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Spinal Tap isn't tapped out yet

The faux metal band that sprung forth from Rob Reiner's 1984 'mockumentary' is back with a new album (its first in 17 years) and a one-off 'world tour.'

June 22, 2009|Steve Appleford

The rock stars in the room have been at this all day. Since 11 a.m., the laughable, mostly fictional heavy-metal trio Spinal Tap has been hard at work, making the usual wig adjustments and celebrating the release of the band's first album in 17 years.

First there was a live performance and some preposterous chitchat on "The Tonight Show With Conan O'Brien" and now more interviews and a quick nighttime photo shoot. The photographer observes the musicians' scowling, mildly bewildered faces as they pose at a Universal City hotel.

"Nice," he says approvingly.

"We don't do nice," says the tall singer with a British accent, who calls himself David St. Hubbins (more commonly known as American actor Michael McKean). "Nice is for the Jonas Brothers."

Bassist Derek Smalls (a.k.a. Harry Shearer) raises a triumphant heavy-metal fist toward the lens, and lead guitarist Nigel Tufnel (Christopher Guest) watches blankly in his leather jacket and shiny red sneakers. The day isn't over.

"If I could get a rubber doughnut to sit on," says St. Hubbins, looking at his chair, "that would be great."

"You mean," Tufnel asks, "besides the one in your trousers?"

The exchange is a typical moment of ridiculous, overlapping improvisation that Guest, McKean and Shearer have periodically brought to life since the 1984 release of "This Is Spinal Tap," the Rob Reiner-directed skewering of rock 'n' roll excess and general cluelessness.

At moments like this, the three humorists remain in character as their Spinal Tap alter egos, as they do even backstage on Spinal Tap tours. The new album, "Back From the Dead," was recorded in January at the Village Studios in Los Angeles. It was released last week on the band's Label Industry Records, with 19 tracks, a DVD interview disc and an elaborate foldout diorama of the musicians as action figures.

Among the newer songs is "Warmer Than Hell," a climate change anthem written for the band's performance at the Live Earth concert in 2007, where St. Hubbins introduced the lyrics: "Satan sat in Surrey / sweating like a pig. / He said, 'Is this just a fluke / Or maybe something big?' "

Fans will recognize many songs ("Big Bottom," "Stonehenge," "(Funky) Sex Farm") from the film, recorded in a studio for the first time, sometimes with such guest players as John Mayer and Steve Vai.

"We said, 'Why don't we make these tracks sound as best they can be?' " says Tufnel, "with us controlling it, with loudness, sonic integrity."

"It's just an ability to have these songs enjoyed the way they were meant to be enjoyed," says Smalls, "with royalties flowing to us."

The band's last album was 1992's "Break Like the Wind." A reunion was unexpected this many years later.

"We went in the studio and cut 23 songs in six days," says CJ Vanston, longtime keyboardist for the band and producer of "Back From the Dead." "That's what people don't know about these guys -- what really solid musicians they are, how creative they are musically."

Guest is the acclaimed director of a series of improvisational comedy films, from 1996's "Waiting for Guffman" to 2006's "For Your Consideration." McKean is a busy stage and film actor, appearing in Woody Allen's "Whatever Works," released last week. And Shearer voices several recurring characters on "The Simpsons," hosts his long-running "Le Show" on KCRW-FM (89.9), writes books and more.

But fans keep asking about Spinal Tap, 25 years after the hit mockumentary. (Smalls calls it "docu-ganda.") They just completed a 30-city "Unwigged & Unplugged" tour, appearing onstage as themselves to perform songs from "Tap," the 2003 folk music parody "A Mighty Wind" and other film-music projects.

The trio plans a one-night-only "world tour" at London's Wembley Stadium on June 30. They promise to be loud as always.

"We wanted it to be a painful experience on some level," says St. Hubbins of the Spinal Tap mission. "Painful not emotionally but physically painful and difficult to stomach."

Adds Tufnel, "At the end of the day, people thank us for that pain. At the end of the show, there's a look on their face -- it's a glazed look, but it's a good glazed."

"It's similar to enhanced interrogation. Audio-boarding," St. Hubbins suggests. "I have heard people yell, 'I give up.' They'll tell you anything you want to know."

"That was me, actually," says Smalls.

The Tap experience now extends to players of the Rock Band video game. Four Spinal Tap songs, including the previously unavailable "Saucy Jack" (from the band's unfinished musical about Jack the Ripper) became available to download for use in the game last week.

"I think it's very important for kids these days to learn to fake it," says St. Hubbins of the game. "It's very important in business, in relationships -- "

"Sex," interjects Tufnel.

"Authenticity has been proved wanting as a strategy," says Smalls.

"So we're glad to lend our services to help them learn how to completely [B.S.] their way through anything in life," St. Hubbins goes on. "But I would rather kids play this game with a guitar than a shooting game, blowing away the zombies."

Smalls agrees. "We don't get any royalties for that."

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calendar@latimes.com

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