High Fryers

Taken from Metal Forces #54.

Les Claypool, PRIMUS founder member, laughs long and hard at my suggestion that these wacky San Franciscans are rather like The Freak Brothers set to music. "That's the best quote I've heard yet man, Ha! Ha! and it's pretty funny because Larry's been reading a lot of those comics recently."

The Larry he mentions is, of course, Larry Lalonde, erstwhile POSSESSED guitarist and one time accomplice with bassist Claypool in that other Bay Area cult band BLIND ILLUSION. It was during their stint together in the latter fine outfit that Les convinced Larry to trade in his inverted crosses and black leather for a more tranquil bong and joss-sticks lifestyle. The result is a band quite unlike anything else I've ever heard, and despite having lost more drummers than SPINAL TAP, PRIMUS look set to take the world by storm.

Hailed as psychedelic sensations by some, and also thrash/funk by others, PRIMUS is currently completed by sticksman Tim (Herb) Alexander, who was actually brought up from Arizona's MAJOR LINGO. The combination of three such exteremely diverse minds at work does indeed result in a very bizarre musical concotion, and PRIMUS seem to be in the enviable position of being virtually uncategorizable.

But this is a complicated tale to relate, and in his squeaky, almost cartoon like voice, Claypool tells it far more effectively than I ever could. So let's start at the beginning, shall we? "We were pretty bizarre when we first came out," claims Les, who also handles lead vocal duties. "The band was originally comprised of myself, guitarist Todd Huth and various drummers. In fact, we went through so many drummers it was unbelievable, Ha! We were more of a KING CRIMSON style band back then, a little bit self-indulgent and quite strange as well. We were getting a lot of airplay on this alternative radio station in San Francisco but we didn't start getting really popular until three or four years ago. Then Todd decided to get married a couple of years back and jumped out of the music business. At the time I was playing with Larry in BLIND ILLUSION and we'd become good friends so I invited him to join PRIMUS. Then Herb heard we were looking for a drummer, he auditioned and pretty much blew us away."

Now although Claypool is a seasoned pro, his involvement with the late lamented BLIND ILLUSION turned out to be something of an eye opener for the bassist. Prior to that he'd never really touched on the metal scene at all, but it seems to have stood the man in good stead. "Those guys were kinda dubbing themselves as a hippie thrash band," he recalls. "I had a great time while I was with them. We did a couple of tours of the States and it was like a real introduction to the metal scene for me. It had always been bubbling away here in San Francisco, but I was off playing these KING CRIMSON style tunes and jamming on a bunch of funk stuff. I'd basically missed the whole boat. I knew Kirk (Hammet, METALLICA guitarist) from High School, we were old friends, and when Cliff died he actually called me up and I went down and auditioned. I was like a fish out of water and wasn't very familiar with metal at all. So that was kind of a trip. After I joined BLIND ILLUSION and started getting way into it, it was a lot of fun."

So after Les managed to entice Larry into joining the ranks of PRIMUS had he noticed the guitarist encountering any problems fitting into the band. Let's face it, it was quite a drastic change in direction for the guy, was it not? "At first it was a little difficult," comments the frontman casting his mind over some obviously fond memories. "It wasn't so much the difference in style of music as much as Larry was now the only guitar player, so he had a lot of space to fill. I was pretty nervous at the time, because there I was without a drummer or guitarist, it was basically just me trying to keep this thing running, but I got lucky on finding Herb and Larry, because they're both great musicians. We have a great chemistry between us and it worked out real well."

The result of this collaboration is an oddball affair entitled "Frizzle Fry", the trio's debut for Caroline Records. However, it's not their first release on vinyl, because last year Claypool and co put out "Suck On This", a quirky live collection featuring four of the tunes from "Frizzle Fry" plus four others. The album did surprisingly well, not only in the Bay Area either, and was eventually picked up for distribution via Rough Trade in the States. But was it the ideal way to start out? "Well, we basically did the live album because we didn't have any money," explains the bassist. "It was a totally new line-up at the time but we knew we were pretty popular around here, so we thought we'd give the people something. We recorded it on this 8 track, a real cheesy set up, in the back of The Berkeley Square nightclub. We'd originally intended it to be a brown bag release sort of thing, y'know, just put the record out locally, but it kinda snowballed and we ended up spending money on the artwork and it did so well, that's when Rough Trade picked up on it. It was a kind of surprise I guess."

So Prawn Song, the label it was pressed on, was Les' idea I presume? "Yeah," he laughs. "I went down to the bait shop and got an actual shrimp to draw the little Prawn Song logo, smoked this big bong, then went for it. It was a lot of fun making that record."

Unknown to many, "Frizzle Fry" was actually recorded with the profits from "Suck On This", mainly because the band weren't into the idea of hanging around for ages while various majors made up their minds about signing 'em. Then Caroline came along, and Les saw it as the ideal opporunity, boasting a varied roster featuring the likes of BAD BRAINS and the excellent MIND OVER FOUR. "The good thing is that they're not seen as any particular label, like metal, hardcore or whatever," comments the frontman in a suitably contented tone.

Which is probably just as well because PRIMUS isn't an easy band to pin down. The material on "Frizzle Fry" isn't exactly instant either, but refreshingly different and a few plays down the line songs like "Pudding Time" or "Groundhog's Day" become almost irritatingly hummable. But how on earth do they put their material together, it sounds very loose and spontaneous? "Well," says Les pondering over the question. "A lot of our original ideas just come from jamming around at sound checks. We have the most horrible rehearsal place on the planet. It's just this garage in the middle of nowhere with shag carpeting all over the walls. It's sweaty in the summertime and freezing in winter and the floor has a big slant to it. So we don't really rehearse because it's so horrible. When we do actually start writing a lot of the time it's with some riffs we've got together at sound checks. Then I have notebooks with lyrics and stuff and we kinda piece it all together like that."

And who the hell comes up with those bizarre lyrics? "Well, that's me," chuckles the bassist. "I've always been partial to a narrative style of writing. I read a lot of Charles Bukowski, and I really like the author Gene Shepard, they're very colorful writers, and I tend to reflect that when I write. I don't really consider myself a great singer, I tend to be more of a storyteller as opposed to a more straightforward singer. It's much more my thing. Ha! Ha!"

The PRIMUS image is another strange concept, one which owes much to the garish outlook of the sixties. In fact, the whole thing could almost be misconstrued as some sort of hippie excursion, were it not for the generous chunks of energy contained in the band's heavy fusion style. Les seems to see things the same way. "Larry is a total dead head," he agrees. "And I like a lot of the imagery from that time, plus I'm a big BEATLES fan, PINK FLOYD, all that stuff. We just finished shooting a video and I was wearing some flared Levi's man. Ha! Ha! The sculpturing on the cover was done by a friend of mine and then I painted 'em. We're very closely involved with all the aspects of our records, and that was one of the most appealing things about Caroline, that they'd let us do whatever we want. To me, that's the most imporantant thing."

And I suppose the ever-colourful San Francisco area had also had a big part to play in shaping the way PRIMUS has evolved? "Yeah, there's such a cross culture here," agrees the bassist. "There are so many different types of people in the Bay Area, and it's very liberal. Audiences tend to be more receptive to new things. I see a lot of interesting new ideas coming out of here. It's like you can go out and do your own thing and, somewhere, there's an audience here for you. There's not too many people here that'll shoot you down right away."

By the time you read this, PRIMUS should be well on their Stateside trek with 24-7 SPYZ, and the band also hope to make it over to Europe sometime this Autumn. While their album may be a departure from what I'd normally listen to, there's absolutely no denying that it's different. And, if there was ever a time when a little diversity was needed then it has to be now.

The Cheesy Primus Page || Ram Samudrala || me@ram.org