|The Northern California avant-rock trio Primus provides a shining example for bands who want to succeed on their own terms. Fusing the skittering rhythmic attack of progressive-metal bands like Rush, the groove of funk and hippie rock, and the eccentricity of such experimental artists as Frank Zappa, the Residents, and Captain Beefheart, Primus has followed its own musical calling to large-scale industry success. Fronted by bassist-vocalist Les Claypool, who can produce thousands of bizarre tones on his instrument and almost as many cartoonish characters with his voice, Primus has journeyed from the underground to the headlining spot at the 1993 Lollapalooza music festival, arguably the nation's most important alternative rock tour. Joe Gore of Guitar Player cited guitarist Larry "Ler" LaLonde's description of the group's sound as "progressive freak-out music"; Gore also noted what he called "the Primus paradox: if your music is really uncommercial, you can sell a ton of records."
Like LaLonde, Claypool grew up in the northern California town of El Sobrante. "I was raised in the land of Budweiser," he quipped to Rolling Stone' s Michael Azerrad. Having been raised in a working-class family--his father and grandfather both worked as mechanics--helped form Claypool's worldview but also sharpened his resolve to escape his hometown's oppressive normalcy. "I would have blasted out one way or another," he insisted. His mother told Azerrad that Les "was a bouncing boy. He used to like to jump in his jumpy chair. I think that's where he got the strength in his legs. I never saw anybody who could jump as well as he did in that jumpy chair."
Claypool's mother also remembered that her son "liked to watch TV a lot. I think that's where he got a lot of ideas. He'd sit there on his little tiny plastic motorcycle that he had and watch cartoons." Les acquired his first bass at age 13; "I pulled weeds to pay for it," he told Guitar Player. He recalled to Rolling Stone that he "sat in front of the television and noodled" after first hearing hard-rock guitarist Ted Nugent.
In the ensuing years, his eclecticism alienated most of the single-minded rock players around him. On the one hand, Claypool worshipped the bassist and leader of Rush--"If it wasn't for Geddy Lee," he has declared, "I probably wouldn't be playing bass"--but also adored funk pioneer Larry Graham, the bottom end of the psychedelic soul-rock band Sly and the Family Stone. He was equally enamored of jazz and fusion masters like Stanley Clarke. Claypool found a kindred spirit in LaLonde, who joined his art-metal project Blind Illusion. LaLonde--who learned much of his technique at the feet of guitar guru Joe Satriani--also played in a "satanic" metal band called the Possessed as a teenager.
Claypool further honed his chops in "biker bars" as bassist for an R&B cover troupe called the Tommy Crank Band. "It was four sets a night, up to five nights a week--that's how I learned discipline and how to actually groove," he explained to Guitar Player' s Gore. After that, in 1984, he assembled the first version of Primus--initially called Primate--with guitarist Todd Huth and a drum machine. The group gathered a following over the next few years, and Claypool's do-it-yourself ethic extended to buying a printing press and making T-shirts for his and his friends' bands. Drummer Tim "Herb" Alexander finally stuck, replacing Jay Lane, but the day after Claypool asked Alexander to join the group, Huth quit.
For a moment, Claypool thought his claim to fame would be as the bassist for the up-and-coming (and later superstar) metal group Metallica. Original bassist Cliff Burton had been killed in a bus accident, and as a childhood friend of guitarist Kirk Hammett, Claypool got a chance to audition for the spot; but his affinity for R&B acts like the Isley Brothers scared the headbangers off. Eventually, he recruited LaLonde to take Huth's place in a revamped Primus. The group was two-thirds new, but LaLonde undertook the arduous task of learning all of Huth's parts and then participating in a live recording that became the first Primus album, Suck on This. Released in 1989 on the group's own Prawn Song label, it was financed with $3,000 borrowed from Claypool's father. "The three of us had a chemistry that sounded like Primus," the bassist recalled in Rolling Stone, "but it was different than before. I was nervous as hell the first show we did, but our original fans accepted us."
Long before LaLonde and Alexander joined the band, Claypool explained to Rolling Stone, the group's fans had begun chanting "You Suck" as an honorific at their shows. "People would follow us around telling us how cool we were, and we'd be like 'Nah, we suck.' It evolved, and then it became good marketing. We'd go down the street, and someone will yell, 'You suck,' and I'll say 'Oh, thank you very much,' which freaks out whoever's with you.'" Soon "Primus Sucks" appeared on T-shirts and became a de rigeur slogan on the Bay Area music scene. The group's sound--which caught the attention of critics during the ascent of metal/funk hybrids like the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Faith No More--began to be categorized as "funk-rock," though Alexander despised funk and Claypool has always protested that real funk doesn't sound anything like his band.
In any event, Claypool's busy, percussive bass lines crisscrossed Alexander's tight beats and allowed LaLonde--whose guitar idols are sainted rock experimentalists Frank Zappa and Jerry Garcia--to explore, rather than merely hold down, the group's songs. Claypool's lyrics tend to be loopy character studies, often sung in voices that critics have frequently compared to cartoon voice-over wizard Mel Blanc. Claypool told Musician that he tended at first to write "statement" songs, but ultimately, he revealed, "[I] found that's not me, to preach social ideas as music. I'm putting down observations, and sometimes it may just be crap."
Following the cult success of Suck on This, the band signed with noted independent label Caroline Records, which reissued their debut and released the follow-up, 1990's Frizzle Fry, produced by Primus's 19-year-old friend Matt Winegar. "The Northern California thrash-funk trio recaptures the anarchic spontaneity of their debut (the high-energy, low-budget Suck on This )," opined Guitar Player, "but with tighter performances and better production." The review praised the "visceral punch" of LaLonde's "angular lines" and noted that Claypool "hammers out dense but groovy lines that flesh out the bony trio texture." The band toured exhaustively in support of the album and soon landed a deal with a major label, Interscope, a joint venture with Atlantic Records.
In 1991 Claypool and company released Sailing the Seas of Cheese, a further refinement of their sound. "In many ways the more metallic, undulating Frizzle Fry is a better document of the ugliness and energy that is Primus," reflected Musician' s Matt Resnicoff, "though Cheese' s pristine presentation captures its own space in a world where saying something sucks is like a love tap." Guitar Player marveled at the group's eclecticism: "These avant-headbangers combine speed metal energy, funkoid groove, and art-rock quirkiness (imagine Metallica, Rush, and the Chili Peppers liquified in a blender)." Cheese included the rampaging and irresistible single "Tommy the Cat," which featured a cameo vocal by gravelly voiced singer-songwriter Tom Waits and was selected for the soundtrack to the film Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey, in which Primus briefly appeared. Cheese went gold in April of 1993.
Also in 1993--in some sense the band's breakthrough year--Primus received widespread public attention when they were named headliner of the Lollapalooza rock festival. This assignment helped their new album, Pork Soda, debut at Number Seven on the Billboard pop chart, a previously unheard-of feat for such an unconventional band. In a feature on Lollapalooza, Entertainment Weekly insisted, "There's no resisting the frenetic danceability" of the trio's "P-Funk meets Captain Beefheart set," adding, "If this band could write a melody--or, God forbid, a power ballad--it would rule the entire planet."
Entertainment Weekly called Pork Soda "a musical hiccup--a gnarly, funkadelic mix of metal and art rock highlighted by Claypool's slaphappy bass lines and carnival-barker voice." Rolling Stone deemed the album "a weird, whimsical grab bag." Pork Soda featured the romps "My Name Is Mud" and "Mr. Krinkle," both of which spawned grotesque, surrealistic videos. Of Primus's Lollapalooza offering, Entertainment Today claimed, "They put on a superior show that was remarkably tight and demonstrated they were the right choice for the closing band."
Primus recorded Pork Soda at minimal cost by bringing digital recording equipment into their rehearsal space rather than renting studio time. "The quality we got on this record has a lot to do with the sheer quantity of things we could afford to record," Claypool explained to Guitar Player' s Gore. "Had we gone into an expensive studio and tried to do what we did, this album would have cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. We wouldn't have done nearly so many abstract things." This home studio--known as From the Corn--has afforded Primus the opportunity to record other projects, such as a collaboration among Claypool, Metallica guitarist Hammett, and Faith No More drummer Mike Bordin, as well as records by former Primus guitarist Huth's band Porch and Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy guitarist Charlie Hunter's side band. Primus hoped to release some of these recordings on the revamped Prawn Song. In other artistic explorations, Claypool collaborated with Lance Montoya on the whimsical clay sculpture that graces the cover of Pork Soda.
With major label support, Primus has emerged as one of the most musically daring acts in rock, yet its bizarre cross-fertilizations flourish in a garden of relative independence. It's the best of both worlds, and Claypool knows it: staying involved in all aspects of his band's work "gives you confidence," he insisted to Guitar Player, "and that's the most important thing to have in any aspect of the music business."
by Simon Glickman