Ceaselessly productive comedy genius Harry Shearer has a new album out, Songs of the Bushmen, with his band the High-Value Detainees. In anticipation of their show this Saturday at 92YTribeca, Shearer rapped with Vulture recently about making funny music sound like music and the only time it’s not okay to quote The Simpsons to him.
You’ve merged music and comedy with Spinal Tap as well as your own albums. Is it difficult to keep it rooted so it doesn’t veer off into Dr. Demento “Witchdoctor” comedy territory?
No, my wife polices me strictly. She’s a very talented singer, songwriter, and musician, and she said, with typical British disdain, that it was okay for me to dip into funny music, but it damn well better sound like music.
To quote AC/DC, “Rock ’n’ roll is just rock ’n’ roll.” But judging from High Level Detainees’ album Songs of the Bushmen, it appears you think it can be much more. How does your music prove that AC/DC is just plain wrong?
Well, first of all, most of the music on Bushmen isn’t rock and roll, so maybe they’re still right. Also, when you’re that loud, who cares if you’re wrong? I do think music can be an effective form of satire. I was raised on Tom Lehrer and Stan Freberg and memorized most of their stuff, which I didn’t do with the spoken-word comedy I loved at the time. So, just from the standpoint of colonizing brain cells, music seems to be an effective way of making a point.
In the last few months, an oft-bandied-about thesis is that this is the most important presidential election ever. Your feelings are clear, but are you just pulling for your guy or do you agree with that?
I’m not even really pulling for “my guy.” I said at the beginning of this year that my vote was available to the first candidate in either party who said something substantive and cogent about the failure of the federal levees in New Orleans and the need to rebuild the coastal wetlands. That offer still stands. As to the importance of this election, I’d put 1860 up against it.
Two of your art pieces, Telesthesia and Wall of Silence, feature language — either focusing on the lack of it or the more banal parts of it. What fascinates you about language? Is this an actor-writer interest or political commentary?
They both, like the more recent Silent Echo Chamber, focus on the weirdness of a supposedly visual medium, television, being so utterly dependent on yak. And then, when people on TV are yakking at you, the words — especially at cable-news yelling volume — seem to almost act as a jamming mechanism to keep you from noticing how the people behave, how they really look. So I get to take away the language, and people get to see the behavior without any words getting in the way.
You write novels, host a radio show, are an actor, had an art exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art, perform music, etc. How do you keep track of all those residual checks?
I let people screw me as much as they want. That seems to take care of that problem.
And finally, give me one scenario where it’s not okay for someone to quote The Simpsons to you.
When we’re trapped in an elevator. For hours.