Michael Buckner | Frazer Harrison, Getty Images Now this is a collaboration that…
- Posted on Mar 4th 2009 5:00PM by Andrew Dansby
What started as some informal kitchen picking sessions with Guest's lifelong friend David Nichtern (an award-winning producer/writer/multi-instrumentalist whose many credits include writing Maria Muldaur's 1974 hit 'Midnight at the Oasis') has become something more formal with the release of 'Memories of Summer as a Child.' The two assumed faux sibling identities (Guest is "Doc Beyman," Nichtern is "Nudgie Beyman") and enlisted another Guest friend, keyboardist CJ Vanston (he kept his given name), who has a lengthy résumé of his own, which, according to his Web site, might include a new Spinal Tap album.
Guest was tight-lipped about said album, but he did mention that he and his cohorts Harry Shearer and Michael McKean are on the brink of a rather large tour (without the wigs) to play Tap songs as well as others they've done through the years.
So how'd you settle on being Doc? I always wanted to be a Doc.
Well, I'm only a Doc for the purposes of this album. I was given an honorary doctorate at the Berklee College of Music. That's where the Doc came from.
You always hear about Grammys or Oscars being used as doorstops. Does your honorary doctorate have a prominent home?
Um, no, actually. I'm not sure where it is physically at this point. I've been in this business a long time. And I made a film a couple of years ago about awards, so I kind of have specific feelings about that in general. Not this award per se. But my wife and I have certain things we've been given that we don't keep in plain sight.
Is there significance to the name "Beyman"? I've been fiddling with the letters to see what it spells.
Interesting. What did you come up with?
Well, you could misspell "namby." I didn't get much further than that.
Ah, well, no. That's not it. "Beyman" is a word I've used in my films as an arbitrary name. I don't even remember the source. It's in several things I've done. In 'Best in Show,' there's the Beyman Center. There are other versions in other films. As for where it started, I don't remember.
Was there any hesitation or anxiety about taking what started as informal kitchen sessions and building it into a band with a CD?
No, I've been playing with David since we were 14, 15. It doesn't seem that different than what we'd done before. It grew some. But it was organic in the sense that once we were in the studio, we just sat down and started to play. That became a template for work that we were all comfortable with.
Were the songs largely improvised?
Some were. Some of them weren't. There are two ways of working, and I enjoy both. I like the idea that you can sit down and play music without written music. Just to follow each other, express things and stay together.
Make it conversational.
Yes, and in the films I've directed, that's what the actors are doing. I write outlines, but the dialog is improvised. They know what the theme is, but the words are their own.
That seems like it could result in some spectacular crashes.
You know, it doesn't. Without being flip about it, if you work with people you know who can do that, it doesn't happen. It's not to say in a film that everything is always funny. But it adheres to what scene is about. Musically, something also happens that's interesting. It doesn't always end up the best thing. But it's not a crash. It's better to work with pros.
Some terms get used repeatedly to describe the album. Do you have one you favor? One that makes your skin crawl?
Well, I don't read reviews so I wouldn't know that. What do they say?
I've seen 'atmospheric' a lot. 'Placid.'
I'll take your word for it. I guess that's the reason I don't read those. I'd describe it as music, but that doesn't work for most people. Not enough adjectives.
Does "New Age" scare you as a phrase?
I hope it scares everyone. If that doesn't scare you, I don't know what would.
There's a sturdy drive to your song 'Moons of Tunis.' It reminds me of some of that newgrass supergroup, Strength in Numbers.
Yeah, it was a fun one. It has that little bluegrassy section with a Moroccan thing going on. I guess in some way it represents a cross in styles that's always fun to do. To not be limited to certain sound or influence is always more desirable.
The clarinet on 'Man of La Mantra' was a pleasant surprise.
I think it surprised me too. I was listening to the tracks and I recorded that at my home studio just to see if the concept worked. I thought it sounded great with the accordion and mandolin. Clarinet was the first instrument that I studied at the High School for Music and Art in New York. I was in the guise of trying to be a classical player. It's an instrument you don't normally hear in that configuration.
Do people collect clarinets like guitars?
Well I don't. I have one good clarinet, a Buffet clarinet. It's considered to be the best. There are some who think otherwise. But it's clearly one of the older and more revered clarinets. I do collect guitars and mandolins and have for many years.
Have you collected enough that you trip over them?
I don't trip over them, but that's because I have a special space for them. Pretty soon, I actually have to start to thin it out, though. I don't have thousands. But I have more than I can play. I play all my mandolins. There are some guitars in there that aren't getting attention.
Are the instruments like children? Are there favorites or no?
God, I hope you don't have a favorite child.
I have only one. So I kind of do.
Ah. Well, I go through a funny thing. Not funny as in laughing funny. But it may happen to other people, too. I'll gravitate toward a certain guitar and it will sound like the best instrument I've ever played. Then something happens and I switch to another and it becomes the best. It's nice to have several guitars to do that. It's a curious thing; I don't know if it's an aural phenomenon. The same is true for mandolins. I grow deeply devoted to one instrument and think it's miraculous and then shift.
Do you remember a single moment as a kid when music first made an impression?
I think it's a common moment for anybody, I was at an age when you're listening to the beginnings of rock 'n' roll. It's all guitar music. All the cool stuff was guitar. The clarinet was not the thing. I realized this abysmal thing just can't go anywhere in the kind of music I wanted to play. You can't play clarinet and sing at the same time. So I was drawn to stringed instruments.
Any specific players who inspired you?
I was listening to a lot of kinds of music, even as teen. Jazz. Charlie Christian, an early jazz guitarist who played with Benny Goodman; he died at 23 or 24. I listened to a lot of Doc Watson, who was an astounding flat picker.
Do you have any affinity for heavy metal?
Well, if I'm listening to music, it's not typically what I'd listen to. When we did 'This Is Spinal Tap,' it was more about the characters. That kind of music, at that time, was pretty pompous and over-the-top, so the movie was more about that. There are great heavy metal bands with great players. But the movie was more about these guys who were in over their heads artistically -- who had grand visions and were self-important. I guess you could find any style of music and make the same case. There are pretentious players in any kind of music.
Did those songs take forever to write? They were pretty clever.
It's important when you're doing parodies of music to make the music engaging. If it's just silly it won't go very far. It's now been 25 years and those songs have been played all over the world. Without the lyrics, I guess they're pretty much standard heavy metal fare. But music isn't inherently funny. It's important to get to something good.
Despite making movies it seems clear you don't have trouble finding time to play. You don't sound like a dabbler.
I play every day. That's been helpful because I'm going into a new project. Michael McKean, Harry Shearer and I are going to tour 30 cities. We're calling it the 'Unwigged Unplugged Tour.' It will feature many songs we've written in the past 30 years. So it's nice, we'll have to rehearse, but it's not like we're starting from scratch.
Is the "Unwigged" part literal?
Yes it's literal. It will be songs of Spinal Tap and the Folksmen and others from 'A Mighty Wind'; some from 'Guffman.' We'll be doing it acoustically, just the three of us. We did a show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in that same fashion, with a Q&A session and some media shown.
Does the Nigel wig live in a prominent place in your home?
It's at Fort Knox. With two armed guards. Their guns aren't loaded, but no one knows that. [Pause.] The wigs are in a safe place.
Wigs? How many are there?
There've been three. The new one we had made last year is the best one. And it may be dusted off again.
That's tantalizing. Can you say anything more?
No. Not really.
The title 'Memories of Summer as a Child' is curious. Is it one of those like 'Georgia on My Mind?' Is "Summer" a person?
Oh, no. Jeez. It's meant to be quite literal. That's a photo of David and I on the cover as kids. My friend CJ has been Photoshopped into that. The idea was it's a time of life, especially at that age, where you're carefree and things flow in a different way than they do when you're an adult.
Which makes the beach a nice backdrop.
As a kid, it seemed like paradise. But with a kid, I'm always looking for pieces of glass in the sand and jellyfish in the water.
Well, I don't know where you're going to the beach. Not to one-up you, but where we go there hasn't been a glass issue. My son, in particular, loves to be in the ocean. I guess I'll now have to look out for glass.