THICK RIFFS, SWEET GROOVES AND RICH SOUNDS ARE THE SECRET INGREDIENTS OF PRIMUS’ NEWEST ODDROCK OUTING, THE BROWN ALBUM.
Nestled within a cluster of industrial shops and warehouses in suburban Marin County, California, is Prawn Song Designs, the computer graphics company and in-limbo record label run by Primus. It’s hard to imagine three hipster virtuosos blasting out freaky rehearsal licks in this inconspicuous nest, but it happens regularly. Upon entering Prawn Song --whose name is a contraction of Led Zepplin’s Swan Song label and Primus--I squeeze past a pileup of instruments and amps before meeting bassist/vocalist Les Claypool, 33, and guitarist Larry “Ler” LaLonde, 28. The two had just been working on the video for “Shake Hands with Beef,” one of 15 rockin’ tracks from Primus’ new Brown Album. The record is packaged to look like a candy bar, and, as Claypool reports, has absolutely “nothing to do with shit.”
Primus unleashes an eclectic barrage of sound hinting at fusion, art/techno, psychedelia, funk, hardcore punk and even country, but it’s a barrage too ecletic to be lumped into any one of these camps. While Sailing the Seas of Cheese, Pork Soda and Tales from the Punchbowl (all Interscope) were all high-voltage chop infestations voicing dark, Frank Zappa meets the Residents-like humor, the Brown Album adds an extra dose of groovy, funky bravado to the formula with songs that shake, rattle and roll; e.g., “Bob’s Party Time Lounge;””Hat’s Off,””Puddin’Taine,” and “Kalamazoo.”
Recorded at Claypool’s splendid home/studio, Rancho Relaxo, produced by the band and engineered by Claypool, the Brown Album was tracked and mixed using vintage analog equipment, an approach thats given the record a rich, fat feel. Those who obtain a limited edition, double vinyl copy, will enjoy the album from start to finish in an all-analog domain.
Claypool says the trio’s fresh outlook may be attributed in part, to the contribusions of new drummer Bryan “Brain” Mantia, formerly of the Limbomaniacs and a prominent studio musician. “He is unreal,” notes Claypool. “Often, the audience right at Brain while he’s playing. It looks like he’s mad at the drums... He’s like this hyperactive monkey someone stuck behind the kit.”
Mantia replaced long-time Primus drummer Tim “Herb” Alexander. As it turns out, Mantia is as much a Zappa head as LaLonde is (the two have occasionally played in a Zappa cover band for several years), and as a practice ritual, Mantia often bashes through the nearly impossible (to play and read) Zappa drum piece “The Black Page.” On the Brown Album, songs such as “Fisticuffs,””Restin’ Bones,” and “Arnie” showcase Mantia’s booming, Terry Bozzio meets John Bonham-like style, which represents a departure for Alexander’s Neil Peart-influenced drumming
Despite the changes, some things remain constant for Primus, namely Claypool’s Monstrous bass and cartoonish vocals --one of rocks most intriguing blends. Despite Claypool’s dynamic presence on the Brown Album, there’s still plenty of breathing room, or, as LaLonde says, “open space,” for the guitarist and Mantia to shift into high gear. But while intricate riffs and rhythms still leap out of the Primus labratory, Claypool stresses that it’s really “all about the emotion of the note as opposed to it’s technical correctness.”
GUITAR WORLD: While your instumental work sounds very contemporary--even avant garde--your lyrics tend to have a very timeless feel, “Fisticuffs” reads like an old book.
LES CLAYPOOL: T he backbeat of “Fisticuffs” put images in my head of punching, which led to the idea of writing a song about boxing. But I wasn’t seeing and images of a modern day boxer. I kept thinking about these old time fisticuff guys [puts up his dukes and sticks out his chin]. That led me to do a little research about nineteenth century boxing, which I was able to work into the lyrics.
GW: Do you often do research when writing lyrics?
CLAYPOOL: Not really. If I get to thinkin’ about stuff too much, it drives me nuts. It’s always been best when things kind of flow to me. And with “Fisticuffs,” the music itself put that image in my head.
GW: You guys aren’t big on writing love songs.
CLAYPOOL: My wife, Chaney, keeps asking me why I haven’t written a song about her. Jesus Christ, there are plenty of people on this planet writing love songs much better than I could. So I’ll put my thoughts elsewhere. But, who knows. We haven’t crossed that bridge yet.
LARRY “LER” LaLONDE: We’re basically a bunch of guys who are too scared to do that. We’d rather talk about football, race car driving and pro wrestling.
GW: Let’s talk about your influences. Progressive rock and jazz fusion come to mind immediately.
LaLONDE: Not so fast. I’ve always thought progressive rock was a horrible thing. Whoever plays it should be set on fire.
CLAYPOOL: Of course, when I was a young lad, I used to listen to Rush, Yes, and other groups. I was big on Stanley Clarke, the Dixie Dregs, all that stuff. I never got into ELP, though--they were a little too noodley for me. I went through stages where I imitated Larry Graham, Chris Squire, Geddy Lee and John Paul Jones. I was into all of that progressive stuff because you always try to suck up as many riffs and licks as you possibly can. But pretty much from age 22 on, I was done with it. Now I like things that move me without my having to think about them too much, whether it’s the Beatles or Tom Waits or Morphine. It doesn’t have to be technically great. In fact, a lot of times, technical ability hinders people in composition because they think too much.
LaLONDE: When many musicians start out and hear people who can play really fast, they also want to play really fast. but when you get to wher you can play all of your favorite song, the story changes.
GW: So what do you try for, instead?
CLAYPOOL: I get in trouble all the time for having the intonation being pretty sketchy on my fretless [ Carl Thompson six-string bass] work. But, that said, I’m not sure how much I want to improve. I like the sound of when I’m a quarter step off, or when it’s such a long slide or vibato that it’s just pulling and yanking at Ler’s notes or the vocals. It adds an element of of disaster, as well as elements of tension and irritation.
GW: What do you work on, Ler?
LaLONDE: Atmosphere. It’s pretty much what it’s all about. In some of our songs, the bass might move one way through the song, yet the mood and the texture often change through the guitar. It’s all about dynamics... Kind of like Def Leppard.
GW: Is the Brown Album less “technical” than other Primus albums?
CLAYPOOL: I would say yes, because of where we’re coming from with this new drummer. We’ve basically gone from a drummer who is more along the lines of Neil Peart and Bill Bruford to a guy who’s a cross between John Bonham, Terry Bozzio and Steve Jordan. That in itself has created a less busy sound. We approached this album differently, recording-wise, as well. We got some analog equipment and went sixteen-track as opposed to a zillion tracks, resulting in a nice, warm analog recording. It’s a much thicker-sounding album than anything we’ve done.
LaLONDE: There’s something about watching the reel-to-reel tape roll that makes you feel like you are doing something meaningful. People have this stereotypical view of a recording studio that includes a huge console, a million lights andtape rolling--you’d see that in a movie about recording.
GW: Did you need to move in a new direction?
CLAYPOOL: Obviously, in terms of personnel, we were having problems [with Alexander]--not that there was some horrible breakup or anything. It was a marriage that slowly came to an end, and when something takes that long to end, it brings you down. And now there’s this newness, this freshness. We’ve got a new guy in the band who is very humorous and unbelievably energetic--and his name is Brain, for Christ’s sake. It’s all translating very well. I haven’t had so much fun playing live in a long, long time.
LaLONDE: Plus our new drummer plays Ludwig Vista-Light drums, the old Lucite ones from the seventies. That’s what Bonham played. And they’re gigantic--the kick drums are 26 inches. they’re bigger than he is. He looks like the drummer from Hanson back there.
GW: As such a dynamic bass player, Les, do you find it challenging to leave room for the other two musicians?
CLAYPOOL: Primus is a three piece band, so everyone gets a pretty big piece of the pie, it works well for us. I did this Holy Mackerel thing [ Les Claypool and the Holy Mackerel Presents: Highball with the Devil. (Interscope)] last year, and stepped back to be one fourth of the instrumentation. When I was playing in a big band, I was one twentieth of the band. You should take your role accordingly. With Primus, there’s a lot of space to be filled in the audio spectrum.
GW: What is the source of the band’s humor?
CLAYPOOL: When we first entered on the scene, what was the big mainstream thing? It was like Warrant and Winger-- they were getting the respect, the airplay and the money. How can you step into that world and take yourself seriously? And there’s still a lot of that: same shit, different day. There’s lots of pretense in our business, and I don’t really want to be part of it. On a less conscious level, using humor is just my natural instinct.
LaLONDE: For some people, humor is a way of making a point without cramming it down people’s throats.
CLAYPOOL: It’s done all the time; satire has been around for centuries. It was feared by kings. Humor is just a big part of my life. It’s not like I’m some goofy clown bouncing down the street. I work my ass off, and there’s definitely a large level of stress in my life, so, for me, humor is a release. I come from an environment that’s always nurtured it. My family are all wise asses. Sometimes humor is used as a defense mechanism.
GW: To stand up to things?
CLAYPOOL: Precisely. Or to repel them. It prevented me from getting beat up as a kid. Instead I had the ability to make people laugh.
LaLONDE: “All right, let’s not kick his ass, he’s funny. But take his lunch money.” I was more of an outcast growing up because I was the only guy around with long hair, and one of the only people listening to heavy metal. Anyway, it’s always been my nature to be lighthearted--it takes the edge off things.
GW: How did Primus end up on the H.O.R.D.E. tour? You don’t strike me as part of that hippie rock crowd.
CLAYPOOL: Why the hell they got us on that bill is beyond me. [ LaLonde joins him in a laugh]. We got offered the H.O.R.D.E. festival a while ago, but we passed because the bill was very tame. I won’t say who was on it.
GW: What do you mean by “tame”?
CLAYPOOL: It was more pop-oriented, something my mom would go see. Then they came back with this bill that included Neil Young and Crazy Horse, and we were hooked. I saw them at the Cow Palace [in San Francisco] afew years ago, and it was one of the best big rock shows I’ve ever seen. Then suddenly, Morphine was on the bill, Beck was in the wings, and Squirrel Nut Zippers hopped on. We said, “Let’s do it.”
LaLONDE: It became a roster of bands we’d want to see. We just wanted to get in free. [ Laughs ]
GW: Who are your favorite vocalists?
CLAYPOOL: Tom Waits is amazing, and probably the best lyricist out there right now. He’s had a big impact on me, and I credit a lot of songs I’ve done to his influence. [ Waits joined Primus on “Tommy the Cat” on Sailing the Seas of Cheese.-- GW Ed. ] We actually did some recording with him last month, and that’s going to end up on a Jack Kerouac tribute [on Geffin]. It’s mostly a spoken word thing. A tape turned up of Jack singing songs he wrote, and it was given to Tom. He did a remake, on which we joined him.
LaLONDE: Any time you get to do something with Tom, it becomes very inspirational. It was a lot of fun sitting in a circle, and kind of learning the songs and recording them at the same time. A lot of my guitar work I’ve learned from listening to Tom’s records. And when Tom sings, you can tell it’s him.
GW: Les, your playing reminds me of bassist Tony Levin’s work with King Crimson and Peter Gabreil. Was he an influence?
CLAYPOOL: Tony Levin is probably my all time favorite bass player. His work with Peter Gabriel is amazing; Security is one of my favorite albums. In fact, I saw that tour three times and it ripped. And Tim, our old drummer, was very much a Bill Bruford-kind of player. A song like “Jerry was a Race Car Driver,” sounds a lot like King Crimson, with that Bruford-style drumming and me doing that tapping thing that almost sounds like a [Chapman] stick. The bass, for me, is a paintbrush. It’s the main way I express myself. But I’ve also been influenced by a lot of drummers, too, like [the Police’s] Stewart Copeland. Often when seeing a band, I’ll watch the drummer before paying attention to anybody else. I also love playing drums. All this is may explain why I take a percussive approach to the bass. I think you reflect what you’re influenced by, and in my case, it doesn’t necessarily have to be bass players. One of my biggest influences is Mark Ribot, a guitar player who’s done work with Tom Waits. He has changed my playing philosophy probably more than anyone else in the past 10 years.
GW: How difficult was the Brown Album to record?
LaLONDE: It was a snap. It was sunny all the time and we felt good.
CLAYPOOL: But our studio assistant--we won’t say his name--kept blowing these horrible farts, and that was probably the worst thing. There was this thickness in the air all the time.
LaLONDE: I was underneath, patching a cable, and suddenly there were these horrible fumes.
GW: Les, why didn’t you use the six-string fretless bass on the Brown Album?
CLAYPOOL: I didn’t think any songs needed it. When I play the fretless, I tend to go into, I hate to see it, an Eastern mode--’cause I’m not Mr. Eastern music guy. But I use it when I hear and feel this sliding in and out of notes, and that quarter-step toney sound--like not necessarily going whole or even half steps, but kind of in between, and [ makes a mooing sound ] rocking back and forth. And that tends to be in more moody songs.
GW: What did you use?
CLAYPOOL: I mostly used my fretted six-string--because it had this punchy sound--an electric upright bass that I bought years ago at a pawn shop, the regular four-string bass, and an Italian fiddle bass.
GW: Ler, what guitars did you use most?
LaLONDE: Mostly my main axe, a Paul Reed Smith. On one song, I used the 79’ Strat that I’ve had forever, and I also used Les’ Epiphone Zephur, which is a great-sounding hollow box guitar.
GW: Ler, I detect some Eastern and other exotic influences in your guitar work.
LaLONDE: Yes, some of the scales tend to show that. Joe Satriani showed me some things that he considered Eastern. He was my guitar teacher for about two years, beginning when I was about 14. He was kind of known around Berkeley. At the time, Eddie Van Halen was considered the best guitar player, and I heard that this guy was better than Eddie.
GW: What advantages are ther to recording at Rancho Relaxo?
CLAYPOOL: It saves a lot of money. We spent four months on this record, so it would have been very expensive recording in the studio. With Primus, it’s often about saving the buck because of the type of music we play. That’s the folly of a lot of bands. If you’re writing songs like Silverchair or Stone Temple Pilots do, and tap into that mainstream, then you can spend all the record company’s money and have fun. But if you’re doing something different, you have to watch the pennies. We’ve been able to do what we’ve done by being cost effective. People get nervous when you spend a lot of their money, especially if there isn’t a big return. So we spend a little of their money and have a modest return. If you’re opening a McDonalds, the market is there. If you’re opening a gourmet tofo dog stand, you have to be a little more conservative.