New Rage: The Funky

by Joe Gore.

Taken from Guitar Player, August 1991

Primus Sucks

Primus plays rock the way Dr. Seuss intended. In their crazy backwards world, progressive metal beds down with art-funk, instrumental flash tangos cheek-to-cheek with self-mocking humor, and ever-expanding audiences hail their favorite group with the fervent cry "Primus Sucks!"

Frontman Les Claypool is a headbanger's Cat In The Hat, a bemused master of ceremonies overseeing the band's ecstatic performances with goofy grin, rubbery body, and stupefying virtuosity. He plucks, strums, taps, and slaps a seemingly endless torrent of piledriver riffs while delivering his quirky songs in a Saturday-morning cartoon speed rap. And how many other rockers address their audience as "boys and girls"?

Together with metal-hippie guitarist Larry "Ler" LaLonde and hyperkinetic thunder drummer Tim "Herb" Alexander, Claypool has concocted a heavy but hilarious sound that he calls "progressive freak-out music," but which one critic describes as "thrash-funk meets Don Knotts, Jr." Either way, it's a ferocious but funny mix, the musical equivalent of a Hell's Angels wearing a "Kick Me" sign.

Primus can mock their cake and eat it too. The most successful group to emerge from the San Francisco Bay Area's much-bal-lyhooed "thrash-funk" scene, they've toured with Jane's Addiction, Living Color, and Faith No More, developing a huge following on their West Coast home turf, and play themselves in the soon-to-be-released sequel to Bill And Ted's Excellent Adventure. Despite shoestring budgets, their first two albums, Suck On This and Frizzle Fry [Caroline], captured the intensity and spontanneity of Primus' live shows and became alternative radio hits. And now that Primus has hooked up with a major label and produced their best record yet, their smirk ethic may finally pay off big.

Sailing The Seas Of Cheese [on Interscope, a new Warner Bros. affiliate] tops the heaviness, funkiness, and just plain weirdness of previous Primus releases. The sel-produced album is tough and spare, the uncluttered textures highlighting the players' left-of-center stylings without undermining the trio's remarkable interplay. LaLLonde, a former student of Joe Satriani, ventures from cleaned-toned, exotic-scale leads to white-noise wipeouts. His solos weave like drunks, bumping into harmonic walls but never falling face-first. And Les' bass playing is pure guitar hero stuff; his 6-string fretless work behing Tom Waits' cameo vocal on "Tommy The Cat" suggests new possibilities for funk-metal cross-pollination.

Claypool's solos and bass-generated songs never take on the monkey-with-a-parasol quaintness that so often marks over-stated rock bass excursions. Busy but groovy, his parts often imply simultaneous bass and thythm guitar lines. "ever since Primus started," says Les, "I wanted to hit low notes with my thumb while playing rythm parts with my fingers. I had seen Stanley Clarke play chords before, so I knew it could be done. The technique is a lot like what they call 'clawhammer style' on banjo. 'Tommy The Cat' is a good example of that, and so is 'To Defy The Laws Of Tradition,' from Frizzle Fry. 'Pudding Time' [Frizzle Fry] and 'Those Damn Blue Collar Tweekers'

The dense bass and drum parts lock down the groove and tonality, freeing LaLonde to take harmonic liberties rarely afforded rock players in trio contexts. Many of his lines are based on jagged altered scales, and sometimes he just plays "out" with no concern for key. "I studied with Sattriani for four years," relates Larry. "We went through all the modes in every key and worked on theory and reading. But once in a while we'd try to come up with weird things, just making noise. Joe would say, 'Always remember that the wrong note is sometimes the right note.' But I think i've used that more often than he would have liked!"

Despite his training, Larry sees his playing in decidedly anti-intellectual terms: "A lot of times I just don't want to think about being in any key or anything-you know, blatant disregard for theory. My solo on 'Jerry Was A Race Car Driver' starts out as a symmetrical idea-a half-step/whole-step diminished scale-but after that, I don't know what it does. It's just reckless abandon."

LaLonde, 22, and Claypool, 27 hooked up a few years ago while playing together in Blind Illusion, a San Francisco progressive-metal band with whom Les has worked on and off for many years. Before that, Larry had played with Possessed, a notorious death-metal band. "Ler hates talking about Possessed," chuckles Claypool. "Once I was watching Geraldo, who was doing a show on 'devil worship music' and interviewing some kid who had murdered another kid. Geraldo said, 'Let me read some lyrics,' then he held up a Possessed record with ol' Ler's picture on it!"

"It was my first band - I was only 16," mutters a sheepish LaLonde. "We did two albums and an EP on Combat - I don't remember what they were called, some satanic stuff. It was all shock value. None of us knew anything about any kind of religion. We were just drunken El Sobrante kids trying to be heavy. I finally quit Possessed because there was nothing there I wanted to do. Blind Illusion wanted to do something totally crazy, and I was up for that."

Blind Illusion was actually Les' very first band. He bought his first instrument, a Memphis Precision Bass ccopy, so he could join up 13 years ago. "I pulled weeds to pay for it," recalls Claypool,"and I eventually sold it to a guy who hacked it into the shape of an albatross. Anyway, in high school I had always wanted to play something. [Metallica's] Kirk Hammett was in my algebra class. He was just buying his first Strat and starting a band. I used to come to class singing Aerosmith and Rush tunes, so he said, 'Come audition for my band as the singer.' I never did, but I met the guys in Blind Illusion and played with them untill I learned about guys like Larry Graham, Stanley Clarke, and Louis Johnson and became a fusion snob.

"In those days, there was a complete division between funk and metal. If I slapped at all, everybody would say, 'Hey - it's Disco Les!'" Before forming Primus, Les did hard time in the Tommy Crank Band, an R&B cover unit. "We played Booker T. & the MGs, Wilson Pickett, Teddy Pendergrass," he remembers. "It was four sets a night, up to five nights a week - that's how I learned discipline and how to actually groove. We did some cheesy stuff, but we had great players, guys who played with Tower Of Power and Sheila E."

Primus debuted in '84 with an artier, less metallic version of their current sound. Four years later, after guitarist Todd Huth quit to raise a family and Les' audition to replace the late Cliff Burton in Metallica didn't pan out, Claypool snatched Larry from the dormant Blind Illusion. (LaLonde, incidentally, replicates Huth's parts for the older Primus material.) Suck On This, recorded after the new lineup had been together for about a month, became a regional hit and sent ripples through the national college radio scene. Last year's Frizzle Fry made a bigger splash and coincided with the full-blown emergence of the San Francisco thrash-funk scene, a loose network of bands fusing hard rock and dance elements. "The Red Hot Chili Peppers and Fishbone were the first ones to really pop out with a crossover between rock and funk, or just aggressive funk," notes Les. "They really opened the door for us."

But in many respects, Primus stand apart from their supposed compatriots. They bypass the willfully obnoxious stage manner and misogynistic lyrics favored by other bands on the scene. (Claypool may dwell on oddball topics like fishing and breakfast cereals, but his goofy imagery doesn't demean the thoughtful content of his songs.) And despite Les' slap-happy chops and the sudden marketability of metal-edged dance grooves, Claypool chafes at the "thrash-funk" label.

"The term pretty much makes my lips curl," he states. "Still, it's more accurate than calling us a funk band, since i'm the only one in the group with any sort of funk background. Actually, I think the term 'funk' is being bastardized; people just hear a slap bass and assume it's funk. To me, funk is Tower Of Power, P-Funk, the Average White Band. But hey, when I was a kid, heavy metal meant something completely different thanwhat it means now. Maybe i'm just an old fart.

"we're a mishmash. I mean, look at our CD collection: There's Jelly Roll Morton, King Crimson, Tom Waits, Bob Dylan, Laurie Anderson, Frank Zappa, Peter Gabriel, Motorhead, the Afros. It's pretty varied, and so are we."

Wood For Weirdos

Les Claypool's Basses Aren't Standard Funk Machines. "I've played a Carl Thompson piccolo bass for yearsm" he notes. "It's like one Stanley Clarke used, but tuned to tuned to standard pitch. It has 29 frets, a 32" scale, and a Kahler whammy bar. I bough another Thompson from a friend a year ago, and then Carl getting calls from people who saw his bass in our video. We finally got in touch. He's an amazing human being, a really weird guy who likes the fact that i'm werid too. He works out of his apartment and doesn't build too many basses anymore, but said he wnated to make me the best bass of his life. He assembled this amazing 6-string fretless out of pieces of rare wood - purple heart, padouk, maple, walnut - all laminated together, butcher-block style. He calls it the Rainbow Bass, and the serial number is his date of birth. It's a 36" scale, and he made everything except the machine heads and electronics. He got seriously ill while hewas building it - he says it almost killed him.

"While he was working on it, I used a Japanese Tune fretless. I'd played all the 6-strings, and this Tune sounded and felt the best - and at half the price of a Warwick. When I first ripped the frets out, it freaked me out - I could hardly play it, because you really have to be on it to make a fretless sound good with chords. It was a whole new ball game, but by the time I got the Carl Thompson fretless, I could actually play it. Maybe it was the Wheaties.

"I also have an Italian hollowbody. When Eko went under, Fat Dog at Subway Guitars in Berkeley bought their entire stock. It's newly assembled, but all the parts are from 1965. I'd always wanted a Hofner, but the Eko blows the Hofner away. I used it on 'Toys Go Winding Down' [Frizzle Fry]. My upright is an old '30s Kay I bought from a retired school teacher for $300. Now it's autographed by Screamin' Jay Hawkins and Tom Waits, so it's priceless." Les pumps the electrics through an ADA MP-1 preamp, an SWR SM-400 head, and a couple of MESA/Boogie 2x15 cabinets.

Larry LaLonde has long relied on the same Floyd Rose-equipped Fender Stratocaster, but he reccently acquired a new instrument from the Ibanez custom shop. "It's based on their basic Strat shape," he explains, "but I had them bevel the outer edge a little. It has a humbucker in the bridge and two single-coils. Ampo-wise, it's Marshalls forever - I have two JCM800s, 50 watts each. I use an ADA MP-1 ao I can switch programs, not so much for the actual sound. I also use a Yamaha SPX-900 [digital processor], mostly for harmonizing and making crazy noises. I used it on 'Those Damned Blue Collar Tweekers' for this sound that Tom Waits really likes: I Play the chord B flat, C sharp, and A on the top three strings at the 14th fret, going through a wah with the harmonizer adding some notes that shouldn't go together, something like seconds and tritones above. I'm getting more into foot pedals too - I've got a Boss digital delay, and I used thgis great old Electro-Harmonix Doctor Q envelope follower on the album."

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