Friday, June 25, 2010

Primus: Les Is More! (1993)

(This was published in a much different form in B-Side. Unable to get it into the pre-Lollapalooza issue, the editor included it in the post-Lollapalooza issue and added paragraphs of her own take on Lollapalooza's performance [and, obviously, rearranged and-or deleted a good bit of what I'd written]. What follows is the shorter original version.)

As many have observed for some time now, there's not much that's alternative about "alternative" music anymore.

If nothing else, the success of groups like R.E.M., Pearl Jam, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Nirvana, 10,000 Maniacs, and New Order should have taught us that often the only difference between an alternative band and a mainstream one is sales.

Nevertheless, Primus, whose 1991 Interscope debut, Sailing the Seas of Cheese, went gold, remains as alternative as they come, from its de-evolutionary name (they began as Primate) to the weirdness that permeates every level of its public image.

Take their new album, Pork Soda. In one song a guy named Mud murders a "fat bastard" with a baseball bat. In another a guy named Bob hangs himself. In another someone goes insane at the Department of Motor Vehicles. And in another someone with a cat named Allowishus gets off on watching Ren and Stimpy in the nude.

Ask Les Claypool, the trio's lead-singing bassist, to explain the widespread appeal of such twisted topics, and he laughs. "Beats the hell out of me," he says. "I really don't know."

Claypool does know, however, that Primus's large fan base has a lot to do with its landing the closing slot on this summer's Lollapalooza tour, a tour that, as of this writing, lists Alice in Chains, Arrested Development, Dinosaur Jr., Fishbone, Front 242, and Rage Against the Machine among its other scheduled acts.

Closing a day-long festival like Lollapalooza is an honor, but it also poses challenges. Claypool's manager, for instance, has just informed him that Primus won't go onstage until ten o'clock each night.

"Pretty damn late," muses Claypool. "Be we wanted to play in the dark, so I guess we'll get to.

"I think it's going to be interesting to see who sticks around. It might be a challenge to keep that many tired people entertained. But we're excited about it, not only from the performance aspect but also because we get to be part of a big, carnival atmosphere and get in for free.

"One of the exiting things about being last," Claypool continues, "is that we're going to be able to drag Fishbone out onstage with us to do some kind of jams. We toured with them before, and it was one of the best tours we ever did."

One Primus song likely to mutate into a Fishbone jam is "Hamburger Train." One of Pork Soda's two instrumentals, it captures Claypool, drummer Tim "Herb" Alexander, and guitarist Larry "Lar" Lalonde in a rare, all-stops-out frenzy. In the process it captures another resolutely alternative aspect about the band: their sound. Unfunky funk, unpunky punk, all odd angles and inverted structures--it stands in stark opposition to whatever passes for conventional rock or pop at the moment.

Claypool's bass, for example, and not Lalonde's guitar, is the foremost instrument of the band's sonic palette.

"I've always been a big fan of bands that sound that way," says Claypool, quite possibly referring to Peter Gabriel, XTC, the Residents, the Meters, and Pink Floyd, acts Primus covered on their 1992 EP, Miscellaneous Debris. "But I think we may have surpassed some of them as far as bass volume goes."

Primus's most alternative characteristic, however, is Claypool himself. His loony, cartoonier-than-life personality defines the band at every level.

"People that know me definitely know that I'm a pretty sarcastic person," he cackles. "And among our group and our friends, our humor tends to be an abusive type of humor. It's all in good fun, but I would imagine a lot of that does come through in the lyrics."

I remind Claypool that Lalonde has said the band knows a lyric has hit the mark if it makes them laugh hysterically. Claypool agrees.

"When we're on the road, I'll call Lar's room and say, 'Hey, listen to these lyrics!' And if I can get him to crack up, then I know I've done something good. He's a good cheese meter."

And which musicians, besides themselves, make Primus laugh?

"I'd say Hank Williams, Jr.," says Claypool. "Whether or not we listen to any of his music, it's always good to see him stomping around before Monday Night Football."

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