With a new book, film, solo record and
Although he's best known as the lead singer and bassist from the alternative rock band Primus, Les Claypool is an amazingly prolific artist. Not only does he find time to juggle other music projects, such as Oysterhead (a rock supergroup he formed with Phish's Trey Anastasio and Stewart Copland from The Police in New Orleans back in 2000), Colonel Claypool's Bucket of Bernie Brains, Sausage, Fearless Flying Frog Brigade, Holy Mackerel, not to even mention his new solo career (complete with a new album and tour), but he also recently just finished writing and directing his first film, as well as penning a dark, novel which he's also currently promoting.
Livewire's Tony Bonyata managed to catch up with this insanely busy artist to discuss how he manages all his artistic endeavors and still finds time to round up fellow Primus mates, Tim Alexander and Larry LaLonde, for the only scheduled Primus show of the year.
Livewire: Les, It looks like you've been going nuts lately. A new solo record, tour, feature film and a debut novel - complete with its own book tour. How do you find time for it all?
Les: It's like throwing stuff on the grill. Some things stay on the grill a little longer than others, but if you can get them all off the grill at the same time it's a success to the folks that are going to be consuming the grillables. Some of this stuff has been on the grill for a long time; like the book has taken quite awhile. It's been in various stages for many years. The film we did last summer and the [solo] record I've been pecking away at and finished it up at the end of last year. So right now it's all coming off the grill at the same time.
Livewire: Tell me about your new novel South of the Pumphouse.
Les: It's about two brothers that are reuniting after the death of their father for a fishing trip. One of the brothers has gone off - leaving his conservative, semi-rural upbringing and has lived in a more liberal environment, Berkley actual, for a number of years. The older brother has remained in the same small town. Their social and political values are very different, but their common ground is fishing; something they had done since they were small boys. And they come together over this trip and there are various elements of tragedy, substance abuse and sodomy.
Livewire: So it's got it all? [laughs]
Les: It's got everything. It's got everything you could possibly want [laughs].
Livewire: It sounds like it's a rather dark story.
Les: It's very dark. I don't like to read reviews [of my stuff] because it usually rattles my cage, but I happened to stumble upon a review of the book from this woman that said it was the most vulgar thing that she had ever read in her entire life.
Livewire: How did you take that?
Les: [Laughs] I was pretty offended by it! I was surprised. She must be fairly sheltered, because I don't see this novel as being any more vulgar than any of Bukowski's stuff, or any more vulgar or violent than an episode of The Sopranos.
Livewire: Do you suppose she was offended by the language or the graphic nature of the story itself?
Les: Well, it's guys being guys on a fishing trip, you know? I spent a lot of my youth on these boats with my father and his friends, and heard all the dirty jokes that I wasn't supposed to hear. It's the way men talk when men are alone.
Livewire: Fucking A. So you were working on this for years?
Les: Well, it started off as a screen play many years ago and we raised money and lost money, and had producers come on and come off... and it just got to the point where it was very frustrating because as people of clout come onto a project they all tend to have input. Finally the story was becoming so convoluted that I said, "you know what, screw this, I'm going to write it into a novel." That way, if it ever does get made into a film, and gets watered down, altered or convoluted, it, at least, will exist in its original form - for good or ill.
Livewire: And along with your current solo tour in support of Of Whales and Woe, I understand that you're also doing a book tour in select cities as well.
Les: Well, I have to go and do some reading tests which I've yet to do. I haven't read before anybody since high school, so it'll be interesting to see how I fare. (laughs) I'm thinking I should probably just abandon the whole notion of reading any of my stuff and just grab a couple of Dr. Suess books.
Livewire: Speaking of screenplays, you've also got a new movie coming out called Electric Apricot: Quest for Festaroo. Is this released yet?
Les: We're actually working on distribution right now. It's a mockumentary about four aging northern California musicians that have been puttering around the jam scene for a number of years. Its premise is this UCLA graduate student is documenting them as they're on the verge of a couple of significant breaks; one of them being a slot on the coveted Festeroo.
Livewire: Which is a take-off of the Bonnaroo Festival, I assume.
Les: Well, I'm not saying anything [laughs]. Festeroo is the holy grail of music festivals. We already had the film in three film festivals thus far and won three awards. We took Best Feature in Malibu, which was really cool. We've got some irons in the fire that are heating up as far as distribution, so hopefully it'll be available soon.
Livewire: Speaking of festivals, you're playing the first annual Hedgpeth Festival here in southeastern Wisconsin. How did Hedgpeth manage to land the only Primus show this summer?
Les: Umm... I think they offered us a big wad of dough [laughs]. Primus is like this big, hibernating bear that pokes its head every now and again [laughs]. There's got to be a big tempting hunk of salmon to get the bear to poke its head out, and I think that's what happened. But it also sounds like a cool festival - the Flaming Lips are playing the night before us and that to me is very exciting. I love the Flaming Lips. It looks like a really great fest and it got us all really fired up, so we're going to do it. Other than that though I don't really know much else about the fest. You know, I'm the guy who gets on the bus and I usually don't know where I'm going. I usually find out the day before what city is next. I don't tend to look at my itinerary, and I've always been like that. The tour for me is sort of one big blur.
Livewire: Just get out of the bus and play, huh?
Les: Yeah, I think it's just part of my hard-drive that doesn't retain information or doesn't process as well, and I've been like that since the beginning. With Larry LaLonde, though, you can name a venue and he can tell you what the dressing room was like and what we had on catering and what the show was like, and I just won't remember.
Livewire: Do you prefer playing at festivals and large outdoor sheds in favor of smaller theaters and clubs?
Les: My favorite places to play are probably theaters, because they're usually steeped in history. These are places that The Marx Brothers, Hope & Crosby and all these guys all went through with their vaudeville shows. They're designed to project sound, so they really sound good. I really dig old theaters; they're my favorite. I like looking out and seeing the balconies and they're usually pretty ornate. Even the old run-down theaters - there's just a vibe to 'em, you know? Smells... everything. [laughs] But I also like the notion that tonight I'm playing the Electric Factory in Philadelphia and then tomorrow I'm playing this big festival. It's great having a variety. I tend to use the food metaphors, like I love eating sushi, but if I eat it every day I get bored with it. So it's good to have something different now and again... on all fronts of life.
Livewire: You have a pretty devout fan base don't you
Les: Yes, they're very excitable and tenacious [laughs].
Livewire: Do you find a certain amount of these fans follow you and Primus around on tour, the way Deadheads do?
Les: I think there is a portion of the Primus fanbase that enjoys my stuff, and then there's also a portion of the Primus fanbase that would like me to stop doing my stuff and solely do Primus [laughs]. The Primus audience has always been extraordinarily diverse. Look at all the festivals we've played over the years; we've played Lollapalooza to Ozzfest to H.O.R.D.E. In fact, I think the only festival we missed was Lilith Fair. We were always one of those bands that defied categorization. I've yet to see any sort of label that has stuck, and I've seen many of them thrown at us.
Livewire: Are there any that you would acknowledge?
Les: You know, I don't know what the hell it is [laughs]. I really don't.
Livewire: So when somebody asks you what style of music you play what do you tell them?
Les: You know, I've never had a very good stock answer. When you pull into a truck stop and they go, [in Southern accent] 'Who's in the bus? What kind of music do you play?" I go "We're a rock band" [laughs]. I think that's a pretty broad-stroke term. I've had clever little names in the past, like "psychedelic polka." It's not something I feel really needs to be defined, because it changes.
Livewire: You've been referred to as one of the "pioneers of alternative music." Do you feel that's a fair assessment?
Les: Well, what is alternative music? When we were coming up it was what the dictionary definition says, which is that it would be alternative to what was pop - which at that time was Guns 'n Roses and bands with long hair and tight leopard skin pants and stuff. And bands like us and the Chilis and Faith No More and Nirvana and Mudhoney and all these different bands were the alternative to that. Well, then all of a sudden Nirvana became huge and alternative became pop. It's like New Wave was once the new wave of music and then it became pop.
I think we helped redefine a few things back in the day. You know, Primus was a band that wasn't supposed to be on MTV. We weren't supposed to be on the radio. We never expected it. It really wasn't our goal. It was great having that stuff, but it was almost like a little extra bonus [laughs].
Livewire: Did you think when you started this whole thing back in the '80s that twenty-some years later that you'd be such an in-demand band?
Les: Umm.... I don't know that we are such an in-demand band. I think to an extent we are on a cult level, but we're still far from the media darlings.
Livewire: Can you tell me about your new solo record, Of Whales and Woe? Is this your first official solo record?
Les: Technically, yes, because this is straight under my name. I put out a record years ago called Les Claypool and Holy Mackerel and it was a solo record, but I always use these little pseudonyms that I like to throw in... just because [laughs]. I've always kind of squirmed at just putting my name on it. It almost makes me feel vulnerable. But a couple of years ago my agent said to me, "Look, I'm getting all these offers for you to play and I don't know what band you're going to bring. So I'm just going to book you as Les Claypool and you just show up with whoever you've got. And since then it's forced me to go out there just under my moniker.
And this record was also less of a collaboration than some of my other stuff, like [Frog Brigade's] Purple Onion, I wrote more with specific people in mind for various parts, whereas this one was me and a drumkit and my bass just banging out a bunch of stuff. It's really the most reflective of me than anything I've done in the past. I also think that every album represents a slice of time and this represents my mindset at that particular time. It's actually more in-your-face than anything I've done since Pork Soda.
Livewire: You mean harder-edged?
Les: Well, it's just the four-string bass and drums in your face - with little or no guitar on it. There's no guitar with the band I'm traveling with.
Livewire: How's the reception been at your solo shows?
Les: It's actually been great. The houses are either sold-out or packed up. It's probably the best tour I've ever done - as far as attendance and excitement. It's really going well.
Livewire: Will you be doing any of your solo stuff for your Hedgpeth performance with Primus?
Les: No, no... Primus is Primus. Oysterhead is Oysterhead...
Livewire: So you don't dip into different pools?
Les: No. However, as a businessman the smartest thing for me to do is to always play Primus. My bank account would much bigger if all l I did was Primus, and my business manager would much happier if all I did was Primus. But for me I love doing all these different things, and these things aren't my side projects. These are my projects. Primus is one of the projects. It's the whole variety and spice of life thing again. I think that by doing all these different projects, it keeps each one of them genuine to itself. Doing Primus with Larry and Tim and doing Oysterhead with Trey [Anastasio] and Stewart [Copeland] and doing my stuff, they're each an entity unto its own - as opposed to me just doing nothing but Primus and trying to bring in horn parts. While I think there's something to be said about a band evolving - I think that's a wondrous thing - there's also a fine line between evolving and convoluted.
Concert review - Lollapalooza 2005