Sailing the Seas of Ozz

Les Claypool sounds a little hurt when asked how his band fits into the metal-dominated OzzFest '99 tour, which features Ozzy Osbourne and the rest of the original Black Sabbath, along with new-breed metal mongers like Rob Zombie and slash 'n' burn institutions like Slayer. Claypool's genre-melding, eclectic Primus seems the odd band out on the bill.

"I hadn't really thought about that until it was mentioned to us when we were actually being booked onto the tour that there was a thought that we weren't heavy enough," Claypool says. "I guess it's just because we cross over to so many different gggennnres, but, you know, we definitely have some heavy material that will probably dominate the set."

He's talking about songs like the heavy-duty fare from Sailing the Seas of Cheese (1991): "Here Come the Bastards," with its marshaled, staccato bass line of a melody, distorted bass bridge, and acidic guitar solo, and "Those Damned Blue-Collar Tweekers," which begins with tremolo-twisted guitar feedback before launching into pounding drums beneath slamming bass pops and a guitar line that surfaces through a layer of fuzz.

"Too Many Puppies," a midtempo bass-and-guitar wah-wah exercise from 1990's Frizzle Fry, is another candidate. So is "My Name Is Mud," the heaviest hitter from Pork Soda (1993).

"We're going on before Slayer, man," Claypool says with a laugh. "We're going to have to beef it up a bit. I'm sure this will be the Primus testosterone set.

"We played a festival with Sabbath in Europe a couple of summers ago on tour, and it was amazing," he later reveals. "That's pretty much the main reason that I wanted to play this tour."

So there is precedent for Primus on a heavy-metal tour, and the concept sounds even less far-out when Claypool talks about his beginnings as a high-school bassist in the '70s, which he does by phone from his decidedly '70s house. The stately mission-style home is nestled deep in the Sonoma Hills north of San Francisco -- where Primus fans created a cult in the early '90s with the phrase "Primus sucks." Claypool says the house "looks like a Mexican restaurant that was built in 1973. That vibe. The twisted wrought iron." He was hooked on the mansion -- the guesthouse of which is now a recording studio -- when he saw the leftover '70s wallpaper and other reminders of his childhood. "In the closet they had left some old shag carpeting in some craaaazy colors that brought me back."

Back when shag was in, Claypool, who will say only that he's "under 50 but over 30," was honing his chops on metal.

"I could play [Sabbath's] 'Iron Man' from start to finish when I was 16 years old," Claypool recalls. "Of course everybody my age grew up listening to Sabbath. You know, Sabbath, Zeppelin, Judas Priest, and the Scorpions, and all those types of bands were pretty influential in high school. Especially Sabbath. I know a few Geezer Butler bass lines."

Claypool almost went metal professionally in 1986 following the death of Metallica bassist Cliff Burton that year. "I had auditioned for Metallica," Claypool says. "I went to high school with [guitarist] Kirk [Hammett]." He didn't land the job, though, probably because he tried to get the Metallica boys to jam on an Isley Brothers tune during the tryout.

Metal-laced funk-soul may not have been the best choice of audition material, but Claypool pulls off the combination beautifully in Primus, which also includes guitarist Larry LaLonde and drummer Brian "Brain" Mantia, who replaced original skin man Tim "Herb" Alexander before the recording of the Brown Album (1997). Primus' eclectic musicality -- a pastiche of soulful grooves, jazz, metal, experimental rock, and goofy lyrics (check song titles like "Wynona's Big Brown Beaver" and "Shake Hands With Beef") -- is just a product of his musical upbringing, notes Claypool, the band's mastermind, lyricist, and bassist.

"You gotta figure that I was playing for ten years before I even made my first record," says Claypool, referring to the Primus debut, 1989's Suck on This. "I mean, I played a lot of different stuff." Indeed, in high school Claypool played with the jazz band, the jazz ensemble, the concert band, the guitar class ("because they needed an upright-bass player"), and even a '40s swing band in addition to garage-rock bands. "We'd borrow dinner jackets from the drama department and go do gigs at, like, the rod and gun club," Claypool recalls.

After high school he began to revere great funk bassists like Larry Graham and Louis Johnson and actually joined an R&B band. "We had a horn section, and we were doing old James Brown, Wilson Pickett, Booker T. and the MG's, Sam and Dave -- all these old covers," says Claypool. "And it was actually the best thing I ever did in my life, because I was playing three to five times per week, four sets a night, playing all these songs."

Claypool's next musical infatuation was with experimental rock by the likes of Laurie Anderson, Peter Gabriel, King Crimson, and the Residents. Taking all of his influences and dumping them together, he created Primus' trademark sound.

But even with such a varied bag of musical tricks, it's easy to fall into a rut if you stick around long enough. Some would argue that Primus hasn't offered anything to rival the quirky Sailing the Seas of Cheese since that album broke the band. Claypool himself admits that Primus was dragging when it made Tales From the Punch Bowl (1995). But with the drummer switch on the Brown Album, according to Claypool, "that record doesn't slow down anywhere, and there's a lot more of that big-bottomy drum stuff."

Still, he says, "I think one thing that has happened with us producing our own records over all these years is you kind of get your head stuck up in your own ass, you know. You lose sight of what is exciting for other people sometimes. I'm a guy who's listened to many different things throughout my life, and I'm influenced by many different things, and it's not necessarily a good thing, with a band like Primus, to just keep stretching out into these different areas all of the time. It's good to pull these influences in and use them, but I think at some point unless someone's there to say, 'This is what you guys do best,' you get a little scattered."

In order to refocus, the band brought in outsiders to produce and/or play on individual tracks for their as-yet-untitled August release, which they recently finished recording.

"What we were looking for were people that had a history with Primus, were fans of the band, and could bring out in us what they liked about the band," Claypool says.

"Stewart Copeland, who just recently was turned on to Primus, he wanted to see us do something that had some, what he said, 'beauty' to it, you know, some melody, and he actually wanted to incorporate some female vocals onto it," explains Claypool. "For me that was a big step, and I said, 'Well, if we bring in some female vocals, it's got to be someone edgy and someone cool.' And so we brought in Martina Topley-Bird, who I'm a huge fan of. She's the singer on Tricky's first couple of records."

The band also brought in Tom Waits, on whose recent release, Mule Variations, they backed the singer on a track. Waits wanted Primus to crank up a good march tempo (think "Sgt. Baker" from Cheese) and mix it with something totally at odds with that. "Like, polka meets dirge," offers Claypool. "So we ended up doing a song with him that actually sounds like a southern Louisiana funeral dirge, called 'Coattails of a Dead Man.'"

Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello also produced and played on three tracks. The music is "very, very reminiscent of our earlier, sort of driving, groove-oriented stuff," according to Claypool.

Fred Durst, vocalist for the popular alternative rap-metal band Limp Bizkit, "grew up on Primus," Claypool says. Like Morello, he predictably asked for aggressive, trademark Primus stuff of yore.

Hmmm. The Morello and Durst songs sound like perfect fodder for the testosterone-laden Primus set at OzzFest. Will fans get a preview of the new material?

"We'll probably pop in a couple [new] songs," Claypool ventures. "You can't play too much stuff that isn't released, or people get bored. They want to hear the old stuff. We're only doing a 40-minute set, so we're just going to be bustin' out the heavy rockers."

Primus plays at OzzFest '99 with Black Sabbath and more than 15 other bands May 27 at Coral Sky Amphitheatre, 601-7 Sansbury's Way, West Palm Beach. Gates open at 10 a.m.; tickets cost $35 and $49.50. Call 561-793-0445. See "Concerts For the Week" for a full list of bands.

Contact John Ferri at his e-mail address:
John_Ferri@newtimesbpb.com

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