15 minutes with Les Claypool, by Brad Houser…
Late afternoon, Austin, Barton Springs pool. I’m dog-ass tired, been moving all week. Heat & Humidity! I’m going for a swim, walking to the pool half-comatose. A couple of early 20-something cats are walking toward me and………
Dude 1- “Primus!”
Dude 2-” Donk-a donk-donk” (waves thumb in air, miming funk bass)
Dude 1-” Dude! Primus! High five!” (sticks hand up)
Me- (realizing I’m wearing a Primus shirt)” Oh……cool.” (Way high 5)
Dude 2- “donk-donk-a-donk. donk-a-donk.”
Dude 1- “Tommy the Cat!!! That’s my NAME!!!!!!”
Dude 2- “donk-a-donk-donk. donk-donk.”
“Tommy the Cat” is an earlier Primus song, a big hit among fans. Hook line, “Say baby do you wanna lay down with me? Say baby do you wanna lay down by my side? Ah baby do you wanna lay down with me? Say baby?!?!?” It gets ’em every time. Claypool is quite the lyricist.
“Many a fat alley rat had met its demise while staring point blank down
the cavernous barrel
of this awesome prowling machine. Truly a wonder
of nature this urban predator. Tommy the Cat had many a story to tell,
but it was a rare
occasion such as this that he did.”
All while “sung” over ripping funky slap bass lines…Magic.
Primus was huge, twenty years ago. The aforementioned two dudes probably had parents who were Primus fans, yet………major enthusiasm from these two, present-day. Primus is out on tour, this summer, drawing 2-3000 people per night in this challenging economy. Over half their audience looks to be around 25 or younger.
Witness the power of frontman/ bassist/ mastermind, Les Claypool. Les is an anomaly among bassists. Certainly one of THE most influential players of the late 20th century. Don’t believe it? Well, my luthier buddy, Matt Hill, informed me that in the early-mid 90’s, every time a new Primus record came out, the number of bassists coming into the shop for fretless conversions would just explode. The Power of Claypool.
Over the last year, I have had the honor of opening some Primus shows with the Dead Kenny G’s, a little jazz/punk band that I’m in with Skerik, and Mike Dillon, both of whom were in “Colonel Les Claypool’s Fearless Flying Frog Brigade” back a few years ago. We “chased the tour bus” in Mike’s van for ten days last August, and a couple of weeks this May. I kind of got used to seeing Les play every night. Then, one night I sat in the audience and saw Les, as a bass player, as if for the first time. I was flabbergasted. He is in the all-time top 10 bass roster…Period. Fiercely original, yet a clear product of those who came before him. Stylistically, imagine Stanley Clarke, Larry Graham, Geddy Lee, hillbilly banjo, Tony Levin, Percy Jones, some Chris Squire, a little Lemmy, puree in blender, for a while.
Musically, his bass in Primus seems to often function as a rhythm guitar, or banjo, while guitarist Larry “Ler” LaLonde is free to construct sonic Jackson Pollock paintings. “New” drummer Jay Lane lays it down firmly, and is an axis for the band. That being said, Les’s pocket is formidable. Claypool is also a super-funky drummer in his own right. He sat in with us on a couple of soundchecks. Pocket for days. We had about 15 minutes to sit and do an interview on this last stint…….
BH- I’d read about you for years, in Bass Player Magazine, and I remember you saying that Stanley Clarke was one of your influences.
LC- Well, I discovered Stanley when I was about 16 or 17, and it changed my world, from the Chris Squire/ Geddy Lee zone to Stanley Clarke, and then Larry Graham and Louis Johnson.
BH- Same thing happened to me, but with Jaco. Last night you did this three finger thing, and this other thing, and I was thinking- “Stanley”!!
LC- Well, yeah, that shooting of the chords, that’s all Stanley, you know, “School Days”.
BH- “School Days”!!!!!
LC- Stanley was the king, you know, he was funky, and he could do all the fireworks. And, I’ve seen him recently, he’s still unbelievable. It’s just that left brain/ right brain thing, his are fused together. Both sides are going at the same time.
BH- Definitely………Was that Primus, or your band that did the Rush tune, and the guys from Rush were in the audience?
LC- Yeah, that was my band, with (drummer) Paolo Baldi, (cellist) Sam Bass, and (mallet wielder) Mike Dillon. Rush was inducted into the “Canadian Songwriter’s Hall of Fame”. So we went out and played that, they’re old friends of mine.
BH- What tune did y’all do?
LC- We did “Spirit of Radio”, with cello and marimba, it was pretty sweet.
BH- So, you’re there playing that tune, and they’re all 3 in the audience, checking it out?
BH- That’s gotta be freaky.
LC- It was more freaky playing in front of the “society” crowd that was there, lots of tuxedos. Paolo Baldi was excited, he got to hang out and talk drums with Neil Peart, you know, freak Neil out.
BH- I remember, back around ’90, I’d seen you, and you had that TUNE 6-string, I’m a bass geek, I notice that stuff, then you got the Carl Thompson, then “My Name is Mud” comes out ……. I mean what other pop song goes “bubba-da bubba-da ba, bubba-da bubba-da bup”, and everyone knows what song you’re talking about?
LC- That’s a pop song?
BH- It was all over the radio.
LC- That’s surprising, unto itself. I had that TUNE bass while Carl was making my bass, and Carl is a fantastic luthier, he’s more of an artist than anything, every piece he makes is really unique, so I ordered that bass, and it was a year behind schedule, so I got the TUNE bass in the interim, so that I could at least play the songs.
BH- What made you want to get a 6-string fretless?
LC- Because I’m an idiot!
LC- I was at a NAMM show, and this guy walked up with a Carl Thompson 6 string fretless, gorgeous, and I said “oh my god, I gotta get one of those some day”. So when I met Carl, I told him I would like to get a 6-string, I wanted to do something different. I thought- “I’m getting bored”- I don’t know what the hell I was thinking, and about halfway through I thought “hey- make it fretless”, ’cause at the time it was fretted, so that’s why it has the lines, otherwise it would have been blank.
BH – That’s a beautiful fingerboard on that bass.
LC- And I’ve been rasslin’ with that thing ever since. It’s a whole new ballgame. The 4’s are like a Ferrari, they’re very easy, and you get on that 6 and it’s like driving an 18 wheeler, it’s got a lot of hauling power, but you can’t finesse it around as much. It’s very imposing, you write tunes for IT. I would NEVER grab that bass and go do a bar gig playing Wilson Pickett tunes.
BH- I used to do $hit like that sometimes. Ugh.
LC- I was a big Tony Levin fan, doing a lot of tapping stuff, he played Stick, and that was just WAY too imposing, so I figured this’ll be my version of the Stick. As far as fretless players, I always liked the way Percy Jones approached the fretless, you KNEW it was a fretless. Some people play it real smooth and precise, but for me the whole notion is, make it SOUND like a fretless, lots of vibrato, sliding notes, make it sound like a big box of rubberbands. I just loved that Brand X stuff, Percy was the vibrato master.
BH- Man, how was it doing that Tom Waits stuff?
LC- I’ve been doing that for a long time, it’s been almost 20 years. We did some stuff a few weeks ago. I mean, he was a big hero, now he’s become like a good friend. He’s just one of those guys who look at the world and music with a different perspective than the rest of us. Stewart Copeland is like that. I don’t know if it’s because he grew up in the middle east, or if he’s dyslexic….he just approaches music differently, it’s that unique perspective…it’s almost a handicap!, with Stewart, and I think that’s where the genius comes from, where an element of the genius comes from.
BH- That ties in to…….I wanted to ask: If you could give “advice” to a young bass player who wanted to do their version of what you have done, and succeed?
LC- Well, you have to define success. For one person it’s going out and making a shitload of money, bangin’ lots of chicks, and being on the radio, and for someone else it might be being able to do what you want without someone breathing down your neck. But if you really wanted to be unique, you can’t just focus in on one thing. I see a lot of guys who focus on one thing, or one artist, and they just sort of replicate that. So…having broader horizons. And, also, some of it is not having…sometimes formal education can be a hindrance. Some people, they learn a certain way and then they can’t step away from it. I think- lack of fear……playing with a lot of people. Lots of people just sit in the woodshed. Playing is like having a conversation. There are people who are good at giving speeches, and go and play the same music over and over every night and say the same thing, and they’re really good at giving that speech. But then, to be a good conversationalist, you’ve gotta have a lot of conversations. Sitting in your room, and talking to yourself, isn’t going to make you a good conversationalist.
BH- Skerik calls ’em Bedroom Burners.
LC- I’ve seen a lot of guys who were completely shredding when alone, but they end up having Asperger’s on stage.
BH- Musical Ass-Burgers often sounds crappy. OK- last question. Bootsy’s Funk University. How’s that?
LC- I haven’t seen my bit since I did it, and I did it so casually…….I’d like to do it again. I have a feeling I just babbled, and said a bunch of contradictory shit, so……
BH- But that’s good. Maybe you weren’t “scholarly” enough.
LC- I’m always fearful when the word “funk” comes into anything I talk about, because Primus, to me, “traditional” Primus, with Tim Alexander on drums, it was not a funk band. I was the only guy in there with that background. Now, with J-ski [Jay Lane], we have a stronger groove element, it’s not as “rock”, but, I respect that [funk] genre so much, I don’t want to EVER come off as “hey, it’s Funky Les!”, you know, “funky guy”. I do the best I can.
BH- I kind of think of you as the Geddy Lee of funk.
Dude 2- “donk. donk-donk-a-donk. donk-a- donk-donk. donk.”
Photography: Jenn Acosta