Primus's Got a Big Brown Album
by Greg Heller
Les Claypool and Larry LaLonde, the nucleus of that thing called Primus and often dubbed "weirdos," finally get their chance to single out the true mutant among us.
"Celine Dion is pretty damn strange," Claypool says matter-of-factly, his lanky frame dwarfed by a giant love seat. "It frightens me that people out there listen to her music. She's straight out of some David Lynch film."
Larry concurs, "She's out there. She's the total LSD experience."
Sensing we could bash the French Canadian demi-diva just a little harder, I ask, "Did you know that she stops talking two days before every show to save her lovely voice and that she'll only communicate through an elaborate, Keller-esque system of knocks of the phone and taps on her hand?"
Larry is downright shocked. "See, that's out there."
Between his handlebar mustache-in-training and Longshoreman's beard, Claypool cracks a big warm smile. "That's far beyond anything Primus has come close to," he says. "It's all relative, you know; if you're a big Residents, Zappa or Captain Beefheart fan, Primus is tame. If you're a Bon Jovi fan, Primus is pretty damn weird."
Pretty damn weird is where most people would start in describing Primus' 10-year-old journey to the logical end of eclecticism. Claypool and the man they call "Ler," 33 and 29 respectively, have spent the better half of their oddly charmed lives sculpting quirky bass progressions and meandering guitar squeals into five-minute forums for spinning psychedelic yarns about fictitious freaks, somehow achieving financial success, global fame and even a Grammy nomination (in 1996 for "Wynona's Big Brown Beaver") in the process. 1989's Suck on This debut scratched the curious head of America and Primus' newest sonic space-mission, The Brown Album, certainly doesn't serve up the obvious
epiphany most people need to figure them out.
"Before every new record I swear, 'This is the one nobody's ever gonna get,'" says LaLonde, still looking every bit a teen in man's clothing. " 'No one will possibly understand this one. No one will ever buy this one.' But I've been proven wrong every time."
I ask Primus if there was a time, a long time ago, when they said to themselves, "I really and truly love all these types of music--jazz, funk, punk and progressive rock--I don't see why they can't get married?"
Les is quick in responding. "I don't think it was so much a marriage thing as it was, 'Let's take all these different things and let them fuck.' Marriage was a little further down the road."
When you hear a Primus song--the trademark Claypool nasal narrative over thick bass thud, riffage gone walkabout and drum smacks that somehow create and fill space simultaneously--you know it. You don't wonder if it's some No Doubt B-side and you don't ask your buddy if maybe the Goo Goo Dolls have a new album out. Love 'em or hate 'em, you say, "Oh, that's Primus." Such insta-recognition is a monumental achievement in this age of copycat, generic radio ga-ga.
Primus world headquarters, an unspectacular converted garage-type complex nestled unassumingly between some dust-coated train tracks and a hardware store, is hardly the multi-colored, surreal flight of fancy you'd expect. The site includes a bunch of rooms swollen with gear in various stages o preparation for a forthcoming tour of Europe, a sterile practice space, and, upstairs, the office of Prawn Song Records (the baby label Claypool co-owns with Primus manager David Lefkowitz), dimly lit by a few tiny lights and the glowing blue screens of the band's cherished computers. Mark "Mirv" Haggard, of brothers in bizarreness M.I.R.V., works quietly at one of the machines for the duration of our interview, studying and manipulating a detailed close-up photo of a bass drum pedal. I never really find out why.
My line of questioning is failing to pan gold from the river Primus. Expecting a wealth of colorful vagina-speak, I raise the issue of Wynona, her favorite furry pet and how a certain Gen. X actress took the joke.
"That song was never supposed to be what it became," says Claypool, suddenly sounding like a business man. "It was gonna be this goofy little song on the record with some banjo and some upright bass, and it just kind of evolved into the lead track. I met Winona Ryder. She had heard from a friend of ours that I'd possibly written a song about her. She's actually really cool. She wasn't pissed really; I think she was just more confused. She wanted to know why we might write a song about her and I told her, 'It has nothing to do with you.' It was really cool. I got to meet a movie star."
Unsatisfied, I move onto the topic of Rush, depending on Geddy Lee and crew to inspire some of that Primusian wackiness.
"When I was 16 I would've defended Rush as the greatest band of all time," Claypool says. "I would have killed you for Rush when I was 16 but that was 17 years ago. Rush's influence on Primus has been exaggerated about 20-fold. I'm much more apt to say the Beatles were the greatest band that ever existed."
OK. Well what could be more absurd than Primus in the rock 'n' roll hall of fame?
"Don't you have to be a supergroup that people like to get in there?" Larry offers with a stoner's chuckle, a laugh the mound of roaches in the ashtray beside his amp downstairs suggests he's quite able to back up.
There is an awkward silence during which I realize for the first time how truly stupid it was for me to assume that what you see is what you get. Dammit, Primus, show me the funny!
"I'm sure a lot of people out there would look at what we've done from the 'Beaver' song to the title of [1993's] Pork Soda who would say, 'This is a joke band that I've got no time for,'" Claypool explains. "But it's like Sam Raimi's films, like Evil Dead 2 [Claypool confesses that the "My Name is Mud" video was somewhat of an homage to the twisted director]. To some people it's just another horror movie or gore fest, but it's actually a remarkable piece of film--you have to scratch the surface. That's the way this band is; if you take the time to scratch the surface, I think you'll find much more substance than is expected."
Claypool continues with more than a hint of disillusionment in his voice, "We've got the funny aspect covered, but there are times when we're quoted by a journalist as being a bunch of goofballs; I wish that they could see the deeper side of what we do. I don't really expect it though. I don't think it's human nature to really dissect things and see what they're all about."
The deeper side of a band with song titles like "Professor Nutbutter's House of Treats," "Hamburger Train" and "Shake Hands With Beef"? Perhaps now more than ever. Give careful listen to the closing track on The Brown Album, "Arnie," a three-and-a-half-minute, booming instrumental, disturbed only by a few unminced words about the protagonist's desperate struggle for one shining minute in the spotlight, a struggle that leads the mysto-man to douse himself with lighter fluid and torch himself onstage, burning to cinders at the microphone with the ominous au revoir, "Remember this day!"
"Lyrically, The Brown Album is much different," Claypool says. "The characters have become more reality- as opposed to fantasy-based. Obviously, we're older people and there are different aspects to our lives. Whether it's mortgage payments or kids [Cage Oliver Claypool is now one and baby No. 2 is on the way] or whatever, I just found it easier to write about reality-based characters."
I expected to meet every Primus song protagonist when I met Claypool, but I meet neither Mud the homicidal hick nor Jerry the ill-fated race-car hero. Claypool keeps his actors in the wings, waiting for the curtain to rise or the tape to roll before he sets them free. Still, glimpses of a few do sneak out: Dad, the hard-working auto mechanic; Honest Abe, the voice of truth; Captain Seadog, the solemn poet of the ocean wide, etc. And it's not hard to imagine, with some free time alone and a bong hit, how a wandering mind like his could caricature the simple folk from his past into the cartoons of his present.
"I love meeting people who have an oddness to them or who are of the obscure," Claypool says slowly, leaning comfortably towards me as he speaks. "Coming from an environment where being different was not all too acceptable [Claypool, a native of El Sobrante, stems from a blue collar family, proud auto mechanics three generations back], I was always intrigued with unusual folks. I grew up around manly men. There were times when I wouldn't see distant cousins or uncles for a long time and they just knew I was this musician with a mohawk--their opinion of me was that I was some gay loser."
Primus recently added another character to the mix; drummer Brian "Brain" Mantia joined last year replacing Tim "Herb" Alexander. Previously best known for his work with the Limbomaniacs and ear graters Godflesh, Mantia says, at first, he was intimidated by his new bandmates.
"They both have way bigger cocks than I do," Brain explains, struggling to keep a straight face. "It was pretty scary. You see, I'm half Japanese and I got my Japanese side on the lower half of me. No, it was definitely intimidating. I was doing mostly studio work before I joined this band--you go in to a do a commercial or some quick session work--you nail your part in an hour, you get the check, you go home. In a band like this you have to be on all the time. In the studio, onstage, all the time. Les loves the drums, so he's a bit harder on a drummer than most other people I've played with."
Alexander's departure is hardly the soft spot I'd expected. Claypool details the event calmly, underscoring the amicability of the split, all the while hinting that control issues might have left Alexander no choice but to pack up and move out.
"Herb's departure was like a marriage that just slowly decayed to an end. There was no one instance or anything that happened abruptly. The band has always been, on a personal level, me and Ler. We hang out and do all these things together, so a lot of the creative stuff that happens comes straight from us, definitely most of the humor stuff. Over the past few years we were making a huge effort to try to bring [Alexander] in creatively and that was causing even more stress. Herb's a lot more of a straight, serious, dry kind of guy. He's the nicest guy you'll ever meet and a fabulous drummer, but after six years with the band I think he was becoming more and more dissatisfied with his role as just being the drummer. It was making him unhappy, which was making Larry and I unhappy.
"When it came down to it, we came very close to dissolving entirely, to ending Primus. I went to Ler and said, 'Look, I'm not content anymore. We've got a good thing going between us and we should probably get a new drummer.' When we talked to Herb about it, he wasn't surprised at all--in fact he seemed very relieved. He's got his own thing now. He's writing and singing [with his new band, Laundry] and he's much happier.
"Brain is an old friend of ours [Mantia actually played in the band in 1986 for two weeks before a skateboarding injury forced him out]. He's a witty guy; we hang out together. Primus is more of a three-person unit now as opposed to two guys and a drummer. He was involved in the writing of every tune on the new album." Perhaps sensing his words have gone harsh, Claypool backpedals a touch, "Herb is a phenomenal drummer and his input was musically was very strong. I don't want to take anything away from Herb."
Almost-fans hoping The Brown Album finds the boys finally going user friendly will have to wait a while longer--like forever. Claypool is the first to admit that they've headed back for the future, not only in sound but in production--the record was recorded entirely on warm, old analog at his Rancho Relaxo hideaway up north.
"Song-wise I think Brown leans back to Suck... or [1990's] Frizzle Fry," says Claypool. "It's a far more aggressive album than we've done in a long time. The differences between this album and [Punch Bowl...] are far greater than the differences between this album and the very early stuff."
LaLonde, in particular, is refreshingly unconcerned about the pressures of musical evolution. He makes several humble references throughout our talk to being "...just as crappy [at guitar] as I was then." And, when pressed as to how he could age as a man and not a musician, he has no qualms whatsoever with confessing his state of perpetual childhood.
"I'm still kinda doing the same stuff I was doing 10 years ago," he says. "Skateboarding and things like that. It's like I'm still the same age." Adding one last time, "I definitely haven't gotten any better at playing the guitar."
With his elusive attention span mine for the moment, I ask how he reacts to the theory that Primus is intentionally strange, that the band prays on hipster sheep who'd love Afro-Cuban-speed-metal-muzak-trip-hop-twangcore if alternative media declared it cool.
"We're way too lazy to try and be weird," he laughs. "Everything we do just kind of happens."
Primus seems especially pleased with the latest happening, The Brown Album. Claypool digs through a stack of crap under a desk and removes the cardboard album cover of Primus long player No. 6 like Excalibur from the stone, holding the poo-colored square aloft as though a chorus of angels might herald its presentation. Cheers all around.
"Very regal," Claypool intones.
"Very colorful," LaLonde counters.
It's difficult to tell who, if anyone, is joking, but for a minute we all quietly ponder what brown means to each of us until Claypool breaks the silence.
"This is a milestone record for Primus so it needed to have a milestone title. The Beatles have their 'White Album,' Metallica have their 'Black Album,' now Primus have their 'Brown Album.'"
Perhaps Claypool is kidding in envisioning Primus atop the rock Pantheon alongside such gods, but many stranger things have passed. Hey, Celine Dion sold 10 million records last year.