THE TRANSATLANTIC MAGAZINE
Harry, how have you been in these weird times?
I've been unbelievably fortunate! First of all, the television programme that I work for has remained in production. Because we can. After 31 years of them telling me, No, no, no, you can't possibly record this at home (I already have a studio at home where I do a radio show) you must come in to either our studio or another studio wherever you are. All of a sudden, when the shades came down they sent me a microphone in the mail and said, Would you please do it from home? Please do the thing that we said we couldn't possibly do! It turns out, I didn't need their mic.
I like to say that being self isolated in Los Angeles is like being in Los Angeles. So my wife Judith and I have both remained really productive. Every once in a while I'll sit and contemplate the number of hours in a day that I have not spent driving, and calculate that to be bonus time.
I've been busy working on the final mixes of the Donald Trump songs and the first – and now the second – Donald Trump video. We’ve been doing that via Skype, COVID-style, with my record producer, and with the video effects team which is located in Sydney, Australia. It's been an interesting way to work. But it's been pretty much what what I really love to do. To do this work, which is very much like play ...actually it is play!
Have you suffered any symptoms?
I haven't. Because I have a wife and an assistant who’ve done the shopping – because they're younger than me! I have literally left the house here in LA to go to the recording studio twice to work with my producer. I walked out to a neighbourhood restaurant to have an outdoor breakfast today – the first time I've eaten out in Los Angeles since early February. But I'm very aware of how bad it is for an awful lot of people. If I were living in an 800 square foot apartment in New York City, alone in Manhattan, I’d have had a much different experience than living in Southern California.
You mentioned ‘the Donald Trump songs’. This is The Many Moods of Donald Trump, an album that is coming out later in the year. You're releasing the songs one by one?
I've just finished the final mix on them and we're releasing a song a week. The kids do this a lot, so I thought it was a good idea! Especially since this is a guy that – I don't know if you've noticed or not – but he seems to have an insatiable demand for attention. So I thought I'd be like him. It's working for him, maybe it'll work for me!
Where should people look out for the songs?
The videos come out on my Youtube channel and the songs show up on Spotify every week, as we release them. And other places where, as they say in the adverts, you get your music. It’ll come out in October as a physical object for people who still crave them.
We don't need to ask about the inspiration for the album, that’s self-evident. But how did you decide what approach to take to respond to President Trump? You could have gone mad or you could have been angry. You've used humor, which is your weapon of choice, but how did you decide all the different aspects of it?
I do a radio show, Le Show (which is heard in the UK on an online station called Soho Radio London and in the States on public radio) that makes fun of the news. As I say, this guy demands attention and I repay him in kind. Sometimes I do sketches about what's happened and I play all the characters. But sometimes he'll say something or do something that just clicks with me and I think “that's a song”.
For example, when a guy calls himself a very stable genius one time, that might be a news story. But if he does it several times, to me, that's a song. So, I've been writing these songs for the radio show, and performing them as kind of demo versions. At the beginning of this year, I was looking at ‘the catalogue’ so to speak, and I thought Wow, I've been busy! I'd written quite a bunch of them, and I thought I should go into the studio with my producer and make proper recordings of them, and then figure out how to get it out to the public. I revisited them and figured out which ones I really liked and which ones were okay for the moment but could be left in the vault.
How many are there?
We just counted them up yesterday, my producer and I, and it's 13. And then of course, there's a bonus track!
That sounds like a very good value for the CD fans.
Very good value for the money - whatever the money is! As we like to say, it’s a full package. And they're all in different musical styles. Each one is written in a musical style that seems both appropriate to the guy and to the subject at hand. They're all sung in the voice of Trump except for one song, which is a ‘list song’ - not Liszt with a Zed, just a list of things. It's like, if Leonard Cohen were still alive and doing a list of everything Trump has lied about. It’s called ‘He Lies’.
Although the songs are very funny, there's no 'spoof music'. There's great musicianship on all of them whatever the genre.
Oh my God, yeah, there's no worse music than joke music. There's nothing funny about it. There was a guy in the 1940s in America called Spike Jones, who did comedy music records with whistles and gunshots and all sorts of funny noises going on. But even then, behind that, the music is really good. They're really good players, they just paused for a joke sound every once in a while. I guess that influenced me a little bit. If you play music, you want it to be as good as it can be. The music is the vector for the comedy, and the way it gets into your head is by being memorable, or hummable, or singable or toe-tappable. Something that allows you to let your guard down a little bit and then boom, the satire’s in your head. So it's got to be a good delivery system.
The genres are quite distinct. The second song from The Many Moods..., ‘Son In Law,’ has a 1950s/60s New Orleans R&B feel.
It's inspired by an Allen Toussaint hit record sung by Ernie K. Doe, called ‘Mother In Law’. I thought it needed to have the sauce that you only get when you do it with New Orleans musicians, so we recorded that track there with a couple friends of mine, David Torkanowsky, one of the city's premier piano players, George Porter, Jr, the bass player of the original Meters, who's at a level all his own, and Raymond Webber who was the drummer for a great current funk band called Dumpstaphunk. You don't have to tell those guys how this is supposed to sound. They know.
There's an extraordinary video to go with ‘Son In Law’: President Trump’s face and body, with your movements, mouth shapes and voice. How did that work?
It's motion capture. I was in Australia with my wife, she was touring and I was playing bass with her, and we got to Sydney just as it looked as if everything was going to close down. Just before it did I asked a friend of ours if he knew anybody there who had a visual effects studio. The day before we fly out, I have a meeting with these guys and I say, ‘All these songs are sung in the voice of Donald Trump and I need a couple of them to look like he's singing them. Motion capture animation I've had some experience with, can you do that?’ ‘Yeah, I think so.’ So I came back to LA to to shoot my performance here. And then we were connected up, eight ways to Tuesday, to Sydney. We probably used half the bandwidth in West LA. They're seeing me, I'm seeing them, in real time. I'm wearing the suit, I'm wearing the headpiece with a camera and special gloves. For the next two and a half months, we're in Skype contact, going over the footage, I'm watching them bring it into a finer and finer state as they’re working on it. We’re melding about four different technologies, making machines talk and play nice with each other, which is easier than making humans do it but still takes some time. We’re adding visual jokes as we go along. It was, as they say in Canada, a proh-cess – it was a piece of work to do. We're working now on the second one, same technique, different song, different vibe. Lessons were learned in the first one that were applied to the second one. I’m really pleased with them.
I did a pilot for HBO using motion capture technology, playing every character in the show, and I’ve done several more, I guess you'd call them experiments, with different studios and different styles. The technology is in wide use in video games where it makes the imaginary look real. But there's been very little appetite for, or effort towards, making the real look real. On television you see people wearing makeup to look like somebody in the news, or some celebrity, but you don't see people using this. When I was making that pilot for HBO I made an attempt to get somebody else in to wear the motion capture getup and perform, but I found that not every actor is as keen, or as adept, as I turned out to be. So I went back to doing it myself. It's hard to teach it to somebody. It either makes sense to you intuitively or it doesn't, and if it doesn't it's an arduous process to learn. I’m a technical person, I engineer my own radio show, so I'm not scared by the technology.
The second song from The Many Moods... is ‘COVID-180’. What genre is that one?
Well, there’s two, because they depict two different Trumpian states of mind. There's the insanely overblown optimism of the ‘up’ sections where it's all great, it's going to be good and it's going to be all over by Easter, it's a miracle, it'll just go away [sample lyric: “Corona’s just a neighborhood in Queens” - ed]. That suggested the musical setting of Trump at Studio 54 in the late ‘70s. Coke-fueled disco. When it's ‘down’ it's oh my God, this is crap, we don't know what to do, it's gonna be bad and it's getting worse. Then the music's like the plaintive, Neil Young-ish folk rock of the late ‘70s. They alternate the way his behaviour alternated during those months, and continues to. He's either viewing it with alarm or with cockeyed optimism, but the point of the song is that never, ever, does he do it with clear eyed sanity. Because his goal is just to be on TV and to be talked about, not to actually be a real president.
You mentioned the phrase ‘Very Stable Genius’. That song has a musical theater feel, to me.
I refer to it as a 'low-power power ballad'. When you use a phrase like that repeatedly about yourself, well now, that's something that has that has to be dealt with by professional help. And that comes in the form of a song. It's a phrase comprised of three defensive stances. ‘I'm not dumb, I'm a genius’. ‘I'm not crazy, I'm stable’. ‘I'm not just occasionally stable, I'm very stable’. It's like answering accusations from – let's just say, for want of a better example – a mean dad.
The fourth song came out today - ‘Stormy Daniels’ - which has a lovely rhyme, ‘Cuter than a bag full of spaniels’!
I don't think I've conjured up that image ever before. I mean, a bag full of spaniels? Yeah, I guess it would be cute.
That one sounds like you could be in a classy ‘50s supper club.
I used this visual trope once before, I wrote a song in the voice of Dick Cheney talking about Scooter Libby, who had just been kept from having to do jail time for revealing a CIA source during the George W Bush administration. I did a video of Cheney lying sideways atop a grand piano, with a flute of champagne or a snifter. A woman singer in a slinky white dress would be in that pose but Cheney’s fat ass? And it seemed like Trump would fit in that kind of incongruity as well. It's a ‘love gone wrong’ song. The only problem is there, there was no love. I put it better when I said, ‘What’s the use of hush money when it buys so little hush?
It seems almost quaint because the Stormy Daniels story seems so long ago.
That's the thing. We've lived through three lifetimes’ worth of crap in the last three and a half years. So I had to be judicious and choose ones I would not have to jog your memory for two hours. But Stormy Daniels remains in the public memory. Because it's salacious.
With any other president, that scandal alone would probably have sunk them.
With any other candidate “Grab 'em by the pussy” would have sunk the candidacy. One thing you can say about America that I think remains true is that, at base, it was a Puritan society. And it's been a fight. Part of the cultural battle over the years, aside from the battle against slavery and its dire tentacles coming forward in time, has been the fight against Puritanism. That's what the so called sexual revolution of the ‘60s was about. A less negative part of the heritage of Puritanism was that public figures are expected to have some sense of shame. You're shocked when a public figure like, let's say, Steve Bannon concocts some cockamamie fraud scheme – if indeed he did. What was he thinking?! I think that, uniquely among the heroes and villains that have occupied the White House, Trump is totally devoid of any sense of shame.
The ‘pussy grabbing’ incident, I think, is the signal piece of truth that points that out. A president or a candidate with a sense of shame, would have been forced off the ticket, and we'd have President Mike Pence right now. But if you don't have any sense of shame, it's like, ‘What? So I sai-d it!’ That has been something with which we've had to contend. And almost nobody is equipped to deal with somebody who's just that blatant and shameless. I did a series for Sky TV over there in the UK, where we enacted some of the crazier and scarier scenes in the Nixon White House tapes. And having plumbed those depths, it's clear to me that Nixon was pretty much the same guy as Trump, except what Nixon said behind closed doors, Trump says in public, Nixon felt the need to cover it up with some sense of dignity and Trump couldn't care less.
So the system can't really deal with that?
Nor can our psyches. I think this guy's main toolkit is the salesman's toolkit. A salesman really isn't bothered by what he or a colleague might have said yesterday. He's trying to make the sale today. He says what he has to say to get the sale and move on and the only minute that counts is the present one. He's certainly not future-oriented because ‘I'm in your house now, I’ve got to close this thing’.
Do you know if anybody in the administration has heard any of the songs, yet? I'd love to know what their reaction was.
I have no idea. If we're going to find out, it's not going to be right away. From everything I hear and read, the fear of being seen to be critical of this guy is rampant in the White House, and you express anything that he can interpret as criticism at your peril.
It's weird that he combines that shamelessness I was talking about with the thinnest skin in the animal kingdom.
Harry Shearer’s album The Many Moods of Donald Trump will be released in October. Keep an eye on https://harryshearer.com/ for more details.
See and hear the songs as they are released weekly at Harry’s Youtube channel, on Spotify and other streaming services.