Primus bassist Les Claypool and guitarist Larry “Ler” LaLonde amble into their San Rafael, California, rehearsal bunker nearly an hour after the scheduled interview time, victims of a particular hellacious traffic day. Despite his exasperation, there’s a trace of impish glee in Claypool’s twangy recollection of the drive over.
“Did you see me yelling and honking at the old lady in front of me?”
“Yeah,” LaLonde chortles. “You were going crazy!”
“Well, she wouldn’t get out of the way!”
Primus’s driving habits, apparently, are like their music: frantic, aggressive and counter to the flow of traffic. Over six albums the trio has established itself as a top-selling act while flagrantly flouting the rock rule book. Taking it’s cues from Claypool’s off-kilter virtuosity and surreal narratives, the band subverts typical rock band dynamics with free-for-all oddities that sometimes suggest Pink Floyd and the Red Hot Chili Peppers jamming over a Carl Stalling cartoon score.
Brown Album, the band’s latest Interscope effort, continues that maverick tradition. Their first release with the new drummer Bryan “Brain” Mantia, Brown Album offers a nonstop string of musical curios, from the opening martial stomp of “The Return of Sathington Willoughby” to “Arnie,” the record’s tremolo-drenched closer. The new material has a grittier, more propulsive feel than 1995’s Tales from the Punchbowl, LaLonde in particular comes out swinging, casting forth high-gain squawks, skewed-scale leads and searing slide work on his custom Paul Reed Smith.
“This is our most aggressive record since our first one [ 1989’s live-in-concert Suck on This ],” beams Claypool, who admits the band was a bit tired when they made Punchbowl. “This one doesn’t slow down anywhere, and there’s a lot more of that big-bottomy drum stuff. This is a lot thicker record than we’ve ever made--it’s thickerer.”
The bassist credits that guitar-fueled thickness to Mantia, who replaced longtime Primus pounder Tim “Herb” Alexander late last year: “It’s just the way Brain plays. He’s very spacious and the sound of his drums gives Larry much more room. His drum stuff is all pretty low, as opposed to Tim, who had a lot of small toms and cymbols that would fill up the guitar register.”
Tales from the Punchbowl was primarily written on the fly in the studio, but Brown Album found the trio at least partially scripting the songs before rolling the tape. “I don’t think we’ll ever go in with a blank slate again,” confides Claypool. “It was mainly hard on Larry, because me and Herb had developed these songs that were pretty full, and then we’d say, ‘Okay, Larry, come on in and support this.’ He was pretty frustrated.”
LaLonde recalls the seat-of-the-pants process with typical nonchalance: “I can go either way, but it’s nice to have half and half, as opposed to going in completely unprepared.” The prep time paid off--LaLonde still complements Claypool’s kinetic riffing with left field textures and ear-tweeking dissonance, but it’s hard to imagine him in note for note with the bassist as he does in “Golden Boy” without having had prior knowledge of the song. And on more than one occasion--the thrashy ascending-fifths riffs of “Coddingtown,” for example--LaLonde defines the songs direction, a relative rarity for Primus.
Most surprising, perhaps, are the bebop-flavored spy-guitar lines of “Duchess and the Proverbial Mindspread” and “Kalamazoo,” products of LaLonde’s recent infatuation with the “evil intentions and sinister vibe” of mood-music guitar instrumentalists such as Buddy Merrill. “I’ve been listening to a lot of mutated ‘50’s jazz instrumentals, the record that no one was really into because they were so odd, even though the musicians weren’t trying to make them that way.” ( “Like a Primus record?” interjects Claypool. )
LaLonde’s pre-Primus background included two-and-a-half years of lessons with Joe Satriani (“ruining his track recordof great teaching”) and a stint with the death-metal band Possessed. “It was kind of wierd, but I was also listening to the Police a lot of the time,” he recalls. But Ler’s twisted edge is more directly traceable to his fondness for free-spirited ax-wielders Frank Zappa and Marc Ribot. “With Ribot, it’s not like, ‘This song’s in E and the guy’s playing it in E,’” notes Ler. “It’s more like, ‘There’s this freak playing guitar!’” Ler has taken that anarchic spirit to heart: “A lot of times when I’m doing a solo I tend not to really pay attention. I’m pretty much just pretending to be Frank Zappa.”
Claypool insists he has no aversion to playing it relatively straight if the occasion demands: “If I was in a different group I’d play differently. I just did some stuff for Jerry Cantrell’s solo project where I played more the role of a regular bass player than ‘the Primus guy.’ I also used to play in this ‘40’s style swing band. I’d love to play things like ‘String of Pearls’ and ‘Woodchopper’s Ball’ again.”
LaLonde’s side projects tend to remain left-of-center; he occasionally plays in the Zappa tribute band Caca and records offbeat music in his basement. “It ends up being circus songs with about 400 tracks of horns and old, out-of-tune keyboards,” he says. “It’s a special brand of music.” Equally special, apparently, is Beanpole , an “all-star” recording project not likely to be released anytime soon. “Beanpole is the greatest record ever made; it’s like Judas Priest on acid through a blender,” raves Les. “It’s also the record that killed our label, Prawn Song. We brought it to [distibutor] Mammoth, and they said, ‘We don’t really want to do that stuff anymore.’”
For Brown Album , which was tracked entirely at Claypool’s home, the band reverted to analog recording gear. “We took everything digital out of the loop,” Les recounts. “Brain got in the band and said, ‘No digital, dude!’ So I recorded some stuff on our digital gear and my old Tascam 388 cassette multitrack and gave everyone the blind taste test. Everybody chose the 388.”
LaLonde has also revamped his guitar setup, dispensing with his usual Yamaha SPX-900 multi-effector ADA MP-1 preamp. “I used to get all my sounds with th MP-1, but I didn’t like the idea that you’re just going through the amp loop and not really using the amp sound. One day I plugged straight into the amp, and it was like, ‘Now it’s a guitar again!’” Ler now alternates between his Marshall JCM 900 and newly acquired Mesa Triple Rectifier and Dual Rectifier and Dual Rectifier Trem-o-Verb amps. (“That’s my way of having different clean channels at different volumes--just get another amp!” ) The latter was the main Brown Album amp. “The Marshall’s great for what it does, but I needed something a little more modern, something a little cleaner so that I could ugly it up with this stuff.” says Ler, pointing to an Electro-Harmonix Hot Tubes distortion, a Mu-Tron octave divider, a CryBaby wah, and a pair of Boss DD-3 delay pedals.
Les thumped and plucked his treasured Carl Thompson 6-string fretted and fretless basses, which he tunes BEADGC . On “Over the Falls” he used “an old no-name electric upright that sound amazing.” He also plugged in an Italian-made, Hofner-style Eko. “I’d always wanted an Hofner,” says Les, “but the Eko just smokes the Hofner--and it cost $250! It has a real nice percussive attack.” His amp? A small solid-state Gallien-Krueger, which he would occasionally sweaten with a Hot Tubes, a Systech Harmonic Energizer and the tremolo filter on his ADA preamp.
“For me,” says Les, “it’s easier to get tones out of smaller, quieter amps, because you’re not feeling the big sound in the room, but just hearing what the mike hears. The mike can’t feel the rumble that you feel through the ground. Anyway, our success rate has been higher when we’ve kept the volume’s down.” (“Except,” counters Ler, “for guitar solos, where the amp is actually turned all the way up.” )
Like many observers, Claypool is uncertain where Primus fits into the rock landscape. “The album is probably more graspable than anything we’ve done in the past,” he states, while admiting that “graspable” is a relative term, one not necessarily synonymous with “accessible.” Not that he’d have it any other way.
“I was hande an alternative radio chart by our manager in hopes that I would pick a lighter tune as our first single.” Claypool relates. “It was, uh, quite a collection of the candy-coated, syrupy crap that they’re playing on the radio these days and calling ‘alternative.’” The chosen single? “Shake Hands with Beef,” a song whose title--let alone it’s lurch-and-belch aesthetic--is bound to rattle the Buzz Bin. Then again, no one knows better than Primus that, on the airwaves as on the freeways, some well-placed noise can clear a wide path.