Photo by Amanda Koellner
A few days prior to the release of his band’s ninth album, you might expect the prolific Les Claypool to be locked away in some mysterious laboratory, cooking up some kooky ideas, thick, nebulous smoke bubbling beneath his feet. But instead the Primus frontman dials in after staying the night at a bed and breakfast in the middle of New Jersey, noshing on a bowl of pistachios. “It was this little, old lady’s house, and it smelled like mothballs,” he laughs. It’s a guttural chuckle. A beautiful, bellowing chime that exemplifies his passion for life. But don’t think for a second that Claypool will be taking a break from his fearless rock and roll eccentricities to start crocheting doilies. He and his wife were merely taking a day off before he returned to New York to jam with Sean Lennon, his partner in The Claypool Lennon Delirium.
Between the many different lineups of Primus and his many friends and family members that contributed to the band’s success, Claypool has a lot of moving pieces and characters to remember when looking back through his 28-year catalog. Each successive album jars a few more nutty names and legendary musician pals. With very few musicians would a guy called Flouncin’ Fred be lauded in the same breath as Tom Waits. But that’s the key to Claypool’s career: finding extraordinary, unexpected connections in music and twisting his desires into existential songwriting — and having a goddamnfucking great time doing so.
Now, click ahead as Claypool takes you from Suck on This to new album The Desaturating Seven, tracing his career from a cat named Tommy and a fisherman named John through to a set of goblins who steal the color out of the world.
Suck on This (1989)
All the way back in 1984, Les Claypool teamed up with guitarist Todd Huth and a drum machine to become Primate. That drum machine would be replaced by a revolving door of drummers, until a group with a similar name forced Claypool to change his band’s name, thus beginning the era of Primus.
We didn’t have the money to go into the studio and make a proper record, but we had all these fans, locally. We were actually pretty popular in the area. I borrowed three thousand dollars from my father, who didn’t have a lot of money. I said, “Dad, we have enough fans, and if we press a thousand records, I think we could sell them all!” So it was this live album, and we pressed up a thousand records, and we sold all of them. I took that money, paid him back, and then pressed up a thousand more and sold those. And then we made a thousand more and sold those. We sold the records, and he got his money back.
My dad saw that we were doing well. He saw that we would fill up clubs and how the fans were very passionate. We were selling a shitload of t-shirts. That’s how me and Ler [LaLonde] were making a living there for a while: we would print out all our own t-shirts and sell them for five bucks that day. Each show was a different t-shirt. We could get an extra hundred dollars or something per night. So, he saw that there was something going on, and I just gave him the numbers. And then when it was obvious that things were starting to take off for us in an underground way, he signed for a loan for us to get a motor-home, so we could tour the country. He’s very cool.
Before that, every time a record label would approach us, they’d say, “You know, do you guys ever think about getting a lead singer? You ever think of maybe combing your hair like the Guns N’ Roses guys?” It was always shit like that, so we were always like, “Fuck these people.” It was always a compromise. I was never big on compromises.
As a kid watching Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and all those Disney films, that shit was amazing, and it influenced my songwriting. I always listened a bit harder if there was a narrative. I was inspired by a lot of Johnny Cash and a lot of country music; there’s always a narrative to it, and I loved that feeling. It was always easier for me to write from the perspective of a character. It also came from the fact that I never really had confidence in my voice. I didn’t really gain confidence until the 2000s. Everyone would say, “ Here’s the singer for Primus.” And I would say, “No, I’m the narrator.” It was way easier for me to step into a character in the song, and I would just kind of put on a facade as I would go onstage. It is a little more difficult playing bass. You’re playing the rhythm and you’re singing the melody. There’s a contrast there that can be difficult sometimes.
Even my father used to say, “You know, I gotta tell ya, you can’t sing for shit, but you can sure play that bass!” He would say it right now if you were talking to him, I’m sure. In the beginning, I didn’t have confidence in my singing ability, but plenty of confidence as the character I created. I hated the way singers would try to sing my songs in other bands. It was awful. Singers can be a little precious sometimes, and it used to drive me insane. Perfection is boring. So I just did it myself.
One of the greatest compliments I ever received was when someone called me the Mel Blanc of music. I was so happy. When I first met Chuck D, he was laughing and said I sounded like Mr. Magoo. That was the greatest thing. I was so happy that he said that.
Frizzle Fry (1990)
From album one, Primus was fueled by extreme musicianship and fused everything from funk to metal. One year after Suck on This, they revived some of those songs here. There’s a twitchy familiarity to the way in which Claypool sings, like he’s telling you a story on a front porch while a mutant parade marches by — or performing from the center of an interstellar mosh pit. The songs fuse idiosyncratic time signatures, slap bass, oddball narrative, and lots of groove. Many songs from this album remain fan favorites.
We made enough money off of Suck on This, and we went and recorded Frizzle Fry with that money before we ever went and signed with anybody. So, we had a record done before we even signed the deal to produce it, which was with Caroline Records. Between Suck on This and our first record, we went through eight drummers. My buddy Lonnie Marshall always said, “Drummer rhymes with bummer.” I can attest to that.
A lot of that material evolved through performing and jamming. We rehearsed three nights a week in our warehouse, which is now an IKEA or something. I was a carpenter, so I worked during the day and then blew off steam in the rehearsal space. With Todd Huth, I was looking for a guitar player. I knew him from high school, and when he called me saying he heard I was looking for a guitar player, I thought, “Oh no, not this guy.” I wanted some avant-Adrian Belew or Robert Fripp kind of guy, and he was kind of a freak. He had that very unique approach that was very compelling. Whether it’s film, literature, art, or music, I’ve always been intrigued by things that make me go, “How the fuck did that person think of that? Holy hell.”
We loved Frizzle Fry, and I still do. I’m not big on favorites, but that’s a favorite because it represents a very happy time when we were climbing up the ladder and doing amazing things, and because of the camaraderie in an RV cruising around the country. I mean, you always look back at old records and go, “What the hell was I thinking? Why does my bass sound like that? Why does my vocal have that reverb on it? But then time goes by and you listen to it again, and you go, “Holy shit, that actually sounds pretty cool.” It’s like your high school haircut: it kinda goes in and out with you.
“John the Fisherman” was written so long ago. I like to write about things I know about so that I don’t sound like a dipshit talking over my head. I fish. Some dads take their kids to football games or baseball games. My dad took me fishing. That’s what we did, almost every weekend. My uncle, my grandfather, that’s what we did. It’s a big part of my history. So, for me, it was always easy to write about. These fishing songs kept popping up, themes about the ocean, and it made it like a chronicle, a subdivision of our body of work. “Too Many Puppies” was the very first song I wrote for the band back when we were known as Primate. I didn’t even really have a band then. It was just me with a tape recorder and a LinnDrum. My roommate was dating the preacher’s daughter, and he gave me the keys to the church. I went across the street to the church and sang the vocals into this tape recorder. I couldn’t do it in the apartment; I felt like an idiot.
Sailing the Seas of Cheese (1991)
An adventurously weird band combining funk, metal, and lyrics about grotesque food may have only been able to crack a major label at this moment in time. Primus made the jump with Sailing the Seas of Cheese in 1991 — and the world was absolutely ready. The record doesn’t hold back any of the eccentricities of their pre-major days and in fact opens with an upright bass melody akin to a creaking sea shanty. Claypool continues to contort and squeeze, introducing beloved characters into the Primus catalog such as Sgt. Baker, Jerry the Race Car Driver, and Tommy the Cat (the latter of which voiced by none other than Tom Waits, an eventual friend of Claypool’s).
There was this underground scene where we were that was just bubbling like crazy. It was all of California, both Northern and Southern California. It was us, Mr. Bungle, and the Limbomaniacs. In Southern California, it was the Chili Peppers, Fishbone, Jane’s Addiction, and stuff like that. Fishbone was the world’s greatest live band. They were unbelievable. Back in their heyday, they were the greatest live band I’ve ever seen. The Chilli Peppers in those early days were also a force of nature. There was this scene that didn’t give a shit about hairdos and people that looked or sang like Axl Rose. Nobody cared about that stuff. We were the rebellion of that, you know? It was just this percolating thing in the Bay Area and there was a fervor. If you look at the “Jerry Was a Race Car Driver” video, you see how that crowd is going insane. That’s how those crowds were back then.
I remember when we did get signed eventually to Interscope; Tom Whalley had come to see the opening band, Spent Poets, who are some good friends of ours. He’d heard about them and he showed up at our show and hadn’t even heard of us. He didn’t even know that we’d already sold 80,000 copies of Frizzle Fry. He flipped out. He was like, “Oh, my god. This audience is going crazy over these guys. I need to sign them.” And we were actually being courted by a couple labels at that time. At the time, Interscope had nothing. My manager said, “Hey, we shouldn’t go with these guys, we should go with these other guys that are tried and true.” And I said, “No, I want to sign with Tom Whalley because Tom Whalley is signing us because of us. He’s not signing us because we sold 80,000 records. He’s signing us for us.”
Tom Whalley really championed us. We wouldn’t have come nearly as far as we’ve gotten without that guy. He basically looked at us and said, “You know what you guys are doing. It works. Just keep doing what you’re doing.” Jimmy Iovine was the president of the company, and I remember sitting in a room and him looking at me and going, “You know, I gotta be honest with you. I don’t get Primus. I don’t know where one song starts and when one song ends. But I get Tom Whalley, and Tom Whalley gets you.” So they always just left us alone.
We were the second band released on Interscope, the first being Gerardo, “Rico Suave”. I can’t even count how many artists I talked to that signed to Interscope over the years who told me, “Hey, we signed to Interscope because of you guys.” They saw the freedom that we had there and they were inspired to join it. That always made me feel really good.
When we signed with Interscope, I said, “Hey, I’ve got this song, ‘Tommy the Cat’ on the live record, and I saved it for a big major label because I want to get somebody with an interesting voice to narrate the cat part.” Whalley said, “Let’s get him.” And I said, “What the hell do you mean let’s get him? What does that mean?” I was always a huge Tom Waits fan, but not a lot of our friends really knew who he was. He wasn’t part of the rock crowd. I wrote this letter to Tom saying I was a huge fan and asking if he wanted to be part of this thing. I came home from the recording studio one day and Ler was there — we were roommates at the time — and I clicked on my answering machine: [mimics Waits] “Les, this is Tom Waits. Yeah, I’ll do that song. It will be a wonderful thing!” At first, he just did it into a tape recorder and sent us a tape. We tried to chop it in, and it just didn’t fit. So we asked him to come down to the studio. I think about it now and just laugh: I’m in the studio directing Tom Waits. “Can you try a little more speed?” I can imagine him now just going, “Who the fuck is this young whippersnapper telling me what to do?” I had no clue. He was amazing about it, and it ended up being a wonderful thing. It established the beginning of our friendship, which has been an amazing thing as well. He’s a great guy with a great family. And it’s not like we gave him a big wad of dough.
The videos, though, always cost a lot of money to make! I wanted to do videos for every song. We were fortunate in that we hooked up with someone who became a very good friend of ours, Mark Kohr, and he helped us with early videos. He’s just an amazing guy, so creative. People always think we’re brothers because we dress alike. I loved doing the videos. I always fancied myself a film buff and always said that if I didn’t get into music, I’d get into film. All my heroes were filmmakers. So this was my chance to make these little movies.
We would always make a couple of videos, and then MTV would only play the first one and then ignore the second one. “We’ve had our Primus quota!” They begrudgingly gave us little bits of exposure. We only made “Jerry Was a Race Car Driver” and “Tommy the Cat”. “Tommy” has my grandfather in it; he was Tommy the Cat. He had quit smoking several years before that, but we needed him to smoke. He got to sit there and smoke half a pack of cigarettes. We had a great time. I was named after him … he’s on the Italian side, though.
Pork Soda (1993)
Brimming with pop culture references (from MacBeth to Deliverance, Jerry Garcia to James Brown) and boasting a darker tone (murder, suicide, depression), Pork Soda further demonstrated that Primus are more than capable of walking down multiple paths at the same time. Some of their interviews accredit that to the stress of touring for two years on the back of their massive major debut, but Les himself has said that that wasn’t necessarily the case.
Pork Soda was the first straight-up Ler, Herb, and Les record. Even Sailing the Seas of Cheese had some songs that Todd and Jay Lane had helped with. It’s a little darker, heavier. That was the beginning of our really DIY recording. We recorded that in our rehearsal space, and we had our sound man do it. That album went platinum, but it took four years. We were always the slow-burn guys; we were the guys called “the catalog band.” We didn’t come out and Pearl Jam-it and sell a gazillion records right out the gate.
Whenever we would do a video, I would write up a treatment, and then the budget would be presented. Interscope would say, “You want $150,000? We’ll give you $75,000.” And we’d just make it work. The same with the records: we had all this advance money and instead of going into the studio and hiring caterers and all this fancy shit like our friends were doing, spending all this money on producers, we’d take that money, buy recording equipment, do as much of it by ourselves as we could, and then pocket the money.
Did we have mellotron on that record? Maybe marimba. When I remixed Sailing the Seas of Cheese for HD 5.1 release, I heard all this shit going on in the background that I didn’t even realize we had done. Ler and I were listening to a lot of Tom Waits, a lot of fairly eclectic stuff compared to what was actually going on in our world. But we had a lot of that stuff on Frizzle Fry, too: a song and then transitional music to the next storyline, so to speak. I loved records where you have to set aside time. I’ve always told my son, if you’re going to listen to The Wall, you have to listen to it from start to finish. We always tried to make these records that had some form of thread to them that you would love to listen to from beginning to end.
This was long before Photoshop and stuff, but I always liked three-dimensional art, sculptures. We had a friend that made these amazing sculptures for us. Suck on This, Frizzle Fry, and Sailing the Seas of Cheese each had one of his sculptures. And then Pork Soda had the pig. We had to have a pig for Pork Soda! And some soda. He would give me these blank sculptures, and I would airbrush them. Then they would potentially later on become claymation. At first they were sculptures, and then we would recreate those things in video. My son is now at Laguna College of Art and Design, studying game design and animation.
The video for “Mr. Krinkle” was shot in one take. Well, we did four takes, but we only used one. First of all, the guy on fire, he could only catch on fire four times during the day. It was a rule. So, one of the times he went out and that counted as one, so we really only got three takes. What’s funny is that it’s pretty much all my friends in that video. In fact, my wife and her twin sister are the twins doing the jump rope. I could look at that video and see almost all of our friends. I tend to have pretty talented and interesting friends. [Laughs]
Tales from the Punchbowl (1995)
On Tales from the Punchbowl, Primus bumped up the prog and continued their quest to add some weird in the top 10 on the Billboard 200. Almost more unlikely than their being signed to a major label in the first place, this album featured a song called “Wynona’s Big Brown Beaver” that still managed to earn a Grammy nomination. But beyond the double entendres and Taco Bell references, Claypool also tackles serious topics, such as global warming and conservation on “Southbound Pachyderm”. LaLonde shines particularly on the disc, oscillating from twangy finger-picking to furious noise, all while Claypool continues to thrum and thwap virtuosically.
This was the first record where we wrote most of it in the studio up at my house. We called it Rancho Relaxo. It was our first totally DIY record; we brought in a bunch of instruments, but no engineer. I think it was because I had done Highball with the Devil, the Holy Mackerel record, so my confidence in my engineering skills was way better.
The big song off that record was “Wynona’s Big Brown Beaver”. I had written the bass part, and I had the lyrics, but it was just going to be one of the little interlude songs, one of the little acoustic, folk-y upright songs. I was even going to have Ler play banjo. But what happened is the lyrics fit so perfectly to that riff that I just stuck it on there, and I didn’t think much of it. That was the song that the record company loved; for me, it was just supposed to be this silly sidebar song. The attention was wonderful, but it was also the first time that people started going, “Well, wait a minute, are these guys just a joke band?” So it sort of undermined us a little bit at the time. I went through a period after that where I resented the song for a while because of that. The next song on the album is about a guy dying of hanging himself! There’s a lot of heavy shit. A lot of my material is about substance abuse because it’s been a huge thing in my family, especially methamphetamine. All of a sudden, with this silly song, we got all this attention, and so it undermined us a bit. Now it’s just part of the landscape of Primus.
A portion of my writing process lyrically with Primus, and even musically sometimes, is that I’m just trying to make Ler laugh. [laughs] That’s really a huge part of our dynamic within the band. We’re constantly trying to make each other laugh; he’ll do it with some crazy riff, and I’ll do it with another crazy riff or the vocal. That’s a big part of our dynamic, because Ler’s got an amazing sense of humor and very similar taste. We love all these inside jokes that nobody fucking gets. It’s like “Hamburger Train”; nobody knows what the hell “Hamburger Train” is, but it’s a joke with us.
The first person to get the phone call when I have something for Primus is Ler, and I’ll play it for him over the phone. I had the riff for “Southbound Pachyderm”, and to this day it’s one of my favorite riffs I’ve ever written. We play it all the time. We even play it with Delirium. Sean [Lennon] loves playing that song. Pachyderm means “thick-skinned beast.” It could be a rhino, a hippopotamus, or elephants, and they’re all just slowly going extinct. So the notion struck me of this scientist trying to save them by creating ways for them to fly. I was possibly stoned. Actually, I was probably high as hell when I wrote it. If you watch the video, it’s this hunter society and this guy who was modeled after the bald guy from Reservoir Dogs. He looks a little bit like Mussolini, too.
The funny thing is, the scientist guy who is trying to save the animals looks almost exactly like my best friend. We call him Flouncin’ Fred. Fred has been in a bunch of our videos. He’s the strong man in the “Mr. Krinkle” video. He’s the guy stirring the cheese in the beginning of the “Jerry Was a Race Car Driver” video. And there he is animated in the “Southbound Pachyderm” video. I’ve known him since high school. I call him Flouncin’ Fred. Nobody really figured this out but he is the face on the astronauts that we used to have on the side of the stage. We used to have this face projected, and people would always ask us if it was John Malkovich, and we had a little bit of a competition to see who would figure it out, and nobody did. I let the cat out the bag! It’s Flouncin’ Fred!
Brown Album (1997)
The first record with drummer Bryan “Brain” Mantia, the Brown Album didn’t reach the commercial and critical peaks of the preceding records, but still contains some beloved tracks, such as “Shake Hands with Beef”. The Beatles went white, Metallica went black, and Weezer went blue, so it only makes sense that the mischievous Primus would decide to go brown — though please note that the album cover looks like a chocolate bar, so don’t get any gross ideas. The record leans a little bit further into prog and jazz rock, Mantia keeping pace with the ever-tightening chemistry between Les and Ler and continuing their wildly experimental ways.
Tom Waits always said it was his favorite record because it sounded like [mimics Waits’ voice] “it needs a good wash.” Brian Mantia joined for the album. We call him Brain; everybody knows him as Brain. We’ve known Brain for years. We knew Brain before we knew Herb! Brain was actually in Primus for two weeks in the mid-‘80s, but he broke his foot skateboarding, and we had to get another drummer for a gig with Faith No More. He and Ler had a band called Caca, which was all Frank Zappa covers. He’s just an old friend and an amazing drummer. We actually originally talked to Jay Lane. I love playing with that guy, but Jay Lane was having some personal problems, and it didn’t work out. A huge part of it, too, was Brain was a good friend. It was when my kids were little and I really didn’t like going on the road anymore. I really didn’t like being away from my kids. So the notion of having people that you want to hang out with is always a big part of who gets to be in this band.
We were getting a drummer that plays totally different to Herb. Herb was always this Neil Peart type of drummer with so many drums. Brain was much more like John Bonham; it was a smaller kit but with bigger drums. He was a much sparser player, but more groove-oriented. It was also another one of those records where we took all the vintage recording gear and did it all ourselves, so it had the really raw sound to it. There’s distorted microphones, clipping drums, and all this shit!
This is the record that was the beginning of the downfall of Primus with Interscope. The record company stood back and said, “Wait a minute, maybe you guys need a little input now.” It didn’t do as well as the other ones in terms of numbers, and all of a sudden there were all these other bands that had been influenced by Primus that were becoming huge, like Incubus and Korn. The label was kind of going, “Hey, you guys are losing the plot here. What’s going on?” We loved the record when we made it. It wasn’t as warmly received at the time, but a lot of people have told me that it’s their favorite record because it’s this bizarre departure from what we were doing before. It holds a very strong place in the history of the band, but at the time, I don’t think the label was nearly as thrilled as we were. [Laughs]
Introducing a stew of guest musicians and producers including Tom Waits, James Hetfield, Fred Durst, and Tom Morello — a rogue’s gallery to be sure and one showcasing the bonkers range of the band’s potential and abilities. Add to that list production from Matt Stone (the South Park co-creator making yet another connection to cartoons) and Police drummer Stewart Copeland, who would eventually join Claypool in the supergroup Oysterhead. Accordingly, that diversity led to some diverse opinions on the record, but the band themselves seemed pretty unified on their feelings.
I remember hearing through the grapevine that Tom Whalley had said to our managers that I needed a “wake-up call.” I was like, “Woah, what the hell is that?” There was a lot of talk for us to start working with a producer, which we never would have done before. We started doing these EPs and working with a producer. We did some things for South Park, with Rick Rubin, and with Toby Wright. So when it came time to do the Antipop record, we weren’t necessarily getting along very well. People were questioning whether we had lost the plot. The Antipop record was very difficult. It was a great record in some respects. We wanted to work with Brian Eno, but we couldn’t get his attention! We tried to, and I don’t even think we got a call back. So I said, “Let’s work with all these different artists as producers, like Stewart Copeland, Tom Morello, Tom Waits, and Matt Stone.
That was a lot of fun, but it was a tough record to make just because we weren’t agreeing on shit. I wanted to spend more time with my kids, and the others didn’t have kids, so they couldn’t understand that. There was a lot of miscommunication. We were all just in different spaces in our lives, so we weren’t gelling. And so that made the music suffer. It was just such a tough record to make. It took me a long time to even listen to that record. It took years! It just made me feel bad. I’ve listened to it fairly recently and there’s some stuff on there that I’m very impressed by, so…
The title track was a direct response to it all. Interscope had always left us alone, and then all of a sudden we were getting second-guessed. It was my direct response going, “Hey, I am the antipop. This is the way I am, sorry.” But fear was a big part of pushing things forward. Like, was this the end of our careers? One of the guys from Interscope left and he was going to work with somebody else at another company. I told him it had been great working with him all those years, and he was like, “Yep, we had a great run.” I thought, “What do you mean we had a great run? Am I done?” And, you know, we weren’t the darlings of Interscope anymore. The Limp Bizkits and the No Doubts and these other bands were just selling millions of records, and we weren’t. Interscope was becoming a much bigger machine at that point. A lot of our friends that we had originally worked with in the beginning had all gone. So, it was just different; it wasn’t a bad feeling, but it was different, and you could feel the change.
I never second-guessed anything. We were always like, “Let’s move forward.” And this was the first record where all of a sudden I was second-guessing myself. I had a very good friend, and I called him at one point and asked for his perspective. The first thing he said to me was, “What’s wrong with you? I’ve never heard you ask what Primus should be doing next.” He basically said, “What the fuck is wrong with you?”
It was basically me and Ler, and we weren’t talking. But then his life changed and he built a different life, got married, and had kids. And then he was in a different space, and I was in a different space, and we were able to get back together later on. But it was just time for a change, and I’m glad we did have the foresight to change. The main reason people go on is because you have to pay the bills. By that point, we had the Primus team. There’s a lot of people whose livelihoods depended upon Primus doing stuff, and all of a sudden we were stopping it. That scared quite a few people.
That record was sort of the beginning of the end, and I’m glad we didn’t make another record after that because I think we came close to shitting ourselves — but we didn’t. A lot of bands will just keep going because they need the money, they’re scared their careers are going to end, and they start listening to outside influences and second-guessing themselves. Primus would’ve become something that it shouldn’t have been, so we bailed on it before that happened.
Green Naugahyde (2011)
After eight long years without an album, Primus finally came back together for Green Naugahyde — and with 1988 drummer Jay Lane, no less. Fittingly, the record tied sonically back into the Frizzle Fry era, a little less proggy and an eerie rough edge. Despite the time since their last record, this one wound up back near the top of the Billboard charts at No. 15, further proving that the band’s fans will go along wherever the ride takes them (and however long it takes).
In 2003, we did that EP, Animals Should Not Try to Act Like People, with Herb. It was fun. We enjoyed it and did the tour. We kind of stayed away from each other for a while, and then would do shows every once in awhile. And then we started to come back together to make another record, but Herb was in a different space. We weren’t clicking again. So, we decided to get Jay Lane in. Jay Lane and I have a very strong friendship, but also a very strong musical kinship. He’s been on many, many, many of my records over the years. He was in Sausage, the original Primus. He’s just a fun guy, too. So when we went to do the next record, which ended up being Green Naugahyde, he was the guy.
Jay was the one that was there when we wrote all the original songs for Frizzle Fry. He has more of a hop to his playing. It’s almost like a cross between Dave Garibaldi and Stewart Copeland. In fact, Stewart loves Jay’s playing. Herb’s groove is much more almost like a march. I had a friend say, “When you guys are playing with Tim, it makes me feel like marching. When you play with Jay, I feel like dancing.” It’s just a different feel.
I found this really amazing old antique toy at my favorite antique shop. I had a photographer friend of mine take this photo of it, and it sort of reflects back on a lot of elements of growing up in America. It’s a very Americana type record. “Lee Van Cleef” is about me as a young person. Green Naugahyde comes from the color of the seats in my dad’s Studebaker pickup. But for the cover, it was this notion of this toy, this pristine toy that was probably 100 years old in the original box and everything. I remember showing it to Kathleen Brennan, and she just said, “That’s so sad, this 100-year-old toy was never played with.” But those car seats were like a puke, baby shit green.
Primus & the Chocolate Factory with the Fungi Ensemble (2014)
Just when you think you understand what “Primus can truly do anything they want” means, they go out and put together an album covering the soundtrack to a 1970s children’s film. Of course, it makes perfect sense that they would tackle Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, a film full of surreal imagery, childlike whimsy, and lots of weird food. The resulting record also marked the return of Herb, as well as the first time that Ler sings lead vocals on a track (the Veruca Salt-sung “I Want it Now”).
Herb came back for this one. He’s the old boomerang drummer. He called and said, “I’m thinking about getting back into playing drums again. If you ever want to play, let me know.” He had stopped playing drums altogether. He was welding or something; I don’t know. And so I said, “Well, actually, coincidentally, we’re supposed to go to Australia, and we need a drummer. So, let’s go!” So he came back on board. We had a big, deep chat full of tear-jerking moments before we did it. We had a little soul-searching. And then he came back.
I had an idea for this Willy Wonka project that I was going to go do it on my own, but now that Herb was back, I asked if they wanted to try it out. They said sure, so I told them we were going to have to build a special kit for this; we’re going to want to utilize all these different sounds. So we took a lot of sounds that I had been using in my bands like Frog Brigade, which needed a lot of unique percussion bits, and augmented them. We just kind of built this crazy kit for him. It was like Sanford and Son, a combination junkyard and eclectic drum kit, and that’s what he played on the Wonka record.
I was in third or fourth grade when that movie came out, and it was the greatest thing in the world to me. I was not a big fan of the remake. I’m realizing as I’m getting older that I have all these projects that I’ve been wanting to do all these years, and I need to start doing them. I’m getting older and I’ve got to start knocking them off the list. That was one of them. It’s the same with this new record.
We also made chocolate bars to go with the tour. The Mr. Krinkle Bar had little crispy things in it. The Jerry Was a Race Car Driver Bar was full of espresso beans, so theoretically you could run around the block faster. The Pork Soda Bar was the most interesting, because it was bacon and chocolate pop rocks so you would bite into it, and you’d get this bacon flavor, and then it would percolate in your mouth like it was carbonated.
The Desaturating Seven (2017)
Primus took another chunk of time off now that they had the band back together. The Desaturating Seven comes six years after their most recent album of original material, and it’s their first album of original material with drummer Herb since 1995. Even better, the result was a concept album loosely based on the Italian children’s book The Rainbow Goblins, by Ul de Rico.
I remember Kirk Hammett saying, “Jeez, you guys got another record coming out?!” He would always be baffled by the amount of material we were putting out. In the old days, that’s what they did. I was a big Rush fan in high school, and they put out a record every year. Once CDs came along, it made it more difficult, because people were putting 20 songs on a CD. That’s why our new record is so short. I’d rather have 7 to 10 songs that I can concentrate on instead of having too many. That’s especially true if it’s a story line like this album. There are seven songs and every single one of them tells that story.
The only reason this record was made with Primus is because I wrote the first song for it, which ended up being “The Storm”. It was pretty proggy and ‘70s art rock. I didn’t know if I should do it with Sean Lennon or with Primus, so I called Ler and played it for him over the phone, and he adored it. So it became a Primus record, and that’s how it all went.
The fear of death pushed me to make this now. [Laughs] No, seriously, I’m joking, but I’m in my early 50s. I have all these ideas, but when am I going to do them? I’m starting to just look through my notebooks, and I’m like, “I like that idea, and I have to, I need to do it.”
The record is definitely a homage to our prog and art rock roots. For Herb, that’s exciting. If I was to make a homage to Parliament Funkadelic, I don’t think he’d be that interested. It’s the first Primus record where I sat down and wrote the entire record and presented it to those guys. That didn’t take terribly long once I sat down. A few weeks of sitting there. But it was one of those things where I had to focus on the narrative, which made it a little more difficult, because all of a sudden you have parameters. I’ve talked about doing concept albums before, but I always shied away from it because I don’t like parameters. I like being spontaneous.
I read The Rainbow Goblins to my kids many years ago, and my wife used to read it when she was young. I had a copy of the book sitting right there with me the whole time. I looked at the artwork, read through the story. But I very rarely quoted the book directly. There were a few places where I did, but very rarely. I wanted to imply the storyline, and I wanted to use what I interpreted as the metaphors for these different portions of the book to propel a narrative along, just the whole notion of those in power over-consuming our natural resources. That’s the main crux of it. And then the notion of the united meek overcoming those powerful few. The artwork is from the book, and it’s so spectacular. It’s the most ominous, yet colorful, artistic representation I’ve ever seen. It’s so vibrant, so bright, and yet the blacks are so black. It’s this huge contrast, and it really gives this eerie, ominous, dark undertone to this really beautiful, bright imagery.
To me, “The Seven” very much hearkens back to early Primus — but early Primus is very much influenced by mid-era Crimson. For people that are into Sailing the Seas of Cheese, Pork Soda-era Primus, they’re going to like this record.