Like Frank Zappa and Ween, Primus is one of those groups that seem to have always been unfairly understood by outsiders as novelty acts, or even “joke bands.” Making its major-label debut in 1991 with Sailing The Seas Of Cheese, Primus introduced itself to the alt-rock culture as a funky, experimental antidote to the scourge of slackerdom. If rock music in the ’90s seemed to be defined by the laid-back, bleary-eyed influences of weed and heroin, Primus was like a steeped pot of mushroom tea injected straight into your cortex.
Many people will probably forever know Primus as “the band who wrote the South Park” theme. But Primus is adored by its legions of slavish fans, who know all the words to the band’s bass-driven, acrobatic story songs about glass sandwiches, race car drivers, fishermen, and big, brown beavers. Since emerging in the late ’80s, Primus’ sense of humour and neon, plastic aesthetics marked the group as a rock ’n’ roll oddball, popping up everywhere from a Lollapalooza headlining spot to Bill And Ted’s Bogus Journey. (“Quite possibly the strangest top-10 band ever,” noted Robert Christgau in regard to Primus’ 1993 album, Pork Soda, “and good for them.”)
At the centre of the group’s psychedelic hurricane of funk, prog rock, and punk is nasally lead vocalist and bass-playing icon Les Claypool. In the past 20 years, Claypool has left Primus to form about 3,000 different side projects (including Colonel Les Claypool’s Fearless Flying Frog Brigade, and psych-rock supergroup Oysterhead with Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio and Police drummer Stewart Copeland). Though he’s also a filmmaker, a novelist, and lately a winemaker, Claypool’s always gravitated back to Primus for one-off gigs and tours. This year sees Claypool back with Primus, releasing the band’s Green Naugahyde, its first album of new material since 1999’s wildly ambitious Antipop.
Naugahyde, and the new tour (which stops in Denver for back-to-back dates Monday and Tuesday, Oct. 17-18) also sees original Primus drummer Jay Lane returning to the group. We talked with Claypool about Primus’ new-old lineup, the dangers of becoming a nostalgia act, and just what the hell Primus is, anyways.
The A.V. Club: How’s the tour going so far?
Les Claypool: It’s going well. We’re only three shows into it, but it’s been going great.
AVC: How does it feel having Jay Lane back in the band? Is it odd at all?
LC: It’s not odd at all, actually. It feels incredibly natural. I’ve been playing with Jay for the past 20 years. He’s always sort of been my go-to guy.
AVC: Primus has been reuniting and touring on-and-off over the last decade, but Green Naugahyde is your first new record in a long time. Did bringing Jay back into the fold help get some of those creative juices flowing?
LC: Well we got back together in ’03, and again in ’06, to do some touring. But it was all nostalgic. There was no creative flow. When Jay came on, there was this real burst of energy. Prior to that, we had fallen into the doldrums of becoming a nostalgia band. The addition of Jay shook us out of these doldrums and stimulated us to write new material.
AVC: It seems like there’s been a wave of popular ’90s alt-rock bands reuniting, whether to work on new material or just tour. Is there ever a worry at these shows that fans have just came in to hear the hits and might be a bit resistant to the new record?
LC: Not really. We are doing two sets, so there’s plenty of old material. For me to do a project—I have a pretty successful solo career, so—for me to even want to do Primus, it had to be a creative step forward. It had to be the band progressing and opening new doors for ourselves and our fans. And I think that’s why Primus fans were there from the beginning: because we were always pushing those parameters and finding other cubbies and doors to get into.
AVC: It seems that between your solo stuff and other projects like Oysterhead and Frog Brigade, you can get off in just about any direction you please. What is it about returning to the dynamic of Primus specifically that’s appealing?
LC: There’s really only one person who plays like Larry LaLonde. When I do all these projects, it’s always about chemistry. And there’s a certain chemistry with Primus: There was a certain chemistry with Tim Alexander, and a certain chemistry with Brain [a.k.a. Brian Mantia]. There are parallels and there are similarities, but they’re all different, and they all have their unique characteristics. It’s a lot different than my solo stuff, because for the last half-decade I haven’t used any guitar at all in my stuff. It’s just Primus.
It’s always hard to put your finger on what it is that makes Primus Primus. [Laughs.] Or even what the hell Primus is! I go into the hardware store, someone might be like, “Oh, what kind of music do you play?” I don’t know what the hell I play. I play in Primus! I think it even says in Wikipedia that we have our own category somewhere.
AVC: Yeah, it mentions that you have your own ID3 tag in Winamp—
LC: I don’t even know what that is! What the hell is a—what’d you say, an “IVD tag”?
AVC: ID3 tag. It’s like a file extension for digital files on Winamp. So when you click on a song, it’ll say like “Rock ’N’ Roll” for The Beatles, or something like that.
LC: But what’s the tag? What does it do?
AVC: It’s just for sorting music by genre on your computer. Stuff like that. But apparently the genre for Primus is just “Primus.”
LC: Well, there you go.
AVC: Speaking of computer-y things, the band’s website used to be Primussucks.com, but that’s since been changed.
LC: Yeah it’s been Primusville.com for a while now.
AVC: Why the change? “Primus sucks” is such a great, self-deprecating URL.
LC: Well, we were hoping that Primusville would be this land that you go to. It’d be this zone, this land you could go to. But along came Farmville. So it never came to fruition.
AVC: Are you trying to distance yourself from “Primus sucks” as a band motto?
LC: It’s not that we’re not attached to it; it’s just that we’re not as into promoting it ... you can only beat a horse so long, even after it’s dead. [Laughs.] I think we were beating that horse a little too long.
AVC: You’ve also made a new name for yourself in the past couple years as a winemaker. How’d you find your way into that? It seems like between you and that Maynard Keenan wine documentary, there’s a boom of rock musicians moving into winemaking.
LC: There’s a two-person boom? Well, I live in the Russian River Valley, which is sort of a mecca of Northern California noir. As I was waning away from my pot-smoking habit, I started drinking the local wares. My neighbors are all winemakers and coopers and vineyard managers. I just fell into this culture. So me and some buddies decided to start making some wine one year, and we ended up making a shitload of it. So we started this little business venture. It’s basically costing me a fortune. But it’s a good reason to have parties with lots of fancy booze.
AVC: So does this mean you’re off pot and onto red wine?
LC: I stopped smoking pot several years ago, because I found it was affecting my memory. And I didn’t want to not remember my kid’s childhood.
AVC: To a lot of people, Primus is still very much associated with the South Park theme. And the South Park guys just did a giveaway where they live-streamed your new album. What’s your relationship like with them all these years after writing that theme song?
LC: Yeah, they’re very good friends of mine. In fact, for my birthday, I’m going to see Book Of Mormon. I’m anxious to see it. Matt [Stone] especially is a good friend of mine. And I see Trey [Parker] now and again. They had their 15th anniversary party the other night, and we were all there.
AVC: How do the crowds take to Primus across the world? There are videos of you guys opening for Faith No More in Chile in 2010, and it’s like a sea of people, like a Bonnaroo-sized crowd there, just for you guys.
LC: Well, they get fired up down there. They put you in a soccer stadium and start chanting soccer chants at you. It’s a somewhat surreal experience.
AVC: How was it, opening for Faith No More on its reunion tour?
LC: It was great. We’ve known those guys for many, many years. [Faith No More drummer] Mike Bordin is one of my oldest friends. And [Faith No More frontman] Mike Patton, he’s an incredible talent. All those guys are great guys. We started playing with them around San Francisco in the ’80s.
AVC: You and Mike Patton have always seemed like kindred spirits, in terms of working all these weird, experimental threads within the confines and parameters of what’s ostensibly rock music.
LC: Well, I didn’t think about the confines or parameters of rock music. For me it was just a natural extension of what I was listening to. It was more that the rock world embraced us, [rather] than us trying to be part of something, you know what I mean? Patton, I think, had a hard time swallowing that star pill. Faith No More was poised for pop stardom. And Patton was a prime candidate to appear in those teenybopper magazines. And I really think he took a dislike to that and really pushed away from that.
AVC: Given what you’re saying about your tastes always being a little bit more eclectic, was it ever tricky getting people to play with you? Or have musicians just kind of naturally gravitated towards you over the years?
LC: Well I’ve been doing this a long time. And I’d been doing it a long time before anyone knew who the hell we were. I remember when Primus went to play clubs and nobody knew who to put us with. They’d put us with the Pop-O-Pies and The Swans, and all these odd bands. It wasn’t ’til Fishbone and Red Hot Chili Peppers came along that club owners even knew what to do with us, as far as support acts. It was more difficult getting gigs. But like anything that’s somewhat grassroots, you just start with 20 people, and at the next show you hope there are 25. Primus never really had any leaps or bounds. It was always step-by-step-by-step.
AVC: Is part of this keeping a strong relationship with your fans? You’ve always been one of those acts that are good about making live recordings of shows available to people who’d like to hear them.
LC: That’s part of it. We’re not big Twitter or Facebook guys. More than anything, I think the best thing you can do as an artist is just stay as true to yourself as possible and hope that your fan base will appreciate that. [Laughs.] Because as we know sometimes artists can get their own heads a little too far up their own asses. But I think people respect the notion of taking chances. And, whether they like it or not, we tend to take a lot of chances.
AVC: Has the stage show mellowed at all as you guys have gotten older? Do you still bring out the costumes, masks, and props and go full-bore with the theatrics on the new tour?
LC: It kind of depends on the evening. The pig comes out every now and again. The monkey might come out. It depends. But it’s definitely a very psychedelic show. And there’s a lot of eye candy. It’s not like we were ever easy on the eyes, and folks never came out to see what we looked like, except maybe to see us wiggle our fingers around.
AVC: You’re just being hard on yourself there—
LC: Well, I’ve never been on the cover of Tiger Beat magazine, let’s put it that way. But that’s not why you go see Primus. You don’t go see Primus to see what kind of new clothing I’m wearing or what my new hairdo is. You come to see Primus for the musical experience and the visual experience. I think, anyways. Maybe I’m wrong! Maybe there are people out there checking out my ass.