SHEARER DETERMINATION Harry Shearer (Pt. 1)

He proves comedy isn’t
always a laughing matter, whether it’s
Spinal Tap, The Simpsons or creating his own brand of musical
merriment.

 

BY LEE ZIMMERMAN

 

Considering his amazing capacity for creativity over the
years — credits that include key roles in cult classics like This Is Spinal Tap and A Modern Wind, cultural landmarks such
as “The Simpsons” and a series of pointedly political, Grammy-winning comedy
albums — it seems astounding that Harry Shearer finds time to do anything
other than work, much less chat. And indeed, having just completed the taping
of his weekly radio show, and with a trip to London and preparation of yet another new
project looming in the next 24 hours, Blurt feels fortunate that he finds he’s able to fit us in.

 

The reason for our call is his new album, aptly titled Can’t Take A Hint. More so than any of
his other albums, it features a cast of all-star musicians, many of whom taking
starring roles in songs that Shearer originally wrote for his aforementioned
radio show. It’s an impressive roster indeed, one that includes Fountains of
Wayne, Dr. John, actress/comedienne Jane Lynch, singer Jamie Cullum, Brian
Wilson arranger Jeffrey Foskett, ace bassist Danny Thompson, guitarists Steve
Lukather and Jeff “Skunk” Bassist, and singer Judith Owen, who also happens to
be Shearer’s wife of nearly twenty years.

 

***

 

BLURT: Is it true
that you got your start in show business as a child actor on “The Jack Benny
Show?”

SHEARER: Yes, The Benny show was my start in show business,
I’ve been working my way down ever since.

 

Still, This Is Spinal Tap was the vehicle that
practically made you a household name. Did you have any idea at the time what
an incredible impact that film would have?

Anybody who said they expected that is lying through their
teeth or other parts of their body. We made a film for a struggling studio
which went bankrupt the same year so even though people were filling theaters
to see the movie, we couldn’t stay in theaters long enough to make it a real
theatrical hit. In one particular instance, we were kicked out of a theater —
even though we were selling out — because Paramount told the theater that
unless you want our Christmas picture, you’ve got to give us your theater now,
whatever it was, in the middle of April. That’s how the movie business works.
Given that, it was still one of the first non-porn movies to make a splash in
home video and that’s really what saved us. It’s absolutely amazing, and yet,
according to the people who own it now, it’s never made a profit. That’s
another part of the movie business.

 

 

You guys seem to have
had such a natural affinity for the material, both in This Is Spinal Tap and in
its successor, A Mighty Wind.  Did you have a personal connection to the
music world that you could draw from?

In both cases, we were pretty close to the material. It
wasn’t like we were playing a polka band. We knew a lot about both genres for
having grown up around the tail end of the folk music boom and having friends
in various parts of the rock ‘n; roll world. So we were not having to make
things up. We were only having to retrieve things that we heard, or things that
we’d seen, or things that we’d experienced. We are blessed to be funny at
times, but the thing that kind of delights each of us is to be able to surprise
and delight the other guys with the nuances and facts and characters that we
can retrieve from these experiences, and to say “what about this, what about
that?” In a way, that’s our way of entertaining each other, and it’s also just
filling the screen with as much real stuff as we possibly can in the hope and
faith that if we fill it with enough real stuff, something funny will happen.

 

And yet, you seemed
so earnest.

 That’s one of the
things we’re making fun of — the earnestness of those people. And you couldn’t
be a frontline cancer researcher and have more earnestness than these guys in a
heavy metal band. It is sort of amusing.

 

Was it difficult to
make the transition when it came to writing for your albums?

No, not at all. I write a lot of music as material for my
radio show, and more and more, I found I was spending my time playing music or
writing music. At first, I put out one almost entirely spoken word record – I
think there was one song on it – a song about Barbara Waters called “Age and
Facelift” but it soon became obvious to me that my style of spoken word comedy
wasn’t connecting at this point in time. People think of comedy records — if
they think of them at all — as guys doing stand-up. So I figured I might as
well do something that fits the recording medium,  which is making songs, which I enjoy doing
anyway. So starting with my album Pointed
and Pointless
, I started doing as good as I could at taking these songs to
the highest level they could be. On this record we decided to move it up a
notch by having all these guest vocalists and instrumentalists. We’ve always
had great instrumentalists on the records, but to have guests vocalists too was
a change.

 

You seem generous to
a fault. On many of the songs, you actually cede the spotlight to a guest
singer.

That was sort of the idea. I do know a lot of people in the
music business who happen to be extremely talented and so I try to take
advantage of that. On my best day, I’m an okay bass player. I can sing certain
things okay. Probably given the criteria one might give it, I might be the best
person to sing some songs, but there are also certain songs that I’m not the
best person to sing, so we tried to get other people to sing them.

 

How exactly did these
songs come about?

I would do these piano demos for the radio show, and
basically that set the stylistic template, given my modest skills on the
keyboard. Then I would bring in the producer – C.J. Vanston in this case — and
he would use those demos as a template, and because he’s a brilliant arranger,
he could see what those songs demanded stylistically and then move them up in
terms of playing, in terms of arranging. For example, on the song “A Few Bad
Apples” — which is an incredibly difficult thing for me to have tried — he
blew it out of the room with all these great players and created this great
arrangement that I couldn’t have even envisioned in the stylistic template I
brought to him in a demo form.

 

Many of the songs do
have very rich arrangements. Do you play an active role in conceptualizing the
songs?

I grew up listening to all that Sinatra stuff. So I’d say,
“Couldn’t we have trombones do this?” As we’re going through, once C.J. has
done the major work, there’s a very collaborative process that goes from the
semi finished to the finished state of the tracks. My ideas may be little ones
or big ones, but we bat them around.

 

Still, it seems that
oftentimes people don’t take comedy seriously, especially when it comes through
song.

I get pressure from the other side because my wife is a
brilliant musician and a singer and songwriter. So when she first saw me
veering off on this trip, she said to me, “You know, I hate funny music! It’s
never really music. So if you’re going to do this, make it music.”  Which was my intent anyway, but I had a good
push from that direction. I’m really not a fan of comedy music where there’s
someone at a piano and because it’s the most rudimentary kind of performance,
it becomes a complement to call their melodies even serviceable. I bring the
same sort of thing we all brought to Spinal
Tap
and to A Mighty Wind. That
is, if you’re going to do music, it’s got to be fun to play and fun to hear. If
you’re using film as a medium for comedy, you don’t deliberately set out to
make a technically ugly or bad film. Some people do, but we don’t respect them.
So if you’re using music as your medium as your music to be funny, you
shouldn’t set out to do less than the best music you can do.

 

You seem to be following
in the footsteps of folks like the Tubes, Martin Mull and Steve Martin, artists
whose intent was to be funny and yet still had great musical talent.

I could also mention Frank Zappa and Randy Newman. They
never skimped on the musical side of things, even though they were most often
trying to amuse. I shouldn’t put Randy Newman in the past tense, because he’s
still working. But that’s a great example. I’m not comparing myself to Randy
Newman, I’m just saying there’s a guy who’s trying to be amusing, but is also
profound with his music.

 

This album isn’t as
overtly political as some of your past albums, Songs of the Bushmen for example. And yet, there are many topical
themes spread across this record. How did you choose what you wanted to
include?

They were songs I liked the most, and then I had to figure
that some of the subjects of the songs still wore well, Sarah Palin is still
with us, for example. We can’t get her off the stage. Joe the Plumber recently
ran for congress. So these weren’t people from way back in the past. They were
still good characters as far as the people I was portraying.

 

There’s also a
remarkable diversity in terms of song styles.

I did like the variety of styles. I was thinking the other
day, I really didn’t have a definition of the record when I started it, but now
that it’s done, I’ve started thinking about that even more. When someone asked
me about it the other day, I realized that with this list of guests and this
very stylistic array, it’s like a little variety show. I think that’s the best
way to describe it. You might go to a revue and see all this stuff happening.
That’s sort of the way it developed. Harry Shearer presents.

 

Did you know all the
musicians that participated in the proceedings?

I’ve known Jamie Colum for a little while. He came on stage
with Spinal Tap at Glastonbury. Danny Thompson I’ve known through Richard
Thompson, who my wife has worked with. Mac Rebennack I’ve known since I started
living in New Orleans. I’ve been around the music scene there a lot and we’ve
run into each other and had a couple of great chats. Jane Lynch, Fountains of
Wayne – hey were definitely personal relationships… The whole idea was to get
people I knew because it might be easier. One or two people had to decline
because their record companies wouldn’t give them permission. That’s why we
have to get rid of record companies.

 

Fountains of Wayne
seemed an especially unlikely choice on the song “Celebrity Booze Endorsers.
How did you coax them into participating?

I told them I wrote this song after I was riding around
listening to either Welcome Interstate
Managers
or Utopia Parkway in my
car, and I saw this phrase “celebrity endorsers” in this article about Madonna.
However, I was under their influence when I wrote this song, so I told them
they had to play on it. They said, okay, and they were just like, judging by
the emails that went back and forth, kind of enthusiastic about the idea. There
wasn’t a lot of arm twisting involved. It was just kind of like they’re a
geographically diverse band, so the main thing was trying to figure out when we
were all going to be in L.A.?

 

What was it like
watching them record?

My producer and I were just flies on the wall. We told them
do this session the way you would one of yours and we’ll watch you. So it was
great to watch their process, They had a lot of good ideas, I write on a piano,
so in some cases they took the piano chords and transferred them into much more
appropriate guitar chords. Adam had a couple of lyric ideas and a couple of chord
change ideas that were great. They all contributed something. It was great to
watch Fountains of Wayne in the studio creating the song.

 

To be continued…

 

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