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10 Years with Les Claypool: On Sailing the Seas of Cheese and Avoiding Dead Sharks

The Primus frontman's odd journey from wannabe clarinetist to The Claypool Lennon Delirium

The Claypool Lennon Delirium // Photo by David Brendan Hall
Les Claypool, Photo by David Brendan Hall
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10 Years and 10 Questions is a recurring interview feature in which a veteran artist, actor, or director answers questions spanning across their life and career.

“I don’t want to be the dead shark,” Les Claypool says matter-of-factly. Calling in from his home in the prime wine country of California, the eccentric bassist has just finished quoting the iconic shark line from Annie Hall, relating it to creativity: “If I’m not moving forward and opening new doors, I feel like I’m stagnating and that I’m going to die.”

(Buy: Tickets to Upcoming Claypool Lennon Delirium Shows)

This drive to seek out the new has served Claypool well throughout his four-decade career. His fingerprints are scattered across the cultural consciousness. Even those who haven’t specifically sought out Primus are no doubt familiar with the South Park theme song, which the band recorded in ’98. Or appreciate other artists on Interscope, many of whom joined the label after seeing the creative freedom afforded to Primus when they signed with the fledgling company back in ‘91.

Never one to compromise his vision, Claypool has emerged as an idiosyncratic talent, earning a cult-like status among fans, critical and mainstream success, and a dizzying array of collaborators. With music that denies genre classification, Claypool’s projects over the years remain consistent in their defiance of the expected and their rejection of the image-oriented politicking that consumes much of the music industry.

south of reality claypool lennon album 10 Years with Les Claypool: On Sailing the Seas of Cheese and Avoiding Dead Sharks

On February 22nd, Les Claypool will release his second album with The Claypool Lennon Delirium, South of Reality. A collaboration with friend, multi-instrumentalist, and Beatles kin Sean Lennon, the record is another move forward for the quirky bassist and his ever-growing catalog.

Ahead of this latest album’s release, we strolled down memory lane with Claypool, revisiting key moments of his career, including his earliest musical inclinations, Primus’ breakthrough and hiatus, a defunct fishing TV show with Dean Ween, and more.

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1979

Les Claypool - Yearbook Photo

You didn’t come from a musical family. Can you talk about what drove you to music in high school, even though you didn’t necessarily have a background in it?

I had always wanted to play something, even when I was a little kid. I remember a teacher came to the school and said, “Okay, everyone. We need to put a band together. You can play violin or cello, or you can play the clarinet, trumpet, or flute.” I wanted to play trumpet, but he looked at me and said, “No, your teeth are too bucked. You have to play clarinet.” So, I went to my parents and said, “I want to play clarinet!” And they said, “Eh, you’ll never stick with it.” So that was the end of that. I just got shut down, right off the get-go.

In high school, I started hanging out with these musicians. I was always singing songs and what not, and one of the musicians I was hanging out with went on to be the lead guitarist for Metallica, Kirk Hammett. He wanted me to sing for his band, but I was too bashful — I couldn’t do it. So, I met another guy who needed a bass player in his band, and I begged and pleaded and pulled a bunch of weeds and was able to get enough money to buy my first bass. So, there I was.

All of a sudden, I had found that thing. I always say the bass happens to be the crayon I pulled out of the box, but it was definitely the crayon that felt really comfortable to me. I was able to draw all these amazing musical pictures. I wanted to do everything that had to do with playing, so I got in the jazz band and the orchestra. I discovered all these different sounds: the funk players, the thumpin’ and the pluckin’. I was hungry like I’m sure most young musicians are. I just couldn’t get enough.

For me, it was therapy, too. You know how it is in high school: your hormones are going crazy, especially if some girl isn’t looking at you the way you want her to. So, I’d be back in my room playing away my angst. You know, “I’ll show them some day!” or whatever it is, trying to impress the girls. It became very therapeutic for me, and that’s probably how I got my fingers to waggle so quick and fast — it was my form of psychological masturbation.

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1984

You quit the Tommy Crank Band around your 21st birthday. In other interviews, you’ve said that you wanted to become this “big, famous guy.” At what point did you begin to feel like you could make it in the music industry? 

I’m still trying to make it in the music industry. I never thought I was going to be a big, famous guy. [laughs] I’m the Primus guy. I’ve always said that we were shocked that we ever got on MTV or the radio or any of that. We always thought we were these underground guys that people thought were weird.

With the Tommy Crank Band, I made a living for a while playing biker bars in the early and mid-’80s. And, I mean, these were real biker bars. Back then, if you owned a Harley, you were a Hell’s Angel; there were no dentists riding Harleys back then. I would play all this old R&B — like James Brown, Booker T. and the M.G.’s, The Meters, Sam & Dave — with these older guys, and they honed my skills a lot. We’d play four sets a night, three to five nights a week. You get your shit together doing that in bikers bars.

But, I knew I needed to start something of my own, because I was writing all these songs. That’s when I started Primate in 1984, which was me, a drum machine, and a Fostex recorder. Everything I was into back then was pretty eclectic, and it was kind of like Public Image Limited meets early Peter Gabriel. Then, I met Todd Huth, and there we were, though we had to change our name to Primus because there was another band called The Primates.

At one point, we were offered a publishing deal as Primus started becoming more popular. I remember sitting with our attorney and him saying, “If you take this publishing deal, the only way it’s going to go sour on you is if you sell over 100,000 records. Do you guys honestly think you’ll sell over 100,000 records?” And we went, “Wow. 100,000 records. That’s a lot.” We ended up not taking the publishing deal — thank god — because we’ve sold millions of records. But that was unfathomable to us back then. We always thought we’d be these underground trolls.

Primus - Fizzle Fry

How did you navigate a desire for success while also wanting to remain true to your sound and maintain your artistic freedom, which some record labels wouldn’t allow?

I watched a lot of friends of mine. I was immersed in the avant stuff that Primus was doing, but I used to work with a whole lot of bands in this amazing and vibrant world-beats scene in California. I watched a lot of those guys take record deals, work with different producers and management, and change their whole thing; it wiped out the entire scene. It also happened with a couple of other friends of mine when they took these deals. They compromised their vision and opted for the money as opposed to control. I learned a lot from their mistakes, and, thank god I did. When you’re young, you have an arrogance to you, but there’s also insecurity and you’re pliable. Sometimes that works for people, but I’ve seen it not work out many times.

I remember getting messages from record labels on my answering machine as a kid. I’d get all excited, but then I’d get to talking to these people. “We like what you’re doing, but have you thought about getting a lead singer? You ever think of doing your hair like Guns N’ Roses?” It was like, “What the hell is this?” We opted away from all that stuff. To an extent, it was fortunate that we were as eclectic as we were, because a lot of these big labels didn’t want to take a chance on us without us changing our sound and image.

After Frizzle Fry sold well, major labels started bidding for us. Tom Whalley of Interscope came to a show to see the opening band and saw us. He came backstage and said, “I want to sign you guys right now, because I believe in you guys.” He had no clue we had sold 80,000 records on our own. He wanted us for us, and that meant a lot. Signing with Interscope was one of the smartest moves we ever made. They had just put out Rico Suave — remember that? – and we were their second release. Tom said, “We need something that’s totally different, and I’ve got this band, Primus,” so they put us out. It’s funny because I’ve talked to a lot of people over the years who signed with Interscope and went on to be very popular. They all tell me, “You know, we chose Interscope because they let you guys do your thing.”

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1991

‘91 was a year for Primus. You released that first album on Interscope, Sailing the Seas of Cheese, which went gold; you toured with Anthrax, Public Enemy, U2, and Rush; you appeared in Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey; and you began your collaborative relationship with Tom Waits. At this point, while you were breaking into the “mainstream,” how were you feeling?

That was an amazing time. When you’re going up the hill and you have momentum, it’s an incredible thing. Regardless of whatever records we’ve sold, money we’ve made, or accolades we’ve gotten, my favorite thing — the thing that’s going to look so great on my tombstone, resume, or whatever it is — is all the amazing people I’ve gotten to play with, and my heroes, especially.

‘91 was the beginning. Tom Waits came in and was the voice of Tommy the Cat on our record. It started this relationship that I continue to have to this day; you know, I watched his kids grow up. It was a wonderful thing, being able to have him do that and then being able to play on his stuff, and it all started with that first Sailing the Seas of Cheese record.

It’s funny because we always were self-deprecating. Suddenly, we were on a major label, marketed right alongside the Bon Jovis and the Guns N’ Roses — all these things that we just thought were cheesy. So, we said, here we are. We’re going to “sail the seas of cheese,” and we’re either going to sink or we’re going to swim. That was the whole notion of Sailing the Seas of Cheese.

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2000

After half a dozen more albums, Primus went on hiatus. What was going through your head at that time?

It was pure panic mode. I knew I couldn’t stop; I’m a musician, and I was compelled to play. So, I bought this old Airstream motorhome, fixed it up, and shoved all my favorite musicians in it. We started driving up and down the West Coast playing clubs — all my music or cover tunes, but not any Primus songs. That’s when we did Pink Floyd’s Animals in its entirety.

It was just like, “Fuck it. I’ve got to play or I’m going to go insane.” Fortunately, I didn’t stop. It was actually one of my favorite times, almost like ’91 again. It was super fun to share hotel rooms and play these little clubs. There was this sense of camaraderie and this sense of, “Hey, we’re making something new.” It was a great time. Great, but scary.

Then, I started doing Oysterhead and Frog Brigade, and that was enlightening. Primus had been drawn into this world of family values and Ozzfest. There were a lot of image-oriented things going on there, and we just weren’t that. With these other projects, I realized there were all these people who wanted to go see bands, regardless of their age or demographics. They wanted to see people who could play. It wasn’t so much about the image thing or whether you had a red baseball cap turned sideways or backwards.

In past interviews, you’ve said you would continue to do Primus until it’s “not fun anymore,” and in 2000, Primus stopped being fun. To you, what makes a project fun or worth doing?

Well, the people. I would choose personality over ability most of the time, so that’s a huge factor. And then, being a challenging, fun thing. You know, you’re only on the marble once. I want to enjoy myself, and I want to keep growing. I always use the old Woody Allen line from Annie Hall: “A relationship is like a shark. It has to continue moving forward or it will die, and what we have here is a dead shark.” For me, it’s the same with creativity. If I’m not moving forward and opening new doors, I feel like I’m stagnating and that I’m going to die. [laughs] I don’t want to be the dead shark.

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2001

Oysterhead - The Grand Pecking Order

In 2001, Oysterhead released The Grand Pecking Order, then disbanded. It was seemingly a random crew to bring together: you, Phish’s Trey Anastasio, and The Police’s Stewart Copeland. People are still so hungry to have you guys reunite. Why do you think people are so interested in that project almost 20 years later?

Well, you’ve got three guys that are compelling to three different groups, so you’re drawing from a pretty vast chunk of folks. But, I mean, want to see Oysterhead. Musically, Trey and Stewart are both monsters. Personally, I would love to sit in the audience and see that. Just on a personal level of those guys being my pals and getting to hang with them, it was amazingly fun doing Oysterhead. Dinners with Stewart and Trey are pretty fucking unbelievable, just because of the topics, the conversations, the debates, the arguments. It’s really a passionate hang, on many different levels, so that part of it is great.

Do you have any plans of potentially reuniting any time in the near future?

There’s always talk, but there’s nothing in the hopper that I know of. I don’t really talk to Trey that much; we’ll text every now and again. Stewart’s one of my best friends, so I talk with him more. Even when we do talk, we don’t necessarily talk about Oysterhead. We’re just catching up on our lives and bullshitting about whatever. But, it’s one of those things where our schedules never seem to come together. There are times where it gets close and then something happens. It’s not one person or anything that’s holding it back. It’s just the planets haven’t aligned yet.

Click ahead to read the rest of our 10 Years and 10 Questions with Les Claypool.

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2006

In 2006, you released Electric Apricot: Quest for Festeroo, a mockumentary about the jam band scene, as well as a novel titled South of the Pumphouse. Can you talk about how your intentions differ across music, film-making, and writing?

Sometimes, a release and its conception are far apart. My novel came from a screenplay I wrote back in the ’90s. We tried to make this film, and we’d get to a certain point with producers and investors, and it would just fall apart. We had one producer who was all fired up, like, “Boom. We’re going to make it happen.” Then, I got this note: “You know, I can’t be involved in this project if there are any drug references.” I’m like, “It’s about three guys on a boat: two of them are tweakers, and one of them is on mushrooms. How the fuck are we supposed to do this?” So I said, “Screw this. I’m going to write this thing into novel form.”

How many times do you see a movie based on one of your favorite books and they shit all over it? Look at what Spielberg did with Ready Player One. It’s totally different, damn it. So that was the impetus for novelizing Pumphouse. If it ever does get made into a film, people will be able to see what my original vision was.

Then, for Electric Apricot, I wanted to make a film. What’s the easiest way we can make a film? Let’s make a mockumentary about a world that I have total access to. We made that movie for less than 100 grand. I spent more on attorney’s fees for it than we did making the damn film. Every now and again, I’ll run into someone who loves it. Eugene [Hütz] from Gogol Bordello loves that movie. Bootsy Collins loves that movie. He’s always like, “Man, you’ve got to make a sequel.”

Personally, I want to make a movie about the making of the movie. It was fucking insane. We had three trips to the hospital. We had a hit and run. The making of that movie is far more interesting than the movie itself. It was like climbing Mount Everest in a Speedo while your backpack is also on fire.

Les Claypool - South of the Pumphouse

The book finds you speaking more directly about politics and racism than in your music. How did you approach these issues differently in your writing?

You know, it’s odd. You look at different art that you’ve created, and it represents a viewpoint and mentality at that specific time. Often, it’s like your high-school haircut, like, “What the fuck was I thinking?” I was really worried to re-read Pumphouse, but I read it again recently and was like, “Wow, this actually holds up, and I’m not so embarrassed.” It’s the same with a song like “Too Many Puppies”. That’s the first song I ever wrote for Primus, and it’s a young man’s perspective on the war machine — you know, too many puppies, these soldiers going off to do this or that. For a while, I was a little uncomfortable with it. Now, I own that song.

When I do make social commentary, I generally do it through the eyes of a character I’ve invented. I’ll step into and reflect the perspective of some odd character. There’s some intense, gnarly shit in that novel, but, some of the most intense racist, sexist, fucked-up shit in that book are actual sound bites from people I knew. They’re composites from things I actually experienced with people, so, to me, it’s very honest.

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2007

Photo by Josh Keppel

Photo by Josh Keppel

In 2007, you created Claypool Cellars. What drew you to wine?

We live in the mecca of pinot noir. I used to smoke the marijuana bush, and it got to the point where I felt like it was adversely affecting my memory; I didn’t want to not remember what my kids were like when they were little chipmunks. So, I said, “I’m going to stop,” and I kind of stopped, [laughs] but, I needed a vice.

Where I live, when you have a barbecue, the people who show up are all coopers, vineyard managers, winemakers, and what not. They’d all bring these amazing wines, so we got hooked on the local pinot. At one point, a couple friends and I said, “We’re spending so much money on this shit, we should make our own pinot because it’ll be cheaper” — which was the single stupidest thing I ever said.

As the kids have grown up and moved out, my wife has taken over the business, and it’s been a good thing for us. Now, she comes on the road with me and does wine pours at shows. It’s a great social element for us, and we throw these crazy parties all the time. Plus, I get to drink some of the most amazing pinot you can get. The reason I can say that is because we probably shouldn’t have been able to get our winemaker. It turned out that he was a bass player and a fan, so we got this fantastic winemaker who has become a good friend. Really, though, it was one of those things where we just sort of fell into it.

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2013

Dean Ween and Les Claypool

Dean Ween and Les Claypool

In 2013, you and Dean Ween began filming pilots for a fly-fishing show called Musisherman. How did that come about, and whatever happened to it?

It wasn’t just specifically a fly-fishing show. Mickey [Melchiondo, a.k.a. Dean Ween] and I are both fishermen. Him and I got to talking and were like, “We should do a fishing show!” Matt Stone heard about it and was like, “I’m in,” so they put up the money for us to do this pilot. We flew out to Florida to film the pilot … and we didn’t catch any damn fish. [laughs] We fished for three days and didn’t catch a damn thing. It was unbelievable. Then, Mickey came out here, and we had a little adventure out on my boat, and we did some fishing out at his place on the East Coast. We ended up making this pilot, and we called it Musisherman. We had a theme song, we had a little animated thing — the whole bit.

It fell off the map because no one wanted it. There wasn’t any interest from the people that actually put things like that on the air, but it’d be amazing if we did it. If someone, Netflix or one of those entities, gives us a big wad of dough, we’ll go do it. But it takes money to do, and you can’t do it for free.

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2017

In 2017, Primus released their last album, The Desaturating Seven, which is based on an Italian children’s book, The Rainbow Goblins. Before that, Primus released their take on the soundtrack to Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory in 2014. What draws you to children’s literature and movies?

Like we were talking about earlier, most of my lyrics are character driven. A lot of that is because of the music I was drawn to as a kid. I loved “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” and the story of the “Yellow Submarine”. A lot of the old country music I used to listen to like Johnny Cash also had these lore-ish characters in them, like Casey Jones or John Henry. It made me listen a little harder as a kid. Then, there were all those Disney films or Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, which had great music with a strong narrative. So, I think I’ve always been a little drawn to that element.

But, it’s actually somewhat coincidental that those past two albums were both based off children’s things. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve started looking at my list of things I’ve been talking about doing for the past 20 years. I feel like I have to start knockin’ them off the list, because when else am I going to find the time to do them?

With the reinterpretation of the Willy Wonka soundtrack, we did it with Primus because Herb [Tim Alexander] was suddenly back in the band. It was like, “Well, shit. Let’s do it with Primus.” Then, I wanted to do the Ul De Rico thing, Rainbow Goblins, and I wasn’t sure if it was going to be a Primus thing or something I was going to do with Sean [Lennon]. I wrote the first song, which turned out to be “The Storm”, and I played it for Larry [LaLonde]. He loved it, so I was like, “Alright, shit, it’s going to be a Primus thing.”

Though Primus is supposed to be on a yearlong break, have you guys begun to think about what’s next?

We just got back from South America. We were supposed to break after that, but I’m not sure what’s going on at this point. This is a big [Claypool Lennon] Delirium year for me, but there’s a lot of excitement in the Primus camp right now. We really enjoyed ourselves this time around. We’re getting along better than we’ve ever gotten along — not that we ever didn’t — and we’re excited to see each other and play together. I feel like we’re playing better now than we’ve ever played. That Mastodon tour was the longest I’ve ever done, yet it was also the funnest. We’re all reinvigorated by the notion of Primus and like it so much right now. It may be hard to sit still and stay away from Primus for a year.

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2019

Claypool Lennon Delirium 2019 North American Tour David Brendan Hall Easily Charmed by Fools

The Claypool Lennon Delirium, photo by David Brendan Hall

This week, you have a new album out with The Claypool Lennon Delirium, South of Reality. Can you speak to how you ended up connecting with Sean Lennon? 

His band, Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger, opened a Primus tour, and we hit it off right away. Sean’s an incredibly intelligent and knowledgeable person. He’s a sponge for various random bits of information and knowledge; when he gets into something, he absorbs everything he possibly can about it. He’s like Encyclopedia Brown walkin’ around, but he also has this wide-eyed innocence about a lot of things, and it’s very compelling.

One day, he and I started jamming backstage. He was on acoustic guitar and I was on this resonator bass, and I was like, “Whoa, there’s some interesting shit coming out of this.” He reacted to the things that I was doing in a surprising way; Larry LaLonde is very much like that, where he’ll play things that you just don’t expect. I thought, “Whoa, this is cool.” We did it a few times, and I said, “We need to get together in a studio and see what happens.” That’s how the first Claypool Lennon Delirium record came about and, subsequently, the band.

Now, Sean’s like part of the family. You ought to see him around here, hanging around, drinking Pachyderm Wine. We go mushroom hunting. We go pulling crab pots. Him and my daughter are always making fun of each other. He’s like my brother. It’s another thing that isn’t just based on a creative element. We just have a blast together, and he’s one of my best buddies. It’s back to being on the marble one time; I don’t want to do something that’s not fun.

How is this album an evolution from the project’s debut, Monolith of Phobos?

When we first came together for that first album, I had some stuff, but Sean didn’t really have any, so every day, Sean was playing catch-up. He’d stay in our guest house, then show up in the studio and be like, “Okay, I worked on this all night long. Here we go!” With this new record, he came in prepared. He had three or four songs ready to go when he showed up, or at least he had the skeleton of them laid out in his mind. I think he feels more confident and prouder of this record. He came in with all his ducks in a row, so I think that’s a big part of it.

Also, when we first got together, we were — for lack of a better term — feeling each other out and getting to know one another. Now, we’re super tight, and we can anticipate what the other is going to do. Working in the studio has more focus on what sounds we want to get, what kind of direction we want to go in. That’s from touring and also even doing that EP of cover tunes we did last year. It leaned us into the more ’70s art-rock stuff that we were just starting to dabble in with the first record. This new record is a little more of that, so it’s a natural evolution.

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