Just a wink of the eye

Les Claypool on ‘South Park,’ and almost 40 years of Primus

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Les Claypool
Red Light Management

When you call up Primus bassist and singer-songwriter Les Claypool, it’s tough to know where to start the conversation. His work with Oysterhead, the Frog Brigade, Duo De Twang and Sean Lennon just scrapes the tip of the Bay Area-native’s gigantic career in music, and he’s also a filmmaker and father. Some folks remember Claypool only for a hit 1995 single in which he sang, “Wynona loved her big, brown beaver and she stroked him all the time,” but in reality, he and his Primus bandmates followed in the footsteps of Rush as a rock trio that could play truly challenging, creative, awe-inspiring music while churning out unforgettably eccentric lyrics.

The 58-year-old frontman, currently on tour with Primus covering Rush’s daunting 1977 album A Farewell to Kings, got into Rush in junior high, and I got into Primus in the sixth grade, so adolescent fandom seemed like as good an entryway as any.

Boulder Weekly: Somebody gave me a copy of Sailing the Seas of Cheese at my 12th birthday party, and it changed my life. Primus became my first real “favorite band” and kids really did say “Primus sucks!” to me all the time, and then a couple years later you were suddenly a household name with two straight top-10 albums. What was it like to be really weird and unique yet popular, and who holds that mantle today?

Les Claypool: Well, we had our toes in the mainstream. We were definitely not in heavy rotation on MTV. Even when the “Wynona” video came out, they would only play it after midnight. We’ve always been those guys that sort of existed under the radar, you know? And we have since the get-go. We had a few little splashes with MTV and radio, but for the most part we’ve been this cultish band.

Who do I think is like that now? You’ve got people like St. Vincent—she’s got a very interesting, unique perspective on things and she does pretty well. I think there’s always that element of people that have a little different take on things on the planet, and look at the world a little differently. Every now and again one of them pushes a button that people can identify with. We pushed kind of a small button, but we’ve been able to consistently hold this button down. We have a pretty loyal fanbase, which is pretty amazing. It’s gotten my son through college [laughs].

BW: I was actually going to ask if you have kids, because mine has been listening to “Tommy the Cat” and “Wynona” since preschool and is now 12 and saying, “Papa, I know what these songs are about now.” Was there a moment when your son got some of the puns in your songs?

LC:There’s really nothing to get. There’s really no hidden tickle-the-taco meaning or anything like that, in any of this stuff, you know? It’s all pretty benign; you can take it however you want, but… the original inspiration for “Wynona’s Big Brown Beaver” was me walking back to the car after fly fishing with a good buddy of mine, and it was dusk, and I came around the corner, and it was very low light, and the thing saw me right as I saw it, and it flipped right in front of me and popped its tail. It was this giant, big, brown beaver and that got stuck in my head: “big, brown beaver.” It was originally just supposed to be this little hillbilly ditty, but the lyrics fit perfectly with this bass riff that I had. It just ended up being that tune, and it ended up being the tune that everybody gravitated toward when it was time to pick a single. It sort of just fell together; it was never meant to be this, “Oh, Les is trying to make this sexual innuendo.” Obviously there’s a little dual entendre there, but it’s more just a wink of the eye than anything. I’m not trying to get away with some little pervy notion or anything.

BW: Conspiranoid, the new Primus EP, has an 11-minute track called “Conspiranoia.” What made you want to put together a sort of opus like that?

LC: We have “Harold of the Rocks” and these songs that are pretty long and progressive. We do have a pretty strong progressive element, so it doesn’t seem like that much of a stretch to me. The notion was, “Hey, we’re getting ready to go do this Rush thing again. We should have some new material,” but we didn’t feel the need to inflict a whole album on people. They’re gonna need to see the whole Rush thing, and they’re gonna wanna hear some of the old songs, and the deep cuts. We all do that. When I would go see Rush back in the day, it was nice to hear a couple new songs, but I wanted to hear “By-Tor” and “Cygnus” and the songs that represent a time in my life, of my youth, and bring me back to that time when that was the soundtrack of my life. So, we didn’t want to put out a whole new record and subject people to that. The thought was, “Let’s do a 20-minute song,” and it turned out to be an 11-minute song. I had this notion of “Conspiranoia” that I’d been kicking around for a while in notebooks, and I had the whole chorus in my head. I brought it in and we just fleshed it out, and then we needed a B-side, and then we realized “We need two B-sides because this is a long-ass song for vinyl.”

BW: Do you feel shocked by the whole Q-Anon thing, and space lasers and Pizza Gate, or do you feel like when Trump was elected that kind of person just felt more comfortable admitting they believe stuff like that?

LC: Well, we live in a time when people feel somewhat entitled to offer their opinions, and they have a platform now that didn’t exist before. Now you have this machismo that you didn’t really see so much of before the internet, because you can be this phantom in space that throws your opinion out there. I actually find some of it humorous, and I find some of it frightening, so that’s what the song (“Conspiranoia” ) is about. There’s a lot of elements within the content that is factual, and some is fiction, but it’s all based on this notion of myth and misinformation being held as gospel.

BW: What’s it like having Tim “Herb” Alexander back in the band? People like me who were growing up when Primus broke out think of him as the drummer in the band, but when I was old enough to see concerts, you had Brain and then Jay Lane on drums.

LC: Well, both Brain and Jay Lane were in Primus before Tim Alexander. Tim happened to be the ninth drummer that Primus has had, since I started the band in 1984. Tim is the known voice of Primus for the drums, but we came to an impasse in the late ’90s. He wanted to do other things and we were fine with that. We brought in Brain, who had history with us and he was friends with Ler [guitarist Larry LaLonde]. It seemed very logical, and Brain is a monster. He’s very different. He’s more of a Bonham player. Tim’s more of a Bruford, Neil Peart player. Tim came back again, and it worked out for a little while and then it didn’t, and we brought in Jay, who was in the band right before Tim was originally in the band. He was kind of the one who set the tone for Primus, for what you knew, before Herb stepped in. It was another very logical choice. He’d been in Sausage and Frog Brigade and we had a lot of history together. Bands are very passionate, emotional relationships; it’s like a marriage, and sometimes they work, and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes you get back together and sometimes you don’t. It’s wonderful that he’s back and it’s wonderful that we are all in the same headspace.

BW: It’s similar to Pearl Jam in a way, because they’ve had five drummers and people want to hear the drummer who was on the album that got them into the band. Fans get really attached.

LC: As they should. You do the best you can, but it’s like staying married for the kids: At some point, you gotta do what keeps you moving forward.

BW: How did you decide to play Rush on the road?

LC: We had always joked, “We should go out and do Hemispheres in its entirety,” because we did the Willy Wonka thing; we did the goblins record years ago; and I did Pink Floyd’s Animals with the Frog Brigade. We had always kinda joked about it, but then we thought, “Maybe we should do something like that.” You have to do “Cygnus I” before you do “Cygnus II,” and 2112 seemed too obvious, and Moving Pictures seemed too obvious, so Farewell to Kings just seemed like the right record to do.

BW: Primus actually toured with Rush just after breaking out in the early ’90s. What was that like for you, having grown up a huge fan?

LC: When I was first starting to play, and all throughout high school, Rush was an obsession of mine. It happened to be one of the things that Primus was able to connect over, because we have such varied backgrounds but we were always able to come together on Rush. Doing the tour with them was amazing; it was like meeting Evil Kneivel or something—such a big part of your youth. To be able to go out and tour with them was pretty amazing, and they became very good friends of ours, so that’s always a bonus.

BW: You’re doing these two South Park 25th anniversary shows at Red Rocks August 9 and 10. Does the anniversary take you back to the ’90s—a time when a band like Primus and a show like South Park could get a real shot at the mainstream?

LC: South Park was just these college kids that had this video that was popular on the internet, and they were big Primus fans! They got a hold of us and they said, “Will you do the music? We’ve got a pilot we’re gonna do for Comedy Central.” We never even thought it would get on television, let alone take over the world, and that is mainstream. South Park is a huge cultural phenomenon, and that’s an example right there of something no one would have ever expected to be such a huge, huge part of our culture. It’s a continuously relevant social statement that seems to not wane through time.

BW: Ween is also playing, and I remember them being on Beavis and Butthead and popping their head into the mainstream with “Push th’ Little Daisies.” What parallels do you see between Primus and Ween? You started around the same time but were on different coasts.

LC: There are definitely some kindred spirits there. I’m buddies with Deaner and we’ve got a lot of the same perspective on things, both musically and creatively in general, and we both like to fish. I think it’s just the notion of taking a satirical poke at the world with your music, and it works with the whole South Park mentality. I think what you’ve got here is a show of birds of a feather flocking together. I think it’s going to be spectacular.

BW: Heading back to Red Rocks, what comes to mind when you think of Colorado?

LC: Colorado’s always been a warm spot for us. One, Red Rocks is one of the greatest venues in the world. Our first away-from-home trip was to Boulder, and that was when the South Park guys first saw us. We were asked to go out and do some shows in Boulder, and they gave us a train ticket on Amtrak. We came out and played Alferd Packer Day at the college there, and Matt Stone and Trey [Parker] were there in the audience and they saw us and flipped out, and they were big fans from that point on. It’s kind of interesting that that’s how it all started, on our very first trip to Boulder many years ago. 

Email questions to: editorial@boulderweekly.com

ON THE BILL: Primus. 7:30 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday, Aug. 9 and 10, Red Rocks Ampitheater, Morrison. For a full list of tour dates, visit primusville.com

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