Primus' Les Claypool: "My daughter tells me I'm weird all the time"

Les Claypool discusses the life and times of Primus, plus his almost-stint in Metallica

Primus' Les Claypool: "My daughter tells me I'm weird all the time"
Ian Winwood

In the early hours of the morning of September 27, 1986, Metallica’s tour bus crashed en route to a concert in Copenhagen, an accident that caused the death of the band’s bass player Cliff Burton at the age of 24. With a haste that the surviving members soon recognised as being undue, within weeks the band began auditioning for a replacement. With the success of that year’s Master Of Puppets album making Metallica the hottest meal ticket in metal, applicants flooded in from all over the United States. One hapless hopeful arrived bearing a bass guitar signed by Rudy Sarzo, a member of the hair metal afterthoughts Quiet Riot.

By far the weirdest jobseeker of that tumultuous week, however, was one Les Claypool. The young bass player arrived wearing trainers of differing colours, surf shorts, half a Mohican haircut, and a four-stringed guitar that “looked like a piece of driftwood”. To the surprise of no-one, he did not land the gig.

Instead, this reassuringly and dependably strange musician emerged into the public eye with his own band, Primus. During the trio’s first flush of success, their third album, 1993’s Pork Soda, cracked the U.S. top 10 despite being so ‘out there’ that it may as well have been recorded on Mars. As on record, in life their timing was perfect: emerging when the underground made its way to the mainstream, for a time at least, the only rule was that there were no rules.

Now aged 57, Les Claypool remains the non-conformist’s non-conformist. As well as remaining in situ as the founding member of Primus, he also co-helms The Claypool Lennon Delirium with Sean Lennon. It’s been a long and strange trip so far. And his is a tale quite unlike any other you’re likely to hear in rock folklore.

Why the bass guitar?
“When I was in ninth grade I had an algebra class. There was a guy sat behind me, a Filipino guy who always wore Coke bottle glasses and a white T-shirt, and he would show me pictures of what he hoped would be his future guitar, which was a Fender Telecaster. He was always talking about how he was gonna have this band and that he wanted me to sing for them. His name was Kirk Hammett. The reason he wanted me to sing was because I was always rattling off tunes, but I was actually too embarrassed to sing in a real band. But then I met this other guy who played guitar, and I thought, ‘Well I could play bass? It’s only got four strings so it’s probably easy.’ In those days everyone wanted to be Eddie Van Halen, so I figured that as a bassist I could probably get a gig. And I did – straight away.”

What sort of music were you listening to then?
“In the early days it was things like Led Zeppelin and The Beatles. But then when I became a bass player I discovered things like Rush and guys like Chris Squire. As a player I was pretty much obsessed with Rush from the age of about 14.”

How convincing were your earliest onstage experiences?
“Well, my first onstage experience was playing in the cafeteria of our high school with a band called Blind Illusion. I was so scared that I stood sideways the entire time and I wouldn’t look at the audience. In fact, Kirk Hammett remembers that show ‘cause he was in the audience. If you look in my yearbook you’ll see a picture of us, with me standing sideways in my big bell [bottomed] corduroy pants and platform shoes. I looked pretty sweet.”

At what point did you decide that you wanted to make music your life’s work?
“Oh, I knew from the point I got my first Memphis Precision bass copy that this was what I wanted to do with my life. I enjoyed that I could play away the blues of heartbreak or teen angst. Much to the chagrin of my family, I might add.”

What did they want you to do?
“Well, they come from a long line of auto-mechanics, although my father wanted me to become anything but that. I would have been the first male in my family to have gone to college. We didn’t have any money, so I would have had to work, too, and I offered to work and make music rather than work and go to college. So that was a source of frustration for my family. But it worked out fine in the end.”

Is it true that when you auditioned for Metallica, James Hetfield said something like, “Man, you’re much too talented. Go do something wonderfully weird on your own”?
“He definitely did not say that! He said that later on in an interview, which was very kind of him. I think they thought I was a freak. They were very nice – Lars [Ulrich] was particularly kind – and of course I knew Kirk from high school. But I think that James thought I was some sort of thug. Put it this way, I definitely didn’t look the part.”

They had just lost a pretty eccentric bass player, mind.
“Yeah, but Cliff [Burton] was eccentric in a whole different way. He definitely had a great look, that’s for sure. He was like a Viking or something.”

Did you entertain serious ambitions of joining Metallica?
“To be honest, I wasn’t really into metal at the time. I just knew that it was my buddy Kirk’s band and that they were doing really well. It wasn’t until the audition that I got a sense of what was really going on. It was a bit of a heavy thing, the audition, and I didn’t realise until I got there that it was kind of a big deal. Afterwards I fantasised about quitting my carpentry job and touring Japan with them, but I didn’t get the gig.”

What would Metallica have sounded like with you as one quarter of the band?
“Well, however it would have sounded I would have only lasted for a month or two before they kicked me out. They’ve got enough chefs in the kitchen in that band – they don’t need a guy like me. And the guy they have right now is unbelievable. Robert Trujillo is one of the nicest and sweetest guys I’ve ever met in the industry, and his playing is unbelievable.”

How did Primus come together?
“I started that band as Primate in 1984. It was myself and a drum machine. And then a buddy of mine on guitar joined and we did that for about four years with eight different drummers. He then got married and had a couple of kids, while I was touring with a band with [guitarist] Larry LaLonde. We became friends and I invited him to join the band, and he said, ‘Hell yeah!’ And there he was.”

What were you hoping to accomplish?
“We never expected to get on the radio or on MTV or anything like that. We were just trying to make unique music. For me as a bass player, especially with Larry being such a textural player, I was trying to hold down two jobs – I was playing a bass part and a rhythm part. And that’s kind of how that style developed. But I remember being offered a publishing deal, and being told, ‘Oh, the only way this will go wrong is if you sell more than a hundred thousand albums… you don’t think you’ll honestly sell more than a hundred thousand albums, do you?’ And we were, like, ‘Er, I guess not – that’s a hell of a lot!’ Today I thank God that we never signed the deal ‘cause we sold a hell of a lot more than a hundred thousand albums. But a big part of Primus is the element of non-conformity. I remember when we released Sailing The Seas Of Cheese [in 1991], which was on a major label, suddenly we were being marketed alongside a lot of the bands we were rebelling against. I felt we were kind of taking the piss there.”

Speaking of that album, the song Tommy The Cat features an appearance by the great Tom Waits. You’ve also played on his albums. What’s that like?
“He was a big hero of mine. But when he said he’d be the voice of Tommy The Cat, it totally flipped me out. And it started a friendship that has endured. I’ve played on a number of his albums, and I know his family and he knows mine. It’s been a great relationship. I’ve been very fortunate that I’ve been able to meet and work with a lot of my heroes, and they’ve been pretty damn spectacular human beings. That makes me puff out my chest a bit when I think back.”

It’s difficult to think of another band who are quite as weird as Primus. Is that fair?
“It’s funny because my daughter tells me how weird I am all the time. And of course I’ve been told how weird our music is. In fact I remember sitting in with Metallica and playing with them, and I remarked on how weird the [bass] slide in that song is. And James Hetfield said, ‘What are you talking about? You’re the Primus guy!’ But to me, it all seems normal. Compared to some of the stuff I listen to – whether that be [Captain] Beefheart or Tom Waits – I think what we do sounds pretty palatable. It is what it is, but it is pretty great that Primus are the only band that have their own category on iTunes. That’s a source of pride and confusion.”

Is it too rose-tinted a view to look back at the period during which Primus blossomed, the early and mid-’90s, as being a golden age of independently-minded music?
“No, I think that’s quite valid. I remember the term ‘alternative’ being thrown around bands like us and the Chili Peppers and Jane’s Addiction and Nirvana simply because it was the alternative to what was popular. What was popular at the time was bands with big hair who were singing about girls, and we were the alternative to that.”

Why do metalheads like Primus so much?
“Our music does have an element of heaviness and aggression. Our mosh pits were legendary, but it’s funny because when they put us on Ozzfest, Sharon [Osbourne] was like, ‘Why would we have Primus on the bill?’ We were kind of the oddballs. But made a lot of great friends. We played the Gorge in Washington and I told the crowd that I was going to let them experience what I experience every day, which is to smoke a joint with Tom Araya. And Tom sat on the drum riser and smoked while we played Too Many Puppies. It was amazing!”

Primus ran out of steam after the Antipop album of 1999. Why was that?
“That period was weird for us. Nu-metal was big, and suddenly a lot of the bands that opened for us were suddenly headlining over us, and our record company began to notice. Basically, we’d done The Brown Album [in 1997], which was a total departure and not as financially successful. Although Tom Waits says that that’s his favourite Primus album, because, ‘It sounds like it needs a good wash.’ After that, the record company started suggesting we work with various producers, to which I replied that we should enlist a bunch of our friends as producers for Antipop [including Tom Waits, Tom Morello and Fred Durst, among others]. But I’d also just had a couple of kids, and there was friction in the band, and we were losing our direction. Basically I wanted to stop before we shat ourselves, so we stopped for a while.”

Did you always know that you’d get back together, or was that a big surprise to you?
“The word that we used at the time was ‘hiatus’, but we had broken up. We were not talking and there was a lot of hard feelings. I then bought a motor home and stuck a lot of my friends in it and drove it to gigs in bars up and down the West Coast. We called ourselves Frog Brigade. I was scared to death that my career was over.”

Your last release was South Of Reality, the second album from The Claypool Lennon Delirium. Tell us about that, please.
“Well, Sean [Lennon]’s band, The Ghost Of A Saber Tooth Tiger, opened for Primus a handful of years ago, and he actually struck up a pretty good relationship with my son, who was on the road with me at the time. And from that he and I became pretty good friends quite rapidly. One day we started playing backstage, and straight away I was impressed with the stuff that he was coming up with, which wasn’t what I expected. So eventually I said, ‘Hey, why not come out to my place and see what happens?’ And he did that and we wrote a shitload of songs. And there it was. But it’s an enjoyable band to play with ‘cause me and Sean are like brothers now. So it’s very enjoyable and it is something that we’re going to tour. Basically, I only like to do things that are enjoyable.”

And, in closing, would the Les Claypool who played a gig standing sideways in high school be pleased with the Les Claypool of today?
“He would be dropping faeces into his underwear. I mean, [Rush bassist] Geddy Lee came to my house last year and we talked about the book he has coming out! He’s one of my good friends. Tom Waits is one of my good friends. [Former Police drummer] Stewart Copeland is one of my good friends. And I’ve been able to work with all of them. That’s fucking insane! I’m leaving tomorrow to record with Josh Homme and Billy Gibbons [from ZZ Top]. How could I not be excited that my life has turned out this way?”

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