Bass Case: An Interview with Harry Shearer

From the Making Music archives, 2007

With so many projects on his plate, it’s a wonder that comedian, author, writer, actor, blogger, radio host, and voice talent Harry Shearer has any time to himself. But he makes sure he does, and when he wants to relax or share quality time with his wife, he picks up his bass.

Making Music caught up with the busy star of The Simpsons, and co-star of the films This is Spinal Tap, A Mighty Wind, and For Your Consideration, to learn about the role music plays in his life both on and off screen

MAKING MUSIC: Whom do you jam with these days when you’re making music for fun?

HARRY SHEARER: Michael McKean, Christopher Guest and I have done a couple of musical gigs as ourselves, playing music from This is Spinal Tap and A Mighty Wind, and we’ve talked about jamming, but we really haven’t been able to get together musically since A Mighty Wind. Fortunately my wife, Judith Owen, is a wildly talented songwriter and recording artist. Whenever she writes a new song, I’m the first person to play it with her. In the summer of 2006 we did a comedy-and-music show at Scotland’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival, so Judith and I played each other’s music all along.

MM: Is playing with Judith a way to connect with her?

HS: It’s a way for her to hear songs in a setting more like that in which they’ll end up ­— a duo with a bass player — and it’s a way for me to enjoy her music on a more direct level.

MM: Do you and Judith have a music room?

HS: We have a couple of rooms — one with an acoustic piano and the acoustic bass, and another with a Yamaha electric piano and my electric bass and amp.

MM: Did you ever consider a career in making music?

HS: I never considered a musical career seriously, and no one in the music business has ever suggested I do otherwise. However, my musical background was surprisingly formal — eight years of classical piano training and high school courses in harmony and composition theory.

MM: Why did you choose bass?

HS: Fewer strings, bigger strings, and I seldom have to play chords! Seriously, when I was searching for an instrument to play for fun I realized I gravitate to bass lines, so I thought that’s where I should go.

MM: What bass guitar do you play?

HS: During my Spinal Tap days I used a Tobias bass. Recently, thanks to Judith’s professional bass player, Sean Hurley, I’ve begun playing a Läkland five-string. It can handle rock stuff, but it’s more hospitable to the sensitive style Judith’s music wants. I never learned to play with a pick — I’m a finger man all the way!

MM: In Spinal Tap you play heavy metal and in A Mighty Wind it’s folk music. At home, what styles do you prefer to play? Who are your main influences and inspirations?

HS: I play songs I know I like, mainly jazz and rock tunes, but really anything that’s caught my ear that I can remotely be good at playing. I was really influenced by Ray Brown’s playing in the Nelson Riddle orchestra — the rhythmic pulse of that great ensemble — and by Sir Paul McCartney’s bass parts for The Beatles — always dynamic, always growing from one verse to the next.

MM: How do you continue to improve?

HS: I practice on my upright bass every day I’m home.

MM: Are you learning other instruments?

HS: I’m always trying to reclaim my piano chops, though each time I go back home to New Orleans and hear the spectacular piano players that city offers, I’m reminded of how futile that project is. Other instruments? I think my wife would commit justifiable homicide if I took up trumpet!

MM: What benefits have you found from playing music?

HS: Making music is like basketball. In both cases, if you’re a compulsive multi-tasker like me, who’s always juggling a number of different things at one time, playing focuses you so strongly in the moment that it’s a break from the ambient head-noise that usually going on. Also, it’s great to be at a “certain age” and still getting better at something. Given where I started on the bass, it was hard to get worse!

MM: In three of the movies you’re associated with — Spinal Tap, Waiting for Guffman, and A Mighty Wind — you poke fun at sincere, enthusiastic professional and amateur musicians and artists. Do you parodies reflect your own passion for making music?

HS: Michael, Christopher, and I clearly empathize with the characters’ love of making music. Just as clearly, we all enjoy making fun of choices the characters make, that, we hope and pray, we wouldn’t make.

MM: What music projects do you have lined up for the future? Will we see any more musical “mockumentaries”?

HS: My movie projects, made and pending, are not in that style, and none of them deal with music. However, I am thinking of doing a CD of songs I’ve written for Le Show, my radio program, and Christopher, Michael, and I are thinking about doing some gigs together in the future.

MM: I would like to ask what advice you have for someone getting into playing music later in life — but perhaps your alter egos Derek Smalls (Spinal Tap) and Mark Shubb (A Mighty Wind) would like to answer this question?

HS: Derek has only one piece of advice: “Turn it up.” Mark’s advice: “Accessorize!”

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