Spinal Tap: It Might Get Louder
Originally published in Guitar World, September 2009
One louder, to be exact. On the 25th anniversary of their debut, Spinal Tap resurrect their career with Back from the Dead. GW plugs in and guitarist Nigel Tufnel speaks volumes.
Locusts, herpes sores and ex-wives seeking alimony are just a few of the things in life that disappear for a while only to come back when one least expects or wants them to. Now the legendary British hard rock band Spinal Tap can be added to that list. Ever since Marti DiBergi’s documentary film, This Is Spinal Tap, reintroduced the band to America in 1984, Tap have broken up, reformed and gone on reunion tours more often than Pamela Anderson has reconciled with Tommy Lee (in fact, she’s probably reconciling with him as you read this).
To celebrate the 25th anniversary of the film that pulled them out of obscurity and threw them into the spotlight while it simultaneously threw them under a bus, Spinal Tap have reformed to record the album Back from the Dead. If upon hearing it you think the album sounds familiar, rest assured it is, as the band—Nigel Tufnel (guitar), David St. Hubbins (vocals, rhythm guitar) and Derek Smalls (bass)—remade all 11 songs featured on the movie’s original soundtrack. Most of the songs sound virtually identical to the original versions, but uncharacteristically clever fans will notice differences, such as several brand-new solos recorded by Tufnel, funk and reggae arrangements (respectively) of “Sex Farm” and “(Listen to the) Flower People,” and a mix that puts the balls into “ballistic.”
To further entice fans the band recorded four new songs: “Back from the Dead,” “Rock & Roll Nightmare,” “Warmer Than Hell” and “Short and Sweet.” Tap have also given us the first studio recording of the long-execrated “Jazz Odyssey” (in three parts) and the throwaway a cappella number “Celtic Blues.” Guitarists Steve Vai, John Mayer and Def Leppard’s Phil Collen trade licks on “Short and Sweet,” giving guitar fans at least one reason to buy the album. The package also includes an hour-long DVD featuring track-by-track commentary and 10-inch cardboard cutout figures of the band members that you can enjoy in the privacy of your own home.
For Tufnel, the reunion is welcome relief. After the band’s Live Earth concert performance at London’s Wembley Stadium in 2007, Tufnel planned on retiring permanently from the band to work on his sophomore solo effort. To make ends meet, he purchased a riverside manor in Oldham-Upon-Rhye, where he hoped to start a grouper farm. But even though Tufnel previously became a junior ichthyologist after visiting the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, California, he was not aware that grouper is a saltwater fish, and he watched aghast as his financial investment went belly up. Literally.
Fortunately, St. Hubbins decided to reform the band after he consulted a numerologist who convinced him that the band could stage a successful 24th anniversary reunion in China. Unfortunately, the Chinese were unaware of the band, as the film was never released in that country. Worse yet, the number 24 is very unlucky in China, where it means “easy death,” so ticket sales were not particularly brisk.
Preparations for the Chinese tour set the stage for the current reunion. Tufnel is excited about his return to live performance and the pages of Guitar World. The self-proclaimed “guitar god #349” reckons that his number has finally come up, and since Eddie Van Halen’s new line of picks was delayed a month, we stubbornly had to agree. A relentless innovator who invented such breakthroughs as the amp capo and an amp that goes to infinity, Tufnel has many ingenious new ideas to share, but unfortunately we ran out of time and space before he could do so. Instead, we talked about caves, ports and Shakespeare.
GUITAR WORLD What was your mindset when you went into the studio and revisited your checkered past?
NIGEL TUFNEL Basically we wanted to do a better version of what we did originally to begin with, because those cuts were not really studio grade. So we redid them, and I think it sounds much better, to be honest. And then we’ve got the video part where we talk about the tunes and describe to the public what was goin’ on. That’s an added bonus, I suppose.
GW There are some interesting things happening in your solo to “Back from the Dead.” What exactly were you doing?
TUFNEL That’s like, How do you describe a moment in time? It’s hard to describe, because you’re in it at the moment, and then it’s over. Then someone hears it, presumably, and then they say, “I like it” or “I don’t like it.” But it’s not like I can articulate what it is about. It works; it doesn’t work. It’s fast; it’s slow. It’s moody—I try to capture a mood. The title “Back from the Dead” means that we’re not literally dead, although I have a theory about that: I believe seriously that people don’t actually die.
GW “Rock and Roll Nightmare” is another song with a fascinating solo. Do you know what scale you were using?
TUFNEL There are many different kinds of scales. There are Aeolian scales and scales that you learn when you study music that are based on fifths, and whatever. If you’re playing in C you’ve got a major triad, which is C, E and G. If you flat the third then you’ve got a minor. Big deal, right? Yeah. That’s not that interesting. But there are these places in between, which I call “caves.” You know what a cave is, right? Have you been in a cave ever?
GW I have once, as a child.
TUFNEL Okay, well, that’s not what I really want to know, specifically, about your being in a cave. I just meant if you knew that I call in-between notes “caves.” You’ve got C and D, sharps and flats. In between those are little hidden places that I call “caves,” where you hear an overtone. It’s not so much naming what scale but what caves you’re using. You’ve got B and you’ve got Bb. A ha! But in between the B and Bb is something else, and it’s subliminal. You can hear the echo of the B and the Bb, but it’s not quite the same, and it creates an illusion that you’re somewhere else—namely in a cave—sometimes. In that particular solo I went caver. I call it “I’m goin’ caver on ya.” That’s what I say. It doesn’t apply to every solo.
GW Now “Jazz Odyssey”…
TUFNEL My favorite. I love that.
GW It’s fascinating how you broke it up into three parts and interspersed them throughout the album. It’s like you’re listening to a band, then you walk away for a while, and when you come back to the room the band is still playing the same song.
TUFNEL I’m happy you’ve figured that one out. That is exactly what we were going for. That’s exactly the impression we were trying to do, where you play for, let’s say, an hour and a half, and someone goes to a party and they say, “Oh, this sucks,” as you say in the States. “I’m going down the road to another one or to a pub for a while.” And you come back and the band is still playing.
GW And the tune hasn’t changed. But it has, I guess.
TUFNEL That’s exactly the other point. It has and it hasn’t.
GW Guitarists are going to love “Short and Sweet.”
TUFNEL Oh! That’s a good one. It’s not short or sweet, obviously. When we first did that live, we played for 47 minutes. Then it kept getting longer and longer. Originally, it was short and sweet: it was two minutes, so it was short and sweet, and then it ended. Then it expanded. On the record we got some guests playing with us.
GW They’re quite impressive: Phil Collen, John Mayer and Steve Vai. But you got all these amazing guitarists to join you, and yet the first guy to play a solo is the organist.
TUFNEL That’s because your thinking is in a box, you see. It’s because you’re a guitar player, correct?
TUFNEL Exactly. So you’re prejudiced, basically. You can’t wait…the guitar is coming…boom! Organ. If you’re expecting guitar, you’re disappointed. There should be a warning on the label, maybe, is what you’re saying—a sticker that says, “Warning! Organ first.” For some people it might be overwhelming to wait eight bars for three guitar solos in a row.
GW I guess that putting the organ solo first makes the guitar solos that much better.
TUFNEL Exactly. You’ve got a climax. If it had been in the reverse, that would have been really stupid. If you say, “Okay, guitars, guitars, guitars”—I think it ends with Steve Vai—“and then an organ,” you commit suicide. You jump out the bloody window.
GW And you wouldn’t want that, because we would end up in court. Or maybe I wouldn’t, but you would.
GW You’ve collected a few hundred guitars over the years. Was it tough to decide which ones to play on the album?
TUFNEL Some of them are the same ones I’ve used for many years, and some are different. My 1955 Goldtop Les Paul is one of the old ones. It’s now apparently quite valuable. On the road, Music Man guitars are my main thing. They make special ones for me. I’m going to be using the new 25th Anniversary model on the upcoming shows. And I’m messing around with some different amplifiers, just testing out different ones. I’m not sure where I’m going to land yet. The Bogner is a nice amplifier. I have a VHT as well. I even might go back to Marshall. I don’t know yet.
GW You’ve been notorious for your unique amp modifications in the past. Have you been toying with any new modifications?
TUFNEL Yeah. I don’t know how much you know about the technical aspects of amplifiers, so I may be saying things you don’t understand.
GW I’ve built a few small amplifiers myself.
TUFNEL Okay, good. The problem with a modern amplifier is not so much the circuitry. They sell things and say that this is hand-wired. Big deal, that’s what I say. It’s more the cabinetry. Really, you can’t have shit wood and have it sound good. You go into a shop, like a big one, and it’s all crap anyway. There’s a chap named Dumble, and he makes amps that are in these beautiful cabinets. I think it’s a very important part of tone that people have forgotten about, so I’ve been working with a combination of woods and vegetables. Because wood, whether it’s maple or plywood or whatever, has its own resonance, but organic fruit has a very interesting overtone.
Imagine a guy bought, say, maple, for the sake of argument, and builds a cabinet. Let’s say you’ve got two 12s in it, right? Once again this is just an example. You make room for what you need and all the tubes. For the tubes, you can use EL whatever, it doesn’t matter; it’s just for the sake of argument. But imagine this: fruits and nuts on the side. And what they’ve done is they’ve allowed some breathing room—I call them “ports”—so it’s not cramped in there. And I can’t explain it. I’ve done the physics of it, and you can’t really explain it. You know those nuts that come in a little shell and sometimes they paint them red?
TUFNEL Oh no. You’re very wrong. They’re patchouli nuts.
GW Oh, pistachios.
TUFNEL Yeah. The shell is very hard, right? It’s also convex. A convex shape will bounce a sound. A concave shape will keep it inward and warm. So a combination of both will project and be warm. I was very surprised. It was an accident really. I was repairing an amplifier. One side had been damaged in shipping and I thought, Well this is weird. I was eating lunch and I had some nuts. I just started putting them on there as a joke, and when I plugged in, it was the best sound I had ever heard.
GW It’s amazing how we find these things by accident sometimes.
TUFNEL First of all it’s not “we.” You weren’t there. It was amazing how I found it. But it is true how someone, an inventor or not, would stumble upon something like that. And that’s part of the technical thing I’m doin’. I’ve got some new effects. I have a TC Electronic unit. They don’t pay me to do any of this. I’m not saying that because I get any paid things from these people.
GW Our readers do want to know what you use. It’s a crucial part of any guitar magazine interview.
TUFNEL It could be.
GW Spinal Tap keep coming back. What do you see ahead for the next 25 years?
TUFNEL The next 25 years? That’s a bit of time, isn’t it? I really take it one day at a time. I don’t mean that in the way that you think, guessing by the way you’ve been speaking. I would say that every day is a new day. Have you read Shakespeare at all?
GW Yes, a bit.
TUFNEL Do you know Cymbeline?
TUFNEL It’s a minor play. It’s not Henry V or Hamlet. I’ve done a lot of Shakespeare reading, and there are some codes in there. You don’t even have to read the whole thing, because the language really is just a jerk off, to be honest. I think he was making a joke on us. They really didn’t speak like that then. Not in Shakespeare’s time. They spoke the way we speak now. He wrote that to make it seem really posh—“doth thou” and all that crap. In Cymbeline there are some codes that affect the way I look at my life. Basically what they say in Cymbeline is, “Move ahead slowly, but turn and look back occasionally.” What he’s saying is exactly that. And so what I’ve done is look at that and the characters in that play. It might as well have been written yesterday. It really shook me up quite a bit. I would say to you read it, or have somebody read it to you, and then you’d understand that concept of what that is. And that’s my philosophy at this point.