Primus: Back on the Bike, Going “Green”

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Primus: Green NaugahydePrimus: Green Naugahyde (ATO / Prawn Song, 9/13/11)

Primus: “Tragedy’s a’Comin'”

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“It’s kind of like trying to describe a wine,” chuckles Primus bandleader/bassist Les Claypool. “Everybody has their different adjectives that they use.”

Responding to the suggestion that the oddball Bay Area trio’s new album, Green Naugahyde, was recorded and mixed with a more transparent “sound” than previous work, Claypool doesn’t necessarily agree or disagree. The album is the band’s first full-length in 12 years, and listeners, of course, are bound to draw their own conclusions.

“Whatever ‘transparent’ means to you,” he continues, “might be different than what it means to me. From a production standpoint, the approach to this thing was very similar to what we’ve always done, which is record ourselves at my house. Over the years, I’ve collected a bunch of old vintage gear — we recorded to tape through an old API console, so it’s a very clean, very crisp, very clear recording. And for the most part, we weren’t coloring things after the fact. It was going to tape as raw as we could possibly put it to tape. But there’s also a lot of contrast between the individual songs.”

Certainly, the instrumentation and overall mood both vary dramatically from song to song. As an example, Claypool points to how newly returned drummer Jay Lane uses larger, “more bombastic” drums on certain tunes as opposed to others, while the toy-like rattle of Lane’s bells and high-pitched percussion takes center stage on “Eternal Consumption Engine,” which also features a bowed acoustic bass and evokes the giddy disorder of a 19th Century sideshow. That song is immediately followed by the hard-charging Bootsy Collins-meets-Larry Graham funk of “Tragedy’s a’ Comin’,” which in turn is followed by the static, claustrophobic apprehension of “Eyes of the Squirrel.”

Such variety, though, is nothing new for a Primus album, and in the bigger picture, the most significant contrast comes courtesy of Lane, whose very presence sets the new material apart from the band’s entire (official) back catalog. Lane, who has also worked with former Grateful Dead guitarist Bob Weir‘s group RatDog and Charlie Hunter among others, comes back to Primus after a long history with Claypool: he was the band’s drummer just prior to the recording of its first album, 1989’s Suck on This, and took part in the one-off 1994 reunion of the pre-Suck on This lineup under the name Sausage. Since 2000, he also has participated in several of Claypool’s solo-oriented projects and releases. Compared to his more forceful predecessors, Tim “Herb” Alexander and Bryan “Brain” Mantia, Lane’s loose, winding style allows the band to indulge its lighter, more flexible side.

“He’s always been my go-to guy when I could get him,” explains Claypool, whose esteem for Lane’s musical ability dates back to the ’80s, when Lane was playing in San Francisco world-beat ensemble The Freaky Executives. “Even when he joined Primus back in the day, we couldn’t believe it. It was like, ‘Wow, Jay Lane wants to play with us!’ Unfortunately, he had a record deal with The Freaky Executives, and when Primus started getting popular, we were like, ‘Hey, dude, you need to make a decision here.’ He went with the record deal. We made our first record a month later, and away we went.”

Lane’s return reconnects the band to the time before long-time guitarist Larry LaLonde became a member. In fact, until 2010, the two had never been in Primus at the same time. A quick re-cap: In 1988, Primus consisted of Claypool, Lane, and guitarist Todd Huth (later reunited as the aforementioned Sausage). At the time, that lineup had already come up with the bulk of the material that would end up in live form on Suck on This and in studio form on the band’s 1990 signature classic Frizzle Fry. Though Huth wrote most of the guitar lines on those songs — Claypool and LaLonde both credit Huth profusely for his contribution during the band’s formative stages — LaLonde’s indescribable style and searing electro-static tone made an indelible mark on the sound. Before joining, LaLonde had played in the thrash band Possessed and taken guitar lessons from Joe Satriani. He also had played with Claypool in the progressive-metal band Blind Illusion. But by the time he tried out for Primus, LaLonde was turning the corner on a fresh way to approach his instrument.

“It’s funny, because I was just cleaning out my garage the other day,” LaLonde says, “and I found some old Possessed records. I was listening to them and I was like, ‘Wow, this music was actually kind of crazy.’ It was definitely challenging, guitar-wise. But hearing things like King Crimson and [Frank] Zappa made me want to write crazy guitar stuff. When I joined Primus, it was like, ‘Here’s my chance to make the type of crazy music that I grew up listening to.'”

LaLonde himself was impressed with how natural it felt to accommodate Huth’s established parts.

“It was definitely one of the weirdest things about when I first got in the band,” he reminisces. “When I started learning some of Todd’s parts, I was like, ‘Whoa, this reminds me of the style I was going for already.'”

“For me,” Claypool offers, “it was just about chemistry. I didn’t realize it back then, but I realize it much more now: the way somebody plays is like their speaking voice. I think people’s playing very much represents their personalities. As much as we all have individual, unique personalities, there are people that try and conform and be very much like other people and not step outside the box. The people I’ve always been attracted to on any level — even as far as hanging out — are people who are a bit odd. So it seemed natural that someone like Ler would be in my camp.

“I’m sure that both of those guys would agree — maybe they won’t — but to me, Todd was more like Robert Fripp, whereas Ler was more like Adrian Belew. They both have similar styles that complement each other very well. Todd was a little more precise, but he would play the freakiest, most odd-time shit you ever heard in your life. We used to call it ‘Todd time’ because he had a hard time playing in 4. If you said, ‘Okay, on your own, play something in 4,’ he would have a hard time. He could play any Tony Iommi or classic-rock lick, but when he plays his own stuff, to this day — and we’re actually going to stream the new Porch album on our website because it’s really cool — he has this certain way of playing that’s just Todd. It used to drive Jay Lane crazy.”

Claypool expounds further on the differences between the various players, and how Primus’ sound shifted with each personnel change.

“Jayski is like the funkiest guy on the planet,” Claypool says. “He has this sort of Dave Garibaldi-meets-Stewart Copeland thing. He’s Mr. Hi-Hat guy. He’s got that Minneapolis-funk thing goin’. Whereas when Tim came in, it was like, ‘Whoa, now we got Bill Bruford-meets-Neil Peart.’ With Jayski, it was way more funky. And obviously, Ler’s got more of an edge to him. He was playing through a Marshall half-stack, so I knew, as soon as the three of us started playing: ‘We’re a rock band now.’ Before, we were more like — I don’t even know — like a funky XTC or something.”

In order to bring Lane back this time, however, Claypool first had to get over his initial reservations about the drummer’s existing commitment to Grateful Dead founding member Bob Weir.

“It kind of got to where I was stepping on Bob’s toes,” Claypool says, “so I stopped working with Jay for a while. Bob’s such a great guy, and I didn’t want to bum him out. But it was time for Jayski to come back.”

Lane’s contribution, Claypool insists, runs much deeper than the music: “Just on a personal level, Jayski’s a big, happy guy. He’s one of these people that wakes up with a smile on his face. He’s very positive and happy. That’s a huge thing to have in your life and one reason why we’ve been friends for so long.”

Lane also makes it easier for the band to be more spontaneous and free in coming up with new material.

“The thing about Jayski that I’ve always found incredibly exciting,” Claypool raves, “is that no matter how much his kit is set up, as soon as I start playing something, within two measures he jumps right in with me. And he always has. It could be just a snare and a kick drum and hi-hat with everything else splayed all over the floor, and as soon as I start playing, he starts playing too. He’s that intuitive.”

So much so, apparently, that Claypool cites his comfort level with Lane as the primary reason why Primus is back together in the first place. Green Naugahyde marks the band’s return to full-time status since a series of touring reunions that began with the release of the 2003 EP Animals Should Not Try to Act Like People. Throughout those reunions — which reinstated the classic lineup of Claypool, LaLonde, and Alexander — Claypool and LaLonde repeatedly expressed interest in making a new studio full-length but remained non-committal. That album never materialized. All the while, it was never officially confirmed that Primus was back together on a long-term basis.

“I sort of always assumed that at the end of those tours, we would do a record,” LaLonde says, speaking while on a break from a recording session scoring “some crazy horror movie” with former Primus drummer Mantia. “Then those tours ended and everyone went and did other things. It’s hard to say why. I was usually the guy that was trying to get everyone to do it. I’m not sure why it never totally took off. I think we both knew that Tim wasn’t totally into doing it. And we also knew that if Jay wanted to do it, we’d be excited.”

Claypool clarifies: “Primus wasn’t actually back together from 2003 to 2010. Primus got together in 2003 and did some stuff, and then we got together again in 2006 and did some stuff.”

Those bouts of touring, naturally, drew a lot of attention back to Primus, and Claypool says that he grew frustrated with people referring to his work outside of the band as his “side projects.”

“Primus was actually the side project,” he stresses. “From 2000 to 2010, my focus was doing my stuff. That 10-year period was the most amazing, most prolific time of my entire life. I loved it, and it was very difficult for me to give up the band I had for [2009 solo album] Of Fungi and Foe to come back and do Primus.

“If it wasn’t for Jay Lane, I wouldn’t have done it. Tim is a great guy and he’s an amazing player, obviously, but we’ve never really had a great personal relationship. It was always…’fine,’ but it wasn’t like we were all excited to get together and hang. We’ve actually never hung out at all. And from the creative standpoint, we’d kind of hit the wall. Even when we were talking about doing a record, there just didn’t seem to be any interest. When we’d do soundchecks, which is when we’d try to jam and come up with interesting ideas, it just wasn’t happening. The notion of making a record wasn’t flowing naturally, so it wasn’t an exciting prospect for me. But making this record was incredibly easy.”

Though it’s unfair to conclude that this new-found ease shaped the music in any direct, tangible way, Green Naugahyde makes for a less challenging listen than, say, the murky abrasion of 1993 album Pork Soda, or the strobing post-metal psychedelia of Frizzle Fry. Whereas those early albums capture Primus striding into uncharted creative territory with an almost manic fervor, the new album falls within boundaries that the band established more than two decades ago. With that said, the more we take Primus’ sound for granted today, the more it speaks to what the band has accomplished. The new material, in fact, demonstrates just how adept Claypool, LaLonde, and Lane (all of whom contributed songs for the album) have gotten at writing hallmark Primus songs without simply regurgitating old ideas. And, as always, sinister shadows lurk within the music’s deceptive, cartoon-like bounce. Every Primus album harbors an undercurrent of human drama, even pathos, but Green Naugahyde reflects a harsher, more personal edge than previous efforts.

“Last Salmon Man,” for example, at first come across like a goofy tale about a father-son pair of fishermen before revealing itself as an ominous warning. Claypool sings of a declining fish population and the ruin that ensues as the twin specters of human excess and ecological disaster loom at the edges of the frame. Typical of Claypool’s style, his delivery remains impassive even while he paints a picture of mounting desperation. Elsewhere on the album, he references heroin addiction, cancer, the Gulf Coast oil spill, the shooting of a pedophile, and (on three separate songs) the ravenous demands of material consumption and advertising.

“I’ve always been exorcising demons in Primus’ lyrics,” Claypool says. “A lot of it has to do my family in terms of substance abuse. But I’ve always done it through these characters. I’m a big fan of [Frank] Capra, Elia Kazan, and the Coen brothers, and they always have these very compelling characters that tend to be very tragic. But you also like seeing them. You love seeing Steve Buscemi shoot that guy in the parking lot in Fargo, even though it’s such a fucked-up thing. That’s the way a lot of these characters are in my music. And even though now and again there’s a beaver or Tommy the Cat that’s a little more lighthearted, there’s always this tragic undertone to all of them.

“With this new record, there’s a lot of shit going on in my life. My mom is on her way out right now. She’s got this disease that’s affecting her nervous system, and it’s really hard to watch. Plus, my brother’s little baby boy was diagnosed with leukemia earlier this year. So that’s where ‘Tragedy’s a’ Comin” comes from. But the music itself is so lighthearted and ‘up’ that it’s a contradiction.”

Contradiction of a different sort has also become a staple element of the live show. When Primus initially broke up in 2000, the band was sharply defined by its progressive tendencies. Like Rush, a group that has exerted a huge and obvious influence, Primus had up to that point flexed its musicianship predominantly in the context of music that held to a rigid structure. But when the band returned to the stage in 2003, it had expanded its approach to incorporate a high degree of improvisation. In retrospect, this makes sense given LaLonde’s enduring affinity for Frank Zappa, whose music not only demanded technical mastery but also the ability to think and react on the spot. (For a glimpse into LaLonde’s Zappa preferences, see the 2002 Rykodisc compilation Zappa Picks — by Larry LaLonde of Primus.)

Lane’s working resume with members of the Grateful Dead, of course, only reinforces Primus’ improvisational leanings. But it was Claypool’s work in 2000-2001 with Phish bandleader Trey Anastasio and Police drummer Stewart Copeland in the group Oysterhead that inspired him to go further out on a limb.

“We’ve always had these elements within certain songs where we could stretch out,” he explains. “But the Oysterhead thing blew the door wide open to the jam world for me. I didn’t even know what the hell the ‘jam’ world was. Prior to that, I thought, ‘I know Trey Anastasio and a couple of the guys in the Grateful Dead’ — to me, that was the extent of the jam scene. Then I started to get asked to put together projects. I remember going to do the Oysterhead thing and Trey saying, ‘Let’s just write a bunch of songs on the spot.’ I was like, ‘What?’ Stewart was even worse. He was like, ‘What the hell are you talking about?! Oh, my god, we need to have a plan!’ We got out there and we played that [debut] set at the Saenger Theatre [in New Orleans]. Parts of it were just a mess, a train wreck, but parts of it were so amazingly glorious. And it made me realize, ‘You know what? These people want to see you take chances.’

“So when I came back in 2003, I had this renewed — well, not renewed, but this sense of ‘hey, let’s take some chances here. There’s a whole group of people who don’t want to see you play the song the same every night.’ Not that we ever really did that, but in the early days of Primus, there was quite a long period there where we were doing half-hour, 45-minute sets, so there wasn’t a whole lot of stretching going on. When we were doing our own tours, there was more stretching, but when we came back in ’03, I was stretching out a lot. It definitely has evolved and helped the band evolve. It’s also helped me as a player be way more comfortable with the notion of just going out and wingin’ it.”

On its current run of live dates supporting Green Naugahyde, Primus not only plays two sets but modifies each of the setlists nightly so that the show is never the same. Lane, Claypool says, lobbies most staunchly for the obscure stuff.

“Every night,” Claypool says with a laugh, “Jay goes, ‘Let’s play this song!’ and I’m like, ‘We’ve only ever played that song once.’ And he’s like, ‘Let’s do it! Let’s do “Del Davis Tree Farm.”‘ I’m like, ‘Dude, I don’t even remember how to play that.’ And he’ll be like, ‘Aw, come on!'”

Claypool ensures, though, that fans of hits and deep cuts alike will be happy.

“Basically,” he adds, “we’re going to be playing a shitload of music.”