‘You look through the cartoons and find the best one and put it on a record’ An interview with Les Claypool of Primus
It’s safe to say that just about everyone knows Primus. You might not own every disc or have seen the band live, but you’ve probably caught a video on MTV for “Mr Krinkle” or “My Name Is Mud,” or maybe you’ve caught one of bass player/singer Les Claypool‘s many side projects.
Primus’ sound is instantly recognizable. The crazy characters in the songs are framed by Claypool’s voice and the jagged expertise that brings the instruments all together. Primus was everywhere in the ’90s before they took a break. A couple of tours in the 2000s had the band performing full albums, even as other side projects kept the members busy, until reforming in 2011 for their first full album in more than a decade.
Claypool called me the afternoon before playing a show in Philadelphia last week to discuss the history of Primus, the art of the bass and more. Primus returns to St. Louis on October 28 for a show at Peabody Opera House.
In case you were wondering, the highlight of this writer/DJ’s month was answering the phone and hearing a Northern California accent say: “Nick, this is Les Claypool.”
Nick Cowan: Les, what’s the inspiration behind the 3D/Quad Sound show? What makes it different from a regular Primus gig?
Les Claypool: Well, a handful of years ago a buddy of mine purchased ILM’s modeling department from George Lucas. He worked for them for many years and started a company. Well, he changed it to “Kerner Optical,” and we had our offices in the same building. They were working on all this 3D stuff: 3D television, 3D converter boxes, 3D cameras. He was always taking me in and showing me what they were working on. I’ve done these New Year’s Eve shows in San Francisco for 20 years, and every year is a theme. I was playing the San Francisco Opera House one year and thought, “Let’s bring in this 3D thing and see if we can do that.” We did it and it was amazing, hugely successful.
On “Green Naugahyde” my manager said, “Hey lets do that 3D thing you did a few years ago.” We looked into it and they’ve advanced their stuff quite a bit. We put a package together and now we’re out playing in front of a bunch of imagery that shoots out into the audience.
That sounds awesome.
It’s pretty incredible actually. Unlike going to IMAX or seeing a movie in 3D, you’re seeing a lot of stuff you wouldn’t normally see. It’s more visual effects like textures and whatnot. It’s much more psychedelic than anything anyone has probably ever seen in 3D.
It sounds like a 3D version of the light shows, plasma-like lighting that the Grateful Dead had back towards the beginning.
Yeah, it’s very much like that. There is some stuff that’s landscapes, fly-throughs and things like that. A lot of our experience is improvisation, and there’s a lot of psychedelic wandering and meandering musically so I wanted something that was going to be different every night. We have artists out by the soundboard that are manipulating these machines so that the visuals are different every night, along with our set.
Are you doing the same general set list each night?
Do you balance the songs you want to play with what you think the fans might want? There’s been a guy at every one of your shows I’ve been to that screams out an obscure album track.
Well, it’s all pretty much what we want (laughs). You would like to hope that what you want to play is what fans want to hear. For the most part there are people that want to see us play “Wynona’s Big Brown Beaver” or “My Name Is Mud,” which is fine. They are enjoyable songs to play and they get played on a regular basis, but not every night. There are those diehard fans that want to hear deep cuts, and for this tour we’ve actually dug in and brought out a bunch of songs, some that we have never been played live until this tour.
Not gonna tell you.
Dang. I’ll wait and see it at the Peabody.
We might pop one out, maybe not, it sort of depends. But we’ve dug into some stuff that hasn’t been played in a long time and a couple of tunes that just hadn’t been performed live before.
A lot of that is to keep it interesting for us and for folks that have seen the tour. We have people that are following us around now, so you’ve gotta keep on your toes.
Primus doesn’t really fit directly into that jam band vibe that inspires that kind of following around. How do you think your sound has carried over? Is it that strong sense of improvisation?
Primus has always been a band that never quite fit into this genre or that genre, but could blend with just about anything. I’ve done almost every festival with various genres and demographics, opened up for everyone from Rush to U2 to Slayer. So it’s sort of the nature of what we do and what I’ve always done with my career. It’s reflecting our varied taste.
And it’s always been hard to put your finger on what Primus is. We’re the only band that has its own category. I read that on Wikipedia and don’t even know what the hell it means.
You, personally, Les, you’re like a musical Kevin Bacon. There’s probably six degrees between you and every other musician on the planet.
I think I’m just musical bacon!
And bacon makes everything better!
There you go! Maybe that’s a false statement. (Raucous mutual chuckle.)
With all the people you’ve worked with, through those six degrees, how many of your collaborators have you sought out and vice versa?
I don’t know. A lot of it is that you just run in to people. Tony Levin just got a hold of me about doing a project, that’s pretty cool. Sometimes it’s people reaching out to me, me reaching out to them, sometimes kicking around with some friends and we start knocking notions around. But there seems to be a long list of things I want to do. As long as there is something on the horizon I feel like I’m doing my job correctly.
Do you ever feel like you’re in a rut?
I did at the end of the ’90s, I definitely did. That’s probably why Primus disbanded for a while, and rightfully so. We were all rutted up.
For me the 2000s were an amazing growing and learning and rediscovering period for me. It was a spectacular decade for me on a musical and creative level.
During that decade you had a lot of different projects and configurations. You just seemed to be everywhere a little bit.
Yeah, and I wrote my book and did my film too. It was a good decade for me. But it’s not like I was going out making gazillions of dollars; creatively I was having an amazing time.
Speaking of the ’90s, it seems like Primus was everywhere. Did you ever take a break?
We were pretty busy. Primus put out a record every 16-18 months and watched friends of ours, like the guys in Tool, put out a record every four or five years. We put out three or four in that period of time. That’s part of the reason we got burned out by the end of the decade.
Once my kids came along I tried to slow it down so I could be around to be a father. I don’t think we went to Europe for over 10 years, quite a long time, because I needed to be around my family.
What kind of feedback process do you go through when you’re writing or recording? Do you trust your instincts, do you bounce things off the rest of the band?
Well, with “Green Naugahyde” it was a luxury of having two other guys, which is the same with any collaborative thing. Solo stuff is a little more isolating and introspective.
I find that if I over-think things I tend to not like the results. As far as the creative process — and I don’t want to make a broad stroke statement — sometimes rules are different. For the most part the first or second take or incarnation of a piece tends to be my favorite.
And it’s funny because I’ve been readdressing some old Primus stuff like “Sailing the Seas of Cheese,” just going through some of the old tapes. I was looking at the masters and was amazed at how much of that was first take, second take at the most.
There’s a freshness to just jumping and letting go. Certain things that come out when you’re stumbling a bit that wouldn’t normally come out if you continued to hammer at something. That’s why I like being on stage taking chances musically. On stage, it’s the trips and the stumbles where you come up with your coolest stuff because in the recovery process you do some pretty amazing things you didn’t even realize you could do. It’s always fun when you can surprise yourself. That’s a great feeling.
And part of what keeps you interested too I imagine.
I would like to hope so.
On a regular day how long do you practice?
The thing is, when I’m at home I very rarely play my instrument. I try and leave instruments around for my kids, and every now and again I’ll pick it up and fiddle with it. Unless I’m working on a project or have something coming up I tend to not play that much.
When I was a kid I played all the time. Mainly it was like therapy for me. You’ve got some girlfriend dogging you out or some other issue, playing and playing and playing was my therapy. Plus you’re working to hone your skills so you can get past a certain point. For the past 20 years I don’t really practice that much.
I sense that you’re going to earn the ire of everyone that struggles to learn their instrument.
For me it’s like doodling. I’m a perpetual doodler. Usually when I’m doing interviews I have a pad of paper in front of me and I just doodle away. When I’m done there’s a pile of cartoons that the maid takes care of.
That, for me, is the way music is. You look through the cartoons and find the best one and put it on a record (laughs).
I love the analogy! With such a recognizable sound, I’m sure gear heads are curious why you switched to your own Pachyderm bass from the iconic Carl Thompson basses you’ve used for years. Why the switch?
I love Carl. He’s an artist, I’ve played a lot of instruments and there’s no one that has the intuitive craftsmanship that he does. That being said, his instruments all tend to be these unique pieces. You kind of tailor your playing to Carl’s instruments. I really wanted to create a four string that incorporated all of the elements from all the basses that I’ve liked throughout the years plus some innovations of my own.
I put this design together, a buddy of mine cut it out of plywood, made a mock up out of pine, and then I shaped it. I used to be carpenter and have done a lot of finishing work. I got it to where it fit me like a glove. This buddy of mine built of one my uprights back in the day, and I slowly refined it. I still have the very first one that’s a little bit different design than the one that ended up being the final prototype which is what we auctioned off on eBay for Baby Matthew [Claypool's nephew with childhood lymphoma] for a little over $50,000.
So these basses are for me, I can only speak for me, the most comfortable, ergonomic, well-balanced, punchy bass monsters that I’ve ever come across.
I’m making a handful right now, playing a new one on this tour, four at this point and if I don’t stop buying them myself (laughs) there should be a few on a limited basis.
Your bass tone is also so recognizable.
The pickups are still the EMGs that I put in Carl’s basses many many years ago. But pickups are only a small part of the sound of an instrument. It adds a different color.
The sound of an instrument comes from the choice of woods. The sound of anything comes from your fingers. When all is said and done, it comes from your fingers. Jimi Hendrix sounds like Jimi Hendrix whether he’s playing his Fender Strat or an old Parker Flyer — he would still sound like Hendrix.
I remember years ago, when I first played with Stewart Copeland. We spent all these years trying to get the “Stewart Copeland” snare drum sound. On my god, how did he get that sound? We jammed with him one day and the only drum kit available was this little funky old Ludwig. It had old heads on it, was a dark sounding kit. The polar opposite of what you think he would play. We started playing with him and it sounded like Stewart Copeland!
It’s how you attack your instrument. It’s the fundamental element. Having an instrument with certain woods, certain pick ups, certain scale length, certain strings and all these different things help lean in one direction. But when all is said those fundamentals are all in your fingers. If you can’t play it’s not going to sound good, no matter how good the instrument is.
You can have 10 different guys play the exact same bass line and it will sound very, very different on the exact same bass through the exact same amp. It’s how you attack the instrument.
Makes sense, and I’m not a musician.
A buddy of mine was a huge Robin Trower fan, my buddy Mirv [a member of the Fearless Flying Frog Brigade] is an amazing guitar player and he met Robin Trower years ago. He asked, “Oh my god, how do you get that tone?” Trower just looked at him and said [Claypool adopts comical British accent], “It’s in me fingers! It’s in me fingers!” Mirv still likes to quote that.
Can you talk for a second about your nephew? I don’t want to get too personal.
Sure. He’s fighting along. The main thing is to raise awareness for infant leukemia. While leaps and bounds have been made in treatment for childhood leukemia in the past 20 years, infant leukemia is different. It’s very intense and very rare. There aren’t a lot of families dealing with it and they feel very isolated. A tough road made tougher by how rare it is.
Les, thanks for taking the time. I’m looking forward to the gig at the Peabody Opera House. You’re playing at a really cool venue.
All right! I like hearing that.
Primus plays Peabody Opera House on October 28, 2012.