QRO got a chance to talk with iconic bass-man Les Claypool. The frontman of Primus and more, Claypool chatted with QRO while touring behind Green Naugahyde (QRO review), the first new Primus album in over a decade. In the conversation, Claypool talked about Naugahyde, including why Primus returned to the studio, playing the entire album live, and more, as well as bassists, drummers, fishermen, damn blue-collar tweekers, beavers, primates, pork sodas, ancient aliens, and whatnot…
QRO: How is this tour going?
Les Claypool: So far, so good. Just cruisin’ around the country in a shiny box…
QRO: What is it like to be playing behind a new Primus record for the first time in over a decade?
LC: It feels good.
QRO: Does it feel different than playing the material on tour before Green Naugahyde came out?
LC: Well, you can see the lips moving along with the lyrics now, whereas before, you could not see that.
QRO: When Primus returned after its hiatus, was the plan always to eventually make a new record, or was that a more recent decision?
LC: No. There was a long period a time where it was questionable whether we were gonna do anything together. I mean, never say never, but there wasn’t really any plans to make a new Primus record until fairly recently.
QRO: What brought about the decision to make a new record?
We knew we could make a record, and that it could be a good record. I think prior to that, there wasn’t really anything exciting going on, as far as new material.
QRO: Did you feel extra pressure with Green Naugahyde, given the long time since your last new Primus album?
LC: No, I actually feel no pressure whatsoever. If anything, there’s far less pressure than in the late nineties, when we were on a major label, and there was this expectation for us to sort of ‘live up to’ some of the past glory, MTV, the radio, and all that stuff.
Whereas this record, we just wrote music that we wanted to write. We weren’t thinking about radio, we weren’t thinking about MTV or any of that stuff.
And that’s the way it was in the early days – ‘cause we never thought we’d get any of that stuff, in the early days! And then once you start getting it, people expect it. This record was zero pressure.
QRO: So do you feel that it’s easier to make a record now, in the twenty-first century, even with file sharing, while the major labels aren’t what they used to be?
LC: Primus has always sort of done what we wanted to do, and that carried over to me doing my solo stuff as well. We always were left alone, even when we were on a major label – it wasn’t until the end there that we started to get nudging to perhaps rethink things, work with producers, and whatnot. That sort of was around the time that the band was falling apart.
I don’t think it’s any more or less easy to make records now, from that perspective, as much as technology has moved, and the tools to be able to do it inexpensively is much easier now. And, of course, being able to distribute yourself throughout the world is much easier now, but also it’s far less lucrative, because of all the file sharing and whatnot.
So it’s sort of a double-edged sword.
QRO: How did making Green Naugahyde compare with making solo records, especially recent ones?
LC: Well, when I’m doing a Claypool record, it’s ‘my thing’, you know, for the most part. A lot of times, I’m playing the majority of the instruments, and I’ll bring in musicians to fill roles – it’s almost like making a film: you’re bringing in actors to fill roles. Whereas with Primus or Oysterhead or some of these bands, they’re cooperatives, and you work as a team.
QRO: It seems like Naugahyde is a darker Primus record, certainly in the lyrics & song titles – "Tragedy’s a’ Comin’", "Jilly’s on Smack", "Moron TV", etc. Did that come from some place?
LC: I can point to specific songs like "Tragedy’s a’ Comin’" – that was something, as we were writing the music for that, I started looking through my notebooks, just the random writings, and I remember writing that, "Tragedy’s a comin’," the initial lyric. It came from a fairly dark place, because, as you move through life, you get a little rain – in everyone’s life, a little rain must fall, and there was a lot of rain last year or so of my life, some family issues and whatnot.
And just watching what’s happening around the world and whatnot, I was in a dark place. I decided to write this song about ‘impending doom’. But it’s contrasted with this upbeat groove – it’s almost a defiant look at impending doom.
QRO: Just look at "Eternal Consumption Engine" vs. "Those Damned Blue-Collar Tweekers" – they used to "run this town," but now "everything’s made in China"…
LC: Well, those damn blue-collar tweekers are still out there, tweekin’ away, working the trades and whatnot. In fact, one person who I was specifically thinking of when I was writing "Damn Blue-Collar Tweekers", an old friend of my father’s, he’s actually physically not doing so well, because of years of abuse, self-abuse.
Something like "Eternal Consumption Engine", it’s me pointing out the obvious: We are a society of consumers. We used to not only be consumers, but also producers; we’re more consumption-oriented than production-oriented, unfortunately.
QRO: At least we’ve still got ‘Fisherman Chronicles’…
LC: Of course!
Some parents take their kids to football games, and baseball games, and my dad didn’t do that – we would go fishing with my uncles. That’s what we did. There were a lot of auto mechanics in my family; we’d either working on some vehicle, or working around the house, or out on the ocean, in the Bay, fishing.
A lot of my friends are contractors and fisherman, so I’ve watched, and I’ve stated for years my perspective on what’s going on with water diversion in the state of California, how it’s effecting the fisheries. "Last Salmon Man" is my response to the fisheries being shut down for the previous three years, prior to 2010, and the waning salmon fishing industry in northern California.
QRO: How has it been working with Jay Lane again?
LC: Jay’s always been a good friend of mine, and he’s always been my go-to guy for drums. Me as a drummer myself, he’s always been the guy I’ve stolen all my licks from…
It’s great playing with Jay. It’s a ‘rebirth of creativity’ here in Primusland, because of him.
QRO: What is it like being one of the best-known bassists out there, certainly in terms of ‘bass first’ – not just a singer/bassist (already rare), but also the bass being so much at the forefront of Primus (as compared to its usual place in rock bands)?
LC: As we’ve seen over the years, in Primus and in any of my projects, they’re not any of your regular ol’ rock bands…
I came from an era, and was very influenced by a lot of old sixties and seventies soul and R ‘n’ B, where the bass was very prominent, even reggae. Then even some of the rock guys like Geddy Lee [of Rush] and Chris Squire [of Yes] – Chris Squire, his bass is the loudest damn thing on the record, by far! I think it’s because he’s a big guy – [mock accent] "Turn my fuckin’ bass up, mate!" Even old Beatles records, that bass is so loud – it’s unbelievable!
That’s why I like it… [laughs]
For me, the bass just happens to be the crayon I pulled out of the box. If I was playing guitar, or playing trumpet, or playing harpsichord, I would be playing very similar stuff; it would just have a different timbre to it.
QRO: Do you get approached/thanked by other bassists out there?
LC: I get some gushin’ every now and then, especially from some youngsters out there who are doing their thing. But I like to think that I’ve opened some doors for some people, just like some of the people before me who opened the doors for me, you know?
QRO: How does the set list break out on this tour, new songs vs. old?
LC: We’re doing two sets. The first set every night is completely different. There will be certain songs that will be in fairly regular rotation, just ‘cause they’re fun to play. And then the second set, we’re doing the album in its entirety, from start to finish.
It flows like one piece of music. It actually flows like two pieces – it feels like an album; like, halfway through, I stop and switch instruments, and I talk to the audience a little bit, and then we do the other half. It just flows – it flows really well.
It feels like we’re performing a big piece of music.
QRO: Are there any older songs that you particularly like playing live?
LC: There’s quite a few I like playing, live. It sort of depends on the evening, and how the crowd is, and how we’re feeling, and whether or not I’ve eaten beef that day… [laughs] There’s all these variables…
We’ve been delving into some of the songs that obviously people associate with us, the ones that made the radio and MTV and whatnot, but we’ve also been delving into a lot of pretty obscure old stuff, too.
QRO: How obligated do you feel to play "the old radio hits"?
LC: I don’t really feel a huge obligation. If we didn’t want to play them, we wouldn’t play them, basically. I’m not trying to be arrogant, but I think for us to put on a good show, we need to be enjoying it.
There was a long time we didn’t "Wynona’s Big Brown Beaver", for various reasons – partially because we played it a lot; got burned out on it. We started playing it again, because it’s a fun song to play. It pops up every now and again.
For me, constructing the first set is always about trying to make it have some continuity and some flow to it. It’s like watching a film; you have your peaks & your valleys within the set, to keep it interesting.
QRO: Where did you get the two giant inflatable astronauts that you have on stage on this tour?
LC: Umm… I cannot tell you. You have to watch Ancient Aliens on the History Channel to learn the origin of ‘Neil’ and ‘Buzz’. It’s a closely guarded secret…
QRO: What is your obsession with animals & animal by-products? Everything from Primus originally being called ‘Primate’ to Green Naugahyde…
LC: ‘Primate’ originally came from when I was a kid, I loved monkeys. My first stuffed animal was a Chester O’Chimp, which I still have, actually – my grandmother gave me. So when it came time to name my own band, I thought I wanted to do something along those lines, so we were ‘Primate’. And unfortunately we were told to cease-and-desist by some other band called ‘The Primates’, and so it ended up being ‘Primus’, which is basically the Latin root of the word.
As far as the animal by-products and whatnot, I think it’s a Gary Larson thing – I find humor in food and creatures.
But green Naugahyde is neither…
QRO: Has anyone ever tried to pitch you a ‘Pork Soda’?
LC: I went to Bootsy Collins’ restaurant in Cleveland, and the chef made a little amuse-bouche thing they called ‘Pork Soda’, which basically tasted like carbonated bacon grease. It was very interesting – very interesting and very slippery…
QRO: Is touring now more financially important, because of the way albums don’t sell the way they used to?
LC: Nobody makes money off records any more. Even the people who are making money off records are making a fraction of what they used to.
We’re very fortunate, and me, personally, I’m very fortunate that people like to go see The Claypool Band, or like to go see Primus. That’s why we try to put on a pretty unique show. It’s very visual and visually stimulating – and also ‘aurally’ stimulating experience. Pretty psychedelic.
We did some stuff with Flaming Lips (QRO live review) last summer, and it really went well, because we sort of have similar approach to things. It’s good to see that psychedelic element still thriving.
QRO: Does it make for more work, though, setting everything up?
LC: It does, to an extent –
I’m continually urging everyone within the band, as well as around the band, our visualists and whatnot, to try to be spontaneous and respond to what’s going on around us as we’re performing.
QRO: It seems like that would be harder than the same visual thing each night…
LC: Well, you would think, but it would drive me nuts. That’s why I could never be a stand-up comedian, because I can’t go out and tell the same joke every night. I would go nuts.
QRO: You mentioned doing two sets, and one is Green Naugahyde – at least in that case, you’re doing the same set list…
LC: Yes, but there are portions within the record where it’s pretty open, there’s some space sections that we deliberately put into the record, so that we could take ‘em out every night. There’s nights when, depending on how we’re feeling, on how we’re clicking – some nights you click, some nights you don’t – we’ll take the space sections way out.
It was designed to be more elastic, Green Naugahyde – it’s designed to be stretched.
QRO: When you were making Green Naugahyde, did you think then that you could play the whole album live?
LC: Not really – didn’t really occur to me until we were on tour, prior to the album coming out, in Europe, and we talked about doing two sets. "What are we going to do?" "Well, maybe we’ll play Green Naugahyde in its entirety." And I thought, "Oh, it’s going to be too much work." And then my manager said, "Well, you know, you guys are actually already playing all the songs off the record except for three." And I was like, "Holy shit! I’ve never had a record like this." Usually, you play two or three songs, sometimes up to four, five, and then, that’s it. And here, we’re already playing almost the entire record, and the record hadn’t even come out yet.
To me, that’s a testament to how it flows for us, and how enjoyable it is to perform. We’re doing it in its entirety on this tour, we’re probably going to do it in its entirety on the European tour, and then I think that will be it.