Harry Shearer Talks Taboo Topics Like Priests and 'Deaf Boys' on New Album: 'I'm Not Tiptoeing ... I'm Walking Straight Into It' (Q&A)
The "Spinal Tap" star and Grammy-nominated comedy great tells the inside story of his collaborations with Dr. John, Jane Lynch, and Fountains of Wayne on musical-comedy collection "Can't Take a Hint."
It's hard to say what Harry Shearer is best known for. The voice of Mr. Burns (and others) on The Simpsons? This Is Spinal Tap's bassist/cowriter/composer Derek Smalls? His subversively satirical self on public radio's Le Show?
In truth, the multi-talented comedian-musician is all of the above, and as the creator of two Grammy-nominated comedic albums -- his latest, Can't Take a Hint, is out Aug. 27 -- it's no wonder a stellar cast of collaborators were eager to to take part. It's funny stuff, but as he explains to The Hollywood Reporter's Tim Appelo, his colleagues are no joke.
The Hollywood Reporter: What a lineup: Dr. John, Jane Lynch, Jamie Cullum, Fountains of Wayne, Steve Lukather, Steely Dan cofounder Jeff "Skunk" Baxter. Have you sold out to the culture of celebrity on this album?
Harry Shearer: Absolutely. But it's not just celebrities. Charlie Wood is well known inside the music world. Danny Thompson is just an absolutely legendary acoustic bass player who played with everybody from Pentangle to Peter Gabriel.
THR: What did Beach Boys musical director Jeffrey Foskett do for you?
Shearer: I think I've ascended to the point after a lot of years where I'm kind of OK on bass. As a vocalist I'm basically singing for character rather than for musical excellence. Jeffrey is a great vocalist is also a producer who can pull performances out of people, including me, that we never dreamed we were capable of.
THR: Your A Mighty Wind costar Jane Lynch sings on your tune "Like a Charity." What's her persona on the song?
Shearer: Since the song was about a Madonna-ish character who funds a charity and ends up with a couple of African children as a reward, I just thought Jane would be perfect for it.
THR: Why did you write "Celebrity Booze Endorser?" Admit it, you were looking for a rhyme with "If you were a god, you know you couldn't look Norser."
Shearer: I know. I had muscle pains for three days after that stretch. I saw in one of your competitor Hollywood trades a story that said someone signed a vodka deal and "joins ranks of celebrity booze endorsers." It just popped into my head that that would be a funny phrase to build a song around. Because I had been listening to either Welcome Interstate Managers or Utopian Parkway, I wrote it in the third person as opposed to in the first person. So I called the Fountains of Wayne guys and said, "Look, you inspired me to write this song so you have to play on it." My producer and I said, "Just do it as if it's one of your songs."[pullquote]
THR: Fountains' Adam Schlesinger knows how to do musical parody, or pastiche -- he wrote the faux-1962 tune for the 1996 film That Thing You Do...
Shearer: This is not a parody of a Fountains of Wayne songs, it's just influenced. It's a satire of -- I came up at a time when if you made it in the music business it meant you were free of grubbier commercial relationships, and now the point of being a pop star is to rush pell-mell into grubby commercial relationships. And the grubbiest is of course selling booze.
THR: You can't live on ringtones.
Shearer: You could -- if you wanted to.
THR: Did you risk going too far in "Deaf Boys?" In the video, there's a New York Times headline that reads, "Top Vatican Officials Decline to Defrock US Priest Who Abused Over 300 Deaf Boys," and your doo-wop priest croons, "They can be quiet and I can be loud."
Shearer: "Deaf Boys" is certainly as close to the line as you can possibly get. When I first wrote the line, "Deaf boys can't hear me coming," I thought, come on now. You can't really do that." Oh yes, I can. I think extremely transgressive behavior deserves extremely transgressive ridicule. How can you be nice and write about something so horrible? The two musical choices I made about that were designed to say I'm not tiptoeing away from this. I'm walking straight into it. I was thinking, who sings in the voice of a priest? And I went to those '40s movies where Bing Crosby was the most lovable priest in the world [Going My Way]. For the backing I thought about instrumentation, and I thought hell, no. Gregorian chant. A cappella with his acolytes, his sextons.
THR: Doo-wop and Gregorian chants just go together.
Shearer: Like peanut butter and cake. The only thing I have in common with that guy that I'm singing about is -- you should pardon the expression -- we both went at it balls out.
THR: The singer on "Bridge to Nowhere" is your wife, Judith Owen?
Shearer: It's Sarah Palin singing a love song to the bridge. Judith is a great mimic -- she does the most amazing Shirley Bassey -- and she did a remarkably on the nose Sarah Palin. Since it's a bridge to nowhere it suggested that music that was around in the early lounge days of exotica. Which was Hollywood pretending that it was doing music from some tropical place but the tropical place was basically Western, south of Olympic. So I copped that riff from Quiet Village (1951), which was the major exotica hit, to build the song around. Judith's got a great vocal instrument that can be all these different kinds of people and still be singing her ass off.
THR: Tell me about the Randy Newman-esque track "Macondo," sung from the point of view of the BP exec who whined about wanting his life back after the oil spill.
Shearer: I don't claim to be anywhere near the songwriter that Randy Newman is, but I think the most Randy Newman-esque track is "Deaf Boys," written inside the mind of some demented creep. "Macondo" is a gentler song.
THR: Most pop culture, especially music, is about people you want the consumer to identify with. You write about bad people.
Shearer: Well, that's who's funny.
THR: What was it like working with Dr. John on "Autumn in New Orleans?"
Shearer: That's the most un-satirical song I've ever gotten near to writing. It just was utterly spontaneous. I was in New Orleans where I live, doing this documentary The Big Uneasy. In mid-September there was one of those amazing days when you realized summer had finally broken and you can open the windows and you turn off the air conditioning and hear the birds. It's a song trying to be a Hoagy Carmichael-esque tribute to how wonderful that moment is. Dr. John reminded me of when I was at a late night television show and the guest host was Rodney Dangerfield. I watched him hone the text of his jokes, just taking out every unnecessary word till they were just like these little pearls. Mac, Dr. John, did the same thing with the lyrics of that song. I sometimes overwrite.
THR: Another pair: Rodney Dangerfield and Dr. John.
Shearer: Much like peanut butter and cake.
THR: What's your next project?
Shearer: I'm doing a TV series in London for Sky, Nixon's the One, five episodes based on the White House tapes. Just the crazy-ass conversations that went on there. We're shooting it as if he hid not only microphones but cameras. It's not dramatic recreation theater. It's supposed to be creepy as well as funny. We're going to try to sell them over here after they show over there, probably next spring.
THR: What will we see in Nixon that we didn't see in Frost/Nixon?
Shearer: He was a much more complex, funnier -- unconsciously funny -- individual. He spent 85 percent of his waking energy trying to suppress his emotional reactions and the other 15 percent having them blow up in a tuba-like way out from him in funny ways.
You can view Harry's latest video "Celebrity Booze Endorser" below.