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‘We Bring Out the Primus in Each Other’: Bounding Again with Les Claypool

As most of our readers likely know, prior to his immersion within the jamband scene, Les Claypool fronted the alternative rock act Primus. From its earliest incarnation more than a decade ago, the trio exhibited a penchant for melding prog rock with funk, jazz, and brief sonic stops to country, Frank Zappa, heavy metal and more. Claypool's playful, speedy and melodic style emerged front and center. Drummer Tim "Herb" Alexander proved to be a perfect foil, emphasizing the rhythms as well as using his diverse background to fill in the holes. Finally, guitarist Larry LaLonde provided explosions of sound rather than riffs that fit within the parameters of the group Sound.

Following a seven years asunder, its classic line up, which includes Alexander and LaLonde has reunited. I spoke with Claypool in the midst of it tour promoting a CD/DVD release, Animals Should Not Try to Act Like People. It presents all the band’s music videos plus rare live and behind-the-scenes footage as well as five new numbers that display the group’s growth as songwriters and musicians.

While at times Claypool expressed slight irritation with the tenor of particular questions, this did allow him to articulate some deeply-felt opinions is a forum that allows him to convey his sentiments in detail rather than as sound bites taken out of context (clearly an area of consternation for Claypool).

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JPG: I guess the easiest and obvious questions are why and how did this reunion take place?

LC: It wasn’t necessarily something where we sat down and said, ‘Hey, let’s get together!’ It was more, we were at a point where we felt like we should release something, a retrospective package, that encompassed what we had done those many years. We kicked many ideas around and what we came up with was the DVD. And as we did it, looking at the material and coming up with ideas and whatnot, we opened up lines of communication and started becoming nostalgic.

I went down to L.A. to do some business and while I was down there I hooked up with Larry and Tim and said, ‘Hey, let’s rent a rehearsal space, just have some fun.’ Got together and played.

We had a good time and the record company heard about it. Jimmy Iovine (Interscope/Geffen/A&M records Chairman) had a meeting with me. Talked us into doing the DVD through them and going into the studio and recording some songs, and then a couple of shows turned into two weeks and two weeks turned into five weeks and here we are.

JPG: It’s interesting that you use the word nostalgic.’ I thought about that for myself and I was going to ask you about it. I felt that way watching the DVD and its videos and live footage. So, I could see how the reunion between you, Tim and Larry worked out in that way because the last time we talked was back in 2001 for the SnoCore tour. At that time you discussed your unhappiness with Primus and you joining the jamband scene.

LC: I don’t know if I so much as joined the jamband scene as…

JPG: embraced you…

LC: joined me. (laughs)

JPG: But, at that time, when Primus was discussed, you were like, I’m doing this now. Who knows what the future holds.’ I mean, was a reunion in the back of your mind back then or was it totally once you put the DVD together. Let’s see what’s going on with the other two…’

LC: To an extent. There was many an occasion I wasn’t sure if Primus would ever play together again. It was hard for me to fathom that it would never happen again. Even the Police played together recently. I know Stewart. [Slight laugh] I know why…I’ve heard the stories.

When we left it, we left it as a hiatus. We left it open-ended. I assumed at some point it would come together. I didn’t know when, and now we’re doing it. Is it going to be the main focus of our lives as it once was? No. {Note: Claypool is scheduled to play New Year’s Eve with Frog Brigade.]

JPG: Well certainly one always wonders about situations such as this if there was a meeting to get things off your chest before you could even get in a rehearsal space and play together.

LC: It wasn’t even that. We didn’t have any of that. We just came back together. Tim and I, he had actually played the first Frog Brigade with me. He toured with me in the summer, not this one that we just went through, the prior one. So we had done our patching, rekindled our relationship. As far as us and Larry, it was just reconnecting.

We just all went in different directions. Don’t run in the same social circles or anything. It wasn’t like we needed therapy or anything.

JPG: No Megadeth or Metallica moment for you? [Both bands went to therapy in order to open positive lines of communication among band members.]

LC: No.

JPG: In my album review of Animals Should Not Try to Act Like People, I described the reunion as a return to the Mother Ship. I’ve seen you and heard you with Frog Brigade and Oysterhead, but listening to this it just seemed there was this extra spark.

LC: Well, I think I’ve said this in the press a few times now. I was asked by a journalist when I was describing the chemistry between Larry, Tim and I. He said, You guys bring out the best in each other.’ I said, No. We bring out the Primus in each other.’

What we do together is very distinctive. It’s very much what people know old Primus to be and what introduced the three of us as individuals to the world. I think the chemistry I have with Stewart [Copeland] and Trey [Anastasio] is exciting as well. It’s just a totally different thing. What I do with Adrian Belew and Danny Carey is exciting, but it’s not Primus. What we did with me and Brain and Larry in Primus, I thought was extremely exciting. It just wasn’t Primus that everybody had come to know. I think the uniqueness of what comes out when the three of us play together is what the fans of the past were initially excited by and are now excited by again. You know what I mean?

JPG: Oh no, absolutely. I discovered you around the Suck on This period when a friend brought the cassette to work and that was that. I don’t believe, for me, it’s merely a nostalgic thing. Reviewing the album reminded me how nicely the parts fit together, the tribal stomp feel, the interlocking rhythm that you and Tim create.

LC: Well, it’s definitely an extremely unique thing. Tim has done recordings outside of Primus and, obviously, I’ve done tons of recordings outside of Primus. None of it sounds like when the two of us play together. Same with Larry. There’s definitely a huge uniqueness factor.

JPG: You added something else on the new the song, The Last Superpower (a.k.a.) Rapscallion." Usually your lyrics unfold bizarre, odd, even comical stories. This seems like one of the first times that I recall had any sort of social/political bite in there. I’m just kind of curious why you decided to do that now.

LC: That’s really surprising to me because, I mean, if you look at the Primus records besides maybe just a handful of songs, like "Wynonna’s Big Brown Beaver" or "De Anza Jig" or something like that there’s HUGE, HUGE social and sometimes political commentary. I mean even "Wynona’s Big Brown Beaver" on the record it’s sandwiched between a song about suicide and another song about, what was the song afterwards. I can’t remember now.

You’ve got songs like "Bob," which is about a good friend of mine who committed suicide. You’ve got the other song, which was "Mrs. Blaileen" which was about a fellow that was tormented in school and ended up lashing out at someone who was tormenting him and killed him and it’s based on a true event. "Jerry Was a Race Car Driver" is about the follies of drunk driving. The song implies that this fellow died. "John the Fisherman" was about a true story of a fishing vessel that got rammed by a tanker outside San Francisco Golden Gate. Guys were killed. There’s a quote in the song Oh my God. We’re going down.’ That I heard on the news. That was the actual radio broadcast from this vessel. It was just bone chilling when I heard it. There’s quite a bit of material that’s got extreme social commentary.

With a song like Damned Blue-Collar Tweekers. On the tweekers end, substance abuse has been a big issue for my family. My uncle died at a young age cause he did speed for 30 years. I have a cousin that’s been in and out of prison for 20 years. He’s made his way into a few songs cause of substance abuse, so…

JPG: I apologize if I gave the impression of such a trite view of your lyrics. I just get wrapped up in the stories themselves and the music behind em without allowing the morals…

LC: I don’t mean to get my hackles up, but I can get a bit defensive. We have been living in the shadow of "Wynona’s Big Brown Beaver" for some time. Once we put that song out, all of a sudden, people thought we were this joke band, at least people from the outside. So when I hear from somebody who’s actually a fan that they have this perspective is, well, it surprises me because most of the fans really, I mean even "My Name is Mud" which was one of our biggest hits is about a homicide.

JPG: Yes, obviously there’s something dark going on there but I guess, overall, I’m viewing as one element of a tale rather than social commentary. As I said, with "Rapscallion" I just see it as something that, I’ve never really heard anything with Primus that really hit with such straightforward political content as I did with that one.

LC: Well, if anything, that’s one of the more benign songs on the record. It’s pretty vague except for the chorus. I mean you look at "Pilcher’s Squad." That’s about Sgt. Norman Pilcher who was a London police detective that was persecuting pop stars in the late 60s. And the song refers to two instances, one with John Lennon and one with George Harrison where they were subsequently arrested and always claimed that they did do drugs but there were no drugs on the premises at the time, that they were planted. Then in 1972, Norman Pilcher spent six years in prison for planting evidence on suspects. You know "The Carpenter and the Dainty Bride?" It’s about infidelity and a woman scorned.

JPG: I’m not saying that there’s not depth to your lyrics. Because of being hit with things on the news so much, that it just seemed interesting with "Rapscallion" and how it relates to current events. That’s why I picked that.

LC: It’s a shame that someone has to be so blatant about something before anybody’ll take notice. That’s sort of been my point all these years with writing songs that have, you know, morals to them to an extent or that show viewpoint through the eyes of a particular character whether it’s positive or negative viewpoint whereas someone like Zach De La Rocha comes out and blatantly sets it on the table and people respond to it.

That’s a bit frightening to me. I would love to hope that people, especially people of America, but in general, people of the planet, have a little more depth and would take the time to have a little more insight to some of these things. But, the climate in America right now, the political climate is proving me wrong.

JPG: Well, back to the jamband scene…

LC: The good ol’ jamband scene.

JPG: Yes, you’ve brightened up already.

LC: I’ve been bright the whole time. Trying to…

JPG: ...straighten me out.

LC: Get my point across.
JPG: That’s fine. That’s fine.

LC: Don’t worry bout it.
JPG: We talked a couple years ago. At that time you were frustrated after the Family Values Tour you said, I’m just over that testosterone/angst scene.’ I’m wondering what type of audience you are getting at these Primus shows. Is it exciting for you again or are you getting that type of testosterone type of scene again?

LC: The Primus audience, especially in the early days, has always been an extremely diverse crowd. I remember being asked years ago, actually it’s a fairly common question, ‘What’s a Primus audience like?’ The mental pictures popped into my head. Well, there’s dreadlocks and there’s mohawks and there’s skinheads, just from a purely physical looking out across the crowd.

But once we started doing more, like these Ozzfest things, and the Family Values one, all of a sudden, it got very male testosterone driven. There’s nothing wrong with that. The diversity was fading. And that definitely bothered me a bit. So, I’d look at the audience now, obviously, because I’ve been doing these things for the past handful of years that are definitely playing before a diverse audience. I’m seeing the mixture of the audience, the topography of the crowd change back to the way it used to be. They’re much more women than there was the last couple of years of Primus. You know a lot of that could just be the climate itself changing in music but it’s definitely a more aggressive audience than a Frog Brigade or an Oysterhead audience.

JPG: Oh absolutely. There’s that tribal stomp, mosh pit, jump around and just let loose aspect to it. That offers a release.

LC: We’re playing a great deal of old material. We’re doing Seas of Cheese in its entirety. We’re doing all the "Herb" era stuff. There’s some pretty psychedelic stuff in there and the shows…we’ve been stretching things out. The production of the show lends itself to this, for lack of a better word, psychedelic experience. It gets pretty spacey at times, very textural. So, it’s an interesting blend of energies.

JPG: Back to the jamband aspect of it I wanted to know after working within that scene for a few years now, is there anything that you brought, consciously or subconsciously, to Primus?

LC: Well the notion of opening up the songs more is definitely a conscious effort. For me that was the most liberating thing about doing Oysterhead and playing things like Bonnaroo and what not. Primus back in the old days, yeah, we would open stuff up, there were definitely open sections to songs, but there were parameters. Once I started playing shows where, sometimes, I would show up and not even know some of the musicians I was playing with, we would just play, it’s very liberating. So, were incorporating more of that.

Last night we did, and this happens every night, we did "Rapscallion," and there’s the middle section where it does that little spacey thing with the bass panning back and forth. And we went off on that for like six or seven minutes. Just space. It was really cool. I really enjoyed it. It was the first time we had done that with that particular song in such an extreme way.

Obviously, we were in Eureka, Humboldt County. I’ve never smelled so much pot in an auditorium in my life. [Laughs]

JPG: Yeah, well, it is the fall harvest season.

LC: So, it seemed appropriate. [Laughs] But definitely things like that. Tim’s been doing Blue Man Group for the past handful of years and playing in various groups. He’s very versed and a big fan of world music. So, just letting him cut loose more. And he and I chasing each other around on the stage a little more like Stewart and I did with Oysterhead.

And then Larry, prompting him to step out a little more. It’s really cool. You see the individuals more when you open it up and people take the ball and run with it a bit. So, people are seeing more what Larry LaLonde can do on the fly as opposed to playing a part that’s on the record. Same with Tim. I’ve played with all these amazing drummers over the past few years and he’s one of the best. He’s definitely the best at what he does. To see him just let go…I’m watching people respond to it. It’s pretty incredible to see that happen.

JPG: Then I take it there wasn’t much talking them into going into this direction…?

LC: Yeah. I know years ago I had to when it was me and Larry and Brain. I had wanted to do two sets a night with no opening act. It was frowned upon at the time. I didn’t expect to actually be able to do it. I thought they wouldn’t want to do it, but they’re into it. It’s been going great. It’s just keeps things fresh.

For a band of our era and our peers, we never really fit in any category, coming up with Jane’s Addiction and Pearl Jam and these different bands during the era. We were one of the bands that would deviate. We played different sets every night. We would deviate from the arrangements a bit but not like I learned to do (laughs) playing with Trey and Stewart or any of these people. That’s what they do.

JPG: I don’t know how much has been covered in the Bay area, but it seemed on national media basis that word of this reunion didn’t pop out until Hey Primus is about to release a CD/DVD.’ Did it help you because it’s been under the radar with little pressure?

LC: There never really has been people bugging us about our stuff. The last record that we did " Anti Pop" probably had the most scrutiny going into it. There was a heavy amount of suggesting from the record company that we work with a producer, and blah blah blah. And that was about it. On this thing, we were actually putting it together ourselves. We had no intentions of releasing it through Interscope. We weren’t obligated to Interscope. But once Jimmy Iovine heard that we were doing this they got all excited and really wanted to do it. So we’re doing this one project through them. We’re just seeing how things go. They seem to be doing a good job. I don’t remember if it was released yet, but maybe just a couple of weeks before it was released that we even signed our contract with them. It all came together before anybody could really gear up and do anything about it.

The hype from all this stuff has come from all these shows selling out. These shows went on sale and sold out like crazy. Nobody expected this including us. We were bumping up venue sizes and we’re doubling up dates. It’s been a bit of a feeding frenzy in the ticket department.

JPG: That’s real good. Now, as part of the current tour you’re offering the Primus Live series. Is that something that if you weren’t involved in the jamband scene you may not have been putting that together?

LC: Ummm, I don’t know. It’s not like my whole world was immersed in jamband land. Obviously, playing with Trey Anastasio is going to open some eyes toward me from that world. (laughs) So, I just did what I would normally do with Frog Brigade or whatever. Frog Brigade to me is very much like how Holy Mackerel was prior to that.

But the initial idea of the live thing actually did come from Trey cause I remember we were working on that Oysterhead thing and he was talking about how they wanted to do this thing where you go to the gig and you swipe your credit card and you get a copy of the show you just saw. I was like, That’s amazing. What a great idea!’ That put the bug in my ear for this. Then, obviously, they’ve done it. The Dead’s done it. There’s like 10 or 12 bands that have done it at this point, I believe. So now we’re doing it.

I don’t know if it’s because of that. Back in the day we probably wouldn’t have because we would have thought it would hurt our record sales and whatnot and the record company would have been up in arms. But we’re not on a record company right now. We’re working with Interscope. Will that relationship continue? I’m not sure. We really haven’t gotten to that point yet. But all our material is, we can record it and release it on our own if we want, I think, except for the new songs.

We just wouldn’t have been able to before. So we never even thought to do so. There’s a lot of tapers at the shows, that it really doesn’t effect things that much. If anything, it creates an interesting hype and it’s a great thing for posterity.

The jury’s still out on what the adverse repercussions would be from it, but I just think it’s such a cool thing, like if I was a kid and I could’ve got a copy of the time I saw Larry Graham open for The Isley Brothers at the Oakland Coliseum from the board…We’re blending room mikes in with it too. So like this copy of that recording I’d have bought it in an instant or the times I saw Peter Gabriel at the Greek Theatre. I would love to have that stuff. And I would have done it in an instant.

Who the hell knows how we’re going to generate revenue with records anymore. It’s a strange time for artists and record companies. I equate it to doctors and HMO’s. It’s not as lucrative a profession as it used to be because of the HMO Thing. Perhaps, that’s what’s going to happen with musicians, but what are you going to do? That’s my job. (laughs) I like making music. If I don’t make as much money. I guess I won’t make as much money.

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