By Mike Greenblatt
South Of Reality, by The Claypool Lennon Delirium, is out and the tour is on! In the current print issue [at Barnes and Noble and Books A Million newsstands], Sean Lennon let his hair down with Goldmine for a very personalized interview. This interview with, Les Claypool responds to what Sean had to say and has a few ideas of his own.
The following interview took place just prior to the start of the tour.
LES CLAYPOOL: I'm just trying to come out of my wine fog.
GOLDMINE: For me it’s Scotch. Congratulations on South Of Reality. It reminds me of Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd.
LC: I like that. That's very kind of you to say.
GM: Your bass is just so poppin'! You really are different from any other bassist. I mean, I used to put you in a bag with Stanley Clarke and Larry Graham but you really are in a league of your own. What bassist do you feel you descended from?
LC: Sh*t, that's a hell of a question.
GM: So answer it. And don't say Charles Mingus.
LC: I've listened to Mingus but not a whole helluva lot. Stanley Clarke for sure...and Louis Johnson. You've got to add Geddy Lee, Chris Squire and Tony Levin and, yeah, Larry Graham for sure. For me, though, and I always say this, the bass just happens to be the crayon I pulled out of the box. I don't necessarily think of it as a bass so much anymore. It just happens to be the thing I'm easiest able to communicate my thoughts through. It's just a four-string piece of furniture.
GM: Fair enough. When I interviewed Sean (Lennon) at his house, he proved to be a fascinating conversationalist and our hour was filled with ideas. I'd like to get your take on some of the things he told me about you and your project with him.
LC: Sounds like a plan.
GM: He said that the concept of the band was based on the time that he was opening for Primus and you guys were trading tapes back and forth of rare '60s garage bands. You then found that you both had an interest in the same bands, had basically the same tastes, so you wound up turning him on to all sorts of stuff and vice-versa. Thus, this band was born.
LC: To an extent, yeah. I think, though, the Delirium really came more from the time when we were sitting backstage one night, me with my dobro bass, he with his acoustic guitar. We started fooling around and I noticed, "Wow, this guy's playing some really interesting things" in contrast to what I was doing. And then we did it again a few nights later. And again. It wound up really intriguing me because sometimes you play with people and you can click and whatnot but I was very surprised at how unique and abstract a lot of his counterparts were. Then he sat in with us onstage for "Southbound Pachyderm" one night and blew us all away. That's when I said, "Hey, why don't you come out to my place and see what happens. We can record some sh*t." And we ended up writing the first album within a few weeks.
GM: He said you taught him so much about rhythm, songwriting and production, and that you have an originality about you that he had not ever been in contact with in his entire life.
LC: Guess I owe him that $20 I promised him to say that to you. See, the thing about Sean is that he's like a sponge. He's a highly intelligent human being and he's continually seeking out information and experiences. Obviously he's had this incredibly unique and insane life, upbringing and background, so hanging out with a guy like me, who was brought up by a long line of auto mechanics from rural suburbia, had to be quite the contrast. We had a lot of stories to tell each other.
GM: He said you were a tough task-master.
LC: He probably was referring to when we wrote that first album together and I kept coming in with songs and he felt challenged because he wasn't. I remember him saying he felt pressured to come up with more material. I tend to shoot from the hip a lot. I love doing that. He came much more prepared during the South Of Reality sessions with quite a few songs fully-formulated. Still, I think the "taskmaster" reference comes from the fact that because I think he's such a phenomenal guitarist – and not a lot of people knew that prior to this – that, yeah, I pushed him in that regard. Now people are discovering just what a great rhythm and lead guitarist he truly is. When we were doing solos for the record —and I do this with all my musicians — I might've been tough on him, sure. You hear that from Mike Dillon. He's another guy who I pushed to be his best. And he loves playing with me as a direct result. I see what these guys can do and I want them to shine just as bright as they can. I'm not a big fan of comping: a lot of people will record a solo, then another, then another, then they'll take bits and pieces of each solo to make what ultimately constitutes the solo you hear on the record. I mean, sure, I'll do that if I have to, but I like to push people into playing a solo all the way through so it has more of a continuity to it.
GM: When I asked him to elucidate on the “tough task-master” comment, he had to think for a bit but finally told me that when you let him drum, you didn't like certain rides on the cymbals that he did because it took up too much space in the mix. He was surprised at that, confused you called it "white noise." Yet his instincts had him continuing to ride that cymbal, and when he did so, you told him, "Look, there's not enough dynamics." He wondered about that. Wrestled with it. But then when he heard it back, he realized that you were right. It allowed you both to add more sounds because there was a space left in the mix.
LC: I think cymbals are overused. Too often, it's a mask. There's a tendency to want to fill space. And ride cymbals, especially, eats up the sonic dimension. It's distracting. Sure, you need to lean on the cymbals sometimes in the interests of dynamics but to continually bash on them, nah. I like keeping the hi-hat closed and only ride the cymbals when you're really opening up.
GM: Sean does harmony stacks on top of harmony stacks and he said you were like, "Wow, how many damn harmony stacks are you going to do?" He would reply, "Only four," and he said you thought that was way too many.
LC: I never said it was too many. There's the give and take. It's actually a thing I learned from him. I've always said that I'm not really the singer of Primus, I'm more the narrator. I was never confident in my voice. It wasn't until I started doing the Frog Brigade band [Colonel Les Claypool's Fearless Flying Frog Brigade] that I started gaining that confidence. Now, working with Sean, and seeing how he can layer all these harmonies, it's very inspiring. I'm still not near at that level. The guy's got an incredible ear. Not me. I'm just the bass player.
GM: He may be John's son but in the Delirium, he's Paul to your John.
LC: There's times we commented on just that. We learn from each other. I think it's sort of a mix. There are times when he's very much like his father. There's also lots of times when he's very much like his mother, though. It's an amazing mince pie that is, indeed, Sean Ono Lennon. It's all his influences but it's also his DNA as well. It's a pretty spectacular thing. But he's very much his own man. He's got a very strong signature, has a lot to say and is an amazing intellect.
GM: He was very open. When I said that you were really out-there, he agreed but added you’re “not out-there by choice or in any contrived fashion to try to be interesting. He's authentically 100% naturally out-there.”
LC: Well, my daughter tells me that all the time. She loves to tell me what a weirdo I am. I remember talking to Sean awhile back about our respective upbringings and I told him about my father who I had a very great close relationship with. Then I asked him who his father figure was after his dad was gone. Most folks would say it's my Uncle Bill or my older cousin who used to take me to ballgames. No, he thought for a bit and said Andy Warhol and David Bowie. And I'm like, "Who the f*ck says such things?" But for him it's totally natural. It's his reality. But, yeah, I know I'm an odd character.
GM: Hell, so is Tom Waits and most of the other people I love. In rock'n'roll, an odd character is not a minus, that's for sure.
LC: Oh, that's good to hear. I'll tell my daughter.
GM: Yeah, tell your daughter how f**king cool you are, dude. Sean also said you're an amazing lyricist, one of the fastest lyric writers he's ever known. According to him, he loves writing lyrics and feels it's a continuing education, so he admits to the process being slow and laborious. But it just pours right out of you!
LC: I don't know what to say about that. For me, with any of this stuff, whether it's a bass line, drum part or lyric, if it's not flowing then we need to go fishing, hunting for mushrooms or go eat a sandwich. I don't like forcing things. I've always been really good, whether it's making a video, recording or working on a car, in looking at point A and point Z and finding an efficient route to those points. It's just one of those things that I've always been fairly proficient at. So if I have a storyline, it's fairly easy for me to connect the dots lyrically.
GM: One of your lyrics that I thought particularly incisive and with different meanings is "Easily Charmed By Fools." Not only does that line resonate powerfully today, but you got it from Charles Bukowski.
LC: I have a tattoo that says "Sam I Am" and that's because growing up, my first favorite book was Green Eggs And Ham by Dr Seuss. Now, as an adult, that Seussical element has been very important to me, so for Sean and I coming together, it's like Dr. Seuss and Harry Potter making a record. An interesting contrast but one that makes sense. As far as the Bukowski thing goes, I have a tendency to, if I stumble across a cool line in a book or film, it ends up going in my notepad. Many years ago I stumbled across a line in his (1978) novel Women where he's talking about one of his ladies and how she was easily charmed by fools and it just always stuck to me. So when it came time to write some lyrics for the record, I'm looking through my notebook and there was "easily charmed by fools" so I just filled in the blanks.
GM: Sean also said the video you did for his song off the debut, "Bubbles Burst," was purely your vision, not his. It was your weirdness coming out with your almost scary personification of Michael Jackson, with whom he was very close. Why'd you make Michael scary when the song isn't?
LC: That was in the beginning of our working relationship. Sean came to me almost complaining about how fast I write and how long it takes him to come up with stuff. I looked at him and went off on him. "Jesus, man, you have this amazing life, these amazing experiences. Write some f**king songs about them! People are going to want to hear this stuff. I'm totally intrigued. Everyone else will be, too. Get to work!" So one day he was telling me all about Bubbles, this chimp that he actually got to play with at Neverland when he was a little kid, and I told him to go write a song about it. He goes, "I am I am, I'm already working on one." So when it came time to do the video, I knew I had limited possibilities because of the type of music we play and the amount — or lack thereof — of income it generates, but I had been working with (British comedian) Noel Fielding plus I had access to a very interesting facility. Noel and I had been trying to put a television show together and I just thought it'd be amazing to have Noel play Michael Jackson because he's such an unbelievable comic genius. He had a show called "The Mighty Boosh" which was legendary, sorta like Salvador Dali meets Monty Python. So I got Fielding to play Michael Jackson and his brother to play the chimp. We wound up getting an animator to fill in the rest. Sean actually got some flak for it for disrespecting Michael, which he wasn't.
GM: The other visual image that jumps out at me is from the second CLD record, Lime And Limpid Green, a covers EP with songs by Pink Floyd, The Who, King Crimson and a Japanese group, The Flower Travellin Band whose "Satori" you made into a video starring that bouncing eyeball. Was that your idea?
LC: That one was Sean. He turned me on to that band. He also met an animator in Japan and just kinda turned the guy loose who wound up doing all these really cool abstract stop-motion things. I like to do that as well. If you come across someone who has a strong vision, great style or any kind of thumbprint, given some parameters, let 'em go! You tend to get more for your buck that way if they're inspired to express themselves through your vision.
GM: How come you revisited "The Cricket And The Genie" from the debut?
LC: "Cricket Chronicles Revisited" on the new album — more than its subject matter — is a continuation. It made sense, like what Primus did with "The Fisherman's Chronicles." I've always been a sucker for those things. Sean and I geek out on the art-rock stuff where there's part one, then part two, three. Yes did that. They'd have all kinds of chapters of their songs. I love that stuff. With us, part of it is homage and part of it is, of course, parody.
GM: Tell us about Rancho Relaxo, your home studio in Northern California.
LC: It's a marvelous magical place. I moved here with my wife prior to her becoming my wife. We stumbled across it about 25 years ago. It's like Boogie Nights, a slice of the '70s in all its glory. We have a pool and a separate pool house and both my mother and my mother-in-law instantly tried to lay claim to it and I said, "nope." I put all my recording gear there and that's where I've recorded my records since 1995.
GM: That must be a very cool space. No doubt about it. Sean loved it. He said it took you guys two months to produce South Of Reality there.
LC: We kinda work, then hang out, then work some more. He'd go see friends. But I mixed the sh*t out of it. There was one song I mixed 28 different times.
GM: Aha! So you are a tough taskmaster after all.
LC: I tend to obsess over sound, yeah. Guilty as charged. I have all this old vintage gear. That's a big part of it, too. The analog stuff still gives out with all these hiccups, blurps and clicks and you got to go figure out what's doing what. Plus, I usually wind up realigning the console every day. So it's an adventure.
GM: What is the state of Primus?
LC: It's going to be a mellow year for Primus this year because last year was such a heavy year. Still, Primus will be going to South America. Beyond that, we'll probably play here and there in the States but it will not be a very heavy touring year. I'll be out with Sean for quite a while anyway.
GM: And the other guys in Primus don't mind? Or do they?
LC: I sorta assume they don’t mind. I think it's actually best for the health of Primus to stop and breathe once in awhile, you know? That's what choked us out at the end of the '90s. We were just making a record and touring, making a record and touring and making a record and touring. It finally got to where we needed to stop or otherwise we would have done something lame. It also gives the fans a chance to breathe and makes it that much more special when we do come back together. It's not based on any angst or lack of enthusiasm. We just need to breathe.
GM: We're all really looking forward to see you replicate South Of Reality on a stage. What's the disparity for you personally between studio and stage?
LC: Depends upon the tune. Certain songs lend themselves to stretching out. Some we haven't even attempted to tackle yet. I do know this. We're going start certain songs in the middle. Some at the end and work backward. I like to create different soundscapes on stage, moving through the material in surprising manifestations. This will also make the shows much more diverse from each other. We're a four-piece. It's Sean and I, drummer Paulo Baldi and our new fellow on keys, João Nogueira.
GM: Any covers? I'd sure love to hear you guys do "In The Court Of The Crimson King," "Boris The Spider" or "Astonomy Domine" from your covers EP.
LC: Yeah, they tend to slip out and every now and again.