Les Claypool gets a Taste of the Big Time
by Karl Coryat.
Fifty thousand U2 fans are about to get a shock. All day long, they've been humming glorious anthems like "With or Without You," and they're primed for the concert. A wave of anticipation sweeps through the crowd as the lights dim. Who's that wiry creature silly-walking out to the mike--is it Bono? No. It's Les Claypool, and the band is Primus. As soon as the strident, discordant opening of "Those Damned Blue-Collar Tweekers" blurts from the PA speakers, the entire audience begins to stare blankly, question marks hovering over their heads. For 40 minutes, their bodies will not sway, their arms will stay firmly at their sides, their newly purchased Bics will still be unflicked.
But hey, that's nothing new for Primus--any band with such a bizarre sound is bound to get mixed reviews. Since 1984, Claypool and his posse have been concocting a unique brand of hyperkinetic, angular, often atonal "freak-out music." When they're not rocking mosh pits, they're often found fishing aboard Les's boat, El Bastardo, in a never-ending quest for the Mighty Sturgeon. The trio includes rock-solid drummer Tim "Herb" Alexander and texture-happy guitarist Larry "Ler" LaLonde, but Les has always been the focus. His bass lines combine a multitude of techniques and idiosyncrasies, often all
packed into a single bar and repeated ad dementia, while Claypool's nasal, droning vocals explore the finer points of pudding, nose hairs, and masturbation.
While Primus's music may not be for everyone, they've been successful enough to tour with Rush as well as U2. The popularity of their videos landed them a spot on MTV's Spring Break, and their latest full-length album, Sailing the Seas of Cheese, has sold over 400,000 copies worldwide. And let's not forget that Les won the BASS PLAYER 1992 Bassist Of The Year poll, also running away with the Best Performance In Concert and Best Performance On Record categories.
KC: Primus plays some pretty outside stuff, yet you've developed quite a following. How do you account for the band's success?
LC: People seem to have a love/hate relationship with us--a lot of people listen to us and go, "What the hell is that crap?" And there are people who dig us; I don't know why. But if you compare our sound to some of the stuff I listen to, like Fred Frith or the Residents, we're really not all that strange.
KC: What was it like touring with U2?
LC: It was interesting. Everyone--the crew and the band--was amazingly cool. What I didn't like was playing the giant stadiums. Every night the shows were sold out, with 50 or 60 thousand people. Music and football stadiums just don't mix.
It's funny, because sometimes when I'm playing my electric upright onstage I'll go into the riff from [Led Zeppelin's] "Kashmir." When we were touring with Rush, it never failed--everyone thought it was the greatest thing. But when I played it for the U2 crowd, it was like ... crickets. People either just yawned or farted--they didn't give a shit. I'm not even sure they recognized the song. So I didn't do that too often on the U2 tour.
KC: Did you approach the stadium shows differently than theater shows with your own fans?
LC: In front of our own crowd, I always have a good ol' time onstage, unless someone's spitting at me or throwing shoes or something. The stadium concerts were fun as an experience, but as far as putting on a show and getting into it, they were a little more difficult. I found I had to hide behind dark glasses onstage because the audience was so far away, and it was a little weird. I definitely wasn't as personable at the mike, either--we pretty much just played the songs and left.
Leslie Edward Claypool was born in Richmond, California, across the bay from San Francisco;
the hospital has since been converted to a psychiatric facility. Les thinks that's only appropriate.
KC: Was yours a musical household?
LC: No, not even slightly--it was an anti-musical household. But my mom always had the AM radio on, and I remember her scooting across the kitchen floor on her butt to Herb Alpert and Diana Ross tunes. There was a weird exercise you could do where you sat on the floor and "walked" using only your butt cheeks. That's my earliest musical memory.
We had some record albums; [the Beatles'] Abbey Road was my favorite. I listened to that one zillions of times. There were some others, like Elvis and Sinatra and crap like that, but nobody ever really listened to records.
I wanted to play trumpet, but I had buck teeth, and they told me I wouldn't be able to do it. So I decided to try clarinet. But my mom and stepfather said, "You'll never stick with it--you'll give it up." So I didn't take up clarinet. I would have tried a string instrument like cello, but everyone told me they were the hardest to learn, so I didn't want to try any of them, either.
It wasn't until junior high that I decided I really wanted to play something. We'd have school dances, and bands would come and play cover tunes--[Led Zeppelin's] "Stairway to Heaven," [Yes's] "Roundabout," that kind of stuff. At that point, I didn't know the difference between guitar and bass; there were just these electric things, drums, and keyboards--which I always called "organ." Some guys who won a school talent show--two guitarists and a drummer--played [the Allman Brothers'] "Ramblin' Man" through little Fender Champ amps. It came time for the solo, and it was the most god-awful, twangy,
high-pitched thing I'd ever heard. I thought, "That's not the kind of instrument I want to play. I want to play the big, fat-sounding one." I started to notice that the guitar with only four strings sounded huge and fat and the one with six strings sounded twangy and boring.
In high school, I met Kirk Hammett [now the lead guitarist of Metallica]. He was a burnout dude with thick, Coke-bottle glasses. Right in the middle of class, he'd say stuff like, [in burnout-dude accent] "Hey, Claypool--check it out, man," [holds chord fingering on right arm] "G chord, man. I'm gonna make it big." He introduced me to Hendrix, and he also asked me to sing in his band. But I was too embarrassed to sing in front of anyone.
Then I met this guy, Mark Biedermann, who was the hottest guitar player around. He needed a bass player, so I begged my dad to loan me some money; I had the rest saved up from pulling weeds. Everyone was giving me the old "you're gonna give it up" routine, but I ended up getting a bass anyway: a Memphis P-Bass copy with flatwounds. I didn't know how to play at all; I could play "Smoke on the Water" in the wrong key, and that was about it. But I had a bass, and I was in a band.
That band was Blind Illusion, whose progressive-metal route coincided with the direction Les was
seeking. But as his playing grew, he outgrew prog--and gravitated toward funk.
KC: Who were you listening to while you were in Blind Illusion?
LC: At that time, it was like, Rush. Geddy Lee was God; there was nobody better than him. He was just the best.
KC: Were you good at picking his bass lines off records?
LC: No, I never did that.
KC: How did you learn his parts?
LC: I didn't. I listened to players and watched them in concert, and I got ideas from that. But I don't think I ever learned a Rush tune all the way through.
Most local bands did cover tunes, but not Blind Illusion. Mark would teach me the bass lines to his songs; I didn't know any others. I'd put on Rush records and play to them, but I didn't have an amp, so I was just moving my fingers around.
When I saw my first Rush concert, I spent the whole time watching Geddy's hands. There were so many things I didn't know; I didn't even know there were such things as roundwound strings. I'd had that Memphis a year and a half without changing the strings, and here I was trying to sound like Geddy Lee and Chris Squire.
I went back to school after summer vacation, and a friend of mine said, "Hey, they need a bass player in the jazz band." I told him I didn't know how to read music, and he said, "Well, they just need a bass player." So I signed up for the class. The bass amp didn't work, and one day I got in trouble for bullshitting with the drummers during class. I told the teacher, Mr. Johnson, that I didn't know what to do because the amp was broken. He told me to read along with everyone else. I told him I didn't know how to read, and he said, "WHAT? What are you doing in here if you can't read?" So after class, he drew the bass clef on the board and showed me where all the notes were. For the rest of the semester, I stayed in the class and stumbled along; it was mostly quarter-notes, so it was easy.
Later on, I got into the school concert band, where I started to learn upright. Some of us also put together a dance band that played swing and big-band charts. We'd borrow white dinner jackets from the drama department and play gigs at the Rod & Gun Club--that kind of thing. Playing swing was one of the most fun things I've ever done; all these old people were out there dancing around, thinking it was the greatest thing. They'd look through our folder of charts and say, "You've gotta play this--`String of Pearls'--that's a great one."
For my senior year, Ol' Mr. Johnson signed me up for a music-theory class. The class didn't really exist, so Mr. Johnson would give me a book and tell me to go into the other room and do whatever. I basically just used it as an extra lunch period and took the time to go off and have sex with my girlfriend in the back of my Cougar somewhere.
KC: How did you discover funk?
LC: One day, a friend of mine said, "Geddy Lee is good, but he's nothing compared to Stanley Clarke and Larry Graham." I told him he was crazy, even though I didn't know who those guys were. Then I saw Stanley's I Want to Play for Ya [Portrait/Sony] in a record store. I bought it, and it blew my mind. I also saw Louis Johnson on [the TV show] Don Kirshner's Rock Concert, saw him go bang-bippety-bip-bang, and thought, "Man, that's the coolest thing!" By my junior year, I was getting way into all the funk players. Guys would give me shit and call me "Disco Les" because I was playing all this funk stuff.
Around my senior year, I bought an Ibanez Musician EQ bass. I had always wanted a Rickenbacker before, but then I decided the Rickenbacker was no longer the cool bass to have. I hung around Leo's [music store] in Oakland all the time; they had tons of new and used stuff. One day, I saw a Carl Thompson piccolo bass sitting there. I had stared at the photo in I Want to Play for Ya where Stanley had all his basses lined up, and a couple of them were Carl Thompsons. I always thought, `Man, that sure is an ugly bass.' I picked up the one in the store, though, and I couldn't believe it--it was so easy to play.
Suddenly there were a lot of things I could play that I couldn't play on my Ibanez. I used to test basses by trying to play "Roundabout," and it was pretty easy on the Carl Thompson. I went home, and I begged and pleaded my mom for the rest of the money I needed to buy that bass. She lent me some, and I went back and bought it. It's still my main 4-string.
In the '80s, it wasn't cool to have a fancy-woodwork custom bass; it was cooler to have a pink one or something the color of toothpaste. So people were constantly giving me shit for having a bass that looked like some weird piece of furniture.
KC: How did you develop your right-hand dexterity?
LC: One of the big things I decided to do when I was starting out was to play with three fingers. A lot of guys play with two fingers, so I figured if I played with three, I could be faster. When you're young, that's the goal: to be fast. I still use three fingers most of the time--going ring, middle, index, ring, middle, index--depending on how sore my fingers are. Sometimes I'll mix it up and favor certain fingers over others.
KC: Where did you pick up the strumming technique?
LC: From Stanley Clarke, because of songs like "School Days." The first time I saw Stanley shoot the ol' chords--he'd start at the top and go pow! [mimes strumming and sliding a chord down the fingerboard]--I thought that was way cool, and I decided to do it. It hurt like hell when I first started.
KC: Did Stanley also inspire you to start slapping?
LC: Yeah, him and Louis Johnson. Louis's right arm would go way out away from the bass. Stanley, though, used minimal hand movement, and I was always into the minimal hand-movement thing. A friend of mine told me your thumb should just graze the string and rest against the next one, as opposed to whapping the string and bouncing off it. My thumb got pretty fast, since I was more into thumbing than plucking.
One thing that helped me a ton, probably more than anything in my career, was playing with a group called the Tommy Crank Band. The other guys were all in their 20s and 30s, and I was 19. I had been playing fusion, and when I played with them the first time I was like bloobilla-bloobilla-bloobilla! They said, "Cool," and I got the gig. I had to learn all these blues and R&B tunes; we played everything from James Brown to John Cougar, everywhere from biker bars to weddings. I had never learned any of these songs, so I just asked what key they were in and did my own interpretations. A lot of the time overplayed, and everyone else in the band was always clamping down on me to mellow out. By playing these tunes four hours a night, three to five nights a week, my groove got really good, and I learned to improvise and pull off songs we hadn't even rehearsed.
In 1984, Claypool decided it was time to put together his own band, Primate, which quickly evolved to Primus. Because he favored the tightness of a trio, Les found it necessary to pile up his bass techniques to provide a fuller sound. Thus the Les Claypool style, as we now know it, was born.
KC: What made you decide to form your own band?
LC: I was auditioning for every band I could find; I wanted to make it big, but every band around just sucked. At the time, I was getting into some pretty obscure stuff, like Fred Frith, King Crimson, and Public Image Limited. I had a LinnDrum [drum machine] and a 4-track, so I started writing songs in my bedroom. I couldn't sing for shit; not only did I not have a voice, I was scared to get up to the mike. But I wrote all these lyrics, and I didn't like the way anybody else sang them. This friend of mine, Todd Huth, called and said, "Hey, I hear you're looking for a guitar player." He was into Black Sabbath and Blue Öyster Cult, and I was looking for some weird, freaked-out guy like Fred Frith. But we jammed, and he was perfect. He played the most out-there stuff; he'd play a line in a weird time signature without even knowing it--just responding to the way his heart was beating at the time or something. It was consistent, but on the moon.
I decided to go into the studio, record a tape, send it to all these record-company names I had gotten from some magazine, and make it big. I sold my car, and we made the first Primate demo with a drummer friend of mine named Perm Parker. One of the songs was "Too Many Puppies," which we still play--although back then it was a double-time, B-52's kind of tune. The tape got some airplay on local radio.
KC: Were you influenced by other rock bass players at that time?
LC: I always wanted to play bass parts and rhythm guitar parts. I never really listened to other bass players that much. To this day, people come up and say, "Hey, what do you think of Jaco's blah blah blah," and I'll go, "Never heard it in my life." Or, "You haven't heard Jonas Hellborg?!" and I say, "Nope." I feel bad because there are a lot of great players out there I haven't heard. I was just never into "player" records; I'm much more apt to buy a Tom Waits CD instead of one by a bass player. I'm
also more apt to get into drummers than bass players. I play the drums a lot; I like playing drums. On drums, you can kick back; nobody fucks with you, and you can just play. It's physical, and you can get your aggressions out. It's funny--I enjoy playing drums more than bass, but I'm better at bass.
Primus made its first record, Suck on This, in 1989. Recorded live at a club, it became a
college-radio sensation, inspiring the group to invade the studio for the followup, 1990's Frizzle
Fry. The sessions for Sailing the Seas of Cheese, recorded in '91, found Les scaling new heights, as
he made the jump from 4-string fretted to 6-string fretless. By the time the band recorded the EP
Miscellaneous Debris, a playful collection of covers, Les had improved his mastery of the 6--and
thrown in a measure of good taste to boot.
KC: When did you get your Carl Thompson 6-string?
LC: I was doing a demo at NAMM for ADA, and this guy came up to me and said, "Oh, you play a Carl Thompson bass? Look at this." He whipped out this amazing Carl Thompson 6-string fretless. After that I knew I had to have a 6-string, but I wasn't sure if I wanted a fretless.
I didn't actually get my 6 until just before we started Sailing the Seas of Cheese. We were on tour in New York, and I tracked down Carl Thompson. I told him I was interested in a 6-string; he was impressed that I had been playing his bass for years and loving it. A little while later, he started hearing my name around, so he called me and said he'd start building me a bass if I sent a deposit.
I couldn't decide whether I wanted a fretted or a fretless. But I was getting to a point with my 4-string where it was like a stalemate; I was getting bored with it. I needed something that would just blow things wide open, so I decided to go for the fretless 6-string.
Carl told me he was going to make the best bass he'd ever built in his life. He basically made a butcher block out of all these different pieces of wood, and then he cut the body shape out of it. He called it the Rainbow Bass. Apparently it almost killed him to make it; he had a bad sinus problem, and all the dust was making it worse. And I was saying, "Carl, I need the bass before we start our next record," so he had to rush--he even had to go to the hospital at one point. But he finished it on his birthday, and the serial number is his date of birth.
When I got the bass, I thought, "Ohmigod--what have I done?" It was so much more difficult to play. I was used to my 4-string's 32" scale, and all of a sudden I had this big hunk of wood with a 36" scale and no frets. When I tried to play chords they all sounded like shit, and I couldn't move around very well. But I kept playing it and playing it. I'm just now getting to the point where I feel comfortable on it. Carl is sending me another 6-string: the very first fretless he built in the '70s. He's installing frets and light-gauge strings, and I said I'd see what I could do with it.
KC: How do you record your basses?
LC: I go out of the back of my MESA/Boogie amp direct into the board. They pad the signal somehow. We've always put up a mike in front of the bass amp, but we've never used it--the direct tone sounds pretty good. Still, I'm never happy with my tone.
KC: What would you want more of?
LC: I don't know. Maybe more vavoom, or chaaaa.
KC: How did you get the wall of bass distortion on "Making Plans for Nigel" [Miscellaneous Debris]?
LC: We recorded that song as a B-side for Japan, but we hated the way it turned out. So I went into the studio with an old Syntrex Harmonic Energizer, which is the coolest pedal in the world, ran my bass track through it, and cranked it. You can distort specific frequencies with that pedal, and that's what gives the bass that strange buzzing sound.
KC: Did you use a delay to get the stuttering effect on "The Toys Go Winding Down" [Frizzle Fry]?
LC: No--that's just straight triplets on my Eko. I was practicing metal riffs on guitar one day, and I started playing k-k-kung, k-k-kung, k-k-kung, and I thought, "Wow--I should play that on bass!"
KC: You predicted the Gulf War in "Too Many Puppies."
LC: I did? Hot corn! Well, you know, my full name is Les Nostradamus Claypool [laughs].
KC: Do you ever have trouble playing and singing simultaneously?
LC: Yeah, all the time--especially if I try to do other people's songs. Usually, I try to get the playing so solid that I can just sit in front of the TV and not think about it, and then I'll start laying the vocals down.
KC: Do you ever have to compromise one of the parts because of the other one?
LC: Nah--I force myself. That's the way "Tommy the Cat" [Sailing] went, because I wanted those two parts together so badly. But for most of the other songs, it's less of a problem. I tend to lean more toward writing songs like that nowadays, because I think it feels better. Maybe not--maybe it's just easier! [Laughs.]
KC: Do you derive most of your inspiration from fishing?
LC: Everyone thinks I do, but no. I've become this fishing cartoon character--but it's my fault, since I've written so many songs about my hobby.
KC: Do you write the music before the lyrics, or vice versa?
LC: It's always different. For "Tommy the Cat," I had the bass line kicking around, and for some reason that "Say Baby" thing was stuck in my head, and I thought it would be cool to put the two together, even though they're pretty off from each other. So I just played it and played it and played it until I made them fit together. On the road, we always have tape ready at soundcheck, and I tell our sound guy to start recording if he hears anything different. We've come up with a lot of cool stuff that way.
KC: Have you ever fooled around with alternate tunings?
LC: No. I don't really want to. Maybe I'll do something with them later, when I'm a little older. You see, I have to get to a point of boredom--when I get bored, something new comes about. I've sometimes done some weird out-of-tune stuff with the whammy bar, like on "Is It Luck?" [Sailing], where I hold the whammy bar while I'm popping.
KC: What would you like to explore on the next Primus record?
LC: We don't ever think about directions. Like tonight, we're going to just get together and jam and say, "Wow, that's cool," or "Wow, that sucks." There isn't a whole lot of premeditation to what we do.
LC: The one thing we hopefully will never do is to try to write a song to gain new fans. I think our old fans will dig our new record, because we're writing what we want to write. And we're writing what we want to play. When you're on the road for 14 months and you have to play some hit tune that you hate, you're stuck with it!
KC: Have you started writing material?
LC: We probably have half of it written. We're going to record it at our rehearsal studio. We've made some demos there that came out really cool; we all set up in different rooms, and it sounds pretty good.
KC: How much 6-string will you be playing?
LC: I won't be playing any bass on the next record--it'll all be synth bass [laughs]. Actually, I'll play quite a bit of 6-string. I always think I'm going to play a lot more 6-string than I end up playing. It's still pretty new to me, so it's still fun and there's still an element of danger to it. I'm also trying to get my upright playing together; I'm trying out a couple electric uprights, but I haven't settled on anything.
KC: Are you still doing gigs as Bob Cock & the Yellow Sock [an acoustic mutation of Primus]?
LC: Yeah--you never know when we'll play a Bob Cock show. We want to be on [MTV's] Unplugged, but they won't let us. We've tried and tried, without success.
KC: What do you have to say to a young player who wants to be just like you?
LC: Anyone who wants to be just like me is in for a life of boredom! [Laughs.] You should always play with as many people as you can. If they're terrible, you'll learn from their mistakes. But it's even better to play with people who are better than you. It's just like anything else--if you skate with people who are better than you, you'll become a better skater. But I'll tell you one thing: Don't pick your blemishes, because you'll get crazy scars on your chin like me.
Toys That Go Winding Down
These days, Les Claypool takes three Carl Thompson basses on tour: his main 4-string (which was originally a piccolo bass and now sports a whammy bar), his 6-string fretless, and a 4-string he bought from a friend. "That one's maple," Les notes. "It's heavy, but it has a great tone, like an old Jazz Bass." He bought his electric upright at a pawn shop; he has no idea who made it. "It's neat, but it doesn't play very well." Other oddities in Claypool's collection include a tiny Guild Ashbory bass (with an 18" scale and silicone rubber strings) and an Eko copy of a Beatle Bass. "I love the Eko," Les says. "I always wanted a Hofner like Paul McCartney's. Fat Dog at [Berkeley, California's] Subway Guitars bought out Eko's stock of instruments and parts; they were all brand-new but made in 1965. He built me that bass for 250 bucks. I compared it to a Hofner, and it wasn't even close to sounding or playing as good as the Eko." Les was also given a Rickenbacker bass by Rush's guitarist, Alex Lifeson. "We were drunk at his house in Toronto, and he just gave it to me, along with this huge trophy he won at a car show. He probably regretted it later." His acoustic axe is a Kay upright, which he bought used for $300. "I worked with Tom Waits on his album Bone Machine, and his bassist, Larry Taylor, told me it was a very rare model--one of the best Kays ever made." The acoustic, which Les calls "Oliver," has been signed by both Waits and R&B vocalist Screamin' Jay Hawkins.
Onstage, Claypool uses a wireless. "I don't know which one it is," he remarks. "All wireless systems sound like shit to me." On his 4-string electrics, Les uses Dean Markley nickel roundwounds--but here's the secret: his set consists of two A strings (.080) and two G strings (.040). "I've always loved the sound Tony Levin gets on the [Chapman] Stick with light-gauge strings. I wanted to get that same punch, so I started to use a lighter E string, and then I switched to two G's to make my chords sound better." He strings his Carl Thompson 6-string with a standard light-gauge set.
Les uses an ADA MP-1 guitar preamp that was modified by ADA's Tod Langer. "He did something to the EQ circuitry so the lows pass through better, and he also did something to the compressor to give me more bottom end. I use only about nine sounds on it, just to cut treble, cut bass, or add a little crunch." One set of programs for each instrument is held in the MP-1's memory, with different level settings to compensate for the basses' different outputs; an identical MP-1 sits in his rack as a spare. Programs are selected with a MIDI Ground Control footpedal made by Digital Music.
The MP-1 feeds into a MESA/Boogie Bass 400 Plus head, which drives two MESA/Boogie 2x15 cabinets. "I used SWR 4x10s for a while, but they didn't do it for me. My sound has all this weird shit in the high end; you can hear it through 10s but not 15s."
Claypool wears earplugs onstage. "Not too long ago, I lost half the hearing in my right ear in a diving accident, so I'm very protective of what's left. It sucks--now when I go to listen to a studio mix on headphones, I think, what's the point?"