Kernel: the central or most important part of something, a homophone for colonel, and Sean Lennon’s nickname for his creative co-conspirator, Les Claypool.
“He has that colonel vibe; he’s the captain of the ship. He runs the desk on our sessions, he engineers the sessions, he’s kind of at the front of the ship. And he calls me ‘Shiner’ because it’s one syllable apart from Sean!” laughs Lennon from his snow-swept studio in upstate New York. When he speaks of Primus’ head honcho, it’s with great respect, awe and a touch of disbelief that he’s working with a musician who he’s admired for many years.
“I’d never really played in a band where someone was a legend on their instrument,” he says. “Les is on a short list of very respected bass players and I was surprised that he really wanted to start a band with me, so I did a lot of scales to get my chops up because I wanted to make sure I could hang musically with him.”
When Prog catches up with bespectacled multi-instrumentalist, he’s taking a break from working on a new solo album and some “exciting” top secret projects. Despite being so busy, he seems genuinely happy to finally be able to chat about The Claypool Lennon Delirium’s second full-length album, South Of Reality.
The surprise project came about in 2015, shortly after Lennon’s The Ghost Of A Saber Tooth Tiger opened for Primus. The duo’s colourful chemistry led to the release of their psychedelic debut Monolith Of Phobos the following year. A covers EP, Lime And Limpid Green, was released in 2017, just a few months ahead of Primus’ conceptual The Desaturating Seven, and hinted at some of their inspiration with renditions of The Court Of The Crimson King and Astronomy Domine. By the time they regrouped for South Of Reality, both Lennon and Claypool were brimming with ideas.
Where their debut was inspired by the soundtrack to The Monkees’ Head, album number two is a hypnotic blend of prog, psych and Sgt. Pepper's… punctuated by Claypool’s complex funk-driven basslines. The pair share vocal duties and instrumentation, with Lennon further enhancing vintage elements via a Mellotron simulator and Coral electric sitar. The album’s nine satirical tracks were written and recorded over the space of two months at Claypool’s Rancho Relaxo studio in California, and are as much a journey into their eclectic musical influences
as a thumb through the stranger sections of the National Enquirer. Cricket Chronicles Revisited is the thematic follow-up to Monolith…’s two-part psychedelic explosion The Cricket And The Genie that explored the modern trend of over-medicating adults and children, while the lead track Blood And Rockets focuses on the strange life of occult rocket engineer Jack Parsons.
“I wanted to write a song about him and that was maybe one of the first ones I wrote for the album,” says Lennon. “He wound up helping us get to the moon but he was also part of the Ordo Templi Orientis [a religious organisation made famous by occultist Aleister Crowley]. It’s, like, this really weird story because Parsons ends up blowing himself up in an alchemical experiment. The end bit is in 5/8, which I thought was funny because a pentagram has five points. It cuts to the section when, in my mind, he’s crossing the threshold from this reality to another dimension.”
Parsons isn’t the only person who gets the CLD treatment. There are whispers of American-German writer Charles Bukowski in Easily Charmed By Fools, and Boriska explores the odd story of Russian child prodigy Boris Kipriyanovich who claimed he was a Martian in a former life.
“That song came to me while I was listening to [Canadian proggers] Klaatu,” Lennon reveals. “There’s a kind of goofy drama that Klaatu had; it was overly serious in a kind of comedic way and that’s what I was trying to put forward. I’ve been listening to lost prog projects that I don’t know so well and film score stuff just to get the imagination flowing. Les had me tune into Todd Rundgren’s band, Utopia, which was fun. It’s a big universe and I’m glad Prog Magazine is able to exist in a world that doesn’t support weird things so much.
“The soundtrack I really like right now is Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score of [psychedelic horror film] Mandy. It’s a fun movie; it opens with Starless and I love King Crimson so much. When the movie opened with that, I was sold. I love Ennio Morricone as well, there’s a song he did called Deep Down from Danger: Diabolik, which is incredible. It’s got everything; fuzz guitars, rock’n’roll, Wah pedals, little breakdowns, and it also has beautiful string scoring from that period of Italian composing. I basically like the Italian stuff from the 60s and early 70s. I feel that was the perfect mix of classical training, jazz and rock’n’roll.”
Lennon’s passion for movie scores coupled with Claypool’s unfettered approach to music making really enhances the album’s far-out sounds. In keeping with the wacky themes is the philosophical finale, Like Fleas, which compares the human race to parasites on the back of a dog. It’s this tongue-in-cheek track that also inspired the quirky cover art.
“The point of any story, it has to transcend the subject or there’s no point in pounding it,” he says. “The world is so weird and we’re trying to find a way to express that weirdness. Everything seems a bit upside down, that’s why the title is South Of Reality, it feels like we’re in an alternate dimension or something like that. Everything looks the same but it’s operating slightly differently.”
The only son of former Beatle John and Yoko Ono, Lennon has worked with an eclectic mix of artists from Marianne Faithfull and Lana Del Rey to The Flaming Lips and Lady Gaga. He’s been a member of the Plastic Ono Band and has turned his hand to acting, but it’s clear that “The Delirium” (as he calls it) pushes previously undiscovered creative buttons.
“I’ve never really had the advantage of being in the same band for more than one album,” he laughs, “but I’d like to do more records with the Kernel. South Of Reality is a good indication that this band is thriving and we’ll probably do even better
music in the future. It doesn’t seem like we’ve exhausted our chemistry at all, in fact, it seems like we’ve still got a lot to do. We often fantasise about what a third record would be like.”
As the snow outside Lennon’s studio melts, the conversation shifts to warmer climes and touring. The band welcomed 2019 with a live show in San Francisco and recently announced a North American tour for April. As much as Lennon says he’d “love to” play some shows in his father’s home country, it’s not been possible so far.
“I wish we could come to England but it really has to make sense in every way including financially. We’ve got a crew and we’ve got a tight ship to run so it has to work. That part of the rock’n’roll ocean has to be navigable by us,” he adds with a chuckle.
Despite four years of creativity, it feels like The Claypool Lennon Delirium are only just getting started and Prog gets the feeling the pair are steering their psychedelic ship towards a very vibrant future.
This article originally appeared in issue 95 of Prog Magazine.