It’s getting close to six o’clock, and Les, Ler, and Herb are becoming restless. In a few minutes the Ultimate Fighting Championship will begin, and the Primus boys don’t want to miss a single second of the ultra-violent action. But at the moment they’re tied up in a photo session that’s gone a little past schedule. “Jay!” screams bassist Les Claypool at the photographer Jay Blakesberg, who is fastening the back to his Hasselblad. “We’re going to miss Gracie!” “Just two more rolls,” answers Blakesberg as he composes the image in the viewfinder. Drummer Tim “Herb” Alexander frowns and casts a wistful glance at Claypool’s living room where a glowing cathode ray tube and fridge full of Coors light awaits.
“Look, I’m Elle MacPherson, jokes guitarist Larry “Ler” LaLonde as he attempts to Vogue for the camera. Claypool joins in the fun, pulling up his Dr. Suess T-shirt to expose his belly and affecting his best Kate Moss pout. Les Claypool supermodel? I don’t think so.
The band may seem over-anxious for recreation, but they deserve to relax. Only a few weeks ago they finished the final mixes for their latest Interscope album, Tales from the Punchbowl. Since then they’ve been toiling over the album cover artwork, which they’re doing themselves on a slew of Macintoshes loaded with 3-D rendering software set up in Claypool’s studio. An early version of the artwork didn’t have the impact they wanted, so they’ve generated a new image and decided to create separate illustrations for each of the 13 songs to boot. Like everything else on the project, the work’s gone a little past schedule.
However, most Primus fans will agree that Punchbowl is worth the extra wait. It’s the band’s most consistent and accessible album, with all of Claypool’s wacky humor and twisted imagination intact. Claypool continues to forge huge new grooves on his Carl Thompson fretless basses, while LaLonde provides textural dissonance, frantic chromatic leads, and slide guitar slop, sounding like a skate-punk version of Duane Allman. Alexander’s drum performance is precise and fluid, locking tightly with Les’ grooves. With more-than-obvious nods to Fripp, Zappa, and Pink Floyd, the albums prog-rock tendencies are downplayed by the band’s post-punk energy and unorthodox musical vision.
The album was recorded at Les’ new digs nestled deep in the Sonoma hills north of San Francisco. The spacious house sits on a hilltop overlooking a lush valley. Beside the pool is a large guest house, which is now Les’ recording studio. It’s hard to imagine how the band could create their peculiar brand of unsettling musical mania amidst such an idyllic setting, where unsuspecting neighbors walk their kids and dogs down unpaved country roads and cast quizzical looks at the parade of characters who drive past en route to the Casa de Claypool.
“Okay, last picture!” shouts Blakesberg as the flash pops. The trio sprints into the living room, Ler and Herb collapse on the couch. Les dashes in the kitchen momentarily, returning with armload of brewskies. Popping the tops on their silver bullets, Les and Ler kick back and watch some serious butt-kickin’ action. Between blows, they recount their own tales from the punchbowl.
Does prog-rock suck?
Les: Of course. [Laughs.]
Les: I don’t know. I just had to say yes. If you asked me that about anything I would have said yes. I’m sure that certain aspects of it suck more than others, and certain aspects of it are probably enjoyable. Of course now there’s that pop-punk thing going on, which is anti anything progressive.
Ler: Which is more reason to do it. [Laughs.]
Les: Our stuff has always been a combination of everything--not deliberately, but because we’ve all been involved in so many different projects. We’ve been around the block.
You’ve really been around the block, considering allof you’re reacent projects such as Sausage.
Les: [in midwestern accent] “Me and Ler have got Festus Clamrod and the El Sobrante Twangers,” It’s me, Ler, (Limbomaniacs and Praxis drummer) Brain, Mirv, and Brian Kehoe (both members of Mirv). A couple of guys from The Nightmare Before Christmas got the rights to “The devil went down to Georgia” and they’re animating it. It looks amazing! They asked me to do the music for it, and i said, “Hey Ler, let’s do the Festus thang.” It came out pretty good. Mirv’s playing lap steel and Kehoe is the devil.
A few songs on Punchbowl have a twisted country vibe.
Les: Well, Ler was saying--I think he read it in your magazine--that Waylon Jennings was a Primus fan. Now where did that come from? That’s amazing! That’s a phenomenal thing. My stepdad would shit a big tomato. He’s like full-on country. When I was a kid, that’s where I got my exposer to what he calls Okie music. He had an Okie station going. That’s all he would listen to. I’d be out in the garage raising the banana seat on my bike, and I’d hear Waylon and Willie. Greasy grit gravy and gizzard greens. [Laughs.] So that’s a big plus.
“Wynona’s Big Brown Beaver” is pretty twangy.
Les: There’s some yodeling going on. I knew I had something good when Ler came in after I had laid the vocal track down--he had never heard the yodeling before--and he just started laughing.
It’s hard to tell who’s who on that song.There’s a slide on there, but sometimes it sounds like the bass.
Ler: During the mix I’d go, “Is that me? That’s not me.” Especially that part underneath the vocal thing.
Les: Didn’t somebody ask you if that was a DigiTech whammy pedal?
Ler: [nods his head.] Yeah, a guy from Guitar World.
Les: A whammy pedal?! That’s something that’s been made within the last ten years! Why would we use that?
Maybe they were hoping to sell a DigiTech add.
Ler: [Laughs] Was that an Eventide?
You seem to have pepped up this record more than usual.
Les: We’re just lively guys. I think this record is not as dark. Pork Soda was a fairly dark record. It was a sign of the times. We were getting a lot of flak for being goofy guys. That was our less goofy album. But of course we named it Pork Soda. [Laughs.] It was a little more eerie. This one is a more “up” album. Not because I think we needed it, not because of marketing, but because we were all in a better space. We took a long time off. It wasn’t like, “Okay were going and doing an album.” After touring and recording for six years straight, it’s good to sit back and do other things--blow some cobwebs out. So we got together to do this when we were all focused and more excited about playing with each other.
Les, your songs have always had a lot of characters, but this album is particularly character driven.
Les: That’s what I do best. Go with what you know. It’s working out well theoretically with all this artwork that we’re doing to enhance all these stories. I don’t know why there are a lot more stories.
Ler: It’s because you’re out here in the middle of nowhere. You’ve got nothing else to do.
Les: [Laughs.] There you go.
Ler: I’ll answer his questions, thank you.
What brought you out here? This is quite an unlikely location.
Les: I was tired of the city. When we tour, we’re in cities all the time. And there were some shootings by my old house. Not dead people, but pop-pop-pop-pop in the middle of the night. My truck got broken into. I figured it was an omen to get the hell out. When I was a kid, this was the type of place we would drive by. My dad would take us on drives every now and then. We’d go look at fancy houses out in the country, so I’m sure that’s been embedded in my brain as something that’s a cool thing. I was actually looking for vacation property, and I stumbled across this place. It was an amazing deal, and I fell in love with it. As soon as I walked in the door it was like full-on 70’s. It even had 70’s wallpaper. I was like, “This is the place!” It was like Wayne Newton’s house. My realtor thought I was wierd. In the closet they had left some old shag carpeting in some Cra-a-a-zy colors that brought me back. It looked like it was made for the Oakland A’s.
Where do you find your characters?
Les: Some of it’s purely from the land of fiction. Some of it’s half-assed fact and half-assed fiction.
“De Anza” seems like it’s based on fact.
Les: That’s high school stuff, right there. Those people exist, but the names have been changed to protect the innocent. Or to protect me. [Laughs.] “Professor Nutbutter” is a story that I came up with. I’ve been kicking over a lot of ideas for screenplays lately because Mark Kohr and I have been talking about doing a film. I thought of this guy Professor Nutbutter who’s an entomologist. He found this extract from the inchworm that stunts growth, and he loves puppies, but he hates dogs, so he gives his puppies the extract so they’ll always remain puppies. Then there’s different human experiments that go on as well.
What about “Wynona”?
Les: That’s fiction. I don’t even know where that came from. It was one of those good little puns.
The bass on “De Anza” sounds like a tuba.
Les: That’s an upright bass.
On another song, you get a sitar sound.
Les: It’s not effects or anything. It’s just fingering and vibrato on the old Carl Thompson six-string fretless.
There are no fishing tales on this album.
Les: That’s true. But there’s a little reference to fishing in “Mrs. Blaileen.”
“Southbound Pacyderm” sounds like Pink Floyd meets Ted Nugent in the Ozarks.
Les: That’s pretty damn good! [Laughs.]
Ler: He’s hitting every one of them. You got the tuba...
Les: Yeah, it’s kind of like “Stranglehold” and Pink Floyd. We went, “Gotta put the airplanes in there!” [Laughs.] Full-on Floyd. When I was doing the vocals I even did a Roger Waters imitation as a joke.
Driving grooves have always been one of Primus’ strongest suits.
Les: Personally I think this is the best record Herb’s ever done. He did some phenomenal stuff. It’s not flashy. It’s just amazing grooves and really tasteful stuff. When I listen to this record, I listen to the drums a lot.
How did you approach making of Punchbowl?
Les: On each record we’ve always had a little less back catalog to deal with. For Pork Soda we had very little back catalog to steal from. My favorite stuff on Pork Soda was the stuff that we wrote in the studio. I knew that we could write in the studio, but I also knew that we couldn’t afford to go into the studio and pay for time just to write songs. On this record there was no back catalog stuff. It was all new. The three of us got together and rehearsed a few times--not a lot, maybe even just two times. Herb had a DAT machine, and we recorded all these jams. Some of it was riffs that I had vocals for. Some of it was drum stuff that Herb had. “Glss Sandwich” was something that Larry and Herb worked out a long time ago.
Were any of those rehersals saved for the final tracks?
Ler: Most of the songs came from our work tapes. A couple of the songs went on tape just as jams. Of course, the guitar parts didn’t go on there at the same time. [Laughs.]
Les: We filled up those two DAT tapes and went, “That’s enough stuff.” We came in here and started laying things down. Initially we were going to record basic tracks here, then Ler was going to take the tapes up to his house in Healdsburg and do the guitar tracks there, but he wasn’t getting a very good guitar tone out of the place. So we brought him here and stuck his amp in the shower in the bathroom. This record took a lot longer than any of our other records because we had to write it. We also did it all here, mixing and everything. There was no automation.
Ler: Which means me crawling under the board and patching in cables.
Les: [Laughs.] “Ler, patch the green cord into number seven!” It was a huge task. Everytime I engineer something, I alway’s say I’ll never do it again. I engineered Charlie Hunter’s record and the Sausage record, and I always go, “I’m never doing it again.” I said it again this time, but I’m sure I’ll do it again. It’s so much work, especially when there’s no automation. It’s unbelievable.
It looks like your studio has expanded.
Ler: We’ve consolodated all of our gear. Probably my whole studio is here. It just worked out to stick it all here in the middle of nowhere.
You have the advantage of having the studio here all the time, so you can work whenever you want.
Les: That’s wonderful. These poor guys have to drive. But it’s not such a horrible spot. We go down and do a little fishing in the pond.
I was wondering if you had your own fishing spot.
Les: That’s what sold me! [Laughs.]
Ler: That’s where we should be right now.
Les: Nah, they wouldn’t be biting after all this rain. But I caught a nice one the other day. There’s bass and some big ol’ bluegill. Supposedly, there’s some catfish in there, but I don’t fish for catfish. I just let them go. They’re my pets.
Have you added anything new to your equipment collection?
Les: I got this banjo bass recently. It’s on “Captain Shiner” the very last track on the record. Dan Malone made it. He’s the guy who made my upright. Dan is an old High School buddy of mine who works for Zeta systems. [Picks up banjo and plays “Captain Shiner.”] I love this. [Plays funky slap bass line.]
Play some Metallica.
Les: [Laughs and plays “Master of Puppets.”] This thing sounds amazing when it’s plugged in because it has that twang to it, but it also has a huge bottom end. You wouldn’t think so, but it’s like a Jazz Bass. Actually it sounds a lot like a Music Man. When it’s miked up it sounds like a steel drum. It’s a trippy instrument. It’s a beaut! It looks better than Ler’s Deering six-string banjo.
Maybe you guys could spark the revival of the banjo band.
Les: I would love to do MTV Unplugged. I’d love to! But they won’t have us on there. We’ve tried to do MTV Unplugged for the last three years.
Oh, well. I know a Shakey’s that will hire you guys.
Les: Festus Clamrod will have a lot of banjo. We might have to have all four of us on banjos. [In southern thwang, “Everybody stomp your foot now!”]
Ler, what guitars did you use?
Ler: On the last album I only had one Paul Reed Smith that I used. Now I’ve got several, including a couple of McCarty models. I think I played my Strat on only one song, and on another song I played a National Airline, but I couldn’t really tell what songs they were. It’s a cool sounding guitar. I had so many guitars over here.
You use quite a variety of textures and tones.
Ler: That’s because I had more stompboxes in front of me this time. I did the last two albums with an ADA MP-1 that was controlling everything. This time I plugged in all the effects and went straight into a Marshall amp.
You used a lot of Electro-Harmonix and MuTron effects on the last record. What have you added to your setup?
Ler: I used more of the same. You’ve got to see this one pedal I just got. It’s the best. You ever see one of these guys? [Retrieves an Ace-Tone Fuzz Master.] These things are killer.
What other effects did you use?
Ler: I had an array of Electo-Harmonix devices--a Big Muff, Hot Tubes, the Octave MultiPlexer, I swapped things in and out a lot. There were a lot of Boss effects, some of the older ones they don’t make anymore. On some stuff I used a fuzzy velvet Foxx wah pedal--the red one with three knobs on it.
How’d you get that pedal steel tone on the solo on “Wynona’s Big Brown Beaver?”
Ler: It’s just a slide.
During the solo? That muted, Albert Lee-like part?
Ler: I found that if you bend notes the right way it makes that pedal steel tone. I stole all those licks from Jerry Garcia.
Les, you auditioned for Metallica after Cliff Burton died. What do you think would have happened if they picked you?
Les: They would have kicked me out! [Laughs.]
Ler: He probably wouldn’t be playing the banjo bass. Maybe though.
Les: I have no clue.
Ler: You’d probably be having a lot more fun.
Les: [Points at Ler.] I wouldn’t have to hang out with this guy.
You were working on a project with Kirk Hammett. What became of that?
Les: We recorded a few songs. Basically if somebody comes over and the mikes are set up, we’ll record. It was at my old house, and Puffy (Faith No More drummer Mike Bordin) sat down and started playing drums. We were stoned, so of course we loved what we were doing. [Laughs.] We went, “Kirk, get over here!” Kirk came over--he was wearing his pajamas--and he noodled over the top of some stuff. It actually came out pretty cool. He just ran through his Zoom. It’s not what you’d expect from Kirk Hammet. I’ve accumulated things to put on album someday that may be released on Prawn Song.
What has been going on with the label?
Les: I’ve been immersed in this project for five or six months now, so I’ve been not so involved in the label. The Alphabet Soup record came out, and the Porch record came out. We just realeased Eskimo’s new record. It’s totally like Zappa and Beefheart. The bass player rips. He’s one of my favorites. They’re a band that we used to play with years ago in clubs. It’s an acquired taste. The next thing that is coming out is a project that Larry did with...
Ler: You can’t tell him that. [Laughs.]
Les: Larry did a project with some friends of ours and it’s called Beanpole. I actually play drums on one song. It’s way out there. It’s like, that the most out-there Primus thing you can think of and multiply it by a hundred.
Why does humorous music make truck drivers violent?
Les: Does it make truck drivers violent? You can get some of the best humorous music at truck stops--those country humor records. We’ve gotten some great stuff there.
So do you think we’ll see racks of Primus tapes at truck stops?
Les: I wouldn’t mind that. I love truck stops. When we’re on the road we love to pull into those big old super truck stops where they’ve got everything. They’re designed to keep those guys on the road. You can get socks, underware, shirts, pants. I’ve gotten some really cool stuff there, like my leather cavalry hat that I wear. You can still get boot-cut jeans there. Knives! Elvis lighters! Give me a Zippo with Elvis on it!
Ler: Remember going to that weird truck stop in the middle of nowhere with the Melvins? Buzz Osbourne got a bunch of religious stuff--Jesus on a rock. He goes up to this really old lady behind the counter and says, “And I’ll have three of those red sixes.” That was my best truck stop moment ever.
Les: My crazy truck stop moments were going into truck stops with the guys from Fishbone. That was loads of fun. You’d go walking through there with Angelo or Norwood at three in the morning, and every head would turn. You could hear it. Swoosh!
What’s the greatest thing about being in Primus?
Les: Free beer! Guinness in the can!
You’ve forged a path that few other bands venture onto.
Les: That’s because ther’re smart. [Laughs.] Because they want to make a living.
Ler: Usually it’s not a good career decision.
Les: That’s why nobody’s copying us.
So you don’t think we’ll see any bands called Cheese--A Tribute to Primus?
Ler: [Laughs.] Cheese! And you know that’s what it would be. There’s no doubt about it.