Stories to tell 

Spinal Tap drummer Ric Parnell blazes anew on The Trail

Ric Parnell has a story for everything, and they usually start with the same two words: “Here’s one.” It’s as if the local drummer, best known for his explosive role (he actually explodes) in Rob Reiner’s seminal “rockumentary” on faux metal band Spinal Tap, is rummaging through the attic, poking around for the perfect anecdote like he’s putting something back together after breaking it. That sort of memory comes with the territory after more than 35 years in the music industry in London and Los Angeles, and Parnell, still possessing his British accent and bolstered by an easygoing barstool manner, seems most comfortable when he’s building up to a tale.

“Here’s one,” he starts, after being asked about his father, one of London’s most prominent big band and jazz drummers in the 1950s and beyond, and he follows with details of the time Lena Horne was in the family’s front room. Ask about his time in Los Angeles and he’ll jump from name to name, going through an impressively wide-ranging and improbably long list of those he’s recorded or toured with—from Bette Midler and Ravi Shankar to Toni Basil and Engelbert Humperdinck—occasionally stopping to add details (“I recorded ‘Mickey’ with Toni, a number-one hit, and made all of $125,” he says. “One twenty-five on an international hit? No matter, it was the same time the movie came out and I thought my career was the tits.”) And mention “the movie,” This is Spinal Tap, and a proud Parnell is more than happy to oblige with a bushel of memories—how he came up with the idea for three bass guitars to accompany “Big Bottom,” how he secured the part by impressing Reiner with the fact he once played for a British band called Atomic Rooster, and how he soaked in the absurd level of popularity that followed the once-cult and now classic 1984 film.

“I remember during The Return of Spinal Tap standing backstage with Harry [Shearer] and hearing the Albert Hall crowd just chanting, ‘Tap! Tap! Tap! Tap!’,” says Parnell, referring to the “band’s” 1992 reunion and sequel film. “I turned to Harry and I said, ‘Come on, now. We’re a joke! Don’t they know that?’ It was just amazing how quite massive it all became.”

Parnell’s gift for gab and musical experience is exactly the reason he’s been given a new Sunday evening radio show on The Trail, 103.3 FM, appropriately named “Spontaneous Combustion.” With fellow musician J. Greg Walter as his engineer and collaborator, Parnell fills two hours every week with an obscurely themed show far from traditional commercial radio formats—the night of our interview it was jazz night; past shows have played exclusively female artists or, in a more extreme example, only tracks by alumni of California’s Antelope Valley High (Frank Zappa, Captain Beefheart, etc.). And, naturally, his show is peppered with first-person stories.

“I’m loving it,” he says in The Trail’s studios an hour before going on air. “I get to play what I want, do whatever I want—all as long as I don’t swear. That’s the only hard part. The rest is nothing but fun.”

During the jazz show, for instance, Parnell tells tales of Beefheart, Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich between songs. Off-air, while a Rahsaan Roland Kirk track plays, he recounts the time he saw the famous blind sax player: Kirk was performing in a London club, decked out in a gaudy silver outfit and a matching silver hat, playing two horns at once, as was his trademark. “He looked like a big silver bug,” Parnell says, laughing, adding a passing reference to psychedelics. “The whole thing nearly blew my mind.” When Walter suggests Parnell tell the story on-air when the song ends, the new DJ nods, jots a note, and then stops: “But I can’t mention drugs. That story doesn’t work then, does it?” Unlike most of Parnell’s anecdotes, the Kirk bit doesn’t make the air.

Lately, however, Parnell’s stories are less of the glory-days variety. Despite an endless supply of names to drop, Parnell’s been busy collecting yarn from the Missoula music scene. Just this month he’s debuted two new bands—an experimental improvisational duo with Walter called The Refrigerator Project and a New Orleans-style blues sextet, Zeppo. In addition, he filled in earlier this year with local rockers the hermans and plays regularly with Eden Atwood, Andrea Harsell and Pat McKay. Now, with the radio show, he’s looking to promote himself and local music even more.

“The number of top-notch musicians here is incredible,” he says. “It’s the reason I stayed.”

Parnell ended up in Missoula in a roundabout way. He toured annually with R&B saxophonist Joe Houston, usually stopping in Missoula before hitting Canada for three months. In 2000, when that tour was blocked at the border for improper paperwork, Parnell found himself at a friend’s house in Missoula, gear in hand and time to kill.

“I basically got stuck here and then didn’t want to leave,” he says. “I’d always liked this place—it’s like Boulder in the ’70s when I first came to the states. I became a Missoulian instantly.”

Sure enough, during the jazz show the former metal drummer, a self-described sports nut, is dressed in a Griz sweatshirt and Griz baseball hat and spends a few minutes on-air detailing the football team’s upcoming playoff tournament. He rides a bike to get around town. The theme of an upcoming radio show is going to be dedicated to local music. Parnell has embraced Missoula wholeheartedly.

“The music scene here is healthy,” he says. “That’s the word I’d use. After 25 years in L.A., you have the perspective to appreciate it. People here want to listen to music. Musicians want to work together. In New York, it’s impress us. In L.A., it’s we’re not going to come hear you, we’ve got better things to do. Here, people care.”

Parnell takes a second to make a note on the next CD he wants to play, something off a John Coltrane collection, and then looks back up.

“Here’s one about that,” he says. “I was in the Baked Potato, a club in Los Angeles, and…”

“Spontaneous Combustion” airs on KDTR, The Trail, 103.3 FM, every Sunday night from 8 to 10 PM.

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