Tod Brilliant

Off and on for 29 years, Primus have been rollicking about the land with the sound of their three-piece, psycho-funk, Nor-Cal frizzle-fry. Singer, storyteller, and slap-bass progenitor Les Claypool is an alchemical king. He's their heart and oil-soaked soul. To think of Primus is to think of Claypool's weird, impossible playing, and his chicken-leg strut across the stage in long johns. He pulls off ultra-fingered metrics on the fret, singing with a quirked-up, redneck joie de vivre. In 1991, Primus had a major-label breakthrough with album Sailing the Seas of Cheese, and the song "Jerry Was a Race Car Driver" became a worldwide spittoon-anthem. It wasn't a feel-good hit, it was a feel-strange, somewhat-inbred-genius, Deliverance-type hit. Like someone huffin' spray paint in the shed and seein' how many tadpoles they can eat 'cause they ain't got nuthin' better to do. Claypool is every bit the genius, sans the pig squealing and tadpoles. He spoke from Denver, and for someone who's released albums entitled Pork Soda and Green Naugahyde, he sounded like an upper-level calculus professor who ingests quarks and equations, not tadpoles.

Your new tour is a 3-D tour. What does Primus 3-D entail?

Everyone in the crowd gets a pair of goggles. There's a big screen behind us onstage—when we start playing, a bunch of crazy shit comes flying out over our heads and into the audience.

Where do your visuals come from?

We've been assembling visuals since the early '90s. We incorporate a lot of our own footage, and each song has its own set of images, which get treated with three-dimensional effects. It's not like going to see Prometheus or Avatar, it's like a Liquid Lunch show in 3-D. It's not something you're gonna see in an IMAX theater.

There's a laser dome in Seattle that does amazing shows. You know, Laser Floyd, Laser Metallica, Laser Green Day. You lay down on the ground to watch. I'm pretty sure there's a Laser Primus. Have you ever seen the Laser Primus?

I haven't had a chance to check out a Laser Primus yet. It's on my list of things to do. It makes sense people would lay down to watch. Our stuff is pretty textural, so I could see how it would lend itself to some eye candy.

How the hell does Green Day have a Laser Green Day? I understand the Pink Floyd one, and Zeppelin. But Green Day? You gotta be fucking kidding me. That Billy Joe dude doesn't translate well to the laser realm.

An interesting point. Someone may be kidding you, but it is not me. Investigate further and get back to me with a full report of your findings. You can break it down to me with an informative luncheon.

Your bass playing is so unique. You've formulated and pioneered your own sound. Besides your physical ability and mastery of short muscle control, what does your sound pull from? Apart from Jaco Pastorius.

As a young fellow back in the old days, I watched all the guys that could wiggle their fingers fast and tried to emulate some of them. But once you get the fundamentals down, you kinda move beyond that. It's like learning to use a pencil or a crayon, you know? You start doodling on a piece of paper with that crayon, and shapes begin to pop out. And that's the way the bass is for me. My sound just happens to be the crayon I picked out of the box. Once I got to where my fingers would do what my head wanted them to do, it was like having a conversation. I like it to be as casual as possible. I like to have good musical conversations with other fellows and fellowistas [laughs] who have similar inclinations.

I'm upping the Laser Primus to scratch 'n' sniff now—you need your own scratch 'n' sniff book.

I believe I could get into some laser scratch 'n' sniff. Isn't that what they're doing with particle acceleration at the Large Hadron Collider?

No, the Hadron Collider is more a Laser Tool kind of thing. Like a light-speed Chia Pet. Moving on to Buckethead. How's Buckethead? Your album with him was a feat. Any new Claypool-Bucket collabos on the horizon?

I haven't seen Bucket in a while; I don't know what he's up to. Maybe at some point, we'll reconvene. I'm sure there's live stuff of us on YouTube. It's out there to be had.

Your music always has had a swampy feel to me. Specifically, swamp creatures such as the alligator, possum, raccoon, and/or platypus. Have you spent lots of time in the swamps of the Georgia-Florida border?

No, I haven't spent too much time in the Southern swampland. What I draw from is Northern California, semirural, blue-collar suburbia. I come from a long line of auto mechanics. We'd either be working on some crappy Pete Reynolds property on the weekends or be out fishing and chasing salmon and sturgeon around in the bay. I tend to like to be outside, on or near a body of water. Most of my friends are contractors, fishermen, and blue-collar people.

But what about my whole Primus-swamp-creature vision?

I'm enhancing your vision [laughs].

Okay, but if you had to make up a swamp story, right now, what would it be? And make it include a possum.

Why would I make up a swamp story when I have plenty of stories about mucking around in the delta, the ocean, and San Pablo Bay near San Francisco? Tromping around through the wine country. I go with what I know, otherwise I'm a poseur. And I don't wanna be a poseur.

Your lyrics come from a character's perspective. You put the listener inside a character's head, seeing from their lens. How do you choose the characters you're going to write from?

I do tend to impart my social commentary through characters. I'm not the type of guy who gets up there and says, "Rally round the family with a pocket full of shells." I appreciate that, but it's just not my style. I grew up watching Elia Kazan films and the Coen brothers' films. I'm a fan of writers and directors that develop characters in their pieces. Plus, I was never really comfortable, especially early on, with being the singer of the band. I always considered myself to be the narrator. It was easier for me to go onstage and do "John the Fisherman" or "Jerry Was a Race Car Driver" as a character than it was to get up there and sing, and hit the notes.

I think that perspective gives your music a literary shadow. What are you reading now?

I'm right in the middle of a book about Belgium-born jazz guitarist and composer Django Reinhardt. Where I am in the book, it's during World War II. He's acquired fame, and as a European gypsy, he's trying to maintain his stature without being thrown into a concentration camp.

Let's touch quickly on the story aspect of your song "Wynona's Big Brown Beaver." How many millions of stupid questions have you had about it?

There have been a few, indeed. Some people thought it was Winona Ryder. But it's not spelled or pronounced that way. I was out fly-fishing in Northern California. The sun was going down. It was dusk. I was walking back to the car through these reeds, and there was this big furry animal. It all happened in an instant. I was going toward it, and it was going toward me. We both spooked each other. It spun and popped its tail with this loud noise. It scared the shit outta me. It was a giant brown beaver. And I got that stuck in my head—big brown beaver, big brown beaver. Then it became Wynona's got herself a big brown beaver. The words just kind of flowed. Obviously there was a double entendre to play off there, and I created this silly little song. I never ever thought it was going to be the single from the record.

Change that beaver to a possum and you have a swamp story. "Wynona's Big Brown Possum" doesn't have the same ring, though. Who have been your favorite people you've played music with?

That's hard. I've been lucky enough to play with so many great people. Stewart Copeland, Adrian Belew, Bernie Worrell, Warren Haynes, the Rush guys. I recently played with Booker T. Jones and Charlie Musselwhite for an Obama dinner event. It was sweet. I always love playing with Skerik, from your neck of the woods.

Skerik is a lord. What about getting him to play with Primus at Sasquatch!? How do we make that happen?

If Skerik is around, I'll pull him up onstage.

Your project Oysterhead—with Stewart Copeland from the Police and Trey Anastasio from Phish—is a super-nutritional, three-headed value pack. Phish fans are such an excellent breed. What's your take on what's going on there?

It's been a little while since we've done any Oysterhead. For me, one of my favorite things about it was the companionship element—Stewart and I have become good friends over the years, and I don't see Trey nearly as much, but we do have a good rapport whenever we get together or talk on the phone. They're great, intelligent, talented guys. So it's a win-win-win, you know?

Will there be any new Primus in the future?

We just got finished doing an HD and 5.1 remix and remaster of Sailing the Seas of Cheese for its 21st anniversary. It comes out in two or three weeks. I was more involved than I wanted to be [laughs]. The original session notes and automation discs were lost, so we had to start from scratch, and we did the whole thing at my studio over the span of a few months. I used all this old, vintage gear, and I thought it came out amazingly well. recommended