Les Claypool’s perpetual motion machine

The quirky bassist most noted for his work with Primus enjoys infusing his music, literature and wine with a titillating taste of the absurd.

les claypool 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
les claypool 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Les Claypool could easily have wound up an auto mechanic instead of a world class bass player. One of the most colorfully original personalities – both on the stage and off – to emerge in the Lollapalooza 1990s, the California native and founder of progressive trio Primus wasn’t exactly pushed into a music career.
“A snap-on ratchet set was the more common instrument in my family and in my neighborhood. I come from a long line of auto mechanics,” chuckled Claypool as he tried to fight off a lingering bout of jetlag a few days after arriving in Europe for a series of shows with his current backing trio.
“Let’s say that music wasn’t a big part of my youth. I remember my father bought this huge Zenith stereo that had an 8-track-making machine. And the one tape he ever made was of Nat King Cole’s Christmas songs. And even that never got played. My mom was a little more into music – she had Abbey Road and I’d listen to it over and over. But I remember them telling me that music is only a hobby, ‘you’d better learn a trade.’ So I did listen to them, and I’m glad because I know how to do some other things with my hands.”
But the main thing the 47-year-old Claypool does well with this hands is play the bass – that most anonymous of rock instruments – in a most conspicuous manner, almost like a lead instrument. Combining finger-tapping, a funky slap technique, flamenco-like strumming, and a metallic roar, Claypool, like some of his bass heroes – Larry Graham, Tony Levin and Geddy Lee – easily transcends the limitations of the instrument. Oh yeah, he also likes to wear masks, dress in a tux and express his well-developed sense of the absurd as often as possible.
“I don’t even think of myself as a musician in terms of being a bass player. I’ve been playing it so long, it’s just the crayon that I happened to pull out of the box. If I had chosen the ukelele, I’d still be creating similar things,” said Claypool.
But it was the bass he chose, and which he became so proficient at that by the mid-1980s, he was playing in a series of bands that evolved into Primus. The undisputed kings of quirk rock through the 1990s, Primus released bizarre hit albums like Sailing the Seas of Cheese and Pork Soda – as well as the theme song to South Park – and like Frank Zappa a generation before them, became poster boys for musical iconoclasm and subversion through hipster humor until their breakup in 2000.
CLAYPOOL OCCASIONALLY reunites with his former band mates, drummer Tim Alexander and guitarist Larry LaLonde, for tours or studio projects, but he looks back with pride and fondness on the band’s heyday.
“The thing for me that’s dear about Primus, is that even in the face of fancy, expensive trinkets being waved in our faces, we never compromised ourselves. Toward the end, we did bend a little to the powers that be, and we didn’t like the results so we disbanded,” he said.
“But all those classic records we made were done in the spirit of being mad scientists in the studio and throwing all these ideas against the wall and seeing what stuck, not seeing what would be popular. That’s a point of pride for me.”
Lest you think that Claypool has been sitting back and spending the past decade reminiscing about his days of rock stardom, a quick review of his activities might leave you breathless – he’s released solo albums recorded at his Sonoma County home-studio, Rancho Relaxo, where he lives with his wife and children, written a novel (South of the Pumphouse), directed a film (Electric Apricot, a Spinal Tap-like satire about a jam band losing its way to a festival), launched his own brand of wine (his Claypool Cellars label produces such bottles as the Purple Pachyderm), wrote and recorded the theme song to the current hit animated series Robot Chicken, played in a variety of bands including Oysterhead (a collaboration with Trey Anastasio of Phish) and Stewart Copeland of The Police, the Frog Brigade, and Sausage, and played on albums by the likes of Tom Waits, Buckethead, Jerry Cantrell, and Limp Bizkit.
Claypool chalks up all the activity to a love – bordering on obsession – to create.
“I know that people who like to run and mountain-climb get this adrenaline rush of euphoria from all that exercise. I don’t like to exercise, I get nauseous just thinking about it. But I do get the same adrenaline rush from coming up with a riff, writing a short story, and working on an arrangement. It makes me happy, it cheers up my day,” he said.
“I think it also comes from my father. We always had a bathroom halfway remodeled, a porch deck in renovations, various cars in the yard with the hoods up in various stages of  repair. That way, when he’d finish one, there’d be another project to move right over to. I’m like that too, I’ve got lots of pots simmering on the stove.”
CLAYPOOL LAUGHED when asked whether he enjoys being known to the younger generation as the guy who wrote the South Park theme.
“Well, now I’m the guy known for doing the Robot Chicken theme,” he chuckled.  “My son is 13, and my daughter is 12. They’re at a point in life where they’ll dig through CDs with their friends, seeing who can one-up the other, who can find the coolest bands. He just got into Pink Floyd. So when the old man does the theme song to Robot Chicken, there’s some level of brownie points there for me.”
For fans who remember Primus or know Claypool’s solo work, there’s no need for brownie points – they’ll be turning up in full force when the mustachioed artiste and his band perform on Thursday night at the Barby club. The lineup will be as offbeat as one would expect from Les Claypool, with instrumentation including vibraphonist/marimba player Mike Dillon, cellist Sam Bass and longtime percussionist Paul Svena playing what Claypool calls “a bastardized drum kit.”
“Yes, we have quite a collection of mutants, two of whom I’ve been playing with for years – Mike and Paul. I’ve been working with Sam in the studio for a long time but he only started touring with us a year and a half ago,” he said.
And like the tradition begun with Primus, both the band’s and the audience’s appearance usually wind up playing an integral part of the show.
“The attire is somewhat formal – I’d call it ragtag formal. But I implore the audience to come as they please. People tend to dress up at our shows, which is fine. There’s some very interesting head pieces usually, which I enjoy seeing, and every now and then, I wind up with a nice mask for my collection,” Claypool said.
That collection hangs at Rancho Relaxo, which is named after a spa in an episode of The Simpsons. For Claypool, it’s a retreat where he can record, tinker under the hoods of his cars, and make his wine – almost like an alt rock version of Michael Jackson’s Neverland, an image that causes Claypool to crack up.
“I don’t know if there are any similarities with Neverland,” he said, “I don’t have my own merry-go-round. But it is a fabulous place, and I do have a roof swing and a pond full of fish.”
One thing that Claypool doesn’t have to worry about anymore is the glare of being a high-profile rocker – and that includes appeals by pro-Palestinian activists to cancel his show in Tel Aviv. Unlike artists like Santana, Madonna, Leonard Cohen and Elton John, Claypool said that nobody approached him about not going on with his show.
“I don’t think I’m big enough for people to care about,” he said. “I tend to exist under the radar. I can go to the hardware store and nobody bothers me.”