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Primus' Les Claypool On His Lyrics, Getting Back Together With His Old Bandmates, And Not Having Plans

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Les Claypool, Primus: Primus' Les Claypool On His Lyrics, Getting Back Together With His Old Bandmates, And Not Having Plans

Primus, for all its success, always existed on the fringes of the popular music scene. A little too metal to be fully accepted by the 120 Minutes crowd, the idiosyncratic, clever vision of Primus front man Les Claypool also didn’t fit with the deadly serious riffage of Metallica, Slayer, and Pantera. Yet Primus soldiered on, scoring an unlikely hit about an unlucky race car driver, creating epic tales of fisherman and making a hotly denied double entendre about river mammals kept as pets. Primus played on and off throughout the last decade, but did not release any new material. The band returns after eleven years with Green Naugahyde, an album that proves, if anything, that the long layoff hasn’t altered Claypool’s slightly skewed point of view one bit.

Tell me a little bit about Green Naugahyde.

What, you don’t have any specific questions on it?

Oh yeah, that comes later.

Well, Green Naugahyde is the first Primus album, CD, digital download, whatever the hell you want to call it in twelve years. Eleven years? I would think that’s a pretty exciting thing.

You’ve recorded under a lot of names in the last eleven years. What makes this a Primus record?

What makes this a Primus record is that it’s the guys from Primus, who are Larry LaLonde, now Jay Lane, and myself. Frog Brigade is a whole different group of individuals, and whatever Claypool solo project is manned by who I bring in to fill those parts.  Oysterhead is Stewart Copeland, Trey Anastasio, and myself. It’s a Primus record because it’s Jay, Larry and I collaborating together. It’s not just my vision.

In a lot of ways this is classic Primus, right?

For obvious reasons, it hearkens back to the feel of Frizzle Fry. Jay Lane quit the band one month before we made our first record. A lot of the drums parts on those early records were written by him, and Jay has this very signature feel- it’s a sort of hop- to his playing, so sonically when I listen to this it reminds of those Frizzle Fry days.

What will your listeners find surprising on this record?

The past ten years have been an incredibly creative period for me, as far as playing with all these amazing musicians, making a film, and writing a novel. Coming back to Primus after doing all these things, I have a lot more salt and sand under my fingernails, as does Ler and as does Jayski. I think one thing you’ll see that hasn’t been there in the past are some pretty interesting vocal elements. I’ve layered some of the vocal tracks so that it almost sounds operatic. I’ve done that with some of my solo stuff, but I’ve never brought any of that stuff to Primus.

Did you know immediately that you wanted to continue the Fisherman chronicles?

No, that’s something that just comes about. You write a song, and it just happened to be relative to fishing. Of course, people do get excited about the Fisherman Chronicles, so putting that title on there adds something to the record.

Another theme that seems to be here is bikes. Tell me about the one on the front. Why did that little dude make the cover?

You know, we were trying to figure out what to do for a cover, and Primus has always these pretty iconic covers, with the sculptures and whatnot, but I stumbled upon this little guy in an antique shop and I was so intrigued with him and the mechanics of it, even the expression on his face. I had gathered a few different things and taken pictures of some others, but we just gravitated toward him. And then with the whole green naugahyde thing, I have this friend that does a lot great photographs with old Polaroids. I took him around and had him shoot in a bunch of different places, but we ended up liking the one on the green. It just sort of all came together.

It’s continued with “Hennepin Crawler.” What about that inspires you?

We did a photo shoot last year, and some friends of ours, they’re sort of Burning Man types, and they made this machine that they pedal across the playa out there. There’s also this thing where I live called the handcar regatta, where they take these machines and put them on the railroad tracks and race them. We did this photo shoot on one, and that led to “You can rent a Hennepin Crawler for a dollar.” I just expanded on that. It’s a pretty amazing hunk of machinery.

Tell me about “Lee Van Cleef.” Did you want to write a song about him, or write a song and decide to name it after him?

No, I had this notion that I wanted to write a song about Lee Van Cleef, and “don’t forget about Lee Van Cleef.” I’m a big fan of character actors- my favorite guys are Slim Pickens, Walter Brennan, Strother Martin, and Lee Van Cleef. When I see these guys come up on screen in various films, and a lot of times you’ll just stumble upon them, I get excited. It makes me happy. It makes me happy to see Lee Van Cleef. I just thought about the parallel between Clint and Lee. Obviously Clint has gone on to do all these amazing things, and Lee just sort of did his thing and passed away. His legacy isn’t quite what Clint’s is, but I’m sure there are people who have a soft spot for Lee. The song itself is really about reflecting about elements of my youth, and Lee is a very important anchor point for that reflection.

I also see a little social commentary running through the song titles. Is that new for Primus, or have you always tried to put that into your work?

I don’t think there’s been a conscious change in anything. I think what people on the outside fail to realize is that in Primus, or even my lyrics in general, there are some pretty deep dark demons being exorcised in these characters. I’m not getting up there on my soapbox saying, “Rally round the family with a pocket full of shells.” Some guys are really good at that, but that’s not me. I tend to do what Capra did or the Coen brothers do, and take these colorful characters and express viewpoints through them. Unfortunately, you write a song like “Wynonna’s Big Brown Beaver” and people skip past all that stuff. If you look at a song like “Jerry Was a Racecar Driver,” it’s a complete tragedy. He’s a mediocre driver who gets drunk and wraps his car around a tree. “My Name is Mud”- two tweeker guys hanging out, and one of them becomes irrational, as tweekers do, and bashes the other one’s brains in with an aluminum baseball bat. You listen to the song, it doesn’t sound so intense. A lot of that commentary has always been there, you just have to look a little deeper to find it.

 What kind of shows will you be playing this time around?

This time around, we’re doing two sets, and it’s going to be sort of “An Evening With…” There’s going to be an extraordinary amount of Primus material being played, a lot of it off the new record. We’ve been playing a lot of material off the new record in shows we’ve played in Europe and around the States. I called it the guinea pig tour, because we were testing out all this material on folks. This time though, we’re going to do two sets, and it’s going to be different. It’s hard to say what songs we’re going to play on a given night, because we do get people who follow us around, and they tend to get upset with us on the Internet if we play the same things on consecutive nights. It’s going to be an eerie, psychedelic type of show.

 I know you’re not the kind of guy who can be characterized as a “planner,” but what’s your plan for the band going forward?

I think you answered that one for me. I’m not real sure. We’ll see how we feel after we finish this cycle. It looks like we’re going well into next summer with these shows. There are always lots of pots on the stove. The Primus one is just the one that’s pulled forward right now. 

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Les Claypool
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