Les Claypool of Primus on the Benefits of Folk Music

Les Claypool and Larry Lalonde will be signing copies of Primus: Over the Electric Grapevine, an oral history of the band, at Tattered Cover on Thursday, September 18, at 7 p.m.. Primus is also slated to perform at Riot Fest on Friday, September 19. Formed in 1984 in the San Francisco Bay Area, Primus combined funk, humor and the avant-garde. It is the rare band that has successfully transcended what might have been something gimmicky with its supreme musicianship and imagination. Its popularity rose with the advent of the alternative rock era, and its 1991 album, Sailing the Seas of Cheese yielded left field hits like "Tommy the Cat," "Jerry Was a Race Car Driver" and "Those Damned Blue Collar Tweekers." Throughout the '90s Primus enjoyed mainstream popularity with The Brown Album and Tales From The Punch Bowl but by the end of the decade it was still releasing quality music even as it became something of a cult band.

See also: The Five Best Reunited Bands Playing Riot Fest

Primus retained a loyal fan base that has bridged to and from Claypool's various other musical projects, including Oysterhead, the Flying Frog Brigade and his country and folk band Duo De Twang.

The new oral history includes interviews with the band's friends and collaborators over the years including Kirk Hammett of Metallica, Stewart Copeland of The Police and Tom Waits. The book includes stories extending from the band's earliest days through the current era with rare photographs and an easily readable layout. We recently spoke with Claypool about working with Zach Hill, how he got into the Residents, the benefits of being a cult band and the importance of humor in his life in and out of Primus.

Westword: You covered The Residents on the Miscellaneous Debris EP. How did you come to be familiar with that band?

Les Claypool: I was first exposed to The Residents in 1981, I believe. A friend of mine's mother was into all this experimental music and had an interesting record collection. She played the Residents for me and I thought it was music from hell. It was the most frightening music I'd heard in my life. Then I became drawn into it. I became a huge fan and have seen them a handful of times over the years. I got to perform with them once years ago. We each had interactive projects we were pushing and we had this industry bill and we ended up sitting in together playing "Hello Skinny."

You played with Zach Hill on Astrological Straits? How did you come to work with him?

I met Zach years ago. He actually auditioned for Frog Brigade but was so totally insane I knew he would not be able to play my songs in any other way except for Zach Hill style. So we just became friends and we kept talking about doing a project together and we still talk about doing a project together. He said, "Come play on my record." So I showed up and basically tried to play as fast as I could trying to keep up with him.

How did you find playing with him compared to some other drummers with whom you've worked?

Playing with him is like a whole different ball game. He follows his own rules. He is very avant, like beyond avant. He has a different sense of everything -- sense of time, sense dynamics, everything. I call him Tourette's Drummer. He's like the guy that can't not play all the time. Later in the book you refer to Primus as being a kind of cult band. What do you think are the advantages of being a cult band?

The thing with Primus is that we've sort of always existed and every now and then we get a peek into the mainstream or did back in the day. Because of that it's helped to maintain the longevity and an extremely loyal fan base. I've seen trends come and go. If you're part of a trend you kind of go with the trend when it goes. You have bigger peaks and valleys. We haven't had these big peaks and valleys, mainly. We've been sort of cruising along under the radar. There's good things about that and not good things about that but for the most part it's been pretty sweet for us.

What sparked your interest in playing folk music?

I was asked to do this festival in San Francisco called Hardly Strictly Bluegrass. Which is this eclectic acoustic festival that's held in Golden Gate Park. They asked me to do it a few years ago and I put together a project and I was always kind of walking around with a Dobro bass, playing it away and singing various things. I put it together with a buddy of mine on guitar and we played out versions of my songs then we played a couple of songs I've always enjoyed like Jerry Reed and Johnny Horton.

It was a kick in the pants and it was easy. There weren't video screens behind me or giant, inflatable astronauts or any of that baggage. So I just grab my instrument and a small amp and go to a club somewhere and drink some booze, tell some stories and play music. It's campfire music. We actually have a campfire on stage. I call it my "Fuck Off Vacation Band."

You're able to combine humor into what you do without it coming off gimmicky. Is that something that came naturally to you?

I think humor has always been a big part of my existence. Same with Larry Lalonde. When we get together we're always trying to crack each other up and we have all these inside jokes and everybody looks at us like we've been dropped on our heads or something. Both my grandfathers, who I lost these last couple of years, were very humorous guys. I grew up in a wealthy family, a long line of auto mechanics, and a lot of the way we would deal with things was with humor so there's always been a lot of humor around my world.

• BACKBEAT'S GREATEST HITS • - Wolf Eyes' John Olson Talks About the Importance of Music Communities - The Ten Best Jazz Guitarists of All Time - The Denver Public Library Is Now One of the Best Places to Find Local Music - The ten best jazz drummers of all time

If you'd like to contact me, Tom Murphy, on Twitter, my handle is @simianthinker.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Tom Murphy is a writer, visual artist and musician from Aurora, Colorado. He was a prolific music writer for Westword and a documenter of the Denver music scene.