Primus Through The Years Les Claypool reflects on his past
by Michael Goldberg
Last issue we journeyed North to Les Claypool's wooded retreat, somewhere near Sebastopol. There, in Claypool's home studio--known as The Corn--which just happens to be where the group recorded their stunning new album, Tales From the Punch Bowl, we sat, mesmerized, as the leader of Primus talked, and talked, and talked.... (Just kidding Les.) Actually, we brought along some handcuffs and whips to ensure that Claypool did our bidding. You're going to answer every last one of these questions, you Primus dog!! Anyway, we have our ways, and the result was then 7000 words that we ran last issue, plus another 5000 or so that follow. Sitting in on, and contributing to the conversation at times was Larry Lalonde, the rather brilliant Primus guitarist who also happens to be a major Frank Zappa freak. If you're new to the Primus experience, we suggest you start with our May (issue 1.05) cover story on the group, then proceed to this interview, in which Les talks about his youth, his pre-Primus career moves, as well as Primus' early years leading up to the success they experienced with their debut album, Suck On This, which led to a recording deal with Caroline Records. We also think you'll dig the separate interview with Primus drummer Tim "Herb" Alexander that is also included in this issue. FROM OUT OF THE SEA CAME....LITTLE LES Addicted To Noise:
Les, let's talk a little bit about your youth. Where were you born?
Les Claypool: I was born in Richmond, California in Richmond Hospital which is now some sort of psychiatric hospital or something.
What did your dad do?
Claypool: I come from a long line of auto mechanics. My uncles are both mechanics. My stepfather's a mechanic. He works on fire engines, actually. My father's a mechanic. In fact, he has a transmission shop that he owns with my uncle. My grandfather was a mechanic.
Did your mom work?
Claypool: She was a receptionist for a pediatrician for a good many years. Then she was a receptionist for some other doctor and now she works with some sort of emotionally disturbed crisis organization. I'm not really sure what she does now as far as her exact job description.
Did you grow up in Richmond?
Claypool: Richmond, Pinole, El Sobrante. My parents split when I was very young, when I was four, so I essentially had two sets of parents because they instantly remarried. And I had a step brother and a step sister and a real brother and real, well, half brother and half sister. I was the eldest of both sets of siblings so I was the ground breaker. My youngest siblings got away with murder which I think is just the case with any group of kids.
Was that a pretty traumatic thing, at age four?
Claypool: I don't think it was. It was just part of the thing. Divorce is such a common thing, we just go, ahh, OK. I think it would have affected me more if I was older maybe. But my parents would fight and so when they broke up, it just seemed logical to me. I don't remember being bothered by it or devastated or anything. If anything, it meant more presents at Christmas. Two sets of families. No, obviously, there's a lot of little traumas and problems that go along with divorce and parents not liking each other and you being caught in the middle most of the time. I can go way into it, but I won't. It's such a common thing.
What was the first musical thing where you related to?
Claypool: Well, you know, nobody in my family is even slightly musical. Not even the tiniest bit. The only music my mom listened to, she'd listen to AM radio in the car all the time and so I was exposed to that in the '70s because she was a compulsive shopper and we were always going to some mall or some antique store or something. So we were in the car a lot. But she had some records and I remember she had the Beatles' Abbey Road and I just used to listen to that all the time. All the time I'd listen to that thing. This was when I was little. And they had some Elvis records and she liked Three Dog Night fora little while but I liked to listen to the Elvis records. And my step dad liked the Stones so he had one Stones record.
Claypool: He had Aftermath. Other than that, he just listened to the country station all the time. And my dad, he didn't own any records, he bought this fancy stereo for the time. It was a Zenith, had a built-in 8-track deck and he had some Nat King Cole or something like that. That's when I started bootlegging Zeppelin tapes onto 8-tracks. And they'd go click, click in the middle of the song. But I think my earliest experience with music had to be the Beatles. They had that Beatles cartoon and theMonkeys of course. When you were a kid growing up in the '60s. My cousin had all the Monkeys records. So we all had our favorite Monkey and all that crap.
Who was yours?
Claypool: I don't remember. I think Mickey was my favorite. You would always change. One week it was...but nobody ever liked Peter. He was boring. Actually, looking at the show now, he's the funniest one. I think he's pretty good. I remember my aunt who was two years older than me, we used to pal around a lot when I was a kid. And she had records, you know. She was into Bobby Sherman. I didn't like Bobby Sherman but she had a single of John Lennon, "Power to the People," and I just thought that was the greatest song ever. That was a good one. I'd save money and buy a 45 every now and then. If I'd saved up a dollar, I could go buy a 45. And I think my first 45 I ever bought was "Amos Moses" by Jerry Reed. Then I bought "Love Rollercoaster," you know. And then I got some records for Christmas, like a Beatles record and an Elton John record and I think a Carpenters record which didn't get much play. And then my first album I bought was this Led Zeppelin album 'cause I liked them. Actually, the first album I ever bought, I should say, is Cheech and Chong. The one where they're sitting there and the pot leaves are in the door of the car. And I used to listen to it all the time.Then my dad heard it one day and asked my mom if she realized what I had bought and so they took it away from me. 'Cause it was too racy. But I had friends that were way into music. I guess maybe that's how I started really liking music. We used to go shoot pool at my friend Jeff Webster's house every day in the summer 'cause he had a swimming pool and a pool table so his place was the hot spot to be. And he had a stereo. I didn't have any of that. And his brother's the one who would crank on the Zepo and I'd go wow! that's cool. Otherwise, we'd listen to lots of Elton John, Captain Fantastic and he liked Bob Seeger. I didn't like Bob Seeger but he had all the George Carlin records too. Those were lots of fun. George Carlin and Cheech and Chong.
When did you start learning how to play music?
Claypool: I always thought I was too old. I thought, oh, I've blown it, I would like to play something but I'm too old. I got into high school, ah, I'm too old. And I wanted to play trumpet when I was a kid but I had buck teeth so they wanted me to play clarinet and I said I ain't playing no clarinet. They didn't have sax for some reason. They didn't have sax and they didn't have drums and they didn't have guitar. You could play cello or violin or clarinet or trumpet or flute. And if you were a guy, you wanted to play... trumpet was really the only one the guys wanted to play. Maybe clarinet. But you didn't want to play flute and you didn't want to play violin. Cello wasn't bad. And so I didn't do that. So when I got into high school, I actually had algebra class with Kirk Hammett and he was just getting his first guitar right around then. His Strat. He was this old burned out guy. He used to sell pot to everybody. He'd just come in and be all stoned. He showed me a G-chord and I was like wow, really, cool. I was always singing songs 'cause I was always into some song, Ted Nugent or somebody. So he wanted me to come join his band and be the singer. I was like, nahh. I was too embarrassed to sing in front of people. So I met this other guy and he needed a bass player and I knew a guy that had a bass and actually I knew one guy who had a bass for sale and another guy who had a snare drum for sale and I thought, wow, should I buy the bass or the snare drum? Then I met this other guy who needed a bass player. I said, I'm going to buy a bass. And my dad said, don't buy that bass. We're going to take you down to the music store. He went down, he had a friend that had a music store and he sold us this bass, like a new bass but he sold it to us at cost or something. He probably ripped us...anyway, I had to get jobs pulling weeds for doctors and stuff to pay for my bass. And I was instantly in a band because I had a bass. I couldn't play it but nobody wanted to play bass back then. Everybody wanted to be Eddie Van Halen. So I had a bass and I was in a band. And I just started learning how to play it.
What was the band called?
Claypool: Blind Illusion. They're still around. They've had like 30 incarnations of that band. It's basically just one guy that just gets different people.
That was a metal band?
Claypool: Back then metal wasn't really what it is now. It was an all original band. We didn't play any covers. We played two covers. One was "Jumping Jack Flash" and the other was "Iron Man." And this guy just did not want to play covers. He wanted to play his music and so we'd play his music. So here I was, this bass player, and all I knew how to play was this guy's songs, you know. I didn't have an amp so I would listen to records and play along with him but I couldn't hear what I was playing. So I was just kind of fingering along with Rush albums and stuff like that but I never really learned how to play any ofthose songs. I just could play the rhythms. So anyway, that's how I got into music.
Would you characterize that band as more of a traditional rock band?
Claypool: No, this guy, he was like the hotshot guitarist of the school. We just all thought, this guy is gonna be huge, he's going to be the most famous guy, he's amazing. He was like the prodigy guy. So it was an honor to be in this particular band and so we played all these original tunes and because we played original tunes, that made us different. Most of the original tunes sounded very much like Rush. 'Cause we were so into Rush. All the guys in the band were very good players. We had like the best drummer and the best guitarist, you know, and I eventually got to where I was one of the better bass players in the school. I could play fast, which back then, fast meant good. It doesn't really mean good now. As you get older, you realize you don't have to play a million miles an hour to be good. But back then, the faster you could play, the better you were. And I think that's everybody's mentality when you're a young player.
Next up, the Primates?
Claypool: No. I was in Blind Illusion three different times. I was in Blind Illusion in the very beginning and I quit and I started playing a lot of well, what was fusion back then. But it was jazz, fusion type stuff. Lot of funk. 'Cause I saw all these great bass players like Louis Johnson and Larry Graham and Stanley Clark just ripping it up. It opened a whole new series of environments for me to pursue. I had a series of jazz bands and kind of like soulful bands. Then I got asked to join Blind Illusion again and I played with them for like a year and I quit again.
This was when you were in high school?
Claypool: This was high school and right after high school. I quit Blind Illusion like right after high school. I started playing with this band called the Tommy Crank Band. It was probably the best thing that ever happened to me in my life was to play in the Tommy Crank Band.
Claypool: '81, '82, somewhere around in there.
You were just out of high school?
Claypool: Just out of high school. And the Tommy Crank Band was TCB, taking care of business, Tommy Crank Band. Rock, rhythm and blues and we'd play. I was like by ten years, the youngest guy in the band. And we'd play old R&B tunes, James Brown and Wilson Pickett and Sam and Dave but we also played Chuck Berry and Teddy Pendergrass and whatever they thought was a cool tune. Mostly it was oldies and we played for all these Hells Angels bars all over the place, all over Northern California. So here I was, this 19, 20 and finally 21 year old. I think my last gig I ever did with them was on my 21st birthday. And I was playing all these bars that I wasn't even supposed to be in, just drinking and hanging out, with a pompadour, playing four sets a night, three to five nights a week. We even did Skynyrd tunes and Allman Brothers tunes. We opened for Greg Allman at the Keystone Berkeley. We opened for John Lee Hooker at Keystone Berkeley. It was just the best thing in the world for me because I learned how to groove and how to play in a variety of different kinds of very soulful music. I didn't realize it at the time, I was just going, "Ahh, I gotta go play at night, play the same songs." We knew a couple 100 songs that we would rotate through. It was good. We always had people sitting in. It was really cool.
So then when did you form Primus?
Claypool: Well, I was in the Tommy Crank Band and then I quit the Tommy Crank Band because I wanted to be a famous guy. So I started answering all the ads in BAM, like: Need bass player. Want bass player. And I auditioned for everybody.
Claypool: Just bands that never became anything. And I didn't like anything. There was nothing out there. It was just a bunch of crap. I mean I went to some places where it was kind of scary. I went to this guy's house in Antioch. He was this British guy. "I have a record out, I put it out in..." And so when you're however the hell old I was, 19 or 20, I guess I was 19, yeah, I was 19, when you're a 19 year old guy, you're just like, "Wow, you got a record out?" Now you think you know somebody that can put you there. Any little thing you grasp at. It's a huge thing to you. And I got to this guy's house and he's living in this weird apartment. This weird British guy comes to the door and he's all greasy and looked like something out of a movie, like some weird pervy guy and he lived in this house with this little fucked up kitchen table and there was one little chair in the living room. He goes, Here's my abode. Welcome to one man's domicile or something. He like shows me his record and I was just like whoa. He goes, here's the club we play. And it's some shithole somewhere and I was just like: get me out of here. At the time, I just thought, this is weird. But looking back on it, the guy could have been a serial killer. I'm not exaggerating, it was really bad. Eventually I went back to Tommy Crank Band because I needed to make a living and played with them for awhile and then I just realized this is not going to get me anywhere, I need to start a band. So I had a four-track and I was writing songs and I had a drum machine 'cause I couldn't find any drummers that I liked. Well, I shouldn't say that. I found a lot of drummers I liked but they were all in good bands and they didn't want to play with me. Todd Huth called me one day and he goes, hey, I hear you need a guitar player and I remember Todd 'cause I had played with him years ago in a band some time in-between Blind Illusion and he was an old rock-and-roll guy, you know, Sabbath, Joe Walsh type guy and I thought, there's no way. 'Cause I was way into PiL. That was my whole big PiL phase and listening to the old Adrian Belew albums and I wanted to play with the guitars that played like Adrian Belew or Robert Fripp or something. So here comes Todd and I said I'm kind of into Fripp and Belew and he goes, oh, I don't even know who that is, so he comes to play and I wasn't expecting anything really that spectacular. I knew he was a good guitar player but I figured he'd be a total rock guy and he plays...have you ever listened to the Sausage record? Todd's one of the most bizarre guitar players in the world. And he has like the most traditional suburban white guy roots. He listened to all this rock-and-roll stuff when he grew up but he just has his own...I call it Todd time. If you say, Todd, play something right now in four, he would have to think about it. Because every rhythm he plays is some odd time signature. And he doesn't think in fours like everybody's grown up thinking, you know, one, two, three, four. Whether you've done square dancing in grammar school or whatever, you know? And somehow he missed that boat. And that's a great thing because he's got his own unique style, his own unique way of picking and he came in and started playing for me. I go, have you ever listened to Adrian Belew or Robert Fripp? And he's like no. And I go, man, you're like in that realm. So we started the band. I had already made t-shirts actually 'cause I was going to start this band Primate. And we needed a drummer and a friend of mine had just gotten out of the Army who was this guy from high school and he was the only black drummer in our jazz band. He had the best groove of anybody I knew and he and I had had a jazz band, like a jazz/soul band, when I was in high school and I was really bummed when he went in the Army. Well, he got out and I said, come join my band. He didn't even have any drums. He played Todd's drums that Todd inherited from his old drummer who died; he fell off of Half Dome at Yosemite, isn't that the craziest thing? So Vince was playing those, we made our first recording, well, I sold my Cougar, I had a real nice Cougar, sold my Cougar to make the first Primate recording. It was like four or five songs and we sent it out to everybody we could think of. Big Rick Stewart who's on Live 105 now, he was a DJ at the Quake then, he was just getting started and he was from Richmond. I didn't know him, but he got the tape and liked it. I went out and met him and we just sort of clicked and became friends and he used to play our stuff all the time. And so we kind of got popular for a little while and then when the Quake disappeared, when the Quake went under, so did we. Not that we were real popular but we would play clubs the size of this room [gestures to the cozy studio we're sitting in] and there'd be 30 people there and that was big time.