Say "Cheese"!

Taken from Kerrang! #343, June 1, 1991.

"You've got to go and see them," I kept telling people, after being impressed, to say the least, by the sonic bow-wave and rhythmic seismic ripple that the on-stage Primus (one of the best live bands I've seen in years) produced as they powered along like a massively powerful, turbo-charged tug boat.

"They're amazing... They're really... It's sort of... Well, they're... pretty kind of... weird, really."

Whoever wrote the biog that accompanied their first studio album, 1990's surprise cracker, 'Frizzle Fry' (Caroline Records), obviously had a problem putting a suitably accurate tag-line on the difficult-to-describe San Francisco Bay Area trio too, finally settling on the hopelessly inadequate -- not too mention well off-the-beam -- "Zeppelin meets Funkadelic". Which is a load of bullocks really.

"We made them change that! I didn't like that, either," says bassist/vocalist Les Claypool, the man with the multi-plait hairstyle, permanent ear-to-ear grin and the strangest cartoon character voice that thakes a while to accept as being genuine rather than an affectation.

"I used to be surprised that people kept asking me, 'So you're like Zeppelin meets Funkadelic?' And I'd say, 'Well... no, not really.'

"I hate having to try describe Primus, but now I always say -- and it's -in- the new biog now -- 'psychedelic polka.' But then everybody thinks I'm being a smartass again."

"If there was a band I could honestly say we sounded like, I'd tell you," chips in boyish guitarist Larry Lalonde, in a rare contribution to the conversation (most of the time he content to listen, laughing at whatever the quirky Claypool comes out with). "But I can't think of any."

Claypool's widening grin telegraphs a one-liner coming up, and "I suppose we're like New Kids On Acid!" has them both laughing like naughty schoolboys.

Personally, I confess to them, I've ended up describing them as just 'weird'.

Claypool seems quite happy with that: "I like being weird. In fact, the stuff that I like listening to on our albums is the weirder stuff -- the stuff where our A&R guy goes, 'Er, I think that should be shorter' or, 'Are you sure you wanna put that on there?'!

"There's one song on the new album called 'Sathington Waltz' which sounds like music from... 'Apocalypse Now', or something! Kind of... yeah, weird, I suppose!"

Weird it is, then -- although to give any idea of Primus's quite unique sound you'd have to pick 'n' mix words like funky, punky, intense, insane, intelligent, loud, musical, heavyweight, quirky, Metallic, Thrashy... and guess at influences ranging from Tamla Motown to Megadeth via Frank Zappa, Captain Beefheart, Looney Tunes cartoons and fishing(!).

"The three of us are so different," says Claypool, "and we each have such different backgrounds, that it's just a mish-mash of a lot of different crap."

Different, yes. Crap, no.

Having spent his earlier years wrapping his ears around the likes of Led Zeppelin, Rush, Elton John (!) and other big names of the time, Claypool's High School years saw him developing different habits, getting his fixes from big-cheese funksters such as Larry Gramm, Sly Stone, the Brothers Johnson and a touch of the biog-quoted Funkadelic.

"I listened to some Funkadelic, but I didn't actually buy any of their albums until years later," he confesses.

Until you were told you sounded like them.

"Yeah! Till last week!"

"We're from different times," says Lalonde, sitting there grinning. "Van Halen is the earliest band I was totally into. Rush, old Scorpions when Uli Roth was in the band, when no one in suburban America knew who they were and I thought they were weird, Iron Maiden..."

By which time Claypool was pretty much out of High School and had now moved on to his "snobby fusion period"!

And Tim (Alexander, drummer, still in bed)?

"Oh, he's a freak," laughs Claypool. "He likes to listen to anything that has wild, crazy drums on it!"

"Primus have always been pretty quirky," Claypool continues, "and in the beginning we were less heavy just because we never had heavy bass and a heavy drummer like we've got now. I'd say the band is a lot more like King Crimson -- the latter version, with Tony Levin, who's one of my big heroes -- or early Talking Heads stuff.

"Primus have been around for six years. That's plenty of time to evolve. We've gone through eight different drummers and Larry's the second guitarist we've had. But to start with it was always myself and Todd (Huth), who's a pretty bizarre guitarist. Todd got married and had a coupla kids. It kinda freaked him out that he was spending so much time away from his family so he quit.

"I've always liked weird, abstract stuff. That's why I asked Larry to join the band and not some Joe Satriani clone. Not that I don't like that type of playing, but I'm big on people like Adrian Belew (Bowie, King Crimson). Larry was previously with Possessed. Pretty much Death Metal! I listen to it and it cracks me right up!

"Before that we were both in a band called Blind Illusion, a kind of hippy-Metal band. When I first met Larry he was a total hippy-bag -- (Grateful) Dead-head, bleached blond hair and tie-dyed shirts. But it's worked out well."

Very well, in fact. 'Frizzle Fry' won Primus a lot of fans as well as picking up a Bay Area Music Award (or Bammie) for Outstanding Independent Album.

Primus spent much of the last year touring with the likes of Faith No More, Jane's Addiction, 24-7 Spyz and Living Colour. The band then picked up a new deal with Interscope Records (though East/West) for their new album 'Sailing the Seas of Cheese', full to the brim with typical Primus power, wacky lyrics, musicianly muscle and the infectious groove that is difficult to resist once you get hooked by it.

Is the most important thing to do something different?

"It's the most important just to keep yourself happy and enthused with your music," says Claypool, with a rare expression of seriousness.

"At least, it is for me. When you're younger, you think more about what people are gonna like, or what's gonna be accepted. But now we just play what we want and what turns us on. And if it turns other people on, that's cool.

"Not that I'm trying to be some artsy, smart f**ker going, 'Hey, we do what we want'. But sometimes it can get pretty boring touring and doing gigs. I like to keep myself happy."

Lalonde speaks up. "Sometimes it's fun to write something that you think nobody will ever like. It's always fun to try to freak out the A&R people."

Which I suspect wouldn't be difficult for Primus.

Claypool agrees: "On the new album, on the last song ('Los Bastardos') we had three drummers playing, five guitarists and three bass players, and about five different vocalists, all at once! It was a huge jam that ended up being 15 minutes long, and we edited it down to about two-and-a-half."

Lalonde: "That was the first time anybody from the record company ever came to the studio, and we've got like 20 guys in there making all this racket and drinking beer... The second time they came down Les was in there with a clarinet, I had a banjo! Weird!"

In the past these rather mellow guys have been used to a steady but not exactly frenetic gigging schedule, taking things at their own pace and leaving plenty of time off for their non-musical passion -- sea fishing.

You get the feeling that the prospect of 300-plus gigs a year (and no fishing!) if the album takes off could come as something of a shock to their systems.

Les Claypool scratches his cartoon face and chews over the thought: "It scares me!" he laughs.

"But I think we're going to be doing that this next year. Now we're with the big cheese guys, they probably will keep us out there for a while!"

Or should that be 'out there'?

Primus: weird, wacky... wonderful stuff.

The Cheesy Primus Page || Ram Samudrala ||