Les Claypool: Examining the Waypoints
The All-Music Guide’s entry for Primus begins with: “Primus is all about Les Claypool.” Certainly Les has taken that group to international stardom, including albums in Billboard’s Top Ten, worldwide arena tours, a headlining slot on Lollapalooza ’93, and even a well-known animation anthem with the South Park Theme Song. Too artsy to be grouped with the funk-punk outfits, too psychedelic to be punk-rock, and too rocking to be post-punk, Primus has always paved a path for themselves in a genre all their own.
Perhaps Primus, as a group, share an unknown kinship with jambands, with their spirit of adventure, their willingness to take risks and their Zappa-like quirkiness. The band even named their latest album “AntiPop” – a slogan entirely worthy of the jamband charge.
More directly, Les Claypool has been shadowcasting jambands for years, making guest appearances with Phish several times in the mid-90’s and forming alliances with Charlie Hunter, Rob Wasserman, Jay Lane, Jeff Chimenti and other popular jamband personnel. And but of course: his boy wonder bass playing and signature slap-and-pop style lends itself naturally to this ever evolving and permanently progressive landscape.
This past May, Les formed Oysterhead – a supertrio of himself, Phish’s Trey Anastasio and ex-Police drummer Stewart Copeland. For the Mountain Aire Festival he assembled The Les Claypool Frog Brigade. At the Jammys he joined the Disco Biscuits for a heavily-segued set of music. Two nights later he performed at Gathering of the Vibes with The Les Claypool Rat Brigade, offering a set which featured the members of Ratdog (at the end of which Bob Weir, introduced as “Eddie Van Halen” stepped up and kept pace during a furious rendition of “Tomorrow Never Knows.”) Claypool then joined Rob Wasserman for a dual-bass exhibition and later came on stage during Ratdog’s set to perform such Grateful Dead classics as “The Other One” and “One More Saturday Night.”
In the midst of all this activity, Les took a few minutes out backstage at the Gathering of the Vibes to relax on a couch overlooking a pond and contemplate his newfound footing in the jamband world.
Benjy: In the past two months, you’ve been popping up in the jamband world quite a bit. How do you feel about doing these improvisational jamband shows versus a Primus show?
Les: I think it’s incredible. It’s the direction that I very much enjoy going in and it’s something that I sort of came up from when I was young, playing nightclubs three to five nights a week, four sets a night, doing James Brown, Booker T. and the MG’s, Sam and Dave, things like that. And I try to stretch quite a bit with Primus, but it’s not necessarily something where you can just really, really stretch – I guess you could…and I think I will more now, because I’m getting into this whole thing. I feel it’s a lot healthier for me as a player and it’s a lot more fun for me as a player. I can play events like the Gathering and the Mountain Aire Fest and actually have an environment where I can bring my kids and not have to worry about some drunk guy throwing a beer can and hitting them in the head. You know what I mean?
Benjy: I do know what you mean. How do you approach these jamband shows versus Primus shows? Do you have a tight setlist? Do you let the jams go where they will or do you have more of a set idea of where you want things to go?
Les: It depends on what it is. I mean, like, today our setlist is basically more waypoints than it is a setlist. It’s our A to H to M to T and then finally getting to Z, which would be the end of the set, and a lot of zig-zagging in between. No real structure as much as just waypoints – places to touch off on and go from there.
Benjy: You seem to have done a lot of side-projects lately, a lot of one-offs…
Les: I do a lot of ten-offs. [laughing]
Benjy: Okay, ten-offs. Once you put these projects together, do you have a bunch of rehearsals? Do you work a lot of stuff out, or is it more cuffed?
Les: Well, with Primus we’ve always been too lazy to rehearse so…You know it’s not so much rehearsals as much as it is just getting together, jamming and feeling everybody out as players. And developing our little skeletal perimeters of waypoints, I guess. I don’t know, I’m getting too…I think I’m thinking about it too much. Basically we just get together and have some fun and then come bring it to the stage, you know?
Rehearsal always to me is like ‘Rehearsal? Arrgh!’ – it doesn’t seem like fun. But this stuff is all about just jamming. And I’ve been doing a lot more of that in San Francisco these days, or in that general area. I did some stuff with Vinyl recently, who are great guys, great band. I’m just trying to become more a part of the – especially the Bay Area – community, like I used to be.
Benjy: Like with Charlie Hunter and…
Les: Well, I mean, I’ve known Charlie for a long time but you know I’ve got feelers out and I’ve actually run a couple ads just trying to hook up with some monster young musicians, just for some jams and to have some fun, you know? Because when Primus was coming up we had this whole community in San Francisco, with us, with the Limbomaniacs, with Psychefunkapus and Mr. Bungle and even Faith No More and it was just like this, we had this thing – we all knew each other, we knew what clubs we were playing and it was just community. Since I started traveling the world and, you know… I’ve been out of that pond. And I want to get back in that pond and become a part of the local scene again, as opposed to being a guy who just pokes his head in every now and again.
Benjy: You played a 40 minute set with The Disco Biscuits at the Jammys in NYC the other night. Had you heard them before that?
Les: Never heard them live before. The first time I experienced them was at soundcheck. I thought they were awesome. Jon is an incredible guitar player. It was great. I’m hoping our paths will cross again.
Benjy: With the whole jamband scene being what it is, you have bands like the Disco Biscuits who are bringing electronica and aspects of that whole culture into it, and you have bands who are squarely in the wake of the Grateful Dead, and then you have the whole jazz-groove thing going on and a million things in-between and just-beyond all of those. So, with that in mind, do you think that the idea of a “jamband” is going to stretch out as an umbrella over a lot of different genres and styles of music, or do you think that all these different styles are going to somehow try to unify and adopt a more common musical standpoint?
Les: Well, for one thing this whole jam scene is so new to me, I’m walking in wide-eyed. To be honest with you, for the past couple of years I’ve been extremely bored with music. People ask me, “Well what do you listen to?” I’m like “Uh, I don’t know.” Then they’ll ask “What’s inspiring you these days?” “I don’t know. Sanford and Son.” You know? What the hell is inspiring me? I don’t know. And I did that thing with Stewart [Copeland] and Trey [Anastasio] and went to Jazz Fest and I was just like – I’m excited to play again! And I’m like a kid in a candy store. I’m jamming with everybody and I’m having a fuckin’ great time. So I have no idea what it’s going to do because I just don’t know enough about it but you know it’s got me going. And I do a lot of… obviously I’m known for a lot more heavier stuff and weirder stuff or whatever but there’s no reason why there can’t be a whole… there might be a whole bunch of my buddies coming to this thing.
Benjy: I know that everybody is really embracing the idea of Les Claypool being a part of the jamband scene…
Les: Well cool! I like being embraced.
Jambands.com Correspondent Benjy Eisen is suing 300,000 Napster users for reasons he has yet to understand.