At 50, it’s hard to believe Les Claypool was once considered one of the strangest frontmen of his day. An avid fly fisherman like his buddy Mickey Melchiondo (a.k.a. Dean Ween), he boasts about his kids and what a great dad he’s surprised he turned out to be; he plays bluegrass festivals; and, in retrospect, his seemingly fluke-ish major-label success actually had a lot of DIY business sense behind it.
One of rock’s great bassists, he’s also proud that Wikipedia calls his most famous band, Primus, “unclassifiable.” Claypool’s one of the few musicians to truly earn that distinction, having worked with everyone from Stewart Copeland to Fred Durst. And his two most recent moves should surprise no one: recasting the music from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory as a vehicle for fresh, onstage Primus weirdness (their first project since 2011’s reunion album Green Naughahyde), and releasing Four Foot Shack, the debut from his new folk-and-bluegrass-influenced band Duo de Twang, who cover essential Primus tracks (“Jerry Was a Racecar Driver”) and other classics (the Bee Gees’ “Stayin Alive” and Alice in Chains’ “Man in the Box” among them) in an acoustic, bass-driven hoedown style. Claypool recently spoke to SPIN about how to make campfire music weird, and the lost art of bullshitting onstage.
What made you decide to do a record like Four Foot Shack this late in the game?
This late, like, before I die? [Laughs.] The whole thing came about when I was offered a spot on the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival in San Francisco a couple years back. And I had been playing this resonator bass, this bass like a dobro with four strings. I was plucking away in dressing rooms, playing all the songs. So my manager’s like, “Let’s do this thing.” So I got together with a guitar player buddy of mine and we twanged out Primus tunes, other tunes. This stuff is sort of the soundtrack to my world when I’m not onstage. Whenever I was hanging out in the garage with my stepdad, playing with his tools, listening to his old bakelight radio. It’s like absorbing music from osmosis and having it come back later in life as a reference for me to revisit my childhood.
You have all these story-songs that are like modern tall tales, that always shared the folk tradition, and now it matches musically, too.
I think it’s more that this is my fuck-off vacation band. This is fun for me. My son these days plays banjo, and he wakes me up, and last year we’re sitting around a campfire, we’ve got this band going with the dobro bass, the dog’s there, and we’re twanging away around the campfire. And it’s one of the most amazing evenings — well, series of evenings — of my life, because here I am with my son learning banjo and Vernon Dalhart songs.
Calling it your “fuck-off vacation band” makes it sound self-indulgent, but it sounds really social: connecting with your son, playing bluegrass and communal folk music.
When you think about it, what is the campfire? The campfire was the original television. What did they do in the old days? Sat around and stared at the campfire. It’s this amazing, alluring thing. The television and the computer screen sort of replaced that for us. For me, it’s another door that I’ve opened for myself as a performer. I’ve always envied people who can play the piano. If I could walk into a hotel lounge or a bar that had a piano and sit down and play a Scott Joplin tune, I’d be a very happy man. But I’m an old dog, that’s a new trick, and I’m never gonna learn how to play a Scott Joplin tune. And the notion of sitting and playing a bass guitar, having people sit around and go, ‘Wow, that’s interesting’ — it’s never really lent itself to that. But with this twang thing, and me taking this Luther Perkins approach to the instrument and singing these songs, it actually is.
I can hang out with friends who jam. Danny Clinch, the famous photographer, came down last night and played harmonica with us. It’s just kind of fun — it is very communal, because you can just hang out and play. Some of this for me came as an inspiration from hanging out with Eugene [Hutz], the Gogol Bordello guy. I’ve been reading this Django Reinhardt book, with this whole notion of how these guys perfected the art of communicating through their instrument, sitting around the campfire at these gypsy camps and playing. It’s part of a language, like sitting around telling jokes with your grandfather or something. You learn more jokes, you learn more songs.
You say this is your “vacation band.” Does Primus feel like work to you?
I never said that it was work. [Laughs.]
Let me rephrase: Are there things you can do in this band that you can’t in Primus?
Something like Primus, even though it is very casual — we do change up the set every night — it is more of an undertaking. We go out, we have screens, we have giant inflatable astronauts. It’s more of a production. We did this thing for New Year’s where we interpreted all the music from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. But not Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. [Laughs.] It was cool, I brought a couple guys from Frog Brigade and we did this really cool production. I think that’s more what’s expected from Primus. With this, I could grab my instrument right now and we could do a set for you — very casual. And a lot of what we’re doing onstage is drinking and telling stories, jokes, bullshitting. I’d say a good percentage of the show is us bullshitting.
Surely your buddy Tom Waits was an influence on making a viable show out of bullshitting between songs.
Tom blows my mind. I just played with him a few weeks ago at the Bridge School. He was pulling shit out of his ass. I was all, “Where the hell does this come from?”
Does it feel weird to now think of Primus as a band that comes with certain expectations?
To an extent there’s always been some form of expectations. But what I mean by expectations for Primus is we built this thing. We’re not three guys that are going to run around onstage with our shirts off where people look at us like, “Oh my God, look at these glorious human beings before us.” We have a lot of eye candy and things like that for the imagery in the songs. I’ve always been a big proponent of that. I go to Roger Waters’ The Wall and think, “Holy shit, I’d love to do something like that.” It’s not like the ideas aren’t there. I’m not trying to say I’m Roger Waters.
Have you ever been approached to do a movie, animated series, or anything like that? What’s standing between humanity and a Primus musical?
I remember years ago going to Ted Field from Interscope and saying, “Hey, I have a treatment for an animated feature for Pork Soda.” I wanted to do videos for every single song. And I could just hear him deadening on the other end of the phone. “Well, you know Les, nobody’s ever really spent that kind of money on a band before.” “But the story of the pork soda and this elixir that comes from the pork soda!” It just wasn’t financially feasible. Maybe it will be someday.
Was it hard to get the budget for the videos you did end up making?
Oh God, yes. Interscope was this wonderful thing for us, especially Todd Wally. He left us alone and let us do our thing. Their philosophy was, “As long as it’s working, we’ll leave you alone.” And as long as it worked, they did leave us alone. Along came the Brown Album and it didn’t sell as much and there was a little more scrutiny, so to speak. So I’d say I have this concept for this video, I’d write up a treatment, and someone would draw up the numbers and we’d say we need X amount of money. And they’d say, “All right, well, we’ll give you half of X.” So, we’d take the money and make the best representation of the treatment that we could — even when recording. And we’d make it work. Tales from the Punchbowl? It cost about $5,000 to record that album because we did it at my house. We engineered it. Most of the money was paid to a friend of ours, who’s now our assistant, to chart the board. And a lot of the videos were by very talented people in the Bay Area. I figured out that creative people like to be creative, so the more freedom you can give them to do what they do best, the more they’ll go the extra mile.
In the ’90s, Primus played at metal fests, H.O.R.D.E., Lollapalooza, and there was no single scene you appealed to. Do you think it’s harder to surprise an unsuspecting audience nowadays?
There’s always that kind of trickster side to us that likes to fuck with people by doing something shocking or different. But when all that’s said and done, we’ve got to keep ourselves entertained. But I’ve seen Primus’ music classified so many ways. Wikipedia had us listed one time as “unclassified.” We were the “punk-funk” band, the “progressive metal” band, the nu-metal thing came along, “avant-rock.” When we opened for U2, we were listed as a grunge band. [Laughs.] We never really gained a demographic. Once we kind of got caught up in the music business and tried aiming at a different demographic, that fucked everything up.
What was the worst reaction you ever got from an audience?
Where we really fell flat? I… can’t really think of any.
That’s probably a good thing.
I’m sure there’s times people scratched their head like, “What the hell are these guys doing here?” But we’re such slippery little eels that it’s like nobody knows where to put us. We fit in everywhere but we don’t fit in anywhere. And it’s been a great testament to our longevity. I’ve watched my friends reach this massive pinnacle in their careers, because they’re part of some movement or some trend, and then the movement goes away and then they go away. I remember having a meeting years ago with our old attorney, and we were offered a publishing deal. He said, “I think you should take this deal, because for you guys to lose out on this deal, you’d have to sell over 100,000 records. Do you honestly believe you’ll ever sell over 100,000 records?” We were like, “Yeah, that’s a lot of records!” We didn’t take the deal, and thank God we didn’t, because we’ve sold way more than 100,000 records.