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

    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.


    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.


    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.


    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.”


    ‘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.


    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.


    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.