Thursday, November 26, 2009

Les Claypool (Primus) interview (2009)


My first experience of Les Claypool was at the very least timely, or rather not a moment too soon. Hungry for anything weird, comical, noisy and not guitar grunge – A man in a huge pig costume playing the cello while a parade of circus freaks go by was enough to seal the deal for me. That was Claypool’s band Primus and their Mr Krinkle video, coming across as the living incarnation of a Gary Larson comic strip where the animals always took the lead and told stories through an often hilarious, skewed view of the world. The man behind the pig is after a ten year absence finally on route to Australia with his new band of beasts, collection of masks and further tales of Larson-esque oddballs. Talking to Claypool pre-tour, I find out first hand - as would be expected - nothing with the bassist is exactly as it seems. In keeping with the man/animal kinship throughout his work, I begin by asking what significance Les places on animals in their relation to humans.

"Not any necessarily, at least not consciously.” Les begins slowly and thoughtfully, “I think I'm just drawn the imagery really.” The sleeve of his new album Of Fungi & Foe features four sepia portraits of Claypool and his band mates caught between animal and human transformation. Les is half donkey. “Well that’s because I’m a bit of an ass.” He laughs nasally, “Travis Louis is the artist and he did some really interesting oil paintings of us with animal parts, so once again it’s not a conscious animal thing, he did that without input from me.” He adds, “I just liked what he did with our ugly mugs!”

Fans of Primus reciting a list of favourite songs could find themselves conducting a role-call of unlikely names; Mr Krinkle, Tommy The Cat, Wynona (and her beaver)… But do any of these vivid folks exist outside Les’s imagination, I wonder. "It depends on the song, but they're very rarely about anybody I know unless it's like composites of partially fictitious and partially real people. I usually embellish a lot when I'm writing, but there are usually elements of reality as well." The populating of his songs with bigger than life characters continues on Of Fungi & Foe. Only on a Les Claypool album would you find yourself in the company of OlRosco (“He likes a drink… when he drives”), or Errol (who can’t be told anything, “coz Errol knows everything”). Les explains; “It's always better to go with what you know, especially for me as I get older. As a kid I was exposed to a lot of old-skool country music and old musicals, so I've always been drawn to songs that tell some sort of tale and make me want to listen a little harder, you know.” Despite the unmistakable sound of Claypool’s vocal twang and the identifying freakshow personnel in his songs, the man himself is much happier taking the backseat to his creations. “For me as a performer, because I've never really considered myself a singer - I'm a bass player who kind of narrates the songs. It was always easier for me to go out on stage with these characters instead of just trying to sing like a typical lead singer in a rock band or anything. That's why I like to use the masks I wear, like the pig mask, because I'm fairly introverted so having these characters is a more comfortable way for me to tell my stories. Crazy things tend to happen when I put on the masks." He says giving a long, hearty laugh.

The music on Les’s latest release, Of Fungi & Foe was originally written for two separate projects - Mushroom Men, a Nintendo Wii computer game - and for a film called Pig Hunt – before he decided the songs could form an album all of their own. “I tend to just compile albums these days from whatever’s laying around in the home studio.” He says casually, “I’ve never really been one to sit down and write a whole album.” Ah, but has Les found himself parked in front of the computer game he’s scored?, “No I'm not a big gamer or anything but my son has been playing it, so I've had a look, you know. I just like the artwork, but I can’t actually play it very well.” He confesses. “With Pig Hunt, I decided to do the score for that because, well, how could I not want to be involved with a film about a 3000 pound wild boar that terrorises the pot fields of Northern California. You don't get those kinds of opportunities very often in life." He cackles, "I wasn't involved in the score at the start, I actually got to play a small role in the movie which was shot up near my house.” He continues, “My offices are in the old Industrial Light and Magic space so there's a lot of film sets that are still being used and one day I saw them building this huge prosthetic boar and I went up to the guys there they told me what was going on and I was really impressed with the idea so I said tell your producer if he wants a guy to deliver a pizza or anything in the film, I'm in!” The film, which is yet to get distribution, sees Les in a dramatic role for his on-screen debut; "I ended up playing an inbred redneck preacher whose hell bent on vengeance." He laughs. "I don't like working away from my home very much so the fact that film was being shot in my area was great for me. I do all my work at home, it's where I'm happiest."

The area where Les lives also happens to be the pinot noir mecca of Northern California, so it was no great stretch to branch out into the wine making field. His signature drop is the ‘strong and fruity’ Purple Pachyderm. "All my friends in the area are wine makers so it was just one of those things I decided to try to keep me off the streets. Since my marijuana usage has waned I've had to try and find something else to alter my perspective." He crows. "Also it's a great way to indulge in some good wine without having to pay a lot of money for it." Les confides his significant pot smoking habit began having some negative effects; "The worst thing was it started affecting my memory", he continues with a sharp cough, "I felt like it was starting to fragment my hard drive. People were saying to me 'oh hey remember that time we were in Italy and this thing happened...' and I was just like 'no I don't remember that at all', so that was getting worse and I've got some fairly interesting stories to tell and I would like to be able to remember them.”

The most high profile work in Les’s career is by far the South Park & Robot Chicken theme songs. The common thread in both of those cartoons is of course influences drawn from their creators' childhood fascinations being totally fucked about with. I wonder if  Les felt a connection with the twisted ideas behind those shows, and if he sees his own childhood as an inescapable reference in his own work? "If I sat and thought about it I could probably find a lot of stuff that came directly from childhood experiences but after being on the planet for a few decades, even my 20's seem like a long time ago. There were a lot of interesting things happen to me living in Berkley and running around San Francisco like a lunatic in my 20's that I draw from continuously and now that I'm into my 40's I've got a lot of fodder." He laughs. "My road manager recently came up to my house and hung out with me and a bunch of my friends and he was like 'oh my god, who are these people', because he saw us as being such a diverse group of unlikely companions, but I've always been attracted to people who are a little off centre. I guess we're just birds of a feather and the birds I happen to squawk with also happen to be a little obscure".

The upcoming tour has a lot of Les’s fans in a flutter about what exactly he is going to pull out this time around; a suitably impressionistic answer ensues…"Well people always want to know this because I'm always doing something different but I can only answer you by saying, it'll be something like you've never heard or seen before. The instrumentation is so unique and the players such mutants.” He cracks up again, “I've got Mike Dillon who's this insane vibraphonist and junkyard percussionist, Paulo Baldi on this bastardised drum kit that I make him play and Sam Bass who plays a sort of mutated cello and finally myself slapping away on my four string piece of furniture. It's all very unpredictable and quite, quite bizarre.” He says in closing. Now there's a reliable guarantee if ever there was one.


Check out Les's official site here for everything Claypool...


  1. the man in the pig costume is playing an upright bass not a cello.