The very first time I heard music from Les Claypool was also the very first time I saw an episode of South Park. A few years later, I would be reintroduced to Claypool and Primus. Eventually, I would find myself listening to “Jerry Was A Race Car Driver” and “Wynona’s Big Brown Beaver” almost daily, struck with awe by the basslines. Of course, Claypool has had his hand, or bass, in many other musical projects including Oysterhead and Fearless Flying Frog Brigade, and guest appearances with Tom Waits, Jerry Cantrell and Buckethead.
With Duo De Twang, Claypool is joined by high school friend Bryan Kehoe to “twangify” some of their favorite songs, as well as material from Claypool’s other projects. Included on their debut album, Four Foot Shack, is Alice In Chains’ classic “Man In The Box,” “Jerry Was A Race Car Driver” and “Wynona’s Big Brown Beaver.”
I recently had a chance to talk to the legendary rock bassist in between his gigs with Primus in Australia. During our conversation, we covered Four Foot Shack, the music business, Jerry Cantrell and more. Check out what Les had to say below:
How are Australian shows going?
They have been going great. We have been out here with Arcade Fire and The Lumineers. It has been hotter than hell, but great. I do enjoy me some Australia.
How did the idea behind Duo De Twang come about?
A couple years ago I was asked to put together a project for the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, which is this big festival in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. I got together with a buddy of mine and we “twangified” some of my tunes and some of other people’s tunes as well—artists like some Johnny Cash and Johnny Horton, for example.
We had such a good time doing it that it kind of escalated from there. It has become this sitting around the campfire, drinking and telling stories, very casual, intimate experience. It eventually evolved into, “Let’s make a record.”
So the record is a result of the touring and enjoyment from this project?
Well, yeah. You know, if you want to continue to travel around the country or even the world with something, it’s always good to put some material out there so people aren’t going, “What the hell is this?” (Laughs) So yeah, it was just the next logical step. I have a studio at my house that I can do all that stuff at. It’s got all of this old vintage recording gear, so we just got together, threw up some mics, and spilled this thing out.
In terms of song choices, how did you decide which ones made the cut and made it to the album?
A lot of it is just evolution from the shows. It’s almost like the record is just a setlist from some of our live performances. Certain songs seemed obvious, while there were others I wanted to do. And of course, we stumbled upon some during soundchecks, like “Staying Alive” or “Man In The Box.” We would kind of just crack each other up, and eventually it would evolve into a full song. There were a lot like that, that we did, and they would happen to be the ones that made it to the record.
What was the process like, in terms of taking the studio recordings of the original tracks and “twangifying” them?
Well, it was all actually rather casual. “Wynona’s Big Brown Beaver” was logical because the original version of the song is actually very similar to what it was like on the twang record. Years ago, when we originally put it out, it was all based upon the bass part. Then I had these lyrics that just so happened to fit together, so we kind of stuck them together. Originally, for that record, Tales From The Punchbowl, it was going to be this sidebar hillbilly song, but then it ended up into the tune that everybody sort of gravitates towards.
So, some songs you kind of sit there and start plucking away (imitates twang riffs) and the lyrics will eventually float on top of it. I have this resonator bass and I kind of just cruise around the dressing room or shows or whatever with it, and whatever I can sing on top of it, it just catches on.
It’s campfire music. In fact, my son and I were camping last year. In addition to the dog, fishing rods, guns and whatever else you bring camping, my son brought along his banjo and I brought my resonator bass. We would sit around the campfire at night and just play some tunes, playing old Johnny Cash and whatnot; we had an amazing time. That’s when I thought we need to bring this to the stage, so we have a little campfire setup on stage, drink whatever the hell we are drinking, bullshit with the crowd and play some tunes. It’s like a fuck off vacation band.
Since this is such a relaxing and casual experience, it is quite different than the typical album release project. Do you have a preference in terms of what you enjoy being involved with?
The only bare-bones element to it is the fact that there is the two of us. It’s actually fairly tough playing those bass parts and stomping on the box. It is a unique approach to the bass, playing those Luther Perkins-style parts. For me, it’s a challenge, and it moves me in a different direction. It always keeps me interested in the game. If I went out and played Primus songs my entire life, I would be bored out of my mind, you know? I’m not saying I dislike playing Primus songs, but doing different things keeps me fresh for playing Primus or Frog Brigade or whatever it is.
Have you gotten feedback or responses from some of the other artists like Jerry Cantrell?
I’m not sure anybody has heard it yet. Not many of the artists are still around. I’ll give Cantrell a holler when we get back into the States. We will probably give him a copy and all of that good stuff since he is a friend of ours. I have covered the Jerry Reed song [“Amos Moses”] years ago with Primus. I know a friend of mine played it for Reed years ago, and he just thought it was the weirdest thing. He was amazed as to why this weird son of a bitch such as myself would be influenced by him and he didn’t get it (laughs).
When you were recording this album, was there a rush to get anything done or a timeline to be followed? Or was it more of a casual experience?
Well, the thing about pretty much everything I do is if it’s not fun, I don’t want to do it. I see these artists—artists that I very much respect—get so tortured by what they are doing sometimes and I just want to shake them. We got into playing music when we were kids because we enjoyed doing it. Don’t let the business element of it ruin it. Have fun with it. When it comes down to it, that’s what people want to hear anyway. They want to see you enjoying yourself and want to know that it is real. If you’re stressing out about this shit, it’s going to be hard to keep it real, I think.
In addition to Duo De Twang, what else do you have in store for 2014?
We’ve got more touring here and there with both Duo De Twang and Primus. We will be heading to Mexico over in March. Right now, we are in the studio and working on some Primus stuff. There’s also a book coming out about my projects over the years as well, including Oysterhead and Primus. We are finishing that up now and will probably be out later this year. So there’s a lot of stuff on the calendar for this year.
Duo De Twang will play back-to-back shows at The Heath at The McKittrick Hotel on Feb. 26 and 27. Four Foot Shack is available now. For more information, go to lesclaypool.com.