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Primus have been making consistently brilliant, wonky and weird records since their unlikely crossover into the mainstream. Somehow they topped it all with their recent album – a take on Willy Wonka that is genius in its conception and full of bass guitar genius from mainman Les Claypool who talks to fellow bass player, Louder Than War boss and frontman of the Membranes John Robb
UK tour dates…
- Tue, 23 June O2 Academy Brixton, London …
- Wed, 24 June O2 Apollo Manchester …
- Thu, 25 June O2 Academy Birmingham …
Driven by the bass player extrordanaire, Les Claypool, Primus have been making a brilliant series of idiosyncratic album for years which have pulled of the remarkable feet and gate crashing the mainstream epistle their artful wonkiness.
With the same kind of surreal twist and musical imagination of the godlike Captain Beefheart and the thirst of adventure of the underground they somehow stumbled into the mainstream when a whole generation of rock and metal fans, as well as lovers of the kooky and the weird, embraced them and their innate funky rockiness. They even managed to pull off hit singles and albums with idiosyncratic songs and goofy video clips that somehow fitted into MTV and the touring circuit.
Instead of resting on their laurels they just went weirder and even more interesting. Their last album, The Green Naugahyde, is arguably their best and their latest adventure Primus & the Chocolate Factory with the Fungi Ensemble is off the scale. The album is a re-imagining of the soundtrack of the film Willy Wonka And the Chocolate Factory and taps into the melancholic skewed reality of Roald Dahl’s children’s novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory with a childlike glee and a gimlet cackling eye for musical dexterity and is like entering a world all of its own.
With the band over to tour the UK in June, LTW spoke to Les Claypool who is affable and smart as he explains all things Wonka and weird to us.
LTW : We’ve seen youtube clips of the Willy Wonka gig and it looks like a real trip with its own stage set that matches the music for its surrealistic twist. Just what is the live show like!
LC : ’Expect to be transported into the weird and wonderful world of Willy Wonka! We are bringing it all over, the whole stage set. The whole world that we have constructed.’
LTW: This is some project and it came off the back of Primus seeming to go into a lull. How did you end up doing this!
‘LC : The whole thing started because every year we do a big new years show as Primus in San Francisco and we always have a theme for that show. A couple of years ago the theme was the Chocolate Factory and it came off so well and everything fell so perfectly into place that we decided to continue with it.’
LTW: But why Willy Wonka!
LC ‘As a child my first obsession was with Adam West and Batman and then I got really into Willy Wonka. I have early memories as a young kid playing around with stuff in the bathroom cabinet and a fake moustache and trying to be in that weird world. And now with my kids getting really into it, it seems to have followed me around! You have certain points in your life that are way posted by music and film and Willy Wonka was a big part of my life when I was 8 or 9 years old and then though my druggier teenage years and onwards…’
LTW: What was it like to revisit this world?
LC: ‘When I read the books as a kid they felt very dark. Roald Dahl had a twisted way of writing and the book was quite a bit darker than the film. As a kid all I’m seeing in the opening scenes is all this chocolate but then I could sense something more was going on. Long before the TV show the book was the world. My childhood hero was Gene Wilder. He was my favourite actor as a kid and I loved his other films like Young Frankenstein, the Producers etc. Our take on Willy Wonka with Primus came around when we were kicking round other ideas of projects we could do – one was a take on the Beatles Magical Mystery Tour but then the Flaming Lips did Sgt Peppers so that was an over done area and then we were messing around with Candyman and the whole thing just came together.’
LTW: How did you sketch out what you were going to do – there’s so many options!
LC ‘The music features the atmosphere of the film more than the actual story. The notion was to, not so much interpret the film as to interpret a young boy’s fascination with the film and the books themselves and put that onstage with all our props and video screens and characters. We also added extra instruments to our line up like a vibraphone and a marimba and a cello which fills it out a bit. Tim Alexander, who had returned to the band on drums, did a spectacular job on the percussion. What he assimilated on the record made me feel like I was getting little reflections of old Peter Gabriel records. There were elements of that sort of vibe he had back then. Myself and Tim Alexander have a fondness of old Peter Gabriel precussion and sounds and wore that thing out incorporating it into our tyre flavoured bubblegum – you know, the grit and the grime of it and you can blow bubbles with it as well! It’s quite funny actually, some of our fans took our Willy Wonka album and then the film and dubbed our music to it and sent it to us and it really fits!’
LTW : A bit like matching Dark Side Of The Moon to Wizard Of Oz!
LC : ‘I mean you can’t hide your thumbprint to much so the notion of the approach was that I had experienced the film many times over the years as a kid and I would see it in the theatre and then later on the video when I was older and I would be smoking and ingesting things which was quite a, quote, anatomical experience. Then when my kids come along it was my turn to watch it again from a different perspective. My kids watched it over and over again and I’ve seen it many times now. It’s one of those eternal children’s stories like Wizard Of Oz or Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
LTW : How did you record the album – there is a great live edge to the sound.
LC : ‘We recorded the drums and the bass to tape on an old 2 inch 16 track machine that I own and love the sound of. It makes it sound very breathy and hissy and it sounds like an old recorder you know. I just set up a bunch of mics and we recorded like on every album I do it’s like spitting out ideas onto a petri dish and having them pulsing out of old vintage gear. It’s like getting an old jalopy into gear! you sometimes have to kick it to get it to play and it will pop!’
LTW: Willy Wonka came to the rescue of Primus!
LC : ‘The reason we did this as Primus and not one of my other projects was that, like I said, that Tim Alexander came back in the band again after not being on the Green Naugahyde project. I had no intention of doing Primus right away after Jay Lane left but Tim came back in and the re-imagination happened and I was able to incorporate some of the guys from my other bands into the whole thing as well.
The Primus book came out and all the interviews were talking about our history and all of a sudden it’s the end of book. Jay leaves the band and it felt like the end. And then we gotten a call from Tim talking and saying he wanted to play music again. He had been making sculptures in north Washington and not playing at all. He got the interest into playing again and interested in the notion of being a drummer again. For some time he didn’t want to play drums any more or do the Dave Grohl thing and sing and took some time away from any instruments. He was one of the most talented guys from my generation and he needed to get back on that horse…’
LTW : And then he had a heart attack after you had recorded the album…
LC: ‘Well, that will change your tune a little bit! First of all the very idea that he could have had a heart attack was bizarre. It should have been me! I like to recline, that’s my posture. As I am speaking to you my sport of choice is reclining. Tim is a very athletic guy but I guess he was suffering bad genetics which is a bitch. He had some surgeon crack him open which was scary but he came out with flying colours,’
LTW: How are you presenting the gigs. I note you are playing two sets ?
LC: ‘There will be one performance of the Chocolate Factory with the complex set and then we come back out and do a bare stage Primus – after the big stage set we come back and we just set up with the bare bones – just a couple of lights and that’s it. During the break everyone can take advantage of the splendiferous merchandise. The coolest thing about the merchandise this time is the Primus candy bars and the boutique chocolate made specially for us for this tour.’
LTW : What happens at the end of this tour cycle? How do you follow up this old jalopy?
LC: ‘The last shows on this tour are this Fall. There is a time constraint on a part of the show and we have to finish then because when we did this thing there were parts of it that we did with no permission and they caught us in all our glory. The music you can do anyway buy we were using some imagery that crossed the line with Warners and the lawyers come after us and we had to pay a licensing fee which runs out in September and that seems like the right time to end things. I’m not sure what we are doing after that whether thats touring, doing nothing or writing..’
LTW: How do Primus write? do you jam?
LC: ‘We have always recorded our soundchecks where we get a chance to jam and write over the years. Green Naugahyde was written from doing that. Usually the songs start with myself on bass and a drum part. Sometimes it turns into something, sometimes it doesn’t. We all live away from eachother so we have to write on the road.’
LTW : Has the nature of Primus changed?
LC: ‘I have now reached a point in my life where I don’t like to force anything. This project has fallen into place very comfortably and was a supernaturally easy thing to do. As far as I know its been accepted as a record and a set design despite a couple of hiccoughs like the copyright issue. If it had not been organic then I would have not continued on it. We are going with the flow to create things. It’s not about the lionisation of the band any more and I don’t have to try and sell myself and sell what we are doing any more and tour endlessly. Now there is a lot of time to make the record and not so much to tour for 18 months and get the biggest bang for the buck. When I was 25 my whole world was around the band. It was easy to do that then but when you are twice that age and have kids and full responsibilities it is not as appealing to do that. There are other things in your life. Your world is not around the band any more. We used to be in the trenches with eachother and record and tour. We made shit loads of records in the nineties one after the other.’
LTW : The brilliance of the band made it, oddly, an unlikely success story.
LC : ‘Our success caught everyone by surprise. We were not supposed to be successful interns of sales and the radio. We were not one of those bands that was meant to break through and it was a surprise but, of course, when we didn’t get it any more then you think what the fuck happened! Tom Whalley and Interscope were the big things for us. Those people are very dear friends and the camaraderie when Interscope started and we were one of the first signings was important and we benefited from that excitement.
It was an amazing time, back in the day the publishing deal was put on the table and they said that to be bad you will have to sell less than 100 000 records which was an eye raiser but we sold shit loads of records – a lot more than that. The perspective of everyone was taken aback by that, Skerik, our sax player, friend and collaborator from the past decade was excited when he saw Primus do those things and I remember him saying, ‘oh my god you’ve got the controls of the car now!”
We were writing about it as well and the whole notion of getting big in songs like Sailing The Seas Of Cheese about the time when alternative meant alternative. On the radio it was unlikely that a hairball band like us could get heard but we were getting marketed alongside the Bon Jovis, Cinderellas of the time and we laughed and that was why we were sailing the seas of cheese.
LTW : It’s hard to pin down an idiosyncratic band like Primus.
LC : ‘My heroes were people like certain bass players but also film makers like Frank Capra, Terry Gilliam, Stanley Kubrick – people who make these interesting films with a social commentary with their art, that was light and yet with a somewhat dark twist to it. When we watch a Terry Gilliam film or Frank Capra making all this amazing chisel and it was a big influence on the Coen brothers who got their style from people like that. Films with a somewhat tragic character and a dark humour. I’ve always been attracted to people like that. I think Primus are about goofballs – Jerry Was A Race Car Driver which was about a drunk driver who crashed into a tree whilst My Name Is Mud is about two tweakers who have a ridiculous argument and one kills his father with a baseball bat. They are stories but a lot of this sort of thing runs through my music and in my family as well. My cousin spent every day like that, he’s in prison right now on a meta-amphetamine rap having stolen a car. I lost my uncle when he was 50. He was a tweaker. I’ve seen a lot of that with colourful characters like my aforementioned uncle, when you met him he was a fun guy to be around, a bit like Fagin from Oliver Twist but his life was a mess.
My parents warned me about addiction in my family and I’ve had my run ins with substances. I was a big pot head for some time. There has always been a very wayward side but I’ve always been able to avoid the pitfalls. When I was younger I learned a lot of the problems around bands from working with groups in San Francisco that should have been huge but made bad decisions when it came to management or the way to got onto the next step. I learned from their mistakes. Kirk from Metallica, I knew him from high school and I worked for the Looters who were doing this world beat scene back with an afro cuban feel. They should have been huge, a sort of U2 meets the Clash with a sort of Cuban, south African edge and very political and very relevant. They hooked up with bad management and it all fell apart. I watched these things happen and how not to do it.’
LTW : And the bass? yet agin the album is a masterclass in how to really use the greatest of all instruments.
LC : ‘I started on the bass because everyone else wanted to be Eddie Van Halen and play guitar. I started late and I couldn’t get a gig when I started when I was 14 because everyone else was ahead of me! I also liked the sound of bass. At first, though, when I was younger I would go to these shows and I didn’t know the difference between the instruments and then I noticed that, wow, one of them has 4 strings. I would then listen to music as diverse as the Isley Brothers and Yes and I then learned more about the instrument itself and I learned what it could do and i went from there.
The hardest was singing and playing bass. It was awful at first. Mainly because I thought I couldn’t sing for shit at first. When I was 19 I was playing in band playing Booker T and the MGs, Wilson Picket, the Meters kind of stuff. I was as youngest guy in the band and I was singing back ups and my voice would crack all the time. Then I started writing songs for this other band and I didn’t like the way the singer approached my music and I started Primate to sing my songs which was me and a drum machine. I was never very comfortable with my voice, that’s why I always have different characters in my songs and do things like sing through cups. As I got older, I got more comfortable with my voice and realised it was more about the unique element of the voice than conventional singing, like anything else you move through life and get more comfortable in your own skin and less uncomfortable than in your teen years.’