Q&A With Michael McKean of Spinal Tap, Appearing at the Fillmore Miami Beach on May 5!
L-R: Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, and Harry Shearer
Michael McKean first broke out on a mass scale in pop culture in the late 1970s, as the greaser doofus Lenny on the TV show Laverne and Shirley. As a hopeless but likeable sap, McKean was the quintessential top-rate comic actor: believable and empathetic, even as the most ridiculous of characters. But even on that series, McKean's life-long penchant for rock and roll eventually surfaced -- Lenny would eventually get to front his own band, the tragically grating Lenny and the Squigtones.
And since then, while McKean has appeared in countless, well, word-sonly movies and plays, his funniest moments ever has combined both his musical and comedic talents. Especially when he's teamed up with longtime pals Harry Shearer and Christopher Guest. Together, they created what is one of the best rock and roll movies of all time -- even if it was a mockumentary. This is Spinal Tap, released in 1984, mocked the excesses of the decade's high-budget heavy metal, but in a way so accurate it could only come from a place of real affection.
As David St. Hubbins, McKean's crimped blond hair, spandex pants, and proclamations about his anatomy were truly cringeworthy. And still, viewers can't help but root for him, especially as his band's drummers continue to randomly explode or die in bizarre accidents involving mystery vomit.
Almost 20 years later, the trio teamed up for A Mighty Wind and elicited similar reactions, this time with a mockumentary on a fictional early-1960s folk trio called, uh, the Folksmen. Here McCkean appears as a baritone-voiced mandolin player with an impressive collection of sweaters and close to zero self-awareness. And because th performance is bone-dry -- there's never a nudge-nudge, wink-wink moment at the audience -- it only makes the Folksmen even more charming comeback cases. While we're invited to laugh at both Spinal Tap and the Folksmen, much of the time we're actually just laughing with them.
And because McKean and company rarely went for the most obvious laughs, their musical comedy remains some of the most enduring. This year marks the 25th anniversary of This is Spinal Tap, and to celebrate McKean, Shearer, and Guest are hitting the road for what they've dubbed their "Unwigged and Unplugged" tour. For the first time in a large national scale, the three will appear just as themselves, and playing their songs mostly acoustically. And hardcore fans will be especially pleased about the set list. Beyond the biggest hits of both Spinal Tap and the Folksmen, expect deep cuts and lost tracks from other studio albums and films.
New Times spoke with McKean by phone recently about Stonehenge, Spinal Tap's attempts at hip-hop, and McKean's stint with 1960s psychedelic rockers the Left Banke -- really. The full Q&A follows below.
Unwigged and Unplugged: An Evening With Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, and Harry Shearer. Tuesday, May 5. The Fillmore Miami Beach, 1700 Washington Ave., Miami Beach. Show starts at 8 p.m., tickets cost $34.50 and $50.50. livenation.com
New Times: A few years ago, Harry Shearer said on the Opie and Anthony Show that you had been in the band Left Banke. What's the story behind that?
Michael McKean: It ain't much of a story. If I want to impress Richard Thompson [a songwriter who was once a member of the Fairport Convention] I bring this up. Here's the whole story: I was 18 years old, and a friend of mine named Warren David was briefly a drummer for a band called the Left Banke. They put out a record called "Walk Away Renee," and it didn't go anywhere and it was just a bomb.
Wait, you're being sarcastic about that right? "Walk Away Renee" was a huge hit in its time.
Just wait to see how this goes. Actually my friend didn't even play on that song; he only played on the B-side of the record. The band sort of half-way broke up, but then the song became a hit. And Mike Brown, who was the writer of "Walk Away Renee," and his father, a guy named Harry Lukovsky, who was a New York session man and arranger, they wanted to put together a new version of the band because they wanted to put out some new records.
So I was recruited -- this was in New York -- through my friend. They bought us new clothes and new guitars, and we rehearsed for three months, and then we broke up again. I never played a single gig with the Left Banke. I was with the band when they recorded what was kind of their comeback single with their new vocalist, a guy named Bert Sommer. So when that song was gonna tear up the charts we were gonna go out and support that, but the band fell apart again. So it was really a matter of rehearsing with the guys, and taking off out of the back door with my guitar and my new clothes. So in a sense, I did play in the Left Banke,
So that's got to have influenced the Thamesman at the beginning of This is Spinal Tap.
Yes, somewhat. See, we're also fans. All three of us are rock and roll fans, and aware of the pretense that comes with performance, as well as the legitimacy of it. It was never our intent to show that people who play rock and roll are idiots or mediocre, because we don't feel that way. We try to get the form right.
This goes for the folk as well, because there was a lot of bad faux folk music in the late 1950s and early 1960s, which is what we were poking fun at. rather than the legitimate stuff. And right now, there are great performers, quote-unquote folk performers, like the aforementioned Thompson, Loudon Wainwright III, and Matty Pryor.
It was never our intent to say, Boy, this music stinks. It's just that as the band Spinal Tap, we're certainly making mediocre choices because we're mediocre guys. But that doesn't make them unlovable; we love them anyway. There's a great deal of affection in what we do. With metal music, Metallica is a legitimately great band, and there are many, many others, a lot younger than Metallica as well.
So did you start off in entertainment wanting to be a musician?
I started playing the guitar when I was 14, and acting around the same time, in very informal, very amateur situations in high school and stuff. I've always done both, I picked a good way to stay sane. When you're an actor, you can't go out on the street and start acting, people will just think you're crazy. But if you're a musician you can fnid a patch of ground outside the subway stop and keep in practice.
What made you decide to specifically pursue comic acting?
I don't really know. I always had kind of a knack for it. The people I really, really liked, the actors I really liked were largely comic actors, or just actor who had good comic chops. I keep invoking the name Alan Arkin, who's a hero of mine. He was known primarily on the New York stage as a great comic actor, especially in a play called Enter Laughing, which is still maybe the finest comic performance I've ever seen. Also Zero Mostel.... I don't know where to stop or start. And actors who are just great actors or movie stars, they've always had great comic chops.
You had the comedy group the Credibility Gap with Harry Shearer in Los Angeles in the 1970s, and then at what point did you team up with Christopher Guest?
I had known Chris for years before I knew David Lander and Harry Shearer. We went to college together at NYU -- before the acting school was cakked Tisch, it was just called the "School of the Arts." We were just that one little dump on Seventh Street and Second Avenue. I lived there, too, right on that corner. I'd just roll out of bed and get in the classroom. Chris and I both went there. I had known him for a long time.
So that's why you invited him to play on the Lenny and the Squigtones studio album in 1979.
The Squigtones thing happened around the same time as The TV Show, which was the TV special that Rob Reiner created. it was a special with a guy watching TV, like a day of programming, and a guy with an itchy remote finger going through different styles of TV for a whole broadcast day. It was a pilot for a series, and didn't go to series, but the pilot was shown on ABC. And that's where Spinal Tap made their first appearance. That was in '79, and' 79 was also when we went on the road with the Squigtones.
I went to see Iron Maiden play recently, and they had this whole Egyptian-theme set, and the whole time I kept thinking of Spinal Tap and Stonehenge. Who came up with that Stonehenge gag? And did you base elements of Spinal Tap on specific bands?
The Stonehenge idea was actually kind of a rip from Black Sabbath story that we had read about. They had a song about Stonehenge as well, and they had a big set and couldn't fit it into most of the venues we were playing at, so we went the other way.
In general, the rhythm of the name Spinal Tap came, probably, from Status Quo. It had the kind of two-syllable-to-one-syllable payoff. There was no one band though. I think individually we all had kind of icons.
I always thought that David St. Hubbins looked in the mirror to see how close to Peter Frampton he was getting, Frampton being the best-looking blond of the 1970s. And Harry took a lot of his look from Lemmy of Motorhead, and his bass playing style from the guy from Saxon, who would play open strings a lot so he could pump his fist in the air. Chris' resemblance to Jeff Beck was kind of an accident, but now we're all friends with Jeff Beck, so it worked out well, and he's a great guitar hero of ours.
What made you decide to tackle folk music all those years later for A Mighty Wind?
In 1984, we had appeared on Saturday Night Live, and they were revamping the cast, and they invited us to be regular guests. My wife was pregnant with our second child so I passed. The other guys took the job, and in November of that year, we wanted to do a musical something that was not Tap.
And we had looked at a picture of the three of us out of the wigs, and I made the remark that we looked like a washed-up folk band, and we went with that. And we became the Folksmen, and we did a number on the November 1show or something like that, and that was the first appearance of the Folksmen.
We revisited it later in '93. There was a folk festival at UCLA, so they invited us to do that act on the folk festival, along with the Kingston Trio and Peter, Paul, and Mary. It was creepy, but it was good creepy. The Kingston Trio thought it was pretty funny. Paul of Peter, Paul and Mary gave us a look and his face kind of went white. This is my nightmare, he said! But they all were great, and really loved the act.
But it was almost a decade later when you decided to finally make it into a movie. Why then?
In 2000 we started doing some gigs as Spinal Tap, and Chris came up with the notion of his next film, and thought his next film would be something about folk music. So the Folksmen came to life again.
The timing of this tour makes sense, given that it's the 25th anniversary of This is Spinal Tap. What made you decide to do this tour as yourselves, then?
There are several reasons. The main reason is we like being able to mix it up a little bit. When we're one or the other, Spinal Tap or the Folksmen, we're all dolled up as one character or another, you can't just jump to a song from another library. This show is really for our true fans, the ones who are kind of in on the gag, who also want to hear the lyrics.
That's the other thing -- when there are big walls of sound, you don't always hear the subtleties of the verbs and the nouns. We're able to show that. So we open with a Tap song, and we go right to a Folksmen song, and then a song from Waiting for Guffman, and then a Harry Shearer song. We get to program the show for comedic effect. It's working so far.
Your press release describes it as a "multi-media acoustic tour." Is that an oxymoron, or is there some kind of video element or something else?
There are some found objects. There are a couple of fan videos that some of our fans made. This one bunch of kids in Australia, four years ago, they took one of our songs, called "Back from the Dead," which is the title of the new Spinal Tap album coming out in May. It's remakes of songs from the original film, so they sound much better, and also a ton of new stuff.
But anyways, this song, "Back from the Dead," we marginally released it to the fans, and this bunch of kids in Australia made this brilliant video. And there's another guy who did an ingenious version of "Tonight I'm Gonna Rock You." We're gonna show you those, the original 1979 appearance from the TV show, and a couple of other real kind of obscure items. There's also a little bit of interpretive dance.
Some of the songs have a needed reimagining. Like the last time we did "Big Bottom" was on the stage at Wembley Stadium, and we had 19 bass players. This time we have one.
So the new album is the songs actually re-rerecorded, or just remastered?
We re-recorded all the songs. It's fairly faithful to the originals, but certainly sounding better. The original album release, those were all just our backing tracks for playback when we were shooting the film. So they were kind of spare, and they didn't sound like they would have if they were real records. These are a long-overdue revisiting.
Are there any new songs?
All told, I think there are about seven or eight, and that includes the reggae version of "Listen to the Flower People," and also the very hip-hop funky version of "Sex Farm."
What made Spinal Tap decide to go hip-hop?
Desperation. The same thing that drives any marginal band.
What's the story with the ghost hand in your press photo? To whom does it belong? The ghost of a deceased Spinal Tap drummer?
Ha! I never thought of that. It's what happens if you give Harry Shearer access to Photoshop. We consider ourselves very lucky that we only got an extra hand, and that it's on the shoulder and not some place less visible.
What are your plans after the tour?
Within the tour, I'm actually going to go to Chicago. I spent last summer in Chicago doing a play called Superior Donuts, a wonderful new play. We are bringing that to New York, so we are gonna do a worskhiop on that during the tour.
And then the three of us are running off to England to a couple of gigs -- one big gig, as both the Folksmen and Spinal Tap. It's the Folksmen opening for Spinal Tap, at Wembley Arena. That's our "One Night Only World Tour;" that's as close as we're getting to the world.
And then beyond that, I'm gonna be going to spend about a day at home and then I'm off to New York again to do that play. That's kind of what I do -- I've been working on the New York stage in the last five years, and also in Chicago and London as a stage actor, which is what I wanted to do when I was 14.
And you don't have to go outside to act and look crazy.
I did hear an interesting thing. Elliott Gould told me that he and Dustin Hoffman, when they were starving actors, the worst thing about not working is that you don't get to do what you do. So if they were walking down the street, if someone asked them for directions, they'd go into a scene. They'd start arguing, take different positions on something, improvising an argument just so they could act. That's very unhealthy. I'm very lucky I've been able to do everything else on the side with the acting.