Many musicians suffer failures and false starts. Primus bassist Les Claypool was no different. First, he was a founding member of Primate, a group with guitarist Todd Huth and drummer Jay Lane. This outfit was something less than remarkable. So when news arrived that Metallica was looking for a bass player to replace the late Cliff Burton, Claypool was there.
Claypool chose "Master Of Puppets" as his audition song - a good, if painfully safe, choice. But during the audition Claypool jokingly suggested jamming "on some Isley Brothers tunes."
While Claypool, schooled on Larry Graham's slap-bass Funk, could no doubt handle an Isley track the suggestion was not favorably received. After all, the Isley Brothers are a long, long, long way from Metallica. However unpleasant, the episode seemed indicative of Claypool's future endeavors.
Jason Newsted made the cut with Metallica's James Hetfield diplomatically stating that Claypool was passed over because "he was too good." Well, compliments are nice but don't pay the rent so Claypool went back to Primate.
In '89, three years after the Metallica debacle, Claypool added guitarist Larry LaLonde and drummer Tim Alexander to launch Primus. Warped club shows (odd songs and bizarre stage mannerisms), even for San Francisco, led to the "Primus Sucks!" chant. Taking their cue from their fan's perverse adoration, Primus issued "Suck On This" in '89. The following year they unfurled "Frizzle Fry."
Moving to Interscope, Primus began an impressive run with '91 release "Sailing The Seas Of Cheese." The group's off-kilter humor and musical nonconformity attracted Tom Waits who added vocals on "Tommy The Cat" (as Tommy). There was also the tragic-comic "Jerry Was A Race Car Driver." This set the stage for Primus' big breakthrough, "Pork Soda." The Top 10 album made the group a Lollapalooza headliner in '93. Primus had earlier opened for Jane's Addiction, whose frontman, Perry Farrell, founded the event. There was also the infamous Woodstock '94 appearance where the group, playing "My Name Is Mud" (from "Pork Soda") were mercilessly pelted with mud. Good times.
With everything going their way, now would be the time to kick things into high gear. Nah, too easy. Instead, Claypool reunited with his Primate partners, Huth and Lane, for "Riddles Are Abound Tonight" under the Sausage moniker. Not much came of that venture so Primus returned for '95's "Tales From The Punchbowl." This set was most notable (notorious) for the hit single "Wynona's Big Brown Beaver." The song benefited from impeccable timing. It arrived just when it seemed that every male a couple years beyond puberty had a massive crush on Winona Ryder. But the song wasn't about the actress. Rather, it was a typical piece of Claypool's free association lyrics. He pointed out, repeatedly, that the Wynona of his song was both spelled and pronounced differently. Ryder seemed OK with that but her then-beau David Pirner, of Soul Asylum, managed to get a couple digs in at Claypool's expense. More good times.
Well, hard to top that and Primus never did but they still were game. Though '97's "The Brown Album" and the "Rhinoplasty" EP were good, Primus got far more mileage writing and performing the theme to South Park, the animated television show. Two years later, Activision used "Jerry Was A Race Car Driver" on the Tony Hawk video game.
Any band with a song on the skateboarding legend's video game or playing the theme of one of the most culturally significant programs to roll out of Comedy Central would be enough for any band - but to do both is just damn remarkable. Might as well quit while you're ahead. Claypool put the band on indefinite hiatus in '00 only to officially disband it a few months later.
Subsequent reunions yielded tours and DVDs (including Blame It On The Fish and Animals Should Not Try To Act Like People). Primus' career retrospective "They Can't All Be Zingers" landed in '06.
Primus toured in support of their "Zingers" collection which included select festival appearances in '08 and '09. Despite the activity, there didn't seem to be much interest in recording - rather, the band's debut and Claypool's solo efforts were reissued. "It was more of a nostalgic thing," Claypool said of the tours. "It was great at the time, but it just didn't have that creative spark." One reason was Alexander's desire to leave. As a result, Jay Lane left the band Further to rejoin Primus.
"(Lane) coming back has just breathed life back into the project," said Claypool. "We did some touring, and we decided, "Let's go make a record." Which is what they did. "Green Naugahyde," the band's first set of original material since '99, dropped in September, 11. The album sold 24,000 copies it in debut week to land at #14 on the Billboard 200 albums chart.
Lane left in '13 to focus on RatDog with Bob Weir (formerly of the Grateful Dead) which left the door open for Alexander's return. His first official show with the group was New Year's Eve '13 at The Fox Theater in Oakland. For their second set, Primus (joined by saxophonist Skerik and percussionist Mike Dillon) performed the soundtrack from the '71 film Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory in its entirety.
Next, the group recorded a studio version titled "Primus & The Chocolate Factory With The Fungi Ensemble." Implementing collateral marketing, the group hid five golden tickets for 'free shows for life' in vinyl versions of the set.
But before the '14 album dropped Alexander underwent successful open heart surgery following a heart attack. While he was on the mend, Tool drummer Danny Carey sat in on a handful of Primus dates.
Taking a break from Primus, Claypool and Sean Lennon (John & Yoko's son), formed The Claypool Lennon Delirium. Their '16 debut album was titled "Monolith Of Phobos."
1990 Frizzle Fry
1991 Sailing The Seas Of Cheese
1993 Pork Soda
1995 Tales From The Punchbowl
1997 Brown Album
2011 Green Naugahyde
2014 Primus & The Chocolate Factory With The Fungi Ensemble
Primus comes off like a funky Rush but instead of science fiction themes there are the streetwise ramblings of a jokester (Claypool), who obviously has a loose screw or two.
Claypool is a monster bass player and his bass lines dominate - as they should. But his vocals have a "take it or leave it" quality. It's an urgent whine where he doesn't so much sing as spit out the words - well suited to setting up off-the-wall punch lines.
Despite "Wynona's Big Brown Beaver," "Tales From The Punchbowl, while a good album, is not the group's best. "Pork Soda," with the surging title track, "My Name Is Mud" and relatively straight-forward "Welcome To This World" is, hands-down, their calling card.
It would be easy to call "Green Naugahyde" off-the-wall but there is no wall in sight. It's about as free-form as it gets. On the set's most accessible track, "Lee Van Cleef," Primus asks whatever became of the actor who appeared in numerous Westerns and action films. Well, for one thing, he died in '89.