If you blinked—or paused to adjust the foil-wrapped armadillo in your trousers—you might have missed it. Derek Smalls, the finely mustachioed, pod-befuddled lead bassist for Spinal Tap, released a solo album last year. It’s appropriately called Smalls Change (Meditations Upon Ageing) and features such ripe and randy rock cuts as “Butt Call,” “Gummin’ The Gash” and “She Puts The Bitch In Obituary”—not to mention an all-star musical cast that includes Steve Vai, Donald Fagen of Steely Dan and Steve Lukather of Toto—among many, many others. Next month, Smalls will take it to the stage for four exclusive West Coast engagements that he’s calling The Lukewarm Water Live! Tour. (Its slogan? “Rock ‘til you sit!”) We recently caught up with Smalls over the blower from London.
You’re coming over to the West Coast in November. Besides the shows, what are you looking forward to doing here?
Resting from the shows. It’s two-and-a-half, maybe two-and-a-quarter hours I’m onstage singing and playing. It’s a load, you know? I’m not complaining, because I realized when I started doing this show—and I’m telling you this like it’s a secret, but now I’m telling you, so it’s not: You’re onstage, and you’re the bass player. You’re lit. And I don’t mean that the way the kids do. I mean there’s light on you. But when you get to that center mic, and now you’re the leader, as I am now. And all of a sudden you realize, “Oh, wow. It’s brighter here.” And of course because light equals heat, it’s warmer here. If I’d known that, I would’ve started being the leader quite a few years ago. I wouldn’t have needed to wear two pairs of socks.
Your live band is impressive—Steve Vai, Dweezil Zappa, Steve Lukather, Waddy Wachtel, and so on. Besides Steve Vai, most of these folks aren’t really known for playing heavy metal. How did you convince them to get on board?
Even Tap wasn’t a pure heavy metal band. That was our home base, but we had a prog edge to us a bit. “Stonehenge,” of course, was prog-ish, I’d say. So we extended ourselves. I mean, Nigel famously said that our style is changing our style. So the record has that range, and we do that on the show as well. To me, labels are just that, if you know what I mean.
How did you assemble the band? Did you conduct auditions?
The first part is getting them to answer the call, so you just keep at it. And then when they do… yours isn’t a family publication, so I can say this, I think: It was summed up by one of the lads who agreed to take part in a very pithy phrase when he said, “Sure, man. It’s like a pity fuck.” So I took that as a compliment, you know?
Perhaps the most surprising member of your band is Donald Fagen from Steely Dan. How far do you two go back?
We don’t go back. I had this song, which is “Memo To Willie,” which is a plea, as life goes on, for continued tumescence to my gentleman in my nether-section, which we call “Willie” here in Britain. I think you call it “Dick.” At one point, at the end of the bridge, I say, “Gimme that lumber.” And my producer, C.J. Vanston, said, “You should sing, ‘Willie don’t lose that lumber.’ That’s cute.” So I did. And then I thought, “Fuck me, he’s gonna sue me pants off.” So I wrote a letter to Mr. Fagen and said two things: (A) “Please don’t sue me,” and (B) “Please sing on the record.” So far, I’m two for two.
I understand there’s also going to be an orchestra on this tour…
Yes. I don’t need to tell you—it’s a cliché to even say this—but if you’re a rocker of a certain age and you’re not playing with a symphony orchestra? Stay home, mate. So we’re doing that, but on selected dates we’re even gonna go one step further and have two symphony orchestras: One live in the room, and one live via satellite from Budapest—the Hungarian Studio Orchestra. And we will be doing the first ever synchronized orchestra song live. I don’t think anyone else is doing that. And if they are, fuck ’em.
Read the rest of our conversation with Derek Smalls in the January 2020 issue of Decibel on sale in December, and catch Derek Smalls at the Wiltern in Los Angeles on November 6th!