Harry Shearer Talks Spinal Tap, Simpsons, and Why Fountains of Wayne Had to Be the Cornerstone of His New Album

Chris Willman
Maximum Performance (NEW)

When Harry Shearer—of Spinal Tap and Simpsons fame—decided to bring in some vocal support for an album of satirical songs, he picked guest singers ranging from Dr. John to Jane Lynch. But for the leadoff track, "Celebrity Booze Endorser," he had no choice but to call the Fountains of Wayne hotline.

As some will recall, some years back the singer Robbie Fulks actually had a song titled "Fountains of Wayne Hotline," dedicated to the idea that there might be a number a songwriter could call when in doubt about what kind of key change to employ in a well-crafted rock tune. Shearer had already composed "Celebrity Booze Endorser" by the time he got around to dialing up FOW, but their power-pop presence still loomed over the song's creation as well as recording.

"The bands that I listen to for just pleasure and rock & roll excitement at this point in time tend to be them and XTC," says Shearer. "I wrote it with them in mind. I had been driving around in my car listening to Welcome Interstate Managers by these guys. So when we came to making the record, I emailed Adam and Chris and said 'You inspired it, so you have to play on it.'"

He imported Fountains of Wayne to the west coast last week to play with him on Conan O'Brien's show, as well as at a special showcase at downtown L.A.'s Grammy Museum, where he performed that and a number of songs from the new album, Can't Take a Hint. You can see Shearer's and FOW's Conan performance above, or scroll down to find a music video for the song that features images of some of the superstar alcohol pitchmen who inspired him to write rhymes like "If you were a god, you couldn't look Norser/…celebrity booze endorser."

"I'm old enough to remember the time when people went into rock & roll because they didn't want to engage in the corporate lifestyle," Shearer said at the Grammy Museum event. "I guess I was one of the last people reading Variety a while back, and there was a story about Madonna making a deal to pitch a brand of vodka. The headline was what really caught my attention: 'Madonna Joins Ranks of Celebrity Booze Endorsers.' Back in my high school days, at career day, why didn't they tell me about that job? I could have trained for that."

Madonna had an even greater inspiration on the song that Jane Lynch—his pal from the Christopher Guest ensemble movies—performs on the album, "Like a Charity." This broadside was provoked by the kind of celebrity charitable foundation that may do more for bringing attention to Kabbalah than actually helping out impoverished unfortunates in distant lands. (Sample lyric: "Helping poor girls go to school/All we ever built was the pool.")

"I have no musical style of my own," Shearer said at the museum. "So the songs were written in styles to sort of be appropriate to the subject matter. 'Like a Charity'—which is like an '80s electronic dance tune—was written about somebody who had 'like a' in the name of a lot of her song titles. I'm just handing out little clues."

Of the form-follows-function approach to genre: "The clearest example of that is 'Bridge to Nowhere'," he told Yahoo! Music. In the live Grammy Museum performance, as well as on the album, the sensual ballad features his wife, accomplished singer Judith Owen, doing a dead-on Canadian accent—as Sarah Palin, of course—set incongruously against a sort of faux-Brazilian musical backdrop. "In my mind nothing made her more famous or memorable than an infrastructure construction project which she had at first advocated and then repudiated, but which seemed metaphorical in some way—the bridge to nowhere. I just thought, it's something with which she has an intense emotional attachment…

"When I thought of the idea is of this love song to a non-existent bridge, I thought it needed to sound like something exotic. So my mind went to that period of Hollywood lounge music called exotica. That's why I basically copped the opening vamp of 'Quiet Village'" (an instrumental that was a No. 4 hit for Martin Denny in 1959).

All of the songs on Can't a Hint originally appeared—in less polished, more primitive form—on Shearer's weekly public radio program, Le Show, which is the best hour of topical comedy and commentary anywhere in or outside of America.

"That's sort of what makes me do this," he tells Yahoo! "If I didn't have time to fill, I wouldn't feel the need to write songs every once in a while. But yeah, each one sort of started out on the radio show. That's really in effect the demo version of the song. I work out sort of the stylistic feel of it and the basic nuts and bolts of the arrangement, and then [for the album] I turn it over usually to CJ Vanston, or in the case of one or two on every album I've done, (Beach Boys musical director) Jeffrey Boskett … Unlike my friend Michael McKean, who's an inveterate and irrepressible songwriter and has no particular place to perform them, I wouldn't be moved to write them if I didn't have a radio show to put them on."

When Shearer played the original versions of these songs on Le Show, they were preceded by discussions of the news items that prompted them. That was also the case at the Grammy Museum show, as it will be when Shearer and his band do a club tour in England in November and in the States after the first of the year. But on the album, there are no liner notes, leaving the attentive listener to figure out that "Maconda" is from the point of view of the beleaguered ex-head of BP (who famously said that he wanted his life back, in the wake of the devastating oil spill), or that "Deaf Boys" was prompted by the true-life tale of a priest in Milwaukee alleged to have molested over 200 hard-of-hearing lads.

To Shearer, lack of direct knowledge of what's being satirized shouldn't be a deal-breaker on these songs. "A lot of people write songs about specific things, and then they're just tossed into the maelstrom of succeeding time, and they have to stand or fall on their own," he tells us. "I tend to think it's funnier if you understand what the song is about originally. (But) I can't help that they're written about specific people and specific things. Basically I treat them as character songs at this point, and it's just like a specific character with a specific attitude, and that's how he happens to be ruminating over whatever's going on."

In live performance now, Shearer dips into character only vocally, and only for the length of a song… as opposed to the full-immersion performance art he, McKean, and Guest indulged in touring with Spinal Tap and the Folksmen, both before and after This is Spinal Tap and A Mighty Wind were filmed.

"From the moment we put on the costumes or wardrobe and makeup until the time we get out of it, you don't ever want to destroy the illusion" that those "bands" are real, he says. "And this is much more about what for me has always been a somewhat greater challenge: being something called myself. I've come to that late in the process. I've kind of found a way to feel comfortable with it... So yeah, it's a completely different thing. I mean, the closest is when we did the Unwigged tour, and we did these songs—both Spinal Tap and Folksmen songs—as ourselves. Which was a real revelation, because the three of us had to be these things called ourselves. The very last show of the tour is on DVD, and I think it's a pretty good show. Basically we were covering these songs that we'd written for other people. The other people happened to be played by us, but still it very much felt like covering the material. That was a great kind of way to lead into this."

As someone who writes for other characters, Shearer feels some kinship with Fountains of Wayne, who do the same, albeit less topically.

"First of all they're great melody writers," he tells us. "They obviously have a great love of the Beatles, but they're not doing Beatles music... I think there are so many different niches and sub-genres these days, and so few people are just standing up and playing really great rock & roll. And I think the songs are so well-observed in so many cases. 'Bright Future in Sales' reminds me of a book I once read by a now obscure but wonderful American author called Stanley Elkin, and he wrote a book about radio called The Dick Gibson Show. I had no idea who he was, but I thought this guy had to have worked in radio—and he'd never been near a radio station in his life... He just somehow had absorbed that scene. And in a miniature way, 'Bright Future in Sales' sounds like a song written by somebody who was going crazy in a cubicle, but I don't think Chris (Collingwood) has ever worked in a cubicle. The combination of observation and imagination is really quite fine."

At the Grammy Museum, Shearer talked about his own observational experiences as an apprentice to comedy heroes Jack Benny (as a child actor) and Bob and Ray (as an ad copywriter). He found his satirical voice working with McKean in the comedy quartet the Credibility Gap, which released two albums on Warner Bros. in the early '70s. From there he went on to produce or co-write with Albert Brooks and had two separate stints as a Saturday Night Live cast member before becoming a solo satirist, character actor, novelist, director, and celebrated Simpsons MVP.

Of that last show, where he portrays everyone from Ned Flanders to Mr. Burns, Shearer said at the Grammy Museum, "Just to be part of something that's made Rupert Murdoch 3 billion dollars feels so great. He wouldn't have been able to buy the Wall Street Journal without us. No, it's remarkable. And the idea of an entertainment television going on 24 years, which is where we're at now, is astounding." In any case, his Simpsons salary helps finance the non-paid work he's been doing brilliantly since 1983 on Le Show, where one of his favorite people to take down is, of course, Murdoch.

But it's the intersections he's found between comedy and music that have made him most beloved among fans, or at least as cuddly as an honestly hard-edged satirist is ever going to become in these United States.

At the Grammy Museum, he said he hasn't gotten tired of being asked about Tap. "It's a burden if we had made that movie and nobody had seen it. That's a burden… We didn't get a lot of money for the movie but we keep getting free food," he added, talking about some extra plates that had been sent to his table by the Derek Smalls-loving chef as he dined before the show. "It's amazing to me that this little film—which got rejected by every studio in Hollywood when we proposed making it—has this life that's gone on now for generations. Kids 12 years old come up to me and say 'I'm learning how not to do a band by watching your movie.' Classical musicians have come up to me and said, 'That's what we watch on the bus.' Because it's about the life of the traveling musician and we got it right. And if we had done cheap jokes and done the glib version, I don't think it would have had that life.

"We didn't start out with the goal of making necessarily that movie. What I think united the four of us was a common sense of outrage and disbelief that fictional movies kept getting rock & roll so wrong, and saying: 40 million people have taken guitar lessons. Couldn't they have a sequence where it looks like the guy is actually playing? So the first goal that we set ourselves was to try to do a movie that got it right. Then because we were funny people and we hired funny people, it got funny."

Going into Spinal Tap's filming in the early '80s, "I had been playing bass for years, but never in a band—just sad little home bass playing. But I went on a tour with Saxon, this hard rook band, and just watched the bass player." He realized: "Oh, he plays a lot of open-string notes so he can do that a lot"—"that" being raising his right arm in triumph after hitting a chord. "So I copped that. I copped some of his footwear."

With A Mighty Wind, Shearer said at the Grammy Museum, "It might have been slightly more affectionate. I think Chris and Michael and I, as writers of most of the music, had a little more lingering affection for that bogus folk music that came from Tin Pan Alley in the early '60s than we did for heavy metal. But just a little bit."

Shearer is doing some serious, serious copping for his next project: Nixon's the One, a series he just completed filming for British TV (and eventual airing in America). This may be the culmination of his nearly life-long fascination with Tricky Dick, whom he's long imitated on Le Show and even did as a character back in the Credibility Gap days. For this series, the "writing" consisted of taking Oval Office tapes from the Nixon library that had never even been transcribed before—because they weren't relevant to Watergate or Vietnam—and acting them out, verbatim.

"You know, I pitched it as comedy," Shearer tells us, when we ask how precisely transcribed Nixon plays out on screen. "There are things that are more funny than others in terms of their surface affect. But I find it fascinating and amusing and frightening, and I hope that's what the audience finds."

Shearer said at the Grammy Museum that he felt he had some "Spinal Tap cred" in Britain that somehow afforded him more leeway with TV executives than he's able to have here. Also: "I have a theory that the British learn their history through the prism of this parade of monstrous grotesques and really bizarre leaders—the lives of the kings and queens. So Nixon just fits into that gallery. He just didn't happen to have a crown… Whereas we in this country, it's more like the lives of the saints. Learning about presidents is hagiography, so it's a little bit of a harder sell, that he's really a mixed=up motherf---er. Pardon my expression."

So is his cache in Great Britain comparable to the reception Woody Allen got when he started making all his films over there? "He goes where he can get funding. So in some ways it's the same. (In England) I can get meetings with people and tell them ideas and have them listen and give me a reasonable answer. I don't find I can do that here. The door has never been really open for me at HBO, for example, at least not for a long time, for reasons I don't understand. But that's not my problem. Well, it is my problem, but it's not my problem I have to figure out. I just have to work around it. When I did the New Orleans documentary"—The Big Uneasy, Shearer's recent, very serious theatrical doc about the failed response to devastation in his adopted hometown—"and tried to get it to the HBO documentary unit, their response was a very frosty 'We've done New Orleans.' Yeah, right."

So when and where will we get to see Nixon's the One, which almost sounds like the project Shearer was born to make, on our continent? "To paraphrase Lincoln, now it belongs to the agents."