“We weren’t even talking for a while. Creatively it was just a mess. I didn’t like the scene we were part of and I wanted away from it all”: Where Primus went in 2000 and how they came back

Les Claypool of Primus
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Cali-prog funknuts Primus always endured difficulties as a result of their uniqueness. By the end of the 90s the resulting strain was becoming intolerable and they went on a hiatus that – creatively at least – lasted a decade. Flash forward to 2011, and a rejuvenated Les Claypool told Prog how the band made it back.

It’s been 14 years since Primus last played in London. That’s a long time by any band’s standards but Les Claypool seems perfectly fine with it. After all, this evening the trio is playing a sold out show at Brixton Academy and they’ve completed their eighth studio album, Green Naugahyde, set to be released this autumn. In other words, with new music and a freshly unshackled creative whip, the decade-long hiatus has come to a natural end.

“You’ll get this from anyone you talk to who’s been in a band that broke up,” the bassist says, tucking into another biscuit as we sit in a plush West London hotel. “We weren’t even really talking for a while. We were in different spaces personally and creatively it was just a fucking mess. I really didn’t like the scene that Primus had become a part of and I just wanted away from it all.”

Immediately after the break was announced in 2000, Claypool went out on tour and into the studio with his new project, Colonel Les Claypool’s Fearless Flying Frog Brigade. He didn’t even play any Primus songs for “quite a while,” such was his discontent with the situation. When Primus reunited in 2003 and 2006, they were nostalgic events which fueled no desire to create new music. When they got together again after Claypool had finished an album cycle with his solo band, however, things felt a bit different.

“Talking to Ler [Larry LaLonde, guitar], he was very excited and very much wanted to do a new album. We just definitely weren’t getting the vibe from Tim [Alexander, drums] that anything was going to move forward,” Claypool explains. “We came to the agreement that it just wasn’t working. Again.”

“Jay Lane was the logical person to call – he’d quit Primus one month before we recorded Suck On This, so he’s ingrained on the first couple of records. For me it was almost like, ‘If Jay will do it, I’ll do it.’ So Jay came and played and it was just unbelievable. You could just feel it,” he says, smiling. “I was looking at Ler as we were playing Pudding Time in this little rehearsal space, and we just started laughing. Jayski wrote that drum part.”

It’s interesting that the return of Lane was integral to Claypool’s commitment to Primus, because it’s arguably his drum sound that helped shape the band in the first place. Songs like Pudding Time and Too Many Puppies have his languid mark all over them; and while the band was starting out, that surely influenced the way Claypool played and wrote as well.

“It’s a more groove-oriented record because that’s the way Jay plays. The album does remind me sonically of Frizzle Fry, but there’s a lot of Brown Album on it,” he says. “Lyrically I think there’s a lot more dirt under our fingernails – there are some songs that I just wouldn’t have written in 1990.

I read on Wikipedia that we’re the only band that has our own category on something. I don’t even know what the hell that means

“I wouldn’t have written a song called Jilly’s On Smack because I hadn’t had a friend that disappeared into the world of heroin yet, or Lee Van Cleef, which is a kind of a retrospective song. I’m glad it sounds more like Frizzle Fry than Antipop, or I’d be pissed!”

Claypool initially makes light of his discontent with Primus’ last album before they went on hiatus but it’s clear the work was produced under duress. The forced fragmentation of having eight guest musicians and producers was more likely to be indicative of a band that was pulling in too many directions and struggling to find new, innovative ideas than said act being the idea.

When talking about Antipop in more detail, his brow furrows somewhat. “Brown Album wasn’t as successful financially as the record label would’ve liked so that was the first time we ever really got pressured about working with a producer. I suggested approaching some of our favourite artists as producers, but to be honest...” Claypool tails off, with a swift shake of his head, thinking of the five producers involved – Tom Morello, Matt Stone from South Park, Tom Waits, Fred Durst and Stewart Copeland.

Antipop was just a fucking mess. We were a mess. I don’t even listen to that record because it represents a period for me that was very difficult, but maybe some day I’ll listen to it and go, ‘Hey, that’s kinda cool.’”

Good things did come out of the creation of Antipop, of course. Claypool’s relationship with Copeland spawned one of his many projects, Oysterhead. Primus are the only band among the myriad projects of Claypool’s that the hyper-productive singer has always gone back to. This time, the band seems to have a drive and focus that hasn’t been seen since last time they were in the UK in 1997.

“There’s already talk of us coming back over – we hadn’t talked about us coming here ever,” Claypool says with a wry smile. “In the whole 2000s, I didn’t even leave the States. Whether I was making a movie, writing a book, playing bass or writing lyrics or whatever the hell, the most important thing was to be a good father – I needed to be near to home while my kids were little and coming over here was just such an investment of time.”

Accepting that Primus and their bizarre bass-driven progressive rock is difficult to fit into the categories of your local record shop, how does he feel about the current prog revival that we’re all enjoying at the moment?

“When I was 16, Rush was my favourite band and they’re huge in the States right now – there’s been this huge resurgence. For so many years it was like you didn’t admit that you were a Rush fan because it was like saying you’re a Trekkie, but now it’s kind of chic to say you’re into Rush,” he laughs. 

“It’s interesting to see some of the elements of film and pop culture utilising prog stuff that I didn’t even think people knew about, like in Children Of Men when Clive Owen’s pulling into Battersea power station where that rich guy lives; they’re playing In the Court of the Crimson King and it sounds amazing.”

Primus have always been notoriously difficult to pigeonhole, but essentially they’re a prog band. In many ways they’re the ultimate in unclassifiable experimental music – progressive to a fault. “I read something on Wikipedia that we’re the only band that has our own category on something,” Claypool says. “I don’t even know what the hell that means. I look at Wikipedia and it’s all thrash funk, alt funk metal, experimental rock.”

The more chances you took to play your instrument, the more excited they were… I got way more into my instrument and way more confident with my vocals

While their unique style makes for good discussion and has formed a legion of fans over the years, record labels had no idea how to market them. In the big machine of the music industry, they were always the hugely desirable cog that never really fitted anywhere.

“Towards the end of the 90s we were never second-guessed. We wanted to do something, so we did this and this and this and then we started second-guessing ourselves because people were starting to question us – people whom I respected and admired,” Claypool says ruefully.

“All of a sudden we were doing these more testicular festivals, which I didn’t feel comfortable with. When Lollapalooza came along, it was like this glorious thing because it was just like our audience back home: there were guys with dreadlocks with punks over here and a girl with pink hair over here and guys who were into Star Trek over there.

“It wasn’t just a bunch of people in black shirts. There was suddenly a massive scene in the States and it was a wonderful, wonderful thing. I felt like we were getting away from being musicians. When I did Oysterhead, all of a sudden we were playing for people who didn’t give a shit if your hat was on sideways or if your pants were baggy enough.

“They wanted to see you play your instrument; and the more chances you could take to play your instrument, the more excited they were about it. I just thought, ‘Fucking hell, this is amazing.’ I got way more into my instrument and way more confident with my vocals. I didn’t give a shit.”

And it’s still definitely the case. Onstage with Primus, Claypool really lets fly with the extended wig-outs. In terms of onstage improvisation they do it smoothly and comfortably with the bassist taking centre-stage. Can the band’s increased desire and productivity be attributed to this confidence-boost then?

“We never thought we were going to get on the radio or MTV. Once you start getting that stuff, it’s always in the back of your mind and you’re thinking about it,” he explains. “You try not to let it affect you – and we were very good at that – but it does. 

“Now I’ve gone back to not giving a shit because I don’t expect to be on the radio or MTV; so we didn’t write any of those songs.” He smiles. “It’s very liberating.”