Les Claypool: Need-To-Know Bassist

Nov 20, 2011
Originally published on January 6, 2012 5:38 pm

Primus got plenty of of airtime on MTV and college radio in the 1990s, thanks to songs like "Jerry Was a Race Car Driver." By the start of the next decade, though, the San Francisco band was ready for a hiatus.

"Which was just sort of a fancy way of saying we were all tired of each other and tired of the music and not getting anything done," founder and bass guitarist Les Claypool tells Weekend Edition Sunday host Audie Cornish.

Claypool didn't sit still during those years: He published a novel, produced a satirical movie about psychedelic jam bands and even got into wine making. Eventually, after performing with other bands, he says, he couldn't resist the pull back to Primus. The band has a new album, Green Naugahyde, and it features lots of Claypool's trademark funky bass, the sound that distinguishes Primus above all else.

"I've always said the bass just happens to be the crayon I picked out of the box," Claypool says. "I'd still be drawing the same pictures ... should I have picked trumpet or accordion or guitar, whatever it may be. The sounds in my head are still the same."

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AUDIE CORNISH, BYLINE: Musician Les Claypool is considered one of the top rock bassists in the world. And while critics consider him a bit of a musical oddball, he's equal parts odd and prolific. He's got nearly a half-dozen projects or bands going on at any given time, but he's best known for the group he founded nearly 20 years ago, Primus.


PRIMUS: (Singing) Jerry was a race car driver, 22 years old. Had too many beers one night, and wrapped himself around a telephone pole...

CORNISH: Song like "Jerry was a Race Car Driver" got lots of airplay on MTV and college radio in the '90s. But by the start of the next decade, Les Claypool and his band mates were ready for a hiatus.

LES CLAYPOOL: Which was just sort of a fancy way of saying we were all tired of each other and tired of the music and not getting anything done.

CORNISH: Les Claypool didn't sit still during those years. He published a novel, produced a satirical movie about psychedelic jam bands and even got into wine-making. Les Claypool spoke to us recently from member station KRCB in Santa Rosa, California. He told us that eventually, after performing with other bands, he couldn't resist the pull of Primus.

CLAYPOOL: I bought this old airstream motorhome and started driving up and down the coast playing bars with a band I called The Frog Brigade. It was one of those I needed to jump right back on the horse, otherwise I would have gone insane.

CORNISH: I want to get to your sound because the thing that makes Primus Primus, frankly, is your bass playing in a lot of ways. And first can we get a little demonstration of what it is that people typically think of bass playing and maybe what it is that you do technique-wise? And no one can see your fingers, so they won't steal your technique or anything.

CLAYPOOL: I can't even see my fingers. My style just developed out of necessity. You know, being in a band like Primus where I am, to an extent, am playing two parts. I'm playing like a rhythm guitar part...


CLAYPOOL: I'm playing, like, a rhythm guitar part and a low part.


CLAYPOOL: But I did come from a very traditional background. In fact, when I was between the ages of 19 and 21, played a lot of biker bars in northern California in a band called the Tommy Crank Band, which was this old R and B band where we'd play. And I was the youngest guy in the band by far.

CORNISH: You were in an R and B band, really?

CLAYPOOL: Well, it was a Wilson Pickett, Booker T and the MGs, Sam and Dave...

CORNISH: Yeah, yeah.

CLAYPOOL: You know, the real old school.

CORNISH: I know that sound.

CLAYPOOL: Play three to four sets a night, three to five nights a week and I got pretty proficient at...


CORNISH: So, I think maybe what's different about Primus, I guess, is moving that voice, the bass voice, to the front.


CLAYPOOL: I've always said the bass just happens to be the crayon I picked out of the box. Should I have picked the accordion or guitar or trumpet or whatever it may be, the sounds in my head are still the same sounds. It's just I picked the bass crayon to draw my pictures with.


PRIMUS: (Singing) The river water diverts to other places, to nurture Central Valley seeds, the northern water that sloshes desert fairways, fulfill So-Cal golfers' needs. The mighty Chinook, it used to run the rivers, to the grounds where they spawn...

CORNISH: So, let's talk a little bit about the pictures you're drawing in the new album. Lyrically, it tells these sort of off-kilter stories about people who are maybe a little bit down on their luck. And the song, "Last Salmon Man," paints a really vivid picture of a solitary fisherman. What inspired this song?

CLAYPOOL: Well, I have made reference to this subject over the years. Living up here around Bodega Bay, I've been watching the fishing industry, especially the salmon fishing industry, wane over the years. And I just see the plight of these guys going the way of the lumberjack so that we could have golf courses down in Palm Springs. So, "Last Salmon Man" is about the loss of a legacy, a family legacy. The last salmon man of the McDonegal clan.


PRIMUS: (Singing) Jimmy watched, as the bulk of the fleet, sold their boats and moved away. But after the stroke, he promised to his father, he'd do his best to stay.

CORNISH: You said that the tracks on this album are like having conversations with yourself. How do you go about writing?

CLAYPOOL: It's always different. If it's a collaborative effort, like Primus, a lot of times it's us getting together in a room and making sounds and recording the pasta that sticks to the wall, so to speak. Sometimes, it's me taking a lyric and building a riff around the lyric and building the song around that particular lyric.

CORNISH: What's a song that you think is a good example of that?

CLAYPOOL: "Jilly's on Smack," which is a guitar riff...

CORNISH: I really, really like that song.

CLAYPOOL: Just very haunting guitar part right before the drums come in.


CLAYPOOL: And then digging through my little notepad, I found Jilly's on smack and she won't be coming back from the holidays. And I just sort of expanded on that. It's somewhat based on a friend of ours that disappeared into the world of heroin. And every now and again, she pops her head up and we see how she's doing. But I wanted to write from the perspective of friends and family. You know, so Jilly's on smack, she won't be coming back for the holidays. You know, what's grandma thinking about Jilly not being there? Does she know where she is? And just the notion of how addiction affects the family.


PRIMUS: (Singing) Jilly's on smack, and she won't be coming back, no, she won't be coming back, for the holidays. Jilly's on smack, and she won't be coming back, no, she won't be coming back for the holidays. Well, Jilly left home, went to pick her own home, she made her own in the marketplace...

CORNISH: Les, one thing that I really enjoy about your music is that I feel like you have a lot of fun making things sound different and really are willing to stretch and experiment with your voice and just with throwing all kinds of sounds into the music. Where does that come from? I mean, were you a kid who kind of played around with the tape recorder? I did that, that's why I'm asking.

CLAYPOOL: Yeah, I did play around with the tape recorder. As I got into the recording process and the frustration of trying to get the sounds in my head through an engineer or a producer, I learned the craft myself and have acquired all this old vintage gear, which fills this little building on my property. It's a straight-up audio, mad scientist's dream. And it is very exciting for me to go out there and start banging on things and cranking on old pieces of machinery, recording equipment. And I'm obsessed with drum sounds and percussion sounds. So, I'm always shoving a mic into someplace it probably shouldn't be shoved.

CORNISH: Is there a song on the album that you think gets out that? That you really just let yourself go? 'Cause there wasn't the same kind of pressures as there was 10 years ago. I'm thinking of a song like "Eternal Consumption Engine."


CLAYPOOL: The pressure's been gone for quite a long time. You know, for the past 10 years of all the records I've made, it's all been whatever I've wanted to do. And it's unbelievably liberating and it's a wonderful place to be, as far as a creative person. You know, I've had conversations recently with some friends that are filmmakers and writers, you know, screenwriters and whatnot, and I just hear of all these tales of people coming in and stepping on their work. And it makes me step back and realize how fortunate I am to be able to do what I do.

CORNISH: Les Claypool - he's the founder and bassist for the band Primus. The band's new CD is called "Green Naugahyde." It's out now. Les Claypool, I'm looking forward to the next incarnation. I'm looking forward to what you do next.

CLAYPOOL: Fantastic.




CORNISH: I'm Audie Cornish. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.