program was retoooled as Tomorrow’s HipHop Hero), and followed a friend’s near-death-metal band, Chainsaw Vermin, in Albania. Along the way he battled internet addiction and lost a modest fortune in his girlfriend’s tech startup, macrame.com.

Which brings us to Smalls’ current role as a solo artist. Smalls Change is an epic journey through medical procedures, septuagenarian sex, and other senior moments, featuring wall-to-wall orchestrations that would make Queen or ELO blush. Truth be told, given Derek’s previous silence, we expected a gruff, semi-reluctant interview; we thought he might attack younger players on the scene like Gene Simmons, or exhibit contempt for the latest bass trends—but he waved away our prompts for sensational soundbites. “If it isn’t moving forward, it’s moving backward, so good on all of them,” he affirms. It turns out, amid all the onstage posturing, pointing, and well-documented pants-stuffing, at heart Derek Smalls is a thoughtful, impeccably mannered gentleman who loves to talk about rock & roll bass and All Things Loud.

You’ve created some the loudest music ever. How is it possible that you can still hear interview questions?

I have always tried to stand far enough away from my amp, and also from our own drummer, for protective purposes. A lot of bass players like to stand right up next to the drummer. That was never for me. “Don’t stand too close to the drummer” is always good advice.

We music journalists are having a hard time pigeonholing your new album’s genre.

The vision of the record was to both reach higher and reach lower at the same time—to see how far I could push the boundaries before I hit the wall. The walls are beyond the boundaries; that’s why the boundaries are inside the walls. So I went grander. All of these orchestral textures that we would never look at or listen to in Tap, they just opened the door for me, or at least the window. But I can understand why pigeonholing this record would be difficult. You would need more pigeons.

And it was all made possible by the British Fund for Ageing Rockers?

This is a fairly large project, so it took a grant from people who saw that I still had something to say—and that it needed to be said—and, having been said, it needed to be heard—and, having been heard, it didn’t need to be said anymore.

“When Men Did Rock” is notable for your bass duet with Michael League. Did you and Michael record your tracks together or separately?

We recorded separately. Michael is a world traveler, as you know; I think he was in Turkey, or he was doing something with a turkey. I would hear what he did, and then I would answer him. It’s either a duet or a duel. There’s one letter of difference; you decide.

At first I wasn’t sure who was playing which part. Then it became clear.

It’s really obvious, isn’t it? In that particular case, obviousness is a virtue.

Songs like “Butt Call” strike the perfect balance between mature, tasteful restraint and total, abject excess. How did you hit that exact sweet spot?

I think that’s where I live. That’s where Derek goes if left to his own device, or devices. There’s no high without a low. It’s the low that makes the high, and vice- … and the other way.

In the video for the title song, you’re playing your “dollar-sign bass.” Who built that?

Tobias Guitars, for the Break Like the Wind tour, before they sold out to the now-bankrupt Gibson. It’s a great bass because it looks like it’s a bit heavy, but it’s actually quite lightweight—especially given that it has two necks, which are identical.

That must come in handy.

It does, in odd, unpredictable, and surprising ways.

For example?

Ways that would surprise you.

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Someone told me “Gummin’ the Gash” is about a senior sex act—I thought it was about teenagers cutting themselves.

No, no, no. I would never write a song about that. That’s distasteful.

Your singing on the record is admirably low in pitch. Have you always been interested in creating bass frequencies?

It seems to be where my body resonates. I’ve done high parts; there’s a song on Break Like the Wind, “Cash on Delivery,” where I’m singing a bit high. But that’s where my ear goes, and where my ear goes, my fingers and voice follow. My ear always goes down, and I’ve never said, “Here, come, let’s go the other way, ear.”

David and Nigel are conspicuously absent from the all-star guest list. Or you on good or bad terms with them?

Yes, I would say I’m on good or bad terms with them. It fluctuates. With most bands, they’ll get together and they’ll bicker, they’ll break up, and maybe they’ll get back together for the dosh [money]. And then they’ll bicker and break up again. Tap was different: We never bickered. We would just sort of move away from each other, like celestial bodies that had run out of gravity. And when we got more gravity, we got back together. Newton, I think, tells us that if you run out of gravity in one place, there’s more gravity someplace else—so some other band would come together while, or maybe because, we were breaking up. It was almost like physics.

That’s literally heavy.

It’s too heavy, really. We should put it down. But I do hear from Nigel from time to time. He’s deep into his animal husbandry project. He was trying to breed miniature horses for a while, and now he’s on to miniature livestock of other kind. He’s hit a bit of a stumbling block, because the goats he’s been breeding are now too small to milk, and he’s not sure what to do. And I hear from David in the oddest way—I get post [mail] from him on occasion, and it’s just full of Chinese pictograms, which I can’t make out.

How much of a hand did you have in writing “Big Bottom”?

I had a significant hand in writing the riff, which is the centerpiece of the song. The lot of us were about the table when the lyrics were being bashed out, and I was there. I may have come up with the concept, just because I was looking for a way to have the bass step forward at some point in the band. People have said to me, “You put the bass on the map with that song,” although I said, “I couldn’t even find the bass on a map, so I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

There’s some debate in that regard: “Big Bottom” vs. John Entwistle’s solo on the Who’s “My Generation.”

But you couldn’t really hum the bass solo from “My Generation.” When you have the bass doing something hummable, suddenly people go, “Oh, that’s a musical instrument, isn’t it?” Other than just something up there. That’s the key to understanding that there’s music going on: You can hum it. It’s why people don’t think drummers are musicians—you can’t hum the drums. So, “Big Bottom” introduced at least two or three generations to the idea of the bass as a musical instrument. And I say that with all undo modesty.

Playing “Big Bottom” at a Snarky Puppy show at the
 Republic New Orleans club, during 2016 Jazz Fest. (L–R) Michael League, Derek Smalls, Snarky Puppy guitarist Bob Lanzetti.

Playing “Big Bottom” at a Snarky Puppy show at the  Republic New Orleans club, during 2016 Jazz Fest. (L–R) Michael League, Derek Smalls, Snarky Puppy guitarist Bob Lanzetti.

Do you remember the first time you ever played a bass?

My mates and I were sitting around, having a bit of a smoke, as you would, and there was a bass sitting there. As soon as I plugged it in, I was mesmerized by the sounds. I almost scared myself with what I was doing. I wanted to do more of that, and of course it got less scary as time went on.

Were you classically trained?

I wouldn’t say so. I’m quite grateful that I could write all of these new songs without having to do what Mozart did and put all of those dots on all of those lines. To do classical, you have to do dots and lines—and to me, dots and lines are not music, because you can’t hear them. It’s like literature, except without the words.

Who are some of your loudest influences?

I have to say, the bass player in Led Zeppelin [John Paul Jones]. He not only set the table, he sat down and ate at it. And Jack Bruce—the blokes who were playing in trios, because they had to fill so much of the sonic landscape. The bass seemed to power over those bands. I aspired to have that kind of subtle dominance over even four- and five-piece bands.

Let’s talk about your famous one-handed technique.

That’s all about the songwriting. If you can just do a song in, let’s say, A and D, with an occasional G, you can keep your left fist up for the entire song. But most songs lapse into other chords and notes. Like everything else, it’s a matter of practice, and if you walk around with your left fist up raised for about an hour a day, you’re ready for whatever they throw at you musically. But don’t do it with your right arm; otherwise they’ll think you’re a Nazi.

Who are you pointing at all the time while you’re playing?

I’m pointing at you. Not the person you are now, but the person you want to be—the person who is freed by the music to be the real you. The rock & roll you.

Would you say that the bass is an easy instrument?

Maybe too easy. That’s a confession I have to make. It’s why I prefer the 5-string now. I’ve played a 5-string since the Break Like the Wind tour, because it makes the bass that much less easy—and because it lets me go lower. That’s the whole point. If you want to go higher on the bass, why don’t you just play the bloody cello and forget about it?

Jazz musicians’ careers often stretch into their 80s. Are you proving that metal musicians can remain equally relevant?

Well, to me, jazz musicians sound like they started out in their 80s. I don’t mean that as a criticism; it just comes out that way. But I want to play until I drop—that’s all. As I say on the record: Age is just a number; “number” is just a word; “word” is just a thing.

Of all musicians who have ever stood with a bass onstage, you’re one of my favorite standers. Do you have any tips?

It’s all in the legs. Of all the stances I’ve seen by my colleagues, [Metallica’s] Robert Trujillo was the one who really impressed me. He was almost duck-walking, Chuck Berry-style, but even lower. What you’re doing onstage is not just musical, it’s theatrical. I think Shakespeare said that theater begins in the legs. He didn’t say it in one of his plays, because it didn’t rhyme, but I think he said it. I read it somewhere. If your legs aren’t ready for the task, you’re going to be orating from a sitting position, and you lose the projection. I don’t do acting, so I’m now just making this up—but people think that projection comes from the voice or the stomach, when actually, it comes from the legs. The same is true for bass playing. Your machine, your dynamo, is in your legs.

To make it through a show, do you use any appliances or mechanisms to help support your bass, your lower back, and/or your legs?

No—I’m blessed with a very flexible frame. Doctors have told me that; I have asked, “Do I have a very flexible frame?” and they’ll nod yes. It’s the luck of the draw. I wasn’t born beautiful or rich, but I was born with a very flexible frame.

So there’s no truth to the rumor that you’ve had hip-replacement surgeries, including surgery to replace your replacement hips?

That is not true. I’ve still got the hips God gave me. And, they’re in the same place. There was a doctor who wanted to switch them—he didn’t want to do hip replacement, he just wanted to swap them. I cast a quizzical glance at him, but he said, “It’s new, it’s experimental, and it might help.” I said, “Help what?” And he said, “Help me.”

Any thoughts on modern airport security and full-body scanners?

If you’re referring to the moment in the “hatchet job,” that tour was the biggest tour we had done up to that time, and I was concerned about stagefright impacting upon my normal projection of, [pauses] shall we say, puissance. But that fear is long in the past. I don’t recommend wrapping anything in foil and going through a metal detector with it. It’s a fool’s errand.

Other than sheer loudness, would you say “Big Bottom” is your greatest legacy?

My epitaph may very well be those notes. But not written down as dots and lines—maybe there would be a little chip that would play it as soon as you come near my headstone, so it’s not wasted on an empty graveyard.

Do you have any advice for readers of this magazine who also happen to be ageing rock gods?

One, renew your subscription early. Because you never know. Two, take care of your body, and your body will take care of you. You can do yoga, or you can just hang from rings—I’ve seen that done. The body is not a temple, but it is a machine, and like any other machine, sometimes it needs an oil change.

INFO

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LISTEN

Derek Smalls, Smalls Change (Meditations Upon Ageing) [2018, Twanky/BMG], It’s a Smalls World [1975, Nonesuch Record]; Spinal Tap, This Is Spinal Tap [1984, Polydor], Break Like the Wind [1992, MCA], Back From the Dead [2009, Spuzzle]

EQUIP

Bass Schecter 5-strings
Rig Croatia Audio Skjptrjc 58000 head & Czelcznc 7x10 cabinets
Strings Ernie Ball Super Slinky (.045–.100)

FRETBOARD FEUD
SMALLS & LEAGUE DO BATTLE ON “WHEN MEN DID ROCK”

By Chris Jisi

Michael League (L) and Derek throw down

Michael League (L) and Derek throw down

As one might expect, Snarky Puppy bassist/bandleader Michael League was “quite chuffed” to be a part of Derek Smalls’ solo album Smalls Change. League first met Smalls on a 2016 Paul Allen cruise featuring the brightest (and loudest) from the fields of entertainment and science, for which Snarky Puppy was the house band. Smalls next sat in for an encore of Spinal Tap’s “Big Bottom” at a Puppy show in New Orleans. Offers League, “After that, Derek contacted me and said, ‘Hey mate, I’m making this record, and I want you to do a bass duet with me.’ And I immediately thought, This is the most important project I’ve ever done! My whole life as a musician has led up to me doing a bass duet with Derek Smalls!”

The plucky pairing opens the album’s final track, “When Men Did Rock,” for which League played his Fodera Monarch strung as a tenor bass (ADGC), recorded direct through a Jule Monique preamp/DI. Although they recorded their parts separately, the spirit of good-natured one-upmanship is clearly in place. Example 1 shows the track’s first 16 bars. The passage is rubato, so we’ve added the implied bar lines, meters, and chord changes. Additionally, League’s parts are written and tabbed for standard 4-string, generally an octave down from where he played, unless noted.

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Smalls starts the exchange by quoting a theme from Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s 1888 symphonic suite Scheherazade, Opus 35, in bars 1 and 2, ending with an edgy trill and slide-off. League answers with ornamental arpeggios, coloring the E minor harmony with an F Lydian flavor in bar 4 and a V-chord cadenza utilizing the B half-step/whole-step diminshed scale in bar 5. Listen for how he dramatically increases and decreases the tempo of his phrases. Smalls replies in bar 7 with similarly paced arpeggios of his own, before restating his Scheherazade quote an octave higher. League closes matters in bar 12 with reverse arpeggios that culminate in an A chord (plucked via thumb, index, and middle finger, low-to-high). He then climbs an F7 chord two notes at a time and arrives at an E7 chord, which is meant to serve as the V chord setting up the track’s main key of A minor (at 1:44). In one final flourish, he descends via alternating E and Bb triads in bar 15, ending on an E power chord.   

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