Hazy Days of Primus

Current tour plays heavy on Claypool and band's heyday

click to enlarge KUDZU'S ADDICTION: (From left) Primus' Les - Claypool, Tim Alexander, and Larry Lalonde - CHAPMAN BAEHLER
CHAPMAN BAEHLER
KUDZU'S ADDICTION: (From left) Primus' Les Claypool, Tim Alexander, and Larry Lalonde

Around the time 1989 became 1990, I was in small-town Texas auditioning as a vocalist for a spazzy funk-punk outfit called Kudzu. They had songs called "The Melting Head of Jimi Hendrix" and "What Do You Do When Martha's On Top?"

In between fits of jamming on the band's overtly Red Hot Chili Peppers-influenced catalog, we sat around drinking Coors Extra Gold, smoking copious amounts of Mexican dirt-weed and talking about music. The three members of Kudzu were obviously far more versed in the leading edge of alternative music than I, so I mostly sat quietly, nodded knowingly, and chimed in when the bands to which I had been exposed were mentioned.

At one point, the guitarist began waxing rhapsodic about a tour that either had just been or was soon coming to Texas — I was really, really high — featuring a band called Jane's Addiction and one called Primus. His kid-at-Christmas fervor regarding Jane's Addiction (especially its guitar player) didn't make as big an impression on me as the way he spoke briefly and reverentially about Primus, and the way his bandmates just nodded in kind; it was obvious that this group I hadn't heard of was like a secret handshake for these guys, something already covered at length and assimilated into the dogma of their particular religion.

I didn't get into Kudzu. I did, however, read an awful lot in the press about whether or not Metallica guitarist Kirk Hammett appeared in Primus' video for the watershed single "John The Fisherman." And not long after, I saw it — the visual accompaniment to a tune that took the technique, groove and pummel that I loved about metal, subtracted its irritating, juvenile imagistic components, and married the result to an oddball yet seemingly wholly unpretentious sort of character.

I completely forgot to look for Kirk Hammett.

By the time Les Claypool, Larry LaLonde and Tim "Herb" Alexander headlined the third installment of Lollapalooza in 1993, they were an inexplicable mainstream phenomenon. The Alternative Nation was already ceding key strategic positions to pop-punk and irredeemable fifth-tier grunge bandwagoneers (Sister Machine Gun? Really?), but Primus could do no wrong.

Many of us may have been spending more time digging into the Pixies and Fugazi records we missed along the way, and less time rocking Primus' three-year-old Frizzle Fry end-to-end, but like their salad-days tourmates Jane's, the endlessly entertaining NorCal trio were already an institution. Primus retained a singular sort of go-to quality, even as the original fans were joined (and then abandoned) by an airplay-influenced throng; the band had not handed in a bad song yet, and continued to buck the odds with subsequent albums like Tales from The Punchbowl and The Brown Album for most of the decade, even as their cachet began to shrivel a bit.

Circa 1999, I had pretty much forgotten what getting stoned felt like, and while I still defended Primus when more punk-oriented friends dug through my CD rack, my comments were tinged with more than a hint of nostalgia. Antipop, their eighth proper full-length, and third without definitive drummer Alexander, came out that year, and had I not been working at a record store I probably never would've heard it. Characterized by myriad guest musicians and track-at-a-time producers from The Police's Steward Copeland and Rage Against The Machine's Tom Morello to Fred Fucking Durst, the disc was obviously a stab at diversity by a band that'd never before seemed uncomfortable with its identity as well as an attempt by their label to up their hip-association quotient.

"The whole collaboration element came from prodding by the record company, because [1997's] The Brown Album wasn't a big seller," says Primus bassist/mastermind Les Claypool. "So all of a sudden the record company's poking and prodding."

But their label's vested interest in goosing record sales wasn't the only reason for Antipop's scattered, distracted vibe. Shortly after the album's promotional cycle, Primus went on an extended hiatus.

"I think it was just burnout more than anything," Claypool says of the time off. "I'd been doing Primus since '84, it was just time to put it to rest indefinitely. We just kind of walked away from it."

Most fringe-music diehards know what Claypool did, musically speaking, in the wake of Primus' open-ended split. A couple of projects meant to simmer — the all-star trio Oysterhead and loosely organized solo project Les Claypool's Frog Brigade — boiled over into his indoctrination into the jam-band scene.

Says the bassist of Oysterhead, the improv-heavy supergroup that also included Phish guitarist Trey Anistasio and the aforementioned Copeland, and was originally intended as a one-show-only feature at the 2000 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival:

"Basically, you get a nightclub, and get someone like me to grab some musician buddies and put together one show that's just an open jam. The next thing you know, it went from a nightclub to a big theater, and Francis Ford Coppola and Matt Groening are there. We had a lot of fun, and decided to make [2001's Grand Pecking Order]. It wasn't a calculated thing, it sort of fell into place."

Then there was the nominal solo project Les Claypool's Frog Brigade, which debuted at a festival in California's Calaveras County (hence the band's name — read your Twain, people); the group quickly evolved into a touring and recording concern with a penchant for reproducing entire albums such as Pink Floyd's Animals in concert.

"That's just my alter ego. Or maybe it's my ego, and Primus is my alter ego," says Claypool, laughing. "I have so many egos, I don't know which one is actually me."

For the time being, however, everything else is on hold, as Claypool, LaLonde, and even Alexander have rediscovered the joy of melding deep groove, textured noise and progressive, misanthropic funk as a unit. While their latest release, a combination DVD and EP of new material titled Animals Should Not Try to Act Like People, brings to bear some of the extended trance-inducement of Claypool's other projects, it's undoubtedly the classic Primus lineup. And one needn't even lung-cram a quarter-ounce of Mexican dirt-weed to fully enjoy it.

The current tour plays heavy on the band's heyday — they're playing two full sets, and one of them re-creates '91's landmark Sailing the Seas of Cheese in its entirety — and millions of fans like me will always equate Claypool with Primus, preferably the Primus of the early '90s, when we were young and high and different shit regularly hit the radio. Still, Claypool himself sees that era as just another component of everything he's done.

"What do I want on my tombstone?" he laughs. "More than anything, I don't want for it to be 'the guy from Primus.'"

Contact Scott Harrell at 813-248-8888, ext. 109, or by e-mail at [email protected].

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