Talking “About Stuff” with Harry Shearer, Part 2

Continued from Part One

Bill Kopp: You’ve always had a unique gift – and clear affinity – for musical pastiche. For instance, “Celebrity Booze Endorser” is written by you but would fit perfectly on a Fountains of Wayne album. It seems like you wrote it in their style.

Harry Shearer: Yes, I did. I told this to the guys; I said, “This is why you have to play on it.” I had been driving around that day listening to either Utopia Parkway or Welcome Interstate Managers. And then I saw this story in one of the Hollywood trade papers: “Madonna Joins Ranks of Celebrity Booze Endorsers.” Their words. And that phrase caught my eye; as I say, oftentimes word or phrases are the basis of my songs. So I was thinking about how to write it, and being under the spell of Fountains of Wayne, I thought, “That’s a third-person song; I’m writing about this person. And since I wrote it in the style of the Fountains, I asked them to play on it.

BK: And “Autumn in New Orleans” completely nails the Hoagy Carmichael aesthetic.

HS: Well, thank you! I was trying to channel my inner Hoagy. Y’know, he had written a couple of wonderful songs about New Orleans, but he neglected to be there in Autumn. And I thought, there is a small shelf of songs about autumn, and New Orleans deserves a place on that shelf.

The thing is, that song is not really what most people think of as Dr. John‘s [piano and vocals] idiom. But of course he had done a wonderful record of Johnny Mercer songs. And that’s what inspired me to get him on this one; he had done such an amazing job singing those Johnny Mercer songs, and this is sort of in that wheelhouse. And he certainly knocked it out of the park

BK: Do these pastiches come naturally, or do you have to work hard to achieve them?

HS: I’ve got all this stuff in my head; I’ve absorbed all these different sorts of music over the years. And I do sort of have free, easy random access to styles. I’m by no means a fluent player, especially on keyboards, which is where I write. But I’m pretty good at figuring out, or having a feel for, what the right chords would be for a particular style. And how they’re put together.

It’s very intuitive; it’s not studied. I have a dear friend in New Orleans, and I just marvel at the way he goes about writing. He’s brilliant and possessed of an incredible gift for melodic beauty. But he writes in a very mathematical, precise, calculated way: “This song is going to be based on a circle of fourths.”

I don’t have that, but as I say, I do have a pretty good sense of what works. But a friend did say to me – apropos of “Autumn in New Orleans” – “Hoagy Carmichael didn’t use chords with ninths in them!” But it felt right to me.

I try to get the best guys and gals I can to realize the tunes. Alice Russell and Tommy Malone do the duet on “Trillion Dollar Bargain.” I was looking for the Marvin [Gaye] and Tammi [Terrell] feeling, and they evoke that. When I wrote that, I had the “middle Motown” vibe idea, and I did go back and listen to some James Jamerson bass parts, and we encouraged our drummer to, for example, “really lay on this part.” So I do refresh my memory when we’re going to make a record, to make sure my memory is right.

BK: It seems to me as if your songwriting processes can start from one of two points: write a lyric about a subject and then craft music around it, or start with a particular musical vibe you want to put across, and then write words for it. Which is it, or is it both? And do you find one or the other approach more challenging?


HS: I usually start with lyrics. But I have to know, as I said, what the musical setting is. The shape of the lyric: is it a long line, a short line? The rhyme scheme, whether there’s a bridge or not. Then I’ll start playing with the setup of the music, and when I do that, I normally find that that’s when I start trying to sing it. And then I realize, “Oh, I’ve over-written again!” Then I start throwing out words to make the lyric line fit.

Take “Bridge to Nowhere.” The very idea of [Sarah Palin] singing a love song to a bridge seems to suggest something exotic. So my mind went to that form of music that existed in the pre-lounge days, the style called exotica.

BK: Martin Denny!

HS: Yeah! So I basically stole the piano riff from the beginning of his “Quiet Village,” and built a song around that.

BK: Tell me about CJ Vanston. I first saw his name in the liner notes of the black LP, which, I should tell you I bought immediately after seeing This is Spinal Tap back in ’83 or whenever. It seems like his arranging skills are key to helping get your musical and thematic ideas across.

HS: Absolutely. He’s a wizard. Sadly under-recognized, though he does work for a lot of people. He’s a joy to work with, and we have a great working relationship.

I’ll come in with something like “Two Bad Apples.” I’m steeped in the whole Nelson Riddle thing. And I’m never more insistent on what I’m hearing than in that stuff. But he had grown up in a later era of big band arranging, so we batted it back and forth. And on “When the Crocodile Cries,” it originally had a much busier bass part. Like with my lyrics, I tend to [initially] over-write the bass parts. So we had a wonderful evening honing that thing down. And together we came up with a part that’s worlds better than what we started with.

He’s a brilliant player, and he knows a lot of the best musicians in L.A. And in Nashville. He brought those horn players in on “Two Bad Apples,” and they really make that thing swing. There’s nothing fake about that. Those are real players.

BK: I’m sure you hear this a lot, but after I saw This is Spinal Tap, I gathered together a bunch of friends and brought them to see it. Most of them didn’t get it at all; they said things like, “The band isn’t very good, and they seem kinda dumb.” The thing that came through to me most clearly in that film was this: in order to successfully parody or pastiche something, you have to really understand and love it. If you don’t, then the results won’t ring true, they will fall flat. Do you think that’s true?

HS: Yes, and I think there’s a larger point. In doing musical parody – like that and A Mighty Wind – you can’t be doing bad music. You can be making fun of lyrical choices or stylistic choices, but basically you’re trying to say that these bands had a career of some sort. And the music has to have been somewhat palatable to some segment of the audience.

It also has to be, in some measure, fun to play. Because we’re going to end up having to play it. So I think that’s the real key to it. We’re making fun of it, but it’s got to be fun to play. We’re not going to do it once and never hear it again. We’re going to be living with it for awhile.

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