Primus Merges Walt Disney with Dr. Seuss
by Tom Lanham
Les Claypool doesn't call his home "Rancho Relaxo" for nothing. Cruise about an hour out of San Francisco, over the Golden Gate Bridge, past Sebastapol, past tiny Occidental, turn left on this blacktop, right on that gravel road. Zoom past breezy pastures populated with sheep, cows, horses, even a lazy llama; keep going until the only life signs are the hungry hawks and buzzards circling quietly overhead. At the end of an, ahem, long and winding road, lies a Mediterranean style ranch house that looks like something straight out of Big Valley. Pulling up in the drive, beside a giant trailer-rigged boat, you're half-tempted to holler "Nick! Heath! Jarrod! Where's Audra?" The spread is really that impressive.
Golf-related gear is strewn by the driveway, along with a Whackmaster archery target. "Squirrel Crossing," warns a sign posted along the sidewalk. Inside, the architecture is '60s-showy, although Claypool affectionately terms it "very Wayne Newton." There's a sunken living room, a loft bedroom, several fireplaces, and a large wet bar, upon which rests a plaster devil's head under glass. The walls--either brick or rich mahogany paneling--are decorated in an early Dekalb motif with pictures of corn hanging everywhere. Out back, through sliding glass doors, is a pool, two
gazebo-sized guest houses, and a fishing pond. To make it to the guest houses, you must take your chances with Corn and Capone, two unusually strong, psychotically affectionate yellow Labradors who--while pretending to sleep--are actually awaiting new victims on the porch. One good paws-to-your-chest leap from either of these crafty canines is enough to knock the wind out of you.
Clearly, Rancho Relaxo is an acquired taste--maybe even dangerous to your health.
But to Claypool--the 31-year-old musician known for playing both the bass and the buffoon with his eccentric funk-pop trio, Primus--it's home, sweet home. But don't grab a pillow and blanket and plan on bunking there overnight--both shacks are otherwise occupied--one with a pool table, the other with amps, basses, guitars, a drum kit, and several computers which whir with artificial life on a cluttered work desk. Welcome to the latest
location of the Corn, Claypool's formerly Berkeley-based home studio. It's where Primus wrote and recorded most of their latest Interscope mental escapade, "Tales From the Punch Bowl," and where Claypool is currently crouching, busily coloring in his own screen-scanned cartoon of a scrawny, pointy-haired, buck-toothed little girl pushing a stroller. Inside the stroller is an even goofier-looking rodent--also bearing a set of protruding
choppers--with an excited expression on its brown, furry mug.
The sketch reveals a lot of life--and a lot of talent. The animal actually appears to be enjoying its little pram ride. A series of some 15-odd other computer-tinted cartoons are represented by individual icons on another Macintosh screen. So, just what is the always- unpredictable Claypool up to this time? "You know, it's just aÉbigÉ brownÉbeaver!" he explains, setting down his metal airbrush and bleating out one of his trademark "A-heh, heh" cackles (a trait that got him voted "Best Laugh" back in high
school). It may look like clowning, but this art is serious. In fact, Primus axeman Larry "Ler" Lalonde did the actual animation for the video (using Claypool's drawings) of "Wynona's Big Brown Beaver," the first manic single from "Punch Bowl." Its lyrics, sung in yet another of the singer's playful cartoon-ish personas while his slap 'n' pluck bass keeps time, are pushing the nonsensical (and double entendres) even for Primus: "Wynona's got herself a big brown beaver/And she shows him off to all her friends/but one day you know that beaver tried to leave her/So she put him in a cyclone fence." Claypool's machine-gun delivery borders on rap, a tension broken by Lalonde's jazzy passages and a yee-haw yodeling bridge.
No hint of embarrassment crosses Claypool's equally animated features as, grinning mischievously, he explains the potentially controversial track. "It was one of those things that just popped into my head one day, and it became a song. But of course, I couldn't resist the pun! A-heh, heh," he cackles again gleefully. Then he points to the screen. "Obviously, we're playing up the more mammal aspect of the beaver. And Wynona is whoever you want it to be, purely fiction." He places another drawing on the scanner, and a picture of the same stroller--this time with two of the lovable little tree-gnawers squished in--flickers onto the Mac, sans color. Two beavers? Claypool sighs, rolls his eyes, then slowly repeats more of the song's witty wordplay: "Because she 'Stuck him up in the air/Said I sure do love my big brown beaver/I wish I did have a pair!' And that's the pair!" Nope. Can't argue with that logic. No sir.
In a weird way, this whole offbeat scenario makes perfect Primus sense. Scan through Claypool's video collection, and you'll find Mighty Mouse anthologies, Tex Avery collections, several Disney classics, even Don Bluth's awkward Disney rip-off, "The Secret of N.I.M.H." (he whips around in his swivel chair at any "N.I.M.H." slagging with a defensive "Whaddaya talkin' about! Whaddaya sayin' about "The Secret of N.I.M.H."? It has sentimental value to me!"). Watch him comically leaping, mugging, and gesturing with his group in concert, or listen to the wacky slew of Hanna-Barbera perfect voices he assumes with each new number, especially on the band's last two gold-selling releases, "Sailing the Seas of Cheese" and "Pork Soda." The truth becomes as clear as those inserted human mouths on old "Clutch Cargo" episodes--this guy is himself a cartoon, an artist who takes neither himself nor the music business in which he operates too seriously--and, by doing so, has won the respect of other like-minded individuals, aka Primus fans. In the "Punch Bowl" CD booklet, Claypool and cronies are featured in penguin costumes, huddled together on an ice floe. For the live-action portion of the "Beaver" video, they've donned prosthetic replicas of themselves (a la that annoying
battery commercial) and ride into the frame on mechanical supermarket horses. Why?
"We put on penguin suits because we think it's funny, and if some people think it's stupid, then they think it's stupid," says Claypool, suddenly getting serious. "But there's a whole hunk of people out there who look at the world a little offcenter the way we do who'll maybe identify with that. I think Primus appeals to the kid who's maybe like I was, or how Ler was, when we were in high school. We didn't really fall in with the trends. I didn't listen to Sammy Hagar when everyone else was listening to Sammy Hagar. I didn't wear the same clothes everyone else wore. And I think that's who our audience is--kids in school who have a different perspective
on things than the majority."
When Primus was piecing together their "Pork Soda" disc two years ago--penning surreal murky melodies like "My Name Is Mud" and "Welcome To This World"--Claypool, Lalonde, and drummer Tim "Herb" Alexander worried that their previous records and previous exploits had maybe painted them as cartoons. "We got tired of being the 'goofballs,' the 'wacky guys.' So we made "Pork Soda," which turned out to be a bit of a darker record for us," remembers Claypool, its prime composer. "But on
this one, we just said, 'Fuck it! We're doing what we do, and people are gonna perceive us however in the hell they're gonna perceive us.'" "Punch Bowl" was penned as a group effort and--like the upcoming "Wynona's Big Brown Beaver" clip--was self-produced and even self-engineered. All told, it drained the Primus bank account of a not-so-whopping $5,000. And many of those expenses were generated by a rented generator, due to the
constant downing of power lines by freakish spring floods.
"Tales From the Punch Bowl" certainly sounds like Primus unleashed. It opens with a staggering salvo of frenetic fretwork from the Lalonde/Claypool tag team, "Professor Nutbutter's House of Treats," which jitters by so fast and takes off on so many sonic tangents, you barely notice its seven-minute length. ("That one's kinda hard to play, especially live, because after playing at that pace for only three minutes, your wrist starts to fall off," quips Lalonde.) In snappy lyrical patter, Claypool plays a carnival barker, luring kiddies to a rather dubious, almost Hansel and
Gretel-ish snack haven. Next comes "Mrs. Blaileen," propelled on an undulating bassline and telling the sneered story of a "6th grade
teacher/And she controlled the children/By using humiliation." Vocals leapfrog from the guitar cascades, which tumble over the riffs, which in turn prod the words along--sort of like a giant inchworm from hell. An autobiographical nugget? Claypool shrugs, does a hasty Bugs Bunny: "Ehhhh, could be. In most of the songs, the names have been changed to protect the innocent. Uh, or to protect me from lawsuits!"
But not all the names have been changed. There's the surreal, banjo-plucked hoe-down, "De Anza Jig," in which a hillbilly-inflected Claypool reminisces on real-life characters from his El Sobrante childhood and--as an added bonus--the gastronomic merits of a meal at Taco Bell. (And the carpeted Corn studio is, sure enough, littered with empty cups and Mexi-melt wrappers from said fast food joint.) Another thumping cut, "Del Davis Tree Farm," thematically honors the older gentleman who sold the bassist his Christmas tree last year. Put mildly, it ain't no "O Tannenbaum." How does Del feel about this? "Well, I guess we'll find out!" says Claypool, merrily. "I mean, it's all positive, no negative references whatsoever. He'll probably sell some more trees out of it."
Ask Claypool about the inspiration for this and other sundry
tracks, including "Southbound Pachyderm," "Glass Sandwich," or "Year of the Parrot," and his response, more often than not, is an offhand, "It just popped into my head, it got a few laughs, so it became a song." In itself, that's an irony. To hang out with Primus is to be struck by the complete normalcy of these Rush- and Zappa-influenced musicians. Apart from that madcap laughter, the only thing wild about Claypool is his new hair-color--straw blond. He's dressed in workboots, T-shirt, and sweatpants, and a miniature silver fishing reel hangs from a chain around his neck. His one concession to the rock 'n' roll lifestyle seems to be that he hasn't shaved for a few days--a quasi-goatee is starting to take root on his chin. Lalonde--an affable fellow who's always smiling--has a short bobbed 'do, and is dressed unassumingly in tennis shoes, T-shirt, and black jeans. It's hard to imagine him being chased home from school every afternoon by four-wheel drive rednecks, but he swears the story is true. Like Claypool, he didn't follow El Sobrante fashion tips and grew his hair
Rapunzel-long when other kids were snipping it punk-short. "But they never caught me," he points out. "That's 'cause you ran like a rabbit!" Claypool chides.
There's a rapport between the two that's damn near brotherly.
The phone rings. Claypool grabs his portable, discovers that it's an Interscope-organized conference to discuss his next project--a Primus CD-ROM--and suddenly switches into business mode. He demands information; he wants to know about profit and loss and the financial feasibility of the disc. Watching him pace back and forth, chatting busily, you begin to picture him in a two-piece suit, wheeling and dealing in some spacious financial district office. It could work. After all, this is the same man who--with his manager, David Lefkowitz--started his own "vanity" label, Prawn Song Records, a company dedicated to exposing other underdog musical visionaries from the Bay Area. When Claypool refers to
the company as "just a means for an act to put out a CD and have it be in stores," it's definitely an understatement. For the Charlie Hunter Trio, one Prawn Song disc led to glowing press coverage and a contract with Blue Note Records. Other label artists like MIRV, Porch, and Eskimo have yet to fare as well, but their albums--thanks to distribution from Mammoth--are indeed in the stores, and Interscope has right-of-refusal dibs on all of them. (Hence, Interscope's release of Claypool's Sausage package last year, "Riddles Are Abound Tonight.")
"Now Ler and I are doing Prawn Song Designs. It's named after the label because all the artwork for the album is pretty much me and Larry, with Adam Gates doing some stuff," says Claypool, switching to a third drawing--a bow-legged, cowboy-hatted hayseed representing "Wynona" cast member Rex, "a Texan outta New Orleans" circus owner who attempts a beaver kidnapping. How did jack-of-all-trades Claypool become so skilled with a pen, er, computer wand? He traces it all back to his childhood. "I grew up on Walt Disney and Dr. Seuss, and all that wonderful stuff, and that's probably what molded me into who I am more than anything."
A mention of the Rankin/Bass animation in the Christmas-special perennial, "Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer," really gets him going. "Oh yeah! With Burl Ives! It's sad--Burl died recently. And, of course, whenever they'd re-release some Disney film to the theater, we'd go to the drive-in with the folks and sit in the back of the ol' '54 Chrysler--we called it the Green Bomb. And I was small enough that they had to put the armrest down in back so I could sit on the armrest and watch the movie. And I used to get out of doing work in my fourth grade class by drawing cartoons for the teacher for some sort of cupcake sale or whatever. Me and Peggy Higgenbothum--we were the two who could draw, so we'd get out of studying and it'd piss all the other kids off, because we'd be sitting in the front of the class, drawing cartoons."
In high school, the fledgling cartoonist scuttled into his next medium. "I made a couple of super-8 movies--one was "The Dog That Ate Detroit." It was my St. Bernard terrorizing Detroit and eating people. We'd stand there like this and make a face," Claypool stares in horror at the ceiling, waving his arms in front of him. "Then we'd cut to the dog running toward the camera. And then there'd be clothes tossed in the air, and, for the next scene, we got these giant cow knuckles and bones--he'd bury 'em, and that was supposed to be the remains. It was low-budget. And I also did some animation stuff, some claymation where all the superheroes were summoned together to go after the arch- enemy, a guy called the Itch." The villain's calling card? Claypool looks embarrassed for a second. "He, uh, made people itch..."
And now, computers. Claypool sighs with exasperation--he's trying to erase a pointy braid from Wynona's distorted-Lisa Simpson head, and it isn't working. "I have not mastered the computer," he declares. "The computer has mastered me. I've always avoided the whole computer thing, mainly because I knew it would absorb my life. But a lot of the stuff--like the airbrushing I'm doing right now--is easy for me, because I airbrushed all the Primus covers, all the pigs and sculptures. I've airbushed for a long time. Alvin Petty taught me how to airbrush--he's a local artist who's done a lot of heavy metal album covers, and he was my roommate years ago. We used to get stoned and play with the airbrush. So for doing all this cover art stuff, me and Ler were just sitting around till three in the morning every night, 10 hours a day, just burnin' away. It was kind of like a crash course in computers."
After all of its songs were scripted, the new album was titled "Tales From the Punch Bowl" because Claypool came to see it as "a collection of stories, so it was theoretically 'Tales From' something. But the punch bowl gave interesting ideas for visuals--a spiked punch bowl, a turd in the punch bowl. The punch bowl could be all-encompassing. We're all in the punch bowl--it's kinda like the big potpourri!"
Stylistically, he adds, Primus has a unique way of working. "We can all play our instruments pretty well, but as far as the way we approach our music, it's very casual. I think we could sit down and really impress some musicians with some loud, weird, intricate stuff--we have the ability to do that." Here comes that raucous cackle again. "But I just think that stuff is so boring. To me, what we can get spontaneously is more exciting, just catching each other off guard. It's more exciting to hear Herb play through something that he doesn't really know instead of something that he does know."
Primus music, then, is born from mistakes? "Not so much mistakes
as being on the edge of disaster and not really overanalyzing things--just having pure emotion," explains Claypool, talking like a college chemistry professor. "And sometimes it's shit, because you're in a bad mood, and everyone has their days when they're down." He pauses momentarily, spins around to face his guitarist. "Well, except for Ler, that is, who's pretty even-keeled. So, some days, amazing things happen with Primus, and some days, things are pretty boring. And yeah, a sense of humor is a big part of it."
Naturally, a Maserati-fast mind like Claypool's needs a good deal of input, whether it's touring the country as headliners for Lollapalooza or chugging out to sea in his schooner for some catch-and-release angling. Lately, he's picked up a couple of new hobbies--Cessna piloting (he's close to getting his license) and scuba diving (he recently received his advanced certification off the coast of Thailand). And don't forget the Whackmaster and all those golf clubs. "I'm very demanding--I constantly have to be entertained," he explains, turning back to his screen again to finish airbrushing another brown pelt. Claypool, you might say, is one busy beaver. Maybe even a workaholic.
"A-heh, heh! More like a dorkaholic," he guffaws. "I thought when we finished this record, I'd be able to go on vacation and relax. But then we started working on artwork. Then I thought when we'd be done with that, I could relax, but now I'm directing the video, and, after the video, we've gotta work on the CD-ROM. And then we go on tour."
Lalonde opts to place Primus fatigue in a nutshell: "There's always a light at the end of the tunnel, but you never seem to get to it..."
Throughout the interview, an oldies station is playing over the Corn sound system--what Claypool calls "mood music for working with computers." If he put a little effort into it, couldn't he, too, croon like any of these classic singers? Really warble in his true, straightforward singing voice? Claypool stops everything, drops his pen, drops his jaw. "I could?" he gasps, frightened at the very thought. Clearing his throat, he nevertheless takes a stab at an Elvis-school murmur: "Wiiiiise meeeen sayyyy...Only fools ruuuush iiiiiiin..." Cough, sputter. "Nah, I think it would crack a bit," he decides.
"But I've always just thought of a lot of these different characters as...characters, so I step into character a lot of times. What would Jerry the race car driver sound like? He would, in fact, sound like the voice that sings that song."
Outside the Primus studio, a loud thump resounds. It's Corn and Capone, who've fallen down against its glass doors and are again pretending to sleep. Until now, they've kept themselves occupied by tugging on a stick the size of a small poplar. They're keeping one eye open, peering into the room to see when their master will finally emerge. By the way: Why is Claypool now ensconced in such a rural hideout? He refers to the Primus "goofball" profile to set the record straight: "We make these zany videos and write songs about weird, peculiar things, and people think we're nuts, people think we're weird. But the bottom line is, I grew up in white suburbia, then lived in Berkeley for 10 years and got some culture slammed into me. I like muscle cars, I like fishin', every now and then I go golfing, and I've got my pond down there that I go floatin' around on.
"I've got a couple of dogs," he gestures toward the door, and Corn and Capone immediately tense for Rancho Relaxo action, "a girlfriend, no kids--but I've got two trucks!" And there's only one thing about his rustic retreat that's offered Claypool any real challenge. "I got a new chainsaw that's a little intimidating," he says with a final "A-heh, heh! But I finally did some choppin' with it just the other day!"