By Ray Chelstowski
Bassist/vocalist Les Claypool has been making quite a bit of news lately. Last month he unveiled his contribution to help fund aid for Ukrainian citizens, which in his case came in the form of a song titled "Zelenksy: The Man With the Iron Balls," made with members of Gogol Bordello, The Police, Sean Lennon and others. In typical Claypool fashion, the song is infused with his unique, quirky sense of humor. Now his band Primus (comprised of guitarist Larry "Ler" LaLonde and drummer Tim "Herb" Alexander) are gearing up for their 64-date world tour, ‘A Tribute To Kings,’ paying homage to prog-rock legends Rush, with the trio performing Rush’s 1977 album A Farewell to Kings in its entirety, following a set of their own music. The set of their own music will include the material found on their new 3-song EP, Conspiranoid, via ATO Records. The EP opens with the 11-minute "Conspiranoia" — a song that seamlessly moves between Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd to Red Hot Chili Peppers, then to David Gilmour-era Floyd, and back again. Throughout is the display of creativity and musicianship that has defined Primus’ output and sits at the center of Claypool’s mass appeal among fellow artists.
However, when you look at the remarkably prolific and varied career that Claypool has charted, this is only a taste of what is cooking within his world. At any given moment, there are a few dozen balls in the air that he manages to effortlessly juggle. In addition to the tour and EP he is also working with his son on a Primus documentary, doing projects with Robert Trujillo from Metallica, doing make-up gigs with side project Oysterhead (Trey Anastasio, Stewart Copeland) and trading guest roles with guitarist Billy Strings.
Goldmine caught up with Les and talked about the making of the new EP (get it on white vinyl), the reception the Rush-themed tour has enjoyed, and what his career might have looked like if Metallica had actually recruited him to play bass, during either of the two times the spot in the band became open.
GOLDMINE: You are referenced as an influence from so many corners of the music world. How do you describe the “Primus sound”?
LES CLAYPOOL: I have no idea. I run into people at the hardware store and they’ll say “Oh, you’re in a band. What kind of music do you play?” I never know how to respond, so I just say it’s “Devil music!” (laughs)
I’m just doin’ what I do. They gave Primus its own musical category I think because they didn’t know what to do with it. I’ve been dealing with this for decades and it makes me cringe when people call us “punk metal,” because that’s incredibly narrow. Our music is really is a reflection of many different influences. It’s eclectic.
GM: On the single ‘Conspiranoia’ you have distinct moments where you are in the spotlight. Is that a conscious decision you make, to ensure that everyone has a moment to shine?
LC: Well, there are only three of us, so we have to try and spread that wallpaper paste as best we can. The thing about ‘Conspiranoia’ is that I had the notion for the song for a while. Then we were getting ready to do this tour. While we were going to do this Rush thing we thought that we should have some new Primus music for the folks to hear. But we didn’t want to do an entire record, nor do I think that people want to be subjected to that much new material. So we decided to do a 20-minute song. I’ve always wanted to do that and in the end it turned into an almost 12-minute song. I had some lyrics for ‘Conspiranoia’ and it had been kicking around in my brain for a while. So I wrote it out, arranged it, and then we brought the guys in to record it. The funny thing, with Herb in particular, is that I have been watching a lot of old Primus footage because my son is doing a documentary on us and has digitalized hundreds of video tapes of us performing. So as we were recording this track, and because we’re older, I had to keep prodding Herb to play the way we used to, because he was a pretty “busy player” back in the day. Like we all do, he’s mellowed with age. So I just kept prodding him and in the end he did some pretty amazing stuff on this song.
GM: Is the final recording consistent with your initial thoughts about where the song would go?
LC: It’s funny, I had written the lyrics and then played them for my son, who’s been quite active in our world lately. He directed the documentary, he directed the video for this song, he had done that thing with me and Robert Trujillo, and he worked with me on what I just did for Zeleinsky (see below), so I trust his opinion. He said “You know the focal point of our documentary is how we have created this world with Primus characters and a lot of them take these various viewpoints that may or not be yours.” The original lyrics for ‘Conspiranoia’ didn’t have these kinds of characters and my son thought that it came off as a little preachy. So I went back and rewrote it, adding characters and making it more humorous. He also contributed all of these conspiracy theories that he found. At the end of the track we have all of these friends, who take great joy in finding humor about these theories, talking about them.
GM: Those spoken parts in the end really sit in the distance and aren’t shown in the video, like the lyrics.
LC: I didn’t want him to display them in the video because they aren’t really part of the lyrics that I wrote. It’s very similar to the end of Pink Floyd’s “Money,” where people are just rambling on. What we really wanted to do was take online interviews from actual conspiracists and use them, but you can’t legally do that.
GM: Did you test drive any of this material on the first leg of this tour?
LC: We just started playing it on this leg. We did the entire Rush tour last year but we didn’t have any of these new songs. It was all after the fact. When we got home from the tour and had built this great recording space. So we brought in some gear, decided to record a song and it went so well we decided to do another one. Then we said, if this is going to be a B-side to the first song then we are going to need two songs to cover the run time of the A-side.
GM: Do you think EP’s are the way of the future in this new streaming world?
LC: I don’t know. What is the way of the future anyway? We have NFT’s, there are all kinds of stuff going on. Who knows? We at the point in our careers where people don’t want to come to a show and hear a bunch of new material. When I go see one of my favorite bands from the old days I’ll be open to hearing maybe one or two or three songs. So for us this was the route to go. I mean, how often have we really done anything that makes sense or that runs in alignment with what the industry is doing? We just kind of do what we do. We’re scratching our own itch and hoping that people will enjoy it. That’s all that we really do at this stage in our careers. Early in your career you are trying to build a repertoire. Later in your career you have the cake, so why not through some sprinkles on it here and there?
GM: Do you think that being passed over by Metallica in the end turned out to be a blessing, as it allowed you to pursue all of these different creative paths?
LC: At the time I didn’t think that. I thought that I would be able to quit my carpentry job and head to Japan. But there’s a reason why they didn’t pick me. I didn’t fit and they saw that. I had my own thing going and it was a wise move on their part. And even when it came up again they knew that I wasn’t the right guy for it and they got the perfect person. Robert (Trujillo) is one of the nicest humans that I have ever met in the music industry and he’s a monster bass player.
GM: In doing these “Rush” shows do you think that to a degree you are attracting an audience of people that aren’t familiar with Primus?
LC: To an extent. There are definitely a lot of “Rush” T-shirts at the shows. But there are people who are there to hear the Primus songs as well. If we went out there and just did the Rush thing people would be upset. Every now and then though you get that individual, and it’s usually a guy that’s right up front singing every word, getting teary-eyed. That’s when I get emotional about the whole thing. Remember, Rush was my favorite band when I was a teenager. It was a huge part of my youth and it was the seeding of my original musical garden. So seeing people react like this is really amazing, it’s wonderful. And then you’ve got the kids who attend who really don’t know much about it and maybe got the record just before the show. That’s very cool, too. And for us, it’s just so much fun to play it. It’s almost like having a little vacation every night during the show.
GM: I’ve read that crowd reaction to “Closer to the Heart” in particular has been pretty remarkable.
LC: Back in the day the song was a huge part of their set. Everyone would be singing along, getting the lighters going. There aren’t as many lighters being held up today as there are cell phones, but it’s cool. And I need the singing help. The Geddy (Lee) vocals are hard man, (laughs) But the big powerhouse songs are “Xanadu” and “Cygnus X-1, Book l: The Voyage." Those songs are just monsters. It’s a real sense of accomplishment just playing those two.
GM: Given the success of this tour would you ever consider doing one against the next Rush album, Hemispheres?
LC: Oh, I have no idea. We haven’t gotten that far. We have to get through this first. But I always joke that we are going to do “Safety Dance” by Men Without Hats.
GM: Covid put your Oysterhead dates on hold. Any chance those will return?
LC: Oysterhead is like Sasquatch. It’s a rare siting. I’m never sure what’s going on with it. We just did a show the other night that was amazing. All cylinders were firing. We were all clicking. Stewart (Copeland) was killing it. It was a really fun show.
GM: As someone who has collaborated with so many people, is there any artist that you think people should be keeping an eye on?
LC: I’ve been doing some playing and recording with (guitarist) Billy Strings and he is a monster. I’m enjoying him as a player and a person. We’ve really been having a great time. He’s also on the Zelensky song that I just did. He plays like someone in his 60s. He’s had life experience, some really dark that just comes out in his fingers.
Conspiranoid is out August 2022. Pre-order it on white vinyl in the Goldmine Shop!