The brain, although a magnificent, finely tuned (well, one would hope) machine, is also a lumpy mass of flesh. Superficially, its meandering crevices hint not at the intrinsic electrical zapping behind basic bodily functions and deep analytical or creative thought, but entropic activity which, translated to sound, might equal freaky, frenetic, neo-funk and/or jazz. Converted to images and words, libidinous felines, big brown beavers, clay heads in frying pans, blue-collar tweekers, taco-flavored Dorito-munching fisherman, pork soda and purple onions. Given that Les Claypool, in 15 years with Primus and its various offshoots, has produced these exact things, one wonders if his brain actually functions as it looks (or if he just had a tremendously traumatic childhood).
“Well, I chased lizards and frogs and snakes and we set up jump ramps for our bikes … I was never molested or anything,” he laughs.
While we’re deprived of any Twilight Zone or America’s Most Wanted explanation for Claypool’s wackiness, he reveals he was the first kid that got out of classwork to go draw something for some display at the school. “I was always pretty creative. But I was a bit of a class clown when I was younger. It’s hard to explain to anyone what you were like. I don’t even know what I’m like now. To me, I’m me. That’s just what I do and it all seems normal because I’m looking at it through my eyes. I don’t really know what to tell ya [laughs].”
As Primus observes what they term a “hiatus,” Claypool tours with his Flying Frog Brigade supporting the band’s first studio album, Purple Onion (two live discs precede it). Some call it a solo album, despite the fact that Primus and its sundry sidecars (Sausage, Holy Mackerel, the Trey Anastasio-Stewart Copeland collab, Oysterhead), however idiosyncratic, were always rather Les-centric; Claypool’s boundless bass playing, nasal vocals, oddball lyrics and artistic sensibilities inevitably front and center. For Claypool, it began as a way to pass time as Primus sat docked in dubious cheese. Now, it’s as close to solo as he’s ever been.
“When we stopped playing, I was fully ready to keep going. I suggested we get Tim [departed drummer Alexander, best known to Primus fans as “Herb”] back. I actually spoke with him and we were ready to. Larry [guitarist Lalonde] just wasn’t interested in doing that. That’s when I started doing other things and it just kinda got to the point where I’m not overly interested in doing it now. I’ve moved on. So … I’m not sure what’s going to happen. I can’t imagine that it won’t happen again, but I don’t think it’ll ever be the center of my musical focus again.”
That’s not to say the Flying Frog Brigade (chiefly staffed by original Primus/Sausage drummer Jay Lane, percussionist Mike Dillon, guitarist Eenor and saxophonist Skerik, with Herb, Fishbone’s Norwood Fisher and Fish Fisher, Gov’t Mule guitarist Warren Haynes and various others filling in live and in the studio) will be, either. Claypool, as ever, has his hands in several cookie jars, contributing to Gov’t Mule’s tribute to departed bassist Allen Woody, The Deep End Vol. 2, and making plans with existing satellites Sausage and the Holy Mackerel, as well as a new one: Colonel Claypool’s Bucket of Bernie Brains (with guitarist Buckethead, P-Funk keyboardist Bernie Worrell and Primus’ most recent drummer, Brain).
Some fans might blanch at the notion of no more Primus, but true devotees will be delighted that Claypool’s incessant search doesn’t end with the popular trio. What might surprise them, however, is the man himself appears to have doubts as to whether most Primus fans will enlist with the Frog Brigade, et al.
“When Herb left the band and Brain came in, it was different enough for a good number of people to not be into it. We lost a hunk of our fanbase because they wanted Herb, Larry and Les. I think it’s that way with anything, you know? If I ever heard anything by George Michael, it all sounds like Wham to me, because I’m not into it. I don’t know the subtleties of it. I suppose you could easily say that [my side projects sound similar] because it’s my voice, my lyrics, my visuals and my bass playing, but there’s a world of difference between Herb and Jay Lane and Fish Fisher and having marimba and vibraphone and saxophone. We never had any of that stuff in Primus.”
Subtleties aside, one can argue he worries for naught; a Primus fan is a Les Claypool fan. Every note and nuance comes from his labyrinthine gray matter, and whether he calls it Primus or names it for intestine-encased hog parts, a sainted fish or a flying frog, one thing is assured: It will be cool.