By Jacob Sprecher
Of all the alternative bands to explode onto MTV and into the mainstream in the early ‘90s, you’d have a hard time coming up with one more bizarre and seemingly off-putting than Primus. From Les Claypool’s guttural and impossible bass mastery to the helter-skelter squeals of Larry LaLonde’s guitar to the monkey-wrench tight punch of Tim “Herb” Alexander’s drum kit, Primus never sounded like anybody else. And what’s this about a big brown beaver? A blue-collar tweaker? Professor Nutbutter? Primus is, was and always will be insane. And that’s why they’re fantastic. The release of Green Naugahyde in the fall of 2011 marked a rebirth for Primus after a decade-plus hiatus, and guess what? It sounds like fucking Primus! Claypool, LaLonde and drummer Jay Lane have refused to go the route of so very many from that ‘90s supernova by continuing to make music that stays true to their cultish roots. That’s why anyone that ever claimed “Jerry Was A Racecar Driver” or “John The Fisherman” as their favorite song (me) should be pretty damn amped for Primus’ stop at the Redding Civic Auditorium on June 10th. Synthesis caught up with Colonel Claypool himself while speeding across Oklahoma in the “shiny box.”
Green Naugahyde came out last fall and you toured off it extensively. Do you notice the current tour speaking to a new audience as well as old fans just basking in Primus’ rebirth?
You know, I’m getting a sense we’re seeing our numbers increasing…there’s definitely an energetic vibe to what’s going on, a lot of younger people, which is surprising. A lot more women in the audience [laughs], which is surprising. We’ve been getting some juice off this “Lee Van Cleef” single and video; Howard Stern came out and was raving about it a little while ago, so there’s a tangible buzz about what we’re doing right now and it feels good.
So you’re noticing younger Primus fans being created?
Younger than me.
What now? We all want to assume you’re gonna keep putting out new music.
There’s a lot of talk—not exactly sure what we’re doing next. We’re touring through the rest of the year, so we’re keeping pretty busy. But you know me: I’ve got 50 pots on the stove at all times, just a matter of which one gets pulled up to the front burner. Right now the old Primus pot’s boilin’ away and we’re having a good time with it.
I have to say that I admire the fact that Primus is still Primus. Twenty-five-plus years has a way of changing most bands, but Primus is just as weird and fucked up now as when Frizzle Fry dropped.
Well, we’ve had the carrot waived in front of our face many times. “If you work with this producer and you do this you can get on the radio more and you can do that and you can be a little more palatable to certain demographics,” and it’s always been a hard pill for me to swallow. We tried it a little bit on the Antipop record, we did some compromising, and it’s my least favorite record that we’ve made. So when it came time to do this, I said, “Hey, let’s continue to do like we did in the old days and that’s make things that get our juices flowing.”
I mean, we’re the ones that have to out and play it every night. I remember running into a band years ago that was very, very, very, very popular, and all the musicians in the band except for the one guy that wrote this one particular song, haaaaated playing their hit. It was just this poppy, dribbling, syrupy thing, and these guys were all pretty intense musicians, and they have to play that song the rest of their lives. It took me a long time to even play The Beaver [“Wynonna’s Big Brown Beaver”]. Now The Beaver’s back in rotation ‘cause it’s fun to play, but for a while there it was a prickly pear.
I’m just hoping we can get Merle Haggard out to one of these shows. I’ve never played Redding before and I’d sure love to meet old Merle. He’s definitely a hero. I used to spend a lot of time just east of there in Hat Creek and Old Station and the Lassen area when I was a kid.
Used to go up there and do some fishing?
I come from a long line of auto mechanics, and we didn’t go to Hawaii and places like that for our vacation. We went camping up at Burney Falls and those places. We stayed in my step-dad’s old army tent that he stole when he was in the military back in the late-‘60s; ate K-rations and shit like that.
Is it humbling to know that you’re a name amongst names in the world of bass? Since the late-‘80s, there’s probably more kids that have sat down and tried to bang out Claypool licks than maybe any other bass player in the rock world.
Uh, that’s a wonderful thought, I guess. I mean I have people come drooling on me sometimes, but it’s not like I’m Michael Jackson. I can go hang out at the hardware store and nobody says much to me. It puts a little pressure on my son, who plays bass in a high school orchestra.
One thing that sometimes gets overlooked regarding Primus is the lyrical content of your songs. There’s a deranged level of creativity going on that’s always been both dark and humorous. Where does that stem from originally, ‘cause it’s kinda always been there for you guys.
Well, I’ve never been much for writing party songs or love ballads or any of that. Sitting there in the garage working on my bike as a kid, my step-dad always had it on the Okie station. At the time I didn’t think much of it but I was absorbing all these people like Jerry Reed and Merle Haggard and Waylon Jennings and Johnny Cash, where these guys are telling stories with their lyrics. It’s not just a bunch of random choruses; there’s a tale being told, and I tend to write that way. And I’m not Zack De La Rocha. I don’t get up there and bang the pulpit and speak my mind socially as much as I express the opinions of my characters, or through my characters. It’s like putting on a mask.
Is there a little bit of Zappa in there? The characters you have are not normal characters.
I was never a big Zappa fan. I’ve become more of a Zappa fan in recent years. Now Larry LaLonde was a big Zappa fan. For me, lyrically, it was more people like old John Lydon, old Peter Gabriel, Tom Waits; the list goes on and on.
When it comes to your stage productions and videos over the years, there’s a certain element that says you guys don’t have to take yourselves too seriously, that you can have a laugh about it. Is that part of the ethos?
I think more than anything it’s creating something that’s odd. Not so much silly. I’ve always been attracted to oddities, things that are just a little bit twisted. Hence my love of people like the Residents and Tom Waits. Big heroes for me are guys like Frank Kapra and Elia Kazan and Terry Gilliam and the Cohen Brothers. If you look at these films, they are full of these really interesting and somewhat eclectic and odd characters. And if you look at my friends—hanging out with me and my friends is like being in a Cohen Brothers film. They all have a little twist to them. Bird of a feather—well we’re all kind of off-birds [laughs] flocking together.
For me I just try and be as honest as I possibly can about what I’m writing, musically or prose or whatever the hell it is. And I think as you get older a lot of those inhibitions and whatnot tend to peel away. I think the stuff I’ve done over the past 10 years is the most honest I’ve ever done.
Do you find it interesting that despite the fact that Primus’ music is so unique—nobody sounds like Primus—that you can fit in with whomever? You can play with a pop act or you can play with something heavy. You even ran with the nu-metal scene in the late-‘90s. How do you explain all that?
Well I think [nu-metal] kind of ran with us. [But] you know, it’s sort of a blessing and a curse. The blessing of it is because we’ve never been part of any trend, as that trend peaks and wanes we don’t wane with it. We’ve sort of always just cruised along under the radar. We have little bits where we kind of blurb up, but for the most part we’re this cultish band. And Geddy Lee [of Rush] stole my line years ago that when I told him we were the world’s largest cult band, and he uses it regularly now because they’re way bigger than us [laughs], and they’re a cultish band, only in much more overt way.
You made mention that the ‘90s nu-metal scene ran with you, and you’ve also made mention that the music you were creating right about that time was the least favorite of your catalog. When you reflect on that time period, is that kind of a weird scene?
It was more because these bands were becoming very popular and one of their many influences was Primus, there was a lot of pressure from the record company. “Hey, these guys are coming up around you. You need to lean more in that direction,” and it wasn’t really the direction we wanted to go. So it got very awkward. I think some great stuff came out of that time, [but] I personally don’t own any of those records. It’s just not my thing.
Do you still seek The Mighty Sturgeon?
You know, I haven’t. I keep my boat up in Bodega Bay now, and there’s really no sturgeon up there. Usually it’s sturgeon season and I’m out crabbin’—crabbin’ and rock fishing.
What’s your greatest catch of all time?