Moving Target: Harry Shearer on His New Album, The Simpsons, Spinal Tap, Nixon, New Orleans…
Harry Shearer is a Renaissance man. Beyond his work in television ( The Simpsons, Nixon’s the One, his new series in which Shearer stars as the former President), movies ( This Is Spinal Tap, A Mighty Wind ), radio (Le Show), documentary film ( The Big Uneasy ) and narrative fiction ( Not Enough Indians ), Shearer has created comedic music albums Songs Pointed and Pointless (2007), Songs of the Bushmen (2008) and Greed and Fear (2010). His new release Can’t Take a Hint, features Dr. John, Jane Lynch, Jamie Cullum, Jeff “Skunk” Baxter and many more. In the following conversation he discusses many of this projects as well as his ongoing effort to provide a moving target within the entertainment industry.
The last time I spoke with you for Relix was three years ago, right before the Unwigged and Unplugged tour [in which Shearer and fellow Spinal Tap members Michael McKean and Christopher Guest performed acoustic versions of Tap tunes]. I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts and memories of how that all came together.
You know, we did that because we had originally planned to do a Spinal Tap tour and that was the teeth of the recession, that there was no commercial sponsorship that was gonna make that possible. But we’d done unplugged evenings two or three times and always liked them, and the audiences seemed to respond well so we thought, “Well why not do that?” and I think we all had a great time. We played just sort of the perfect sized rooms. I think the largest place we played was the 4,000 seat Chicago Theatre, but we played mainly 2,500-3,000 seaters. Which is, you know, a great size, and we had some great folks join us. I mean, probably one of the highlights was playing the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, Tennessee and having Bela Fleck onstage with us. It was just ridiculous… just insane. But I thought the show that we played for the DVD was a really good show and I’m really proud of the DVD. I wish more people owned it [Laughs.] But, you know, it was a great experience.
Do you anticipate that you’ll do any more dates with the two of them?
You know, with three guys who have such disparate and active careers it’s hard to anticipate anything except hoping that we’ll do something, but who knows.
This interview will run around the premiere of The Simpsons Season 24. So before we start talking about the new album, I was wondering if you could offer any tidbits or hints of what’s to come…
Well, you know, the thing about that is by the time the season starts, not just by the time the season starts, but throughout the whole year, we’re eight months ahead of where broadcasting is in terms of what we’re doing. I barely remember how the season started. It will be fresh and new to me when it starts, as a result, because of the production schedule, we are way, way, way ahead of what people see and I don’t even keep track of who the guest stars are because these days the guest stars come in on their own schedules, so I rarely see them in person. It was much more easy to remember when you were sitting in a studio and sitting next to you was Michael Jackson. That sort of was hard to forget.
Is that the one that jumps out if I ask you to were to close your eyes…
Oh yeah. Well, partly because the circumstances were a bit out of the ordinary. I mean we did the read through up at his manager’s house and partly because there was an unexpected development when we were doing the read through. We used to do a read through right before we started recording, and we’re doing the read through and he’s reading his lines, and then there comes a point where the character he’s playing is supposed to start singing, and he nodded and a white guy across the table started singing. It was an odd moment, and I whispered to the woman who plays Lisa, Yeardley Smith, “I think we paid enough for the talking Michael Jackson, but not for the singing Michael Jackson.”
So is that what happened?
Nobody explained it any further but that’s how it appeared.
Let’s move on to your new album. Can’t Take a Hint, the title itself, what does that reference?
I guess the fact that the first two records I made got Grammy nominations and the last one didn’t.
Do you have any thoughts as to why you were shut out last time? Do you think it was the subject matter?
Having been in a movie about the whole experience of the awards process in Hollywood, [ For Your Consideration ] I think that movie speaks for me about the impenetrability and unreliability of the whole process. I certainly don’t think the last record was not as good as the previous two, but I don’t know what role that might even play. It certainly was a more thematic and specialized kind of topic because the songs are based on the odd language that spurted out of mouths at the time of the financial crisis. Everybody was hearing those words. It’s not like explaining or dealing with arcane financial subjects, which I don’t understand myself.
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