"Hey, what's goin' on up ahead?" cackles Mr. Claypool from behind the wheel of his monster pickup. "A little donkey-in-the-road action! That's the coolest thing. I gotta talk to this guy." As he says this, Les leans across my lap and rolls down the passenger-side window while swinging the truck up alongside the animal and its keeper, an unsuspecting teen who has probably never met an MTV-approved rock star on this lonely stretch of Northern California backroad.
"Is that your donkey?" Les yells.
"Uh, no." The kid grins sheepishly. "It's my neighbor's." Not exactly the hippest answer, and he knows it.
"Cool," Claypool nods. "Well, take it easy, man!" The window goes up and we speed away. "Now, how's about listenin' to some music?"
Les wants you to know one thing: "This definitely isn't Primus." Sure, Les Claypool & the Holy Mackerel Present Highball with the Devil isn't an offering from alternative rock's resident Wizards of Odd--but it's definitely pure, uncut Claypool. No one else sings about inclement weather and lawn ornaments with such panache, few possess his in-studio daring, and nobody--but nobody--plays bass like Les.
"Of course it's gonna sound a bit like Primus," he allows, "'cause I'm two quarters of Primus--the vocals and the bass. But
Primus is all three of us bringing together what we each do individually; it's much more of a cooperative. This record is me
saying, `Here--listen to this song and play something that fits with my idea.'"
Among Claypool's ideas is a steadfast commitment to recording a casa. "It's going to become more and more common," he
predicts, "because these days you can have ProTools and ADATs in your home. I mean, our last Primus album was done at
my house. Prince has been doing it for years--making albums out of jams. A lot of people feel they have to go into a big studio
and do a big serious thing for it to be good.
"On the other hand," he muses, "this isn't necessarily a record aimed at selling a lot of units, you know? I see it as more of a
Brian Eno or solo David Byrne-type of thing--stuff that's fun for me. I hope some other people will like it, too."
Last winter, Les took advantage of a touring and recording break from Primus to startsifting through his mountain of accumulated basement tapes. Made up mostly of self-produced freak-outs and impromptu jams with buddies, the tapes spanned several years. "I had all these songs that were recorded at various times and in various states, Les recalls with a grin. "I'd always talked about releasing 'em on an album called From the Corn--after my Corn Studio--but I had to change that 'cause the band Korn came along. I started workin' on the tapes again last year when we had a little downtime because of the baby. [Ed. Note: Les and his wife, Chaney, have a beautiful new son.] I got way into it and wrote a bunch of new songs, so only three of the old tunes ended up on the record. There's a bunch of old stuff I just couldn't use; I have some great tapes of
me jamming with [Faith No More drummer] Mike Bordin and [Metallica guitarist] Kirk Hammett, but the mix is really bad and
it wouldn't do those guys justice. So the album ended up being pretty much a new record."
Setting up shop in the guest-house-cum-home-studio of Rancho Relaxo--his spacious, "Wayne Newton meets Mike
Brady"-style spread in the idyllic rolling hills of Northern California--Les began by working up grooves and rolling tape. "A lot of these songs started with me and Jay Lane just jamming," he explains. "Jay's my favorite drummer on the planet, so whenever
we get together we tend to have a pretty good time. We just laid down a bunch of grooves, and when one of 'em sounded
cool, I'd hit RECORD and we'd lay it out for a few minutes. Then we'd shut it off and say, `That was cool. Let's do a different
With rhythm tracks in place, Les summoned several stellar sidemen--all old friends, of course--and told 'em to go nuts. "I've
known Les since he was a teenager, and he hasn't changed that much," quips guest guitarist Joe Gore (PJ Harvey, Tom
Waits). "He has more than a little Saturday morning cartoon-show host in him. Plus, he has the most extraordinary
free-thinking, do-it-yourself ethic in the studio I've ever encountered. He goes strictly by what sounds good to him--whether
it's achieved with some very expensive, sophisticated piece of gear or some junk from Radio Shack. He encouraged all of us
to just freak out."
Guitarist/electric-saw virtuoso M.I.R.V. seconds that emotion. "I just played what I felt like playin'," he says. "It was one of the cooler recording situations I've been in. Les offered some direction because obviously they're his tunes, but there was none of the `big studio, time is money' pressure that makes it hard to concentrate. I'm another big proponent of the
technology that makes it affordable to bring large-studio quality into the practice room. It lets you relax and get weird tracks done--which is what we did!" Other guests include jazz-funk 8-string guitar whiz Charlie Hunter and spoken-word maestro/publishing magnate/angry young man Henry Rollins.
For an insider's peek into the weirdness, how 'bout we let Les do the talking as we cruise the NorCal coast in Captain Shiner's
supertruck with the new music blasting? The rest of you can just sit back, relax, and grab yerself a can o' pork soda as the
Holy Mackerel's fearless leader offers his insights into Highball with the Devil.
"Running the Gauntlet"
This first song is just a little thing I was strumming on acoustic guitar; then I went in and laid bass and drums on top of it. That's
how a lot of this stuff came together--just me layering things as I went along.
Why'd you put it first?
I don't know. It's short, and I just liked the way it goes right into "Holy Mackerel." Also, it sets a theme in a way--you know,
[deep, menacing voice] running ... the ... gauntlet. [Laughs.]
Jay Lane plays drums on this; he's my hero. I play a lot of drums on the record, and he's the guy I always emulate. Joe Gore
plays the rhythm guitar parts. He came over with this wacky pedal--Joe's the king of old, knick-knacky guitar toys--and when
he whipped out this box, he started in with that binka-banka-bink stuff. At first I wasn't too attracted to it. I loved the sound,
but I thought it sounded kinda like a keyboard. I'd hate for people to think it's a synthesizer or something, you know? But then
he played that little arpeggiated lick over there on the side [points to right speaker], and it really grew on me. We just left a
big hole for M.I.R.V. to come in and blast somethin' into it, and he did a fine job.
I'm playing my Carl Thompson fretted 6-string; I play it a lot when I jam with Jay. That's the story with many of these tunes.They start with a groove from me and Jay, and then somebody comes in and fills in things on top. This was the first one we laid down.
Did you spend much time chasing new bass tones?
The tone on each song began with the bass itself. I record direct--it's just cleaner and easier, and you have much more
control--and I run through an ADA MB-1 preamp. So usually I just grab a bass and plunk around as I hit a bunch of different
settings until I find one I like. But it has to sound good with that particular bass. The actual bass is more important than the
"Highball with the Devil"
This song started with just the guitar part. At first, I wanted a little double-time country kind of thing, but then I ended up
putting half-time drums on it, and it became this sort of P-Funk groove. To lay down these guitar parts, I just stuck a mike in
front of this 1930s Gibson arch-top I have.
That's quite a drum sound.
The drums were fun; I recorded 'em really late at night, so I had to play really soft. My neighbors are cool and everything, and
they're pretty far away--but it was late and I didn't want to freak 'em out [chuckles mischievously]. It turned out to be one of
the biggest drum sounds I've ever gotten. [Laughs.] It's one mike! A lot of the drums I play on the record are recorded with
just one mike, so it's all very room-oriented. I'm much more of a room-miker than I am a close-miker.
Is this the Eko bass?
Yeah, it's an Eko Fiddle Bass [see photo, page 38]--the same one as on "Running the Gauntlet." I love it; I've used it only
every now and then with Primus, but I used it with Sausage [his side project with Jay Lane and guitarist Todd Huth]. I played it
all over this record.
At what point did you add the bass to this song?
It was actually the last thing I did. It was hard comin' up with a bass part for this song, 'cause I wanted it to be sparse. That's
why I ended up playing this little melody thing. Most of my melodies come from the vocal--you know, from my head--but I
write stuff like this on my bass. I'll start playing and just see what feels good to me. One of the most melodic things I ever
wrote is that little country tune we did on Tales from the Punchbowl called "De Anza Jig," and that was written on bass. I
mean, my bass is my paintbrush. That's where I always start.
I actually began this song with the bass; then I laid down the drums over it. I used the Fiddle Bass again, and then I put an
electric upright, made by Ned Steinberger, over the top of that as well.
I've never heard you play surf music.
This was never meant to be a surf thing. I was going for a sort of eerie, loping, Tom Waits-ish thing; then M.I.R.V. came in
and turned it into a whole different deal, which was amazing. He was definitely blowing me away.
Here's some more stuff I did with one of my electric uprights. I think I'm runnin' it through the ADA preamp with distortion. I
don't really remember.
My notes for this song say simply, "Please explain."
[Laughs.] Yeah? Well, let's see. There are two basses, and then the drums and the vocals. I laid down that low, distorted bass
part--that boowwm--and then I just did a two-finger-tapping thing with my fretted 6-string on the backbeat. Then I added
some more upright over the top of all that.
A lot of this stuff didn't start out with me saying, "Hey, I'm gonna write a song"--it's me just havin' fun and screwin' around.
Then maybe some lyric will come and it becomes a song. I've got tons of stuff like this that just never became anything. There
are all kinds of fuck-ups and blemishes on these tapes; I mean, there are songs where you can hear the phone ringing in the
I'm just playing a really simple bass line here; all that other stuff is M.I.R.V. makin' weird noises with his guitar. When I finished
laying down the drums for that last song, I started playing this double-time thing. It's just a short little tune I ended up adding
stuff to, and it became this weird thing. Then M.I.R.V. came over and made it even weirder [laughs].
That's Jay Lane on drums again; his playing on this song is unbelievable. I'm very picky when it comes to drummers. I mean,
Primus has had eight drummers. There have been some good ones--but since I'm a student of the drums, that's definitely where I'm the pickiest. It's rare to find a drummer who can easily reinforce the groove and still do tasty, interesting things.
Um, what's that?
Oh, check this out--it's M.I.R.V. bowing a hand saw! [Points to right speaker and cracks up.] That's actually M.I.R.V. talking into the pickup of his saw! There's only one track of bass; it's my fretted 6-string.
This is Henry Rollins on this one. I'm playing my fretted 6-string again, but I'm just doing a one-handed thing with my left
hand--not really using my right at all--so there's a really sharp attack to what I'm playing. It's a real bassy song; the guitar part
is just me runnin' through a tiny G-K bass amp with a mike in front of it.
Henry's an interesting fellow.
He's a great guy. We did the Sausage tour with him and had a really good time; that was one of my favorite tours. Of course, if
he's irritated at you, he lets you know. [Laughs.] He's got a good sense of humor, though.
Henry Rollins is, except for our soundman, the hardest-working guy I know. I thought I was a hard worker, but he just blows
my mind. I checked out his book company and hung out at his house one day, and the amount of work he takes on, and the
level of responsibility he has in so many different things, is just unreal. I asked him about it, and he just said, [in Terminator
voice] "I have a large hard drive." I talked to him the other day and said, "Hey, I've got this great place in the country. Anytime
you want to come up and relax and hang out, gimme a call." He's all, "Hah--that ought to be in about two-and-a-half years!"
He's an achiever all right.
Did he tape his vocals and send them to you?
Yeah. I'm always trying to accumulate stuff--bits and pieces from TV or whatever, that I can put music to. So I told Henry I
was making this record, and he sent me a tape. It's just him reading, spoken-word-style, but he sent it as one long, running
thing, and I had to place the pieces where I wanted them in the song. Since I don't have a sampler, I recorded his parts straight
from a cassette player, off the tape he sent me. It was pretty primitive: hit the button, hit PAUSE, hit the button, hit PAUSE.
This is the greatest song ever written for bass guitar! It's a bass-and-drums duet by Otis Redding's son Dexter.
Yes! I don't think anybody knows about it. In the '70s, Otis's two sons had a band called the Reddings, and they had a song
that was kind of popular on the radio. My friend was puttin' on a dance at school, and he had the single. "The Awakening" was
the B-side, and he said, "You've got to hear this!" He played it for me and I went, "Aaahhh!" I mean, I just freaked out.
I bought the album immediately. Of course, there's nothing else on there that's even remotely like this, but I learned this song. I was never one of those guys who sat down and learned songs note-for-note, you know? All my friends could learn Rush licks,
but I would figure 'em out only if I stumbled across 'em. I still don't have this song down note-for-note, but I did it as best as I
could. I guess there's actually a couple of basses on the original version--but still, it's unreal.
It sounds as if you got more from this song than just licks.
Definitely--it was one of the most influential tunes for me as a bass player. Besides the technique, the way Dexter approached
the song blew my mind. We all had our funky little licks and tricks, but he's playing all this melodic stuff and thumpin' it up. It's
amazing. [Pauses to listen and points to the speaker during sliding root-5th-major 3rd lick.] Like that lick right there ...
and right here. [Sings along with stuttering thumb lick.]
I actually used to play this song in high school, with an old drummer friend, and I had always wanted to record it. Jay and I
learned it about three years ago for this benefit jam we did; then when he came over one day to work on this record, I said,
"Well, you're gonna have to learn `The Awakening' again." There's nobody else I could have done it with. I played my regular
old Carl Thompson 4-string, and we just laid it down. I'm sure all the Primus-heads will be trying to figure this one out!
Do you still listen to your old '70s funk records?
Oh, yeah. I love all my old music--I was listening to some Isley Brothers and Bar-Kays the other day. I listen to a lot of new
music and go, "Yeah, it's cool--[in cranky old man voice] but I know the original stuff!" And I'm sure guys from the '60s
would say that to me. So we all have our little generation, and that's what creates the generation gaps and makes us the old
It's funny. Primus always gets pegged as this punk-funk thing, but Herb [Alexander] isn't a funk drummer, and Ler [Lalonde,
guitarist] never even listened to that stuff. Actually, I'm the only guy in the band who's funky at all!
I recorded this one in my little Berkeley apartment bedroom at least five years ago. I was using my old Tascam 388
reel-to-reel, which is still one of the best-sounding devices I've ever come across. I guess we stuck a mike in front of the TV,
'cause there was a sample of this Michael Palin comedy thing on it. But I couldn't get clearance to use it, so I had to redo all
the vocals. I'm still working on the clearance, though--so someday there might be a B-side with Michael Palin on it.
What's going on with all the bass parts?
The clean, tapping part is my Carl Thompson fretless 6-string; I had just gotten the bass, and I was still experimenting with it.
Then I ran another channel of it through some really thick preamp distortion.
What about the horrendous-sounding upright?
That sound? [Laughs.] That's just my pawnshop electric upright running through a Big Muff and into the board.
Oh, of course.
"George E. Porge"
Joe Gore's guitar playing here is truly great. I played the distorted guitar part, just to fill it up a little.
Nice rubber-band bass tone.
Yeah, I love that sound. The Eko is great for those total McCartney boo-doo-doot triplets. You know, a lot of bassist friends
of mine don't appreciate Paul's playing as much as they should; they say, "Aaah, McCartney--he's just a guitar player playing
bass." But he was a brilliant bassist. His phrasing was phenomenal, and it set the stage for so many things people have done
since. The bass line from "Taxman" [Revolver, Capitol] always pops into my head; I love that. Paul gets so much credit for his
songwriting, but the bass mixes and tones on those Beatles albums are amazing, too. That's why Oasis and all those other
bands are rippin' 'em off now! [Laughs.]
"El Sobrante Fortnight"
This sounds like two basses, but it's just me on the fretted 6-string; the other low, whaaa-sounding part is M.I.R.V. on guitar.
He plays two guitar parts here. When we were listening back, he was really worried about some of the leads he played--but
right when I heard 'em I knew they were perfect.
The bass part is unique. It sounds like you, but . . . .
Yeah, I know. In fact, we were jamming yesterday and I was having a hard time figuring out that part; I couldn't remember
what I had done, and it just didn't feel like something I would play. It's weird, because this record is made up of grooves and
licks that just came to me naturally at the time. But yesterday I was like, "Wait a minute--that can't be. I would never do that!"
So it took me a while, but I think I've got it. [Laughs.] Hopefully.
People are going to think this is your life story.
Of course, but how autobiographical is anything, really? There's a little bit of me in everything I write.
Everyone used to think you were "John the Fisherman."
[Grins.] Well, I caught a 24-pound salmon last week, so . . . .
"Granny's Little Lawn Gnome"
I don't know how this came about. Somehow the yard-gnome concept got stuck in my head, and it seemed interesting. That
clickety-clickety guitar part is all me; it's my Leo Nocentelli ripoff.
For the most part, you play very straight-forward bass on this.
Right. It's the fretted 6-string, and it started out way more intricate--but it got too busy, so I changed it. I began with the
drums, and I was playing this total Jay Lane-type thing. [Sings syncopated, funk drum part.] Then I laid this [sings frantic,
slapping/popping bass line] part over the top of it. When I had the rhythm tracks down, I added the guitar and vocals--and
the guitar part came out so interesting I felt as if everything else was cluttering it up.
"Me and Chuck"
This is Charlie Hunter; his guitar part changed the whole song around. He played regular 6-string guitar, too--he just grabbed
my little Epiphone Zephyr, a '59 or '61.
What are you and Jay saying at the end?
This was the second groove Jay and I did, and we didn't really like it, so we're saying we thought it was kinda weak. But by
the time Charlie came up to record, all the good tunes had been taken by M.I.R.V. and Joe--so we said, "Well, Charlie,
there's this one leftover here . . . ." [Laughs.] Somehow, he made it feel really good.
This is another one of those songs I recorded five years ago, with the microphone up to the TV and the whole bit. It was
recorded on the same day as "Precipitation," so it's my fretless 6-string. The distortion I'm using here is a cool effect called a
Systech Harmonic Energizer, which lets you select the specific frequency you want to distort. Frank Zappa used to use it.
What's that fuzzy tremolo part in the background?
That's my pawnshop electric upright again. I'm bowing it back and forth really fast and running it through some distortion.
That's how you get that szhhh, szhhh, szhhh.
Somehow, this old stuff sounds cool next to the newer songs.
I think so. The whole thing is really enjoyable for me to listen to, because of the way the songs were recorded--over such a
long period and with totally different layouts for each one. Of course, it was a bitch to mix! [Laughs.] Consistency is always
the key to mixing, but on this one I had no choice. The final product is pretty interesting to me, but it was tough gettin' there.
So now do you have a bunch of "new" old stuff?
Oh, yeah; I have so much material leftover I might make another record. It depends on the Primus schedule, of course. [Sly
grin.] But if I'm just sittin' around . . . .