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Back Stories | My 2009 Interview With Les Claypool

The Primus bassist talks wine, Wynona and being too weird for Metallica.

Photo by Male-zet

With Les Claypool and Sean Lennon releasing their second Claypool Lennon Delirium album South of Reality this week (look for my review sometime over the weekend), it seemed like a good time to resurrect my 2009 chat with intriguing oddball Claypool. So here it is, pretty much as it was, aside from a touch of editing. Enjoy.

It’s not like Les Claypool didn’t warn us. Way back in 1990, the oddball singer-bassist and his eclectic San Francisco trio Primus opened their first studio album with a freaky little ditty called To Defy the Laws of Tradition. Decades years later, those words still serve as something of a credo for the musician, composer and multi-tasking multi-disciplinarian. As Claypool and his solo band prepared to tour Western Canada to promote his seventh solo CD Of Fungi and Foe, I catalogued some of the musical commandments the eccentric artist has spent a career gleefully and mischievously breaking.

Thou Shalt Not Change
Most musicians pick a spot and refuse to budge. Claypool prefers to be a moving target. Over the course of a few dozen albums — he averages one a year — he has mixed and matched musicians, band names and musical genres with whiplash speed, dabbling in everything from funk to punk, country to southern-rock, proggy jams to thrash-metal. “I’m always looking for something different,” he explains from his Northern California compound Rancho Relaxo. “I’m always looking for something I haven’t heard before. That’s why I could never be a standup comic; I couldn’t tell the same jokes night after night.”

Thou Shalt Be Serious
Speaking of comedy, there’s always been a whole lot of it in Claypool’s music. Granted, much of it is pretty dark, twisted stuff. But even black humour is kind of a no-no in rock. “Yeah, as soon as you tap-dance into the area of humour, people stop taking you seriously,” admits Claypool in his unmistakable nasal tones. “I never used to worry about being taken seriously — then I wrote a song called Wynona’s Big Brown Beaver (on Primus’s 1995 CD Tales From the Punchbowl). And everybody just decided we were some sort of goofy novelty act. But there’s a lot of serious content in my work. I have a lot of substance abuse in my family — that’s all over my music. Some people just don’t get it.”

Thou Shalt Have Guitars
If there ever was a cardinal rule of popular music, this is it. So naturally, Claypool’s 2009 touring band was a minimalist outfit that featured just a junk-shop drummer, a percussionist and a cellist, but no six-stringer. “I haven’t had a guitar for a while, actually,” he says. “I make a lot of noise, and I don’t like to step on anyone’s toes — or have mine stepped on, for that matter. This is where I get to call the shots.” As for replicating all the various melodies and sounds from his studio albums, well, a vibraphone covers the keyboard parts, and Claypool’s vast arsenal of pedals and sonic manipulators covers the rest.

Thou Shalt Not Branch Out
Claypool’s vast musical smorgasbord would be enough to keep most musicians’ calendars filled. But for him it’s just part of a multifaceted career that also includes directing and acting in films — he played a demented preacher in the horror comedy Pig Hunt — writing novels, scoring video games and even running the boutique wine label Claypool Cellars, which produces Pachyderm Pinot Noir, among others. “I like to think of them all as pots on the stove — every now and then I move a different one to the front burner,” he says. Formerly a dedicated angler, Claypool admits he doesn’t have much time for fishing anymore. Gee, wonder why.

Thou Shalt Join a Superstar Band
Over the years, Claypool has had his share of high-profile collaborations. He’s played with everyone from Tom Waits to Buckethead, and his supergroup Oysterhead co-starred Phish’s Trey Anastasio and Police drummer Stewart Copeland. Of Fungi and Foe even features a cameo from Gogol Bordello ringleader Eugene Hutz. But when Claypool auditioned for Metallica in the mid-’80s after the death of bassist Cliff Burton — by playing Master of PuppetsJames Hetfield told him he was “too good.” How would his life have been different? “It wouldn’t have,” he counters. “My life would have been exactly the same. Because I would have been fired two months later. It wasn’t that I was too good for Metallica; I was too weird for Metallica. James told me that afterward.”