The ATN Q+A: Primus' Tim "Herb" Alexander
He may be the "shy one," but drummer Tim Alexander has plenty to say about his life in and out of Primus
by Michael Goldberg
-At a coffee house down the road from the UC Berkeley campus, Tim "Herb" Alexander, the soft-spoken drummer for Primus is chowing down. Photo sessions, rehearsals and last minute details before the group is to head for Australia make life a bit hectic these days for the Primus guys. While waiting for ATN to show up, Tim is spending some time with his female partner at a table in the back, among students studying rather intensely.
-When ATN arrives, Alexander moves to a table in the next room, suggesting that where he has been sitting is the unofficial study area, and that for an interview we best move to where a conversation won't disturb the students. Thoughtful? Sensitive? Not necessarily the first words that come to mind to describe a member of Primus.
-During an hour plus interview, Alexander lets his hair down (this was before he shaved it all off), in what is one of the most extensive interviews he has ever given.
1. The Same Stuff
Addicted To Noise: First of all, tell me a little bit about the dynamics within the group between you and Les and Larry and how that tends to work.
Tim "Herb" Alexander: It seems, writing wise, that me and Les do a lot of the basic ideas together. We run through the songs from the very beginning and usually we complete the songs as a whole with just Les and I jamming some ideas and putting them together. Me and him pretty much keep the basis of the whole musical thing together. Larry's kind of the extra layer on top. Me and Les are pretty intricate. I definitely have to hold down a lot of ideas. Actually, me and Les switch off back and forth where he'll be holding down and I'll be playing with him but yet I have a room to be a little more free in the playing.
Were you surprised when Pork Soda entered the charts at number seven?
Alexander: Yeah, we didn't know what that meant, so to speak, when it enters the charts. It was surprising, yeah. We didn't know that would happen.
That album sold, like, half a million copies. That's a lot of people buying a record for a band that was perceived up until then as a strange underground thing.
Alexander: It's taken a long time to get that many people turned on to what we do and who we are. It seems like our group has worked by touring. There's a group of people who know who we are. We put out a record and they go buy it. And then the next record comes out and a few more people get turned onto it and maybe they'll go buy the rest of them.
Did it change at all how you thought about making music, knowing that there's this audience there?
Alexander: No, we pretty much do the same stuff we've always done. The reason each record sounds different is just because we're changing and growing. It's not any conscious decision to make a pop album or anything like that. We're still doing the same stuff. The music is not going to consciously change on our part unless we're feeling differently when we play. Plus, we're learning more about how to relate to each other.
So you're not going to take each other for granted.
Alexander: No. It seems like early on, the positions were established pretty well. Larry and myself have become up more present in the music. We're definitely having a lot of effect on how the sound is now, compared to four years ago, five years ago.
What do you think that Primus is communicating to your fans?
Alexander: I don't know. I can't even begin to understand that. Sometimes I think we're just turning kids on to the bass or the drums or guitar. Making music be something they might want to do in life. I don't hear any huge messages.
Well, Jeff Patterson of IUMA is a huge Primus fan--since he was in high school. He said one of the things he liked about Primus was that a lot of the songs seemed to be about everyday things like going fishing. And the songs were stories about people, people he assumed the band knew. Everyday stories that have these strange twists to them. But it's not like Primus unravels the secrets of the universe in each song.
Alexander: That's true. It's simple enough you could relate to it lyrically. And that's what I mean. There's no huge message. Except maybe there's some kind of solution in the story that you should pay attention to that may help you out some day. A lot of them are just stories that have happened. You can get things from them if you try.
I think Primus makes music for people that don't want to identify with mainstream stuff.
Alexander: I'm one of them. There's a whole lot of people that listen to more than mainstream. To me, it's not all that weird. We're lucky to be able to sell as many albums as we can and to be able to play how we want to play and not have to fit into the main selling formula. The mainstream seems to be opening up a lot so maybe we're slipping in without changing. Maybe more people are open to different stuff rather than whatever this one radio station plays or whatever MTV plays being all there is. Actually, that's kind of the drag about it. There's so many groups and music you'll never hear that is good. There's a lot of good music out there that probably never gets heard by most people just because they probably don't know where to go to find it. Most radio stations aren't going to play them for you. No videos.
What music are you thinking of when you say that, music that people don't get exposed to that they should get exposed to?
Alexander: Nothing specific. I just know a lot of the stuff I have at home you never hear on the radio.
What do you listen to?
Alexander: Everything from reggae, classical, heavy metal, ska, rock. King Crimson stuff to some underground. There's a lot of stuff out there that could easily be radio music. Not that all radio music's bad. I like a lot of Sting stuff. Not all of it.
You're a pretty big Grateful Dead fan, right?
Alexander: No. Larry is.
I thought Larry was way into Zappa.
Alexander: And the Dead. He's the only one that listens to the Dead. I never listen to them. I've listened to Zappa but I'm not as huge a fan as he is. I like a lot of stuff but he grew up on it. I was more of a heavy duty Rush fan. They gave me a lot of inspiration. They were underground. An underground metal band. They had their following and they could make records and sell them and go tour and be successful without the big corporate guys, without selling out.
In terms of learning how to play, who's really influenced you?
Alexander: Neil Peart from Rush. When I was really young, I heard him and just went, "Wow, that's something I want to do." I've always played drums my whole life though. Then I discovered more different kinds of music like the Police and Peter Gabriel and world music. It's not only drummers but singers. As a drummer, Neil Peart was a big one for me. [And] Stewart Copeland from the Police.
Has the success that you guys have had had an effect on you?
Alexander: I don't know. I think I might have been putting up defenses to not let it affect me which might have been a bad thing to do. Because I don't have a huge feeling about myself. I'm working on it, about feeling good about myself. I know I can play good. I wish I could feel better, be a little more...cocky. I guess I deserve some degree of it.
Primus is a real phenomenon that works on a musical basis. It's a musician's band, on the one hand. On the other hand, it's a completely conceptual band. It's intriguing and it's funny at the same time.
Alexander: There was nothing saying that was going to work, but that's just how it is. There's no plan and we didn't do anything so we could use it as a marketing tool. That's pretty much how we are, just cruising on this sea of cheese that you don't really want to dive into.
2. Primus Stays Afloat
How has it been, sailing the sea of cheese, dealing with the corporate record biz?
Alexander: We stayed afloat. I don't think we got dunked into that sea. We're still above it, I think, just trying to steer our way through. Being able to do what we want to do and hopefully people want to hear it and buy it.
You mentioned having a hard time feeling good about yourself despite the success of the band. What's going on?
Alexander: Sounds like it's a personal problem that I'm trying to deal with. I don't know if anybody else is like that.
I think a lot of people are.
Alexander: I think I just may be making myself want to push more by not being happy with what I have. To give me that drive to keep wanting more. But I need to find out that medium where I can want to do more but yet I can really enjoy what's happening. But it's very personal in terms of figuring out why it's like that.
Was it hearing Rush that made you want to be in a rock band? Or had you decided early. You said you played drums when you were pretty young.
Alexander: I think they had a lot to do with that.
How old were you when you first got interested in being a musician?
Alexander: I've been playing since I was two.
On pots and pans, like Stevie Wonder?
Alexander: I had a drum and I was banging on stuff. I knew I liked to play and I did it. I think I heard Rush when I was 13, 10 or 13. That was a big eye opener towards what you can do music-wise as a drummer, bass player. And for me, it was just drums. And I heard drummers playing a lot of cool stuff.
Do you remember what the album was that you heard?
Alexander: I think it was Permanent Waves (released in 1981) when it first came out. I might have been more like 15 or 16. I don't remember. I remember hearing that on the radio and going, oh my gosh. I never listened to jazz. I didn't know people could play, like really play. He, Neil Peart, was the most technical person I had heard. I knew songs by Led Zeppelin and stuff like that. I think it was the flash and the technique that attracted me and that caught my ear. Then I learned more about other
people. I needed to hear that and I'm glad I heard it from someone like Neil Peart, rather than some cheesy jazz-fusion guy because maybe I'd be in a cheesy jazz fusion band now. It was the combination of the technique and the freedom they had as a group. I just liked it.
Are there a few other drummers where you just really appreciate what they do?
Alexander: Oh yeah. Stewart Copeland. I think Peter Gabriel used a couple of drummers. Those are just some popular drummers that everyone heard. Everyone heard the music most likely but probably didn't know who they were. They only knew of Sting and they only knew of Peter Gabriel but the stuff that made that music what it was was the musicians.
What do you think has been the hardest thing about being in Primus you've had to deal with?
Alexander: Probably the fact that we do what we do and we sound like we sound and it doesn't sound like Nirvana, it doesn't sound like Pearl Jam. It's at the point where it seems like it could do something really well but it also seems like we're still just so weird that it's only going to get to a certain point [in terms of success]. I don't know. That's something I think about sometimes. It's like, is it ever going to cross over into that Stone Temple Pilots level of success. They come out of nowhere. They remind me of Pearl Jam. Seems like they did better than any of those groups sales wise.
Yeah but bands like that don't seem to stick. Like, say, Spin Doctors. They sold a ton of their first album because of one hit. Then their next album doesn't sell. You have to wonder, do they really have fans?
Alexander: Then you have groups like Rush who still are making records. And they never make that huge burst yet they're still doing what they're doing.
There's a big audience that supports them through thick and thin for years and years. For all we know, Spin Doctors...maybe no one cares anymore.
Alexander: It depends on where you want to be, I guess. If we wanted to come out of nowhere and sell tons of records, we'd know what we'd need to sound like. Deep down, I think we all have the feeling that its going to last and we can do it the way we do it for awhile and hopefully make money. But the hardest part is that you don't want to die out because you're doing what you're doing. I know bands who've done that, went down the slope. Had their peak and then went down because they're not in that mainstream. And it's so weird because it's like we're not the least bit mainstream. It's like, why are we so popular?
I was in Australia and I was in this place that was like a two-hour train ride outside Sydney and it was time to go back to Sydney. And my wife and I were waiting for the train and there's these two kids, they were about 15. And one was very proudly wearing a Primus t-shirt. And that's off in Australia, the other side of the globe. In terms of your audience its more like a Grateful Dead thing than it is like a Top 40 radio band thing.
Alexander: Totally. That's something I think about. I'd probably like something really, really good to happen. That's that thing about wanting more and you've just got to try and find that spot where you're happy. It all stems back to my own problems or whatever I have, you know.
So, in other words, if Tales from the Punchbowl happens to sell four million copies instead of half a million, you wouldn't be sad.
Alexander: No, there's no way to be sad. Not at all. That would be great. It would be nice. It would really be nice to hear a group like us, someone different, come out and start getting popular. That would be cool. But yeah, I would like to definitely have this next record be really good. For me, I'm just working on trying to find my happy space that I need so I can keep doing it. I've gotten fan mail from drummers who say, because of you, I know what I want to do. I don't see myself that way at all. Not at all. I don't really understand what I'm doing to people who are listening but in a way I kind of do.
Sounds like those fans were inspired by you in the same way you were inspired by Neil Peart.
Alexander: Yeah, but I don't look at myself that way. That's my thing I have to work out.
Is this right, that you got the nickname "Herb" because you're into herbal medicine?
Alexander: Yeah. I don't know why. It just happened that that was the reason that name was chosen because I was taking a lot of herbs. I always carried some around in case I get sick or something.
So who was doing that?
Alexander: Les. Seems like he does that for a lot of people.
Did you kind of wish that it didn't happen?
Alexander: I used to. I'm used to it now. It's not that I like it. I'm just used to it. I don't really take it seriously like I used to.
You were saying that other than playing music, your own playing, you're in a period where you're not that into listening to other stuff.
Alexander: I have to listen to music. I can't go without it. But I'm not really into one thing right now.
I was wondering if there's things that you're into these days, non-music stuff.
Alexander: Yeah, I've been doing jujitsu. There's these things called the Ultimate Fighting Challenge Championships that's on like every three months and I'm really into watching those. It's a bunch of martial artists and they get together and fight. There's only one round and it's elimination. So everyone fights and the winner of those fights goes and fights the winner of other fights. It's just really cool. So I got turned onto jujitsu from a friend of mine and watching those. I like golf, which I've been playing for
How old are you?
Alexander: 30. Just turned 30 yesterday (April 10, 1995). So I just had a big birthday...went and tried some snow boarding and I like to shoot pool. I like to try and do a lot of things. Trying to find some stuff that I like to do that's fun. Seems like everything I do, I put stress on it, try and be real good at it. Only jujitsu's kind of new to me. New, I've never really done that. I've been doing jujitsu for about a year.
3. Primus Gets A Life
You guys took a break and each one's pursuing some other musical stuff as a way to express yourselves, that don't fit into the Primus thing.
Alexander: It worked like that. I had a friend and we just started jamming 'cause he played guitar. And I liked the way it sounded so we just went on with it and it was the Laundry stuff. But the Sausage stuff is early Primus. That came about because of being an early Primus thing. Les said he wanted a chance to make a record of the songs that otherwise would never be heard. And he did that. And Larry's doing another thing right now. It's pretty Larry-esque, pretty weird. Yeah, we did little things for whatever purpose they served.
Are you glad that Primus is working on stuff again?
Alexander: At times I feel it's good but at other times I feel like because of me being in Primus now, this other project with my friends... They have to sit back and not do anything. With Sausage, all the other members are in other groups. In this group, no one's in other groups. I kind of feel bad that they have to sit around.
Are you glad you did the Laundry album?
Alexander: Sometimes I think that, well, it might not have been that great an idea but I'm willing to do it for fun. We recorded it at my house. We did it totally by myself, on our own. No record companies, no recording studios. It sounded OK and it's been a long time coming. It was good to play outside of Primus. I get to get a little crazy in that band. They like me too.
What's the status of that?
Alexander: It's out and it's available if anybody wants to go pick it up.
Did you guys put it out yourself?
Alexander: It's through Les's label, Prawn Song. It's available. I don't know how visual it is in terms of advertising or record stores, but it should be out.
When was it released?
Alexander: Oh, four or five months ago.
Do you think you'll do another one?
Alexander: If everybody wants to. I just hate to see it kind of sit on a shelf in someone's office. If I'm going to do it, I want to have some people get behind it that like it.
Would you take Laundry on the road?
Alexander: I don't know. It could be fun touring. I'm not looking to make it the next Phil Collins project or anything like that. This one was kind of tough, in a way, to just get it released. Get distribution and get it out. I wish stuff like that would have came a lot easier. As individuals, we're not really that known. But as a group, Primus is pretty well known. Until I guess I have that much clout, you know, it's just going to be this way.
Primus is going to be out on the road for, like, a year. How do you feel about touring for an extended period of time?
Alexander: I'm actually trying to get in a real good mindset about it just because I want it to be good. We know we need to be on the road for awhile. Play different countries we never played yet, and that's fine. I think we're at a point where we found out that we can have fun, go play golf on tour, have fun but yet not have to stress so much on the music. Because once you play shit for awhile, you just get sick of it. You really start hating it. You lose the energy and the excitement just because you have to go do it. We try and make it fun. Even though we know we have to do it, it's never the same every night. That's what keeps it a little bit fresher. But we haven't played for awhile so we're all ready.
You mentioned to me earlier that Pork Soda felt like a darker album to you. Why do you think that was?
Alexander: I personally was feeling on the darker side at that time. Some of the songs were...I don't know why. It just depends on how everyone feels and maybe everyone was kind of in that mode.
What was going on?
Alexander: There's no pinpointing anything.
It wasn't like events or things happening that were contributing to it?
Alexander: No, I don't think so. We had done a lot of touring before that. It might have been a little soon. I don't know. I don't know if it was soon. But I think maybe there was still that staying away that we needed, to be away from it for awhile which we did on this record. We took a long time off.
When you recorded Pork Soda you guys were in different rooms some of the time.
Alexander: Yeah, we were in different warehouses, actually. We tried it when we were all in the same room and the separation wasn't happening, so we moved the instruments 'cause the drums had to be recorded acoustically. So we didn't want all the amps being blared into the drum channels. But we still wanted to play together. We were just doing it at the warehouse already. They're adjoining warehouses. They're pretty big and long but they're next to each other. So we had guitar in one, drums in the other and bass in the next one and vocals. We had phones. We didn't see each other. We just played. It
was kind of cool. A little weird but it was cool.
So you did most of the album like that?
Alexander: We did all of the album like that.
Well, that certainly wasn't the case this time.
Alexander: No. Me and Les were just sitting next to each other playing. A lot of the ideas that went to tape...we didn't even know how we were ending it or where changes were happening. We just kind of did it.
Where do you see Primus 10 years from now? Is Primus going to still exist?
Alexander: Don't know. Can't even answer. I don't think like that. I really don't. I'm just trying to worry about the near future, you know.
Are you married?
Alexander: No, I have a girlfriend.
Alexander: One with an ex-girlfriend. He lives in Arizona. He's almost five. A little weird.
Is he musically inclined, or do you know?
Alexander: Yeah. I got him a drum set when he was a year and a half and he could play it. That was scary. I couldn't believe it. I'm not exaggerating either.
What's his name?
Alexander: Johannes. You can hear kids just kind of hit things but I wasn't kidding, he could play a couple of beats. Beats. Where did you get that? Who showed you that? He just did it. It's weird but he just does it. Just kind of like me. I just do it. I'm self-taught too. He's good. He hasn't been playing much. There's no room right now where he lives but I'm gonna work on that.