By Liz Tracy
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Primus frontman Les Claypoolseems an odd fit for a jam-band adventure on the high seas. Considered one of the more innovative bass players to emerge during the past decade, Claypool's warped genius doesn't blend with the patchouli-wearing, Birkenstock-footed crowd. Or so it would appear.
"There's certain elements of the music climate now as to what they were back when Primus started," says Claypool, calling from his Prawn Song label offices in San Francisco. "The jam-band scene very much reminds me of the early Lollapalooza days. It's an ever-evolving scene; it's based more upon the way you approach music as opposed to the style of music you're playing. There's this huge group of people that want to see musicians play without any preconceived notion and dance on the edge of disaster. In a world of cookie-cutter, cut-and-paste, Pro Tools pop music, it's a great counterbalance to that."
Primus had been on hiatus between its last studio album (1999's Anti-Pop) until the release of Animals Should Not Act Like People DVD/CD combo (which includes five new Primus tracks) late last year. Claypool, meanwhile, has spent the past several years indulging in jam music, hairy armpits and all. Among the most noted project was Oysterhead, which includes Phish guitarist/vocalist Trey Anastasio and Police skinsman Stewart Copeland. His most recent sideshow is the Les Claypool Frog Brigade, a rotating lineup that's based on who's available at any given time for a show.
"Part of the glory of it is coming together with people who are of such musical caliber that you want some of that spontaneity," Claypool says. "No matter how great a musician is, when people come together, it's all about chemistry. That's what makes relationships work. It was definitely a huge window opening playing with Oysterhead to the jam world."
Oysterhead's origins go back to 2000 at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, for which Claypool was asked to perform. Claypool, looking for someone who could play music off the cuff, asked Anastasio, who in turn suggested Copeland. Guitarist Tom Morello (Audioslave, Rage Against the Machine) expressed interest after being contacted but couldn't commit to the project.
A few months after the festival, Phish went on an extended hiatus, and with Anastasio's schedule less occupied, Oysterhead went into Anastasio's Vermont studio and emerged with 2001's The Grand Pecking Order, which drew acclaim from critics and fans.
While the half-hour hallucinogenic-inspired opuses in jam-band music may sit on the polar-opposite end of Primus' carnival funk, there are some common threads. As jam bands pride themselves on spontaneity, Primus, similarly, never set out to polish its performances by replicating their studio albums on-stage. Traditionally, Primus tended to overlook trivial matters, like rehearsals. "We rehearsed, but we were fairly lazy about it," Claypool says. "You want some of the ends to be loose so you can work these things out on-stage so there's a certain element of disaster that makes it a unique experience every time we play."
What started out as a Bay Area cult act became a national smash. The band's 1989 Suck on This live debut offered a glimpse of Claypool's slap-funk style and funhouse-announcer voice mixed with Frank Zappa sensibilities (or insensibilities, depending on whom you ask). By the time Primus released 1991's Sailing the Seas of Cheese,which yielded "Jerry Was a Race Car Driver" and "Tommy the Cat," the trio became the alternative to the then-alternative scene, even landing a spot on the Grammy short list for "Wynona's Big Brown Beaver" (from 1995's Tales from the Punchbowl).
"Primus was not supposed to sell millions of albums," Claypool reflects. "Nobody thought that, and neither did I, but somehow we did it. That's a wonderful thing. It's like watching [presidential candidate] Howard Dean. He was never supposed to get as far as he's gotten. Now he's the frontrunner for the Democratic Party. Every now and then, something just pops out, pushes the right buttons, and makes an impact, and that's what happened with Primus. When Primus came out, we were rebelling against the Guns 'N Roses and the Cinderellas and hairball bands we thought were contrived. It was ridiculous. It was nothing we were slightly into, and we made fun of it."
On hiatus from Primus, Claypool, working as the Brigade, released a two-set series in 2001 titled Live Frogs with original Primus guitarist Todd Huth and drummer Jay Lane (the three comprise side act Sausage), playing everything from Pink Floyd's entire Animals album to a cover of King Crimson's "Thela Hun Ginjeet."
While fans speculated what the four-year hiatus after Anti-Pop meant for the future of Primus, Claypool wasn't concerned, opting to indulge in side projects, running his Prawn Song label, releasing 2001's The Purple Onion,and, notably among Gen Y'ers, penning the theme song for South Park.
"We're going to do Primus when the time is right to do it and when we're excited to do it, not because we need to do it to sell more records or because it's on the schedule," says Claypool, surprisingly using we instead of I, given his dominant role in Primus. "When you're an up-and-coming band, you're constantly working it, working it, working it. We're at all different points in our lives where we have families and other interests. We don't want [Primus] to dominate our world, because when it does, it becomes less fun, and that's no good for anybody."