Interview: Les Claypool (of Primus)

on September 15, 2011, 9:59pm

When Primus called it quits more than a decade ago, the music world lost perhaps one of the weirdest bands of the alternative era. Fans of the cult act’s unique brand of music can now celebrate, though, as Primus has reunited to record their first full-length of new material since 1999’s Antipop, and will follow it up with an extensive tour, later this fall. That new album, Green Naugahyde, hit stores this week.

Les Claypool, Primus’s singer, songwriter, and bassist, kept busyh during the iatus by exploring other endeavors, lending his signature slap-bass maneuvering to several new bands, as well as writing a novel, directing a feature film, and opening his very own winery. Claypool recently got on the phone with Consequence of Sound to discuss the reformation of his most famous band, their new album, Saturday morning cartoons, his friendship with Tom Waits, and more.

You’ve said that Primus went on hiatus because it had stopped being fun for everyone involved. What was it that re-sparked your enthusiasm about the band enough to reform and record a new album?

Les Claypool (LC): Well, at the end of the 1990s, we basically broke up, and called it a hiatus. Then, in 2003, we reunited, and did this sort of nostalgic thing, and that was enjoyable. We did a couple tours after that. For the most part, it was always this nostalgic thing, which, for me, was great on the old pocketbook, but not too great on the old creative outlet. I like to keep moving forward, you know? I like to keep balancing myself creatively, and that’s what gets me off. So, I wasn’t that excited about doing Primus again, but Larry [LaLonde, Primus guitarist] and I were hanging out, and that friendship was rekindled. It was very apparent that it wasn’t going to happen with Tim [Alexander, former Primus drummer], and he wasn’t that excited about doing things again. So, we talked to Jay Lane, and we actually had a jam with Jay Lane, and he brought this huge ball of energy back into the room from the very second he started playing, and that’s the main reason we’re doing it again. There’s this creative flow again that hasn’t been there in a long time.

You mentioned Jay Lane. The current lineup of Primus reunites you with him after a long, long time away from the group. What does his return bring back to the fold for Primus, musically?

LC: Well, Jay Lane quit about one month before we made our first record, because he was in another band that had a deal with Warner Bros., and he’s always regretted that. He and I have continued to work together for the past 20 years. He was in Sausage and did the Holy Mackerel record with me, and then was in Frog Brigade. He’s always kind of been my go-to guy, and we’re very good friends. The positive energy is one thing he really brings, because he’s just a big, happy, goofy guy. As a drummer, for me — because I play drums — he’s the guy. I always feel his licks [laughs]. Him, and Stewart Copeland, and [John] Bonham are my drum heroes, and I’m in bands with two of those guys, which is an incredible thing.

Jay has big ears. He hears every little thing that’s being played, and reacts to every little thing that’s being played. He’s got the best groove of anybody I’ve played with. He’s funky as all hell, yet he’s got a very signature sound. It’s exciting.

primus4 Interview: Les Claypool (of Primus)

You’ve spent the last decade working on so many other projects, from Frog Brigade, Oysterhead, Bucket of Bernie Brains, and The Fancy Band, to a feature film [Electric Apricot], and even a novel [South of the Pumphouse]. You even opened a winery! Did taking a break from Primus open up the creative floodgates for all of these other projects?

LC: For me, these last 10 years have been the most prolific, creative period of my life. I wouldn’t give that up for anything. It was the best. It was unbelievable. When Primus stopped at the end of the ’90s, or 2000, or whenever the hell it was, I just thought, “What the hell am I going to do now?” I was freaked out. So, I thought, “F*** this. I’m not going to just sit around.” I went and bought this old motor home, and fixed it up, then shoved a bunch of my favorite people in it. One of them was Jay Lane, and we just started driving up and down the coast, playing in bars, sharing motel rooms. You know, back to the trenches. I didn’t play a single Primus song. It was unbelievable, so much fun. It just made me realize that, you know what, you play the music just for the enjoyment of playing music. If you make money at it, that’s just a bonus.

Did you pick up anything new from those other experiences that you’ve carried over to this new Primus record?

LC: Well, I mean, it would be impossible not to. The thing about anything I like to do is, I’d like to be as spontaneous as possible. You’re gathering all of these elements, these little barnacles, whatever the hell you’re gathering just moving through life. That always is applied to everything I do, whether it’s my writing, my music, or whatever. It definitely has made a huge impact on what Primus is doing.

primus green naugahyde Interview: Les Claypool (of Primus)You seemed to be one of the first alternative-era bands to embrace the idea of a “nostalgia tour,” playing your previous albums live in their entirety. Is Green Naugahyde something you could see yourself playing through fully on tour 10 or 15 years from now?

LC: You know, I don’t really know. When we first came back, we did Frizzle Fry in its entirely, Seas of Cheese… No one was doing it back then, and now everybody does it. Obviously, we don’t want to appear trendy. [Laughs]

For Green Naugahyde, it’s funny, because we were talking about rehearsals, and my manager was setting up some time for us. He’s like, “You’re not going to need that much rehearsal time,” and I said, “What the hell are you talking about? We have this whole new record.” He said, “You’re already playing every song but three songs.” Really? I didn’t even realize. That’s a big thing, because every record except for maybe the first couple were built on material that we’d been playing in clubs for a long time, and whatnot. There’s maybe three, four, five if you’re lucky, songs that make it into regular rotation. And then, there’s songs that you tried to play, and they didn’t feel very good, or they were difficult to sing and play at the same time, or they just didn’t have the right vibe live. Sometimes something that records nicely doesn’t necessarily feel good when you play. So, when the record isn’t even out yet, for us to be already playing the majority of it, that’s pretty exciting to me.

I was listening to the record, I’d put it away for a while. I’d been mixing and everything, so I’d definitely heard it plenty. I hadn’t listened to it in a while, and I started listening to it again the other day. It does have that flow that I like, that continuity that, to me, is always the goal. It’s like making a film. I would tell my son when he was listening to [Pink Floyd’s] The Wall… I would say, “Hey, you can’t just listen to part of The Wall. You’ve got to start it at the beginning, and listen to the whole thing.” It’s like watching a movie. Or [Pink Floyd’s] Animals…I feel like this record has that kind of flow, so I could see us playing it in its entirety.

You just mentioned Animals. Before playing your own albums, you were covering Animals on tour with Frog Brigade. Could you imagine another band covering a Primus record on tour 30 years from now?

LC: I don’t know. They’d have to be fairly demented.

One of this fall’s other highly anticipated records is from a regular collaborator of yours, Tom Waits. If you don’t mind me asking, how did that friendship come about?

LC: Well, we asked him years ago to be the voice of Tommy the cat on the Seas of Cheese record. Larry and I were big fans, and when we signed with Interscope, we deliberately didn’t put “Tommy the Cat” on the Frizzle Fry record, because we wanted to save it for whatever major label release we were going to do. I was talking to [Interscope Records A&R Director] Tom Whalley, and said, “You know, we’ve played this song for so long, and it’s kind of our signature song, and we really want to get someone different to be the voice of Tommy the cat. Someone like Tom Waits.” And he was like, “Well, let’s call him up.” I was like, “What the hell do you mean, let’s call him up?” I mean, I was just saying someone like Tom Waits. I didn’t think we could actually get or approach Tom Waits. So, we did, and then I get this message on my phone’s machine one day. [In gravelly voice] “Hey, it’s Tom Waits.” It was amazing! Since then, we’ve become friends, and I’ve helped him find musicians over the years, and he’s helped me with a lot of things, obviously. We keep in touch, and I play with him whenever I can. It’s an amazing thing. He’s a good guy.

You’ve played with a lot of great musicians over your career, from legends such as Waits and Bernie Worrell, to guys like Trey Anastasio and Buckethead. Is there anyone else you wish you could have played with in your career, or someone you’d still like to?

LC: I would have loved to have played with [John] Bonham. That would have been the ultimate for me. But that’s very unlikely. [laughs]

You wrote the theme songs for South Park and Robot Chicken, and the song “Poetry & Prose” is about Beavis & Butt-head. Several of your videos were even done in stop-motion animation. Can you talk about the influence animation might have had on your own personal creative output and Primus’?

LC: Well, I grew up as a kid, and you woke on Saturday morning and watched cartoons. That’s what you did. All the Warner Bros. stuff was the best, even the old Max Fleischer stuff, Popeye and what-not, the old black and white ones. We were kids of the 1970s. We watched a fucking shitload of TV. I’ve always been a big fan of animation–good animation. I loved all of the Disney stuff when I was a kid. For a long time, animation was pretty shitty. There wasn’t anything that good. I remember when The Secret of NIMH came along, I was like, “Wow, that’s amazing looking.” The amount of money and hours they spent making those types of films was unbelievable. Now, they can do all of that stuff, and it’s much more cost-effective because of the computers, and all that, and whatnot. But, I’ve always been a big fan of different mediums.

And finally, you’ve got a tour in support of this new album coming up, but going beyond that, are there plans for this new incarnation of Primus beyond this one album?

LC: I don’t know yet. We’re going to be touring a lot this next year, and that’s as far forward as I’m thinking so far. We’ve still got a lot of shit to do these next couple weeks to get ready for this tour, because it’s a pretty psychedelic experience. People always ask what kind of music [Green Naugahyde] is, and I don’t know what the hell it is. The one thing I do know is that it’s extraordinarily psychedelic. We just did some shows with The Flaming Lips, and that was spectacular. It was really a great mesh of two audiences and two bands and two styles. It was really cool. I’m very excited to do some more of that with those guys.

We’ve always been the sort of guys that kind of fit in everywhere, but kind of didn’t fit in at all. Lollapalooza was a wonderful thing, because it was such a diverse festival. Bonnaroos, things like that are very different. Those are wonderful. We did Ozzfest. We kinda fit in, but we didn’t fit in. The Family Values thing, I don’t think we really fit in at all [Laughs]. I don’t know why the hell we were on that one. That’s sort of the nature of Primus. The one element that we do have, and I think we have even more with this record, is a pretty strong psychedelic element.

You could do a tour with The Flaming Lips, where they play their cover of Dark Side of the Moon back to back with your cover of Animals.

LC: We just did a handful of shows with those guys, and one of them was at Red Rocks, where they did Dark Side of the Moon. It was great. We are talking about doing some stuff with those guys, maybe next year, because it was such a great fit.

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