The Talented Mr Claypool
There is something about Les Claypool that makes you instantly become very fond of him. It could be his voice—it sounds slightly nasal and strangely repressed and yet it is very boyish; it reminds me vaguely of the voice that a certain Indian industry lobby group’s former boss used to have except that the latter did not sing and when he spoke he always managed to make you feel mildly irritated. Or, it could be, and very likely is, Claypool’s almost other-wordly virtuosity with the electric bass guitar. Claypool slaps and strums and taps his guitar, creating a trademark bass sound that no matter which band he is playing with makes him sound like the lead player.
Or, maybe it is just the way Claypool looks on stage: his beard, goggles, masks, animal costumes or the liveried vintage military uniforms that he is known to don. But, as I said, it is quite likely his music—with its one-of-a-kind sound—that is what endears you to Claypool. Frontman of Primus, the San Francisco band he formed in the mid to late 1980s, Claypool ranks among the top bassists in rock today but, sadly, he is not as ubiquitously known among the genre’s fans as he ought to be. In the ten years between 1989 and 1999, Primus released eight albums. Shortly thereafter, they broke up and took a hiatus before re-forming again and, last year, they came out with their ninth full-length album and their first in almost a dozen years, Green Naugahyde.
Primus have gone through line-up changes—particularly with their drummers—and Claypool has been involved in a series of other projects. Yet, Primus’s music has not wavered from its avant-rock, ironic and humour-laced trademark. If you’ve heard them before, you can recognise Primus’s sound from the very first bars and Claypool’s bass, of course, but, and refreshingly so, you can never predict which path the bass genius will lead his band into on the track that you’re listening to or the one after that or the entire album thereafter.
Claypool’s been compared to the late Frank Zappa—his music was also replete with humour and irony—and I learned (only recently, I must admit) that he also once auditioned for Metallica when that hard rock outfit lost its bassist in an accident in the mid-1980s. The legend goes that Claypool didn’t land the job because the band found him to be too good! Years later, Metallica’s James Hetfield appeared as a guest on one of Primus’s albums.
Claypool has collaborated with several others. On Oysterhead, a superband-ish outfit, he played as part of a trio that included Phish’s lead guitarist Trey Anastasio and Police’s drummer Stewart Copeland; on Colonel Claypool’s Bucket of Bernie Brains, he enlisted the services of the highly talented but maverick electric guitarist Buckethead (so named because of the empty KFC bucket that he wears on his head along with a mask that makes it impossible to see his features); he’s had a band called Sausage and another called The Les Claypool Flying Frog Brigade; and he’s even collaborated with veteran singer-songwriter Tom Waits, including an appearance on the big man’s 2011 album, Bad As Me.
And yet Claypool is not very well known in rock circles, which is a pity. On 2011’s Green Naugahyde, a good enough album to begin exploring his music, Claypool, guitarist Larry LaLonde and drummer Jay Lane offer tight drumming, agile guitar riffs and, of course, the trademark slap, tap and strum of the bass guitar. The lyrics are none too serious and, at least for me, don’t really matter because it’s all about the music. I haven’t listened to Primus’s pre-hiatus later albums (I’ve heard that they aren’t as good as the early ones) but I’ve heard some of their older ones—such as Suck On This and Frizzle Fry—and they’re good. Green Naugahyde reminds me of those early days of Primus. It helps too that Les Claypool hasn’t lost his mojo. After all, as I said, Primus=Claypool.
If that’s not enough reason for you to explore Primus and Claypool, here’s some more recently gathered (via Wikipedia, where else?) trivia: Claypool has a boutique wine-making venture that makes wines with names such as Purple Pachyderm and Pink Platypus. How can you not like such a man?