A Conversation With Harry Shearer
Mike Ragogna: Harry, you good?
Harry Shearer: I'm great, how are you?
MR: I'm pretty good. "Celebrity Booze Endorser" -- nice title -- from an album titled Can't Take a Hint. More title goodness. So the song had something to do with, oh, a certain Madonna?
Harry Shearer: First of all, I should say, that's the Fountains of Wayne playing on that record. I'm singing and they're playing and singing in the background. That was a huge thrill for me to get the Fountains guys involved. A lot of my songs happen because I stumble across a phrase that just makes me laugh and I think, "Oh, that could be a song." And Variety, the soon-to-die trade paper of show business in Hollywood, was reporting on Madonna having reached that stage in her career where she was signing a deal to pitch vodka to, I guess, younger people. The headline said "Madonna Joins Ranks of Celebrity Booze Endorsers" and I didn't realize that was an organization that had ranks, and that phrase just stuck with me. It made me laugh and then I thought, there's a song there. I had just been listening to Utopia Parkway or one of the earlier Fountains albums that day, so that kind of style was in my mind as I sat down to write the song. I called the guys and said, "You inspired me to write it, so you have to play on it."
MR: You're coming off two Grammy-nominated albums--Songs Pointed and Pointless in 2007, and Songs for the Bushmen in 2008. They sort of had an overall theme and you kind of rolled with it song to song. This is more of a smorgasbord.
HS: This is a smorgasbord. This is a buffet. These are best songs I've been writing over the last couple of years. There are even a couple of songs which aren't necessarily supposed to be funny, which is a first for me; most of the songs I write are at least supposed to be funny. But a couple of them... there's one called "Autumn in New Orleans" on which Dr. John sings and plays. I was in New Orleans a couple of years ago for the whole year, basically, and when summer broke, about mid-September, it was that first day when you could open the windows and turn the air conditioning off already. I was just so jazzed by it. I realized somebody's written "Autumn in New York," but nobody's written this one yet, so it's on me.
MR: I went down there in August a few years back, and I think it was the most humidity that a human can stand in one spot.
HS: Yet, here we are today, where New Orleans is 15 degrees cooler than Washington, DC.
MR: So your "Autumn in New Orleans" features guest vocalist Dr. John and trumpet by Nicholas Payton.
HS: Yeah, the fabulous Nicholas Payton.
MR: Harry, you did a documentary on New Orleans.
HS: It came out last year and it just premiered on NetFlix streaming a little while ago. It's called The Big Uneasy. When I was a kid working at my college newspaper, I learned the first rule of journalism is that there are 5 W's--who, what, when, where and why. The national media told you the first 4 about New Orleans' flooding, but they never told you the why, why did it happen. I had some acquaintanceship with the three individuals who led university-based investigations into the flooding and the third was a whistle-blower inside the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. They are the three people we follow to find out why the city flooded in 2005 and why it might happen again.
MR: Your approach is different from Michael Moore's. Yours was, I don't want to say more objective, but to me, it seemed more focused.
HS: I don't want to say anything about Michael's approach. Mine was...I felt I had a burden. I'm a guy basically known from The Simpsons and Spinal Tap, and now I'm moving into this very serious matter of life and death. I had to be absolutely, rigorous, responsible and fact-based and, basically, hardly in the movie. This is not a movie about what I think or what I know. This is a movie about the people who basically did the work, telling what they went through, what they know, what consequences happened to them after they told what they knew and what possibly could be done about it. I was determined that you wouldn't be watching it saying, "Why is the guy from The Simpsons talking about engineering."
MR: In "A Few Bad Apples," there's a play on how the fish stinks from the head down, but in this song, it poses it coming were from the tail up, as in blame the underlings. Harry, can you go into that song?
HS: That's Jamie Cullum doing the vocals. I think this is a common thread in almost everything we're living through right now. It started, obviously, with Abu Ghraib, it's continued with the financial crisis, the bank crisis in Japan. The response in all of these cases, and many more, seems to be to just to blame the lowest ranking people you can finger and make them pay the price where the guys at the top continue to have their rank, continue to have their bonuses, continue to have their perks, and continue to have their titles. It's really the dominant form of accountability that we have in our modern world--blame the low hanging fruit and stop there. So I thought it deserved a song as a tribute to it.
MR: You cover a lot of territory on Can't Take A Hint. Another skewering happens in "Like A Charity."
HS: It's about the celebrity charity business and how you really might want to take a closer look at it before you send your checks, and how it began this momentum of publicity and it ends up in things that a visitor from Mars could look at and say, "Well, that looks like baby trafficking." "I like these two kids from Mali, I'm taking them. Oh, I didn't help very much, but I got the kids, thank you." It's just a very peculiar business sometimes. And Jane Lynch, who is one of the stars of Glee and has been in all of the Christopher Guest movies and is such a wonderful performer and great singer, I enlisted her to sing the song.
MR: You brought up Christopher Guest and Spinal Tap. How did you start that great run of movies together with your troop?
HS: Chris, Michael McKean, Rob Reiner and I got together to do, along with several other people--Martin Mull, Billy Crystal, and a friend of ours, Tom Leopold, a great performer--we did a television show in 1979. It was a pilot that was never bought. It was aired, basically, in the worst time slot that ABC could find for it, so it was basically run off as garbage. One of the things we did with that show was we were making fun of rock 'n' roll on television, and we made up this band to be part of it called Spinal Tap. After the show, we were thinking what else could we do with these guys, the characters of this band. We got a little, little, little, little, little bit of money from a company that was in the film business for about a minute and a half. The idea was that we'd write a first draft script of what we wanted to do. So we sat around trying to write it for three days and we said, "Nobody will read this and understand what we have in mind because we have a style of a documentary on a band on tour and none of us need this little, little, little money, so why don't we just take the money and make a little demo of the film so we can show people what we have in mind as opposed to us showing them on paper. So we shot about 20 minutes and it had some of the jokes in the film, such as Stonehenge. We drove around to every studio in Hollywood and they all had the blankest stares on their faces when the lights came up, like, "What was that? Why would you do that?" Finally, because Rob Reiner knew Norman Lear--Rob had been on Normal Lear's TV show, All in the Family and Normal Lear, again, had a movie studio for a minute and a half--that's how we got the green light to make the movie. Otherwise, it never would have happened.
MR: You continued the band Spinal Tap through the years as a real musical venture as well.
HS: Yeah, we toured big-ass style in '92. We did a 26-city tour, played the Royal Albert Hall in London. We did a smaller tour in 2000-2001...I believe that was where we opened for Spinal Tap as The Folksmen in selected venues like Carnegie Hall. A couple of years ago, we did Spinal Tap playing the Glastonbury Festival at Wembley Arena so every once in a while we, as they say, strap it on.
MR: So, you have a love of music.
HS: You know, it's the same reason I spent time doing this record and other musical projects. All of us--Chris, Michael and I--we do a bunch of different things. We act, we write, we do comedy and other things. I did a documentary. You know, I looked back about three years ago, and the first eight months of the year were all filled with musical projects of one or another and I realized this was the happiest I've ever been. It does change your mood a bit when you do that.
MR: You had another musical sendup of pop culture with A Mighty Wind.
HS: You know, we did a tour of that movie. All the bands of the movie went on tour from the East to West Coast. If it were up to me, we'd still be doing that. That was the most fun I ever had. If you look at all of those people who were in that movie -- Catherine O'Hara, John Michael Higgins, Eugene Levy, Parker Posey and Chris and Michael--they're just amazing people. I'm leaving a few out, I'm sorry to say. Each band would play for about 35 minutes and you'd hang in the wings and watch what the other guys were doing because it was improvised and funny every night, and the hang until about 4 in the morning was the best. You thought, "This was a good way to be spending some time." Unfortunately, it ended way too soon.
MR: In my opinion, you were so smart and insightful when you nailed the faux metal/prog thing with Spinal Tap, but you also nailed folk with A Mighty Wind.
HS: Thank you. We tried to get it right. We'd been doing The Folksmen for some years before doing that movie, so we had the advantage of having honed our stuff, but everybody else had to get up to speed in record time. When you see the film, the concert we do in that film, there's no pre-production, no post-production. What you see is what we played that day when we shot the concert. We had more experience in doing that than other people in the film, and I was amazed what a great job they all did.
MR: I want to talk with you about Le Show. Can you educate us?
HS: My little sandbox on the radio, an hour a week on public radio stations across the country. It's comedy and satire and also, I'm afraid I have to say, information because I realize there's information available to folks like me, that's not getting through in the mainstream media, so, I share that and some music. And it's all in a neat, hour-long package with no interruptions, even for reminders for who's funding it, because nobody's funding it.
MR: That's the state these days isn't it. Funding is drying up.
HS: Well, I decided a long time ago that the way to do free radio is for free.
MR: Nicely said, sir. Now, you're no stranger to sending up presidents. Songs of the Bushmen--a Grammy nominated album, as I mentioned earlier--was a send up of Bush. Now you're working on a project focused on Richard Nixon.
HS: Yeah, it's for a television network in Britain. We shot the pilot last year and I'm going over to London shortly to shoot the next five episodes. It's called Nixon's The One, which was his campaign slogan. Now, I'm gonna use some language, which you may have to bleep--I don't know what your rules are, but get your bleeper ready. It's from the actual tapes. All of the dialogue in the shows is from the actual tapes, but nothing is about Watergate, nothing about Vietnam, nothing about politics, it's just the crazy motherf**ker conversations that peppered the days and nights at the White House. I play Nixon with a wonderful cast of other folks involved. We shoot it as if Nixon had hidden these microphones, which he did hide in the White House, but also cameras, so it looks like you're really peeking in on this stuff. He never disappoints. Hopefully, our choices of the scenes from the hundreds and hundreds of hours of tapes proves how reliable he is as a source of really weird comedy.
MR: Speaking of comedy, The Simpsons is still going strong.
HS: Yep, we're in Season 24 and full speed ahead. What can ya do? You have to keep doing it.
MR: How is that possible for anything, 24 seasons?
HS: It's possible because people keep watching it, it's very simple. If we were not drawing the audiences that we're continuing to draw, the good people at Fox would say, "You know what, thanks!" But, fortunately, people still watch the show, both in this country, and as Wolf Blitzer likes to say, "Around the world," and so we get keep doing it.
MR: What's your favorite character to play?
HS: C. Montgomery Burns because he's pure evil.
HS: He doesn't dilute it. He doesn't water it down...little ambient pieces of goodness.
MR: Harry, what is your advice for new artists? I'm talking about musical artists at this point.
HS: Stupid stuff like practice your instrument, if you're still old-fashioned enough to be playing an instrument. But the advice I give to anybody who is thinking about show business, if you don't have to do it, don't do it, because you'll get flushed out, they get rid of the people who are just trying it out real quick. But, if you have to do it, luck is good, talent is better, and nothing beats sheer brute persistence.
MR: Is that how you did it?
HS: Yeah, luck is such a major part of it. I know so many really talented, wonderful people who just don't have that luck. If you forget that's a big part of it, you're kidding yourself. Successful people sometimes forget that. "Oh, I did it myself." Yeah, well, you and the eight lucky breaks you had. So, you really have to be great and you really have to be talented and you really have to be persistent. All of those are necessary, but without luck, you will still be at Wendy's. So you need that break. But the way you prepare for that break, you need to be talented and really persistent.
MR: Because there's always a Spinal Tap.
HS: That's a perfect example of luck. If Rob Reiner hadn't been on All In The Family... There was nobody else in Hollywood would have let us make that movie. That's a perfect, perfect example. And then, when we got to the end of the process, another example, Norman Lear had left the studio in the hands of somebody who didn't like our project and he said if the first two reviewers didn't like our movie, it wasn't getting released. That is the slender thread that we were hanging on, at that moment. Without those two breakpoints, the movie would never have been made and if made, it would never have been seen.
MR: Is there a temptation to do Spinal Tap: The Next Generation?
HS: Nope. We agreed very early on, we've done it, we've said it, we'll do concerts, we'll do tours, we'll do other stuff. I, personally--and I think everybody agrees--I don't want to spend the rest of my life running into fans from the first movie coming up to you with that sad look in their eyes saying, "Did you really need the money that badly?"
MR: Are you going to be touring to support the new album?
HS: Yeah, I'm going to do some dates. We have to schedule it between some other stuff. I'd love to. We put together a band for the Bushmen record, which we called The High Value Detainees, and they all came out in orange jumpsuits. Wonderful musicians, and we're going to try to put that band back together. I was shopping at Whole Foods the other day and I saw a sign that I think gave me the name for the new band this time around--Young White Coconuts. So, hopefully, you'll be seeing Harry Shearer and the Young White Coconuts coming your way soon.
MR: One last song. "When Crocodiles Cry." This one, you do alone?
HS: This is me singing and me playing bass.
MR: Harry, this has been a real pleasure and I appreciate your time. All of the best with the new record and please come back in the future.
HS: Thanks so much, I had a great time.
1. Celebrity Booze Endorser - with Fountains of Wayne
2. Macondo - with Rob Brydon
3. Trillion Dollar Bargain - with Alice Russell and Tommy Malone
4. Deaf Boys
5. Autumn in New Orleans - with Dr. John and Nicholas Payton
6. A Few Bad Apples - with Jamie Cullum
7. Joe the Plumber
8. Like a Charity - with Jane Lynch
9. When the Crocodile Cries
10. Your Thing - with Judith Owen
11. Cold Is to the Bone - with Charlie Wood and Danny Thompson
12. Bridge to Nowhere - with Judith Owen
13. Touch My Junk
14. Autumn in New Orleans
Transcribed by Brian O'Neal
ANAÏS MITCHELL TOURS WITH BON IVER
Anaïs Mitchell fans have something to cheer about as well as new venues to cheer on their singer-songwriter warrior. Anaïs was invited by Bon Iver to open for the group on the East Coast part of its North American tour that includes two sold-out nights at Radio City Music Hall. These dates follow Mitchell's recent sold-out UK tour in support of her latest release Young Man in America. Pretty cool, huh?
"But just how did this union of awesomeness come about?" you ask. Well, Mitchell's connection to Bon Iver began when Justin Vernon sang on Mitchell's 2010 album Hadestown, an album that featured him as well as Ani DiFranco and Ben Knox Miller of The Low Anthem. Also, Bon Iver covered the track "Coming Down" on Australia's Triple J radio strand Like A Version with Justin Vernon explaining that he "...just worships her music."
September 10 - Ottawa Folk Festival - Ottawa,
September 11 - Caffe Lena - Saratoga Springs, NY
September 12 - Providence Performing Arts Center - Providence, RI
September 13 - Bank of America Pavillion - Boston, MA
September 15 - Merriweather Post Pavillion - Columbia, MD
September 16 - Mann Center for the Performing Arts - Philadelphia, PA
September 17 - Brewery Ommegang - Cooperstown, NY
September 19 - Radio City Music Hall - New York, NY
September 20 - Radio City Music Hall - New York, NY
September 27-30 - Barnstorming Tour - Vermont, TBA
IMELDA MAY'S MORE MAYHEM
There's now a new 21-track special edition of Imelda May's Mayhem -- More Mayhem -- on Decca. It expands her 2011 release, that album selling over 400,000 copies worldwide. Among its bonus material are that include "Roadrunner," and "Gypsy" and "Blues Calling" as well as a previously unreleased cover of Patsy Cline's "Walking After Midnight," plus new remixes of "Inside Out" and "Proud and Humble."
...AND FINALLY, TRACY NEWMAN'S "I WOULD FLY"
Mel Tillis and Nancy Sinatra recorded this song for their single from the album Mel and Nancy when Tracy Newman herself was a TV writer in 1985. Now, a reinvented singer songwriter, her "I Would Fly" has resurfaced after more than 30 years, and Tracy is singing it herself this time. Her sound is described as part KCRW, and part Prairie Home Companion. Newman's talents and unique background have been celebrated in American Songwriter and several others.
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