Les Claypool of Primus Talks "Green Naugahyde", The Coen Brothers and Looks Back on "Sailing the Seas of Cheese"
Wed, 21 Sep 2011 11:52:44
Quality control has always been paramount for Primus.
"We never want to put out an album that makes everybody go, 'Holy shit, what happened? These guys are old guys now'!" chuckles legendary Primus vocalist and bass wizard Les Claypool.
He can rest assured because the band's new album, Green Naugahyde, stands proudly alongside Frizzle Fry, Sailing the Seas of Cheese, and other Primus classics as another wild exercise in instrumental brilliance and captivating, quirky storytelling. For their first full-length studio album in eleven years, Primus are firing on all cylinders. Green Naugahyde sizzles with a visceral vibrancy on tunes like "Extinction Burst" and "Lee Van Cleef". There's a distinct fire at the heart of the album stoked by the excitement of Claypool, guitarist Larry "Ler" LaLonde, and drummer Jay Lane joining forces again.
In this exclusive interview with ARTISTdriect.com editor in chief and Dolor author Rick Florino, Primus mainman Les Claypool discusses Green Naugahyde, some favorite character actors, and so much more…
Do you begin each album with a vision or does it come together organically song by song? How do you view Green Naugahyde as a whole?
Well, I tried to go into it with a vision. I was thinking we needed to do something different and unique or we should even do a concept album. That stuff always goes right into the toilet because I am a big fan of keeping things as spontaneous and as fresh as possible. A song like "Hennepin Crawler" was one take. We just started jamming on this riff, and there it was. There are other songs that are actually worked out and crafted. I am a huge fan of spontaneity and capturing those moments though. Even on the single, "Tragedy's a' Comin'", Jay Lane [Drums] kept wanting to re-record it. He was like, "Come on, let's redo it!" I just said, "No, no, this one has got the feel, man. It's got the vibe." In the middle of the song, it speeds up during the guitar solo. I love that sort of thing whereas if it was something we really hammered on, we would've never captured that moment.
You write songs that can be whimsical in some aspects, but there's a danger and darkness looming just below the surface. It's especially present on Green Naugahyde.
Like you said, that stuff has always been there. People hear a song like "Wynona's Big Brown Beaver" or "Tommy the Cat" and they don't necessarily get the notion that all of these demons are being exorcised through these characters. I'm not good at getting on a soapbox. I can't do the Zack de la Rocha. It's not my thing, though I love what he does. I've never been that guy. I tend to voice my perspectives through these characters. I think it comes from being a Frank Capra, Elia Kazan, and Coen Brothers fan for all these years. You look at the Coen Brothers, and they have these amazing and compelling characters in their films but they're all dark, tortured, and fucked up. You love seeing the Steve Buscemi character in Fargo onscreen, even though he's a total piece of shit. For me, it's always been easier to write through these characters.
The Coen Brothers' characters aren't wholly lovable, but the audience still roots for them.
Yeah, there are very few people on the planet who don't have warts and pimples somewhere. I've had to find the perfect human. The perfect humans were my kids when they were first born. As they've evolved, they've acquired their barnacles as we all have. They just have less than we do at this point [Laughs].
What's the story behind "Extinction Burst"?
It's funny because "Extinction Burst" is something we've been saying for a while. I first heard it from my brother-in-law when his kids were going crazy right before they'd go to bed, he'd say, "Oh, they're going through their extinction burst". I thought the phase was great so I'd use it even though it was an incorrect use of the term. He equated it to what happens to a species right before it goes extinct. The species goes through a period of procreation—the extinction burst—right before they fizzle out. I found out that's not the true meaning of it. It's a term in psychology to describe if a person is used to getting a certain response from something and then all of a sudden that response doesn't happen, there's an amplified action. A prime example of that is you step into an elevator, you hit the third floor every day, and you go to the third floor. Then, one day you hit the button for the third floor and nothing happens. The tendency is to hit the third floor button in rapid succession before you realize nothing's going to happen and you move on to something else. That's the extinction burst. They use with child psychology. It really has very little to do with the song [Laughs]. I loved the term. For a while there, when we were first talking about this Primus record, I thought, "Is this going to be our extinction burst? Or, is this going to be something we enjoy and continue doing? What's it going to be?" It's a bit ambiguous, but for the song itself, we wanted to musically pull out all the stops and do some fancy footwork.
Is the finale track especially crucial?
I do think it's important. When we make a record, I look at it like a film. You've got to have your peaks and valleys in the right places, and you've got to have a nice crescendo at the end. I also love what guys like Roger Waters did for years. They have that theme music to leave the theater to. With Sailing the Seas of Cheese, we had "Los Bastardos". A bunch of our friends came in and banged around on various percussion for the track. That's the parade that leads you out. On Purple Onion, it was "Cosmic Highway"—the grandiose, textural piece. I'm a big fan of records that you put on and listen to from start to finish. Whether or not I succeed, I try to make records that have some continuity so, like a film, you're compelled to listen to it in its entirety as one piece of music. Sometimes, it works and other times, it doesn't.
Was there an immediate chemistry between you again?
Jay has a certain hop to his playing that's very distinctive. That was very present on early records. I also see elements of The Brown Album here as far as production goes. There are some big, dark drum sounds and tones in general on this thing. I was very insistent that these guys both bring in material separately. As Primus evolved, everything we wrote we'd do in rehearsal space. We wrote it together or it was stuff I brought in. It was very rare that Larry, Tim, or Brain would bring in music on their own. On this album, I very insistent that we do that because I knew how effective and exciting it was for me as a player in Oysterhead. Everybody brought in material, and it was like, "Wow, I'm not beginning at the starting line. I'm jumping on board down the road after this thing has already got some form of character. I'm here to emphasize that". It's a different experience for me than planting the old seed. I love that. Larry brought in three or four things. "Jilly's On Smack" was his as well as "Consumption Engine" and "HOINFODAMAN". That was great! There a bunch of beats that Jay brought in, and a few of the songs came from those like "Eyes of the Squirrel" and "Green Ranger".
Was Lee Van Cleef as favorite character of yours in the spaghetti westerns?
Not necessarily, I'm a big fan of character actors. If I'm flipping the channels and all of a sudden there's Walter Brennan, Strother Martin, Slim Pickens, or Lee Van Cleef, I stop and start watching the film because I love seeing those guys. The song "Lee Van Cleef" was more of a vehicle to reflect on elements of my youth. I was posing the question, "Whatever happened to Lee Van Cleef?" I had to look it up to see, and not much happened to Lee Van Cleef after he did those films [Laughs]. He did some films here and there, but he was always a character actor doing bit parts whereas Clint Eastwood has gone to do all of these amazing things. Lee is "Lee Van Cleef". You don't see him stretching into anything else. That's why he would get the gigs.
When you think of Sailing the Seas of Cheese, what do you remember most?
Well, I think of a lot of things. The day that we started recording the record was the day that the Gulf War started. We were recording, and we were watching CNN the whole time. The day the finished we mixing was the day it ended. It was pretty bizarre. That was a weird time. I was worried about my brother and whether or not they were going to start drafting people. We were all freaked out. I remember Tim getting this big massive drum set that he'd never played before, and he pulled it out of the boxes and set it up the day we started recording. That was kind of a disaster, but it ended up working out [Laughs]. We were in the room that Aerosmith recorded in so that was very exciting for us back in those days. To tell you the truth, the biggest thing I remember is that was the record where we were on Interscope for the first time. It wasn't a major label yet, but they were an indie with major label backing. That's why it's called Seas of Cheese because we were going to be marketed alongside all of these pop acts and things that were popular at the time, which we thought was cheesy. So, we were going to either sink or swim. We were very insistent that we produce it ourselves and use our own engineer. It was a big deal. The very first day that Tom Whalley came up to one of the recording sessions, he walked into the room, and Larry and I are in the sound booth. I don't know how to play clarinet, and I'm in there playing it [Laughs]. Larry was playing some weird banjo he didn't know how to play either. That was the very first bit Tom saw of us doing our thing. It was very tense because they were all concerned. They were handing over the keys to the ship to these guys that they didn't necessarily have full confidence in [Laughs]. The first thing they see is me honkin' away on a damn clarinet.
What's your favorite Primus song?