More Mysteries About Cheese And Pork
By Jason Pettigrew
Regardeless of your fave food group, Primus' sonic delicacies taste great. Your Server: Jason Pettigrew.
Considering the great mysteries of life. How was the universe created? Have we been visited by extraterrestrials? Who killed JFK? What really happened to Jimmy Hoffa?
And How did Primus - the Bay Area trio with wacky songs about fishing, cats, and race-car drivers, and visits to the Department of Motor Vehicles served up with pinball time-signature changes, disjointed riffing, polyrhythms, and creeping nasal singing on the younger side of Peter Orre - sell half-a-million records in a country where Michael Bolton, Kenny G, and Billy Ray Cyrus dominate the charts?
Sailing the Seas of Cheese, the bands debut for the Interscope label, twitched like a St. Vitus Dance convention at the Artic Circle. Tim "Herb" Alexander laid down intricate yet propulsive rhythms. Les Claypool thumped, slapped and diddled his basses, fashioning fretboard hopscotch into actual songs sung in his cartoon style. And Larry LaLonde played guitar like Jackson Pollock painted, splashing and stroking without regard for prescribed rules.
Of course, Primus' sound has been both revered and misaligned. While the metal crowd gets off on the power element, the alternative audience appreciates the sheer lunacy and the quirks of the bands songs, and the Musician's Cult just lives for Primus' sheet music. And the vile species known as the Music Journalist has tagged them "thrash funk," even though most of the time you couldn't find an easy booty-movin' groove on a Primus record even if you were being coddled by George Clinton and the Soul Train dancers.
Pork Soda is Primus' new record, and pardon my French, it's more fucked up than its predecessor. I was playing the first song, "My Name Is Mud" - a track about a guy who cracks some poor sucker over the head with an aluminum baseball bat because said fool stepped on his shoe - when a representative from Interscope called to inquire if I had received the tape.
"Yeah, it's great," I replied. "The end of the song sounds like driving down the highway with a blown-out tire." My comment was recieved with dead silence.
"That was a complement," I assured her.
"Thank god," she exhaled. "I thought something happened while I was running off your copy."
In February, Claypool and LaLonde were in Los Angeles supervising the final mastering of the new record. When I met up with them, Claypool sported four-day stubble, a stylish pompadour, and a khaki work shirt. He looked more like a Midas Muffler employee than a rock musician. LaLonde was dressed like a suburban paperboy in a shirt that could have had a Garanimals tag on it.(Remember Garanimals? Match the animal tags together for perfectly coordinated fashion statement.) Just regular guys who make irregular records.
"Are you asking us to explain what happened?" asks Ler cheerfully when pressed about the gold status of Cheese. "The honest truth is that I have no clue. When we made Cheese we were like, 'Oh boy, is the record company gonna shit when they hear this.' And they kinda did a little bit," he chuckles. "Interscope is prety cool though. I'm sure if we were on like Acme Records or something like that they'd say, 'Okaaaaay, that'll look great on this shelf here!" he says, impersonating a used-car salesman's voice.
It's still interesting hom Primus attracted attention of the head bangers, the blue-haired mohicans...
"Now the kids with the pompadours are gonna like us," says Les, slicking his head down his 'do.
"Yeah, both of them," smiles LaLonde. "Besides, it's all downhill from here."
"Lightning seldom strikes twice," says Les in his best villain voice. "This new one should bury us. We pretty much gave them the record and they said, 'Cool.' Really though, the key is, 'Do...not...spend...that...much...money," he says slowly, as if explaining to a small child. "We don't spend that much money. But we did meet Gerardo a coupla times. He's been doin' lots of push-ups."
The first incarnation of Primus began as Primate, a band Claypool formed in the late '80s. This followed his stint with a progressive metal band called Blind Illusion and after he failed an audition to replace the late Cliff Burton in Metallica. Primate evolved into Primus, but when things started getting good, the original guitarist and drummer bailed out. Tim Alexander was a devotee of multi-textural percussion music when he met up with Claypool. His nickname Herb comes from his holistic healthy lifestyle ("I call him Herb," says Les, "but I also call him 'Chicken Sandwich'"). LaLonde was a student of virtuoso guitar hero Joe Satriani and did time in the death-metal band Possessed (a period he'd care to forget, thanks). At first, Les and Tim were hesitant about whether or not LaLonde would fit in. But after some gigs culminating in the band's first release, the live Suck On This album on Claypool's own Prawn Song label, the Bay Area heads did swivel. The band entered a one-record deal with Caroline and the result, Frizzle Fry, was a crazy synergy of bass calisthenics, space-station metal guitars, precision percussion and Claypool's geeky nasal vocals ("Tom Waits said I sound like an auctioneer from hell," beams Les proudly).
Interscope's Tom Whalley saw the band at a San Francisco gig and offered them the dotted line. Consider for a moment that Primus do not sound like Metallica, Guns N' Roses, or for that matter, Nine Inch Nails. It takes a truckload of conviction to sign a band so incredibly whacked that their major career goal seems to be a cameo on an episode of The Young Ones.
"I went to see them at a sold-out show at the Stone in San Francisco," Whalley recalls. "The audience reaction was beyond anything i'd seen in years. The truth of it is that had I heard their record before I heard them live, I would have never gone to the show. The music was so out there that I think I would have honestly missed it.
"But when I saw them," he continues,"I knew they would be great. The way I see it, when you're a new company, we had to be different, and here was the perfect band. I knew Primus would be received at some level. I thought they would sell 75,000 records, which would have allowed them to make another record. But I didn't think they were going to sell half-a-million records."
In Ministry's press bio, Al Jourgensen denies playing "industrial" music, arguing that because he uses guitars as well as noise, it doesn't necessarily make him Led Zeppelin. Similarly, ther's a whole lot of thumb slapping going on around the Claypool residence, but that doesn't meanit's "funk." Claypool's parts aren't merely grooves-they're the actual frame-work for the band's songs. History tells us that rock music has always been about guitars. LaLonde certainly doesn't play like a puppet clone of Satriani, nor does he do the power-chord-and-pose shtickeither. He's doesn't play within constraints like what key a song is in. When he sets the controls for the heart of a tangent, hopefully he'll meet up with his bandmates along the way.
In an effort to fully eliminate the funk tag, vis-&AGRAVE;-vis Primus, I called a record company go-between to Bootsy Collins to see if I could get Bootsy's expert opinion as to whether Primus' madness constitutes "funk."
"Bootsy doesn't like to dis anybody," came the reply.
I responded by explaining that I didn't want Bootsy to dis anybody. I just wanted some illumination as to whether or not he felt Primus was funky.
"Well, if Bootdy says something's not funky it's like uh..."
The pope spitting on the oldest living nun on Earth?
Upon returning to my hotel after a night of power drinking, I found Chili Pepper Anthony Kiedis holding court in the lobby. I figured i'd ask him what he thought of Primus, but then I remembered what Blood Sugar Sex Magik sounded like and decided he wouldn't understand the question.
When Claypool was in high school, he got hooked on the playing of bassists like jazzman Stanley Clarke and funkateer Larry Graham, the man who allegedly introduced the whole technique of thumb slapping on the bass guitar in his '70s band Graham Central Station. "I have a lot of respect for bands like Tower of Power and Graham Central Station," says Claypool in earnest. "To me, we do not do the term 'funk' justice. There's elements of it because it's part of my background, but not Larry's or Herb's. We're not a funk band. I would be totally embarrassed if somebody went up to Bootsy and said, 'Hey, didja hear this new funk band called Primus?' And he'd hear it and say,'What the hell is
that shit?' That's why I stay away from the terminology."
LaLonde is totally benign about his contribution to the band. He does concede that he can't replicate his solos from records on stage, but he has an amazing knack for coaxing smoe tasty neroses out of his weapon of choice. Which makes you wonder why he spent all that money on lessons from Dr. Satriani.
"That's because I don't practice enough," he admits, without apology for the potential mass suicides among Guitar Player magazine subscribers. "To do that stuff takes a lot more time than I'm willing to do. I'd rather play than practice.
"I think that something that you will ever hear froma guitar player is, 'one of my influences is Larry LaLonde. I wanna play just like him.' I really find it hard to believe that people would listen to it and say that that's the kind of guitar they like to listen to."
"Ler's just humble," interrupts Les, referring to LaLonde by his nickname. "Actually he's going on about how big his cock is all the time!" he laughs. "I remember during one of the songs he was working out a solo and I said, 'Ler why don't you do a couple of bars of that real fast wuddla-wuddla-wuddla stuff.' And he goes,'I can't do that stuff.'" Ler laughs as Les smiles.
Some of the more jaded folks who can't grasp the band's craziness find it hard to call you a rock band.
"we're new wave," says Les matter of factly.
"Yeah!" laughs LaLonde. "Pretty soon we're gonna do 'Tainted Love.'"
The big float in this parade of irony is Miscellaneous Debris, a five-track EP of cover versions released last year. The album just happens to feature our boys taking on Pink Floyd, newOrleans funksters the Meters, Peter Gabriel and new-wave stalwarts like XTC ("Making Plans For Nigel") and the obvious Claypool influence of San Franeccentrics the Residents ("Sinister Exaggerator"). This particular release really sums up Primus' life blood. By congealing new wave, art rock, and funk, the band refuses to recognize boundaries within specific music types. Of course, some purists certainly don't want to hear that.
We were chastised by the Brittish press for covering 'Nigel' because they thought it was an act of sacrilege," says Les, shaking his head in futility. "When we were opening for Rush, I was playing this electric upright bass. So i'd play the theme from Jaws and then i'd play Led Zeppelin's 'Kashmir,' and then we'd all bust into it. the Rush crowd just loved it. Then we went out with U2 and di it and all we heard was crickets. But then we got all this negative mail from these diehard Zep fans who wrote saing ,'Please don't ever do that again.'"
"I think out core audience is made up of people who don't just listen to one thing," proffers LaLonde. "But I think if you write a letter like that, then you're a little uptight and you have a little too much free time."
"Your horizons expand once you get out of the clique-y crap of where you have to listen to something because it means you're going to be able to go out with this chick over here with the big tits or whatever the social thing is. You start to listen to things that turn your crank."
Things that turn LaLonde and Claypool's crank include Frank Zappa, Tom Waits and Mr. Bungle. But what turns the bands crank? In their 15-pack of Pork Soda, you'll find a track that could have been an indian raga, had it been played on sitars ("Diamond Back"), a Residents reunion on the back porch ("Slippery"), and a multi-layered percussion interlude ("Wounded Knee") that encompasses Alexander's talents entirely ("If he knew he could make a lot of money doing stuff like that for the rest of his life, he would," admits Claypool). The album offers variety without pretense, something Sebadoh should consider sometime. So how do they know when a song works?
"If we laugh hysterically," says LaLonde.
"There's a big difference when something works for us than when it works for someone else," Les admits. "I'm not sure if what we think is good is the be-all, end-all. Most of our stuff comes from jamming at soundchecks. We don't rehearse that much because we hate each other," he snickers. "But sometimes it's like, 'Hey, ther's a cool riff,' and then five days later it's a piece of shit. It seems great when you're not playing 'John the Fisherman' or 'Tommy the Cat' or something you've played a zillion times. You welcome any breath of fresh air.
"A lot of this new album was written in the studio because we weren't prepared when we went it, so there's more spontaneity to it, which I personally love. Like 'Hamburger Train.' I love it! It's eight-and-a-half minutes and it's just jammin'!" The trio's immediate plans include a headline tour of small theaters in early spring. Les is working with Restless Records to distrubute albums on his Prawn Song label. Upcoming releases include a album from former Primus guitarist Todd Huth, a solo album from Disposable Heroes of Hiphocrisy guitarist Charlie Hunter, a soundtrack by Herb, and a concept album form Limbomaniacs guitarist Merv that comes complete with a comic book ("It's about a post-apocalyptic nightclub of the future where kids shave off all their facial features with a cheese
grater and try to play this club"). Claypool also threatens to release a LaLonde covers album of incidental music from the '70s television show, Charlie's Angels.
"Actually," he says, as he slips into Young Ones character mode, "He's going to make farty noises!"
If rock 'n' roll were geometry, Primus would be that damned isoceles triangle, the one where all three sides are incongruent yet essential to the form. If Pork Soda goes number one and Claypool decides he's going to write conventional songs for the next album, imagine the record company asking, "Uh, guys? Can you go back and fuck this up a little?"
LaLonde Laughs. "We obviously don't take things overly serious. This record pleases us and that's all we really set out to do."
"We fish and watch cartoons-nooo, don't print thaaaat!" Les screams in faux horror. "I never really know what people think of us. I get a lot of 'Doood, take me fishin'! Ah know this spot where we kin git strippers!' I don't think we're ever gonna sell a million records. I'd be scared to death of selling a million records! I would not want to be in Nirvana's shoes to an extent because on their next record, everybody is going to grab their magnifying glasses and go,'Hmmmm guys, whaddaya got here?' and just scrutinize the hell out of it."
Yeah, but Nirvana claim to be nothing more than the Cheap Trick or the Knack of the '90s. Who is Primus an updated version of?
"Bocephus," drawls Claypool, referring to the middle name of filthy-rich country bumpkin and Monday Night Football pitchman Hank Williams jr.
LaLonde roars. "Bocephus on acid!"
Primus as country music? No doubt another mystery that may never be fully understood.