Spinal Tap’s Derek Smalls on Pepto Bismol, Phone Sanitation, Paul McCartney, and His New Single “Must Crush Barbie”

Fans (well, some) fell in love with bass player Derek Smalls when they encountered him in the film, This Is Spinal Tap. The bass player for the iconic group (Spinal Tap) has been a leader in all things hard rock ever since. More recently, the musician has released his latest single, the pink-bashing “Must Crush Barbie.”

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We caught up with Smalls to ask him about his history playing bass, the origin of the new anti-Barbie song, what he thinks of Paul McCartney’s violin bass, and much more. Smalls even talked about his childhood growing up and his affinity for the letters LSD.

[RELATED: Spinal Tap’s Derek Smalls is Ready to “Crush Barbie” with New Single]

American Songwriter: Hello, Mr. Smalls! It’s a pleasure to speak with you, a fellow bass player.

Derek Smalls: Oh, you play? What do you play, four or five [strings]?

AS: Four. Flat-wound strings.

DS: Yeah. I’m a five man, myself.

AS: One for each finger.

DS: Yeah. Just that much more bottom.

AS: What do you love most about playing the bass?

DS: Well, you know, when I was a kid going to art school, a mate of mine said, “Here, try this guitar.” And the strings are so small, you know, and I thought, bloody hell you could cut your finger on that. And then he said, “Try this.” And he had a bass. And I said, well, this is more like it. Big fat strings like this. You’re not going to hurt anybody. And that was really my first experience of the bass as an instrument and as a safe instrument to play. Safety was the first thing I thought of.

AS: Wow, that’s not normally the first thought for a rocker.

DS: No, but at that point I wasn’t a rocker. It was pre-rocker. I was, as I say, in art school. And I was going to be something, I didn’t know what. Everybody went to art school in those days. It was just the place to be. And it had a great name. It was London School of Design and anything with LSD on it was, you know—you were proud to wear the shirt.

AS: Is there a bassist that you love and look to? Or perhaps one who is anti-inspiration? Any bass players you don’t want to be like?

DS: Well, I hate to say this about a rock idol, so to speak. But I thought, I’m never going to be like Paul McCartney with that little—it looks like he’s playing a ukulele or something. It was kind of an anti-inspiration. And I actually did play a Höfner at one point on “Rainy Day Sun,” the old ‘Tap song. And it did feel like playing the bloody ukulele.

AS: What was your feeling after This Is Spinal Tap hit theaters back in the 1980s? Were you proud, shocked, numb? Did you even see it? And if so, do you feel the same way about it today as you did then?

DS: Yeah, I do. It’s a hatchet job. The gentleman in question, [movie director] Mr. Di Bergi was talking us into it by saying, “Oh, I’m such a big fan, I’m such a big fan!” And then he’s with us on a tour with a few dozen cities, most of which we find our way to the stage straight away. And Mr. Big Fan puts in the movie none of those moments, he shows us having a problem finding our way to the stage. That was, you know, a one-in-twenty-five chance, you know? Mr. Big Fan wasn’t such a big fan after all. And a couple other things like that. I think we were taken advantage of.

AS: I’m sorry to hear that. Well, with the benefit of hindsight, are you glad that Ronnie Pudding left the band so that you could have the opportunity to play in it?

DS: Oh sure, yeah! I mean, I was in an all-white ska band called Skaface. And we weren’t really cracking it. So, I was walking through Soho one evening and at the time Soho was full of little adverts on light poles basically advertising the services of women. But there was this one little advert that said “Bass Player Wanted” and so I was very fortunate that I was strolling through Soho seeking companionship that particular evening because it opened a very big door, which I walked straight through.

AS: I also read that your father had a phone sanitation business. Did you ever try to sanitize your bass?

DS: No, no, no. Because you don’t put your mouth on your bass. Think about it! So, no. You may wash your hands on occasion. But that’s the same principle, really. Phone sanitation was a big business after the war. I think partly because people thought well maybe the Nazis lost but they’re going to retaliate by poisoning our phone handsets. But it was a thriving industry. You know, the phone was something new. And people were a little suspicious of it. So, if you’d come in once a week and assure them there were no germs or anything on it, it’s a nice business. I often thought—my dad died some time ago and I’ve often thought if only he lived into the iPhone era, he could have made a sanitizing app and been a billionaire by now. Because he wouldn’t have to come visit you. You’d have the app by yourself. So, he’d save on the mileage.

AS: What was the genesis of your new song, “Must Crush Barbie,” and what do your bandmates David St. Hubbins and Nigel Tufnel think about the solo track?

DS: I don’t know! We haven’t talked about it. We only talk really about legal business these days. Ian Faith, our manager, died and left some loose ends and contracts and stuff like that. So, that’s basically what we talk about. But I woke up one morning—do you know, I think it’s a medicine of some sort, what Pepto Bismol is?

AS: I’ve heard of it, yes.

DS: So, it was like—I turned on the tele and all of a sudden there’s all this pink. And I’m thinking did I die and wake up in a vat of Pepto Bismol or something? And all of a sudden, it’s Barbie, Barbie, Barbie. Barbie this, Barbie that. Barbie something else. And I’m going, what the?!

AS: Makes you want to put a shrimp on it, on the barbie.

DS: Oh, I see what you did there. Yeah, yeah. But so I got more and more pissed off by this barrage of what I call Barbie-ganda. And it’s all this money spent and all this pink spread all over the place just to sell a bloody doll! It seems all out of proportion, doesn’t it? So, I thought about it and I kept seeing this, kept seeing this. You couldn’t avoid it. So, I had a feeling of rage, as you do. And the kind of music I’m involved in and sometimes write, it’s not about walking down the street, going oh what a beautiful day look at the flowers! It’s about what the fuck is this? And how dare they? And why don’t they go shove it up their own asses? That’s the emotion you need to write a proper hard rock song. And so I did.

AS: So, I don’t imagine you auditioned for the Barbie movie?

DS: No! I mean, I never had any connection with those people at all. And I wasn’t aware of it at the time. I mean, they didn’t call up and say, “Hey Derek, in about 10 months you’re going to see a movie we’re making now that will piss you off!” None of that.

AS: As a hard rocker, you’re often more connected to darkness and the color black, as opposed to pink. And that’s how you like it?

DS: The reaction to pinkness was just—you know, being surrounded by any one color is sort of a drag. And the great thing about black is that it’s an absence of color and it doesn’t give you the same reaction because it’s not an overdose of one thing, it’s an overdose of nothing. And it’s an interesting thing about humans, we have an almost unending appetite for nothingness. You know? Whereas how much orange can you really stand? How much pink? It’s like, stop with the pink! Stop with the pink already/

AS: Do you have any plans to connect with Mozart?

DS: [Laughs] You know, I was asked by a British newspaper if there was anybody I would like to collaborate with and I said, “Yeah, Mozart.” Because as great as he was, there are a lot of chords that I know that he never used. And I could show him—like, “Hey, if you move that note here.” And he’d go, “Oh, yeah!” But, you know, that’s not going to happen. Him being dead.

AS: Ah! Well, are you still working with Cryptocurrency? Anything else on the horizon?

DS: I’m going to stay far away from that. I was brand ambassador for BruegelCoin, which is the cryptocurrency that was based in Belgium, named after the great painter. And they said, “Be our brand ambassador!” And I said so what does that mean? And they said, “Well, you know, you go about and you make appearances on tele and talk about BruegelCoin and how great it is.” And I said, “Well, how great is it?” And they said, “Oh, you have no idea!” Then it turns out I had no idea, it turned out to be worth nothing, which was a shock and surprise. The other shock was they were paying me in BruegelCoin! So, I said, “I can work for free on my own time!”

AS: Like many of us, I have money lost due to the Crypto craze.

DS: Yeah! It’s like, I can lose money by myself. I don’t need these people to do it for me.

AS: Last question for you, sir. What do you love most about music?

DS: Oh! I guess it’s the rhythm. It’s a pulse. You know, you’ve got one on your own body and this is another one. So, you’ve doubled the pulses. And music lets you do that.  

Photo by Rob Shanahan / Courtesy Big Hassle

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