Primus bassist/composer Les Claypool and singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Sean Lennon have teamed up in The Claypool Lennon Delirium, whose Monolith of Phobos debut (ATO Records) is one of the most surprisingly refreshing and entertaining rock albums of the year. You can classify it as Instant Classic Alt-Rock. Or not. Their tour will take them to New York City and Philadelphia at the end of the month. I spoke to Les (and told him to give Sean my phone number) and he sounded truly enervated and excited about this unlikely project.
Really looking forward to you coming to town. How do your live shows stack up against what I hear on this terrific debut?
There’s more furry men standing before you.
Besides the visuals.
Now that I’m thinking about it, we are one furry fucking band.
A lot of hair there?
Yeah, there’s a lotta hair goin’ on. I never even realized it until I just made that statement. There’s a whole load of head hair, facial hair and, uh, well, I’m gonna stop right there.
We’re a family publication. We don’t want to know about your back hair.
The head and facial hair on my bandmates is all I’m privy to.
So you haven’t seen them naked yet?
No but I saw Sean in his Speedo out on the beach one day. It was a sight to see, I can assure you.
Is the band a well-oiled machine?
We’re getting there. I would use the word greazy with a z, not an s. We finished three weeks last month and we’re out again now about 10 days in.
The CD sounds like Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd.
Well, that is a very strong influence, yes, especially on Mr. Sean Lennon. We definitely approached this thing because of our combined interest in early psychedelia. Sean is quite the fan of that era and that style of music.
You and he do not seem to be a natural fit. I mean, hell, as a fan, I’ve loved Primus for years but I’ve never really gotten into any of Sean’s bands. Put these seemingly 180% diametrically opposed musicians together and damn if Monolith of Phobos isn’t one of the best damn rock CDs of 2016! How the hell did that happen? I understand it was your idea.
We met when his band opened for Primus on tour and we became fast friends. That’s when we started playing together backstage, just fooling around, but some very interesting things came out of it. I had been trying to get an Oysterhead thing going because I knew Primus would be taking a year off. It just wasn’t coming together because of the scheduling so, yeah, I said, “Hey Sean, this is kinda cool. Why don’t you come on up to my house and let’s see what happens?”
So he did. He came out and we just started throwing stuff up on the wall to see what sticks. I think the one big thing that really set the tone for this record was this. Normally, when I do any one of a number of my solo projects, I hop on the drums immediately. Sometimes it’s not even drums but whatever junkyard percussion I happen to have lying around. But this time, it was Sean who jumped on the drums first. And he has a completely totally different feel not only from me but from any drummers I normally play with. He has kind of a Bill Ward, Nick Mason, Ringo Starr kind of laid-back low-key feel, y’know? And his drumming really set the tone for how the record went. Normally, my things lean forward. They have a bounce to them. I think I only played percussion on one song out of the 11 that made it on to the record.
Then what happened?
The two of us sat there, looked at each other, drank some wine, talked, and got right back to it. It was a true collaboration. It was not a time of, “I write this song and then you write that song.” I mean, sure, we would each bring in songs, throw our own sauce into it, help each other with lyrics, and the like. I’m not a big chord progression guy so he would suggest, “Wait a minute, let’s do this instead of that,” and he would move a riff that I would come up with, for instance, to different chords. We were both pushing each other into directions that we wouldn’t ordinarily go. But, to me, it seemed all so logical. I don’t know if you’ve listened to any of Sean’s stuff with the band Ghosts of a Saber Tooth Tiger [GOASST].
Truth be told, I have yet to be able to get behind any of his bands so far…until now.
That’s a shame. I’m a big fan of Ghosts of a Saber Tooth Tiger.
I am a fan of your bass playing, that’s for sure. Larry Graham ain’t got nothin’ on you.
[laughing] He’s all over me.
True that. But what I’m getting at is you’re pulling Sean into your fold, not the other way around. To me, he’s fascinating only because he’s the grown-up “Beautiful Boy” of my favorite John Lennon song. Let’s call a spade a spade here.
Well, so, in that context yes, I’m trying to change that perception because he really is such an intuitive musician. A few years ago, he put out an album on the Grand Royal label. I thought it was so cool. I don’t want to knock anybody but some of these musician sons, man, it’s all pop. But Sean? I think there’s just as much his mother’s DNA in his music as his dad’s. His mother has a pretty damn interesting musical perspective. So when I got an opportunity to hear GOASST after my road manager informed me that Sean Lennon wanted to be the first of three bands on our last Primus tour, I loved it. I went on YouTube, saw the video for “Animals,” and loved it. Tell you what. Go do it right now. I’ll wait. The song is amazing, very old Floyd-ish or like The Move [Jeff Lynne’s first band] or even early Moody Blues. The visuals are totally [Euro filmmaker Alejandro] Jodorowsky. So I was hooked right there. Then, watching their shows, I really became a huge fan.
So, for me, having Sean in my world and me in his world, is a blast because I pushed him into this. I told him, I said, “Look man, nobody knows what a motherfucker of a guitar player you are!” He had come up and sat in with Primus on stage one night during “Southbound Pachyderm” and it was one of the greatest sit-ins we’ve ever had. I said, “We need to show more people that you can play your instrument.” Even he admitted, “This is the first band I’ve ever been in where I’m the only guitar player. I’m a little nervous about it.” But I kept shoving him out there into the light and now we’re really having a good time. I brought in my drummer and he brought in his keyboardist who sounds like Rick Wakeman crossed with Keith Emerson and we’re having a hell of a time playing all this crazy shit. It’s a lot of fun.
So it works. Did you think it would work that well up top?
I did! Well, first of all, what is “work”? For me, if it works, it’s interesting to me. Whether it sells or not, I never know what the hell is ever going to sell. I’m not good at knowing if something is going to be so popular. That’s not what I do. For me, as soon as we sat down in the back of the bus and started playing like that one day, I was like, “Whoah! This guy is playing some real interesting stuff over what I’m doing. Nothing cliché or predictable.” Some people are a little tentative in their playing [when they first jam with us] but he just jumped right in and started swimming. And that’s usually a good indication.
I always use the conversation metaphor. Playing music with an individual is like having a conversation and some conversations are more interesting than others. Some conversations are similar to what you normally have and other conversations are more stimulating to the point where new doors are opened and new perspectives make themselves known. It’s always fascinating for me to be with someone who challenges me and pushes me into different directions. And that’s what I’ve gotten with Sean and now with Pete in the band: friendship. Sean’s a very intelligent guy. We have very different backgrounds. Yet he’s adaptable. He even caught his first trout on a fly the other day!
In Missoula, Montana. In return, he’s been exposing me to all these crazy conspiracy theories. I didn’t really realize this at the time but I was always one of those guys who thought, “Oh, it’s the son of someone famous. They must have it made. Doors must open for them all the time.” But, really, I’ve learned it’s actually the polar opposite. There’s nothing that Sean’s been able to do that isn’t held to this incredibly intense scrutiny. I saw it with my own son. My son was playing bass in high school and he would constantly get, “Oh, you’re Les Claypool’s son! Let’s see what you can do.” That’s when he said, “Hey, fuck this” and started playing banjo. With Sean, they’re all looking for his father’s DNA in his music. That, right there, is intimidating. It’s a huge shadow to try and get out from under.
It’s a fascinating conundrum and I’ve talked to people like Rosanne Cash, Dweezil Zappa and Hank Williams, Jr. about it.
Hank, Jr’.s son, Hank 3, is pretty damn spectacular. But anyway, for me, it was a revelation.
What kind of guy is he?
The kindest most giving person I ever met in my entire life is my wife. I’m a very fortunate human being for being with her for 27 years, married for 20, she’s just that kind of a person. She wakes up in the morning and the glass is 3/4 full, not just half. The closest person I’ve ever met to that standard is Sean. He’s genuine. He looks at the world with wide-eyed wonder. He’s always wanting to learn. He’s always happy to chit-chat and meet people. There’s no attitude. He’s kinda like a big kid in many ways but he’s incredibly knowledgeable, experienced, well-read and, ultimately, endearing. We’re close now. And I’m happy it turned out that way. I’m totally enjoying his company.
What covers do you do if any?
We mix it up every night. We play most of the new album, rotating songs in and out of the set. But we do have a few covers, yeah. We play some of my stuff and some of his stuff.
Any covers of anyone other than you or he?
Tell me. Tell me.
I can’t. I can’t.
Oh, c’mon! Why not?
[laughing] You’ve just got to check it out, man.
Throw me a bone, dude.
I’ll throw you one bone but that’s it. We do Pink Floyd’s “Astronomy Domine.” It’s my favorite part of the show, actually. I really enjoy that one. I always wanted to cover that but I could never handle the vocals. That’s what’s really been great about playing with Sean. His ears are great. His pitch is almost perfect. I’m just the barnacle-covered sailor who sings beneath him. It makes for an interesting contrast.
The Claypool Lennon Delirium will perform Aug. 30 at Irving Plaza in New York City and Aug. 31 at The Fillmore in Philadelphia. Their debut album, Monolith of Phobos, is available now through ATO Records. For more information, go to theclaypoollennondelirium.com.