The comic actor returns with his instrument and a new album, "Can't Take a Hint."

Photo of Harry Shearer
One of the advantages of being Harry Shearer? If you want to play music with somebody, there’s a good chance you can make it happen. When the comic actor and filmmaker wanted Fountains of Wayne to help him cut a song for his radio program Le Show mocking the way famous, rebellious musicians find second lives selling high-end liquor, he got them.

“I love that band and I like those guys a lot,” he says over breakfast at the Croissant D’Or. “They all came out to L.A. to a studio that Adam [Schlesinger] uses a lot for his TV work. My producer and I said, ‘Just do it the way you do one of your songs,’ so we got to sit there and watch their process happen. They had a lot of ideas. They had some chords - they were better than the chords I had written. I write on piano, and they’re guitar players, so they migrated it in that direction.”

The resulting track, “Celebrity Booze Endorser,” opens Shearer’s new album, Can’t Take a Hint, a collection of songs recorded for his show. In addition to Fountains of Wayne, he also got performances from Tommy Malone, Dr. John, Nicholas Payton, Jamie Cullum, Jane Lynch and his wife, Judith Owen, among others.  

“Jamie was deep in the process of doing his record in London,” Shearer says. “He didn’t even hear the final track. He was hearing the band parts played on synth. He did it in his studio, and we layered the band on top of him. Mac I was here with, which was a thrill as well. Working with Mac and Nicholas, for Christ’s sake - standing in the studio and hearing Nicholas do one take after another, dropping these moments of perfection into the pool. That was phenomenal. It’s been quite thrilling.”

Shearer didn’t simply play bass player Derek Smalls in This is Spinal Tap; he played the bass, just as he does on most of the tracks, though he let Roland Guerin step in for “Autumn in New Orleans.” These days, he appreciates the challenge posed by the upright bass, which he started playing it for his role in A Mighty Wind as a member of The Folksmen. “I was always playing rented basses, and for the movies, I wanted to play a shitty bass because that’s what I figured he would have,” Shearer says. “He wouldn’t have a fine instrument.

“When we finished the movie, I realized, ‘I love this and now I have to see what it’s like to play a real one.’ So I got a good bass, and I’m in love with that instrument. My friend in England, Danny Thompson, gave me a bow for Christmas, and I did what any amateur does. I tried to make a sound with it. Judith said, ‘You have to stop that now.’ I called Jim [Singleton], and said I’d need lessons.”

Shearer didn’t come to music through garage bands. He was a child actor and didn’t have the time or inclination for them. “I had nothing but contempt for the kid world that I was forced to go back to when I wasn’t working,” he says. “All of it seemed as lame as student government to me.” His first instrument is the piano, something he played largely by ear to the frustration of his piano teacher. Because she was trying to make him a better reader, she forbade his parents to buy him recordings of the songs he was trying to learn. It partially worked. “I can read very haltingly. Judith and I were doing this show with Richard Thompson called “Cabaret of Souls,” and my love for Richard, my love for the music in this show, is so great that he can get me to read.”

He picked the bass up by ear as well, which put him in good stead for This is Spinal Tap. “I was pretty much at Derek’s level of proficiency when the movie happened,” Shearer says. “I didn’t have to dumb myself down. One of the things I like about playing these instruments is that as time goes on, I get better. That’s a nice part of the curve to be on; the bad part is, you look back and say, “Oh fuck, I wish we could’ve done that record now.”

Shearer, Christopher Guest and Michael McKean tested their live Spinal Tap chops opening for an Iron Butterfly reunion that ended up with headliners opening for the then-unknown band when a Butterfly had to get home early to prepare for dental surgery the next day. Guest, McKean and Shearer performed the show as Spinal Tap, and when they did their first press tour in England, they stayed in character as well. That carried sort of commitment helped them onstage. “You’re not making the musical choices you would make,” Shearer says. “That was the essence of what we were doing. We were trying to make their choices.”  

He did, however, have a moment when he broke character at The Royal Albert Hall. “I’m going offstage to get my tail attached for ‘Christmas with the Devil,’” he says. “I’m heading into the darkness off the stage and sitting in the wings giving me a thumbs up as I walk by is George Harrison. That’s hard to beat. That was me reacting; that wasn’t Derek. The actor was gone, that was just ‘Holy fuck, alright then.’”

Shearer doesn’t play a character on Can’t Take a Hint, but he’s not exactly singing as himself. For “Deaf Boys,” he “Bings it up,” adopting a Crosbyesque croon to give creepy life to a song written after the story broke about a priest sexually abusing hearing-impaired students. More commonly, he’s not wrapping himself in a character, but he still adds vocal characterization to his performance. “It’s harder to sing out of character because then I have to decide who I am,” Shearer says. “Whoever that Australian is in ‘When the Crocodiles Cry,’ that’s much easier to face than the original of ‘Cold is to the Bone.’”

His two previous albums were nominated for Grammys, and for good reason. They’re funny, and they’re not just music - they’re musical. His arrangements are fuller than necessary to sell a joke, and the songs are better than they have to be. That’s his wife’s influence, Shearer says. “Judith was very adamant when she saw that I was doing this early on. ‘I hate funny music. You better write good songs.’ One of the places we meet, musically, is our love for chords. Interesting chords, chords that, in her case, carry great expressive power. And in my case, keep my ear interested. I try to write melodies I can sing, which I can’t always.”

For me, Shearer’s songs often bring to mind the Mad I grew up with in the 1970s, where song parodies made clear the industrial efforts to sell consumer culture. He cops to Mad as an influence, but he points to the earlier EC Comics years. Some inspirations are fairly obvious - Stan Freberg - while others are less so.

“My real sentimental tie to Keith Olbermann, who has frustrated and outraged me as often as the next person, has been he’s a huge Bob and Ray fan,” Shearer says. “I give immense slack to anybody who’s a huge Bob and Ray fan. When I was 18, I went to New York and wrote some of the last Piels Beer radio ads that they ever did, and got to produce the session. I thought, ‘Well, I should quit now because it’s not going to get any better than this. They were wonderful, and I thought, to have that collaboration for that long, that deep, wonderful collaboration - they had their own lives obviously, but they could keep making each other laugh, and keep making other people laugh by their work. They loved working with each other. I adored that.”

His challenge now is selling Can’t Take a Hint. Selling albums is hard enough these days; selling comedy albums is worse. Fortunately, he had previously shot videos for “Deaf Boys” and “Bridge to Nowhere,” and he recently shot one for “Celebrity Booze Endorser” featuring a cameo by an in-disguise Judith Owen. He hopes to tour a bit with a small band he put together for his Songs of the Bushmen album, and he’s trying to arrange a performance with Fountains of Wayne on one of the late night shows. “It would scare the shit out of me, but I’d have a good time,” Shearer says. “As I told a friend, I’m trying to move our sales into the high triple figures this time around.”