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Interview with Les Claypool of Primus: Odd Man Out

Interview with Les Claypool of Primus: Odd Man Out

—by , October 8, 2010

Primus is an acquired taste. Once you let the band’s quirky tunes covered in heavy bass riffs and peddler-sounding vocals sit on your tongue for a bit, you either love it or hate it. But let anyone in on the fact, whether they know that they’ve heard of Primus or not, that the band performed the theme song to the animated sitcom South Park, and their answer will always be the same: “Oh yeah? That’s cool!”

But the Primus is more than just a 27-second musical clip on Comedy Central. The oddity faire that is Primus began in 1984 with bassist/vocalist Les Claypool, guitarist Todd Huth, and a drum machine named Perm Parker. Soon after, the band eventually brought in human drummer Jay Lane and played shows in their home state of California, which made Primus a household name within that local music scene.

As would be the case with members throughout Primus’ entire musical existence, Huth and Lane parted ways with Claypool to pursue other musical projects. Despite what could be considered a revolving door of musicians, Primus continued to tour and produced new material frequently. With financial help from Claypool’s father, Primus released their debut record, a live recordings album titled Suck On This, in 1989. Their first studio album, Frizzle Fry, caught the attention of Interscope Records, who signed the band in 1990. Primus would go on to release five more albums, including the platinum-selling record Sailing The Seas Of Cheese in 1991, 1995's Tales From The Punchbowl with its accompanying Grammy-nominated single "Wynona's Big Brown Beaver," and their lackluster last effort, Antipop, in 1999. And then they were gone.

Eleven years, several DVD releases, and a handful of tours later, Primus—with members Claypool, guitarist Larry LaLonde and original drummer Jay Lane, is on track to recording a highly anticipated and long awaited for new album. But first, the band has depended upon its Oddity Faire world tour to, as Claypool recently told The Aquarian Weekly during this interview, get the “creative juices flowing,” a tour that will bring them to Montclair’s Wellmont Theater on Oct. 9.

Before this tour and up until a few months ago, Primus had been on hiatus. What exactly brought the band back together and made you bring back Jay Lane, who hadn’t been with Primus since 1988?

Well in 1999, Primus sort of imploded and we broke up, but we called it a hiatus just so that we wouldn’t slam that door. Then in 2003, we got back together and did some touring and had a good time, so we did it again in 2006. But it’s sort of…for me, it was always just this nostalgic thing, you know? Coming back and playing the old tunes for folks. As I was finishing the last round of touring on the album cycle of mine [the Oddity Faire tour for Claypool’s second solo album, Of Fungi Or Foe], it just didn’t seem that interesting to me to do that again. But Larry LaLonde and I are good friends, and he really wanted to do it. So the notion came about that maybe we should do something that makes the band exciting again. So the notion was to let Jay Lane come back into the fold. I’ve been working with Jay on and off for many years. He’s a very good friend. As a drummer myself, he’s the guy I steal all my licks from. It’s a spectacular relationship that we have, both personally and musically. So it breathes this fresh, optimistic life into the band.

And why did you choose to tour first and release new material later rather than the other way around?

Well, it’s a way for us to… you know, I’ve played with Jay for many years, but Larry LaLonde… not really. So it was a way for us to acclimate to each other, to get out and get the creative juices flowing and to assemble material while we’re on the road. That’s the main reason as opposed to jumping in the studio and trying to make something happen. We wanted to build a musical relationship with the three of us before we did that.

Speaking of touring, Primus is currently performing in the band’s Oddity Faire tour. I know the tour just started, but how are things going so far?

We’ve only done one show thus far, and it was in Sacramento. It was spectacular! We had Mariachi El Bronx [an opening band], who’s actually on tonight, as well. We had some people balancing swords and doing sharp shooting and cracking whips and popping balloon and snakes, all to the sultry music of a flying, guitar playing man. It’s great so far. We’re one show into it, and it’s been great.

Are you performing the Grammy-nominated single “Wynona’s Big Brown Beaver” on this tour? I know you’ve had some issues with that song.

We actually started playing it a handful of years ago again. It just sort of dropped out of the set list for a long time because of the… you know, it’s funny—I spent a lot of years… people would say, ‘You ever worry about being taken seriously?’ And I’d always say, ‘Ah, what the hell do I care?’ There’s a lot of heavy, heavy subject matter within all of our material. But it’s always voiced to a certain character that tends to be a colorful character, much like a Cappa film or a Coen brothers film. Whereas, in “Wynona’s Big Brown Beaver,” all of a sudden we were the silly guys. It got a little tough there for a while, playing that song. So we let it languish, and then we started playing it again. We haven’t been playing it recently with Jay just because it’s not one of the stronger songs, but it pops up every now and again.

Are you playing any new material on the tour or albums all the way through as Primus has done in the past?

Well, it’s different every night. We’ve actually been drawing from a lot of material some folks have never heard before live because there was a whole era with the Brown Album and with Antipop where Tim just really wasn’t into playing any of that material. So now we’re playing all this material, and there’s some stuff we never played live before. But every now and again, we do an album in its entirety. It just sort of depends on the thought of the evening. We did that years ago in 2003 with Sailing The Seas Of Cheese and Frizzle Fry. Then after that, it sort of seemed like it became a thing that a lot of bands started doing, so we didn’t do it so much. But coincidently, tonight in Los Angeles, we are doing Frizzle Fry in its entirety. It’s just sort of a special occasion [laughs].

Now for the big question. The new album…

A new album is in the works. We haven’t gone to the studio yet, but we’ve been assembling new material.

And you’ve said in the past that in order to do Primus again, it has to be different. How do you plan on accomplishing this in the new album?

Well, I don’t know if it so much has to be different as much as it has to be a step forward. For a while there, it was very difficult to get anything from the lineup that we were that sounded to me like a step forward, so much so that we just didn’t write any material. But with Jay Lane driving the train again, you can feel it. There’s this vibrancy that we just haven’t felt in a long time. It’s a similar vibrancy to what we felt back in the early days.

It’s funny because one of the reasons we have played Frizzle Fry in its entirety recently is because my manager one day said, ‘Hey, why don’t you play Frizzle Fry in its entirety for this L.A. show?’ We’re doing two nights in L.A., and we wanted to do something special for one of the nights. I said, ‘Oh, that’s a pain in the ass. We’ve got to learn the whole record,” blah, blah, blah. Then I realized, ‘Well, wait a minute.’ I looked at the list of songs. Jay Lane wrote the drum parts for most of those songs on that record. So it was actually very easy to do that one [laughs]. So I think it will definitely be a step forward. It’s always going to sound like Primus, but even that statement is somewhat a broad stroke statement because Primus has always been somewhat all over the board.

Is it a little nerve racking to anticipate releasing the band’s first new material since 1999’s Antipop?

No. I think it’s more nerve racking not knowing how the hell to release material these days in an industry that just has no idea how to sustain itself. You know what I mean? I just read today that Best Buy is eliminating a huge portion of their CDs and DVDs section from all of their stores. Best Buy is the biggest music retailer in the country now. So, it’s frightening. Albums and CDs, they’re going away. That’s the bottom line. I think we have to be creative on how we release this. I personally am not settled on how we should do that. But there will be an album. There will be a physical piece of vinyl. I will assure you of that. [laughs]

Okay, so let’s talk about you and the band personally for a little bit. Primus has been in existence for over 25 years now and has seen music, and the industry itself, change dramatically over the years. What is one thing Primus will never change or compromise within its music?

Well, I don’t see any Primus tunes in any beer commercials any time soon. That’s probably a huge element of it, which is a sad aspect of what’s going on with music today because record sales are down and that revenue strain is nearly gone. I have friends who were in popular bands in the 70s and 80s that were counting on their residuals for their retirement. Now, that’s not there anymore.

They have to go tour, or they have to go sell their music to Nike or to some beer commercial and what not. It’s very unfortunate. I would like to hope that people will continue to come see what we do live so that I won’t have to sell these things to any beer commercials. But when all is said and done, you’ve got to do whatever you’ve got to do to make sure your kids go to college and what not. Hopefully, I will always remain far from that point of desperation because I would hate to see that happen.

And as for yourself, many say you are one of the best bassists out there, and Primus’ music has inspired such high profile bands as Korn and Deftones. Do you consider yourself an icon in the music industry?

I do not. I’ve never once said I’m an icon. It sounds very strange [laughs]. I’m a no-con. I love the fact that there are young people out there that look to me for inspiration. I talked to a soldier yesterday that was injured in Afghanistan. He’s lost portions of both legs and he wanted to talk to me. That was his request. I talked to the guy, and it was very touching and it was difficult. But this guy very much admires me, the bass player. He was excited that I called to talk to him. It’s very touching to be able to have been an affect on people’s lives. But when all is said and done, I’ve always said that I’m sort of an elaborate hack. I see these guys that can do all these amazing things with their instruments, these Baryshnikovs and Michael Jordans of their instruments. I’m more of the Evel Knievel of my instrument. I just kind of go for it and sometimes I land it and sometimes I don’t.

Primus will be performing at the Wellmont Theatre in Montclair, NJ on Oct. 9. You can help Les retire by buying some of his albums which are available in stores. More details at Primusville.com.

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