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INTERVIEW – Les Claypool, Primus – January 2014

| 5 February 2014

INTERVIEW – Les Claypool, Primus – January 2014
By Shane Pinnegar

Les Claypool says he has “a lot of pots on the stove”, and with a Big Day Out main stage appearance fast approaching with Primus – newly reunited with drummer Tim Alexander – we just had to find out more.

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Alexander was a member of the band from 1989 through 1996, and then 2003 to 2010, and those periods remain a favourite with many Primus fans. Claypool says he’s settled back in nicely.

“We did our big annual New Year’s show with him a week or two back, and it went really well – he’s in a great place these days, so it’s great to have him back. He’s a … he’s a monster – Tim Alexander!” laughs the bass player and singer of one of the most alternative of the 90’s alternative bands.

That New Year’s show featured a wild Willy Wonka themed stage and band costumes, Oompa Loompas, complimentary Primus chocolates and was tagged ‘Primus and The Chocolate Factory’ – and Claypool says they might take it on the road one day.

“There’s talk of doing that in the future,” he explains, “because it seemed to come off really well. We’ve been recording quite a bit of it, so it’s something that’s being discussed… we won’t be doing it in Australia this time around, but you never know, maybe next time around.

“It came off really, really well – we had all these amazing set pieces, and various interactive elements, it was really cool.” He says, before making sure we were clear about the band’s inspiration, “[But don’t get] confused at the latter day atrocity that came along a few years ago [starring Johnny Depp], you know – the Gene Wilder era Willy Wonka!”

Claypool says “I just got my ass kicked on New Years, man – this is my last day of antibiotics, I was killed by New Years this year! Hopefully I should be in full strength by the time I get down there”, then joking that the band are preparing for their Australian assault by “doing lots of pushups, drinking some wheatgrass juice, you know… getting all fit and getting our synapses firing” adding more seriously that “I write a different setlist every night. Who knows what we’ll be playing – we’ve got a lot to choose from, so who knows…”

Tantalisingly, Claypool says now that Alexander is back and fitting in well, new material could be on the cards as early as later on this year.

“It’s not been that long since he’s been back, you know,” he says, “but when we get together, there’s been some creative juices spilling out around the room. So, I’m sure… the whole notion of all of us is to continue moving forward. I don’t like to just sit and be nostalgic about things, so I’m sure we will be coming up with some new material and bringing it forth in the next year or so.”

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Back in September Claypool joked to Rolling Stone Magazine that if things didn’t work out in the studio, he’d be calling Alex Van Halen to offer him the drum stool.

He laughs loudly when reminded of this, adding “Ahhhh, haven’t done it, haven’t called Alex Van Halen!”

With Big Day Out playing Sydney on January 26th as always, it’s a surprise that Claypool isn’t aware that this is our day of national celebrations.

“I didn’t know it was Australia Day – what does that mean?” he asks, and when told it is similar to their Independence Day, wonders “So you guys are blowing things up and stuff?”

With a few days off after the 2 Sydney shows before they play Adelaide, and then Perth on 2 February, there’s recovery time if he did decide to join in the celebrations after their late afternoon main stage set.

“That’s good to hear,” he says, before telling the story of a dinner he enjoyed last year with Rush’s Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson.

“I’ve known those guys for many, many years, but don’t see them as often as I’d like – but when we do get together it’s always a good time, and Geddy does love his Burgundy. He’s pulling out these amazing Burgundys, so there’s no slouching in the wine department. They’re good times – they’re good guys.”

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Primus toured in support of Rush many years ago, and Claypool goes on to express surprise that the Canadian prog trio have never toured Down Under, saying that, “I definitely would have thought Neil [Peart] would enjoy riding his bike around the country!”

Maybe that’s how we should get them to Australia – tell him there’s a book in it!

“There’s your angle,” jokes Claypool, “work it!”

Considered a guru of the bass guitar, Claypool has collaborated with many other artists, and likens his playing to communicating on a human level.

“Well you know, I’ve been playing my instrument for so long, it’s an extension of my, like, communication – it’s like having a conversation.” He explains, before elaborating, “Like having a conversation, the more you want to interact with different people, with different perspectives, the more versed you are going to become as a conversationalist, and I think that’s exactly the same as an instrumentalist as well.

“You learn from everybody you play with, even if you’re playing with people who aren’t necessarily, you know, overly skilled, you learn by their shortcomings, or by helping them, or whatever. It’s all communication, it’s seeing different perspectives, different approaches – there’s no one way to skin the cat , so seeing and experiencing and playing with all these different people, all it does is help you grow.

“You know, the best thing I could have done for my playing and my career and my sanity and my life experience, was for Primus to go on hiatus in 2000 [until 2003], because during that next decade, I played and interacted and collaborated and turned over more new rocks than I ever have in my entire life – it really helped me grow, as a musician, as a singer, as a human being… it was spectacular.”

The diversity of artists Claypool has worked with – both with Primus and as an individual – is astonishing. Henry Rollins, Metallica, Stewart Copeland & Trey Anastasio, Ozzy Osbourne, Tom Waits, Limp Bizkit, Hank Williams III and many, many more. He declares Bernie Worrell as one of the most challenging to play with in terms of stretching his abilities, but not before laughing at the examples I’ve chosen to rattle off to him.

“You just picked the WIERDEST ones,” he laughs. “I mean – Tom Waits, sure, then there’s guys like Bernie Worrell, Adrian Belew, Buckethead, Warren Haynes – there’s all these amazing, amazing musicians… and you said Limp Bizkit!!!!

“Bernie Worrell is probably the most amazing musician I’ve ever played with,” he continues, once again, more seriously. “He’s been on the planet for a very long time and he’s experienced many things. And he has an amazing amount of soul. You can be playing with some young, hotshot player who can wangle their fingers and do all these technical things that dazzle the mind, but if you don’t have that soul, that life experience, then you’re not going to be able to communicate with the depth that Bernie Worrell can. It’s the most amazing thing.

“Stewart Copeland, who has become one of my best friends, is a genius at what he does. Not just playing the drums, his whole approach to the drums is so different to everybody else’s approach that I’ve seen. It’s partly because he grew up in the Middle East, and partly because he’s dyslexic, and some of it is just because he’s Stewart and he has an interesting take on the world.

“You know, talking to someone like Mike Watt, he just has a different perspective on… a different way of looking at things and people. And it’s very interesting, with these characters – it’s like being part of a Frank Zappa movie, you know? Each character in those films is so unique and so colourful that they’re very intriguing, and for me, those are the type of musicians that I gravitate for, and those are the people I think, really change things and move things in different directions.”

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Claypool himself is considered a relentless innovator, not just in the quirky songwriting he is so well known for with Primus, but in pushing the boundaries of his instrument, and he’s never been afraid to try something new. His latest project is Duo De Twang, a “hillbilly” acoustic duo performing songs from throughout his career and some obscure covers, and he has a new album titled Four Foot Shack out on 4 February.

“Yeah, I’m on tour with that right now,” he elaborates, “that’s what I’m doing tonight – I’m about to do a show. That’s incredible fun for me, basically it’s me and an old buddy from high school [Bryan Kehoe]. We’ve got acoustic instruments and this old box that I’m stomping on, we sit on the stage, we’re drinkin’, we’re tellin’ stories, we’re cracking jokes, and we’re playin’ music and some of it’s improvisational, and it’s all twangin’ hillbilly versions of my songs and other people’s songs…

“It’s just, I call it my ‘fuck off vacation band’. It’s a really cool way for me to scratch this certain itch – I’m paying homage to a lot of the music that I used to hear as a kid, that I never used to appreciate. My Dad was a mechanic and he’d have the radio on his garage, and I’d be out there playing on my bike and hear this old Bakelite radio tuned into what he called the ‘Okie’ station, so I’m hearing Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard and Johnny Horton, and all these different things that at the time I didn’t appreciate.

“But as I’ve grown into manhood and now that I’m extremely far into manhood, you know, these things are very dear to me. I think it’s a huge reason why I can sort of write lyrically the way that I do, with these mythical characters and the perspective of the narrative being from a separate character rather than just me giving my perspective on things.”

Claypool says he loves to champion relatively unknown acts, and even fell in love with one of our own country legends whilst on tour in years gone by.

“I managed to stumble across Slim Dusty many years ago when I was down in your neck of the woods!” he exclaims. “NOBODY in America has ANY idea who Slim Dusty is. And there’s a guy in Canada… years ago when I was on tour with Oysterhead – which was myself and Stewart Copeland [of The Police] and Trey Anastasio from Phish – and we were in Vancouver and I was flipping channels, and there was this guy from Canada, it was this old movie from the seventies, and this guy in a cowboy hat, playing a guitar and stomping on the ground, and he had a couple of other players with him, and he’s singing all these songs about all this Canadian lore – and I was like, ‘what’s this all about?’

“It was Stompin’ Tom Connors, and he’s HUGE in Canada – he’s considered the Johnny Cash of Canada. In fact he just passed away last year [on 6 March, 2013]. And I became a massive fan – in fact on my new record I do one of his songs. So I played these songs in the States, and nobody knows who he is – but as I’ve been doing these shows, people are starting to find out who he is in my little corner of the demographic. It’s a really cool thing to be able to turn people on to these guys – like, nobody outside of Australia knows who Slim Dusty is, but it’d be nice for people in The States to know who he is, he’s got a cool thing going on!”

Oysterhead is another of Claypool’s collaborative bands, as mentioned above. There’s long been talk of them reforming for a long-awaited follow up to their sole album of 2001, the Grand Pecking Order.

“Well we’re talkin’ about it,” he chuckles, “but we’ve been talkin’ about it for ten years! Well, OVER ten years – twelve years! Lotta talkin’ going on.”

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He doesn’t deny that a reunion of the bass-driven funky hard rock band would be fun.

“That would be good – like I said, Stewart’s a good buddy, so any excuse for him and I to get together in a shiny box and travel around is a good one!”

There seems to be never a dull moment in Les Claypool’s life – he’s recently shot a pilot episode for a fishing TV program, of all things, with Dean Ween! Fishing, it seems, is a bit of a childhood passion for the bass-master.

“Where I grew up a lot of guys Dad’s took ’em to baseball games or took ’em to football games,” he reminisces. “You know, my road manager, he’s a huge sports fan in general – anything, The Phillys, The Giants, hockey – any of that shit, he’s into it. But my dad didn’t do that stuff. On weekends if we weren’t working on some rental property of my Grandmas, or building some fricken retaining wall somewhere, we were out fishin’ – that was our thing, that’s what we did.

“My uncles, my grandfather, we would all go fishing – that was our thing, so that’s how I grew up. So where most guys will sit at home at the weekend watching a 49ers game or something, I’m out fishing!

“I dunno about necessarily [fishing] on tour because it gets too hard to get out there and actually do it. I usually do down in Australia if I can get somebody to wrangle me out there.”

There shouldn’t be any shortage of offers to take this rock legend out for a fish whilst on the Big Day Out tour – but what of this TV show?

“You know what, that’s kinda dragging a little bit.” He says with no little disappointment, “We made this pilot and we kinda whittled it down to a teaser reel and that’s floating around the ‘powers that be’ down in Hollywood, but so far nobody’s jumped on it. But it’s been a kick in the pants… you know, Dean, he’s a great guy – we bond on a lot of different things. Playing music with him has been really, really easy – we have a good flow and it just kinda rolls out of both of us. So I look forward to doing more of that. I just gotta [find time]… you know, I have a lot of pots on the stove!”

Like I said – never a dull moment!

“Oh I got some dull moments,” he counters, “just never a non-busy moment!”
Primus play the main stage on the 2014 Big Day Out tour:

Friday 17 January ~ Western Springs, Auckland
Sunday 19 January ~ Metricon Stadium & Carrara Parklands, Gold Coast
Friday 24 January ~ Flemington Racecourse, Melbourne
Sunday 26 January ~ Sydney Showgrounds, Sydney Day One
Monday 27 January ~ Sydney Showgrounds, Sydney Day Two
Friday 31 January ~ Bonython Park, Adelaide
Sunday 2 February ~ Claremont Showgrounds, Perth


Category: Interviews

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