‘All The Things I Was Told Nobody Wanted To See:’ Les Claypool’s Animals and Oysterhead
Ever since he invited Trey Anastasio and Stewart Copeland to join him on-stage as Oysterhead last May, Les Claypool’s bass has rarely remained idle. In the wake of that performance, he assembled bands for both the Mountain Aire Festival and the Gathering of the Vibes. Before long, the Fearless Flying Frog Brigade became a entity onto itself. Earlier this year, Claypool’s label released Live Frogs Set I, which captures a performance from the band’s initial tour. This disc demonstrates the band’s powerful progressive improvisation, earning Claypool and his band a Jammy Award for best live album. Last month, Claypool released Set 2, which presents the group’s interpretation of the Pink Floyd album Animals. The bassist is now preparing to tour in support of The Grand Pecking Order (due October 2) which he recorded this past spring with Oysterhead. All in all, this has been an active, enlightening fifteen months for someone who never imagined that people would be interested in watching him improvise with his pals. Read on(and visit www.lesclaypool.com to sate any additional Claypool cravings).
What was your intention in putting together the Frog Brigade and has that changed?
I don’t know if I had an intention. It really was a see-where-the-pieces-fall type of project. I did the Oysterhead thing and then all of a sudden I got these calls to do projects for other festivals. It was during a time when Primus was fading. If anything I was just confused and wanting to do something that was fun, not necessarily knowing what I wanted to do careerwise. So I started jamming with friends. Even the Frog Brigade which toured and did those two records was friends of mine who were available at the time. We went out, did the tour, recorded those two shows and then did the SnoCore tour. The band that is out now is a little bit different. At this point if I were to do the Les Claypool Band this would be what it is. It’s just that instead of calling it the Les Claypool Band I decided to call it the Fearless Flying Frog Brigade. Basically this moniker is just a reflection of what I plan to be doing in the future. I plan on doing a studio record at the end of this year under the moniker.
What version of the band do you expect will join you in the studio?
When I do the record there will be a bunch of different people because there are a lot of people I want to work with. It will be kind of like the Holy Mackerel record which was a casual thing and I got friends involved. Some will be people I have worked with before, like Warren Haynes. I’ll try to wrangle him in there to do some stuff, and get some different people. We’ve been writing and performing new tunes on this tour so I would imagine that some of that will appear on it. I think the Frog Brigade will end up being a core group of guys and then depending on what we’re doing, where we’re playing, a bunch of different people will be involved as well. It’s like the last time we played at the Warfield it was myself Jay [Lane] and Jeff [Chimenti] and Eenor. Then we had Buckethead sit in and Ralph Carney, Kenny Brooks, Jerry Cantrell and Brian Kehoe. It was just a big ensemble.
Lately it seems like the one consistent Frog Brigade member is Eenor.
The original Frog Brigade at the Mountain Aire Festival was myself, Jack Irons on drums, Tim Alexander on drums, Skerik and Mirv. I had been playing with Mirv for years and I asked him to come do this tour and he wasn’t available. So I ran an ad in several local papers just looking for eclectic local musicians because doing Primus I had become isolated from what was happening on a local level. I got hundreds of tapes and CDs and one that stood out was this guy Eenor on the cover holding this weird banjo-looking thing. So I called him up and he came down, we jammed and hit it off. He’s become a regular.
As far as the Frog Brigade goes, my wanting to work with musicians is based on their ability to shoot from the hip and follow me down the trail. I think that whether it’s the four piece or the six piece the musicians I bring in have that ability. They don’t have the need or desire for structure.
I imagine it must be tough to tour as many of your players have other gigs.
When you play with monster musicians they’re usually busy (laughs). Like Jeff and Jay, they have Ratdog. And then in September Skerik’s going out with Critters Buggin’.
How has your own playing changed as a result of your work with the Frog Brigade?
Well I’ve done way more bass solos than I’ve ever done in my entire life (laughs). The thing is that I’m doing all the things I was always told that nobody wanted to see. For years you sit down with your friends and you jam for hours on end. You drink beers and everybody trades licks. But it was never thought by anyone that I hung out with that people might actually want to see what. That was something for the rehearsal space. It just blows my mind that there’s this huge community of people that want to see players do that. And it seems to be growing at an incredible rate.
Your just released your second live album with the Frog Brigade. This one presents the band’s Animals set. What led you to cover that entire album?
I’d always wanted to play “Pigs.” So we were sitting around deciding what we’re going to do this tour. Just coming off Primus, I wasn’t in a big hurry to write tunes at that point. I had a bunch of tunes sitting around but I wanted to possibly use those with Oysterhead. So we were looking at various covers to interpret. I had always wanted to play “Pigs,” it’s one of my favorite songs ever but I never had the instrumentation. All of a sudden I had a keyboardist and I’ve always told myself if I had a keyboardist I would play “Pigs.” The next thing you know we’re learning “Pigs” and I said let’s learn the whole album, we’ll do two sets and away we go.
How much variation was there night to night during Animals?
There was variation within the solos but the whole concept was to try to play it as perfectly as we possible could. My concept in doing covers is either do them as close as you can or take them way out, as far as you can, like the Residents used to do.
How successful do you think you were?
I think we pulled it off pretty damn good myself. I was really impressed with how people stepped up and took various parts. Obviously it sounds newer and there’s a lot more bass (laughs). I wouldn’t have through to record it if we didn’t pull it off.
Did you know that Phish and moe. had both interpreted albums in their entirety?
I didn’t know about moe. but I knew that Phish had done it. I was hanging out with Trey and he told me that Phish had done Remain In Light in its entirety, which was great. It’s not an original thought I definitely got the idea from Trey.
Are there any other albums you’re tempted to cover?
Not really. I feel like we did it. We performed Animals for the last time on the night before New Year’s. We might do it again although I kind of doubt it. I’m a bigger fan of doing the oddball interpretations. Right now we’re doing the cosmic highway tour where half the set is about space so we’re rotating in and out “Major Tom” and I wrote this song called “Cosmic Highway” and we’re doing “Planet Claire” by the B52s. We’ve already been playing “2000 Light Years” and various songs like that. And I wear a spacesuit.
Indeed you do. There often is that additional visual element to your shows. Which reminds me, I recently read an interview you did with a disgruntled Primus fan for your web site and I’m curious, to what extent do you think about expectation of the audience? If you do, how has that changed now that you’re playing before a different audience?
I think if anything I’m trying not to think about what people want as much. With Primus, the last couple of years we were thinking that way and we were second-guessing ourselves. We never used to second-guess ourselves at all. We’d just go, “Ahh we’re going to do this record called Sailing the Seas of Cheese because we’re signed to a major label and it just a cheesy world.” It was just sticking it to the industry. Ah fuck it who cares. We’d make the craziest shit. Anything that made us laugh or got ourselves off, that’s what we did. I feel that was the better Primus.
With this there’s a portion of the audience that are Primus fans and a new contingent that I’ve come across being in the scene this past year. The most conscious thing I think about is trying to mix it up as best we can every night because the band had only been around for such a brief amount of time. I’ve also been so busy working on the Oysterhead project that there hasn’t been a lot of time to develop material. So it’s difficult to do a completely different set every night. We mix it up as best we can but we just don’t have the repertoire that a band that’s been touring for ten years has. I don’t want to dip into the Primus stuff- there’s hundreds of Primus songs but I’m not just ready. I think after we do the Oysterhead tour I’ll know better what I want to do with the Frogs and I’ll focus.
Speaking of Oysterhead, when did you first meet Stewart Copeland?
On the last Primus record the concept was we wanted various artists we respected to produce. The record company had been pressuring us work with a producer because we had been doing it by ourselves for so many years. I remember telling them, “Well show me the George Martin or Brian Eno of today and I’ll work with him.” That’s when the concept of working with various artists and producers came in. We had this wish list of people like Peter Gabriel, Roger Waters, Tom Waits and Stewart Copeland. Stewart came and did it and we became friends. When the whole Superfly thing came up. the first two people I called were Trey and Tom Morello because I knew we weren’t going to have any time to rehearse, we were going to jam in front of a bunch of people. I thought it was going to be a nightclub scene. I didn’t think Stewart would want to do it but he chomped right at the bit. Trey was all excited and had always wanted to play with Stewart.
In a recent interview, Trey explained that in terms of that gig, Stewart wanted things to be polished and composed while Trey wanted the opposite. Where did you stand on that one?
Probably for the first gig I was more in the middle. The whole concept of going out and freeforming before people was still pretty damn new to me. It didn’t really hit me that we could just go out and jam before people and they would like it until I did what we called the Rat Brigade at the Gathering of the Vibes last year. I went out there with Jeff and Jay and we just didn’t know any material. It was extremely freeform and incredibly loose and people were freaking out. It was one of the loosest things I’d done in my life. That’s when I realized there was an audience for it. I mean I would love to go see Robert Fripp just off the cuff just jamming with people, I would think that would be amazing. I was oblivious to the fact that there are lots of people on the planet who feel the same way about other musicians.
Has Stewart’s position changed?
To an extent. He went to Trey’s show a couple weeks ago and he said, “Oh, now I get it.” That’s sort of the glory of Oysterhead the three of us come from very different areas but also have some common ground. So we’re always tugging each other into these different areas which makes it amazing. I’ve never been in a situation where there’s three alpha dogs.
How did you work out the alpha dog issue?
We debated back and forth. I’ll say this though, when you’re used to running with ball all the time it’s an interesting feeling to be tossing the ball back and forth and having everybody running together. Does that make sense?
Yes, and it’s a cool sports metaphor
From a guy who doesn’t give a shit about sports (laughs).
You mentioned Warren Haynes earlier. How was your experience working with him? [Claypool collaborated with Haynes and Matt Abts on a track for the forthcoming release, The Deep End].
Warren’s a monster. That guy’s incredible. A good friend of mine is a huge Warren Haynes fan and for years he’d been telling me I should hook up with Warren. I was like, “Okay, whatever.” It just came happened and he was a monster, not only his guitar playing but his singing as well. We were singing some parts together on that tune when were in this little chamber with the microphone. I had to stand about eight inches away from the mike and he had to stand two feet from the mike and face the opposite direction and his voice was still louder than mine on tape. His throat is like a lion’s. A huge amount of air goes through those pipes.
I’ve been watching him every night we’ve been playing with Phil. He and Jimmy go back and forth trading licks and they really complement each other well. There are times when I hear some of his phrasing and the way he attacks the strings that just blow my mind.
Let’s talk briefly about the Jammys. This year the Frog Brigade performed with Junior Brown. When did you first hear Junior’s music?
We were in Europe and I got a phone call from Mirv who was in a band on tour with Primus. He called and told me to turn on a certain channel. I had never heard of him. It was some European broadcast and there he was wailing away and we were all blown away.
And the first time you met him was the day of the Jammys?
How much did you work out what you were going to do?
Well Junior is bashful, he was definitely keeping to himself. We did a little jamming at soundcheck. Not a lot of hanging. But I thought it was amazing. We added Paul Shaffer too which was a last minute thing. We were ready to go on and Junior said “Hey Les, what do you think about having Paul play with us?” Well our drummer’s name is Paul so I said “Paul? He IS playing with us.” Junior said, “No, no Paul Shaffer. He wants to sit in with us. He’s an old friend of mine.” There he was and he jumped on up.
I was speaking with Paul and he said that he had met you once before.
One of the worst experiences of my musical career although Paul and those guys were all cool. Larry [LaLonde] and I were monster Letterman fans. we were so excited, it was the only talk show that we would do. We wanted to do something special for the show. So we did our soundcheck and everyone was cool. Then we went downstairs and I had brought these penguin costumes, the same ones we had worn on our album cover. We put these things on and the woman who books the show came down, opened the door, looked at us and her expression dropped. “Is that what you’re wearing? Is that what you always wear?” I said no and she stormed out of the room.
Then my road manager comes back and says man that lady is freaking out screaming, “How dare those guys do that?” They thought were trying to pull a fast one on them. It’s not like were dressed as penises. At first I thought that maybe because the front of the costume was white it might be too hot for the camera. So they were threatening not to let us play. Then they took Larry upstairs so that Dave could look at him and approve whether we could go on or not. Well we played, and after the show nobody talked to us. It was just total bullshit. It was like being kids getting caught stealing cupcakes out of the cafeteria. It ended up being great, they ended up using the thing for TV commercials and stuff but it was just a real drag, an uncomfortable situation.
Final question: you took home a Jammy bowl this year- Live album of the Year, for Live Frogs, Set I. What are your thoughts on that?
Obviously I’m pretty new to this whole community so it was a bit of a surprise. Actually the whole reception into this world has been a surprise. I tend not to get overly excited about awards in general, maybe I’m just tainted by the Grammys and whatnot. If you’re on Sony you have a better chance of winning because they have more votes. I put more weight in smaller events than I do the great big giant awards shows, I think they mean more. And I filled that sucker full of jellybeans.