by E. D. Menaschè.
Taken from Guitar School, August 1995.
If you were forced to describe the musical mutant that is Primus, there are a few things you could say with certainity: Primus is a trio from the Bay Area made up of bassist/vocalist Les Claypool, guitarist Larry, "Ler" Lalonde and drummer Tim "Herb" Alexander, all of whom speak English. Primus' fourth album, 1993's Pork Soda (Interscope), sold nearly one million copies. Beyond that it gets a little tricky.
Unlike some of the bands that have been lumped into the increasing mainstream and formulaic "alternative" music category, Primus have enjoyed commercial and critical success by flouting all conventions---even those set by the establishment's rules of non-conformity. Perhaps they should have their own genre, one where acrobatic chops meet the visceral intensity of punk, and where the bass steps out of its traditional supporting role into the domain of featured instrument.
But regardless of what musical category they are forcibly jammed into, one thing is certain: their latest effort, Tales from the Punchbowl (Interscope), is a breakthrough album. The trio paints a deep and often dark aural landscape that underscores Claypool's skewed lyrical voice like a soundtrack in the threater of the absurd. It's that visual, evocative quality that Primus plans to exploit by releasing Punchbowl on both conventional audio-only CD and the new CD+ format, which will allow them to include animated visuals with their music for the first time. [CD+ can be played on CD-ROM and standard CD players--GS Ed.] There are also plans for a full blown CD-ROM in the works.
In addition to being a multi-media milestone for the band, Punchbowl also represents something of a coming-out party for guitarist Lalonde, who many well have the most challenging job in rock: trying to find an open playing space in the dense and intense musical arena dominated by Claypool's bass. While Claypool's dizzying, violently percussive textures are still on display, Lalonde's guitar has a distinct, forceful presence, from the call and response that kicks off "Professor Nutbutter's House of Treats," to the stinging Kimg Crimonesque phrashing of "On The Tweek Again." This new balance is not accidental. "We got much stronger tone for Larry, just from having the time and freedom to work at my house," explains Claypool, who produced at the project at his digital home studio, The Corn. "It gives us the chance to get the sound we hear in our heads onto tape."
In truth, Claypool's budding career as a producer (Charlie Hunter, Marc "Mirv" Haggard and his own side-project Sausage) and record-company owner (Prawn Song) might invite comparisons to another singular soul, Frank Zappa. Which brings us back to our task of describing the band and its members...ah, never mind.
GUITAR SCHOOL: Punchbowl seems to feature more guitar than prior Primus efforts. Was there a concerted effort to give Larry more space to open up?
LES CLAYPOOL: Poor Larry has to deal with Herb and I being pretty aggressive players. Also, we usually write from the bass and drumns. By the time Ler gets around to doing his parts, there's not necessarily a lot of space left.
LARRY LALONDE: Usually, my role is to try to find what space there is to fill up.
CLAYPOOL: We're not a band that plays much in unision. We do a lot of syncopation, things that play off each other, and none of us like to have our toes stepped on. [laughs] But I also pushed Larry to assert himself a bit more on this record. There was time to do that because we recorded at my house and there wasn't the pressure of the studio clock ticking away. Next to my studio, there's a little game room with a pool table and speakers that run in from the control room. We were able to shoot pool and listen while Larry was doing his guitar tracks. Every so often, we would peer our heads in and go, "Hey, that part sounded cool."
GS: The new album has an improvisational quality. Did you record much of it live?
LALONDE: Not really, actually...
CLAYPOOL: The three of us jammed at rehersal and came up with general ideas, then Herb and I started laying things down on our own. The arrangements were based upon whatever vocal melodies I had come up with at the time.
LALONDE: They would just record, and Les would say, "O.K., that's done." Herb would be like, "That's an actual song?" [laughs]. After that, I'd just go in and throw the guitar stuff over the top.
CLAYPOOL: Usually, a full performance made it to tape with very little punching in, give or take a solo or something. That kept the flow natural, as opposed to the way many people record, which is to do a piece of work.
GS: Larry, do you have a strong idea of what you're going to play ahead of time?
LALONDE: Usually, I have no idea. I'll be sitting and listening while those guys are recording and I'll start to hear something in my head. But everything tends to change once I hear the vocals. I always have Les put down a vocal, even if it is a scratch track, before I play anything. I try to match the mood of the lyrics.
GS: The guitar on "Professor Nutbutter's House of Treats" roams all over the place.
LALONDE: That song came out of a jam tape. It was pretty noisy in the practice room, so I couldn't really tell what key I was in, what was going on---or anything! There's a complete Robert Fripp rip-off going on, which comes from me feeling like everything was going crazy. I was like, "O.K., I'm just going to play." I thought I'd pick one note and start from there.
GS: So how does a nice boy from a Death Metal band like Possessed end up playing in Primus? It must've been quite an adjustment.
LALONDE: When I first got into Primus, my dream was to be in a band that was sort of a cross between Frank Zappa and the Dead Kennedys. But my God, at this point, it's like I don't know what's going on. [laughs] I think all the influences of all the people I've ever listened to are just gone. I just try to play what I can.
GS: Just who are these influences you speak of?
LALONDE: My favorite guitar player ever is Frank Zappa. When I think of what makes a good guitar solo, Zappa's playing is the thing I think of. It's the ultimate example of how a guitar should sound.
GS: I think his guitar playing is under-recognized.
LALONDE: Most people probably don't even know he played guitar! Snakefinger's another guy I like. All the harmonizer stuff Ive ever done--people think it's this real guitar-head rock thing--I got it all from him. [Sometime Resident cohort and Vestal Virgins bandleader Philip "Snakefinger" Lithman passed away in 1987--GS Ed.]
GS: Your playing on "On The Tweek Again" reminds me of Adrian Belew's worh with King Crimson--your phrasing has that twisted horn-like quality that manages to be jarring and fluid at the same time.
LALONDE: I love listening to horn players. It's such a human instrument. Guitar can be kind of like typing.
GS: I guess that depends on whether someone is just playing fast for the sake of it or doing so to serve the music. I still think Steve Vai's playing on P.I.L's album [Virgin] is the prime example of incredible technique being harnessed for the good of the song.
LALONDE: It's always cool to hear people who are super-talented and really can play use their technique to play music as opposed to show off how fast they are. But hey, I used to listen to Yngwie. I had his demos. But by the time he actually put out an album, it was like, "Ah, fuck this."
GS: The thing about developing incredible technique is that you can spend the rest of your life learning how to use it.
CLAYPOOL: Exactly. I've always been a pretty aggressive player, and as a young player I was obnoxiously aggressive--it was all about chops. And I think that's the way most young players are. It took three years of playing two-to-five nights a week in an R&B bar band with some older players to get me to calm down and learn the importance of grooving and establishing a foundation.
GS: You've been described as a "lead bass" player, but you seem to play the role of the rhythm guitarist as well.
CLAYPOOL: Well, being in a trio, I always felt I had to come up with the bass part and some of the other "rhythm guitar" type part just to foll the space--especially since I was writing the bulk of the tunes. I don't really think of the bass the way most people do. To me, it's a form of expression, the tool I use to get what I hear in my head out into the world. If I was playing Ocaria or Oboe or something, it would be the same.
GS: Larry, isn't it a challenge to work with a bass player who covers lead and rhythm roles traditionally left to the guitarist?
LALONDE: At this point, it's actually pretty natural to me. Over the years, I've gotten used to being more of a textual player. In a way, it gives me more freedom---I can play whatever I want because I don't have to lock into structured parts all the time.
GS: You guys seem to trade roles in a few places, with Les playing fluid lines and Larry playing very percussive parts.
CLAYPOOL: I've always been very rhythm-oriented, but I'm starting to develop more melodic parts. "De Anza Jig," "Southbound Pachyderm" and "Over The Electric Grapevine" are all more melodic than things I've done in the past. I find it kind of exciting. I've never really had that aspect in my playing---even when I've soloed, I've never really played melodies as much as percussive rhythmic pieces. In fact, I play drums a lot, which helps me with singing and playing the bass at the same time---the drums help me get more independance.
GS: Your lyrics are much more character-driven and narrative than the average pop song's which gives the music a strong visual component---do you listen to much theatrical music?
CLAYPOOL: Ever since I was a kid listening to my old Disney and Mother Goose records, musicals and songs, I've loved music that tells some sort of story or fable. Even now, I love any music that sets a mood or brings forth mental pictures, like Tom Waits, or the Residents, or a [Oingo Boingo vocalist] Danny Elfman soundtrack.
GS: Some of the characters you create are comic, but also a little scary. Mrs. Blaileen comes to mind. What is she all about?
CLAYPOOL: She's the sixth-grade teacher of Don, the picked-on young lad.
GS: Do you think people like her need to be poked fun at?
CLAYPOOL: Oh, I tend to poke fun at just about anything that comes along. A lot of my existance is steeped in satire and humor. We like to have a good time. We like to rib each other and rib others, and take things with a grain of sugar. My philosophy is, "laugh as often as you can." It's good therapy. But, you know, not everything is pretty and happy. Humor is a good defensive and offensive weapon.
GS: The music business takes itself so seriously--I always feel that so much angst and teeth gnashing is at odds with the whole spirit of making mmusic.
CLAYPOOL: It doesn't have to be that way. But there is a strong tendancy in the music business--and in other forms of art--not to take humor very seriously. People look down on Frank Zappa because he was just too damn silly. I don't ever see our bent perspective as being a huge part of the mainstream. But there's also a portion of people out there who enjoy this sort of obtuse look at the world, and we're able to make a living at it, and Frank made a living at it, and I'm sure there'll be people after us doing the same thing.
GS: Why do you assume the personality of the characters who inhabit your songs when you sing?
CLAYPOOL: It's easier for me to do that than to actually try and be a melodic singer with any type of range or accurate pitch.
GS: I understand you're both getting more heavily involved with computers, and that Punchbowl will be released as a CD+ as well as a regular audio-only CD. Are you planning to release any CD-ROMs?
CLAYPOOL: Yes, but the whole thing is still fairly undefined. Even the record company is trying to figure out how to deal with it. But CD-ROM definitely gives us an opportunity to develop more visual ideas for our tunes. I've always said I'd love to do a video for every song, because we have visuals for them, but it's just not economically feasible, and MTV only plays what they feel like playing. We've had some disappointing situations where we've come up with stuff, like the "Mr. Crinkle" [sic] video, which I loved and poured my heart into; it got played like three times. With the CD+, we can come up with visuals for every song and get into them more without actually sitting down in interviews and saying, "Well, this song is about this!"
LALONDE: I've been a complete computer-head for like two years now, and CD+ is great for me, because anything that gets me behind a computer makes me happy.
CLAYPOOL: Larry and I sat in front of computers all day for two and a half weeks working on cover artwork. There are so many different colors on the record and the cover artowrk seemed bland in contrast. We were supposed to go to Disneyland and hang out with Danny Elfman and relax after the five-and-a-half month recording grind, but decided we had to something about the art. We began coming up with these different things for the cover---basically an album cover for every song. New we have a ton of art---a lot of 3-D art and a lot of visuals---we can expand on for the CD-ROM.
GS: Are you filming or animating?
LALONDE: Mostly animating. I find anything that's too "real life" to be kind of weird on the computer. It's so silly right now, because you're only seeing 256 colors. The CD medium is kind of lame. It's so slow. And any CD-ROM you put out has to run on the slowest computers out there. Which sucks, 'cause [assuming manly voice] I have a fast computer. I actually have several power Macintoshes. But you know how computers are---you can be on the cutting edge and, in two weeks, it's like you're in the stone age.
GS: The computer seems like it could make music and musicians more accessible to people.
LALONDE: Going on-line gives fans a chance to leave messages for the bands and, obviously, bands are going to read the stuff. We'll eventually have a whole Primus site. You'll be able to upload music, which will be really cool once the platform gets faster.
GS: Plus you get all this bizarre news, perfect grist for your lyrical story-mill. Someone sent me a download about this guy who didn't like his laxative, so he wrote for a refund. Instead of sending him two doallrs, the compnay sent him like $98,0000---they put this zip-code on the check by accident. So he cashed it and took off, and now the police are looking for him.
LALONDE: No way! That actually ties in with this story I'm writing. [laughs] Me and my friends were talking about doing this wacky computer movie thing. It's about these guys who go to jury duty, and instead of getting 10 dollars, they'll get $10,000.
GS: Will you be integrating your work with computers into your live show?
LALONDE: At the last Lollapalooza, we had a big movie screen at the back of the stage, like a big drive-in. I always liked some of the stuff Pink Floyd did, even though these days it's not really that hip to have a big show or do something like that; you're just supposed to go out and pretend you're punk rock, I guess. But we're hoping to do some cool stuff for our next tour.
GS: Moving from computers to musical equipment, what kind of gear are you using these days?
CLAYPOOL:I picked up a six-string fretted bass right toward the end of recording Pork Soda, and used it on the album for "DMV" and "Hamburger Train." You just plug in and it has this huge, amazing tone that's right on the verge of clipping and faring and being so ugly, but has this fullness to it. I used it extensively on Punchbowl. "Mrs. Blaileen," "Professor Nutbutter," the "Year Of The Parrot"... I have a feeling I'll be using it a lot more live, because it's so comfortable to play. The guy who built it, Carl Thomson, claims it's the first six-string ever made in the world. He had it sitting around his house and never really liked it because the neck was so thin. I asked him to put some outlandishly light strings on it and lay frets into the neck. The upper strings are usually unwound, like guitar strings. You can bend them---they sound almost like a Strat or something---really trippy. You've got this fat bottom and this tinny upper end. It comes alive.
LALONDE: I play a Paul Reed Smith most of the time, especially live. I even use it for slide. I never feel like changing guitars on stage. I used a PRS on all but two songs on the album. The two that I play most often are set-neck models; a 24-fret Vintage-Yellow Maple-Top and a Custom 24-fret Walnut-Top. I just got two of the McCarty models, and they're really cool, too. I also have some interesting older guitars, including the one Hendrix used on "All Along The Watchtower." I have a lot of stuff I got cheap in pawn-shops, like a cool Van Epps 7-string. I totally stole a Gibson 345 from this one place. They were like, [assuming serious cracker accent] "That things' been sittin' on the wall for years. I can't believe you'd want to buy it." I have a Gibson 150-E, which is like a big, fat 335, a National Ariline, which has racing strips on it, and five Strats, most of them from 1979. There's something about that vintage that does it for me.
GS: And you can find them for cheap. A friend of mine bought one from an ex-girlfriend for $250.
LALONDE: [laughing] You're not going to believe this, but I acutally got the Hendrix guitar from an ex-girlfriend. Her dad worked with Hendrix. This guitar is on a lot of records: a Clapton album, a Grateful Dead album, a Hot Tuna album.
GS: How about your amp set-ups?
CLAYPOOL: Same old stuff: Boogie cabinets and an ADA MP-2 preamp. On the record, I just fed the board with the preamp. I didn't really go for a lot of fancy stuff. I used the ADA just to cut some highs and add some lows. I don't use many effects, except a little chorus now and then.
LALONDE: I usually use a pair of Marshall 50-watt half-stacks. But I have about a zillion amps, from every year you could think of, each with its own sound. When we went to do this record, I pulled them all out of the closet. The whole theory behind this band is to preserve a live feeling, as opposed to setting up a new sound for each song, and I wanted to find an amp that still sounded clean when you cranked it. This way I could get all my sounds from stomp boxes. I ended up using an early 1x12 Mesa/Boogie combo. I love using old amps. I have a very early Fender Twin that's in mint condition. It's just one of those amps: you turn everything up all the way, and it has that sound. I also have this 1x15 Maestro amp, which is this blue sparkly think that looks like an old Gibson Falcon amp.
And then I have piles and piles of effects, too many to name. I'd just start plugging and unplugging things. My main sound was an Electro-Harmonix Hot Tubes, going through that Boogie, or sometimes through an old Ampeg Portaflex. The super-distorted, crazy stuff is usually the Boss Metal Zone pedal with the wacky EQ in it. I used some harmonizer on "Professor Nutbutter," as well...I hope you're going to edit this to make it look like I know what I am talking about.
GS: I'm going to edit it so it looks like I know what I'm talking about.
LALONDE: Put a lot of stuff about strings and picks in there.
GS: What kind of picks do you use?
LALONDE: I use whatever the coolest ones are.
GS: So, in truth, your ultimate goal is to be cool?
LALONDE: Yeah. Put a lot of stuff in there about how shred is uncool, and then we'll be totally hip. And put something in there with me saying something bad about Yngwie. These days, that's how you become cool in a guitar magazine.