by Michael Goldberg
Taken from Addicted to Noise issue 1.05, June 1995.
We hope to unravel the mystery of "Pork Soda." To understand what, exactly, the "Seas of Cheese" are, and, ultimately, get to the bottom of the "Punch Bowl." To do that, we must trek north. We must find Primus.
So that is what we are doing.
IUMA co-founder and major Primus freak Jeff Patterson is behind the wheel. I'm on the passenger side, which, like Wilco's Tweedy, I don't like, but that's for another story... We began in San Francisco and, after an hour on the road and fueled by strong coffee, are cruising through the one-horse town of Sebastopol. We've already passed by Petaluma, where the creep did the ugly deed to sweet Polly. We stop at a '50s drive-in (up here '50s drive-ins aren't fashion statements, they're just what's still standing after 40-plus years) and dine on burgers, onion rings, and Cokes with the Ronnettes on the juke box.
Now we're back on the road. Ranch land stretches out in both directions. Trees line the road. We pass signs for a "Flea Market," "Frank's Corner," and "Industrial Avenue." There goes the Sequoia Drive-In. And "Ed's Bait and Tackle."
We're in search of Primus and somehow this back country, two-lane stuff feels right. The drizzle that is turning to rain feels right too. Primus is weird, make no mistake about that. And off--like an episode of "Twin Peaks." Les Claypool is the leader of the three man band, a mix of country bumpkin and high tech sophisticate. Who else stocks up on the latest recording gear and turns a pool-side cottage in the middle of nowhere into a recording studio and uses it to record an album that will probably enter the Top 10 the first week it is released?
Jeff and I have been blasting a pre-release tape of Tales From the Punch Bowl, and it sounds mighty good. And mighty weird. The album is heavier than previous Primus efforts. There seem to be more cool grooves, more hooks. One song, "Mrs. Blaileen," is like James Brown on acid. Another, "Southbound Pachyderm," is dark and ominous, and feels like someone is following you, at night, as you hurriedly walk along a dank alley. Noir-time.
I have brought Jeff along because he has been a Primus fan since practially before there was a Primus. He has every obscure piece of music the group has made available to the public, plus some early bootleg tapes and god knows what else. Jeff is our resident Primus expert, and so I, being lazy, and not being the most up on the details of the Primus story, have brought my man Jeff along to fill me in. So while we're driving, while we're bouncing off the walls of the cab of Jeff's pick-up to "Space Farm" and "Mrs. Blaileen," Jeff is giving me some background on the group that Devo's Mark Mothersbaugh once described as "a little subversive. A humorous take on humanity."
"To me, Primus are everyday Joe's," explains Jeff, juggling his extra large mocha as he drives. "Singing about fishing. On songs like 'John the Fisherman,' 'Fish On,' and 'The Old Diamond Back Sturgeon.' Les is really into fishing. Or like 'Groundhog's Day' is about waking up in the morning and getting your breakfast. Les sings a lot about their life and people they know, rather than universal truths. More into their own personal thing. You know like 'Harold of the Rocks' is about going to see a show with guy named Harold and what a trip Harold is."
It's good that Jeff told me this. Because, see, I had this whole wrong impression about Primus. First of all, I thought these guys might be scary and really, really strange and creepy. That was because of this video I saw for a song called "My Name Is Mudd." I guess Les Claypool was wearing a costume in that video. But I didn't know that when I saw it. I thought he was a farmer dude with a corn-cob pipe, kind of guy who would bury his wife out back if she nagged at him one too many times.
What I really thought about Primus was that they had developed this whole kind of World Of Primus. And in the World Of Primus, music only sounded like the Residents and Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart and Can and Hawkwind and stuff like that. Not normal stuff. No Michael Bolton in the World of Primus.
Not a whole lot of women in the World of Primus. In fact, you generally only found women at strip clubs and porn joints. The World of Primus, I thought, was this kind of men's club, only a men's club for loser, slacker types. Really fucked up loser, slacker types. The kind of guys who, in high school, never seemed to make it to class cause they were too stoned, too busy not taking showers, too busy letting their hair grow down to their ankles and their facial hair sprout.
In the World Of Primus, people sometimes would say the opposite of what they really meant. Like to give you the best known example, the highest praise you could tell anyone was "You suck." And the highest praise anyone could give the band was "Primus Sucks!"
Then there was this whole musical thing about non-melodic solos and ugly booming bass lines and a voice from the crypt or the insane asylum or somewhere just plain funky. There were also these deep levels of meaning and symbolism in the World Of Primus. Like a song such as "Glass Sandwich" on the new album could be Les' take on the psychological implications of man's inability to have an intimate relationship, his need to objectify women and place them in a box so that they could be both understood and treated as sex objects. (Of course I found out later that "Glass Sandwich" was about a guy who goes to a strip joint and discovers his ex-girlfriend on stage dancing naked--nothing too deep there.)
And then there was all this unusual imagery, this wacky stuff like the idea of "Pork Soda." Imagine, Pork Soda. What a concept. The World Of Primus was a place where you might walk up to the counter and ask for a can of Pork Soda. And not be carted off to a jail cell.
But I was all wrong about that. There is no World Of Primus. Jeff cleared a lot of stuff like that up for me as we drove to Les Claypool's large ranch house on the outskirts of Sebastopol. Actually, to get to the place you have to take a lot of lanes and side streets and make a bunch of turns and bow three times when you reach a certain sign (not really) and spend about 20 minutes after you leave the main road in order to get to it. The guy lives way, way out of the way.
Basically, Jeff told me that Primus are just regular guys. Regular guys who play music and record albums.
He told me that the guys--in addition to Les Claypool on bass, are Larry "Ler" Lalonde on guitar and Tim "Herb" Alexander on drums--are real hard working and serious about what they do. They were fans of bands like Rush and the Grateful Dead and Frank Zappa and Sly and the Family Stone and the Residents when they were in high school who started playing music.
Les, for instance, was in a "total speed metal" band called Blind Illusion and then later he was in this oldies cover band and then he was in Blind Illusion again. And eventually he started this band that, for like a minute, he called Primate. But some other band was using that name so he changed it to Primus.
Primus had a different drummer and a different guitar player originally. And they recorded a demo tape in one of those storage lockers. And it sounded real good. So Les decided they should record an album--but not in the storage locker--at a local club. So in 1989 they did that. The album was called Suck On This and it cost about $3000. They drove around with boxes of the things in the truck and got record stores to take it.
They were doing so well with it that the indie label Caroline picked it up and re-released it. Not only that, Caroline signed them to do a second album. That one sold good too. Next thing you know, executives from big labels were showing up, trying to take Les fishing, that kind of thing. One A&R guy that wasn't obnoxious was Tom Whalley of Interscope Records.
He saw Primus at a club in 1990, and as he told a reporter from Entertainment Weekly, "There were 500 people, and everyone was locked into this incredibly quirky music."
I guess old Whalley thought "Deadheads," cause he signed the band real fast. And the rest... well it's recent history, anyway. First they recorded Sailing the Seas of Cheese, whose sly title refers to the group's situation at the time, trying to stay afloat among music biz sharks and such. That album sold 100s of thousands of copies. Next up, Pork Soda and a headlining gig at Lollapalooza. Pork Soda entered the charts at #7 and sold 500,000 copies in about two minutes. That all happened in 1993.
So then the group took a long vacation from each other, which is better than splitting up for "artistic differences." Les regrouped the original Primus and recorded an album as Sausage. Ler worked on a side project called Beanpole, while Herb put together Laundry and recorded an album.
Jeff was actually getting a little tired of all my questions. "What are you going to ask the guys in Primus," he said to me. "You've got like the whole Primus story out of me." I assured him there was plenty more to ask Les and Ler.
We pulled up at Les' place, parking right behind his boat. There were a lot of cars in the lot, like a Mercedes and some other nice vehicles. Les' girlfriend answered the door, along with a big dog that kept trying to jump all over me even though Les' girlfriend kept telling it not to. She led us though the living room and the kitchen and out to the pool area. We walked around the pool, which would be pretty nice to swim in on a sunny day. But it was pouring rain at this point, so the pool didn't look too inviting.
We found Les and Ler sitting in front of some computer screens, which made us feel right at home because all we ever do from about 7 in the morning until one or two or three in the morning is stare at computer screens.
One of the first things said to us was: "We're way past deadlines. When was the artwork for our album due? It was due last Wednesday." We figured out, after a while, that the guys hadn't turned in the cover art for Tales From the Punch Bowl. Minor problem.
After a few hours I figured out that Jeff was right. These guys weren't really weird at all. Not scary. Not creepy. Just kind of nice, smart guys.
After all, can anybody that still makes an annual pilgrimage to Disneyland be bad? Actually, Les sounded like a real clean-cut Joe when he told us his frustration with the punks in Paris. He'd visited the French Disneyland and was aghast. "When I went there, they'd been open two weeks and they were destroying it," he said. "There was graffiti and carvings and the little spots where a little scene is railed off, well they were jumping over the fence and sitting there getting their picture taken by their parents. It was just, like, no respect, goddamnit!"
And that, ultimately, is how I like to think of Les Claypool and Primus. Ler fiddling with a computer. Herb off practicing a martial art somewhere, and Les standing there, grimacing, complaining about Parisian manners. "You'd be standing in line and everybody'd be cutting in front of you," he added. "There was no sense of respect for anything or anybody."
Like they say, "Primus Sucks!"